As the music giants stagger further into the wilderness bereft of their traditional sales tools, they continue to churn out tired, American Idol-inspired pop and rap records scooped up by suburban white boys who have never heard the Beatles. Aided by industry suckerfish such as Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, they tout their latest officially sanctioned “edgy” release. Here’s Eminem with another bowl of anger. Must be hard to stay so angry with all that money. Here’s Christina Aguilera–or is it Lady Gaga–with another incisive critique of hypocrisy. Only country music is expanding, due to, perhaps, country’s insistence on singing about things that matter.
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There is another world out there, young pop bands shunning the traditional channels and using the internet to sell their exquisitely crafted, gloriously melodic pop. Twenty-ten was another banner year in which it was difficult to limit the top ten to only ten. Nevertheless, here goes.
1. Oranjuly formed in 2009 joining lead singer and writer Brian E. King who had already been working on these songs for years. Every year it seems a one-man band emerges to stun us. In years past it’s been Roger Klug and Josh Fix. This year it’s Oranjuly’s Brian E. King who says, “I played everything but drums and cello. I did play drums on South Carolina though!” Now the band is a five piece so they can reproduce these astounding sounds in public. This time the Jellyfish comparisons are apt. King also has a knack for sunny Beach Boys-style harmonies which permeate the record. If architecture is frozen music this is the Taj Mahal.
2. Sunrise Highway Instant classic. Seamless collection of sunset (not sunrise, as the title suggests) dreamy surf-tinged pop that effortlessly evokes the world as it might appear in a Thomas Kinkade painting with swooningly gorgeous stacked harmonies. Yes Brian Wilson is a cornerstone but there’s so much more going on here, and in songs like “Magic” and “Roundabout,” Sunshine Highway establishes their own sound firmly. Instrumentally challenging–note guitarist Marc Silvert’s bent note solo on “Endless Summer.” Silvert wrote most of this material which makes him a major American songwriter in my book.
3. Timmy Sean: Songs From & Inspired by Noisewater. Another one-man band. Timmy Sean started recording in ’06 and finished in ’10 as the cover art amusingly illustrates. Much like Bryan Scary’s first record, Sean puts together a keyboard-based minor mode masterpiece in “Noisewater Overture,” theme music to epic noir science fiction. The melody works you over like a Rolfing specialist but it only feels good. Every song is a polished gem of great pop dynamics. Brian Mahoney plays sax on the Billy Joel-esque “If Your Mother Has Her Way.” I would be remiss for not mentioning the exquisitely Beatle-inspired “Wait” with a bridge to die for.
4. Buva: Not Scary! Friendly! Opening with lazy day acoustic guitar, Buva spins a beguiling web on “Smoke Into the Sky,” sounding more like Badfinger than Badfinger itself. Again the key is endless melodic invention with well-thought-out hooks and choruses that will have you singing along. Buva (Tom Wolfe) shuns Brill Bdlg song conventions on “You Say It Too” which consists of three movements–the Byrds-like tonic, fantastic bridge and a chorus that is both surprising and logical. “Hide Away” has a McCartney feel. So if you love the Three Bees; Beach Boys, Byrds and Beatles, add a fourth.
5. The High Dials: Anthems for Doomed Youth. This is the second year in a row the High Dials have landed on my top ten list. This Canadian quartet absorbed the principles of early Brit rock: the Zombies, the Beau Brummels, Pink Floyd, and melds it with a modern psychedelic edge that makes their music seem both familiar and experimental. “Teenage Love” charges out of the gate with chiming guitars and a massive hook. More than a touch of Byrds here. “Uruguay” combines chamber pop with an anthemic chorus and stadium guitars. “The Rich Die Too” doesn’t sound too much like the Zombies. Ceaseless melodic invention.
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6. Paul Collins: King of Power Pop! Paul Collins was in the Nerves which split giving birth to Paul Collins’ Beat and the Plimsouls. The Beat is a great American rock band in the tradition of The Replacements. King of Power Pop! Is a straight-ahead blast of no-frills power pop with rockabilly undertones thanks to Collins’ unique voice. He’s still got that duck’s ass glissando at the end of each vocal. Songs like “C’mon Let’s Go!” “Do You Wanna Love Me” and “Doin’ It for the Ladies” speak for themselves. “Don’t Blame Your Troubles on Me” is an appropriately snotty expression of middle-aged punk fury. Paul throws in a two minute version of “The Letter” as homage to his spiritual predecessor Alex Chilton. “The Kings of Power Pop” has surprising emotional heft.
7. The Like: Release Me. Okay, this one’s on Geffen. Score one for the dinosaur media. Cheeky all girl quartet with a designer bag full of great girl songs. Sounds a lot like the Shangri-Las. Grabs you with “Wishing He Was Dead” and carries all the way through. Standouts include “Walk of Shame,” “Narcissus in a Red Dress,” and the insanely catchy “Catch Me If You Can.” Do you crave cheesy Farfisa organ? It’s all here. (Not played by regular organist Annie Monroe, but by studio honcho Victor Axelrod.) Lead singer Z Berg has that classic Maryanne Faithful sound.
8. The Contrast: God of Malfunction. “We are strange and getting stranger/We won’t change we’ll screw the danger,” the Contrast sing on “Coming Back to Life.” Insistent beat, exquisite harmonies, offbeat chords, and pumping roller rink organ permeate every song. “I Am an Alien” sounds like Ziggy Stardust era Bowie. “Better than They Seem,” an ironic paean to positive thinking combines Beatlesque chords and harmonies with a dissonant bridge. “She’s a Disaster” evokes Jefferson Airplane but these guys are just off-kilter enough to create their own sound.
9. Zombies of the Stratosphere: Ordinary People. These lovers of classic Brit pop (including the Zombies) and American psychedelia incorporate a vast panoply of influences to create a highly melodic and very personal statement. The opener, “Our Life in Shadow Falls,” is almost pure Kinks save for Arthur Smith’s very un-Davies-like vocal. “Love Song 99” borrows Marshall Crenshaw’s chords with a classic Brit-rock bridge and chorus. “Flyboy” might have come off the Dukes of Stratospheare record.
“The Other Side of the World” is sui generis, a bittersweet rocker with a doo wop chorus.
“All Those Pretty Lies” ends the record on a sigh.
10. Smash Palace. Don’t play this in the car. “Win It All” is Raspberries-strength power pop that instantly adds 30 mph to your speed. Hard-edged but sweet Replacements-like band effortlessly bangs out one hook after another. “Win” and the follow-up “How Can You Say” pack an almost Stones-like one-two-punch before the band breaths deep with the pleasingly off-kilter “Holding Out For You.” “All in Love is Fair” sounds like the theme song to a Peter Gunn-type show. Stephen Butler has a matinee idol’s voice–a young Peter Cetera. Plays excellent guitar too. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is a rockin’ expression of gratitude.