Monday, February 27, 2017

Review of Blondie's "Plastic Letters"

I posted this review a short while ago on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: On this album, Deborah Harry play-acts an assortment of roles as her band hits you with a dizzying array of mostly short songs in a variety of speeds and styles.

Welcome to another entry in my continuing series, "I Can't Believe This Album Didn't Have a Review on Sputnik". Today's entry is the sophomore album by the chic New York punk/new wave band Blondie, 1978's Plastic Letters. This album demonstrated that the band had grown considerably since their 1976 debut album Blondie, both artistically and commercially; landed Blondie on the album charts for the first time, coming in at #72 on the U.S. Billboard charts and at an impressive #10 on the British charts; and set the stage for the band's third album released later in the year, Parallel Lines, which would launch Blondie into the upper strata of pop rock bands. All of which is why ... say it with me ... "I can't believe this album didn't have a review on the Sputnik!" Well now it does.

Plastic Letters is a historically important album. It was Blondie's first original release on Chrysalis Records (who had also re-released the Blondie album when the band first signed to the label), and it's the album that really broke the band in Europe (although they were still mostly a cult favorite in the U.S.). More importantly, though, it's a truly excellent album. It shows Blondie and their charismatic lead singer Deborah Harry, if not quite at the height of their powers, at least heading in that direction very swiftly. It's creative. It has energy. It has a sense of fun. It has a terrific mix of styles, and includes fast, slow and mid-tempo songs, almost all of which are three minutes or shorter (so they hit you and they're gone and on to next one before you even know what happened). In particular, the album has the youthful exuberance of a band on the way up. If I compare it to Eat to the Beat or Autoamerican, the two albums that Blondie released directly after Parallel Lines changed their (and our) world, I'd say that while both of those are good albums, there's a self-consciousness on them that doesn't exist on Plastic Letters. If you listen to each of those LPs, you get the sense that Blondie was very aware they had something big to live up to after the mind-bending success of Parallel Lines and its monster hit single "Heart of Glass". On Plastic Letters, they were just having fun.

There were two singles released from the Plastic Letters album. The first, "Denis", was a cover of a 1963 single by Randy and the Rainbows called "Denise", and unsurprisingly, it sounds like an old-style pop song. The song didn't chart in the U.S., but it hit #2 in the UK. (It's worth noting here that with the exception of the "Heart of Glass" single, throughout their career, Blondie has always had more success on the British charts than they have in their native America). Blondie followed this up by releasing the musical tale of a girl and her supernatural boyfriend "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear", written by bass player Gary Valentine, who had left the band before Plastic Letters was recorded (Chris Stein plays guitar and bass on the album). "Presence" wasn't even released as a single in the U.S., but it hit #10 in the UK and charted in a few other European countries as well. Both singles have remained popular with Blondie fans over the years, and have been re-released on a number of the band's Greatest Hits LPs. (In fact, a remix of "Denis" was released as a single ten years later from the group's Once More Into the Bleach compilation, and it charted again in Britain and a few other countries).

As a whole, Plastic Letters is a much more consistent album than Blondie's previous effort, which had some excellent tracks but also had its share of throwaway songs. There's precious little filler here, as the record jumps from one amusing number to another. So we hear Harry play a spy (''Contact in Red Square"), a sniper victim ("Youth Nabbed as Sniper"), and the victim of a plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle ("Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)"). We also hear her as a woman picking up a pretty boy-toy for a one-night stand ("No Imagination"), and a woman who finds a new lover at a pier, only to abandon him when his excessive sun-tan oil causes him to slide into the water and drown ("Love at the Pier"). We have fast numbers ("I'm on E" and "I Didn't Have the Nerve to Say No") and slow numbers ("Cautious Lip"), and all shades in between. We even have an ode to a maniac who kidnaps a bratty 13-year-old rich girl for the ransom money ("Kidnapper"). The album takes us so many places, it's a little dizzying. And with the possible exception of the two singles, these are all songs that haven't been played to death on the radio, so that Plastic Letters still feels fresh today.

As you might expect, given the varied subject matter of the songs, Harry's vocals are playful throughout. She doesn't so much sing songs as she acts out a breathtaking array of roles, sometimes talking as much as singing, sometimes "doo-be-do-ing" in the manner of a '60s girl-group singer, and even breaking into French for a couple of verses of "Denis". She's a star in the making here, and listening to her performance, you can hear how she became a cultural icon.

Plastic Letters was the first Blondie album I ever bought. It has always been and remains one of my favorite Blondie albums, with Blondie being one of my favorite bands. Which is why I couldn't believe it didn't have a review on Sputnik.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review of The Who's "Magic Bus: The Who on Tour"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: "I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it ..." "You can't have it!"

Cards on the table here -- I consider The Who to be the greatest band in the history of rock and roll. I'm not saying they're my favorite band. Some days they are, other days it might be Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes, or even The Good Rats. But looking at it as objectively as I can, when you consider their achievements -- the genius writing of Pete Townshend (and I don't use that word loosely); the musical expertise of each of the band's members; the chemistry of the band; their accomplishments as a live band; and their studio album output (they have at least three albums that are ranked among rock's all-time greatest -- hell, they're the only band on my Sputnik ratings list to have three albums rated 5's, and I've only awarded 14 albums a 5 rating over 50 years of music) -- I think you can see why I say this. All of this is a huge disclaimer, of sorts. I want you to understand where I'm coming from, so if you're one of those who doesn't like this band, or who doesn't share my opinion of their greatness, you're going to want to knock at least a star or so off my rating.

I opted to review Magic Bus: The Who on Tour for three reasons: 1) Feeling as I do about The Who, I really wanted to review a Who album; 2) Since I usually only review albums that don't have a full review posted on Sputnik, this was as close to a Who studio album as I could get. Technically, it's a compilation album, but for those of us who live in the States, it served the function of being The Who's fourth studio album (more on that later); and 3) I've been reviewing some serious, somber stuff lately -- a bunch of progressive rock, including Rick Wakeman's Myth and Legends of King Arthur album, and some dark wave and electronic ambient LPs (Lycia's Estrella and Tangerine Dream's Firestarter soundtrack) -- all good-to-great albums, but none of them exactly chuckle fests. While The Who also had their share of serious and thoughtful albums, Magic Bus isn't one of them, making this a welcome break in mood for me.

First things first -- in spite of the title Magic Bus: The Who on Tour, this isn't a live album. I guess some bright light in the offices of Decca Records (who's probably either passed away by now or is at least long past his solid food days) took the whole "bus" idea and decided to run with it, never imagining that almost 50 years later, I'd be writing a review complaining about how he confused people. As I said earlier, it's technically considered a compilation album. The Who never went into the studio to record these particular tracks together. In fact, when they did the photo shoot for the album cover, the band never even knew that's why the record company had ordered the shots in the first place. When the album was released, they were pissed, and Townshend in particular frequently expressed his dislike for this album. Decca compiled it to deal with a couple of problems: first that it had been a year or so since the release of The Who Sell Out and they wanted to sell some records and keep the band's name out there, and second, because they had a trio of singles that were reasonably successful in the U.S. that had never been released on albums and weren't otherwise scheduled to be. So they pulled together some other songs that hadn't been released in America, filled it out with a few songs they repeated from previous studio albums, and abracadabra! Before you knew it, they had cobbled together an album. So for Who enthusiasts in the United States, this was as close to a studio album after The Who Sell Out and before the release of Tommy as they were going to get.

I don't know why Decca chose the songs they did. Six of the eleven songs were obvious: the three singles, and their corresponding B-sides ("Call Me Lightning", "Pictures of Lily" and "Magic Bus" with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Doctor, Doctor" and "Someone's Coming"). "Disguises" and "Bucket T" had been released on the British EP Ready Steady Who but never in the States. As for why they slapped on "Run Run Run", one of the Who's least inspired songs from the Happy Jack album or "I Can't Reach You" and "Our Love Was, Is" (which are at least better songs) from The Who Sell Out, I'll never know. There were a number of earlier songs and even some good singles that had never been released on a U.S. album, so go figure. 

Anyway, as you can see, the album is kind of a mishmosh. To make things even worse, seven of the eleven songs on the album were recorded in mono. Only "Magic Bus" and the three songs pulled from previous LPs were stereo recordings. No wonder, then, that The Who weren't pleased with Magic Bus.

Here's the thing, though. Taken on its own terms, the album is kind of fun. Three of the songs on it are Entwistle songs, and feature his bizarre sense of humor. "Bucket T" is a cover of an old Jan and Dean song, and was doubtlessly recorded to please surf music lover Keith Moon. Even most of the Townshend songs are pretty lighthearted and kind of silly. If Magic Bus didn't exist, it wouldn't effect The Who's reputation as a great rock band in the least. But its existence is just a little extra seasoning on the gourmet meal that is the band's recorded output -- you don't really need it, but you're grateful for that little bit of extra flavor. 

The funny thing is, even the singles aren't overwhelming. I wouldn't rate them to be anywhere near as good as such other singles from The Who's pre-Tommy days, as "Substitute" or "The Kids Are Alright", and none of the three were as iconic as "My Generation". "Call Me Lightning" is one of the band's more forgettable songs, and although "Magic Bus" reached #25 on the Billboard charts, it's never been one of my favorites (although I'll admit it's grown on me over the years). "Pictures of Lily", wherein a noble Dad tries to help out his son by giving him some pictures of a long-deceased but hot British dance hall star, is better. And yet, somehow, Magic Bus works as a whole.

My favorite song on the album other than "Lily" is probably Entwistle's "Doctor, Doctor". It's sung from the point of view of a typical hapless Entwistle musical protagonist. This time it's a hypochondriac who believes he has every ailment under the sun, speaking to his beleaguered physician. After recounting a list of his various maladies, he asks "Do you think it's time that I made out my will?/I'll leave everything to you to pay my bill". Again, the Who's legacy might not be built on their John Entwistle-penned songs, but it's certainly enriched by them.

I can't really tell you why I like "Disguises" or "Someone's Coming". The first is a ridiculous Townshend song about a changing teen relationship. Its hero begins by singing "I used to know everything about you", but now his lady friend has changed so much that he has trouble even recognizing her. It's not just that her hair or her figure that have changed, though: "And today I saw you dressed as a flower bed/Last week you had a wig on your head/Directing traffic in the street/And your shoes were too big for your feet". Like I said, ridiculous. "Someone's Coming" is a different sort of tale of a teen relationship where the girl's parents have forbidden her to see the boy, so every day she uses walking the family dog as an excuse to sneak off to spend some time with him. Why the song is written in such a way as to have him explaining these things to her, though, is unclear. Presumably she already knows all of this. As I said, I can't explain why I like either of these songs. But somehow I do. That's kind of the story of this album.

I'm pleased to see that Magical Bus's average rating on Sputnik is 4 out of 5 stars, so there are obviously other fans out there who have enjoyed this album besides me. In spite of the band's displeasure with it, it did well enough in the U.S. that Direct Hits, a similar compilation album with a slightly different set of songs, was released in the UK shortly thereafter. Taken together, these two albums marked the end of the era of The Who as a singles band before the release of Tommy, which made them major stars in the burgeoning album rock/FM radio arena, and helped to open up the world of rock and roll to previously unforeseen possibilities.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review of Rick Wakeman's "The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table"

I posted this review a couple of hours ago on the Sputnik Music site.

Review Summary: "Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born king of all Britain."

The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is the quintessential British legend. At least, that's how it's always seemed to this American, gazing across the pond. It has something for everyone: action, romance, magic, betrayal...and a tragic ending. It's a story about attempting to do something so great and noble that even in failure, the world becomes a better place just because of the effort. In America, supporters of the late President John F. Kennedy called his brief term in office "Camelot" because they believed in the ideals he stood for, even though his life was cut too short to actually accomplish many of them. Similarly, keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman's The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is, in some ways, the quintessential progressive rock album. It contains all of the pretensions and excess that later caused music fans to turn away from the prog rock genre. It is also magnificent.

Myths was Wakeman's third solo album, if you don't count 1971's Piano Vibrations (and I don't), and also his third concept album. It followed the instrumental work The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which put him on the map as a solo artist, and the hugely successful live album Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which made him such a big star that it became a joke among his Yes bandmates how much better Wakeman was treated by his label A&M Records than the rest of the band was treated by Atlantic. However, as interesting as the story of Henry VIII's wives might be, and as much fantastic and magical imagery there might be in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth novel, with Myths and Legends, Wakeman had the richest source material of his career.

Wakeman seemed to approach Myths in much the same way he did Journey. He kept the same two lead vocalists, Garry Pickford-Hopkins and Ashley Holt; used both an orchestra and a choir (trading in Journey's London Symphony Orchestra for the New World Orchestra, and keeping the English Chamber Choir for both); and replaced Journey's narrator David Hemmings with a narrator who sounds so much like him to me that it was years before I discovered it was actually Terry Taplin providing the narration for Myths. What he got for his troubles was an album that was highly commercially successful (reaching #2 in the UK and #21 in the U.S.), although not quite as successful as Journey (which had reached #1 in the UK and #2 in the U.S.). Artistically, though, I believe he exceeded both of his previous albums. At its best, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur is transcendent.

There are only seven songs on the album, and I'm mostly going to talk about three of them. Two of them are among the best songs the genre ever produced, but to fully appreciate them, you first have to be familiar with the other one.

The album begins with Taplin's declaration which I've quoted in the review summary above, "Whoso pulleth out this sword...". It then launches into the song "Arthur", which not only serves as the introduction to the story, but also establishes the main musical theme of the work which will be repeated in various forms later on. "Arthur" explains how the young squire Arthur was sent by his master, Sir Kay, to find a sword. He finds the sword Excalibur stuck in a stone, and pulls it out, unaware that by doing so, he has just become the King of Britain.

The music of "Arthur" is powerful and majestic. It establishes right from the beginning that the musical journey you're about to embark on is a grand one. My only criticism is this: it's a little too Gilligan's Island, lyrically, if not musically. What I mean by this is you can easily imagine it as the opening theme to some kind of wacky half-hour television comedy that will be repeated each week, just to remind you of the set-up of the story you're about to watch ("Just sit right back/And you'll hear a tale/A tale of a tiny king ..."). If Monty Python and the Holy Grail had been a weekly sitcom ... well, no, their theme song would have been much sillier, but I think you can see what I mean. "Arthur" is so obviously serving a function, that of setting up the rest of the album, that it detracts just a little from the song itself. 

The song "Guinevere" has no such problem. This track tells the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot, and it's exquisite. "Guinevere" begins with a short and beautiful piano piece that actually sounds like it would have fit perfectly in Six Wives. It then launches into a slow piano bit that is overlaid by a synthesized version of the eight notes from the album's grand theme first established in "Arthur". The song is slow, and a little sad ... the listener knows how things eventually work out for Guinevere and Lancelot, and the music reflects that. Still, it gives you a sense of Guinevere's great beauty ("Golden tresses shining in the air/Spread against the Jasper Sea"), and of Lancelot's passion for her ("All his love he gave her/Fought through quests to save her"). The song can definitely stand on its own merits. But that familiarity with the album's main musical theme just lends it that much more power.

The other truly great song from Myths and Legends is the last one, appropriately titled "The Last Battle". The circumstances under which it was written are worth relating. Wakeman, at age twenty-five, suffered a mild attack. As he recovered in the hospital, his doctor suggested he would need to retire from his musical career if he wanted to live. That night, while still in the hospital, Wakeman decided to ignore his doctor's advice and began writing "The Last Battle." It's no stretch of the imagination to guess that much of the power of the song comes from his own brush with mortality.

It begins with the lyrics "Gone are the days of the knights", and proceeds to tell you how Arthur's reign ended. The song is slow and somber, yet completely majestic. As the Saxons pour into Britain and overwhelm the remaining knights of the round table, Arthur and his son, the traitorous Mordred, see each other on the battlefield and fight to the death. The song mixes the "Gone are the days" theme with the album's main theme, and Taplin narrates the end of the story, beginning (in a moment that still gives me chills) "Sir Hector, Sir Bors, Sir Bladwain and Sir Berboris, the only surviving knights of the round table, ended their days, after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land." He goes on to explain that although the dream was over, many believed Arthur would return someday to save Britain "in the hour of its deadliest danger." He closes his story by recounting that in later years, Arthur's tomb was discovered by the monks of Glastonbury, with a simple inscription "Here lies King Arthur in his tomb, with Guinevere, his wife, in the Isle of Avalon." Pickford-Hopkins and Holt then sing their final "Gone are the days..." chorus, followed by a grand musical ending that includes a series of descending key changes, lofty, full-throated singing by the choir, and Wakeman's synthesizer imitation of the sound of birds crying, before the orchestra reaches a flamboyant finish. It's a stunning piece of music, grandiose but poignant.

The rest of the album is worthwhile also. "Merlyn the Magician" is probably the best known number from the album, but while parts of it are beautiful, there's a comical "Keystone Cops" sounding piece in the middle that taints the song for me. 

After Myths and Legends, Wakeman toned down his ambitions, possibly out of physical necessity given his health issues, or maybe for financial reasons, since both Journey and Myths and Legends cost him a fortune to make and take on tour. Regardless, none of his later solo work ever reached the Gold Album status of Six WivesJourney and Myths and Legends. Of these three albums, each a progressive rock masterpiece in its own way, I've always loved Myths and Legends best. He reached for the stars on this one, and to me, he largely succeeded.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review of Lycia's "Estrella"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website. It's an expanded version of a review I of this album for Good Times Magazine in 1998.

Review Summary: Imagine you could gene splice Stephen King and Clive Barker with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Imagine just for a moment that you could learn a magic spell so powerful that it would open the gates of hell just a crack so you could hear some of the sounds from within. Or that you could turn your radio to WHLL for Satan's top spins of the week. Imagine you could gene splice Stephen King and Clive Barker with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Or if imagining that is too much work for you, but you want to achieve the same effect, you could just listen to the album Estrella by the band Lycia.

Lycia (on this album, anyway) is the husband/wife team of Mike Vanportfleet and Tara VanFlower from Superstition, Arizona (I swear this is true). They refer to their style as ethereal goth/dark ambient, which is a pretty accurate description. Originally formed by Vanportfleet in 1988, Lycia managed to create a decent-sized following throughout the U.S., especially after VanFlower joined the band in 1994. Estrella was the third album they released thereafter, following on their 1995 double album The Burning Circle and Then Dust and their 1997 release Cold.

Estrella is an album of great somber beauty. It perfectly combines Vanportfleet's dark musical sensibilities with VanFlower's brighter lyrics and vocal style. The songs are all slow and minimalistic, instrumentally sparse but full of atmosphere. They're like sound paintings of scenes from some strange dimension, both gloomy and alluring, drawing you in and distressing you in equal measures. There are several instrumental tracks, notably the first and last songs on the album, "Clouds in the Southern Sky" and "Distant Fading Star". Throughout the rest of the album, Vanportfleet and VanFlower trade vocals. His are whispered, and deliberately barely audible, as though his throat has been scorched by hellfire. However, it is on the tracks where VanFlower sings that the album really takes off. Her voice is lovely and ethereal, but there's more to it than that. There's something playful about her vocals, in a dangerous kind of way, like the demons in one of the Evil Dead films who taunt Bruce Campbell's Ash character, singing "I'll swallow your so-ul! I'll swallow your so-ul!"

VanFlower shines brightly on tracks like the nightmarish "El Diablo", singing lyrics such as "See the serpent twine/Wrapped around her spine/Coils inside her mind/Bleeds her eyes so blind", and on the wistful "Silver Sliver", where her words are more stream-of-consciousness, and her delivery more gentle, as she plays off of Vanportfleet's high single guitar notes and a recurring 3-note piano chorus. Then there is the song entitled "The Canal", where her wordless vocalizing is as disturbing as it is effective.

The highlight of the album, however, is the stunningly beautiful title track "Estrella". It begins with a few lines of slow percussion which lead into piano and synthetic string sounds for several measures. Vanportfleet's deliberate guitar then kicks in, followed by some of VanFlower's most unearthly vocal work. "You/Peach lips, rose hips/Wrapped around/You", she begins. Particularly effective are her high-pitched "La la la la"'s on the chorus. If you analyze the lyrics carefully, I think it's just a simple love/lust song, but somehow, it sounds like something so much more than that, like it's happening on some kind of higher (but vaguely ominous) plain. For me, this is undoubtedly the finest song they ever recorded.

On the whole, I would rate Estrella as Lycia's best album. They released four full-length studio albums after it, as well as two EPs and a couple of compilation albums, but Estrella was their zenith, at least so far. If slow, doleful synthesizer music and restrained electric guitar, simultaneously lightened yet made more threatening by otherworldly female vocals, is something you think you might enjoy, chances are high you'll love this album.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Top 20 Songs of 2016, Part 2

I didn't expect it to take a week for me to get back to posting this list, but suddenly, for better and for worse, my job has exploded. So let's get back into it.

10. Lights - "Follow You Down"

Lights is the performing name (and apparently now, the legal name) of a female electropop musician from Canada. This song come from her album Midnight Machines, which is mostly just an acoustic version of her album from last year, Little Machines. "Follow You Down" is one of only two new songs on the album, but it's a good one, very quiet, very pretty. I really don't have much else to say about it.

9. White Lung - "Below"

White Lung is a female-fronted Canadian punk rock band from Vancouver, British Columbia. The song comes from Paradise, their fourth studio album, and by far their best. "Below" is pretty much the ballad of the album, on which they reach emotional depths I didn't previously realize they were capable of. Pretty good year for Canada. They made this list twice.

8. Kristin Kontrol - "X-Communicate"

Kristin Kontrol, aka Kristin Welchez is also Dee Dee, the lead singer of the California indie rock band Dum Dum Girls. Kontrol has since moved to New York and released this solo project. This album tends more towards danceable synth-pop than her work with the Dum Dums. I'm only so-so on the album as a whole, but there's no question that this is an excellent track.

7. Blink-182 - "San Diego"

There's a lot to like on Blink-182's California album, and this song is at the top of heap. It's a lost love song, with some powerful vocal harmonies on the chorus, as the singer looks back with regret on a happier time before things fell apart, when he and his love bought a one-way ticket to San Diego to see a Cure concert. A lot of longtime Blink fans have had a hard time getting into this album, but as more of a casual fan of the band, I enjoyed it. Especially this song.

6. Mother Feather - "Beach House"

Mother Feather is a glam rock band from New York City. Although I enjoyed their self-titled debut album, this, their most atypical song, is my favorite on the album. It's a musical version of many a city dweller's fantasy, namely to own a house on the beach to which to escape. But unlike most people, this band is willing to work for it: "But I want the beach house/I wanna build it with my bare hands/Work until I wear out/Sleepover with my best friends." I'm not even a beach person, but they make it sound soooo good.

5. Against the Current - "Young & Relentless"

As you know if you read my Top 10 Albums list, I really liked this Poughkeepsie band's LP debut album a lot. This kind of seems like it might be the group's theme song. They're this very young band, full of energy, and somehow their lyrics just capture that fast-paced lifestyle that the young often lead: "We could be anyplace, anytime, in any moment/It's a race to the line". I myself  need a nap just thinking about it.

4. Gwen Stefani - "Rare"

This is a pure pop song, my favorite of the year. In a world full of songs about love gone wrong, this is one about love gone right, as Stefani tells her man "You're rare/And I'm loving every second of it, don't you know/You're rare/And only a stupid girl would let it go." The album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, hit #1 on the Billboard charts, but for some reason, they didn't release this as a single. Maybe they still will.

3. Twenty One Pilots - "Heathens"

This is one of those songs that grabbed me at first hearing. It was a natural fit for the Suicide Squad film, a movie where the heroes are a bunch of misfit super villains, so it's no surprise this was part of the soundtrack of that film. It's an ode to finding beauty in the damaged and downtrodden of society. The last line says it all: "It looks like you might be one of us."

2. 888 - "Critical Mistakes"

888 is an alternative electro band from Denver, CO. Like "Heathens", this song grabbed me at first listen. And also like "Heathens", this song has a great video that goes along with it, featuring people who messed up their lives by making terrible mistakes like murdering someone or accidentally killing someone while drunk driving, being confronted by the people whose lives they have damaged, and trying to find a way to live with the things they've done. As I said in my intro to Part 1 of this list, I actually cheated on my own rules with this song and bought the EP as a download because a hard copy wasn't available. The song was worth it. For the last few months I struggled to decide if this song or the next would be my #1.

1. Bayside - "Mary"

In the end, though, I guess it's no shock that in a close call, I leaned a little in the direction of Bayside, one of my favorite bands. "Mary" is a little different for a Bayside song. To my ears, it sounds more like classic rock than their usual pop punk. It's an ode to a lost friend (or fan), with a very danceable chorus. I've searched the Internet in vain to find who the actual Mary might have been to lead singer/songwriter Anthony Raneri, but in the end, I guess it's enough just to enjoy the song. "So go on, work all your angles out/Get a plan together, get your demons out/'Cause Mary, the world wants to bring you down/But don't you let them."

So that's it for this year's Top 20 Songs list. I hope you liked the list, and that maybe you enjoyed some of these songs too.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Palaye Royale, William Control and Andy Black

You guys already saw that the Andy Black solo album was one of my favorite albums of the year. So when I learned that Black was coming to play at a local venue, 89 North in Patchogue, I immediately bought tickets. Denise decided to pass, but I got tickets for myself, my daughter (who is a huge fan of Black and of his band The Black Veil Brides), and my son. As it turned out, my son had a fever all week, so I wound up taking my daughter and her friend.

There were two things that made this show a little iffy for me. One was that the venue wasn't selling reserve seating, and as I had never been to a show there before, I didn't know what to expect. Their website said that they had some seating at tables in the upstairs section, on a first-come first-served basis. It also said the show was for people 16yo and over, and no one without I.D. would be admitted. Now I'm not at a point in life where I can stand through even one set of music, let along three, so finding a chair was a deal breaker. If I didn't get there early enough to get one, I'd have to go home and pick up the girls after the show.

The second thing that left things a little up in the air was that we got hit with a major snowstorm Thursday night. My wife and I took a ride out this morning in her car, which has 4-wheel drive. Now, our block was great. I'm pretty sure the reason our block was great is that I have either an ex-Congressman or his brother living down my block by the water. So whenever it snows, we get plowed at least twice an hour. The rest of Suffolk could be an icy wasteland, but politics is politics, so my block is always clean. Is it corrupt? Totally. But it's one of the few corrupt things in life that I actually benefit from instead of pay for, so I say "God Bless Mr. xxx." (I'm not giving him up for anything). Anyway, so my block was great, Route 112 was great, but everything else, including Montauk Hwy. was a frozen tundra. And since my car handles crappy in the snow (crappily?), I was a little nervous about the driving, even though the venue is close by.

Luckily, we got there OK. When we did, we found a line of mostly teens that ran down the block while they froze their butts off in the snow while people's I.D.'s were checked. As we got closer, I discovered that part of the reason the line took so long was that there were some vicious Mom's going insane because apparently they didn't bother to read the website, so they either didn't bring I.D. for their kids, or they brought school I.D.'s which weren't being accepted. There was one particularly abusive Mom at the front, giving the doormen hell, threatening to sue, etc. I wanted to yell "Move it! You're holding up the line!" And I would have, too, except that I'm pretty sure she would have killed me in a minute.

Once we got inside, I discovered that the venue wasn't what I pictured at all. When they said "upstairs", I was expecting a balcony, like they have at The Paramount in Huntington or The Space in Westbury. Instead "upstairs" meant up two stairs, or maybe three. It was sort of like the set-up of the Old Downtown in Farmingdale, as far as this V.I.P. section went, except that the rest of the club was like half the size.

Don't get me wrong, it's actually a very nice club, but tiny for a national act. For a local band, it's very upscale. Even for a local band with something of a national following, like Nine Days, for example, it's not bad (they did a CD Party for their Snapshots CD there last year). Yes, it would be alittle small, but it's their hometown and it's a nice, respectable place to play in front of family and your earliest fans. But for a national act like Andy Black, who sings at much larger venues with The Black Veil Brides, I would think it had to be depressing. I mean, picture it -- Andy Black's tour bus drives down Main St. in Patchogue. They sight the marquee for the Patchogue Theater, and Black says "Hey, not a bad sized venue! All right!" Then the bus turns the corner of Ocean Ave. and stops in front of 89 North, and he's like "wtf!!?" So we were joking for the whole early part of the night about poor Andy's reaction -- they had to take away his belt and shoelaces. They had to post extra security outside his dressing room to keep him from fleeing the building. Or was that Andy we spied in front of The Patchogue Theater as we drove up trying to score some heroin just to drag himself through the show that night?

Anyway, when we entered, I discovered the girls couldn't come "upstairs" with me, because that section is for 21 and older. (That was set up as the only area where the alcohol was for this show). But we were able to score some bar stools in the back of the main floor anyway, so all was well. I bought my daughter a shirt, and learned from the merch guy that the club had just caved on their I.D. policy -- apparently those Moms from hell frightened them as much as they did me, so they decided to let everybody in after all.

The first set was by a 5-piece band called Palaye Royale. They were energetic, and the crowd (which numbered maybe 150 or so, about 75% of them under-21-yo females) seemed to like them OK. I have to hand it to the club, the sound was very good. The band didn't really do anything for me. They did a pretty basic rock set, and although they only played 5 songs, they used one of those songs to do a cover of My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers". (And it was their best song). On the last song, the lead singer decided he had to whip off his shirt and display a heroin chic physique, which the teenyboppers seemed to like, but I could have easily lived without. After the set, the little 16yo's lined up for hugs and selfies from this sweaty shirtless would-be rock god.

Somewhere in between sets, a very drunk Mom fell down and hit the floor hard. "Mom down! Mom down!" I thought. Security helped her up and examined her carefully, and at some point when I wasn't looking, they must of taken her out of there.

Next up was William Control, an electronica band that is apparently a side project for Aiden's lead singer wiL Francis. The guy hit the stage dressed all in black with dark sunglasses looking for all the world (as my daughter pointed out) like the obnoxious version of Peter Parker (Toby McGuire) after he'd been dosed by Venom in Spider-Man 3.

The band, in this case, consisted of the lead singer, a drummer, and two guys programming laptops, one of whom also played keyboards. (I'm pretty sure I saw the other computer guy holding some kind of guitar at one point, but just as I looked up, he put it down, so I couldn't even tell you if it was a regular guitar or a bass). The lead singer took repeated dramatic poses, and spent much of the set begging the crowd to "Make some fucking noise!" etc. Truth was, I don't think his set was going over badly at all, but he seemed to feel like it was, at one pleading "I know you guys came out here to see Andy, but you understand he has to have some kind of opening act, right? He can't just come out here and play for 3 hours."

Anyway, as douchey as he looked, and as annoying as his personality was, here's the thing -- he and the band were actually very good, enough so that I bought a CD afterwards (even though was kind of afraid that the merch girl was going to laugh at me, like, "Poor old guy! He still thinks they make CDs".) The lead singer had a low and very rich voice, and the electronic songs were varied and interesting, even though I was completely unfamiliar with them. They  played a full set of maybe 9 songs, then left the stage, as the crew started setting up for the main attraction.

Finally the Springsteen music played between sets (which I thought it was an odd choice for this particular show, but whatever) shut off, and Andy Black hit the stage. There were a couple of minor disappointments -- 1) Black was playing with only a guitarist and a drummer plus himself, so a lot of the music, including the keyboards and synthesizers, the bass, and most of the backing vocals were canned; and 2) While the sound was excellent for the first two bands, during Black's set, his vocals were too low in the mix for most of the night, especially when he sang in his lower register, which was often.

Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable show, with Black playing all of his best songs from his excellent solo album The Shadow Side, including "Stay Alive" (my favorite), "Ribcage", "Put the Gun Down", "Homecoming King" and "Beautiful Pain", plus a cover of Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself". He did his single "We Don't Have to Dance" as the encore. Between songs, he riffed on various subjects, and it turns out he actually has a really funny sense of humor. Far from appearing suicidal, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself (and the crowd was doing the same). After the show, both my daughter and her friend said they had had a good time, and that's never a guarantee -- the last show I took her to, my daughter sat stony faced through 3 pretty decent bands at the Paramount before actually enjoying herself a little for Sleeping With Sirens. So El Exelenti approved, we made it home safely through the ice, and all was well with the world. And next time, I know what to expect from 89 North.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Top 20 Songs of 2016, Part I

I'm so proud of myself that I have this list done by early February this year. As always, I put a lot of thought, and a lot of listening hours into this. It was really difficult to eliminate songs and get the list down to 20, but I did it. I have fewer restrictions for songs than I do for albums - I still have to have a hard copy of the song (well, mostly ... I cheated on this with 1 song this year. I bought a CD that turned out to be CD single remix, and the regular song wasn't available on CD. In this case, the song was so good, I really wanted it to be part of this list, so I downloaded the regular version.)

Anyway, obviously this is all just my opinion. Without further ado, here's part 1 of my list of the Top 20 Songs of 2016, in reverse order:

20. Waterparks -- "Territory"

Funny thing is, in the end, I had to choose between this one and another Waterparks song, this one off of their Cluster EP, or "Hawaii (Stay Awake)" from their Double Dare LP. "Hawaii" is a little bit more of a typical single -- "Territory" is a more unusual song, and that made the difference. Btw, these guys are a pop punk band from Houston, TX that I had the good fortune of catching live this year when they opened for Sleeping With Sirens.

19. The Jezabels -- "My Love Is My Disease"

This is a female-fronted band from Sydney, Australia that I first learned about on The sound is electronic alternpop. It's a song that seems to be about an unhealthy relationship, with just a touch of S&M imagery about it -- her love apparently actually chains her to her bed. Not her lover, mind you, but her love itself. Pretty kinky. There's some pretty cool electronic percussion in this one, and lead vocalist Hayley Mary has a great voice -- beautiful, but just a little biting. The rest of the album is pretty good too.

18. Kaiser Chiefs -- "Indoor Firework"

This song this from their Stay Together album, which didn't grab me at first, but now it's my favorite album of theirs since their excellent 2005 debut Employment. This is a sad song about a recently ended relationship with just a touch of disco guitar that actually works here. Vocalist Ricky Wilson really nails this one, with a vocal that's strong but full of pathos.

17. School of Seven Bells -- "Ablaze"

This is a New York City band that, sadly, has possibly put out it's last album due to the death of one of the members. Like The Jezabels, they're an electronic alternapop band, but without that little touch of darkness the Jezabels bring. Again, I was particularly drawn to the track by the strong and alluring vocals of singer Alejandra Deheza, who sings both the lead and the backing vocal.

16. Amanda Jayne -- "One"

Amanda Jayne is a Long Island singer/songwriter who I found totally by accident by following a link from a friend of hers who was running for my local school board. He didn't win, but I wound up buying (and loving) this album, especially this song. She also has a video that is very clever, as she sings "Could you be the one/Could you be the one?" to her boorish date while thy're both at the dinner table in a restaurant. Unfortunately, he's just not that into her. She's wearing a blindfold, and as she sings he ogles other women, checks his cell phone message, steals food off of her plate and just generally acts like a dick. And yes, the song features yet another lovely vocal.

15. Santana -- "Come As You Are"

It was great to see Santana back with an excellent new album. This is a fun, lighthearted song with some trademark Santana Latin percussion and some of Carlos Santana's most excellent guitar. Unlike the previous songs, while the vocals are decent here, it's really all about the instrumentation, and about the playful vibe of the song.

14. Tegan and Sara -- "Boyfriend"

Tegan and Sara are one of the best pop bands out there -- they really know how to bring the hooks. This is a song about a very confused relationship, with the singer complaining that her would-be love keeps their relationship secret and can't seem to decide if she wants to be a lover or a friend: "You kiss me like your boyfriend/You call me up like you would your best friend."

13. They Might Be Giants -- "Trouble Awful Devil Evil"

TMBG are great for writing offbeat songs on unusual subjects. In this one, the protagonist drops to his bed and falls for ten thousand years down a bottomless pit, blissfully unaware of what seems to be Armageddon going on him. The song is slow and sweetly sung, which adds to the quirky humor.

12. David Bowie -- "Blackstar"

This is a weird and wonderful song, done in 3 parts. The first part is beautiful and mysterious, the second is a little strident, but the third part returns to the sound of the first part, and somehow it's even stronger because of the change of pace in the middle. It's a fitting farewell to an artist who did his own thing instead of following the crowd. R.I.P. David Bowie.

11. Andy Black -- "Stay Alive"

Andy Black is the alter ego of Andy Biersack, lead singer of The Black Veil Brides. This is the strongest song on an album full of first-rate alternative pop songs. This one also features of Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio/Blink-182 fame.

Next Post: Top 20 Songs of 2016: Part 2

Review of Flash's "Flash"

This is a review I posted on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning:

Review Summary: Yes's AAA team hits a home run with its debut album.

Yes is one of those band's whose roster has included so many impressive musicians that at various times over the years, there have been what has amounted to competing versions of the band functioning at the same time. The current version of Yes that continued after the passing of Chris Squire found their 2016 tour in competition with that of Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman, who billed their live shows as "An Evening of Yes Music and More". In the late 1980s, the version of the band that legally owned the name "Yes", built around Chris Squire and Trevor Rabin, found themselves dealing with an alternate version of the band in Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (with Jon Anderson acting as lead vocalist for both groups). And all the way back in the early 1970s, Yes was challenged in the record charts by an upstart "Yes Lite" kind of band named Flash.

Flash had its beginnings back in 1970, shortly before the release of the Time and a Word album, when Yes fired their guitarist Peter Banks in favor of newcomer Steve Howe. Their next album, 1971's The Yes Album, was a huge leap forward both artistically and commercially, eventually going Silver in the UK and Platinum in the U.S. Not content to rest upon their laurels, however, they followed up this success by sacking keyboard player Tony Kaye in order to hire a musician more comfortable with playing synthesizers instead of just traditional keyboards, Rick Wakeman.

In August of 1971, while Wakeman and Yes were in the studio recording the Fragile album, Banks and vocalist Colin Carter decided to form a new band. Ray Bennett, a longtime friend of Banks, was recruited on bass (after being tipped off by Bill Bruford); and drummer Mike Hough, who answered an ad in Melody Maker, became the drummer. As for keyboards, it was only natural that the band recruited the recently-dismissed Yes keyboard player, Tony Kaye. In recent years, all parties involved have asserted that Kaye was never an official member of the band, and he did only play on their first album. But he was listed on the album cover as a band member, and that's how the radio stations and music writers of the time referred to him. Carter and Banks christened their new band Flash, and in 1972, they released their self-titled debut album.

Flash is an excellent album of progressive rock music. It's hard to believe now, because over the years, Flash has descended into relative obscurity (or at best, cult status), while Yes has gone on to a highly-successful almost-50-year career which resulted in them finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this coming April, but at the time the Flash album was released, there was some serious discussion among fans and musicians as to which was the better band. (Then Yes released Close to the Edge later in 1972, and blew that argument all to hell).

Flash on the Flash debut album sounds a lot like the band you might have expected the Yes band from Yes and Time and a Word to mature into. Carter isn't as great a vocalist as Jon Anderson -- he lacks some of Anderson's vocal beauty -- but taken on his own terms, he's actually quite good, with a voice that's warm and bright. Banks and Kaye, doubtlessly smarting from their respective sackings by the parent band, do some of their finest work here; Banks' guitar work dominates the album, and perhaps as a slap at his former bandmates, Kaye even throws in some synthesizer. Bennett's bass lines, while not as complex as some of Squire's, are strong and memorable. And Hough holds up his end nicely as well.

There are only 5 songs on this album, but in true prog rock tradition, only one of them is shorter than 5 minutes. Two of the songs are credited to Banks and Carter, one is credited solely to Carter, and the other two are attributed to Ray Bennett. You won't be surprised to learn that in terms of the songwriting, musically, it's similar to that of Yes from the Time and a Word/The Yes Album period. As for the lyrics, again like Yes, they're mostly upbeat and positive, although they're way less stream-of-consciousness than most of Jon Anderson's lyrics. And although I know it's kind of a cliche to say this, there really isn't a weak song on the album.

The two songs that got all the radio airplay are the album's first track, Carter's "Small Beginnings" (which actually charted #29 as a single on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart) and Bennett's "Children of Universe". Both songs deserved it. "Small Beginnings" starts things off with a flurry of intro notes, then kicks into the main body of the song. It's an upbeat number that serves as an encouragement to the harried working person: "Don't think you're getting nowhere/You know we all must start/From very small beginnings/Off to a better part." There's an extended bridge in the middle of the song, slowing things up considerably, until the chorus starts again and drives the song towards its conclusion. There's a little bit of vocal harmony going on in parts, though not nearly as much as Anderson and Squire typically provide for Yes.

"Children of the Universe" is probably my favorite song on the album. It's based on a 1927 prose poem by the American writer Max Ehrmann that was made into a fashionable wall poster in the '70s, "Desiderata". The verse that was particularly popular was "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here." Bennett plays with the same notion in his lyrics: "Children of the universe/As much as sky and seaway/You have a right to be here." It's a sunny and life-affirming song that should be much better known today than it is, even with its nonsense lyric chorus: "La ouv ya ouv ya/La ouv ya ouv ya/La ohhhhhh ...".

Bennett's song "Morning Haze" is the shortest song on the album, clocking in at 4:37. The main feature of this track is Banks' excellent acoustic guitar work."Dreams of Heaven", on the other hand, is the longest song, at a healthy 12:55. This one is atypically gloomy in the beginning: "The sky is turning gray and/The bottom's dropping out of everything." But the song suddenly breaks into a fast instrumental bridge in the middle, keeping it from feeling too dire. The album closes with a slow, dreamy number called "The Time It Takes".

As stated earlier, member or not, Kaye left Flash after this album, and their subsequent two albums, 1972's In the Can and 1973's Out of Your Hands were nowhere near as popular as Flash.

I've noticed over the years that there's a lot of love among Yes fans for Peter Banks, especially considering he was only with the group for the first two albums, and there's even a bit of an outcry that he won't be joining the band at their R&RHoF induction. I would encourage all fans of Banks, and all fans of Yes, for that matter (especially fans of early Yes) to give Flash a listen. It's an album that deserves a place at the table in progressive rock history, and in the history of Yes. If I can use a baseball analogy, I've always kind of considered Flash to be Yes's AAA team. And on this album, they hit a home run.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Monday, February 6, 2017

Top 10 Local Albums of 2016

I'm a Long Island guy who grew up in Queens. I used to do a radio show highlighting "local" music (Local Insomniac Music), and a couple of public access TV shows (The Jill Morrison Show and LIMC-TV) as well.

When I talk local music, I try to keep a fairly loose definition of the word "local". For the purposes of picking a Top 10 Local Albums list, here's what I consider "local": 1. Long Island, for sure; 2. The 5 boroughs of NY (especially Brooklyn, where a lot of Long Island bands have run off to) 3. Sometimes Jersey or a little ways upstate, if the mood takes me. (I'm not giving away money or anything, so I kind of get to make up the rules as I go along). Also, if a band or artist spent a decent amount of time living on and playing on Long Island, they get to qualify, even if they've moved to another area of the country.

As for format of what constitutes an "album" I'm going by the same rules I used on my The Top 10 Albums of 2016 list --there  has to be a hard (CD copy) of the album, and it has to full-length; No EPs. allowed.

Because there's no suspense about the top slot (since we already know that Bayside took the top slot on the national list), I'm going to print this list from top to bottom. I'm thinking that next year, for the sake of suspense, I should print the local list first, but we'll see.

Top 10 Local Albums of 2016

1. Bayside - Vacancy

Anyone who has followed my mad ramblings over the years won't be surprised that this one made my Number One album of the year slot. Until such time as Paramore returns to top form (which may never happen, given the bad feelings between Hayley Williams and Josh Farro), Bayside is my favorite band of the modern rock era. Their albums usually make my Top 10, and it's not even the first time they've taken the Number One slot (they first did it back in 2008 with their excellent Shudder album). For my money, Anthony Raneri is one of the best vocalists and best songwriters out there today. This one makes Number One on the strength of  a solid album throughout, led by two particularly strong numbers, the album's lead-off song "Two Letters", a song about working out a complicated ongoing relationship with your ex (even though he doesn't like to use that term), and "Mary" which an upbeat song that seems to be a tribute to a deceased friend/fan. While "Two Letters" is a song very much in the usual Bayside style, Mary is a more danceable number in kind of a classic rock style (I'm thinking Springsteen/Joel/Mellancamp here). Anyway, for me, this is Bayside's strongest album in awhile, and that's saying something.

2. Taking Back Sunday - Tidal Wave

I almost feel bad for Taking Back Sunday, because in terms of my taste, they always seem to play the role of Alydar to Bayside's Affirmed. Seems like the two bands always release albums in the same year, and I always like the Bayside one better. But that's not a knock on TBS -- this is an excellent album, and there's even a bit of a change of sounds for them. The excellent title track, which is my favorite song on the album, almost sounds like a Clash song. I saw some speculation as to whether this would be their last album together, but I hope it isn't. They haven't put out a bad album yet.

3. School of Seven Bells - SVIIB

This is a New York City indiepop/shoegaze band that I learned about for the first time this year through the Sputnik Music website. The first track on the album "Ablaze" is a total winner. Unfortunately, the future of the group is in doubt because one of the three band members left the band a few years ago, and another one passed away this year, so for right now, the only band member left is vocalist/guitarist Alejandra Deheza.

4. Ingrid Michaelson - It Doesn't Have to Make Sense

Always good to see New York folkie/pop artist Ingrid Michaelson back on the list. For me, this is her strongest album since 2008's Be OK. She mixes her sound up a little on this one, with the playful, funky "Celebrate", "Hell No" wherein she seems to be chanelling Taylor Swift (which I wouldn't like to see as a long-term strategy, but for one song it's kind of cool), and the beautiful and poignant tribute to her mother, "I Remember Her".

5. Jeff Rosenstock - Worry.

This is Rosenstock's second year in a row on the list, following upon last year's We Cool?, with his manic brand of folk punk. My favorite number here is "Festival Song", but "I Did Something Weird Last Night" is also pretty great. In fact, the whole album is consistently good.

6. Regina Spektor - Remember Us to Life

This is another artist I only learned about this year from Sputnik, New York City anti-folk queen Regina Spector. The back of the album drags a little for me, but the front is amazing, especially the Kate Bush-esque Small Bills.

7. Nine Days - Snapshots

Good to see these guys back and making new music. Snapshots has the very recognizable Nine Days sound, which is pretty terrific. A lot of songs here about aging, family, etc. My favorites are the track that leads off the album, "Obsolete", and the title track. Welcome back, boys.

8. Amanda Jayne - Strike a Match

This is a Long Island acoustic artist with a cool, under produced DIY album. Her best track by far is the excellent "One" (for which she also has a very clever and funny video). I found about her in the weirdest way -- a friend of hers was running for my local schoolboard, and he had a link on his Facebook page. I'm glad I researched him, and that I followed the link.

9. Miles to Dayton - Forces Unknown

These guys have been making excellent music in the americana genre for years now, and it's not the first time they've made my list. My favorite track here is an upbeat number called "You Are".

10. They Might Be Giants - Phone Power

An album of songs from their Dial-a-Song service, with tracks about armageddon, murderous Lovecraftian monsters from another dimension and time traveling assassins. I particularly love "Trouble Awful Devil Evil", wherein the singer  blissfully descends into Hell for thousand of years, unaware of the apocalypse taking place around him.

Thanks again to anyone who took the time to read this list. I should have the Top Songs of 2016 list posted withing the next few days.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2016

I'm still actually finalizing my Top 20 Songs list, but I figured why not go ahead and publish this one.

Here are the rules for what is eligible: It has to be a full-length album of at least 7 songs (unless you've got one or more epic-length songs). No EPs. It also has to be all by one artist -- no compilations. And although I know one of these days I'll have to change this (maybe next year? I don't know, more artists every year are only putting out cost-saving digital copies of their albums, especially independent artists, so we'll see), but I'm still old school, so for now, at least, I have to have a physical copy of the album on CD. I won't count it if I can only get a digital version.

In 2016, I listened to 75+ albums to put together this list. I tried to include a variety of genres, but my tastes are what they are -- I like classical, but no classical albums were included. I don't much like pure hip-hop or jazz, although I did listen to one jazz album this year, but I just don't enjoy/understand those genres. (Some of the rock was a little hip-hop tinged, though, e.g. Twenty One Pilots). I listened to a couple of metal albums this year, and they were OK, but they didn't make this list.  I didn't include any straight country, although some of the artists I listened to produced country-tinged rock. But this year, none of them made the list either. And of course, it's all based on my taste. It's all about what I liked, and what I thought was good.

So from 10th through first, here's my list:

Top 10 Albums of 2016:

10.  Phantogram - Three

Phantogram is a male/female duo from upstate, NY. They almost made the Top 10 list in 2014 for their Voices album. The music is kind of electro-rock. The best song on here is one called "Run Run Blood": "Hey wolf, there's lions in here/There's lions in here, there's lions in here".

9.  The Jezabels - Synthia

This is a band I learned about on the Sputnik Music site. They're a female-fronted indie rock band from Australia. They mix it up pretty well in terms of the styles and speeds of their songs, making the album a pretty satisfying listen. I'm not 100% sure, but their song "My Love Is My Disease" is in contention for my Top 20 Songs list. It's right on the brink, so I'm not sure if it will make it or not.

8. The Mowgli's - Where'd Your Weekend Go?

This is the second year in a row this band made my Top 10 Albums list, so you know they're doing something I like. These guys are alt rockers from Los Angeles, and their music is a throwback to the days of hippy rock like Jefferson Airplane, mixed with pop rock harmonies reminiscent of The Cowsills. They've mostly got an upbeat, happy vibe, although the lyrics on some of the songs this time around are a little darker. For example, the best song on this one is a track called "Alone Sometimes", which about sitting home alone and getting drunk on Johnny Walker after the end of a toxic relationship. Good times, good times.

7.  Night Riots - Love Gloom

These guys made my Top 20 Songs list last year with their song "Break" from the Howl EP.  They're an alt rock band from the Central Coast of California, and they sound to be heavily influenced by The Killers, with maybe a little bit of Vampire Weekend thrown in. My favorite number on this one is a song that takes a shot at big-headed celebrities and rock stars called "Nothing Personal": "I'll be the king, you'll be the filth I was away/Nothing personal, personal, personal."

6. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

I have to admit, I haven't been a big fan of this band in the past. I always liked the song "Creep" from their Pablo Honey album, but nothing else I heard by them ever grabbed me until now. But these guys are so worshiped on the Sputnik site that I felt this was the year to give them another chance, and I'm glad I did. I'm kind of on the borderline with their vocalist, Thom Yorke (which may be what put me off them for so long), but the music here is complex and beautiful, to the point that I'm thinking that maybe these guys are the truest heirs to Pink Floyd that I've heard yet. So now I'm going to have to go back through their discography and give them another listen. Anyway, this album is a total winner.

5. Garbage - Strange Little Birds

I've always been an admirer of this band, but at first, this album left me a little flat -- I felt like there were more sounds and snippets here than actual songs. However, this is one of those albums that really grew on me with repeated listens, and while I don't like it quite as much as 2012's Not Your Kind of People, it's still a pretty damn good album. "Empty" is my favorite track here, which was deservedly released as the album's single. And as fans of the short-lived TV show already know, Shirley Manson is still the best Terminator ever.

4. Tegan and Sara - Love You to Death

This album has been criticized as sounding pretty much exactly like their last album, 2013's Heartthrob, and the band is definitely guilty as charged. But that album made my Top 10 of the Year list, and this one does too. What can I say, these Canadian twin sisters know how to make catchy alternapop songs, and I'm not tired of it. "Boyfriend" was the first single from the album, and it's also the album's strongest track. Go, Canada, go!

3.  Against the Current - In Our Bones

I'm so proud of these guys! This is an alternapop band from Poughkeepsie, NY, fronted by a tiny little girl with a big voice, Chrissy Costanza. I thought their Gravity EP from last year showed a lot of potential, but a lot of bands never take that next step. This one did. This is an album full of manic 20-something energy, driven by a pair of youth anthems, "Young & Relentless" and "Running With the Wild Things". Alternative Press called this album "pop rock perfection", and I'd have to agree.

2. Andy Black - The Shadow Side

For most of the year, I thought this was going to be my #1, and that would have been fine. Andy Black is actually Andy Biersack, the lead singer of Black Veil Brides. Unfortunately, I think this album has fallen a little bit into a crack commercially -- it's not rocky enough for Black Veil Bride fans, and alternative pop fans who would be its most natural audience just haven't discovered it. Too bad, because this album is a winner from beginning to end. My favorite track is "Stay Alive" (which features Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio/Blink-182 fame), but there are a number of treats here, including the single "We Don't Have to Dance" and the song "Ribcage": ("Nothing in the cage of my ribcage/Got no heart to break, like it that way"). Black has long been one of my favorite vocalists, and I really like the direction he went in on this album.

1. Bayside - Vacancy

Anyone who has followed my mad ramblings over the years won't be surprised that this one made my Number One album of the year slot. Until such time as Paramore returns to top form (which may never happen, given the bad feelings between Hayley Williams and Josh Farro), Bayside is my favorite band of the modern rock era. Their albums usually make my Top 10, and it's not even the first time they've taken the Number One slot (they first did it back in 2008 with their excellent Shudder album). For my money, Anthony Raneri is one of the best vocalists and best songwriters out there today. This one makes Number One on the strength of  a solid album throughout, led by two particularly strong numbers, the album's lead-off song "Two Letters", a song about working out a complicated ongoing relationship with your ex (even though he doesn't like to use that term), and "Mary" which an upbeat song that seems to be a tribute to a deceased friend/fan. While "Two Letters" is a song very much in the usual Bayside style, Mary is a more danceable number in kind of a classic rock style (I'm thinking Springsteen/Joel/Mellancamp here). Anyway, for me, this is Bayside's strongest album in awhile, and that's saying something.

So that does it for my Top 10 Albums of 2016. I'll be posting my Top 10 Local Albums in a day or so, but notice we have some drama here -- unlike last year, I only had one local artist (Bayside) on my Top 20 Album list, so there will be plenty of new blood on the Local Albums list.