Sunday, August 20, 2017

Everclear: A Concert Review

I’d been hemming and hawing inside my head whether or not I wanted to go see 90’s alt-rock favorites Everclear on Saturday night. Normally going or not going to a concert isn’t a huge decision, but Everclear’s music meant a lot to me in my teenage years. Unfortunately Art Alexakis hasn’t made any interesting music since about 2002. Furthering my anxiety was the fact that last time I saw Everclear (2008 or so) Art and his band of hired guns weren’t very good; his voice sounded shot and the performance was lackluster.


But I ended up going anyways.


Considering my nostalgic reasons for being there, my vantage point was apt: behind a tree and slightly off-center; the band a slight blur in the distance. Both band and (this) fan have lost a step over the years; “Heroin Girl” was played more at the speed on the White Trash Hell EP and “Amphetamine” chugged along at a gallop instead of a sprint. Alexakis’ voice was fine if not powerful; my own singing along was quiet and unsure.




None of those things really mattered, though. The set was almost exclusively hits, mostly from So Much for the Afterglow. The many kids in attendance enjoyed the pogo-jumping parts from “Everything to Everyone,” the parents (and other adults) jammed and danced to classics like “Father of Mine” and “I Will Buy You A New Life.” (The fact that Everclear managed to marry happy, upbeat rock music with sad, autobiographical lyrics should tell you everything you need to know about why I like them.)


Clearly Alexakis and his band didn’t give a damn about being in a Spinal Tap-like situation, playing essentially a free show at a zoo. They were jumping around and singing closely on the same mic, obviously enjoying each other’s company while feeding off the crowd.


I really didn’t go into the show expecting a whole lot. But what I saw in Art Alexakis was a man still very much in love with performing and someone who still believes in the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it wasn’t just like being sixteen all over again. But on a buggy summer night, some 20-year-old tunes that can still hit you right in the feels (as the kids say these days) did just fine.

Set List:
So Much for the Afterglow
Everything to Everyone
Father of Mine
Heroin Girl (Art introduced this song by noting the family-friendly nature of this show)
Heartspark Dollarsign
White Men In Black Suits
Amphetamine
Wonderful
Song From An American Movie, Pt. 1
Brown Eyed Girl (Art Solo)
Dueling guitar solos
AM Radio (featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” intro)
Volvo-Driving Soccer Mom
Local God
I Will Buy You A New Life


Encore:
Fire Maple Song
Classic Rock Riff Medley (Living After Midnight (Judas Priest) / Another One Bites the Dust (Queen) / Rock You Like A Hurricane (The Scorpions) / Rock n Roll (Led Zeppelin)
Santa Monica

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Roger Waters: A concert review

On Saturday night, to a nearly full house, Roger Waters proved to be the rare arena rock act that can be everything to everyone. Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials, and the kids that the millennials will eventually get to complain about all gathered to hear one of classic rock’s great catalogues. I suspect no one went home unhappy.


If you are the sort that takes pleasure in the pure aural experience that Pink Floyd’s music provided once upon a time, this was the concert for you. Waters and his crack backing band -- and the sound system they played through -- sounded excellent. The rumbling opening bass line to “One of These Days” sounded particularly menacing. The acoustic guitar that starts off “Wish You Were Here” was pristine. The wordless backing vocals from “The Great Gig in the Sky”, courtesy of the ladies of indie-pop band Lucius, were absolutely gorgeous. Though Roger Waters ceded much of the lead vocals to his guitarist (who just so happened to sound just like Waters and David Gilmour), his weathered voice fit the music and gave it gravitas.


For the more visually oriented / stoned out your gourds of us, the second set in particular scratched that itch. Video panels dropped down from the ceiling to just above the people on the floor, dividing the crowd in half. The screens first displayed the power station from the cover of Animals, complete with smokestacks sprouting from the top, and a tiny inflatable pig floating off in the distance. Later in the set, the screens stretched and retracted, practically pulsating to the beat of the song, while colorful patterns along with overlaid live images of the band playing were displayed.


The second set was capped off with a laser-show interpretation of the Dark Side of the Moon cover during “Brain Damage/Eclipse.”

The colored prism shot out seconds later. People on LSD probably freaked out. 



Perhaps you’ve heard that Roger Waters is an outspoken opponent of conservative politics, Donald Trump in particular. He delivered most of this unsubtle political commentary during the 11-minute epic “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” Images shown on the aforementioned video panels included, but were not limited to: Trump vomiting; Trump as Hitler; Trump as KKK member; and the ever-popular meme of Vladimir Putin holding up Donnie Two Scoops like a doll. Near the end of the song, an image of Trump smirking and looking off in the distance and holding a huge dildo appeared; when his likeness turned to face the crowd, the dildo shrank.
The Trump-bashing during “Money” was less biting, but no less amusing.

The famous inflatable pig, this time featuring an image of Donald Trump with eyes crossed out with dollar signs.




Of course, for all the overblown media coverage surrounding this part of the set, it did only account for 20 minutes or so of the 2-hour performance.


Roger Waters’ lyrics are responsible for starting (and continuing) my -- and probably many attendees’ -- Floyd phase. They may not be complicated or even poetic, but they hit where they’re supposed to hit. When he sang “You run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again / The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” I got chills, the same as one hundred times before. (“Time” is my favorite Pink Floyd song by a mile; its theme of the helplessness and utter inevitability of mortality is something I can’t help but get hung up on.)


All of these experiences were wrapped up in the songs of classic-era (Dark Side through The Wall) Pink Floyd. Minus the new material from so-so new album Is This The Life We Really Want?, it was hit after hit. Show-closing “Comfortably Numb” featured a communal singalong, which is somewhat ironic considering that the song is just as much about as the distance between performer and audience as it is about drugs. But it was just as awe-inspiring as most of the 20-plus songs before it.


In the end, tour namesake and Dark Side deep cut (if there is such a thing) “Us and Them” summed up the live Roger Waters experience nicely. Images of Black Lives Matter protesters, refugees, and the like were juxtaposed against pictures of riot police, soldiers with guns, and drone strikes. The message was pretty clear: we’re divided as fuck, perhaps further away from each other than we’ve ever been, and that’s not a good thing. But for one night -- for just two hours -- it didn’t actually seem like Us v. Them. There was only an Us, and it was excellent.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Car Seat Headrest, Ludacris, and Me: A Summerfest Review

Once the forecast cleared up early Sunday evening, I decided to embrace my inner outer creeper and plunge alone into the madness that is a weekend night at Summerfest to catch a couple of acts that I like but don’t love. This is how that went.

Up first was indie rock band Car Seat Headrest at the Johnson Controls Stage.

You know a band is small-time -- and that is almost certainly on purpose -- when they are on stage 15 minutes before showtime doing their own sound check. This is not a knock on them, merely an observation.

After a short introduction by Dori Zori from 88.9 the band took the stage to some pretentious, Bon Iver-esque vocal samplings before launching into “Vincent” from their current album Teens of Denial. Immediately apparent was the fact that the band set out to put the “rock” in indie rock. The faders were definitely pushed up to 11. Unfortunately this meant that the feedback-drenched guitars and thumping drums drowned out singer/guitarist/brains behind the band Will Toledo’s mumbly vocal delivery. He simply doesn’t have the pipes to cut through the crap.

Approximately half an hour into the set they played what was one of my favorite songs from last year, “Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” and it was excellent. Even though I think the crowd was enjoying the show overall, it also seemed like the arms-crossed, hipper-than-thou indie kids there didn’t give the song the moshpit freakout the song calls for. It is what I came to hear, though, so after it was done I bailed to see…

....Ludacris.

You know the song “Too Many People” by Paul McCartney? It was like that. By the time I made it to the Miller Oasis stage, the crowd wasn’t so much a crowd but a college kegger writ large: (nearly) everyone young, dumb, full of come. Blunts were everywhere, and so were teenagers grinding on each other to the jams.

Luda, to his credit, obliged the party scene by pumping out hit after hit.

My criticism of most modern rap shows applies here: he didn’t perform entire songs. Verses from “Money Maker” (with admittedly one of his all-time best lines: “Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis / Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius”) blurred into “What’s Your Fantasy” which then eventually collided into “Rollout (My Business)”

Of course, nobody fucking cared.

Despite a total lack of personal space, everyone seemed to have a good time. My personal highlight was indicative of the rest of the set in that “Move Bitch” was awesome until Ludacris stopped after two verses and promptly dove into “Stand Up.” (I get it, Mystikal wasn’t in the building to do his verse, but still, it was disappointing to hear his best song cut short.)

Ultimately I’m guessing my opinion of both artists’ performances is in the minority. Car Seat Headrest is perfectly capable of rocking your socks off, if you don’t mind squalling feedback and garbled vocals. Ludacris is a legitimately fantastic rapper that has a string of unassailable party jams to his name - if only he’d perform them in whole. But I’m sure the amount of “amazing” and “unbelieveable” descriptions on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram will far outnumber the objections from old grumps like me.





Thursday, July 7, 2016

Concert Review: Sir-Mix-A-Lot at Summerfest

Two songs into his first-ever (!) Milwaukee show, Sir-Mix-A-Lot proclaimed (paraphrasing) “Ain’t nobody come out to these shows to hear some abstract-ass new song no one’s ever heard of. They want some old school!” The man certainly knows his audience.

That audience, as was probably expected was predominantly white and predominantly young, though all generations and races were represented. All the recent handwringing and thinkpieces in the music press about the misappropriation of black culture meant nothing here, because these people came to dance and Mix came to supply jams to dance to. The whole thing was essentially a 70-minute party.

It should be noted that Mix-A-Lot can flat-out rap. He had hype men, but they mostly stayed in the background to let Mix shine. Opener “Buckin’ My Horse” and a fiery rendition of “Testarossa” displayed his verbal skills. Also worth nothing was his storytelling skills. He said how he saw some lady on MTV -- who he claimed looked just like him, goatee and all -- who said he was the epitome of a one-hit-wonder. Mix -- yes, we are on a first name basis -- then got on Twitter to reply by taking a picture of his middle finger and then his taint. (Please don’t look that up on Google) But his nephew (also a member of his on-stage entourage) reminded him of his other hits, and they kicked into “Posse on Broadway”

It’s true that Sir Mix-A-Lot never reached the ubiquitous heights of “Baby Got Back,” but the set proved that he has songs that at the very least you’ve heard of. “My Hooptie” was well-received, if the stench of weed was any indication. “Swass,” which was apparently the basis for The Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha,” was present, as was “Beepers,” “Buttermilk Biscuits,” “Jump On It” (which got the second-best reaction of the night, complete with copious references to Milwaukee, 414, Brewers, and Bucks), and, yes, his masterwork -- or magnum opus, if you insist -- “Put ‘Em On The Glass.”

The only real misstep was a bizarre (to me, anyway) interlude where they played Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and chanted over it. The crowd kept dancing like nothing had changed, which was sort of cool actually. I had just the right amount of beer in me to think a mosh pit was a good idea, but that never came to pass.

Mix kept the energy high throughout, and the crowd ate up every second of it. There was much booty-shaking, particularly by lovely young women. One had a permanent grin on her face while dancing with her man -- a pure unadulterated joy that my unshakeable melancholy won’t permit me to experience. There were dudes dancing too -- a pasty shirtless guy by himself, an old guy with a pony tail also by himself. Me, who in lieu of sweet moves swayed to the rhythms and tried my best to sing the lyrics.

The set ended as one would expect, with ladies invited on stage for an extended version of “Baby Got Back.” Mix-A-Lot high-fived people and thanked the crowd for coming out, and claimed he would be back. For an hour-plus of jamming out to classic tunes and forgetting about the daily grind, I would definitely go see him again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dispatches from Detroit

My wife and I took a road trip to Detroit to see a concert. Yes, we are crazy. No, we did not get mugged, or stabbed, or carjacked. In fact, the majority of people we ran into were quite friendly. We stayed for a few days, and these are some thoughts I had about the trip.


THE DRIVE and the CITY


The six-hour trek from Milwaukee to Detroit was a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with the deindustrialized Midwest in general and the greater Detroit area in particular. It was blustery and cool the entire way, with the sky a relentless, depressing gray. Milwaukee roads may be perpetually under construction, but at least we’re trying. Illinois has its own problems, but their roads are not one of them. But as soon as we crossed the border into Indiana, the freeway immediately turned to shit and only got worse as we made our way across Michigan.


Michigan drivers must not know what a signal light is, because they rarely ever used one. One driver even cut across three lanes to get onto an exit ramp, which was both dangerous and illustrated a Louis CK bit rather nicely.


Despite all that, we made it to the hotel in one piece.


Truthfully, we didn’t plan on being in Detroit proper for much of anything aside from the Motown Museum (see below). Certainly there were hip parts of the city that we could’ve visited. Or we could’ve seen the abandoned Michigan Central Station or the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, but I don’t think either of us really wanted to see that ruin porn in the flesh.


(I get into politics here, so skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to read that.)


The parking around the museum was scarce and the streets unfamiliar, so we looped around a couple of times. During that process, we were funneled down some side streets that seemed more like alleys -- mostly unplowed and mostly barren. The buildings and homes on these streets were covered in graffiti, and were either boarded up or had all the windows busted out. The only word I can use to describe this is heartbreaking. It wasn’t just one or two structures, it was blocks and blocks of being surrounded by blight and disrepair.


Republicans will tell you this happened because of corrupt Democrat government and lazy black people, Democrats will tell you it’s because of greedy rich white men and the deindustrialization of the area. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it always is.


It’s become pretty apparent to me that 1) Americans are addicted to cheap goods and 2) CEOs and stockholders are addicted to cheap labor -- and when that happens the jobs move away the middle class gets fucked. Both sides are like two balled fists that keep smashing into each other. They keep hitting each other, but nothing changes.


The only way capitalism can really work (for everyone, not just the rich) is for the (mostly) unskilled middle-class workers to make or build things for their fellow middle-class workers to buy and use. This is because the rich mostly save their money, and the poor have no money to save.
So if Detroit wants to be “America’s Great Comeback City,” as it says on all their tourism material, those jobs need to come back. Companies might have to pay their workers more or pay more taxes, and consumers might have to pay more for their goods. But that’s the only way it can work. Perhaps they could start by getting their unemployed population to fix their freeways, but I doubt it.


THE MOTOWN MUSEUM




In more uplifting news, the Motown Museum was pretty cool.


I am normally not a fan of guided tours – I would much rather read/view/listen to things at my own pace – but our tour guide, Cecilia, really made the story of founder Berry Gordy and Motown Records come alive.


After a 20-minute video, the first part of the tour was in the building adjacent to the iconic “Hitsville U.S.A” building pictured above. Cecilia told us how Berry Gordy started the label with an $800 loan from his family after only getting a $3 royalty check for writing a hit song.
From there he signed the Marvelettes, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, and even a kid by the name of Little Stevie Wonder. Everything was accentuated by myriad photographs, memos, gold and platinum records, album covers, and even a hat and jeweled glove donated by Michael Jackson.


From there, Cecilia took us into the famed Hitsville building, which featured Gordy's living quarters upstairs, complete with furniture, dishes, multiple turn tables, and other furnishings. The basement was where the real action was, though, as that is where a ton of the hit singles from the Sixties were made.


Everything was set up as if they had never stopped making records. A punch clock was set up with time cards dated 1966. The candy and cigarette machines from that period are still there. You could take a peek inside the control room before descending a stair case to the studio where so much magic was made.


It was kind of cramped, but the 15-20 people on the tour all fit inside. There was a piano, various sets of headphones, microphones hanging from the ceiling, and songbooks opened to The Temptations' “My Girl.” Cecilia told us a little bit more about the studio itself, before ending the tour by leading us in a singalong of “My Girl.” Sure, it was mostly off-key (except for the theatrically trained twentysomethings who couldn't help but show off), but much like the music made there all those years ago, it was joyous. Thanks to the good music and the tour guide intent on her guests having a good time, I walked out feeling better about things than when I had walked in.


THE FOOD




I'm going to go out on a limb and say Michigan isn't really known for its cuisine. There may very well be all kinds of good places to eat, and admittedly we didn't go out of our way to find them.


Apparently Detroit-style pizza is a thing, but if the ads that I picked up at our hotel are any indication, Detroit-style pizza is merely cheap and shitty-looking.


Big Boy restaurants are alive and well in the area. Their burgers were actually quite delicious.


After the concert, we stopped at a hot dog stand (known as “Coney Islands” in the area) and... didn't have a hot dog. I had loose ground beef in a hot dog bun, covered with mustard, onions, and chili. You won't believe it, but it hit the spot at 2AM. (Steph had a grilled cheese; it was a grilled cheese.)

THE CONCERT


Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio) and Anthony Raneri (Bayside)





This was the Main Event, our whole reason for coming to Detroit. The “Where's The Band” 2016 tour actually was stopping in Chicago the next night, so it was sort of like trading a 20-dollar bill for two fives as far as travel was concerned. But there we were, in lovely Ferndale, Michigan to see pop-punk/emo heroes of our youth perform solo acoustic.


The venue itself was fairly intimate, maybe 150-200 people could fit in there tops. We arrived 45 minutes before the start time, and after buying 2 24oz cans of Pabst ($6 apiece), settled about two rows from the stage.


On other dates of the tour, apparently all the performers were out on stage together for the entire show, helping each other out occasionally. For this show, it was mostly solo performances. This didn't hurt anything, but I do kind of wonder how much better it might have been with everyone out there.


If there's one thing that became clear over the course of the night, it was of the healing power of music. It doesn't really matter what genre or scene you come from, whether it's punk or emo or metal – in that moment of the song, all pain is shared pain; all happiness is shared happiness. It didn't matter who was on stage, almost all of the songs were singalong songs. And judging by the amount of couples there, it was proof that despite the common lyrical themes of longing and rejection that things would eventually get better and we'd all make it through.


Individually, my favorite performer of the night was Anthony Raneri of Bayside, though that just might be because he did the most songs that I recognized. He and Dan Andriano of Alkaline Trio covering The Smoking Popes' “Megan” was probably the set highlight.


Andriano didn't actually do that many Alkaline Trio songs. Either that, or the songs he chose were post-Crimson, which is where I stopped paying much attention to the band. Some dude dumped an entire beer on top of a girl during his set, which was a sour note on a night that was otherwise filled with good vibes.


Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids closed out the show, and he did not disappoint. He opened with “Anne Arbour,” which was appropriate; he dug somewhat deep for a Reggie and the Full Effect song, which was unexpected. He messed with the crowd throughout – taking requests and not playing them; telling a girl all the guys would come out to sing “Happy Birthday” and then not doing that at all – before closing the set with “I'll Catch You,” a fan favorite and song he swore earlier he wasn't going to play because it was such a bummer.


For $16 and three hours of entertainment from some heroes of my younger, single days, it was not a bad time at all. I hope they go out on tour again next year – but maybe this time they could hit Milwaukee.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 albums - 2015

No intro this year, just the top 10. And a 27-song playlist companion, featuring songs from the albums plus tracks from albums that didn't make the cut. (Some lyrics NSFW)


10. The Decemberists - What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World


Despite the pretentious title, What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World manages to be the least pretentious Decemberists album I’ve heard yet. It does what most of their albums have done before, which is to say it blends jangly folk, 60’s style pop, and country-inflected rock into what has become their signature sound. This time around the lyrics seem a little less literary and a little more human (standout lead single “Make You Better,” and “Philomena” in particular) which is for the better. The Decemberists may not be for everyone, but What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World isn’t a bad entry point.


9. Torche - Restarter


Good, hard, heavy rock ‘n’ roll seems to have fallen out of both critical and commercial favor these days. Torche’s Restarter probably isn’t going to convert any EDM or Nickelback fans, but their stoner-y, sludgy drone is a good respite from both the soft, synth-laden sound of what passes for modern alternative rock AND perfectly-polished butt rock.


8. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves


I’m not so sure the album was worth waiting eight years for, but Strangers To Ourselves maintains Modest Mouse’s one-of-a-kind sound. That means sometimes spacey, sometimes jagged guitars, meandering synthesizers, stabbing horn blasts, and existential lyrics. Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows the template of other hits like “Float On” and “Dashboard”; It is hooky, catchy, and mildly weird. “Sugar Boats” (opening line: “This rock of ours is just some big mistake”) sounds like a both a demented marching band and an off-kilter carnival theme, all with a buzzsaw lead guitar cutting through the middle. Familiar though it may be, it is a sound that I rather enjoy.


7. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free


I didn’t quite get Something More Than Free until I listened to it at about 11:30 at night, with a few vodka-and-orange juices in me. It may not be as heady or weird as Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (what I consider to be the gold standard of modern country/Americana) but the songs are just as finely crafted. Each track is quietly devastating in its own way. “If It Takes a Lifetime” paints a portrait of someone that’s barely hanging on. “Speed Trap Town” is absolutely wracked with regret.


Something More Than Free may not click for you if you’ve never looked at a “past due” bill before, or have never picked up your fifth drink of the night and wondered “What’s the point of this?”  But if you have? Then you will enjoy this album, even if it hits a little too close to home like it did for me.


6. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly


It should surprise no one that To Pimp A Butterfly is the consensus album of the year as voted by (mostly white, mostly educated) music critics. Its dense, jazzy, funky (and on one track, a dead-ringer-but-not-quite-Radiohead sample) soundscape sets it apart from most other rap albums put out this or any other year. TPaB also features socially conscious lyrics. It is the epitome of this article.


The world that Kendrick Lamar has depicted here is sad, bleak, resilient (“Alright”), and conflicted (“The Blacker The Berry”). It is black life as seen through the eyes of an intelligent, articulate young black man. Unfortunately, the people that need to hear this the most -- that is to say, people that don’t resemble a Stuff White People Like article -- would never touch To Pimp a Butterfly with a ten foot pole.


If there is a criticism besides it being no fun to listen to -- and it really is a difficult listen -- it is that Kendrick Lamar relies too much on the word “nigga” or “nigger.” I don’t say this as a Concerned and/or Offended White Person, nor do I wonder why blacks can say the word and I can’t; I say it as a person with an English degree and someone who recognizes Kendrick’s immense talent. Even if it’s his artistic intent to make people uncomfortable with the use of the word, I think he can do better. If “nigga” can mean many different things to black people, he can use many different words to convey the same meaning. The proof is in his songs.  


5. Desaparacidos - Payola


Desaparacidos is the side project of folk-rock singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, most famous for his band Bright Eyes. Political punk rock is mostly a drag, but that is not the case with this album. Payola features 14 solid blasts of loud guitars and leftist rhetoric -- the first song is called “The Left is Right” for god’s sake. Like all good punk rock, it is not nuanced or balanced. But unlike Fox News (which is also not nuanced or balanced), it is fun as hell to listen to.


4. Beach House - Depression Cherry


Beach House actually had four albums to their name before this one, but I hadn’t actually heard all that much of their music. I am glad I changed that with Depression Cherry.


Beach House’s music is commonly referred to as “dream pop” and that is not wrong. Depression Cherry works as both an album to put on in the background, and something to lose yourself in while listening on headphones. After the 2015 we as a people had, melting away to the gauzy synthesizers, plaintive drum beats, and Victoria Legrand’s hazy, distant vocals doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.


“Levitation” suggests exactly that; “PPP” is sad and longing and makes me want to pop a few Vicodin and forget about it all. The entire album is a case for better living through chemistry. I’m not sure why I kept coming back to this album, but I did. It made me feel an enveloping warmth, or like a stream casually flowing to its end. (Mostly) electronic music hasn’t made me feel this good in quite some time, if ever.


3. The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ


If professional wrestling turns a mirror on American life -- and it does; if you don’t think so then you were watching different programs than the ones I watched religiously from about 2003-2007 -- then Fight The Champ shows us what’s on the other side of that mirror.


“Heel Turn 2” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. “Turning heel,” in wrestling parlance, is when a good guy turns into a bad one; our narrator is having conflicted thoughts about the “turn” He knows it’s best for business, but maybe his fans would be upset (“President of the fan club / Up there choking on his tears”). On its face, this is all about wrestling, but it could just as easily be about anyone having to make any sort of tough decision. That’s why it connects.


Beat The Champ wins not just because of the way it portrays its muscled, tighted protagonists as real people, but because it also reminds wrestling fans -- supremely dorky though it may be -- of why they’re fans to begin with. Of course, you don’t need to be a fan to enjoy the album or even relate to it. Sometimes you just need a hero in your life (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”) and sometimes you just want to stab someone with an ice pick (“Foreign Object.”).


(Oh, the music? It’s mostly pleasant. Mostly acoustic guitar, occasionally furiously strummed. Some piano. Some orchestral elements. Probably not what you’d expect from an album about wrestling.)


2. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color


Alabama Shakes sure made a leap with their sophomore effort. Their southern roots-rock debut was plenty good, but Sound & Color made a quantum leap in terms of sound. It is at times space rock-y (“Gemini, “Future People”), funk and soul inspired (“Don’t Wanna Fight”), and straight-up rawk (“The Greatest”).


Brittany Howard’s vocals and guitar are both forces of nature here, and the rest of the band fills in nicely.


I should have more to say about my #2 album of the year, but I don’t. All I know is that whatever trip they’re taking next, I want to be on it.


1. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit


The chorus of lead single “Pedestrian at Best” features four lines, three of them killer (the third line being the weak link)  “Put me on a pedestal and I will only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / give me all your money and I’ll make you origami honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny”


It is Courtney Barnett’s sharp lyrics and eye for detail that make this album the best of the year. Her characters are oftentimes a mess, insecure, mundane, sometimes joyful but only briefly. The album reads like an introvert’s fever dream - a tangle of thoughts that maybe weren’t supposed to be heard by human ears, all coming out at a machine gun clip. The music is a blend of 90’s and classic rock, which is always a winning formula as far as I’m concerned.


Much like Sound & Color, I don’t have much to say about this album. Perhaps you could say it left me speechless.


(Albums also worth checking out: Torres - Sprinter; Houndmouth - Sedona; Whitey Morgan and the 78’s - Sonic Ranch; Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material; Local H - Hey Killer; Muse - Drones; Dr. Dre - Compton; Death Cab For Cutie - Kintsugi)