End of the year lists often start to come together in the months of October and November. Much of this list was relatively settled by Halloween, with the top spot having been secured since that record’s release, but then came December. In the first two weeks of the final month of 2014, four records were released that landed in my top 5. Those four records pushed the rest of the list down and caused me to rethink a few things throughout the list resulting in two albums moving to the Honorable Mentions section and the finalization of this list at 30. Every album and EP on this list is worth the price of admission and if there was any justice in the world, these would have been the records that topped the charts this year. But thankfully in this day and age, one doesn’t need top 40 radio to tell you what to listen to anymore and like One Man Army once so perfectly sang “They never play us what we want, We've got our hits, We've got our favorite songs, So come on and turn off the radio.”
The Lawrence Arms’ sixth studio record Metropole is an ode to that realization that one has entered middle age. The dueling lead vocals of bassist Brendan Kelly and guitarist Chris McCaughan bite with harsh honesty and clever lyrics that make these songs meaningful without berating or beating the listener on the head to drive home the point. In other words this record is subtle and straight-forward all at the same time. [...] For me, this is one of those records that really hits home with its themes of growing up and growing old, while still feeling the anger and frustration of youth. On top of that, the songs are catchy punk rock ‘n’ roll anthems the mix the best elements of Jawbreaker, The Goo Goo Dolls (an early influence according to Kelly and one that I can definitely hear), and the historic Chicago punk scene. This is the kind of record that makes you feel like you are not alone and that is reassuring (at least for this middle aged Gen Xer). It’s also a record that isn’t afraid to be more than just another punk rock outing, making it a collection of catchy rock ‘n’ roll tunes and anthems that should appeal to a wide audience.
Candy Hearts’ third full-length album All The Ways You Let Me Down is a brilliant blast of ‘90s influenced, pop punk goodness. From the opening of the infectiously catchy “I Miss You” to the closing crescendo of “Top Of Our Lungs,” Candy Hearts have delivered a perfect record. The band hasn’t broken the mold or changed direction with All The Ways…, they’ve simply perfected what they already did brilliantly—write catchy-as-hell pop songs that punch you right in the heart with their honesty.
With a sound that is catchy as hell, pulling from the best of punk, power pop, and straight up rock ‘n’ roll, Shallow Cuts’ debut is a timeless piece of perfection. From the opening hook of “The Mission” with its wink to Loverboy (which amazingly works and makes the classic rock number not suck simply by its association to such a great new song), to the closing crescendo of “Calamine,” Storm Watch is, simply put, flawless.
Leave A Light On truly captures everything great about 7 Seconds while also standing out as the band’s best work in over 20 years. This record is hopeful and powerful, poignant and funny, earnest and light-hearted, all while being catchy and melodic, razor sharp and touching, and blistering and melodious. Aside from being a musical masterpiece, this record also brings back the optimistic, positive, and promising attitude of those early years. On a personal note, I haven’t connected with a 7 Secords record this strongly since I first discovered the band’s 1985 magnum opus Walk Together, Rock Together. This is the 7 Seconds record that I have been waiting for for over two decades, and boy was it worth the wait.
The Copyrights’ sixth full-length album Report is nothing short of brilliant. The Carbondale, IL quartet has been knocking out some of the best pop punk around since 2002 and after 12 years it’s safe to say that this band has not only gotten better with age but perfected the genre. Pop punk can be a tricky genre. Often bands are just doing their best to channel and/or emulate the Ramones or Screeching Weasel or Alkaline Trio or the like, to varying degrees of success. At its core, pop punk is a very simple genre -- songs that are generally under three minutes and follow the formula laid out by Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys (and kicked into high gear by the Ramones). Most bands don’t do a lot to take that formula and make it their own; this is not the case with The Copyrights. With a sound that is distinctive and Midwestern, driven by great hooks and spot on harmonies, The Copyrights have done what so few have been able to do before them -- take the genre of pop punk and make it their own. With so many pop punk bands one can easily draw comparisons to other acts, but not The Copyrights. The closest comparisons one can make to the boys from Carbondale are fellow Illinois natives The Methadones and one of the most criminally underrated bands of the 1990s, Sinkhole. Report opens with a whisper that turns into a roar in “Slider” and never lets up from there. Each song is filled with infectious hooks, catchy choruses, and cleverly poignant lyrics that are guaranteed to have you bopping along (and if not then there is something seriously wrong with you).
Radio Reds’ latest, and final, release isn’t some haphazard swansong thrown together with leftover bits and pieces; no, Fire Academy EP is their magnum opus. From the opening, Billy Bragg-esque jangle guitar of “Sell Out” to the haunting piano driven closer “Plain for You,” Fire Academy works in every way. These songs are passionate and heartfelt and grab you by the balls with their intensity and hooks (and there’s a killer cover of “I Melt With You” to boot). [...] The shame of this band calling it a day is that I think they were on the verge of not only hitting their stride musically (which they certainly showcased herein) but finding a wider audience. Bands like Restorations, Luther, and The Menzingers have found success in punk circles (especially The Fest crowd) with styles that mix and match elements from punk, indie, post hardcore, Americana, and emo and I see no reason why fans of those bands wouldn’t love Fire Academy and Radio Reds in general.
Stay Clean Jolene’s self-titled full-length debut is a blast of everything that is good in punk rock right now. Mixing big hooks with bigger choruses, Stay Clean Jolene finds that perfect spot that is equal parts Leatherface, Dillinger Four, The Bouncing Souls, Iron Chic, and Chris Wollard & the Ship Thieves, making songs that are catchy as hell, full of energy, and a joy to listen to. In a way I’m not really sure what else to say about this record other than it is fucking brilliant and one of the best of the year.
Restorations’ third album LP3 is a beautiful and brilliant mix of sounds that defies categorization while still sounding familiar and reassuring. It is like an old friend that you haven’t seen in years--it’s recognizable and safe while feeling refreshing and exciting--and that is what makes it work so incredibly well. Restorations have been honing their captivating mix of post hardcore, punk, progressive classic rock, indie rock, Americana, and emo with a penchant for big chords and rolling crescendos since their beginnings in 2008. On LP3 they have perfected it. After years of listening to punk rock, I’ve become very accustomed to the two to three minute long song; in fact, I am of the opinion that a song needs to have a reason if it is going to be more than four to five minutes long. Restorations have completely destroyed that preconception with this record. Many of the songs on LP3 are more than four minutes (the closing track “It’s Not” is over six minutes in length) and not once did I feel that the songs were longer than they needed to be nor was there a moment on this record that didn’t have me completely and utterly compelled. Simply put LP3 is flawless perfection.
Tim Barry’s sixth album is probably his best. The stripped down and heartfelt Lost & Rootless is an earnest and humble collection of modern folk perfection. Recorded in his shed (soundproofed with bits of carpet, blankets, and pallets), Barry describes the album as wooden stating “That's the feel that I was going for when I picked the songs. There's violin, voice, a wooden resonator guitar...there's a very subtle electric bass on one track, but otherwise I wanted to do a wooden record.” The minimalist approach to the recording only serves to highlight Barry’s talent as a songwriter. His unique voice has always shined through his lyrics, going all the way back to his time as the lead singer of Avail, but it is at its brightest when laid bare and accompanied by little to nothing more than his guitar and that is exactly what you get on Lost & Rootless. Simply put, Tim Barry has perfected his craft as a singer/songwriter and this record is a brilliant example of the power of simplicity and the effectiveness of folk music.
More than any other artist, band, or act, to me 2014 was all about Beach Slang. From the first time I heard their debut EP, I knew that it was going to be my favorite record of the year and that opinion never changed. Beach Slang is said to be working on their full-length debut to be released in 2015 and if that is the case, then it is easily my most anticipated record of the year. This is a band that I love an a release that I will cherish for years to come.
Every once in a while a record comes along and blows you away with the opening chords of the first song and you can just tell that you are hearing something really special. That was my exact reaction to Beach Slang’s debut EP Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?. From the opening chords of “Filthy Luck” to the closing moments of “Punk Or Lust,” Beach Slang has put together the purest essence of the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that the outcasts of the 1980s and ‘90s found comfort in. The four songs on Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? are beyond catchy with giant hooks and choruses that defy you to not sing along. With a sound that is equal parts Tim / Pleased to Meet Me era Replacements and Superstar Car Wash / A Boy Named Goo era Goo Goo Dolls, Beach Slang have tapped into something that has been missing in rock as of late…the voice of the outcast. This voice rings so clear and hits you right from the get-go as singer/guitarist James Snyder bellows “I’m a slave to always fucking up. It’s not okay, but maybe it’s enough. Kids like us are weird, and more, we’re brave. We tie our tongues and turn them into rage.” in the opening moments of “Filthy Luck.” Here’s the thing, and I’m sorry for being so blunt but, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? is fucking brilliant. [...] To quote Dillinger Four, this shit is genius.