Five Bands Music Writers Love That Normal People Should Too
We think you might really dig Japanther.
Rock critics sometimes seem to be like a closed society, trading back and forth the same opinions about the same bands and the same beloved albums (Pet Sounds. I get it. Stop.) For a casual music fan, or someone who doesn't spend their free time trawling MP3 blogs, it can get kind of intimidating (not to mention irritating). But prompted by the release of a new album from The Mekons (underappreciated critical darlings if ever there were), we're going to casually point you in the direction of a few acclaimed bands — all of whom are favorably rated on Metacritic and have never made it onto the Billboard charts — that we think you might enjoy. No need to thank us. Just doing our job.
5. Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt's two-man assault on the senses is uncanny. It's like watching an ant lift ten times its own weight; you marvel that so few people can create so much noise. You might write them off as gimmicky. (Their drummer wears a Mexican wrestling mask and sings gibberish through a telephone mouthpiece.) But buried in the clusterfuck of noisiness is a seriously tight group — listen about a minute into "Two Towers" to hear them groove with the precision of Count Basie's big band. It's almost trance-inducing. And though this music isn't accessible (to use a favorite critical watchword), it is really cool. Bonus trivia: bassist Brian Gibson works as an artist for Harmonix, the company responsible for the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games.
Listen: "2 Towers"
4. The Sadies
The Sadies could be considered a modern version of The Band. They're Canadians who make American-sounding "roots music," and, like The Band for Dylan, they're the preferred backing band of a notoriously erratic American, Cat Power. But that's shortselling the Sadies. They're also a profoundly talented group of musicians, marrying a country sound to an assortment of other influences, including the twang of classic surf music and the wind-swept soundtracks of '60s spaghetti westerns. The Sadies have songwriting chops to spare as well: "The Story's Often Told" is a sober Western ballad that practically sends tumbleweeds rolling across the room when you play it. The group's live albums are worth checking out as well — their impeccable musicianship is on full display with no studio trickery to hide behind.
Listen: "The Story's Often Told"
Japanther, like Lightning Bolt, are easy to write off based on superficial judgments; they're another arty two-piece; they sing through wonky, jury-rigged instruments; they're from Brooklyn. But what sets them apart from nearly every other art-school undergrad that's, like, in a band, man, is their sense of playfulness and melody. Japanther retain the wide-eyed wonder of kids in a toy store, and the joy comes across in their music. The perfect example of this is "Fuk Tha Prince A Pull Iz Dum," from 2007's awesomely titled Skuffed Up My Huffy. Though the song opens with odd sounds and weird spoken-word samples, it suddenly starts bopping along with an infectious melody, bashy drums, and cleverly timed starts and stops. It's a perfect gem of noisey garage-pop.
Listen: "Fuk Tha Prince A Pull Iz Dum"
2. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Godspeed You! Black Emperor have never made it easy to digest their music, whether it's with twenty minute-plus songs, their bizarre album titles, or the shifting placement of the exclamation point in their name. But all those criticisms disappear once you put on some headphones and sink into a song like "East Hastings" (memorably featured in 28 Days Later). Opening with a field recording of a street preacher and the keening of bagpipes, "East Hastings" is like tantric sex, or possibly "Freebird" — it takes its sweet time to build, but eventually, you're being completely overwhelmed and you love it. The band built a dedicated following thanks to songs like this and their otherwordly live shows, which often featured eerie film loops while the band's members bowed frantically at various stringed instruments like a deranged philharmonic. Finally, their dedication to an interesting presentation extends even to packaging: should you order a vinyl copy of their debut album, F# A# ∞, from their label, Constellation, you can expect to receive "a penny crushed on Montreal railroad tracks" as an insert.
Listen: "East Hastings"
1. The Mekons
Emerging during the "anything goes" time period following punk's first wave in the late '70s, The Mekons trafficked in loose, cartwheeling punk for the early part of their career. Then they dropped off the radar after 1980, emerging five years later with an album called Fear and Whiskey. By that point, they'd apparently become obsessed with Hank Williams; consequently, Fear and Whiskey is one of the earliest touchstones of what would eventually be dubbed "alt-country." If you like Wilco, listening to Fear and Whiskey is like meeting Wilco's cool uncle. Check out "Last Dance;" the guitars are firmly rock n' roll, but Suzie Honeyman's fiddle saws maniacally away in the foreground until 2:39, when the band lurches into a dancey breakdown so abruptly that you're shocked — until you listen it again. And again, and again.
Listen: "Last Dance"