Wednesday, December 28, 2011

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best ROCK Of The Year


- The state of rock n' roll in 2011 can, sadly, be summed up by what's been happening to the legendary KROQ here in Los Angeles. When I first moved to LA, one of the things that I immediately loved about the city was that I had a great rock radio station to listen to, something I'd been lacking since my days in Boston. I discovered a lot of great music and a lot of great bands by listening to KROQ. And sure, the station tended to become overly trendy - overplaying whatever rock fad was hot in a given year. But hey, at least hey played new music. In 2011, tune into KROQ at any given moment and you're much more likely to hear a 90's-era song from Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or the Chili Peppers than anything new. It's 2011 - I love 90's rock, but it's now, officially, classic rock, and there are other stations for that. Now, it's a rarity to find new music on the station. Sadly, LA is probably lucky at this point to have a couple of stations that play any sort of new rock music (and in LA's defense, a couple of scrappier stations have risen up to try to fill the void now left by KROQ). In many places in the country, however, new rock is totally absent from the airwaves. And man, that sucks.

This means that in order to find the good stuff, you have to seek it out. And when you seek it out, you run into platforms like iTunes that filter content and only promote a limited number of bands. Take a look at the iTunes rock charts - bands like Journey and Bon Jovi top the Top 100, and nary a new rock song ranks highly. Things get even more bleak when you look at the general music Top 100, where rock is a minimal presence these days.

So why do we no longer seem to want to rock? I don't know, it sort of baffles me. I see my peers into the likes of Adele and Coldplay and I wonder ... what happened? Did Gen Y just mellow out to the point of being lamer than our Baby Boomer parents? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with, say, Adele - she seems uber-talented and I give her credit, she's an original. But I also see her popularity as a sign of the times ... a time where, sadly, we're a country of Adele-loving, American Idol-watching, Dancing With the Stars-obsessed wimps. Has America forgotten how to rock and/or roll?

Maybe it's the lack of new music on KROQ, or maybe it's the fact that Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to have faded out of the mainstream, replaced by the likes of Dance Central and Just Dance in the world of party games. Maybe it's the fact that Steven Tyler is hosting Idol even as it's been almost a decade since Aerosmith put out a new album, or that Nickelback is somehow a top rock act. Maybe it's that The White Stripes broke up way too soon or that R.E.M. called it quits and didn't get the mainstream accolades they deserved. But something is in the air. "The End of the World as We Know It" ...? Still, despite the doom and gloom, there were, of course, plenty of reasons to feel fine.

For one thing, the void in rock discoverability was partly filled by shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon - where not only are The Roots the house band, but all manner of new and legendary rock acts found a place to play. Other late night shows - from Letterman to Conan to SNL, seemingly sensed the void as well, and jumped to fill in the gap. Some of the best moments I saw in rock this year were on late night TV - from Foster the People tearing the house down on SNL, to the Foo Fighters and Joan Jett tag-teaming on "Bad Reputation" on Letterman. For another, new music services like Spotify have risen up to help the music fans find the good stuff. While the initial wave of uber-annoying Facebook updates about what people were listening to helped to turn me off from the service for a bit, Spotify is definitely on my list of things to explore in 2012.

As for me, 2011 was a year where I was lucky to attend a couple of awesome live shows. In February, I saw Ozzy Osbourne live in concert for the first time ever. Lucky for us, the gods of rock smiled down on the Prince of Darkness that night, and infused Ozzy with moments where he seemed to be channeling his younger self. Seeing the Ozzman, backed by an awesome band, play his legendary tunes was a night I'll always remember. Not to mention, the opener was the legendary Slash, with singer Myles Kennedy. The two rocked the house, playing a mix of excellent new songs and classic GnR rockers. In March, I saw the 80's-rock-themed musical Rock of Ages live at the Pantages theater in Hollywood - my first visit there. It was a great time, and I couldn't help but get caught up in the nonstop barrage of 80's mash-ups and classic power ballads. In April, I visited Seattle for the first time ever, on a work trip. But while there, I got to visit the Museum of Pop Culture, where an awesome exhibit on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana was on display. Even though I was in the city for work, in a way, my trip to the birthplace of Grunge felt like a pilgrimage years in the making. Then, in the Summer, my friends and I once again visited the OC Fair-grounds, where for the second time, we saw the man, the myth, the legend - "Weird" Al Yankovic, in concert. Al once again put on an amazing show that had fans young and old singing along to Al's hilarious parodies and original jams. I've had "CNR" (Charles Nelson Reilly) in my head ever since. Then, in September, my brother and I saw two legendary bands in a double-bill at Universal's Gibson amphitheater - Def Leppard and Heart. I had seen Def Leppard before, and once again, they were a ton of fun. But man, Heart was the real surprise - the first ladies of rock n' roll were in top form - blowing the audience away with soul-rattling renditions of their top songs. Finally, I was fortunate enough to snag a pair of free, VIP tickets to see none other than Cheap Trick at the famous Greek Theater. I got myself to the Greek and enjoyed up-close seats to see the classic rockers rip through one song after another as part of their Dream Police tour - backed, no less, by a full orchestra. Epic barely describes it. So yeah, all that stuff I said before about rock n' roll fading away? After thinking back to all of the great music I saw in 2011, I'm tempted to take that back, and declare that rock is very much alive and kicking.

As for new music released this past year, well, the album of the year for me was - similar to last year - a return-to-form tour de force from a legendary classic rocker. This year, that rocker was ALICE COOPER, and the album was WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, a sequel of sorts to the 70's album that first declared Cooper as the fearsome king of shock-rock. Last year, I saw Cooper live for the first time, and after that I really began studying up on his history and back catalogue of lesser-known records. It was fascinating to see how the band had evolved over the years - at various periods, they dabbled in Frank Zappa-esque weirdness, New Wave, and hair-metal. But to me, it was fitting that in 2011, the same year that the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, Cooper released probably his best album in years - appropriately enough, a wildly eclectic mix of styles. Welcome 2 My Nightmare has classic rockers, dark symphonic ballads, Vaudevillian-novelty songs, and even a pop-rock mash-up with Ke$ha. And yet somehow, it works, and plays as an awesome medley of ghoulish music to get down to.

Otherwise, there were definitely a number of tracks from more modern rockers that grabbed me. I thought the Foo Fighters put out one of their best-ever albums this year. Rise Against had a pretty strong album with a couple of great songs on it. The Black Keys had another excellent showing as well. A couple of new groups like Grouplove and Foster the People struck it big out of the gate, and had some of the year's most instantly-catchy rock songs ... we'll see if these guys stick around. I'll also give a shout-out to some of the great music that came from the movies this year. From Karen O's searing cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to the pulsating, 80's-style soundtrack of Drive, a lot of my favorite movies this year were made all the more awesome by being not just great films, but rock n' roll films.

Sadly, as mentioned, 2011 also marked the end (or so it seems) of one of my favorite bands of the last decade, The White Stripes. This to me was sort of a tragedy, because all indications were that the band was still at the top of their game, and had years if not decades of great music still to come. Jack White is clearly not going to just retire or go away or anything, but to me, none of his side projects have ever enjoyed quite the same alchemy as he and bandmate Meg had. Maybe the Stripes will reunite someday, but man, their absence leaves a huge, potentially irreplaceable void in the modern rock scene.

Speaking of which, 2011 also marked the breakup of one of the great modern rock bands, R.E.M. Like just about anyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's and was plugged in to MTV at that time, R.E.M. was a huge, huge influence on me. I still remember buying the single to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" and just playing it over and over on my tape-deck back in the day. R.E.M. was, for me, the soundtrack of the transition from kid to teen, from innocence to angst (not to sound melodramatic or anything, but let's face it - is there any more defining moment of 90's pre-teen/teen angst than Angela from "My So-Called Life" walking through the street as "Everybody Hurts" plays?"). Sure, the band seemed to fade from relevance a bit as the years went on, but for me, albums like "Green," "Out of Time," "Automatic For the People," "Monster," and "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" are all undisputed classics that stand the test of time. I'm glad that the band was able to put out a very solid final album in 2011. While I didn't love the album as a whole, there were one or two songs that felt like classic R.E.M. - my favorite of which, "Discoverer," was a rockin' rallying cry that was vintage R.E.M.

So yes, despite some of the grim overtones in my intro, I do think that there are signs of life yet in the world of rock, and I have a lot of hope for what's to come in 2012. Already, I'm psyched that one of my favorite bands of the last several years - The Darkness - has reunited, is touring, and has a new album in the works. I've got my tickets to see them in LA in February. And who knows what else is to come in the new year. All I know is, may 2012 be a year of rock n' roll rebirth!


1.) "Walk" - Foo Fighters

- I think I first heard this song over the closing credits of the movie Thor. I remember thinking, "okay, this is an instant-classic." To me, this is one of the Foo's best songs in years - a catchy yet emotionally-charged ballad that might just be their best since the days of Everlong.

2. ) "I'll Bite Your Face Off" - Alice Cooper

- I love this song - it's twisted, funny, and yet has the sound of a classic rock relic in the style of The Rolling Stones. The song lulls you into thinking it's a typical love-story, with the twist being that the object of Cooper's affection is actually one of the living dead - a ravenous woman who wants nothing more than to, well, bite his face off!

3.) "Discoverer" - R.E.M.

- I've always liked R.E.M.'s more upbeat rock tracks, and this one spoke to me with its rallying-cry call and piercing vocals by the great Michael Stipe. This was one final great rock song from one of the all-time great bands.

4.) "A Real Hero" - Drive soundtrack - College feat. Electric Youth

- As soon as I heard this song in Drive, I knew I had to buy the soundtrack. Ultra-moody, the song's pulsating 80's beat perfectly captures the feeling of driving at night in a neon-lit cityscape, and also evokes the movie's themes of a lone-wolf hero struggling with his own humanity. Music to drive to, to be sure.

5.) "Help Is On the Way" - Rise Against

- I said this a while back, but I'll say it again - this song would be perfect to accompany the new Superman movie trailer. It's a rousing rocker from Rise Against, who can't help but make each of their songs a tale of epic proportions.

6.) "Lonely Boy" - The Black Keys

- The Black Keys are the current standard-bearers for stripped-down funk-rock, and this is another great jam from them, perfect to boogie down to. Great guitars and a cool vibe make this another great one from the Keys.

7.) "What Baby Wants" - Alice Cooper feat. Ke$ha

- It shouldn't work, but it does - the original Shock Rocker teamed with the current queen of ironically-detached pop-princess sleaze. But the interplay between old and new makes for a funny and super-catchy collaboration, with Ke$ha becoming the object of Cooper's been-there, done-her disdain.

8.) "Make It Stop (September's Children)" - Rise Against

- Another epic from Rise Against, this melodramatic fist-pumper is just a soaring, sweeping power ballad that gets your heart pumping. In an age where so much rock is stripped-down, I love that Rise Against always goes big and bombastic.

9.) "Colours" - Grouplove

- Here's a catchy, fun tune that took a little of the pain away from the White Stripes break-up, as it's a Stripes-esque garage rocker that gets in your head and doesn't go away, with clever wordplay to boot. Very curious to see where the group goes from here.

10.) "Pumped-Up Kicks" - Foster The People

- The surprise pop-rock anthem of the year, this song seems upbeat at first, but it's actually a pretty dark song about schoolyard violence. In any case, what sold me on it was the band's rockin' performance earlier this year on SNL, where I saw that, perhaps, Foster the People might be the real deal.

And that's it for 2011. What were your favorite songs of the year? Let me know, and as always: for those about to rock, I salute you!

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