It’s always a fun challenge putting together the WVRockscene Top 10 CDs at the end of the year. But in 2011, it definitely wasn’t easy.
From the many EPs that came out, to rock solid releases and stellar concept records, 2011 was packed with great music from local (and regional) bands. Since we started doing this thing here in 2008, there has not been a better year to be following West Virginia bands.
Just as a quick introduction to the hard fast rules and metrics to selecting the illustrious WVRockscene Top 10: there are no hard fast rules. Basically it’s how much I like the songs + production value divided by the number of songs. Many bands put out great EPs this year, but more songs = more chance of something being a “great record” or something like that.
And production -- having help in the studio is always a plus. But then there’s killer garage/punk rock stuff and more lo-fi type recordings that, as long as the songs rock, might come in ahead of overproduced type stuff. ‘Nuff said there.
One big thing I’ve noticed with this year’s batch of releases is the almost gravitational pull of great regional releases into the West Virginia rock scene.
Some Morgantown area dudes might move to Pittsburgh, and still either play shows here or have some stamp or influence on “the scene” or whatever. Then there’s nearby cities, like, say, Athens, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky. But, as long as a particular band, be it from Pittsburgh, Lexington, or Athens, plays a few West Virginia shows in a year, in addition to having state residents or natives in the band, they should be included in the top 10, right? I think so.
Another thing that’s been entirely promising to witness is bands getting their music out on bandcamp sites. There were all kinds of cool EPs that came out in 2011. Up in Morgantown, Brian Spragg’s bands (Pat Pat/Single Dads) released four EPs, two apiece from each respective unit, this, in addition to his work as an engineer, helping other cool bands record. It’s a challenge just to keep up with all the music being released, and I personally would rather hear short EPs once or twice a year than wait two years for a band to get a full-length out.
And again, this is more a “my own favorite releases” top 10. Some listeners and fans might disagree and that’s cool. More than a competition, this is more a celebration of the great bands that got their music out this year.
So without further ado...
10. Sasha Colette and the Magnolias: Leave It Alone
The young Eastern Kentucky songstress brought her Magnolias into Bud Carroll’s Trackside Studio, had him join in on guitar and pedal steel, and walked out with eight songs worth of rockin’, bluesy folk and Americana. Longtime fans of Colette’s sweet, soulful voice, catchy, alternately poetic and lovelorn bar ballads were rightfully stoked to get this back around April, and likely weren’t let down.
Although only eight songs, with standout tracks like “Sacrifice,” “Rock of Ages,” “Victory,” and the most awesome “Mercy Moment,” evoking a Janis Joplin-Led Zeppelin combination with Carroll on guitar, Leave It Alone rightfully takes its place in the top 10, and Colette fans can look forward to the follow-up in January of 2012.
Related: Sasha Colette can’t ‘Leave It Alone’ (Feb. Gazette article)
9. Prison Book Club (self-titled)
Prison Book Club is a band that never got the memo that said side projects are to be relegated to second-tier status. And this is saying something considering that The Fox Hunt’s John Miller and The Demon Beat’s Adam Meisterhans and Tucker Riggleman, with Andrew Ford on drums and Morgantown’s Billy Matheny sitting in on this sophomore effort, continue to make fans by steady touring of their own.
With a more southern rock and alt-country flavor than what you’ll hear from The Fox Hunt or The Demon Beat, on this 10-song August release, with Miller’s instantly recognizable country tough voice, still sharing the singing and songwriting with Riggleman and with Meisterhans’ guitar (and studio) work, Prison Book Club both expanded their own sound and continued to prove that side bands don’t always suck.
Standout tracks: “Do As I Say,” “Too Much Livin’,” “Six Pack,” “Sons of Heaven,” “Coming Down”
Related: Dave Mistich’s live PBC review from June, and his review of the new Prison Book Club CD from Graffiti Magazine
8. J. Marinelli: Stone-Age Kicks Vol. 3
If you missed the first two volumes of the Morgantown native’s (not always) angry one-man band’s cover series, you can jump right in and fall in love with his own versions of the Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk,” Guided by Voices’ “The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” and my own favorite, “And Then He Kissed Me.”
Just as the Ramones covered so many songs and made them their own, Marinelli, on the Stone Age Kicks series, takes his favorites, puts his own sonic stamp on them and simultaneously turns his fans onto bands they might not have been into. Two of my favorite songs on the release, “Virginia Plain” (Roxy Music) and “Flying Pizza” (Swearing at Motorists) are good examples of this for me.
As Marinelli has followed up on 2007’s Keep It Fake and last year’s most awesome Pre-Emptive Skankery Sessions, he’s broadened his own sonic palette from caveman guitar and maximum stomp and swing with banjo, stripped down vocals and just a softer side overall, still keeping things weird. It’s been ages it seems since I bought his Pity the Party EP at Budget, and I’d like to think Marinelli fans can look forward to his own version of The Emergency’s “I’m Not Angry” on volume four.
Is it wrong to have a CD of cover songs in the top 10? If it’s wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.
7. Rozwell Kid: The Rozwell Kid LP
I can honestly say here that if you liked Jude Universer’s 2009 release Lingering Blue, you’ll love Jordan Hudkins’ now renamed project Rozwell Kid. The Demon Beat’s drummer again steps out to front his own rock band, and this time, with The Demon Beat’s Adam Meisterhans providing lead guitar parts, The Rozwell Kid LP takes you back to your own personal Weezer-Rentals hybrid band.
It really is 1994-ever on this 10-song (complete with a totally 90’s hidden track) effort of raw, catchy, almost always hilarious power pop slacker anthems. And remember: if it’s too loud, turn it down.
Standout tracks: “Rocket,” “Dylan, Don’t Do It,” “My Saturn,” “‘93 Connie & Ronnie,” “Ace Ventura Pt. 3”
6. AC30 (self-titled)
Two years in the making, one Monday at a time, this Huntington power-pop super group met at Bud Carroll’s Trackside Studio, and this September released their 10-song debut, the result of all that work, to awaiting fans.
What was originally a studio project slowly congealed into a live band, as Carroll joined forces with Ian Thornton and Ryan Weaver and welcomed drummer Alex McCoy and guitarist Doug Woodard into the band. Sharing the singing and songwriting on songs like Weaver’s “I’m Free,” Carroll’s “Miss Misery,” and Thornton’s “Sure To Win,” AC30 proved that the best things come to those who wait.
Related: Hanging out and jamming with friends became a regular thing for AC30 (July Herald-Dispatch article), AC30 gets CD release party, columnist’s full attention (Sept. H-D article by Dave Lavender)
5. FOX Japan: Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
The fourth studio release from the brothers Wilmoth and Andrew Slater (“Slater-Wilmoth”) is at once more welcoming, appealing and catchy as a follow-up to last year’s Reenactment, almost making that great record seem almost lo-fi compared to the rich, near-orchestral arrangements on this 12-song November release.
Singer-guitarist Charlie Wilmoth’s irreverent, insightful lyrics, on subjects ranging from the personal/religious to the cultural/political, (just take the first three songs, “Casual Sex,” “On Christmas,” and “Not My Car,” the subtly disguised title track, as fine examples) make FOX Japan one of my favorite bands. Think Talking Heads-meets-The Pixies and you’re kind of close. Released just in time for Christmas, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! has the warm feel of something you’d rock out for the holiday season. Or, any season.
Standout tracks: “Casual Sex,” “Above This City,” “On Christmas,” “Not My Car”
Related: WVRockscene Q&A w/Charlie Wilmoth of FOX Japan
4. The Demon Beat: Bullshit Walks
The fifth release in as many years from these three Shepherdstown dudes is arguably their best. Following up on last year’s eight-“movement” concept record 1956 with 10 songs worth of soulful, bluesy, badass garage rock, incorporating some of the more retro tones from the most recent release, (with all appropriate fuzz and feedback) Adam Meisterhans, Tucker Riggleman and Jordan Hudkins continue to embody not only rock and roll like it used to be, evoking something like The Who (Meisterhans nails Townshend’s windmill guitar live) and The Stooges but embrace a totally DIY aesthetic as well.
Recorded by Meisterhans, released on Riggleman’s Big Bullet Records label and on vinyl in conjunction with Caustic Eye, with artwork again provided by Hudkins, Bullshit Walks only builds on and adds to the band’s impressive discography, and further cements the band as West Virginia’s hardest workers and hardest rockin’ as they are even now in the studio recording new stuff. Total rock stars that don’t seem to give a shit about being rock stars or where they end up on end-of-the-year top 10 type blog posts.
Standout tracks: “Give Me All Your Money,” “Get It,” “Bang,” “Totally Blissed Out,” “I’m Not Really There”
3. Southeast Engine: Canary
Calling Canary, the fourth Misra Records release from the Athens, Ohio-based folk rock four-piece Southeast Engine “rustic” is close, but almost a disservice. Singer-guitarist Adam Remnant, with brother Jesse on bass, drummer Leo DeLuca and oh-by-the-way Morgantown’s Billy Matheny on piano and organ, capture the feel and paint a picture of life in Depression-era Appalachia over 11 “rustic” yet rockin’ songs.
Songs like “Cold Front Blues,” “1933 (The Great Depression),” and the beautiful “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” and Canary as a whole remind me of Wilco’s Being There in that it’s deliberately roots-oriented, mainly acoustic-based with great melodies, but not at all minimalist, and is a great concept record to boot without some contrived feel. One of the best records I heard all year.
Related: Southeast Engine w/Todd Burge on Mountain Stage 11.24
2. The Phantom Six: Plastic Rain
Since one band (AC30) in the top 10 is named after a Vox amplifier, it’s fitting that The Phantom Six takes its name from a 60’s-era Vox guitar. Formerly known as Moon, Mark Poole’s Morgantown-based power pop five-piece starts fresh on this 13-song effort that, if nothing else, helps them make a new name for themselves.
With Poole joined by talented musicians and songwriters like Billy Sheeder, Woody O’ Hara and Clint Sutton, not to mention Billy Matheny, making this, his third appearance on a band’s CD in this year’s top 10, playing bass and providing sweet vocal harmonies, Poole’s songs stand out as evoking something like Matthew Sweet jamming in some awesome garage band with British Invasion nods here and there, singing mainly songs about love. Poole, describing The Phantom Six’s musical output in one interview as “catchy songs that rock pretty hard,” sums it up best for those unfamiliar with the band.
Not only has Poole been fronting various incarnations of Moon for over twenty years, Poole no doubt helped steer The Phantom Six through his own Zone 8 Studios. As great as the richly arranged songs are, and they’re all pretty much standout tracks, the production captures an energy and a raw feel that helps make Plastic Rain arguably the best record of the year from a West Virginia rock band.
Related: CD review: “Plastic Rain”
1. Dream The Electric Sleep: Lost and Gone Forever
They say the best things in life are free, and such was the case in March when I was clued into the free download that Lexington, Kentucky’s Dream the Electric Sleep had made available.
Some bands are around for years and years, and don’t come up with such a coherent vision for a concept record. That DTES did this as their debut effort, only a year after singer-guitarist Matt Page and drummer Joey Waters welcomed Huntington native Chris Tackett (Chum/Hyatari) into the band is even more impressive.
To say that Lost and Gone Forever though, is epic, is almost an understatement.
Lost and Gone Forever is as much a story as it is a record. Told in three acts, Page weaves the split narrative of Clementine and Jack, an Eastern Kentucky coal miner into and over 14 songs worth of vast, stunning sonic landscapes that may bring comparisons to something like Pink Floyd, only heavier, with nods to Radiohead and Muse.
As the story, recalled originally by Clementine on her deathbed, unfolds from young love, marriage and hope into a desire to leave the danger and hard life of the coalfields, the fear of the unknown, of leaving Appalachia, and evolves into Jack’s untimely death in a mining accident, it seems on its face plainly a heart wrenching, well told tragedy. Listen to it repeatedly, even if you’re not from Appalachia and don’t know any coal miners, and you’ll find it’s really a treasure.
With samples from the documentary Harlan County, USA sprinkled throughout, through the story of Jack and Clementine, with album art that masterfully captures the very real world that Page and DTES have pulled out and shown to listeners, few concept records are so deftly woven together into such a complete, beautiful picture; sonically, lyrically, visually, and emotionally.
Reviewing CDs at the end of each year, sometimes you can catch yourself liking the more recent releases. When it became clear after hearing Lost and Gone Forever for the first time back in March or April, the scope of what Dream the Electric Sleep had done, I knew it wasn’t likely just going to be number one on my list, it was one of the best records I had ever heard.
It’s appropriate that they gave away something so sublime for free.
Related: Drama, tragedy, love, life and death: Dream the Electric Sleep brings new concept record to V Club Saturday (4.8.11 DTES H-D article), Q&A w/Matt Page of DTES “Lost and Gone Forever” dissected aptly at danteprog.com