Confessions of a Bon Iver Hater

The old cliché about music is that it brings people together. It’s a unifying force in our lives, something we can often discuss with people we have little else in common with. However, I sometimes find that music is just the opposite for me. A lot of the time, music is alienating: It’s the band you love that nobody else seems to know or the band you hate that everyone else seems to love. Both seem to happen to me all the time.

In 2011, no artist represented that idea more than Bon Iver. The band, led by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, released their self-titled second album this year to rave reviews from the music press and fans, topping many year end music lists in the process. He was the subject of countless magazine covers and articles, Facebook posts, and was even nominated for the Grammy for best album, signifying his breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness. Living in St. Paul, which is right in the heart of Vernon’s midwest stomping grounds, it seems like everyone loves Bon Iver.

Except for me, of course. In the months since his last album came out, I’ve been carrying around a horrible secret:  I kind of hate Bon Iver. I haven’t told anyone because I’ve been afraid of possible retribution (Bon Iver’s fans are an intimidating bunch) and, in general, it’s hard to tell someone that you think one of their favorite artists sucks. Especially when it seems to be the favorite artist of  half the campus where you spend most of your time.

It wasn’t always this way. Bon Iver’s first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t my cup of tea, but I at least respected what went into it. The story of Vernon secluding into a cabin after having his heart broken and just writing music in isolation appealed to me, even if it was a tad corny. I didn’t like it, but I saw the appeal because it came from such an honest, genuine place.

I can’t say the same for his self-titled second album, which has baffled and frustrated me pretty much all year. It’s a long way from the spare, “cabin” arrangements of his first album, instead opting to bury his voice under layers and layers of glossy 80’s style sheen. For the most part, you can barely understand what Vernon is singing about through the album. This works for me if you’re a musical genius like Kevin Shields or Radiohead; it doesn’t when your album sounds like it was produced on a synthesizer made in 1983.

Most of all though, though, Bon Iver is just so… dull. Nothing about it grabs my attention. This is incredibly subjective, of course, because different things are interesting to different people. But I have an incredibly hard time picturing anyone getting pumped up to listen to Bon Iver. The same could be said about a lot of folk music, but at least most folk singers have concrete lyrics that I can grab on to so there’s an actual meaning to their songs. Any emotional connection I could make to Bon Iver was typically buried under a synthesizer, a guitar, a saxophone solo, autotune, and the washed-out production.

It’s rare that I outright dislike an album that is so widely acclaimed, so I thought a lot this year about why I had such an intensely negative reaction to Bon Iver. For awhile, I looked at it as sort of a character flaw. Maybe I’m just biased against Vernon and his bearded white male folky brethren, or just wanted to hate the album because it was popular. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand the album’s complexity, similar to how I don’t get Animal Collective.

These are all still valid possibilities, but I also think Bon Iver just lacks pretty much everything I look for in music. To illustrate this point, and to try to figure out why I hated this damn album so much, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to my favorite albums of this year.

At the very top is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which is probably the most sensible comparison to Bon Iver. These are the two most acclaimed albums of the year and both are primarily folk-influenced. Both have been called boring by a lot of people, yet I found Let England Shake incredibly powerful and moving while finding Bon Iver tedious. It’s really in the conception where PJ blows Bon Iver out of the water: She made a searing portrait of war in her homeland.  Bon Iver made… what exactly? Another folk album where a white guy sings about how sad he is?  Where Bon Iver’s lyrics were either cliche or impossible to understand, PJ’s grabbed me and jolted me and had a visceral impact. Let England Shake was my favorite album this year because of its ambition and literary depth.  Bon Iver had neither of those things.

That might have been an unfair comparison, since Let England Shake is an amazing album by one of my favorite artists. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be EMA, whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints was third on my list and was also somewhat folk-influenced. I don’t think any song this year jolted me and made me say “who the hell is this?” the way EMA’s “California” did when I first heard it. It was raw, bold, and confrontational, lyrically and musically. It pulled no punches, which is something I really love in music.

Bon Iver is a far cry from that idea. To say Bon Iver pulls punches would be an understatement. It doesn’t even punch at all. It just kind of sits there. There is no attempt at standing out, no hint of challenging listeners, none of the sense of emotional catharsis that I thought Past Life Martyred Saints had. It has absolutely no boldness or originality. It’s just another in a long line of indie folk albums, the type that we hear seemingly thousands of every single year.

In the end, I’m left wondering what it says about the state of indie music today that something like Bon Iver is so widely adored. Is this really what we want from music? Is this what we’re willing to accept from artists? I don’t doubt that for many people the album had a profound emotional impact. Personally, I expect more. I want music that challenges me, excites me, is bold and original. In other words, I don’t want Bon Iver.

Favorite Albums of 2011

At this point, most sites and magazines are releasing their 2011 music lists (even though there’s still some time left) so I figured I’d join in the party.  Rather than over-analyze which albums are “important” my list is basically the albums I listened to the most and felt the strongest about.  I think, based on previous posts, the stuff I like is pretty clear.  First and foremost, I enjoy albums that at least try to accomplish something unique and have some sort of ambition, and I felt like 2011 had a good supply of those.

The list, unsurprisingly, is also quite female-heavy.  Admittedly, this is largely due to my bias towards female singers and those are the types of artists seek out and listen to the most. But let it be known that I did listen to many of the acclaimed albums released by male singers, and I found most of them oppressively dull.  The shift in the last few years away from guitar rock and into folk, bedroom pop, and other genres largely populated by bearded wan guys has done nothing but reinforce my female-biased perspective.

So, in 2011 particularly, I felt that female artists gave music something it was missing in most aspects.  If you have a problem with it, make your own list, or just yell at me in the comments or on Facebook.  I’ll be happy to argue with you.

10. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

I don’t think any album this year was as pleasant of a surprise to me as Last Summer, the solo debut of the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.  I’ve only been a casual fan of the Furnaces (particularly their zany 2004 epic Blueberry Boat), but at times their overstuffed, wildly imaginative music could become frustrating to listen to.  Last Summer solves most of those flaws, building songs around simple instrumental configurations, with an emphasis on bass, piano, and occasionally saxophone.  What really elevates the album beyond the typical indie pop fare is Friedberger’s idiosyncratic charm as a vocalist and lyricist, which helps it strike the perfect balance between accessibility and experimentation.  High points like “My Mistakes” and “Roosevelt Island” are beautiful, nostalgic pieces of summery pop and prove that Eleanor is capable of succeeding just fine without her brother.

9. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

It’s a good thing Radiohead released The King of Limbs in February.  After purchasing it in advance with massive expectations, I was incredibly let down by my first two listens and frustrated by the lack of guitar, the mere eight songs, and its general obliqueness.  Of course, like most Radiohead albums, King of Limbs is a grower, and after revisiting it a few months later I began to appreciate the underrated rhythm section’s contributions to the album, plus the back half which has some of the band’s most beautiful work to date like “Codex” and “Give up the Ghost.”  While The King of Limbs may not be an essential, ambitious Radiohead album like Kid A or OK Computer, it’s still a Radiohead album, and it shows the band settling into a comfortable groove rather than trying to change the world.

8. Widowspeak – Widowspeak

First thing’s first: Yes, Widowspeak singer Molly Hamilton sounds a lot like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.  Despite that obvious influence, the band is able to bring something unique to the table, combining Mazzy Star’s hazy aesthetic with the sounds of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.  What’s most impressive is how well-crafted and self-assured the band’s songs are on their debut album, full of catchy melodies and memorable guitar riffs like on the knockout track “Gun Shy.”  Widowspeak is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s one of the most fully-formed albums of the year and one that I found myself listening to repeatedly.

7. Yuck – Yuck

Much like Widowspeak, Yuck has obvious 90’s influences: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine among them.  Those are some of my favorite bands, so the group of age 20ish youngsters had big shoes to fill, and for the first couple listens I couldn’t help but be annoyed as they pillaged basically every element from those bands in creating their sound. What separates Yuck from the rest of the bands that knock off these indie rock heroes is that their music never feels cynical or calculated.  Rather, it’s the sound of young people playing the kind of music they like to listen to (and doing it quite well to boot, such as on noisy, melodic guitar tracks like “Get Away” and “Holing Out” and the sweet male/female “Georgia”). Besides, is sounding kind of like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth really a bad thing?

6. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

This is another album I wasn’t expecting to like, probably because of the silly band name and the lead singer’s growling, roaring vocals. Most of the time I’d lament what could have been had the band picked a cool female singer instead of a questionably talented guy, but it’s hard to imagine another singer capturing Fucked Up’s anarchic spirit.  David Comes to Life is an 18 track, 77 minute rock opera, clearly indebted to the ambitious punk albums of bands like Husker Du.  Like most concept albums, the storyline isn’t anything special and the album is fairly monochromatic and arguably about 25 minutes too long, but it’s also full of some of the most exciting rock music of the year with one fist-pumping anthem after another and many layers of arena-ready guitar.  David Comes to Life filled a void for me in 2011 as an ambitious, epic rock album.

5. Björk – Biophilia

In typical Björk fashion, most of the build-up to Biophilia focused on everything but the music. People talked about the made-up instruments, the iPad apps, and all of its other multimedia connections.  Perhaps that’s why critics were surprised at Biophilia‘s sparse sonic landscapes and immediately complained about the lack of “songs” on the album.  (Could there be a lazier criticism of music?)  In the end, it seems like critics didn’t really grasp what Björk was doing: For example, many complained that a song called “Dark Matter” was too formless and lacked pop hooks (see what she did there?). Every song on Biophilia  ties into science and nature in a clever, uniquely Björky way, like the quirky love song “Virus” which compares lovers to being a “host”  or “Mutual Core” which begins contemplatively before exploding into noise and beats.  Biophilia is unlikely to convert any non-believers, but it’s a completely unique album full of wonder and awe at the natural world.  And there’s songs too, if you give it some time.

4. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Fully entrenched in her status as an indie goddess, Annie Clark easily could have settled into a zone and kept making quirky, whimsical pop songs like on her second album Actor. Fortunately she didn’t, and Strange Mercy represents a quantum leap forward for her as an artist.  Her music retains its quirks and charms, but Strange Mercy is more aggressive and strange than any of her previous work, from the ominous “Surgeon” to the creepy-but-catchy “Cruel” (with its disturbingly funny music video).  It also has some of her most personal songs (particularly “Cheerleader”) and she allows her guitar skills to be at the forefront far more than she has previously.  Strange Mercy is another step forward for St. Vincent, who has staked a claim as one of the most unique and interesting artists in music today.

3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns, put a lifetime’s worth of pain and anguish into her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints, and we’re all better off for it.  EMA not only establishes herself as a fearless singer-songwriter on Past Life Martyred Saints, but also a unique one, as she channels her emotions into a pair of epic folk-noise suites (“The Grey Ship” and “Red Star”) which bookend the album.  In the middle is some of the most cathartic, raw music of 2011, including the apocalyptic, Kim Gordon-meets-Patti Smith tale of alienation “California” and the horrifying “Butterfly Knife” which is about body mutilation.  All of it is held together by EMA’s strong, versatile singing voice and guitar playing.  Past Life Martyred Saints might be too much gloom for some people to take, but for me it was one of the most powerful albums of 2011 and an astonishing debut.

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

All-female supergroup Wild Flag were burdened with massive expectations for their debut album. The band, consisting of Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders were simultaneously supposed to be saviors for women in rock and appeal to die-hard Sleater-Kinney fans who had waited for 6 years since their final album The Woods.  While saving rock music may be a stretch, Wild Flag is able to move beyond the supergroup label and sound like a legitimate band, one with skilled members who know their way around a great rock song.  More than anything else, Wild Flag is just plain fun, which can be refreshing in this era of self-serious navel-gazing.  And with songs like “Romance” the band celebrates the joy of rock music while simultaneously sharing it with starving Sleater-Kinney fans.

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There’s not much left for me to say about PJ Harvey at this point.  Her 10th album marked yet another departure in a career that has been full of them, presenting a study of her homeland of England and how it has been affected by war through time.  Let England Shake unfolds like a great World War I memoir as Harvey acts as a narrator through some of the country’s greatest atrocities, singing about the inevitable sense of war with a grim sense of resignation rather than shrill protests.  In many ways, Let England Shake is a culmination of PJ Harvey’s 20 year career:  It has the visceral, occasionally gory lyrics of Rid of Me, the higher-register singing of White Chalk, and the beauty and sense of place of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.  While this version of PJ Harvey may be quieter, her songs still hit with incredible weight emotionally, and it’s arguably her best work lyrically (I got chills reading the lyrics after I bought my copy of it).  Let England Shake is catchy, horrifying, and beautiful, often at the same time, and it stands tall above any other album this year for me.  It’s my favorite album of this year, the last few years, and probably the next few.

St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

One of my favorite things in music is to hear a talented artist that finally puts the pieces together and begins to live up to their potential. On her forthcoming album “Strange Mercy”, which is currently streaming on NPR, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) does just that, and in the process asserts herself as one of the top artists in music today.

Clark’s 2009 album, “Actor”, was one of my favorites of the last few years, and it established Clark as a unique voice and talent.  Yet, it was abundantly clear that the artist behind it was capable of doing a lot better.  For one thing, despite proving on stage that she is a tremendous guitar player, “Actor” was curiously devoid of many great guitar songs, with Clark instead focusing on disney-type strings that were only occasionally punctuated by noisy guitar blasts.  The songs were well crafted and enjoyable, but also frustratingly coy and conventional for someone that could be capable of rocking souls.

My desire for St. Vincent to embrace her inner rock goddess only intensified a few weeks ago, when she did an earsplitting cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the This Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom.  Rather than do a quirky, “unique” cover of the song, Clark instead opted to embrace Big Black singer Steve Albini’s misanthropic rage, and, while some may think it came off as phony, I thought she did a pretty admirable job on a song that seems really difficult to truly replicate.  It was the exact kind of thing I had been hoping to hear on “Strange Mercy.”

I am happy to report, then, that “Strange Mercy” fulfills what I wanted it to be, and I think it’s one of the best albums of the year.  In every way, I think it’s a quantum leap over “Actor” (which, again, I liked a lot).  Clark’s voice continues to develop, as she’s able to convey more emotion and sound less detached from her dense arrangements.  The lyrics are better too — still sinister like they were on “Actor”, but decidedly more personal.

Most of all though, “Strange Mercy” is weirder than “Actor”, and it’s much better off for it.  Clark continues to use strings, but rather than be the focus, they’re more of a complement to her guitar playing, which finally begins to shine on this album.  There’s funk undercurrents, like the synth solo at the end of “Surgeon”, which is one of the album’s surreal highlights.  All of the bizarre touches on “Actor” are ramped up here, and while it may drive some listeners that appreciated her poppy side (like on her first album “Marry Me”) away, I think it makes her music far more compelling.

Not that “Strange Mercy” doesn’t have its pop moments.  Lead single “Cruel” is one of the best songs of the year so far, and it showcases Clark’s unique ability to turn all of the sounds and influences into an accessible rock song.  While there are layers of strings and woodwinds, Clark’s guitar shines through with the repeated twangy riff and a couple solos in the middle and end.  It’s also one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time, as Clark gets literally buried by all of her domestic duties after getting kidnapped by her family.

On “Cheerleader”, maybe the most personal song Clark has ever written, she sings “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.”  That chorus, which explodes after the more delicate verses, is one of the best moments on the album, and in a truly hacky piece of music criticism, I decided that this was more than just a song about trying to stop being a pushover:  It was Clark rejecting the idea of being an indie pop princess.  Many had pegged “Strange Mercy” as a commercial breakthrough for her — and it still very well could be — but I think this music is far too weird, psychedelic, and sinister to be showing up the next iPod commercial.

My other favorite song is probably “Northern Lights”, which is the guitar song I’ve been waiting for from St. Vincent.  It’s pretty much pure noisy rock more in the vein of the Pixies or Breeders, with some roaring guitar solos and a constant build up to the end.  I think Clark could still use to sing more forcefully at times, and this one of the moments on the album where she approaches that idea more, particularly towards the end when she begins to sound more hysterical.

As good as “Strange Mercy” is, I think there’s still room for improvement for St. Vincent.  But this album proves that she’s someone who is going to follow her own muse and evolve musically, which is the most important thing to me.   Her ability to put that ambition into well crafted rock songs is a large part of what makes “Strange Mercy” one of the best, most exciting records of 2011 in my book.

Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.

Life Without Buildings

Listening to Life Without Buildings for the first time was a thoroughly confusing experience.  On first listen, the band’s songs were hard to differentiate from one another and seemed like they were all over the place.  I also thought the singer might be mentally challenged and had no clue what she was babbling about.  Despite that, I was intrigued, so I made a mental note to revisit the band later.

So Life Without Buildings sat on my iPod, metaphorically gathering dust.  Occasionally I would scroll past them and try to remember who they were, then tell myself “oh yeah, the band with the weirdo singer” before I moved on to whatever I was going to listen to.  Then one day, I made a Facebook post about how I couldn’t get into Joanna Newsom despite my love of weirdo indie females, which reminded me of another weirdo indie female that I had forgotten about.

That weirdo singer was Sue Tompkins, a painter and sound artist from Glasgow who fronted Life Without Buildings.  Tompkins’ distinctive talk-sung vocals were the calling card of the band.  She took the ideas from her sound art and applied the to the music, basing songs around repetitive phrasing, random exclamations, and sometimes what appeared to be just plain gibberish.  In a typical Life Without Buildings song, she’ll talk-sing non-stop, jabbering and stuttering weird phrases, squealing with childish glee, and in general sounding a little bit like a toddler.

On the second listen to their lone album Any Other City, I was suddenly obsessed.  By about the fifth, I wanted to be Sue Tompkins’ best friend.  It’s now one of my favorite albums ever and I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a band since I got into Sleater-Kinney.  But, while I have an easy time explaining why Sleater-Kinney is so great, I find it a bit more difficult to articulate the brilliance of Life Without Buildings.

I think Life Without Buildings is one of the few bands that just has a magical aura about them, and it’s mostly due to Tompkins.  While indebted to previous talk-singers like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and various female post-punkers, she has a vocal style that is unlike anything else in music due to her lyrics.  While it would be easy to write off those lyrics as the improvised workings of a crackpot, I’m convinced that there’s a deeper meaning to them.  I’m just not sure what yet, and that’s part of the band’s allure:  Every song is like a riddle that is impossible to fully crack.

Perhaps the genius of the band fully set in when I listened to their live album Live at the Annandale Hotel.  While I’m typically not a fan of live albums, this one is an essential recording of a rare performance from a short-lived band, and features Tompkins’ adorable stage banter and breathless enthusiasm.  Most shockingly of all, the live versions of the songs are near carbon copies of the ones on record, proving that there’s a real method behind Tompkins’ madness.

Lost in all this blathering about Tompkins is that the band behind her was extremely good as well.  Led by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar playing, they’re the perfect complement to Tompkins’ ramshackle vocals.  Rather than be flashy and show everyone how great they are at playing their instruments, they’re willing to take a backseat and complement Tompkins with strong rhythmic playing.

As mentioned, LWB only made one album, Any Other City.  Along with a couple songs off singles, they have 14 songs in total (along with the accompanying live versions from Live at the Annandale Hotel).  I’ve been playing the crap out of all of them, treasuring every second that the band recorded and constantly wishing there was more.  Unfortunately, the band broke up, partly because Tompkins wanted to go back to pursuing her art.

While their scant amount of material is disappointing, it’s acceptable when the quality of everything is so high.  The band mostly had one trick anyways, so it’s hard to know what they would have done after Any Other City.  On that album, they use pretty much every variation of that trick perfectly, delivering a set of songs that are more different from each other than they appear on first listen.  The first track is “PS Exclusive”, the fastest paced and most rocking song on the album which immediately asserts the genius of Tompkins, who cycles through phrases like “the right stuff” and “this is not advice” until they’re burrowed into your brain.

More than any other band, there are specific little moments in each LWB song that I absolutely love, and it’s easy to collect a list of favorite phrases from the eminently quotable Tompkins.  “Let’s Get Out” has some of her best lines, including “LOOK AROUUNDDDDD”, “look back and say that I didn’t!” and “come complete!”  The spiky instrumentation makes it possibly the most post-punk track on the album, but Tompkins’ vocals always separate LWB from the post-punk revival bands that would follow them (usually gloomy Joy Divison knockoffs).

While I love all of their songs, “The Leanover” stands out among them and is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the last decade.  It’s wordy even for LWB standards, and I love reading different interpretations of the song (one rumor is that it’s about fellatio; I prefer to think of it as being about the beginnings of a relationship in general).  It’s littered with pop culture references (M-B-V would seem to be a nod to My Bloody Valentine, Virginia Plain, etc) and more Tompkins-isms like “I don’t trade”, “contact!”, and “he’s the shaker, baby!”  The rest of the band gives it a perfect background with a more laid back, dreamy sound.

There’s numerous other highlights on the album:  The mostly spoken-word finale “Sorrow”, the jaggedy pop of “14 Days”, “Juno” with its tempo changes and ringing guitars.  I think every song is worth checking out, although the band is obviously an acquired taste:  What makes Tompkins such a genius is also what likely drives a lot of people away from the band.  Regardless, in a decade that I thought was marked by a lot of boring and unoriginal music, Life Without Buildings stood out as a unique band that had more charisma and personality than any of their peers.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Three

10.  Elastica – “Stutter” (1993)

Insulting an ex-boyfriend has long been a tradition in girl rock, but I’m not sure if any ex has been eviscerated quite as soundly as the poor bastard that got “Stutter” written about him. In a sense, that poor bastard is every male rock star who has sung about his sex appeal or getting laid: “Stutter” isn’t just a roaring, catchy britpop/punk song, but a perfectly executed take-down of masculine bro culture. Singer Justine Frischmann brings a somewhat detached sexuality to the song, even though it’s about erectile dysfunction (a topic that I can’t imagine many male singers have tackled). “Is there something you lack/when I’m flat on my back/is there something I can do for you?” she sneers in the chorus, followed by the final zinger: “Is it just that I’m much too much for you?” Ouch.

9.  The Slits – “Typical Girls” (1979)

The Slits were one of the weirdest bands in rock music history: One of the earliest female punk bands, their lead singer was a teenager with a wild, Medusa-like head of hair. They also had a growing love of African rhythms, which manifested itself on their 1979 album “Cut”, a bizarre combination of girl punk and reggae fronted by Ari Up’s quivering voice. Like most of their songs, “Typical Girls” is strange and unpredictable, veering wildly between a twinkling piano part and the reggae-influenced post-punk of the rest of the album. During all this sonic weirdness, the band recites a laundry list of things about “typical girls” — they’re confusing, they don’t think too clearly, they buy magazines, and in the end they get the typical boy. “Typical Girls” is all kinds of goofy fun, and one of the first big feminist statements in rock music.

8.  X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (1977)

In 1977, the UK punk scene was still dominated by males. Then along came Poly Styrene, one of the first frontwomen in punk history and certainly one of the most unique. She performed wearing a weird dayglo wardrobe and large dental braces, presenting herself as pretty much the opposite of whatever a female sex symbol should be. She also had a huge voice that she puts to good use on their first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” With its iconic opening lines (“some people think little girls should be seen and not heard”) and 16 year old Lora Logic’s saxophone playing, it’s a fiery and quirky punk song that is a clear precursor to pretty much any female punk band that came after. Styrene passed away in April, but her influence on this little segment of music will be felt forever.

7.  The Breeders – “Cannonball” (1993)

I’d like to just list the parts of “Cannonball” that get stuck in my head on a regular basis: the “OOOO-oooo” thing at the beginning. The bouncing bass line. The surf-poppy guitar part. The verses. The chorus. Free from the evil male tyranny of Black Francis, Kim Deal let it all loose on “Cannonball”, throwing as many hooks at the wall as she could and hoping that they’d stick. Of course, they all do, and as a result it’s one of the catchiest and most infectious songs ever. “Cannonball” may not be a feminist anthem — in fact, I have no idea what the song is even about — but you’d be hard pressed to find a song with so many ideas that are all executed so well. They don’t make them like this anymore.

6.  Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (1967)

“White Rabbit” is a revolutionary song on multiple levels: it’s a pioneering psychedelic song and one of the first examples of not-so-subtly disguised drug references making it onto the radio. I would also argue that “White Rabbit” is the first truly great female rock song, and, sure enough, it is the oldest one on this list. The “Alice in Wonderland” inspired lyrics are clever if nothing else, and point out a valid hypocrisy among parents who forbid drug use but then read a book like that to their children. But I mostly enjoy the trippy instrumentation, the way the song grows over its entire two and a half minutes, and the truly virtuosic vocal performance by Grace Slick.

5.  Sonic Youth – “Kool Thing” (1990)

“Kool Thing” apparently began as an excuse to trash LL Cool J in song form, but it ended up becoming something bigger: a bold feminist statement from one of the most respected rock bands in the world as their first major label single. Kim Gordon’s song is full of feminist punk attitude, and it’s a vicious takedown of the misogynistic rap culture (which would only get worse with time) thanks to a hilarious performance by guest vocalist Chuck D. of Public Enemy (“tell it like it is!” “word up!” “hit ’em where it hurts!”). It helps that the song also rocks like a beast, thanks to the signature noise created by guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. In a long and extremely prolific career, “Kool Thing” stands out as one of Sonic Youth’s best moments and a hugely important piece of girl rock.

4.  PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig” (1992)

22 year old singer/songwriter/genius PJ Harvey arrived fully formed in 1992 with her debut album “Dry” and its best song “Sheela-Na-Gig.” An unassuming farm girl from England, PJ was nonetheless armed with many musical weapons: a massive voice despite her tiny frame, a complete absence of fear when it came to writing lyrics, and a deep love of blues music and rock. She deploys all of them on “Sheela-Na-Gig”, an astonishing song about a woman whose body is rejected by her man (Wikipedia Sheela-Na-Gig for more information on what she’s talking about). The punk/blues/grunge sound of PJ’s early work combined with those lyrics makes “Sheela-Na-Gig” raw, intense, and a little bit discomforting. In other words, exactly what rock music should be. “Sheela-Na-Gig” is the first moment of genius in PJ Harvey’s career and one of the songs that helps cement her status as the boldest, and, for lack of a better term, ballsiest female artist of all time.

3.  Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)

What does a revolution sound like? I don’t know, but “Rebel Girl”, with its military-style drum beat, Kathleen Hanna’s fiery vocals, and that sing-along chorus has to be pretty close. Widely acknowledged as pioneers of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill gained media notoriety for their radical feminist music and, ironically, for their decision to shun the mainstream media. While I find the actual Riot Grrrl music to be hit-or-miss a lot of the time, “Rebel Girl” stands out as not only the best crafted song of the movement, but also the one that most perfectly captures what it’s all about. Riot Grrrl was frequently pigeonholed as music that was only about tearing down men (and certainly some of it was), but “Rebel Girl” is all about the positive things that women should be doing: holding their head up high and generally ignoring what other people said about them. Bikini Kill were known for their righteous fury, but “Rebel Girl” sounds like a celebration of everything that Riot Grrrl achieved.

2.  Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out” (1997)

By 1997, the Riot Grrrl movement was over and the state of girl rock was in disarray. It took Sleater-Kinney roughly six seconds of their third album “Dig Me Out” to establish themselves as the new torchbearers of girl rock, and as simply one of the best bands in the world. That’s the time it takes for Carrie Brownstein’s memorable guitar riff to play through one time and for new drummer Janet Weiss’ crashing drums to come thundering in. Then comes Corin Tucker’s monstrous firecracker of a voice, an unhinged wail that is able to make even the most basic lyrics sound like a deeply meaningful statement. “Dig Me Out” has a seemingly unsustainable amount of visceral intensity and passion, but Sleater-Kinney keep it going for the rest of that classic album and then for four more after that. In the process, they made it look like their male indie rock counterparts weren’t even trying. “Dig Me Out” is a massive song by not just the best girl band ever, but one of the best bands ever, period.

1.  Patti Smith – “Gloria” (1975)

Patti Smith wanted to turn rock music upside down on her debut album “Horses.” On the opening song she pretty much does that literally, borrowing the chorus of a classic horndog male rock song and subverting it into an intellectual feminist statement that absolutely shatters any gender barrier that had previously existed in rock. The reason “Gloria” is number one is simple: outside of Jefferson Airplane, it would not be a stretch to say that every single song on this list is indebted to Patti Smith, and this song in particular. It has possibly the most iconic opening lines in rock music history (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), a groundbreaking structure, and Patti Smith’s voice, which sounds like no other female singer before it. “Gloria” marks a turning point in music, where women could not only rock, but do it on an intellectual level instead of one completely based on sex appeal or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Two

19.  The Raincoats – “Fairytale in the Supermarket” (1979)

The Raincoats were one of the very first female post-punk bands and crafted a sound that has still not really been replicated, a quirky and dissonant combination of folk and punk with jagged guitars and a screeching violin.  “Fairytale in the Supermarket” was their first single and remains their signature song (along with their similarly off-kilter rendition of The Kinks’ “Lola”).  It combined their unique sound with lyrics that are completely free of cliche and the manic, fun energy that personified most of these female groups.  The Raincoats were also a favorite of Nirvana singer and fellow girl rock enthusiast Kurt Cobain, who helped get their albums re-released and wrote liner notes for them.  Riding that wave of new fans, The Raincoats made a new album in 1996 and still occasionally perform together today.  Thanks Kurt.

18.  Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (1980)

Having surfaced in seemingly every teen movie and TV show (including as the theme to the beloved “Freaks and Geeks”), amongst other places, “Bad Reputation” might be one of the most overplayed songs ever.  Which is too bad, because as a result I don’t think anyone ever stops to think about just how good of a song it is.  Released in 1980 after her stint with the Runaways, Jett’s song is an unsophisticated and gloriously bratty piece of girl punk, with the highest level of fun and energy possible.  And sometimes there’s something to be said for a song that everyone can relate to, and “Bad Reputation” is certainly one of those — why else would it appear in so many movies and TV shows?

17.  Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2004)

I’m probably going to get crap for this one, but I don’t care:  “Since U Been Gone” is an amazing song that isn’t just perfect pop but rocks surprisingly hard.  Remove all preconceptions about who is singing it and what radio station you heard it on and instead savor the anthemic chorus, the deliciously biting, kiss off lyrics, and the killer bridge.  But what really separates this song and Clarkson from other bland female pop-rock is the fact that Clarkson can sing her face off and that she brought the perfect combination of pissed-off rage and new-found joy to the song.  She may have been a product of a pop music machine, but for at least one song Clarkson rocked as hard as anyone.

16.  Pixies – “Gigantic” (1988)

I have a hard time truly loving the Pixies, because whenever I listen to them and hear Black Francis’ yelpy voice, I find myself wishing that Kim Deal was singing.  On “Gigantic”, Deal makes the most of one of her rare chances in the spotlight for the influential alternative rock band.  Anchored by her simple bass line and featuring their trademark quiet-loud dynamics, “Gigantic” offers a humorous contrast between Deal’s syrupy vocals and the raunchy content of the lyrics, which detail a white woman lusting after a large black… man (although it’s also effective as a take on white suburban boredom).  “Gigantic” remains one of the Pixies’ best known songs and offers a taste of the excellent Kim Deal girl rock that would follow.

15.  Kleenex/LiLiPUT – “Die Matrosen” (1980)

Like most of their female post-punk counterparts, the Swiss band LiLiPUT (formerly Kleenex – a brand of tampons in Switzerland – before a forced name change) made up for a lack of instrumental skill with heavy doses of creativity and enthusiasm.  That’s particularly evident on “Die Matrosen”, a ridiculously fun and catchy song with a strong funky bass line, jangly guitars, a saxophone part that sounds like it stumbled in off the set of “Hawaii Five-O”, and best of all, a whistling chorus.  As if that’s not enough, there’s also some good vocals and lyrics about going two people going on a date that somewhat resemble a nursery rhyme.  Like The Raincoats, LiLiPUT’s music fell out of print for several years, growing into something of a legend, before being re-released by female rock friendly label Kill Rock Stars in 1993.

14.  Liz Phair – “Fuck and Run” (1993)

It’s easy to see why Liz Phair captivated rock critics with her first album “Exile in Guyville” – she was good looking, potty-mouthed, and no songwriting topic was off limits.  Phair would (often shamelessly) live up to that foul-mouthed bad-girl reputation on later releases, but there was much more to “Guyville” and its best song “Fuck and Run” than simply dropping some f-bombs.  The lyrics to the song are painfully honest and almost uncomfortable in their unflinching self-reflection, as Phair thinks “I’m gonna spend my whole life alone” after another one night stand.  While Phair’s career notoriously went downhill after “Guyville” (including a disastrous attempt at pop stardom on her self-titled 2003 album), her debut was a scrappy, lo-fi masterpiece that took confessional songwriting to a whole new level.

13.  Helium – “Pat’s Trick” (1995)

I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I consider Helium to be one of the most under-appreciated bands ever — in a world in which justice prevailed, frontwoman Mary Timony would have been universally seen as an indie  rock goddess.  Alas, we don’t live in such a world, and Helium’s music has mostly been forgotten except by die-hard girl rock dorks and mid-90s nostalgists.  “Pat’s Trick” is likely their defining song, and showcases Timony’s considerable guitar skills along with her smart, feminist lyrics (and her career-long affinity for pirates).  The band’s low-end sludge and Timony’s husky voice give a darker edge to their sound that helps make “Pat’s Trick” simultaneously mysterious, catchy, and just plain brilliant.

12.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003)

For a band previously known mostly for frontwoman Karen O’s wild stage performances and a trashy, garage punk sound, “Maps” was a very uncharacteristic song.  Karen O isn’t the strongest singer, but on most early Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs she made up for it with crazy, sexed-up energy.  However, on “Maps”, she sings straight from the heart, and the aching sincerity behind the simple lyrics is what makes it one of the hardest things to pull off in music:  A love ballad that doesn’t sound cliched or corny in any way.  The overlooked other members of the trio also carry their weight on “Maps”, particularly guitarist Nick Zinner, whose guitar solos help give the song a more epic feel.  The success of “Maps” propelled Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the spotlight, and made them one of the few female-led alternative rock mainstays of the 2000s.

11.  X – “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” (1980)

On their classic debut album “Los Angeles”, west coast punk band X trafficked in songs about the dark, seedy side of the title city.  Album opener “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” establishes the tone for the rest of the album, and showcases Exene Cervenka as one of the best female vocalists in punk history.  While other punk bands were amateurish, X were pros with plenty of technical skill and the songwriting duo of poets Cervenka and John Doe.  As a result, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook..” isn’t just a rocking punk number, but also one with plenty of intellectual depth.  The dark lyrics tell the story of a robbery, and the guitar riff and Cervenka’s powerful vocals give the sense of paranoia and dread that would typify the rest of the album.  And, as much as I hate to praise a male vocalist, John Doe’s backing vocals are also top notch.  “Your Phone’s Off the Hook…” is simply one of the best punk songs by one of the best punk bands.