As 2021 comes to a close, we've been asking artists for lists of their favorite albums of the year, and here's one by Jason Hall, vocalist of long-running San Francisco punks Western Addiction whose lists are always an entertaining read. This one is no exception.
I LOVE top 10 season. And I love discovering new music on these lists even though I think most of them are wrong. The secret to really good music is a great vocal melody or “power.” I’ll cite records with great melody below and if you want to “feel” and understand “power,” listen to the beginning of “Rock n’ Roll" by Motorhead or the tectonic chunks of Power Trip’s “Executioner’s Tax” or some of the black or death metal I list below.
I listen to numerous podcasts, watch documentaries, YouTube videos, etc. about songwriting and no one can ever identify this secret (vocal melody and/or power) that is hiding in plain sight. Or… they often mislabel it as “the hook,” which doesn’t really exist because it’s different for different people, whereas a vocal melody that sends lightning up your spine is universal to all humans. It drives me insane when I listen to Song Exploder and the bands don’t talk about the actual construction of the melody. And it’s also stunning when longtime, established musicians can’t identify their best songs or what makes a song special. However, I just listened to an episode of Broken Record, Rick Rubin’s podcast. He interviewed a woman named Diane Warren, a famous songwriter and asked her something to the effect of, “What’s the secret to a great song?” She instantly responded, “the melody.” And then he said, “I think it’s actually that great feeling you get when a certain part comes on and experience this emotional surge.” And she replied, “Yeah, that’s the melody you are talking about.” She’s written hits for Cher and Aerosmith and although at times she conflated “hit records” with what was actually “good” (those are two different things), she’s the only person I’ve ever heard identify “specifically” and "correctly" what makes a song great.
I spend many a night chasing that “feeling” and obviously I’m not good enough to make songs like this, but I try my hardest. Luckily, I can identify this moment in music, and I mention those below. And some of the records, I just like. I’m thankful for music and I never take it for granted.
I hope you enjoy some of these picks.
I have a tie for #1 this year…
1. Massage – Still Life
This is a great record from beginning to end. Perfect, jangly pop songs with exquisite vocal melodies. It has all the feeling of my favorite Jesus and Mary Chain records but doesn’t feel cliché or derivative. They made a fresh record with simple instruments and a splash of reverb. They should tour with Alvvays.
1. Spectral Wound – A Diabolic Thirst
This is the black metal record I’ve been waiting for. It sounds huge and incredible and it’s just my style (witch on fire). I get that this genre prides itself in almost unlistenable production quality, but I can never understand why a band would make a record like that in the modern age. These bands write insanely technical music and I want to hear it. The production is so good that I can even hear the bass. It reminds me of the quality of Nightmares by From Ashes Rise, big and confident. It’s a style I love with the production it deserves. The songs are incredible, interesting and completely fresh. This is a perfect record. With respect to my comments above, I would file this under “power.”
The rest in no particular order…
Tele Novella – Merlynn Belle
This record is beautiful. I’m not even sure what kind of music this is. All I know is that the record and her voice are fantastic. It’s almost like the songs should be a musical. Here is a quote from AllMusic because I don’t even know how to describe this…
“Indie combo Tele Novella emerged out of Austin, Texas, in the mid-2010s with an eclectic amalgam of influences ranging from the '80s paisley underground pop scene to honky tonk twang and the more psychedelic elements of Brazil's Tropicalia movement.”
The Killers – Pressure Machine
This is basically a modern version of Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. They REALLY know how to write songs and this one is very emotional and vulnerable. I think it captures a version of “American sadness” or the ugly truth of the dream we are told is going to happen but never quite does. I saw a video of them playing Glastonbury with Johnny Marr on guitar and the entire place was singing and going crazy.
The Bronx – Bronx VI
I heard an interview with the singer and he was talking about how the band was influenced by hair metal and sunset strip rock and you can hear it all over the record. This was big when I started listening to music and just trying to find “loud rock.” The beauty of what they do is strip the music of all the grossness (drugs, misogyny, excess, etc.) of hair metal and leave in the big riffs and mix that with punk. The production on this record really makes a difference and the guitar work of Ken Horne is excellent. He knows just when to play, what to play and when not to play. I love when an incredible guitarist realizes what’s right for the song vs. the spotlight. The songs on this record have some really great dynamics and I can’t wait to see them live. Everyone that is in a band, loves the Bronx. I love the Bronx. The true “band’s band.”
Nation of Language – A Way Forward
The reason why Depeche Mode was a global phenomenon was because they had great melodies. Or, think of a song like “Bring on the Dancing Horses” by Echo and the Bunnymen. This band has steam right now and is working hard and I like to see that. I really want them to get a drummer. I love when bands are authentic to themselves. Although they play a certain style that has clear influences, they’ve made it their own and you can tell that they live it every day.
Cerebral Rot – Excretion of Mortality
This was the year I really started to understand and decipher death metal. I know that sounds ridiculous but I think people have a hard time telling when death metal records are “good” versus something they just “like.” I think this and the Mortiferum record are very, very good. I listen to music all day long and sometimes death and black metal can be fatiguing but a sure sign that something is good is when you keep coming back to it. I’ve listened to this many times. Incredible album art as well. So gross, so cool.
Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
I love real country (not big-time banjo pop) and I think it’s really hard to make a record in this genre that really stands out. I heard this on KEXP’s country show, Swingin’ Doors. Fantastic songs, fantastic melodies. I saw a video of them playing and the singer has just the right amount of crazy for me. I like when singers reverberate madness, which brings me to the Amyl record.
Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort to Me
This band is just plain exciting. The singer is truly herself and it feels wild and fun. I also like seeing happy people on stage who are enjoying themselves. They have the buzz right now and you can feel it. A great record will take you around the world.
Mortiferum – Preserved in Torment
Another death metal record that is truly great. The musicianship is quite impressive. I now immediately check out anything Profound Lore and 20 Buck Spin releases. They have the ear for death metal.
Brandi Carlile - In these Silent Days
Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg
Esther Rose - How Many Times
Idles - Crawler
La Luz - La Luz
Lamp of Murmuur - Submission and Slavery
Lord Huron - Long Lost
Margo Cilker - Pohorylle
Natalie Bergman - Mercy
Pokey LaFarge - Manic Revelations
Snails - Hard-Wired
Succumb - XXI
The Brother Brothers - Calla Lilly
The Reds, Pinks and Purples - Uncommon Weather
Tribulation - Where the Gloom Becomes Sound
Wet Leg - “Chaise Lounge,” “Wet Dream”