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Back in 2008, when John asked me to submit the occasional article to Robot Panic, he did so because they were looking for the voice of the new, young generation. A cool, hip guy who can speak to the demographic with the most purchasing power: Late teens and twentysomethings.
“Mitch, I’ll be frank: We’re old fogies. We want someone who can really get a lot of clicks from America’s youth. Sure, we have a pretty dedicated following, but advertisers don’t care about them, and frankly, we only like the people the advertisers like. Get us some college kids! Bring us late teens! The more emotional and vulnerable, the better!”
At least, that’s how I remember it. Honestly, I’m too busy shredding electric guitar and doing sweet skateboard tricks to remember the details of that conversation. Either way, I’m about to inject some lightning bolts and cartoon cheetahs into the bran cereal commercial that is RobotPanic.com. So with that said, here are a few albums from the past ten years that you may have missed because you were too busy listening to Miles Davis and soaking your feet. Wake up, gramps!
Say Anything – “…Is a Real Boy” – In 2004, Say Anything released one of the most intriguing records of the decade. To some, it was a shameless, impeccably produced pop record. To others, it was a twisted look into the diary of a man losing his grip on reality. In a sense, it is both. During the process of writing and recording the album, frontman Max Bemis struggled with severe bipolar disorder and delusions brought on by extreme anxiety that eventually led him to be admitted to a mental institution. The result was …Is a Real Boy, a revealing look into the psyche of a man struggling to create in the face of a loosening grip on his own mental state. The music sounds like a Foo Fighters album after a long heroin bender; Its cheery, up-tempo beats are offset by random bouts of feedback and abrupt shifts in key or time signature, many songs mutating completely halfway through. Even the album’s most danceable track, “Alive With the Glory of Love” is a rumination on love in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. One of the high points of the record is “Yellow Cat (slash) Red Cat,” which deals frankly with Bemis’ attempts to hold onto a sense of self in the face of past failures, while at the same time being consumed by fear, anxiety, cynicism and sexual frustration. It’s an album seething with insecurity, rage and desperation. It chronicles a musician driven to the brink not only creatively, but also emotionally and mentally.
Motion City Soundtrack – “Commit This to Memory” – To most people, it seems, the phrase “pop punk” is associated with poor, sloppy musicianship. In actuality, the common pitfalls of the genre seem to be that of a lack of restraint. A large majority of pop punk bands are talented technically, but they are often unwilling to sacrifice fast, punchy instrumentals for the common good. This was the case with I Am the Movie, the debut album by Minneapolis natives Motion City Soundtrack. Although it is widely beloved, (even by myself) it is clear that many of the songs on the album were written around melodic keyboard parts and over-complex drumming. Despite its rough sound, it still showed immense promise: promise that payed off on the band’s sophomore album Commit This to Memory. Under the guidance of Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus in his first outing as producer, the band made several modifications: First, they reigned in their songwriting. This time around, it felt as though the band actually wrote the songs collaboratively rather than combining lead parts on each instrument. Their debut was also, as many first albums are, a collection of songs in the band’s repertoire released in album format. But with Commit This to Memory, it was clear that great care went into developing the actual track listing. The album has a discernible arc, opening with the punchy “Attractive Today” and culminating with the gorgeous “Hold Me Down,”–a track that transforms from a fairly simplistic tune to a loud, booming anthem that brings the album to a poignant close–and many valleys in between. It’s this kind of care and respect for the experience of listening to a full album that is becoming far too rare in today’s age of a-la-carte music sales, and stands as a testament to the “old” way of recording an album. Commit This to Memory is a joyous testament to the absolute highs of a genre that many people deem to be strictly for adolescents. It is proof that pop punk music isn’t merely a genre dominated by untalented musicians, but a genre mastered by those with respect for it.
Brand New – “The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me” – At the beginning of this decade, few people would have believed that Brand New, one of the major players from the early-2000’s Brooklyn pop punk scene, would release one of the best albums of the decade. Their early work, while fun, was largely angst-driven pop punk reminiscent of bands from the mid-90’s midwestern emo scene, and hardly decade defining. However, after their hit 2003 release Deja Entendu, the band went completely dark for three years, leaving many fans to assume the band had broken up. When they finally re-emerged in 2006, they shocked fans and critics alike with The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, an album that led several reviewers to proclaim them to be “America’s answer to Radiohead.” Rather than the power chords and acoustic ballads more in line with their first two albums, The Devil and God was a dark, cold masterpiece. Not manufactured Hot Topic dark, but true depths-of-the-human-spirit dark. Fifteen-loved-ones-died-during-this-album’s-recording dark. In between the wispy, ethereal spine of the album come sudden bursts of rage. It’s an album that defines the human emotions of grief. Not just self-pity and despair, but anger, confusion, and most of all, hope; Rather than define their album by emotional darkness, it is punctuated with brief moments of truth and happiness that give the suffering clarity and meaning. It is the band’s own journey to find redemption in the face of hardship, and from that comes one of the most surprising and well-made albums of the decade.
The Protomen – “Act II: The Father of Death” – This Nashville-based rock band turned some heads in 2005 with the release of their self-titled debut, a rock opera based on the Mega Man mythos that reveled in the series’ dark thematic roots with hard-rocking distortion and a sense of dire urgency drenching every syllable. It was rough around the edges, but it did well in setting up a triumphant sophomore return, Act II: The Father of Death. Not only is the production value noticeably higher, so are the theatrics; The first track, “The Good Doctor,” sounds more like an excerpt from a Broadway musical than a song on a rock album. And don’t be fooled: There is no winking at the audience here, no apology for writing a rock opera about an otherwise nerdy subject. In fact, it’s The Protomen’s sincere and unironic delivery of the source material that sells it. Rather than inducing giggles, hearing Dr. Light roar “I will not be the father of death!” conjures goose bumps every time. It’s one of the most refreshing and unique rock albums in recent memory, and The Protomen have big things in store for them if their next outing is even half as enjoyable as Act II.
Blackpool Lights – “This Town’s Disaster” – This album could just as easily be an entry in our running series “You People Should Be Ashamed of Yourselves.” The first and only outing by Kansas City natives Blackpool Lights, This Town’s Disaster played like a modern retelling of classic Tom Petty tunes. It also borrowed a bit of midwest punk flair from mid-90’s emo bands like Kill Creek, and lead singer Jim Suptic’s time with The Get Up Kids, one of the icons of that very movement. Unfortunately, the band is now broken up, but “This Town’s Disaster” remains both a powerful debut and an elegant swan song.
Jack’s Mannequin – “Everything in Transit” – For some reason, whenever I mention Jack’s Mannequin among my hipster friends, I am met with scoffs. Yes, Andrew McMahon’s first solo album is decidedly poppier than his work with early-aught pop-punkers Something Corporate, but it’s presumptuous to assume that he simply “sold out.” The album gained a great deal of mainstream success for its sun-soaked, upbeat SoCal flavor, but it unleashes an unbridled joy that only the bitterest of cynics can deny. The album powers along, fueled by piano and powerful hooks that can serve as a powerful antidote to a bad day. But these aren’t merely cold, calculated good times; The album still manages to be a massively personal confessional of a musician living on the road, away from friends, family and the home he’s known for years. It’s that human link to each note that takes the album from being just a cheap grab for mainstream success to a summertime mainstay.