The best kinds of music — power pop, Americana, garage rock, R 'n' B — are often defined more by what the bands playing that kind of music don't do than by what they do.
Garage rock, for example, requires very little in the way of a formula: steady backbeat, three or four chords (many more and you're straining), snotty vocals, and blissful, spiritual sense of nihilism. You can't, and you shouldn't, ever care too much.
It's a formula. A recipe. So why does it so rarely work? "Flower punk" act The Black Lips released Arabia Mountain earlier this year, and it gets it all right. So why isn't it the best album of the year? Don't misread; it doesn't suck, but puzzlingly, it does everything right — gets all the tones right, strums just how it should, stomps and references Spider-Man in all the right ways — and still doesn't suck you in, doesn't feel immediate.
Philadelphia rock 'n' roll band Lantern hasn't released a full-length this year, but if you combine the band's Stranger I Come. Stranger I Leave (released in May) and Lantern Summer EP 2011 (released in July), you wind up with the scummiest, nastiest garage rock record of 2011.
Maybe the devil is in the details: The title track of Stranger I Come barely counts as garage rock — over eight minutes of fuzzy dub bass, disembodied vocals, and Spaceman 3 junk-blues. "You Can't Run. You Can't Hide," from the same record, is another take on the same play, a bass-heavy rumbler that explores the "ghetto-tech dub" influences guitarist/vocalist Zachary Fairbrother brings over from his Oman Ra II project.
The second half of the band's 2011 output, Summer EP, is even stronger, owing less to the psychedelic drug ethos of its forebear and more to the broken-ass blues of Bo Diddley or Abner Jay. "You Can't Deny Me" achieves a haunting blues film, while "Money (That's What I Want)" (yeah — that song) shuffles like the filthiest frat-band the '60s never birthed, a call-and-response shuffle designed for piss-stained togas. Opener "America Is My Zoo" takes on The Stooges, while "Spit Fire" moves more toward Death, the African-American proto-punk/proto-hardcore band that time forgot (until Drag City reissued their record).
On the surface, there's no reason that the Lantern releases should beat out the Lips, or the Jacuzzi Boys, or Bass Drum of Death, or any of the other good-to-great garage rock albums of 2011, but they do. The records possess both halves of the rhythm and blues religion, and have a palpable sense of femininity to go along with the Iggy Pop-macho vibes (credit drummer Sophie White and Emily Robb for helping Fairbrother accentuate it). Lantern's records are blown-out and distorted, but there are melodies, tried-and-true chord progressions, and foot-tapping rhythms, the same kind of sounds that made your grandma and your kid sister feel like moving their hips.
In short, the records have soul. While any band can figure out the equation (MC5 + Ramones + smeared black jeans = awesome) and ace the quiz, the best bands are the ones that know how to make it seem vital, who can shake you by the shoulders and make you give a shit.
Even if you aren't supposed to give a shit in rock 'n' roll.