The desert is dancing. At least that's the impression you'd get from this list of the 10 best records of the year, which reflects the synth-y sound of Phoenix. Lately, it seems electro-pop/rock of acts might grow to define the Valley's music scene in the way the jangly country/pop/rock of Mill Avenue and Mesa pop-punkers like Jimmy Eat World and Authority Zero once did. Then there are the rockers playing vintage R&B (Black Carl, The Love Me Nots) and the hip-hoppers (Cousins of the Wize) who've also got some danceability. Oh, and that's without two local bands on the cusp nationally, What Laura Says and the recently split The Medic Droid, which make asses move, but weren't quite good enough to make this selective list.
Best track: "All I Done"
Sounds like: Vintage Blur covering Coldplay
Though the local scene is, on the whole, dominated by electro-indie, Arizona's best album of the year is nothing like that. Kinch sounds more like a Britpop band than anything else, but they're inarguably brilliant playing either cocky rock ("A Tantrum") or sensitive piano ballads ("Memphis"). I've listened to Advances at least 30 times, and it might just find a spot on my Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. It's that good.
2. Back Ted N-Ted
(Modern Art Records EP)
Best track: "999 Buttons"
Sounds like: MGMT with better vocals
Writing this column, I just changed the "Best Track" choice for Back Ted N-Ted's Hookie three times. Such are the charms of this splendid little four-song EP, which both defines and surpasses the local synth-pop scene, where bands like Peachcake (who released another decent album that didn't quite make the cut) rule the roost. I've played "Your Love" so many times I'm sick of it now, but it's the kind of catchy single that could break nationally, while anyone who can avoid bopping their head to "The War Is Over" is quite possibly not human.
3. The Loveblisters
The Nowhere West
Best track: "Blue Jean Movement"
Sounds like: Queen covering The Band
Normally I'd like to give a record more than a few listens before putting it so high on a list like this but, unfortunately, The Nowhere West came out, like, yesterday. Still, I'm very impressed. The best thing about The Nowhere West — aside from the brilliant songs — is that it feels like an album, with ebbs, flows, and a sincere progression from beginning to end. The first song, "America's Back Pew," is a throwaway, but it sets the mood, while "Blue Jean Movement" is a manifesto of sorts, and "Hell Is a Rainbow" shows that the band isn't totally joking when they cite ELO as an influence.
4. Miniature Tigers
Tell It to the Volcano
(Modern Art Records album)
Best track: "The Wolf"
Sounds like: Weezer covering Joy Division
Bittersweetness is a quality I look for in songs, and Miniature Tigers capture it well in "The Wolf," "Cannibal Queen," and "Dino Damage." They're also adept at pulling in a few electronic elements from time to time, while maintaining an organic sound. Another thing I think is interesting about this record: The longest song comes in at a whopping 3:33, with most at two and change.
5. The Stiletto Formal
¡Fiesta Fiesta Fiesta Fiesta!
(Eyeball Records album)
Best track: "We Are All Muckrakers"
Sounds like: At The Drive In covering At The Drive In
I have a long-documented love/hate relationship with bands that sound like At The Drive In but are not, in fact, At The Drive In, a seminal post-hardcore act from Texas that split into Sparta and The Mars Volta. I am also deeply suspicious that this cello thing is a gimmick to get a hot girl in the band. Still, The Stiletto Formal does the sound well and earned their place on this list.
6. Black Carl
Best track: "Family and Kids"
Sounds like: Billie Holiday backed by The JBs
If the local scene had a Metacritic aggregator — and conversations with scenester-types counted as reviews — Black Carl would top all. Everyone (and I mean everyone) loves this band. Probably, your mom loves Black Carl. Seriously, ask her, and she'll be like, "That Emma Pew is adorable, and what a voice!" Anyway, I'm also a fan, but I found their self-titled EP doesn't quite capture the magic of the live show, which is why it's sitting so low on this list.
7. Fracture Point
Inherit the Downfall
Best track: "Image"
Sounds like: Eyehategod covering Dillinger Escape Plan
Phoenix's metal scene is huge but, by and large, not that innovative. Then there's Fracture Point, which has long been a favorite of area metalheads. I also dig them. I can't describe this record any better than Niki D'Andrea did, so I'll just quote her: "Fracture Point sounds like a mastodon stampede, but instead of directionless destruction, this beast intelligently winds its way through a well-constructed maze of down-tuned guitars, burly bass lines, screaming solos, and tricky timing changes."
8. The Love Me Nots
(Atomic A Go Go album)
Best track: "You're Really Something"
Sounds like: The Detroit Cobras playing original songs
The Love Me Nots are another favorite of Niki's (she's a staff writer here now, and I solicited her for advice on this list). I'm also fond of them, though I find their Detroit obsession a little odd since they're from, ya know, Phoenix. But they sound authentic enough for Jim Diamond, the man who produced their record, as well as records by a slew of garage acts from the Motor City and the first two White Stripes records. So, I guess that's enough for me.
9. Cousins of the Wize
The Art of Living
Best track: "Two Bottles of Beer"
Sounds like: Sean Kingston joins Gym Class Heroes for an album produced by Mix Master Mike
Most of the records on this list are consistently good. Not Cousins of the Wize's The Art of Living, which is, at turns, brilliant and barely listenable because of the melodrama and bad funk and reggae ("Come What May" and "Shelter"). Still, when it's good, it's really, really good. Take "Two Bottles of Beer," which has a lot of the appeal of Afroman's "Because I Got High" and just as much radio potential. This is the drawback of being a local rap supergroup, I guess: You get all the talent, but all the baggage, of the acts you pulled from.
10. Tractor Pull Divas
Love Songs for (Insert Your Name Here)
Best track: "Impressed"
Sounds like: Old 97's as produced by Ralph Stanley
The Tractor Pull Divas are our own version of a plucked-from-obscurity success story. Though, in this case, obscurity is defined as Chandler and success is defined as being one of two records from You Asked for It (our weekly online locals-only CD review column) to make this list. I'd never heard of the band before popping their disc in one Tuesday, but I soon grew very fond of the record's bluegrass-y country-rock feel and erudite alt-country vocals. Right now, they're the best band in town doing the sound the Valley is most associated with nationally, and that's good enough to come in at 10 on this list.
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