Mammatus

Mammatus

(Holy Mountain)

A 22-minute rock song ain't gonna rocket you to the top of alternative radio. Then again, Mammatus exists in a stratosphere so far from the FM dial that you'd need satellite photos to read the numbers. Not every song on the Corralitos, California, group's four-song debut clocks in at the length of your average nightly news broadcast, but these guys named themselves after some heavy clouds for good reason. Your usual stoner metal influences show up in bong-bellied obesity on Mammatus— early Ozzy and Lemmy setting the course for extended headbanging hypnotism — but this trip takes a couple detours with Middle Eastern-ish freakouts and subliminal drones.

Various Artists

Invaders

(Kemado Records)

This comp is a sweet collection of sonic concrete from all across the country. The final cut includes picks from other bands on this list (Comets, Danava), some squirrelly psychedelia from Dungen, Big Business' Harley-rumbling bass 'n' drums assault, and slightly more straightforward fare from talented Bay Area metal mavens High on Fire and Saviours. Bonus: not one but two references to black magic — J. Mascis' Witch and Sweden's Witchcraft.

Citay

Citay

(Important Records)

This S.F. act is perhaps the gentlest of the bunch, its percussion a mix of bongos and bigger beats; its intertwined, grandiose guitars bringing out trickles of Thin Lizzy; and its enchanted Zeppelin vibe setting the group's eponymous debut on fire. The mostly instrumental songs are heavily contemplative and full of mandolins — Citay forges trails through a brave new world of music that can only be called "chamber metal." A quiet storm brews elegantly here, although the overall feeling is still very paganistic.

Boris

Pink

(Southern Lord)

For an album with a title on the lighter end of the color chart, Pink is cement gray from start to finish. This Japanese power trio makes an atomic amount of noise, and the closest it comes to a chorus is still subterranean sludge by most standards. Press "play" and you're instantly inside a voluminous dustbowl, howling Stooges-fueled vocals resonating from within all that distortion. Then, just like that, the clutter clears for one bright moment, and two minutes of serene space-rock float by before the next anvil-to-the-ol'-skull drops from the Boris heavens. Jennifer Maerz

Gold Needles in the Pop-Rock Haystack

In 2006, the pop singles market continued to dominate, in no small part because the pick-to-click-driven mentality of online music stores and ringtone sites gave consumers unparalleled freedom to Choose Their Own Musical Adventure. What suffered in the meantime, though, was the quality of pop/rock albums. These platters frequently spawned great singles — Justin Timberlake, KT Tunstall, the Rapture, Pearl Jam, My Chemical Romance, etc. — but didn't hold together as cohesive statements. Still, a few artists managed to churn out catchy and innovative long-players that held up over repeated listens. In alphabetical order:

AFI

Decemberunderground

(Interscope)

Unlike many of its dark-punk peers, AFI managed to slick up its sound without losing its batcave-and-fishnets cachet on Decemberunderground. Chalk this up to undeniable pop sensibilities and the band's knack for hooks — whether the guys are crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synthpop ("The Missing Frame"), or tundra-chilled gothic landscapes indebted to the Cure and Damned ("Summer Shudder").

Blood Brothers

Young Machetes

(V2)

The Blood Brothers' slobbering, shrill, twin-vocal assault and nuclear-bomb riffs frequently feel plucked out of a Stephen King horror movie. But on Machetes, the Seattle band's Dali-esque abstract imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. "Linear pop" is a relative term, though, as their post-punk/no-wave/hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like a zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable conclusion to PiL's shuddering death-disco.

CSS

Cansei De Ser Sexy

(Sub Pop)

With Le Tigre on hiatus, the Brazilian sextet CSS stepped up for booty-dancers, staunch feminists, and electro-pop fanatics everywhere with their high-energy debut. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" begs to be blared during a Jazzercise class for hipsters, "Art Bitch" sounds like a deconstructed Yeah Yeah Yeahs song stitched back together with diagonal big-beats, and the bubble-bath-synth groover "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show" resembles Ladytron trash-talking with Cyndi Lauper.

Def Leppard

Yeah!

(Island)

Critically maligned arena-rockers Def Leppard sure sound like they have something to prove on their fantastic covers record, Yeah! And who can blame them? They've always drawn inspiration from seminal UK glam and metal bands, but can't seem to escape being seen as poof-rock hacks. Which is too bad, since Def Leppard's faithful (but not derivative) renditions of classic cuts from Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, ELO, and even the Kinks — in the form of a gorgeous, copper-burnished "Waterloo Sunset" — more than cement the band's musical talent.

Nelly Furtado

Loose

(Geffen)

Furtado, who's notorious for being a hit-or-miss performer live, is perhaps the year's biggest example of how studio gloss and the right production team can revive (and reinvent) an artist's career — and create Top 40 gold in the process. Loose is the most consistent and innovative pop-diva disc of the year, between the Latin-flair of "No Hay Igual," digi-funk bodyrocker "Maneater," and of course, the playful '80s-glitter all over the Timbaland-featuring synth-swerve, "Promiscuous."

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