Yep, it’s another one of those annoying, infuriating and insatiable end-of-the-year lists. We’ve never written this one before, but frankly, we’ve never seen so many quality albums released by St. Joseph area music acts in the same year.
You see, recording an album is tough. You not only have to put together a collection of the best songs you’d want to put on record, but you have to play them to perfection in the studio — while also finding a producer, a mixer and an engineer who will bring out the best in your work. And if that isn’t enough, most small-town musicians have to foot the bill for it all.
That’s why a lot of local artists don’t make albums. But in 2012 and 2013, St. Joe’s music scene went through a great surge in passion, creativity and talent. With the slew of original local albums released this year, there’s now aural proof that Joetown’s musicians have more drive than ever before.
With this annoying, infuriating and insatiable list, we wanted to honor those who worked the hardest to create something memorable. Some of these albums are more ambitious than others. Some of these musicians are more talented than others. But in the end, only two questions really mattered to us: “Did we enjoy listening to it?” and “Did it resonate with us?”
Before we dive into this Top 10, we wanted to clear a few things up. Only albums released in 2013 were eligible for this list. There were a number that would have been considered serious contenders, but they were released in 2012 (Matthew Coman’s “No Other Animal,” Eyelit’s “The Woe Dies” and Tracy Huffman’s “Pieces” immediately come to mind). We made one other regulation: EPs and mixtapes wouldn’t be considered either. We broke this rule once, and you’ll see why, but our thinking is that these works generally tend to be too brief or incomplete to stand up to the listening experience of full-fledged albums (our sincerest apologies to The GasTown Lamps and many local rappers).
That said, we can’t wait for all the albums coming in 2014. We’ve heard already about upcoming recordings from Whiskey for the Lady, Geezel, Scruffy and the Janitors, Eyelit, Radkey, Andy Grooms, The Center State, The Souveneers and Knot Afrayed. But, until then, here are the best local albums of 2013.
10. Burnstyles, “If There’s Smoke”
People used to frequently dog Bret Yager and his band, Burnstyles, for sounding too much like Sublime. Hopefully, those yokels have since shut up. With “If There’s Smoke,” the band has proven it has so much more to offer than mere reggae-rubbed rock songs.
Don’t get us wrong — Burnstyles still plays Sublime-flavored party tunes like “Keep Moving On” and the ska-heavy “People Dancing” better than any other band in town. But the group often ventures into emotional territory as well. “Here’s to You,” for example, is a bitter send-off to an awful ex-girlfriend anchored by acoustic folk guitar strums. Meanwhile, “With My Friends” comes off like a mid-'90s alternative anthem about picking yourself up — all while Yager spouts verses at blistering speeds.
Did we mention that, at times, this album totally rocks? “Arizona” should appeal to fans of punk, nu-metal and '80s hair metal alike. It’s an adventurous hard-hitter anchored by a great hook and an iconic guitar riff from Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head.” The band even covers J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” — they call it “Sinterfold” — in a way that only Burnstyles possibly could.
Other notable tracks from the CD include “Melody,” an up-tempo song about Yager’s love for music; “Years Go By,” a track with a hip-hop breakdown that proves that some people never grow up; and “Long Story Short,” the album’s marching opener that was written by guitarist Tommy Schwarz.
Sublime copycats couldn’t pull off what Burnstyles does on this album. “If There’s Smoke” is both a fun and motley listen.
9. Jerkface, “Jerkface!”
Once in awhile, there comes an album so soaked in whiskey, cigarettes and fun, it’s undeniable fun.
Like a throwback to the the surf punk days of Agent Orange mixed with some Buddy Holly and a sound along the lines of early Wavves, the punk/rockabilly five-piece from St. Joseph put a party into the seven tracks that make up “Jerkface!”
Lead by the charge of founding members Jesse James, lead singer, and Brian Shank, drummer, Jerkface’s debut album covers a span of music from the '60s surf rock of “Alien Girl” to the horn-filled folk romp “Dirty Worn Out Road” and ska on “Train Wreck.”
No matter what genre the band plays, none of the album’s songs sound forced or like mere artist mimicry. James and his crew show they know their stuff about every era they pay homage to while making a sound of their own.
Beyond the alcohol-fueled sound of the songs is James’s songwriting, which shows an understanding of the consequences of his lifestyle, even if it’s unapologetic (he mourns on “Trainwreck”: “I’m doing it again/Tomorrow night/I’ll be apologizing”).
“Jerkface!” shows a lot of promise for what’s to come with this surprisingly versatile band, and that’s nothing for which they need to apologize.
8. Jerry Forney, “Midnight on the Water”
With the 12-song album “Midnight on the Water,” talented player Jerry Forney proves that his blues chops have only become heartier over the years. But, surprisingly, his tunes also boast the sounds of down-home country and sun-soaked folk that appeal to listeners of all ages.
The album opens with the smooth “Silver Moon,” a song that would whet the appetite of anyone who enjoyed Eric Clapton’s “Money and Cigarettes” (in fact, Clapton fans should love this whole darn CD). The album gets a little twangier and ventures into the realm of '70s country radio with “Midnight on the Water,” the heartbreaking tale of a modern-day Native American warrior.
As a lyricist, Forney shines with some clever tongue-in-cheek humor in “Chrome Where I Need It,” a song driven by blistering blues piano accompaniment and some well-placed slide guitar. It’s followed by the downplayed ballad “For Your Love,” which merrily blends the folk sentiments of Tom Petty with guitar licks reminiscent of Carlos Santana.
Forney even takes a dive into cowboy song territory and a little bit of St. Joseph’s history with “Ghost (The Testimony of Jesse James),” a historical tale told from the perspective of the famous bandit who perished in St. Joseph.
From the stirring guitar and percussion work of “I Call the Blues Home” to the serenity of “Lazy Bones,” Forney has made an eclectic blues album brimming with various moods. “Midnight on the Water” feels like a throwback in spots, but it’s mostly timeless in the best way.
7. One Headlight High, “Live Free or Don’t”
You know what you’re getting into with pop-punk band One Headlight High’s second album “Live Free or Don’t” from the get-go — huge, chugging riffs with loads of earworms that propelled the genre into the mainstreams in the '00s.
Clearly inspired by bands like Blink 182 and older Brand New, the Maryville, Mo., five-piece band brings an almost non-stop barrage of distortion-fueled rock. All that matters is it’s a fun, cohesive collection that harkens back to the golden days of power cords, gang vocals and rapid-pace, machine-gun drums.
Their song titles are silly, ranging from “All That Glitter is Goldschlager” and “Look Sharp, Don’t Get Cut” to “Go Home, You’re Drunk,” but the lyrics do a solid job of capturing typical everyday problems like the boredom of small-town life (the lone ballad “Meanwhile in Maryville”), exes (“Burn for a Cure”) and burnouts (“You Could Use Some Motivation”).
It’s an album that would sound comfortable if it was released in 2005, but it stands up today. Not everything has to be gritty and serious, and “Live Free or Don’t” makes a good case for just wanting to hang out and have a good time.
6. Andy Grooms, “Grateful to Burn: Living Room Session”
Grooms describes his type of music as psych-folk, and the title fits.
Few artists could balance completely out-there tracks like the psychadelic funk of “Mary or Mephisto” with almost heartbreakingly earnest tracks like “Grateful to Burn” and the nostalgic acoustic ballad “I’m Not So Sad.”
Re-releasing the album “Grateful to Burn” this year after it sat on the shelf for years, it sounds as good as when it was recorded. Combining the musical schizophrenia of eels with soul-baring lyrics usually reserved for artists like Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith, Grooms somehow makes it all cohesive.
Beginning the album with the lyrics “Unsung songs/I can hear” on “One Billion Anonymous Poets” and ending with the “that’s where I’ll find the unspoken truth,“ Grooms clearly aimed to tell a story, and there are so many told on the album’s 12 tracks. They all pay off well, even if Grooms doesn’t end up happy or get the object of his desire.
“Grateful to Burn” may be one of the most odd albums on this list, but it’s also one of the most interesting. Grooms’ tales of heartbreak, sex, love and loss are ones that only he could pull off through his blend of genres. It’s certainly one to seek out.
5. Maria the Mexican, “Moon Colored Jade”
“Moon Colored Jade” has several little moments that will remind you of artists like Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan, Fitz and the Tantrums, The Supremes, The Wallflowers and Joe Bonamassa. But none of those artists have ever blended blues, rock, soul and funk and splashed that masterful mix against the backdrop of Mexican folklore. None of them have tied together catchy pop songs, melancholy motifs and a southwestern vibe and packaged it with a sharp fusion of English and Spanish.
No CD has ever quite put it all together like Maria the Mexican’s unique debut release.
The record is essentially an amalgamation of original songs written by guitarist and keyboardist Garrett Nordstrom and traditional Mexican mariachi songs (lead singers Maria and Tess Cuevas performed for 10 years with Mariachi Estrella, one of the first all-female mariachi bands that was founded by their grandmother, Teresa Cuevas). For example, Maria the Mexican lent a soul and blues-colored polish to the classic “Bésame Mucho,” and as Maria would describe it, the group totally turned “El Cascabel” into a rocker driven by talented guitarist Jason Riley’s chicano rock riffs and Tess’ festive accompaniment on violin.
Quite simply, “Moon Colored Jade” provides a very pleasant listening experience for all ages. The lighthearted album opener “Rock & Sway” has a catchy chorus, a great hook and vocal harmonies that are even more infectious. Meanwhile, the heartbroken “Sigh” has a smooth, soulful blues vibe with additional vocals by acclaimed Austin rock singer Patrice Pike.
If you’re looking for an album that blends fine musicianship and an interesting dose of culture, you won’t find a better one on this list.
4. Dsoedean, “Continue to Move”
After several EPs and years of sonic exploring, Dsoedean finally found its sound.
On its first full-length album, the band sounds different — fresh, more confident and with some awesome production, the best version of itself.
With a bigger sound provided by local producer Kiley Bodenhamer, “Continue to Move” is full and fleshed-out, making sunny pop-rock songs like “Perfect World” shine, as well as straightforward rock songs like “Protect Her” sound triumphant and ballads such as the wanting “Honest Air” soar.
Continuing to explore different genres, like on the post-rock “Dying On The Vine,” with Bledsoe’s guitar blending with Colby Walter’s overarching, wobbly synth, as well as funk on an updated version of “On An Edge,” the band has never sounded better.
The band’s earlier EPs worked well to provide the blueprint where it was headed. “Continue to Move” backs up that claim with a slick collection of top-notch alternative rock tunes.
3. Sisters of..., “Follow Me as a Ghost”
After you listen to “Follow Me as a Ghost,” two things will happen: You’ll feel like you need a hug. Then, you’ll feel like you need to tell someone about the epicness of this CD.
The ominous urgency of Tool meets the emotional levity of Explosions in the Sky in this fantastic instrumental album by Sisters of..., the collaborative project spearheaded by Seven Mile Drive drummer Aaron Coker (also a former member of The Appleseed Cast and Reggie & The Full Effect) with performances by Isaac Khan and Blue Oyster Culture Club’s Chris Clark.
Taking cues from modern-day prog-metal groups like Deafheaven and Kylesa, “Sisters of...” dives head-first into the plush soundscapes you’d find from shoegazing bands of the early '90s, but it does so with an unmistakably hard charge. This is experimental metal at its finest.
Violent bass lines and wailing guitars drive “In a Sea of Red Strands,” a song that overflows with conflict before dipping into the placid, string-drenched eye of the storm where snare drums lead listeners to a sense of false security before finally being swallowed by dooming fear. It’s pretty epic stuff, and it doesn’t let up through the next four songs: the adventurous and occasionally beautiful “Follow Me As a Ghost,” the creepy and unsettling “Sister Faith,” the perserverant but climactic “Sister Chance” and the reminiscent but energetic “Circle/9.” Hopefulness and nightmarish terror clash constantly on the record, and the latter usually overwhelms the former.
We’re not the only ones who dug this fascinating metal journey. The album was recently picked up by Crowquill Records and has garnered the attention of multiple national music publications.
2. Radkey, “Devil Fruit”/”Cat & Mouse” EPs
Rock music, in the sense of a bunch of musicians plugging in guitars and turning up the volume and distortion, didn’t have one of its better years.
In the synthesized, “Imagine Dragons”-ized world of alternative music, Radkey stood out. The brothers may not have taken the U.S. by storm yet, but on their two subsequent EPs, “Cat & Mouse” and “Devil Fruit” (which we count as an album’s worth of work when combined), they have proven they have the chops to do so when their time comes.
Starting out with the titular track off of “Cat & Mouse,” with its Misfits melody mixed with its Gang of Four-esque riff, Radkey is a band that doesn’t let up throughout the combined half-hour of anthemic punk rock.
Combining all of the the things that make or made bands like Foo Fighters (the guttural screaming), Green Day (unrelenting showmanship) and Bad Brains (nonstop energy) legends, Radkey melts it all into a unique blend.
The guys could have been written off as a gimmick or a band overhyped in the area because it’s local group with international attention. Radkey dashes those accusations with everything from the poppy catchiness of “Red Letter,” the musicianship on “Start Freaking Out” and the stadium-rocking “Romance Dawn.”
On “Dawn,” lead singer Dee Radke repeats “Hey, hey now” as if he’s trying to get people’s attention. It’s safe to say Radkey has ours and that of pretty much anyone who listens to these two EPs.
1. Missouri Homegrown, “You Asked For It ...”
This wasn’t just No. 1. This was the unanimous No. 1. And the crazy thing is that Missouri Homegrown recorded it in one take — live before a rowdy crowd at Cafe Acoustic.
With their bushy beards and tattooed arms, the members of Missouri Homegrown look the part of the badass bar band. And on a few songs, the band lives up to that superficial glance. “Won’t you be a darlin,’ be a dear, won’t you hand me a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer?” the band sings in “Whiskey Again” before a few random barflies shout and a galloping groove reminiscent of “Rawhide” kicks up the dust. Later, the group gets a rousing ovation after the party anthem “High in Missouri Tonight.”
But keep listening and you’ll realize that this band is — there’s no better way to say it — freaking awesome. The guitar licks on “Another Way to Kick,” “Blame It” and “Jesus” hearken back to classic rock greats like Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, and the solos are just as galliant and free-wheeling. Seriously, pick up this album just to hear guitarist Steve Hurley’s amazing “Jesus” guitar solo, full of reverb, high bends and incredible skill (he credits rhythm guitarist Justin Early for making it as extraordinary as it is). The band’s remarkable playing is the perfect foil for lead singer and rhythm guitarist Shay Fadden’s gravelly, hardened vocals.
At moments, “You Asked For It ...” ventures into the twangy outlaw country of Merle Haggard or Sun Records-era Johnny Cash, but at other times, it rocks like Gram Parsons. But only during the depressing song “Wagon Wheel Motel” does the band slow it down and stray from “Bad Boy Blues” and the rest of the hard-partying tunes about nights of drugs and alcohol. It’s a pleasant and impressive change of pace that proves the band’s emotional levity extends beyond the beards and boots.
If you like classic rock or Southern rock, you won’t simply like this album. You’ll be absolutely impressed by it. We guarantee it.
Shea Conner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.