I’m sure you’re well aware of the cliché that culture oscillates in 20-year cycles, which makes it absurdly fitting that many of 2012’s most notable rock bands adhere to a style whose final year was documented exactly 21 years ago. That generation’s essential indie-rock document — a 500-page tome titled Our Band Could Be Your Life, written excellently by noted journalist Michael Azzerad — extensively covered thirteen bands springing up from America’s basement venues and into the canon of indie-, college-, or alternative-rock, depending on whose lexicon you prefer.
There was a storm brewing around this time last year involving heavy, crashing drums and guitars that sounded like they were siphoned directly from Jesus Lizard bootlegs. And unlike the last major strike of loud guitar music, the insurgents weren’t from the garages of idyllic stoner/junkie/hippie haven San Francisco. The conjurers in this case rose from everywhere; the lofts of Brooklyn, the bedrooms of Cleveland, the abandoned warehouses of Vancouver, British Columbia. None of them were fully-proven war heroes like Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer or Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan, musicians with almost two decades of discarded beer bottles and stomped-out spliffs under their belts. Most of them were young or young-ish punks, adopting the do-it-yourself lifestyle that’s been the lifeforce of underground rock music since the beginning.
Throw in a few immensely enjoyable albums, a workmanlike touring regimen, and a shitload of a charisma, and you have yourself the new vanguard of (mainstream-ish) indie-punk music.
Just last year, Cloud Nothings frontman Dylan Baldi had released a jaunty pop-punk album perfect for indie fans who secretly worshipped Jimmy Eat World. The year before, he turned in an LP full of bedroom-recorded jams (including the still-great “Hey Cool Kid”) that provoked unwarranted comparisons to the Beach-Boys-meets-Siltbreeze aesthetic of early Wavves. That all changed when somewhere along the way, he started listening to old Touch and Go records and Wipers’ 1981 classicYouth of America, which sparked the career epiphany that inspired him to book studio time with legendary punk curmudgeon Steve Albini. If only making one of the most celebrated rock records of the year were as easy as combining parts and waiting for the sum to add itself up.
Attack on Memory is reportedly Baldi’s sharp middle finger to the concept of audience expectations, his way of saying, “Fuck what you’ve heard before.” There are song titles like “No Future/No Past,” and “No Sentiment,” but also ones like “Stay Useless.” The central lyric of the nine-minute “Wasted Days” is “I thought I would be more than this.” Baldi is clearly attacking more than just preconceived notions of his band. He’s simultaneously setting fire to his own past, dwelling on personal mistakes and failed relationships and trying to wipe the proverbial slate clean. Ironically enough, Baldi does so through a medium primed for nostalgic remembrance. Regardless of whether the future or the past is getting burned down, Attack on Memory represents rallying against an ideal; the attack is far more important than the memory.
It should go without saying the antithesis of Attack on Memory’s anti-sentiment is Celebration Rock, Japandroids’ naked bid for Feel Good Record of the Year, right down to the title. How close it comes to this goal really depends on your tolerance for heavy-handed “rawk” parlor tricks (Big Muff pedals turned all the way up, “whoa-ohs” is nearly every song, the sound of fireworks being the first and last recorded sounds on the album), but at least the Vancouver duo makes it clear that they mean what they’re shouting.
It’s easy to see the appeal, though; playing like a louder, faster, and far less literary version of the Hold Steady, each of Celebration Rock’s eight songs are beer-lifting anthems for people too busy actually drinking beer to make the umpteenth pass through their dog-eared copies of On the Road. The album’s lone cover — a blistering take on the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” — is tailored to the LP’s fit; instead of the jittery, nervous vibe of the original, Japandroids do for it exactly what they do for their own work, turning it into a balls-out, 90MPH drive through a neighborhood street. If you’re looking for rock songwriting with subtlety, nuance or even a little more brains than brawn, you probably shouldn’t have hit the play button on an album called Celebration Rock in the first place.
As in Our Band Could Be Your Life, the American alternative underground of 2012 was not about a shortlist of bands or even one particular music scene; it was based on a vast network stretching across the country. New Jersey was well-represented by punk trio Screaming Females (whose breakout fifth record, Ugly, was also produced by Steve Albini). Seattle and Olympia were invigorated by the slowcore anti-grunge of The Feeling, the pummelling debut of Naomi Punk. In a year where the future of Sonic Youth was thrown in the air and Bob Mould recorded his best work since the ‘90s, these bands — either young children or not even born during those artists’ peak creative periods — are keeping their DIY ethos and arty, off-center punk alive by both adhering to their past and ripping it up completely.
It’s safe to say the catalyst of getting the wider populace of indie-rock fans to care about this style of music again was last year’s Leave Home, a brutal, visceral masterstroke from a quartet of Brooklyn punks born in the Reagan era who sought influence from bands piling into vans throughout the George Bush Sr. era. For Leave Home, the Men seemed to made a reimagined compilation of all the greatest moments of legendary indie labels like Homestead and the aforementioned Touch and Go. They had their second breakthrough in a row when they shucked those influences and tried their hand at distilling the influence of mid-1980s SST.
Open Your Heart is a record that truly embodies the sprawl of America from a punk point-of-view; less Jesus Lizard and Big Black, more Minutemen and Meat Puppets. Instead of the claustrophobia of “Night Landing,” they offer the pastoral views of “Country Song.” Wider in scope and more freewheeling than its predecessor, Open Your Heart even has an acoustic ballad called “Candy.” By the time punk-influenced not-punk bands like Dinosaur Jr. came around, groups were rallying against the dogma of the genre and taking a simultaneously more experimental and more classic approach to songwriting. It’s long been said that punk was invented to destroy classic rock, but by the end of its first decade, punks started turning their own ideals, adopting a sense of reverse-antagonism that suggested maybe classic-rock wasn’t so bad after all. The Men opened their hearts the exact same way.
It’s difficult to say whether Our Band Could Be Your Life ends up proving to be the Holy Bible of alternative-rock culture, or if fans wind up putting it back on the shelves in favor of Rip it Up and Start Again in 2013. Whichever way underground alternative culture goes, many acts this year certainly proved there could be additional documentation of the influence asserted by those 500 pages written many, many years ago. Who knows? Maybe their band could be your life someday.