2012: The Year Rock Came Back and Then Died Anyway

Although it will show up on approximately zero Best Of The Year lists, Local H‘s album Hallelujah! I’m A Bum was one of the best rock albums of the year, and the best political album by the proverbial country mile. Please know that I am not being intentionally contrary with this statement.

“Lucas is a diehard. He’ll keep on making stomp box smeared character sketches, even if the only people who care about his band are other diehards. Sometimes, it seems like the only people who care about rock at all these days are the diehards.”

Hallelujah! was released just a few weeks before the election, but there’s no overarching political narrative, just an ordinary but articulate guy taking the world in and saying how he feels in plain-spoken but sharp language. There are some bitching guitar solos. There are also plenty of hits for the MoveOn crowd. “Feed A Fever” skewers Fox News, “Limit Your Change” intersperses quotes from Sarah Palin et al with the refrain “limit your change, people like to limit their change,” and “Paddy Considine” finds Lucas trying to understand that one diehard conservative uncle we all have before giving up. But elsewhere Lucas digs deep into his frustration at the divisiveness of modern life, and what he finds resists easy binaries. He wonders if he can still bring himself to hope like he did just a few years ago after so many disappointments, and contemplates the comforting oblivion of complete apathy on “Cold Manor.” (“We’re running in place/ ‘Til we die.”)

But though Bum has some great lines, to this day the best lyric Lucas has written is “I’m in love with rock ’n’ roll / But that will change eventually” — from 1998, on “Hit The Skids Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Rock” from their masterpiece Pack up the Cats.” Most of Lucas’ lyrics deal with keeping one’s dignity and ideals alive in a world full of jaded assholes, heartbreak and the realization that most people think that believing in rock ‘n’ roll past a certain age is just sad. Perhaps you can relate. Local H had one big hit and a few smaller ones, but never really broke through due to a variety of music industry implosions. But Lucas is a diehard. He’ll keep on making stomp box smeared character sketches, even if the only people who care about his band are other diehards.

Sometimes, it seems like the only people who care about rock at all these days are the diehards. With the exception of the Black Keys and (why not?) Muse, most of this year’s rock radio hits have been by Mumford & Sons or major-label Animal Collective/Postal Service clones like Grouplove. In many ways the music blogosphere developed as a reaction to the staleness of modern radio, but according to the HypeMachine’s year-end countdown, most bloggers are primarily interested in heady electronic acts like Grimes and Teen Daze these days. (About half the people on that list are great, by the way. No shots.)

Local H Let’s define terms here. There is rock music in the sense of “music that has guitars.” That sort of music had a great year, with fun. (who often live up to their name) and Mumford (who sound like the color sepia and a glass of milk collaborating) scoring hit singles and albums. But here, I am talking about rock music in the sense of music played loudly and aggressively with the goal of having a physical impact on the listener. You know, music that rocks. It’s a hard thing to pin down, but you know it when you hear it. (It’s kind of like pornography in that way.) It does not necessarily have to have guitars; I think we can all agree that Crystal Castles and Waka Flocka Flame rock rather hard.

Oddly enough, that sort of music had a quietly great year. But perhaps we should have known it was coming, as rock music has developed a strange habit of regenerating itself every ten years. Perhaps that’s just the natural amount of time it takes for a generation of musicians to get its act together, or perhaps it’s just a trick of timing or marketing. In 1992, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains broke into the mainstream. In 2002, every magazine proclaimed that the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Vines and the Hives were going to Bring Back Rock and usher in an era of unpolished good times. It sort of happened. In 2012 we have Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females and — take your pick — either The Men or Cloud Nothings. (I prefer the former, though the latter is more popular.) These bands are much more stylistically varied than previous waves, though in different ways they are all the children of the Hold Steady. All of them play with an urgency that makes you feel like listening to them is the most important thing you could possibly do with your time.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that their main fans are aging music writers and kids mad that they were born too late for Nirvana. Though any programmer who didn’t add “The House That Heaven Built” into regular rotation deserves to lose the job, rock radio still stubbornly refuses to look outside the major label graft system, which is why painfully nondescript major-label bands like Cage The Elephant get serious radio burn while most of the current greats languish in obscurity. People just don’t seem interested in getting their rocks off anymore. Perhaps in these polyglot, cosmopolitan times, the pleasures of distorted guitars and breakneck tempos read as hopelessly adolescent and retrograde. In this EDM world, maybe all rock is dad rock. Lucas once wrote a song about dividing up his record collection with an ex that specifically mentioned which Pretenders record was his. I can’t imagine that he’s happy about this state of affairs.

It’s worth pointing out that none of the bands I mentioned above are cool. I don’t mean that term in the common parlance in which it is basically interchangeable with “neat,” but in the term’s original jazz-age usage of emotionally restrained and aloof. These bands are fronted by open-hearted neurotics who care way too much. But coolness is very often a barrier to greatness. When done properly, rock ‘n’ roll offers a primal catharsis that very little in the world can match. The idea that a rock band can save your life is hopelessly corny. Hearing a band push aside cynicism to try it anyway is one of the greatest pleasures music has to offer.

The two great urtexts of music journalism are “Rock Is Dead” and “Rock Is Back.” 2012 is the first year where both of those felt true.

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