Rock on

August has been a traditionally slow month for sports, with baseball pennant races still a month away from really heating up and football yet to get underway. While the Braves are busy playing their way out of the NL wild card race, I thought I would make a few posts about my current musical tastes. Some people might say I have none, while others might not be familiar with all the groups I’ll be talking about. So, in the interest of equal opportunity (or perhaps self-indulgence), I’ll quickly name off my ten favorite bands or artists in contemporary music with a short description and summary. In the coming weeks, I’ll examine each a bit more closely and list some of my favorite songs and albums.

Now, in order, my ten favorite contemporary musicians:

1. Switchfoot

Switchfoot hails from San Diego, California, which already makes them a bit atypical of a band with Christian roots. Nothing against California, it’s just not typical. They released three studio albums before hitting it big in mainstream rock with 2003’s The Beautiful Letdown LP and smash single “Meant to Live.” They performed at Harding in early 2004, and I’ve seen them live five times now in total. They do a fantastic job combining a layered, better-than-average rock sound with solid vocals and fantastic lyrics. 2005’s Nothing is Sound was a fantastic recent collection of songs that prove they are a growing, powerful rock group. They’ve managed to not alienate themselves from Christian radio with their jump to mainstream music, and they’ve mastered the art of subtly pushing for personal and global change. They’re not the most musically talented band, but in this case, the cliche that the sum is greater than the individual parts holds true, and they are without a doubt my favorite band right now.

2. Nickel Creek

Like Switchfoot, I had never heard of Nickel Creek just three years ago. Now I own all three of their major studio releases. Also like Switchfoot, they are from San Diego. Perhaps I should move to southern California. However, very much unlike Switchfoot, they are a bluegrass group, or “new-grass,” as they’ve occasionally been called. Their instrumental work proves that they are exceptionally talented on their instruments (Sara Watkins on violin, Chris Thile on mandolin, and Sean Watkins on guitar), but at the same time, all of their songs are accessible to the everyday listener. In this way, they are very similar to the Dave Matthews Band, which I will get to momentarily. However, they have an added dimension of fantastic lyrics, storytelling, and vocal talent as well. With a range of songs from the instrumental “Smoothie Song,” the intensely personal “Reasons Why” and “Doubting Thomas,” and the cultural commentary of “When in Rome,” it’s a wonder I ever listen to anyone else. How Harding managed to get them for one of our major concert events, I will never figure out, nor do I understand why they can’t make it outside of the country music arena. They are a super-talented group and a clear choice as my #2 favorite.

3. Dave Matthews Band

Formed in the early 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia, DMB is the best live band of my generation, yet I’ve never seen them play. I can say this confidently because of the ever-quickening hold that technology has on me and the rest of the world, and while some old-timers lament that, I’m loving it. I’ve seen a handful of Dave’s live performances and have recordings of a number of them, so I know that if I do get the chance to see them one day (before Dave’s voice goes out from smoking too much), they will be fantastic. Leroi Moore, Carter Beauford, Stefan Lessard, and Boyd Tinsley are great musicians in their own right, but the way they play well together is almost mind-boggling. Add in Dave’s great songwriting skill, and they’ve managed to put together a string of exceptional work, from the early days with “Ants Marching” and “Crash Into Me” to great recent songs like “Grey Street” and “Dreamgirl.” Instrumentally, they are probably slightly ahead of Nickel Creek, but they’re a shade behind on the powerful lyrics, so as difficult as it is to rank them this low, they’re #3.

4. Linkin Park

This is where it becomes difficult to adequately rank my favorite bands. My top three were clear, but each remaining group has both strengths and weaknesses to consider, at least in my mind. Plus, they’re mostly different styles of rock music (I’m careful not to say just “music” there, since they’re all basically rock bands). LP, out of southern California, is one of the more creative groups on my list, though they don’t get credit for it because they’re hugely popular. They’re also talented instrumentally, even if they don’t offer a whole lot of variety. I just like the setup they have, with essentially two lead singers (well, one rapper) and a DJ as full members of the group. They’re always exploring the boundaries of sound, and I’m confident that as long as Chester’s voice holds up, they’ll be an outstanding group. Otherwise, they’re Fort Minor with guitars, which would still be pretty good, just maybe not in my top 10.

5. Collective Soul

It’s hard to rank Collective Soul this low, especially since they’ve been either my favorite or one of my favorite bands since I was 10 years old. They’re not the most talented or creative band, but they continue to make interesting songs with catchy riffs, solos, and solid lyrics. They’re also from the South, which of course is cool. They have been occasionally great and always good, and they appear to be some of the nicer guys in rock music. Their recent lineup changes have taken away some of the band’s musical strength (guitarist Ross Childress left before Youth was released, and drummer Shane Evans has left since), so I don’t know how much longer they can stay in my top 10, but as long as they come up with a few good songs like “Better Now” and “Counting the Days” every few years, I’ll be happy to keep ranking them.

6. Sister Hazel

Another great live band from the South (Gainesville, Florida, specifically), Sister Hazel only has 1.5 great songs if you ask mainstream rock radio (All For You and Change Your Mind). If you ask me, they have about 25. Every song is well-written, most of them have nice hooks, and several have fantastic guitar solos. As popular rock music has shied away somewhat from acts that use solos (I guess people can’t pay attention through them), I’ve grown to like them more and more. Ken Block is a great vocalist, and they have a lot of on-stage character that makes them seem like an approachable group of guys. They’ve also recently become an indie band in the technical sense, and Lift was still a solid album despite the lack of label support. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why they never became more popular, but I suppose I don’t care why they’re so weird.

7. Franz Ferdinand

Now we get to those silly foreigners, only they’re not really that silly, just straight-up good. The Scottish rockers are fronted by Alex Kapranos, who is a supremely talented writer and an adequate enough singer to perform live, even without great range. Franz’ guitar playing is pretty good, though they don’t really deal with solos. The various and persistent beats are what make them great, anyway. Many a singer/songwriter has been pulled down by a lack of creativity by the background musicians, but the backbone of Franz Ferdinand strengthens their overall layered sound, and they manage to not sound like anyone else in popular music today. They only have two full-length releases, so I suppose they’re also still climbing this chart.

8. Audioslave

The most talented pieces of grunge supergroup Soundgarden and rap/rock supergroup Rage Against the Machine formed what I suppose is a super-supergroup a couple of years ago and had virtually instant success as Audioslave. Chris Cornell has a distinctive voice and style that are tough to match even by himself in a live context, which I suppose detracts from their ranking a bit. Guitarist Tom Morello is wildly creative, almost to excess. For me, at least, he’s the reason to listen, and even he has some difficulty matching that studio sound in a live setting. Bass player Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk are not much better than replacement level, from a baseball-speak standpoint. In fact, Commerford’s repetitive bass lines are almost annoying after repeated listening. Still, after all that criticism, they’re one of the best and most interesting bands out there right now, and they play right into the style of sound that I typically like.

9. Muse

I have a feeling that if you give me another month or so, Muse may be near closer to the top of this chart. Another UK-based band, they formed in school in the mid-1990s and have been together since then. Singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy is adept at both of his crafts, with an amazing falsetto range, the ability to sing live, and good guitar skills. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dom Howard are good enough to be interesting most of the time, although I wish they had a bit more variety in their playing style (i.e. Wolstenholme tends to favor quick eighth and sixteenth notes without much variation in rhythm). Their dramatic style tends to be the polarizing point among fans or non-fans, but I like it enough for them to crack my top 10.

10. Death Cab for Cutie (Ben Gibbard/The Postal Service)

Death Cab has been creative for a long time, but only recently have they been interesting enough to get me to like them. Gibbard’s work as The Postal Service gave his always solid lyrics and vocals enough of a backbeat to make his music casually listenable. Then, between Transatlanticism and Plans, the pop-rock sound of DCFC evolved into something quite good, even if it’s not musically complex nor entirely my taste. I respect them enough and am fond of enough of their hooks to rank them #10.

Almost, but not quite:

  • Evanescence: The lineup change bug caught this group that, at some point a few years ago, was quite a talented bunch. Now, as far as I know, they’re basically Amy Lee and some adequate backup musicians. Their next album, The Open Door, will be telling of their (or perhaps “her”) true skill.
  • Alien Ant Farm: They lost bass player Tye Zamora, and their new album just isn’t as good as truANT, but there’s still enough there to make them better than average.
  • Fuel: Perhaps the changiest of the changing bands, Fuel parted ways with both their drummer and their lead singer, holding auditions for the latter position (with the winner as yet unnamed) during the spring. The loss of Brett Scallions, whose vocal style was quite distinct, will probably hurt, even though he wasn’t the main songwriter. But, they still have guitarist Carl Bell, who is the main songwriter, and bass player Jeff Abercrombie, who were the best parts of the band in the first place. It remains to be seen if they will ever be able to match “Shimmer” or “Hemorrhage,” though.
  • Relient K: Their punk-ish sound gets a bit old, but MMHMM really made me consider them as a talented band, at least from a writing standpoint. If they can keep putting together uplifting and catchy songs, they’ll stay on or around this list.
  • Chevelle: Again, Chevelle is a band which doesn’t explore a lot of diverse styles, but their powerful emo-hard rock is hard to beat for what it is. They’re the best of a usually not-so-great genre based on their two major-label releases and a handful of great songs like “The Clincher,” and “Closure.”
  • Weezer: Weezer is another niche band, but it’s a nice niche to be in. They write catchy, strange-but-creative pop rock songs with a bit of hard rock mixed in at times. Frontman Rivers Cuomo is Harvard-educated and a fantastic writer, for the most part. The rest of the band is pretty good, but not spectacular enough to make the top 10 because of some lesser-quality recent work.
  • U2: Their sound has been solid for 20+ years, and they’re wonderful humanitarians. I’m getting more familiar with some of their older work, but to me it’s just not as great as it needs to be to get them on my top 10.
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