The Designer’s Drugs: Foxy Shazam/Conspirator


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Foxy Shazam ‒ Church of Rock & Roll

The way I’ve described this album in my head is that Church of Rock & Roll is what would happen if Mindless Self Indulgence decided to become the Darkness.  Sometimes Foxy Shazam throws out the Darkness milk jug and goes straight for the Queen cow’s tit, but as a whole this album isn’t grandiose or conceptual so much as it is a no bullshit, straight up amazing rock and roll album.

The only drawback to be found in this wailing tribute to the spirit of rock and roll is that Foxy seems to have chucked out most of its delightful weird in making a beeline for rock legitimacy.  In contrast with its previous works of high quirk, the strangest thing to be found here comes in Foxy’s merger of ten pound ball rock swagger and Sir Mix-a-lot’s love of big butts in “I Like It,” a track which is far and away the album’s best.  Yet for as much as Eric Sean Nally continues to wail like rock’s gospel diva (the track “Last Chance At Love” reads like triumphant Joan Jett Top 40), the words which accompany his frenetic tones and the music to surround it all is pretty straightforward even while it tears up the walls.  No complaints from Nally about hipsters calling him gay here.  Oh well.  It’s a more than fair tradeoff.


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Conspirator ‒ Unlocked – Live from the Georgia Theatre

“Park Ave,” the track which kicks off this collection of electronic instrumentals filtered through rock instrumentation, is kind of a false start.  As opposed to the rest of the album, which reads like a very workmanlike DJ set, this first song meanders and sways around, giving the impression that Conspirator is something of a jam band.  Nothing that follows sounds anything like that first track, but for some reason I couldn’t shake that jammy first impression.

To call Unlocked a serviceable performance is no insult, especially since Conspirator proves here that it’s a hell of a band.  There is a well-executed musical theme which runs throughout the set which makes a lot of its chapters sound quite similar both in sound and tempo.  Even Conspirator’s appropriation of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” fits the style, chugging away with so much of the usual march that the end result is much less cover than sample contorted to fit the overlying musical agenda.  In such a world, the final song, “Retrograde,” could have been notable for little more than bucking the formula and being a rock song with its own time signature.  Luckily, it’s also a really good track in its own right, a concise conclusion that answers the album’s spaced out opening by being both unique and connected with everything prior.

It’s probably true that had the music of Unlocked been released as a studio album with the same structures, it wouldn’t have worked out as well.  The fact that Conspirator released this as a live performance gives all its familiar themes and beats a legitimacy and excitement that would have had us music critics bitching about everything sounding the same had it come in the studio pill.  In any event, the band sounds fantastic, rendering such distinctions pointless.  Here, excitement trumps architecture.

The Designer’s Drugs: Top 11 of 11

So here’s my crappy end of year list.  I don’t think I liked enough albums, books, or other entertainments to warrant separate best-of lists for each medium, so I’m just smashing everything together. Deal with it.

11.  Medium: Literature. Stimulus: George R. R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons

Finally, George R. R. Martin continues his Song of Fire and Ice series with a gigantic book that nonetheless picks up the pace and is much more exciting than its predecessor.

10.  Medium: Film. Stimulus: Red State

The guy who directed Clerks and Mallrats makes a serious movie about Fred Phelps-grade religious fanaticism and David Koresh-grade domestic terrorism.  On paper, you’d think it wouldn’t work, but it works pretty goddamn hard.

9.      Medium: Game. Stimulus: The Nintendo 3DS

Most video game systems suck and have a crappy library of games in their first year.  The Nintendo 3DS bypassed this by cutting the crap and releasing upgraded versions of the company’s best games 15 years ago, Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64.  It worked.  Add a highly serviceable port of Street Fighter IV, a Mario game that is the 2011 version of 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3, and the requisite round of Mario Kart, and the opening salvo of the 3DS hasn’t been too bad at all.

8.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Austrian Death Machine – Jingle All the Way

If you haven’t listened to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-themed metal genius that is Austrian Death Machine, do it.  Do it now!  Their latest release is a two-song EP based on Arnold’s epic Christmas movie, Jingle All the Way.  “I’m Not a Pervert,” based on Arnold’s failed attempt at gaining a bouncy ball from a stupid kid at the Mall of America, is the feel-good Christmas song of the year.

7.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030.

A believable, grounded account of American decline without the usual futuristic vibe.  Usually, books about the future are pretty devoid of compassion and pretty bonered out on robo-fascism, but Brooks plays it calm and presents a future with real people – and, equally important, real language.  This examination of overpopulation and boomer entitlement reaching old age is less fiction than it is frightening inevitability.

6.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Shatner Shatners it up and sings cover songs about space.  How could this possibly go wrong?  The answer: it won’t.

5.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Peter Gabriel – New Blood

I think that instead of the usual gathering of singles into the usual stale Greatest Hits collection, all musicians who reach such a reflective point in their careers should do orchestral renditions of their best songs.  Especially the B-52s.  Consider Peter Gabriel and this beautiful retrospective to be my prime argument for this.

4.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Once more, the great Andy Schoepp delivers over the top martial arts action in book form, yet this time he outdoes himself.  Time traveling ninjas, giant robots, and hot assassin babes make for an epic tale.  I’ve said it before: if Andy Schoepp’s work doesn’t kick your ass, then you don’t have an ass.

3.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

This is what pop music should always sound like: well-crafted yet forceful, ambitious yet immediate, intellectual yet emotional.  Ceremonials is titanic sonic literature.

2.      Medium: Film. Stimulus: Hobo with a Shotgun

This ridiculous, ultraviolent, pun-heavy bit of low-rent cinema made me grateful to be alive.  Seeing an old grizzled hobo dispense buckshot justice to an awesome family of gleefully murderous gangsters was a joy.  Remember: when life gives you razor blades, you make a bat covered in razor blades!

1.      Medium: Life. Stimulus: Protests!

It’s breathtaking to see people giving a shit and fighting corrupt systems of power worldwide.  In America this seems even more amazing, because we’re currently the spoiled children of the planet.  Divide that down to the Midwest, where the secondary holy mantra that follows “go [insert local NFL team]” is “don’t rock the boat,” and consider my mind blown.  My expectations for humanity this year were completely shattered, and that feels wonderful.

The Designer’s Drugs: Peter Gabriel/Steel Panther

Medium: Album

Peter Gabriel – New Blood

Anno: 2011


As the story goes, Peter Gabriel planned to follow up his last album, an amazingly orchestrated covers album titled Scratch My Back that I can’t recommend highly enough, with an album featuring the covered artists doing Peter Gabriel tunes titled I’ll Scratch Yours.  The status of that follow-up seems to be in limbo, which may have prompted Gabriel to simply remake his own songs in the Scratch My Back style, which is to say, through an orchestra.  This was a considerably wise move.

This isn’t exactly a greatest hits collection – I’d have loved to hear orchestral versions of “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer,” – but each song on New Blood has been wonderfully redone.  I’m not a fan of “Solisbury Hill” as a song – for some reason I always envision hospital dramas when I hear it – but the version here is pretty much the deluxe rendition one would expect.  I’m on the fence about this album’s version of “Darkness,” mostly because I really like the menace and beauty of the original, the former feeling a bit diluted here even while the latter is enhanced.

Still, the crawling, seething “The Rhythm of the Heat” could fuel an album’s menace quota on its own, and “Downside Up” could supply the gorgeous and pretty.  “In Your Eyes” is given an effective upgrade, whereas “Digging in the Dirt” is turned inside out from smooth beats to scratching strings.  “Mercy Street” and “Don’t Give Up” are both soft-spoken, heart-punchingly beautiful songs.

The whole is simply wonderful.


Medium: Album

Steel Panther – Balls Out

Anno: 2011


This is the sort of thing that’s either going to make you grin like an idiot or tear your hair out in offended rage.  Classy song titles like “Supersonic Sex Machine,” “17 Girls in a Row,” and “It Won’t Suck Itself” give away the game before the first triumphant chords fall.  Balls Out is every inch a collection of slithering sex fantasies of inept metalhead teenage boys from the 80s, earnest to the point of self-parody.  (“It Won’t Suck Itself,” for example, is a serious meditation on the danger of rattlesnake attacks.)  Still, if this album were playing in the background and one wasn’t paying attention to the absurd lyrics, it would simply be a kickass hair metal album.  There’s much more going on here than pubescent boner tomfoolery – though it’s still not really for most ladies, and the morals of those who get it are delightfully suspect.

The Designer’s Drugs: Christmas Music for People Who Hate Christmas Music


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Christmas Music for People Who Hate Christmas Music


If you have a job that requires you to work in a store in December, then you probably hate the seasonal onslaught of holiday music with a white-hot passion.  Me, I have a special fantasy involving a time machine, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and a steel chair studded with nails.  Really, I’d expand that fantasy to include any jackass rock band who decides that the world just could not survive without its take on the classics (I’m looking at you, Barenaked Ladies).  Yet fear not, fellow Christmas sufferers, for there is holiday music out there that will not make you consider seasonal rampage!  Enclosed are my suggestions; feel free to sneak them into your store’s playlist.


Neil Diamond – A Cherry Cherry Christmas


Really, I only suggest this because I’m kind of a nerd for Neil.  Beyond the sheer joy that is Neil Diamond, this is a pretty square affair.  The only swerve comes when Neil appropriates Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” – though he sort of blows it by endorsing gin and tonickah yet not supporting the smoking of marijuanikah.  Holiday double standard!


Tori Amos – Midwinter Graces


It’s a Tori Amos album, sad and full of piano.  Its holiday sensibilities run pretty pagan; it barely qualifies as a Christmas album, at least in the sterile modern sense.  If you like Tori Amos, you will like this.


Twisted Sister – A Twisted Christmas


I love this album.  Twisted Sister rules Christmas.  The songs aren’t much more than heavy metal versions of the old holiday standards, and for all their distortion they’re played pretty straightforward.  Still, there’s something joyous about hearing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” played almost exactly like “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  This is the only Christmas album that will have you pumping your fist with joy.


Fred Schneider and the Superions – Destination… Christmas!


My respectful boner for Neil Diamond multiplies tenfold for Fred Schneider of the B-52s.  Besides having the benefit of being comprised entirely of original Christmas songs, Destination… Christmas! is a balls to the wall celebration of the absurd.  Schneider rocks it wild, singing about fruitcakes, murderous yetis, crummy trees, and lame relatives.  He lurches around like a drunken old pervert in “Jingle Those Bells” and subjects the listener to four minutes of nothing but French orgasmic moaning and jolly ho ho hos at the final track (“Santa, Je T’aime”).  Best Christmas album ever.


Julie Silver – It’s Chanukah Time


I only mention this one because I have a redneck friend whom I gave this to one Christmas as a joke on his suburban racism, and apparently he still listens to it.  Breaking down barriers!


Happy Holidays, and keep Mithras in Christmas!

The Designer’s Drugs: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials (Deluxe)

Anno: 2011


The thought that ran through my head as I listened to this amazing album was that this is the sort of music that wins Grammys and deserves them.  Ceremonials is a mixture of the ambition of an orchestra, the aggression of rock, the hooks of pop, and the pipes of Florence Welch, a vocalist who could sing the phone book and make it sound like an erotic awakening.  The total product is easily the best album I’ve heard this year.

In fact, it may also have the year’s best track.  “What the Water Gave Me” starts as a steady pace of gloom and pieces of harp, pushing through the introductions before dropping into a hook of subterranean organs, shards of guitars, and a swelling choir that gathers its strength as the song progresses and soon explodes everything.  The song’s titanic conclusion isn’t the usual bitchy distorted guitar angst that typically characterizes rock, but it’s about as powerfully rock as anything I’ve ever heard.

And still, it’s only one song in a great series.  “Shake It Out” is a beaming sadjoy pop tune which carries the right sort of pretentious messianic overtones.  “No Light, No Light” is run by an organ and a smashing drum pulse operating alongside words which might not have been as catching if they weren’t delivered in Welch’s towering wails.  “Heartlines” is in the same percussive orchestral vein, though it has more of an esoteric beat and Welch is even more impressive at the helm.  The electronic R&B of “Spectrum” swings from the subdued intensity of the verses to blasts of voice and harp.  “Bedroom Hymns” closes the album with a frenzied swing rush of drums and piano while Welch does a little bit of the old erotic religion dirty talk.

There’s absolutely nothing on Ceremonials that comes within a light year of bad.  The very worst thing I could say about it is that there’s a song called “Never Let Me Go” that comes off as a slow, minimalist love ballad from the 80s, which isn’t my style.  If you’re into slow, minimalist love ballads from the 80s, however, this thing will spin your wheels.  There are shortcomings to be found throughout the album, to be sure, but the orchestration is so tightly woven in each and every song that any weakness is compensated for with a dozen strengths.

So yeah.  I severely doubt that I’m going to hear anything as good as this for a long, long while.


The Designer’s Drugs: Justice / Camille Bloom and the Recovery

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Justice – Audio, Video, Disco

Anno: 2011


This is an album with a hot single that doesn’t do much to back it up.  “Civilization” is a towering work of synthpop that is easily one of my favorite songs of the year, but most of its support on Audio, Video, Disco is subdued and listless.  “Horsepower” is a wicked orchestral lead-in to the greater single, but it doesn’t stand by itself.  The concluding trilogy of “New Lands,” “Helix,” and “Audio, Video, Disco” are decently exciting dance tracks, but they blow off no doors.  In contrast, more conceptual electronic pieces like “Ohio” and “Parade” just come off as overproduced and jaded.  I’d recommend “Civilization” without a second’s hesitation, but as for the rest, it’s kind of hit or miss.


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Camille Bloom and the Recovery – Never out of Time

Anno: 2011


Never out of Time is the sort of introspective yet occasionally aggressive acoustic rock album that fills out a conventional band’s sound with some bowed strings for added depth.  It’s a very practical entry in the field.  The lyrics and vocals, while pretty typical angry anguished solitary fare, work well with the surrounding music and make a listenable whole.

I’m rarely in the mood for songs with acoustic guitars in full rock out mode, so I gravitated towards the quieter songs on this album, in particular “All of These Stains,” which is a pretty little sad song full of that added depth.  But the louder stuff isn’t exactly abrasive; “Just Because I’m a Friend” and “Why?” are the best examples of a canny sensibility that doesn’t throw architecture to the wind once the tempo picks up.  The only odd moment on the album is the bonus track “Teeny Car,” in which Camille Bloom raps alongside some vintage 80s electro.  It’s obviously not meant to fit in with the rest of the songs, which eliminates none of its strangeness.

The strength here comes more from the background than the front, and in supporting Camille Bloom, the Recovery excels.

The Designer’s Drugs: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom


Medium: Album

Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Anno: 2011


God bless William Shatner for having a music career – okay, a spoken-word career set to music.  Following up on his artistic and awesome collaboration with Ben Folds in Has Been, Shatner’s enunciations have returned to the grin-worthy.  At last, his aural body of work has arrived at its logical, Captain Kirk conclusion: a covers concept album about space.  If it’s a famous song that in any way references the heavens, Seeking Major Tom takes it on, swirls it together alongside NASA audio clips, and places it among the coherent whole.  He dusts off his classic rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” does the expected gloom of Bowie’s “Space Odyssey,” rambles around like a drunk uncle in “Space Truckin’,” rocks it wild on “The Twilight Zone,” and synths up his voice to ba-baba a sweet cover of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.”  Most of this is entirely predictable, and all of it is wonderful.

The only exception to this goodness is “Mrs. Major Tom,” a cover entirely devoid of Shatner’s presence and full of Sheryl Crow’s.  It’s an okay track, but in the context of the greater album the lack of hyperacted vocals is jarring.  There’s definitely a Where the Hell is Shatner vibe to it.

But let’s get to the mind-blowing parts.  First off, Shatner covers “Iron Man.”  It’s pretty goddamn amazing, though the focus is much more on Zakk Wylde’s guitar playing than on our hero’s sweet crooning.  Yet looming even more titanic in the category of it must be heard to be believed is William Shatner, covering “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Holy shit (or Shat), this is amazing.  Shatner completely warps and perverts this song, throwing out Freddie Mercury’s rock opera vocals and replacing them with groans and wails and gnashing teeth.  The song becomes less tragedy and much more farce, with the lyrics under Shatner’s stewardship becoming the tale of a paranoid schizophrenic with a splitting headache.  It’s beautiful.

If you can, check out Shatner’s video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Not content with warping only one classic beyond recognition, his music video is by all appearances a dissection of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” in which the starry, disembodied head of Shatner sings in space and occasionally plagues the Earth with meteors.  It’s splendid.

It’s not half as respectable as Has Been (or even those songs in which Shatner howls out Shakespeare monologues), but Seeking Major Tom is the album of a man who knows his place in pop culture and isn’t afraid to ham it up to the fullest.  Now if only Adam West will make a cover album about bats.


The Designer’s Drugs: Tori Amos – Night of Hunters


Medium: Album

Stimulus: Tori Amos – Night of Hunters

Anno: 2011



Tori Amos doing a classical-themed album is sort of an obvious proposition.  As it turns out, it’s also a powerful reality.  The classical aspects of Night of Hunters aren’t blatant; the songs are still mostly built around Tori’s vocals and piano, with all the new orchestral sounds filling out the periphery.  What makes this album different from her previous works, however, almost seems to be the knowledge that this was going to be a classical album.  That label does more to define Night of Hunters than any change in instrumentation.

It’s a very long and dark album, both brooding and distant.  The contradiction is that the music found here is about as menacing as anything Amos has made, yet the lyrics often have a feel of epic poetry and lack Amos’ usual fire.  Sometimes it’s more of an opera than a collection of songs.  The nine minutes of slow decline comprising “Battle of Trees” construct the most obvious example of this grandiose sense of fiction.  It’s a strange thing to say about a musician who once created an entire album exploring five separate aspects of herself, but Night of Hunters feels like Amos at her least personal.  That’s not awful by any stretch – as the brilliant ten minute darkness of “Star Whisperer” proves – but it does require some level of adjustment.

Also requiring some adjustment is the addition of Amos’ daughter on backup vocals.  She’s a bit raspy and nervous, which tends to take away from the songs in which she appears.  The greatest example of this is the Alice and Wonderland-like “Cactus Practice,” which dips into the sort of repeat after me chorus mantras that normally show up in hip hop singles.

There is an example in which the backup steps up, however.  “Job’s Coffin” is one of the moments in which the album shakes off its epic classical programming, and this sort of bluesy feminist call to action is vocally driven by Tori’s daughter, whose rougher voice serves it rather well.

The usual response to those times when musicians create albums that buck their established formulas is to give them a condescending pat on the head and say “Nice experiment!” while waiting for the errant artists to remember where their bread is buttered.  Night of Hunters, however, never comes off as a toe in the water, something to be later written off as non-canonical (see: Y Kant Tori Read?).  Sure, I’d like to hear more albums from Tori Amos that have the high energy, tempos, and lyrical fists of her usual work, but would I listen to another half dozen albums of Amos doing classical?  If they’re like this, then absolutely.

The Designer’s Drugs: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love


Medium: Album

Stimulus: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love

Anno: 2011


The Rapture used to be an exciting dance band.  Now it’s just a dance band.  Not everything on In the Grace of Your Love is the bored, stoned beach hippie electrorock that can pass for songwriting maturity since MGMT came out with Oracular Spectacular (a comparison that’s easy to make considering the waterfront album art of each).  Still, there’s also not a lot here that is as gripping as past Rapture works.  Almost as if it was made to reinforce this idea, track two of Grace is a harpsichord-wielding swinger titled “Miss You” which, while it’s one of the album’s best tracks, also has the exact same beat as the title track of the Rapture’s much better album, Pieces of the People We Love.  That track was also a track two, appropriately enough.

There’s very little that’s gut-wrenchingly terrible; I’d point to Luke Jenner’s screechy vocals opening the album on “Sail Away,” the boring and annoyingly whimsical “Roller Coaster,” and the terrible, repetitive lyrics laid over the dull, repetitive synths of “Can You Find a Way?”  These shortcomings would have been overlooked had the Rapture compensated by filling the rest of the album with great songs.  Instead, the rest of the songs are at best pretty good, the main selling point being that Luke Jenner, who used to screech and wail and get kind of ridiculous with his high-pitched throat muscles, has become a much better singer.

The title track of Grace is probably the collection’s high point, being a sly and self-assured bass-synth and guitar track that saunters through alongside Jenner at one of his best vocal moments on the album.  It’s followed by “Never Die Again,” which sounds the most like the big, spastic dance rock sound of old Rapture (without, as mentioned above, the band plagiarizing itself).  “How Deep Is Your Love?” is pretty solid dancefloor fuel, being both old and new by busting out some old Rapture saxophone while exchanging the guitars for piano.  “Come Back to Me” could have been great; it starts as a neat French accordion-driven dance song that would have been so much better had the brooding sluggishness of the second half been completely cut out and the opening it reflected allowed to exist independently.  That last half drags down the whole song.

It’s a bit of a disappointment hearing the Rapture trade in frenzied groove for a slower shot at adulthood, but In the Grace of Your Love isn’t the worst letdown imaginable.

The Designer’s Drugs: Memory Tapes/Handsome Furs

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Memory Tapes – Player Piano

Anno: 2011


When jerkwad music journalists like me use the word “ethereal” to describe a work, they usually mean one of two things: the music is a near-ambient sound collage that aims for pixielike and adorable, or the singer is drugged to hell and babbling inane or incomprehensible lyrics.  Memory Tapes is an example of the first school of ethereal, though Player Piano gets a bit too motivated in places to be completely described as fly on the wall.  There are a lot of precious electronic-driven instrumentals on this album coupled with earnest smurf pop tunes, and all of it adds up to one simple message: hug us.

The instrumentals are generally better than the vocal tracks, but one lyrical track stands out as the album’s best work.  “Offers” is a moody and seductive song full of empty hallway vocals, bleeding synthetic squeaks, and some really pretty keyboards at its core.  While there’s not much on Player Piano that I’d call memorable, “Offers” is a fairly arresting piece of work.



Medium: Album

Stimulus: Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

Anno: 2011


Though it could be called a few different things, one thing Sound Kapital is not is a slick album.  The keyboards which overpopulate what is ultimately a rock album sound like they were purchased at a rummage sale, and the tones they create for the album are so rough and abrasive that they dominate every song.  The vocals and beats are rendered incredibly secondary.

That said, Sound Kapital is a pretty sterling example of bargain basement electronica.  Sure, there are tracks like “When I Get Back,” which is one more example of the recent crop of drawling hippie electropop, and “Bury Me Standing” sounds too much like a teched-up Billy Idol song to be taken as anything but silly.  But there are good tracks like “What About Us,” which blares its Nintendo dancefloor to maximum effect, as well as the glittering, pulsating “Memories of the Future.”

On this album, Handsome Furs sounds highly competent, but its caustic lo-fi orchestration does seem to render this work as strictly for old school tech geeks.