In light of power-pop deity Wyatt Funderburk’s debut solo album “Novel and Profane” taking the top slot on my 2013 Top Ten, I decided to reach out to Wyatt to dig a little bit deeper into whatever happened to his original band — power-pop legends Second Saturday — and of course, talk about the new album.
1) What happened to Second Saturday? You teased fans with “In the End,” and then radio silence. Are you still on good terms with the former members of the band?
We are still great friends but unfortunately we don’t all live in the same place anymore and it became difficult with everyone starting families and careers to maintain playing and recording as Second Saturday. The album is about half way finished and I do plan on one day completing it but I’m not sure when that will be. It was always a labor of love and hopefully others will think so when it’s finally released.
2) Are the subjects of either “The Fox” or “Arianna” real people? Who are they? Have any of your songs ever been licensed? “The Fox” sounds like the ultimate Saturday morning cartoon theme song, in the very best way possible.
First of all, thanks. Secondly, all of my songs are about real people. “Arianna” is about an old crush that never materialized back in my late teens. “The Fox” is about my friend Camille’s little sister who would always come to our shows and one day she shows up and is all grown up and it really blew my mind when I realized it was her.
3) Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to musically since releasing “Greetings from Mt. Rockmore.”
That’s about 10 years now. We were working on the as-of-yet unreleased Second Saturday album for a few years there. I produced two records for Karmella’s Game from Baltimore in 2005 and 2008. I also played and recorded with bands like The Parasites, The Loblaws, The Backseat Virgins and more recently The Kurt Baker Band. When I started working with Kurt it became a much more full time gig than I expected. I’ve also mixed and mastered tons of releases for artists such as The Connection and The Wellingtons.
4) You’ve become a highly sought-after producer — what are some of your proudest accomplishments behind the boards? What are some tunes you have co-written that people may not be aware of?
I really love the EP by the Future Strikes called “Secondary.” That’s Todd from Second Saturday’s new band and they are fantastic. I also love the Kurt Baker album “Brand New Beat.”
5) I read that “Wondering” was originally composed during the Second Saturday days. How much material for “Novel & Profane” has been collected from your years of songwriting? Which songs are more recent compositions?
Yeah, “Wondering” was written in 2003. “Feeling Good Tonight” and “North on 65” were from 2002. Most everything else was 2008 or later. The most recent ones are “Nights Like This” and “Never Seen the Sun.” I still have a few songs from the early Second Saturday days that have yet to see a proper release but maybe I’ll do a demos compilation in the future.
6) What are your favorite tracks off of “Novel & Profane”? They’re all fantastic, but if I had to narrow it down I’d go “Summer,” “Nights Like This” and “Try to Be.”
Awesome, thanks very much. I love “You Know What to Do” and “Try To Be” personally, they are very close to my heart and I just love the way they came out sounding.
7) Can you take us into your songwriting process? Do you start with the music or the lyrics? Do your songs tend to be autobiographical? And how on earth do you have a seemingly limitless repository of hooks in your brain?
I typically start out with a lyrical idea or a hook and build the song around that idea. Sometimes it starts with a melody and sometimes with a guitar riff but usually with a lyrical hook. I am constantly singing to myself when I’m walking around Nashville and jotting down ideas on my phone either on notepad or with audio clips.
8) What are some other 2013 releases that have blown your mind? Please list at least five, as I am constantly in need of new music that will ideally be in somewhat close proximity to what you are doing.
I did a top ten of 2013 blog post which can be found here.
9) Since not everyone releases new albums every year, who are some of your other favorite (non-Funderburk-produced) artists? These days my white whale of musicians is probably Josh Fix, whose “Free At Last” (2008) was mind-blowingly good, but aside from a few scattered tracks here and there has more or less vanished off the face of the earth.
I really don’t listen to a ton of current artists but I really love Surfer Blood, Giuda, and Radio Days.
10) “Novel & Profane” is the epitome of what I think a power-pop record should be. Please tell us it won’t be another nine years between official Wyatt Funderburk releases.
I’m already working on a new solo album as well as collaborating on a few other projects for 2014.
11) What are your musical plans for 2014?
Like I just said, a new solo album. I’m also producing an album for Nashville band Sad Baxter and collaborating on a new album with Kurt Baker. I’m fortunate to have so many great opportunities and my heart is full.
(Edited to Add, 12/17/2013: Maine Beer Co. MO. I could’ve sworn I’d had MO prior to 2013, but a review of the Untappd archives has my first check-in as January 9 of this year)
(Edited to Add #2, 1/08/2014: Toppling Goliath PseudoSue. Enjoyed during a tasting on 12/22/2013)
Last year I counted down my top five beers of the year, and also went on a lengthy screed about beer freshness. This year freshness became not just a mantra, but a way of life. I started date-checking last year, but this year I became that guy who goes into the store, flips over every six-pack of cans and/or holds the bottles up to the light to ascertain the canned-on/bottled-on date, and also keeps a Julian Date Calendar bookmark on my iPhone. As an avowed IPA junkie, freshness is of course more important to me than anything else, as there’s nothing more disappointing than an IPA you know and love going south quickly. I moved from New York City to Houston, and continued to further evolve the way I purchase and consume beer due in large part to how quickly Houston’s distributors were able to get it on store shelves. While I’ve long been operating under the “three-months-or-younger” rule of IPAs/DIPAs following bottling/canning — which Stone and other breweries I love thankfully have baked into their DNA — I may start limiting that window to closer to two months, due in part to a couple of experiences with beer from Ballast Point and Bear Republic, which incidentally are two of my favorite breweries.
Since Ballast Point began distributing in Houston this past summer, I have had a renewed love affair with Sculpin, drinking more of it than any other beer I have consumed over the last six-plus months. I was fortunate enough to grab a six-pack of the most recent batch sent to Houston — canned on October 14, 2013 — one week after canning, and it was glorious. However, 45 days after canning the beer was noticeably less vibrant than the one- to two-week-old cans I consumed in October. “Duh,” you are saying to yourself. Obviously an IPA is going to taste less fresh the older it gets. However, the reason I think this bears noting is that both the taste and aroma had fallen off dramatically, and the beer was only one-and-a-half months old — though it’s no surprise that a beer as extravagantly hopped (and dry-hopped) as Sculpin is prone to a quick descent. Does this mean I’ll stop buying Sculpin? Hell no, if you are fortunate enough to get your hands on a sixer of week-old cans, the beer is nearly incomparable — but it saddens me that the window of opportunity for true enjoyment of Sculpin is such a tiny one. It’s even an occasional issue on draught — I was served an insanely old pint of Sculpin at Down House back in October, though I don’t know if the restaurant received an old keg, or sat on a relatively fresh keg under the assumption that it would hold up for a bit, but the lesson here for drinking establishments is that once you receive a keg of Sculpin, tap it immediately.
And Bear Republic’s Cafe Racer 15, a brilliantly crafted double IPA that is/was one of my favorite beers of 2013, was a disappointment when it finally hit the shelves in Houston. Bear announced it would be bottling its beloved DIPA in bombers back in early July, and Untappd check-ins of the bombers in California began to surface later that month. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) granted label approval to Racer 15 on July 30, 2013, prompting a flurry of tweets from me to the local beer stores as well as the TABC all throughout August asking just where the hell the beer was. While the TABC ended up being both highly transparent and a pleasure to speak with — it turns out they love beer as much as the rest of us do; they’re just completely understaffed at a time when more new beer is coming in to the state for label approvals than ever before — I never got a solid answer from them as to why cases of Cafe Racer 15 didn’t hit store shelves in Houston until October 11, 2013, with a bottling date of 8/05/2013. I contemplated not picking a bomber up at all considering it eclipsed the two-month threshold, but I bit the bullet and wound up finding it enjoyable enough, though it was nowhere near as wonderful as I knew it could be. Unfortunately the lateness to market means we have stores in Houston trying to sell four-month-old DIPA that is sitting on shelves collecting dust because, well, four-month-old DIPA. I don’t begrudge retail outlets for wanting to move product they paid for, but aged DIPA is bad news for everyone involved.
Of course, this only reinforces the importance of Stone’s Enjoy By series, which strongly recommends consumption within 35 days of bottling. Does Enjoy By turn into an unrepentant malt bomb if you drink it 10 days after “expiration”? Probably not — and anecdotally I’ve heard people say they’ve enjoyed it just fine even a month after the enjoy by date — but it most definitely won’t be the beer that Mitch Steele intended for you to drink. This Sculpin discovery also got me thinking about Hill Farmstead, and how Shaun Hill’s hoppy offerings are universally beloved, with good reason. This is due primarily to three factors:
(1) World-class craftsmanship. Hill’s rigorous, methodical and highly disciplined approach to his work is no secret.
(2) He’ll never bottle or can them, immediately removing any possibility of a hoppy beer being ruined by sitting in a warehouse/on a retail shelf for too long or getting lightstruck; and,
(3) He has more control over how you consume his beers than almost any other brewer in the country. Hill Farmstead’s hoppy beers are only on tap at a rather limited number of accounts in the state of Vermont (it’s been over a year since I’ve heard of anything hoppy from HF coming down to New York City, which used to periodically receives kegs); and if you want to bring them home, you have to go to the source and purchase growler fills. Sure, you can trade for growlers, but unless you have someone re-carbing your growler for you before shipping how well is that beer going to hold up? Frankly I’m surprised Hill even allows people to leave the premises with his beer in a glass container of any kind considering that the vessel will almost certainly make contact with the light of day, but hey, a man’s gotta eat.
And I get it — it makes total sense with regards to ensuring hoppy beers are enjoyed as freshly and as close to the way the brewer intended them to taste as possible. However, I’d guess that the HF business model is not an overly replicable one (though I do expect we’ll see some further growth in hyperlocal brewing, with breweries like Ardsmore, PA’s Tired Hands and Brimfield, MA’s Tree House Brewing already leading that charge), and so most breweries are going to want/need to package their IPAs and double IPAs, and for as much as I am bemoaning the diminishing returns of packaged IPAs, I’d obviously still rather have the opportunity to drink my favorite beers from my favorite brewers in the comfort of my own home than not. As long as it makes it to my store shelf in well under two months (and for Sculpin, under one month).
Though this discussion of beer freshness also plays into one of my other pet topics — the accuracy of beer rating systems. I’ve always been partial to Beer Advocate, as I find the user reviews to generally be well-reasoned (if a bit biased toward Imperial everything), but with so many factors at play when it comes to a given individual’s experience with consuming a beer:
1) When was it bottled/canned (and does the brewer provide that information);
2) How long was the six-pack sitting on the retailer’s shelf/case in the distributor’s warehouse/keg in the cooler;
3) Was the beer carbonated enough;
4) Did it survive the cross-country journey via UPS/FedEx;
5) What vessel did it come in — bottle, can or on tap; and,
6) The biggest driver of inflated review scores of them all — rarity
It’s (a) no surprise Hill’s beers net out so favorably; and (b) there are likely a lot of beers on the site not necessarily getting their fair shake. So while aggregate BA scores can be useful as a guideline/barometer, I would love to see the site recognize that not all beers are served equally, and take some measures to adjust the rating system to reflect as such.
One more thing before diving into the list — I want to give a shout-out to my most-anticipated brewery openings of 2014: Patrick Donagher’s conversion of the wonderful Alewife NYC to a brewpub; and Patrick’s launch of Bed-Stuy Brewing Co. (not to mention the opening of Fool’s Gold NYC, which will add yet another elite craft spot to the Donagher empire).
ANYWAY, below are my top beers of the year. Note: these are not all 2013 rookies; but beers that I consumed for the first time in 2013. I’m not going to launch into full reviews on all of these, since everything is either an IPA, DIPA or APA, but I will add a few notes as warranted. I had plenty of amazing beers outside of those styles — Westbrook Gose, Hunahpu, BCBS Cherry Rye, Green Flash Silva Stout, Hill Farmstead Earl and Everett, Carton Something Like Sandy, Freetail Salado Kriek and Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek 2011 immediately spring to mind — but the APA/IPA/DIPA family is where my passion lies. All photos are mine, as beertography became my other hobby/obsession alongside freshness nitpicking this year. You can follow me on Instagram here, and add me on Untappd here. I debated doing a traditional countdown, as I am a sucker for ranking things, but I’m honestly not sure how to do that with this group of world-class beers, so I’m just going to present them in alphabetical order. Cheers.
Austin Beerworks’ Heavy Machinery, along with Karbach’s Hop Delusion, were the two tastiest Imperial IPAs I’ve ever had brewed in the state of Texas. Unfortunately Austin Beerworks doesn’t even distribute to Houston, and Hop Delusion was brewed once and around for about a month, and as such Texas is still very much devoid of an excellent locally-brewed, year-round, readily available DIPA. Come on Texas craft brewers, this prize is wide open for the taking!
The brainchild of One Mile House’s Gerard Leary, Barrier and Gerard teamed to brew this exclusive Imperial version of Barrier’s Money IPA, which to date is my favorite IPA brewed in the state of New York. As expected, they knocked it out of the park — Daddy Warbucks is a mind-blowing citrus-drenched hop assault that can hold its own with Heady Topper (speaking of which — and this is really a topic for a separate conversation — as great as Heady is, there are a fair number of more readily available double IPAs that are just as flavorful in my opinion. Would Heady be anywhere near as beloved if it was as easy to purchase as, say, something from Stone? No, but it would also suffer from freshness issues. Like Shaun Hill, John Kimmich also has a rather unprecedented level of control over how you purchase and consume his beer, which is why most people have such favorable experiences with Heady Topper. But I digress). If I was still living in NYC I would be at One Mile House every single day, growler in hand, and not just for Daddy Warbucks — Gerard’s dedication to the cause means One Mile routinely has one of the finest tap lists in the city on any given night. Huge, huge thanks again to Gerard for not only helping make a world-class DIPA, but being kind enough to hook me up with a growler and making me the only person residing in the state of Texas who got to drink this beer in 2013.
Ah, Money. My review on BA pretty well sums my feelings up on this one. Brewed with Amarillo, Citra, Cascade and Simcoe — this is a damn near-perfect IPA.
The batch of Racer 15 that was released in New York City last January/February was phenomenal — one of the best DIPAs I’ve ever had. Unfortunately the batch that hit NYC in late August missed the mark, and the above-described bomber fiasco soured my feelings a bit on Racer 15. Still, it was SO good last winter that I couldn’t not include it on this list.
I can’t say I go ga-ga for anything in Deschutes’ year-round portfolio, but this brewery is magical when it comes to fresh-hop limited releases. Fresh-Squeezed in particular was insane, no surprise given that it was hopped with Citra and this year’s Citra, Mosaic — a descendant of Simcoe. Though not on this list, Chasin’ Freshies was also excellent, and Hop Trip was sublime — I’m amazed at how much flavor Deschutes managed to pack into a 5.5% ABV APA. A real treat to be able to buy in six-packs.
As noted above, Hop Delusion — along with ABW’s Heavy Machinery — changed the game for Texas DIPAs, except for the fact that they are, at the moment, only available once a year. Karbach is going to need to source some sort of long-term contract for Mosaic, as this beer needs to be put in more regular rotation.
I don’t have a ton to say about Kern River Citra other than yes. Yes it does live up to the hype.
An utterly phenomenal IPA that is tragically unavailable in Texas despite being brewed in tantalizingly close New Mexico. Unfortunately, La Cumbre owner and brewmaster Jeff Erway says “Texas is a hellish place to distribute beer. Distributors and retailers are still in the 1970s when everything was stored warm and was pasteurized. Add to that a very unfriendly alcohol regulation division, and it will be some time before we get to that state.” As badly as I want this beer in the state, he hit the nail squarely on the head re: TX distribution.
If Heavy Machinery and Hop Delusion changed the game for Texas DIPAs, Lone Pint changed the game for IPAs with Yellow Rose. Single-hopped with Mosaic, Yellow Rose has taken Houston by storm as the best IPA ever brewed in the state, not to mention the highest-rated IPA in the entire southwest region.
Of all the breweries on this list, Maine might believe in the importance of freshness more than anyone, as the brewery’s slogan is “Do what’s right. Drink this beer fresh.” World-class beer, along with their mantra and a clear-as-day bottle dating on every single one of the brewery’s trademark stark white labels have helped Maine reach a certain level of cult status, and MO might just be the crown jewel. While Maine’s Lunch IPA is just as if not more beloved, MO packs a booming 6% ABV citrus punch that evokes the god of APAs, Zombie Dust, and is perhaps the most exceptional packaged APA available for sale in the northeast.
I finally got my hands on Gandhi for the first time back in January, and it was love at first sight. Since moving to Texas I’ve had Gandhi sent to me and also muled some back following trips to NYC, and this Simcoe-drenched DIPA is simply otherworldly.
First had this on tap at the Blind Tiger last spring, and then again at Peekskill in late August. Holy crap does it live up to its name. Insane hop flavor — especially for a 5.2% beer — in a brew that evokes Zombie Dust. Grab this when you see it.
While Pipeworks doesn’t explicitly call out the hops, I assume this was a mash-up of two of its most beloved DIPAs, Citra Ninja and Unicorn Galaxy. I enjoyed this bomber back-to-back with Dreadnaught, and both my tasting partner and I found the flavor profile strikingly similar to Dreadnaught, though felt Ninja vs. Unicorn was grittier — in the best way possible.
A canned treat from one of Chicago’s finest. Between Pipeworks, Revolution, Half Acre, the return of Surly — and of course, easy access to the mecca, Three Floyds Brewpub, which was by far my top beer trip of the year — Chicago truly has an embarrassment of good beer riches, yet somehow always seems to get overlooked in favor of the west coast, Colorado or Vermont whenever people write about top craft beer destinations.
As someone who drinks IPAs as if it were my job it can be hard to find standouts, but Pako’s IPA is among the finest. Snake River teased NYC with limited distribution last winter, but as far as I know Pako’s tragically hasn’t made it back since.
I find collaborations can be pretty hit-or-miss, although I’m always interested to see what Stone cooks up, and this one completely took me by surprise. Though everyone said they got no coconut flavor, it didn’t matter — I enjoyed this IPA so much I’d be fine if they replaced the recipe for Stone IPA with this one, and I love Stone IPA.
Whoa. I mean, I thought I loved Zombie Dust, and then this beer comes along and says “to hell with your preconceived notions of what a single-hopped Citra APA can be.” Checking in at 5.8%-6.0% (compared to Zombie’s 6.4%) — and with a bit of Iowa attitude ;) — I was shocked to find PseudoSue even more enjoyable to my palate than my beloved ZD. Out of all 18 of the beers on this list, PseudoSue may have been the single biggest surprise of 2013. Ladies and gentlemen, the king is dead, long live the king.
In light of ska/punk/power-pop band Five Iron Frenzy’s new album “Engine of a Million Plots” landing at #3 on my 2013 Top Ten, I decided to reach out to FIF bassist Scott Kerr, who, as the frontman of Yellow Second, wrote my favorite record of the aughts. Given my thorough enjoyment of the entire Yellow Second catalog, there was little chance I wouldn’t be enamored of FIF given Scott’s involvement (he co-wrote 11 of the album’s 12 songs), and as expected, I wasn’t disappointed.
1) What happened to Yellow Second? You guys released my favorite album of the entire decade back in 2005. Are you still on good terms with the former members of the band?
Thanks, man. We are definitely on good terms. Those guys are among my closest friends. As for what happened to the band, we just seemed to reach a dead end. YS just could never gain enough traction. As proud as I was of the songs, we didn’t have enough success to make it viable. I also turned 30 in 2005, and my wife and I had put off starting a family while I was on the road so much. It was just time to move on.
2) Both Five Iron Frenzy and Yellow Second are routinely identified as “Christian rock” bands, although according to Wikipedia you left FIF back in 1998 due in part to a renunciation of Christianity. Yellow Second’s debut, “June One,” didn’t come out until 2000 — how did YS still carry the “Christian rock” tag? While it may not be fair, being categorized as such would seem to be something of a barrier to appealing to a more widespread audience.
My reasons for leaving Five Iron were not well known at the time, and I often wrote about my former faith in Yellow Second, albeit somewhat obscurely. And what I wrote was seldom negative. I mourned it, really, and for a time even came back to a place where I loosely identified myself with Christianity again. Many if not most YS songs dealt with the cognitive dissonance I felt between what is rational and the traces of belief that persisted in spite of that. Not to mention Floodgate Records, which released Altitude, was known primarily as a Christian label. All that to say, it’s not that surprising that the band would still be associated with that world. In hindsight, I don’t know if that was really a hindrance or not. If anything I’d say my abstruse, self-absorbed reflections on religion don’t make for good, relatable power-pop lyrics. Haha.
3) Following “Altitude” and the dissolution of the band, it seems you went on something of a musical hiatus. What made you decide to rejoin FIF? Did you do anything musically from 2006 through 2011?
During that time I wrote a handful of YS songs, a couple of which we released alongside the remix/remaster of Altitude in 2012. I also wrote a number of songs and song fragments that had no home in a particular band. I never stopped writing, though I was definitely a lot less prolific during those years. My kids, work, etc, became more of the focus, but I’m always thinking about music.
I rejoined Five Iron as an excuse to reconnect with my old friends. I grew up with these guys (and girl). That’s really as far as it went at first…just practicing together and reminiscing about old times. Honestly, the thought of making a new record and playing shows again made me kind of nervous. I imagined our differences in worldview might make for an awkward collaboration, and I wondered how interactions with fans would be as well. It’s actually been great, though.
4) Aside from playing on the record, what are your contributions to “Engine of a Million Plots?” Did you co-write or write a number of the songs? Yellow Second devotees can hear the unreleased title track from “Altitude” repurposed in the second half of “Zen & the Art of Xenophobia.” Are there other snippets from compositions meant for YS that made it onto this record?
Yeah, I wrote the music for 11 of the 12 songs on EOMP. Dennis wrote the other one, and he also composed some of the horn parts on other tracks. Reese writes most of the lyrics, which often necessitates some give and take with vocal melodies. I also wrote the lyrics for the album closer, “Blizzards and Bygones”, which was originally going to be a Yellow Second song, and contributed a few words here are there on some other tunes. There are other musical fragments from older unreleased songs (some of them YS, some not) that I cannibalized for this record as well, probably nothing you would have heard, though.
5) In Yellow Second you were the lead singer and guitarist, but in FIF you handle bass duties. How is it not being the frontman? Do you have a preference?
I sometimes miss singing more than just bgv’s, but not really the other aspects of being a frontman (e.g. between-song banter, etc). I do enjoy playing bass as much as guitar, though.
6) What are your favorite tracks off of the new record?
I can honestly say I like them all. My favorites change. Right now probably “So Far”, “Someone Else’s Problem”, “Into Your Veins”, and “Blizzards and Bygones”.
7) What are some other 2013 releases that have blown your mind?
Haha. I don’t know if these “blew my mind”, exactly, but some of my favorites include:
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Charli XCX – True Romance
Paul McCartney – NEW
The Flaming Lips – The Terror
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – Mosquito
8) Since not everyone releases new albums every year, who are some of your other favorite artists?
My favorites of the last few years:
Metric, Rival Schools, Ladyhawke, Tame Impala, Marina and the Diamonds
9) You have hinted to me in the past that Yellow Second might put new music out at some point. The last bit of information the Internet has on this is on your Wikipedia page, which states that “In 2011, John Warne of Relient K joined Yellow Second and they are now working on a new album.” Please give us an update as to whether there might be any chance of a new Yellow Second album in 2014.
Yeah, there’s not much going on right now. We played a show (opening for Five Iron) in August, which was fun, but that’s all we’ve done recently. There isn’t really a plan to do another record at this point. You and about 12 other people will be disappointed to hear that, I’m sure. :)
10) Aside from a possible Yellow Second reunion, what are your other musical plans for 2014?
I’ve started writing for the next Five Iron record, and we will continue to play shows and possibly do a couple of short tours.
“Every year I seem to say the same thing with regards to there being less good new music than ever for me to compile an annual top ten list from, although that is primarily a function of the fact that as I’ve gotten older, gotten married, started a family, etc., my life has grown ever busier, leaving me less time to seek new music out. Additionally, it’s only natural for one’s taste in music to continually evolve, and as a result albums I thought I might have enjoyed at one time haven’t quite been getting the job done.”
The above is how I kicked off last year’s Top 10 albums list. And those words rang even truer in 2013, which was probably my least-new-music-filled year of existence since I became a rabid devourer of preposterously catchy tunes following the life-changing release of 1994’s “Dookie.” In fact, one of my highest-ranking listens from 2013 didn’t even come out in calendar-year 2013 — oh well. Even more unfortunate, now that I have eschewed NYC for suburban Houston life I have to rely solely on my car for transportation everywhere, which means I’ve been listening to music more frequently than ever before! Oh, the irony. Still, I am nothing if not a slave to tradition, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give huge props to the 10 terrific artists below that helped carry me through many a long jog/highway commute this year.
10) The Nines (self-titled) – Not as strong overall as 2007’s “Gran Jukle’s Field,” but any new music from Steve Eggers is always welcome.
9) Secret Friend: Time Machine – Power-pop supergroup albums can be exceptionally hit-or-miss, but thankfully Secret Friend came through with arguably the strongest collaborative album in the genre since LEO’s “Alpacas Orgling” in 2006. Predominantly sung by the always-welcome Willie Wisely, Time Machine’s batch of tunes is a breezy, easily digestible set that hits all the right power-pop hallmarks without being overly devotional or derivative.
8) Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals – I loved 2011’s “Comeback Kid” but the rest of “Reign of Terror” sounded mostly like noise for the sake of noise. “Bitter Rivals” makes good on the promise shown on the previous record with a brisk set of tunes boasting enough hooks — and the always mesmerizing, dreamy vocals of Alexis Krauss — to keep things interesting until the very end.
7) Jackdaw4: Dissectitude – Among the finest purveyors of 21st-century power-pop, Jackdaw4 sadly disbanded this year, but not before giving us another terrific hook-laden album, filled with the Jellyfish-style baroque pop power-poppers know and love.
6) Dot Dash – Half-Remembered Dream – This was a breath of fresh air, and I almost would’ve missed it if not for a brief mention on Aaron Kupferberg’s essential PowerPopaholic.com. “Half-Remembered Dream” feels like a friend you’ve known for years, kicking off with “Here’s to the Ghosts (of the past)” and rifling through its 10 ultra-melodic tunes so quickly that you wonder where the album went — in the best way possible. Interestingly, the band’s Bandcamp page describes their sound as “post-punk-pop,” which I’m not sure is a genre I’ve ever heard of, and so I was expecting this to perhaps be a bit more up-tempo, but it is very much a traditional mid-tempo power-pop album. Really top-notch stuff here throughout.
5) Pretty & Nice: Golden Rules for Golden People – This was easily the most unique album of the year for me, reminding me to an extent of Electric Guest’s “Mondo,” even though stylistically it is a very different album. There is something about the way this band arrives at its melodies that was intoxicating, and their distinctive songwriting sets them well ahead of the pack. Highlights include “Stallion & Mare,” “Q_Q” and “Yonkers,” but really the entire record is an energetic breath of fresh air. Also, the video for “Q_Q” has a Whataburger in the background, which is awesome.
4) Lorde: Pure Heroine – “Royals” has been the single of the fall for me, and this record will undoubtedly be on every mainstream critic’s year-end best-of list, and there’s a good reason why: it’s really great. “Pure Heroine” is so self-assured it sounds like the work of a 20-year industry veteran, and yet somehow was co-written by a 16-year-old phenom. Every now and then an album comes along that seems to perfectly capture a mood or a feeling — in this case I would describe it as a mix of both gloomy and optimistic — and with the unfettered production and relatively minimalist arrangements, New Zealander Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor really nails it here. Nearly every song on this album could be a single; that’s how good it is.
3) Five Iron Frenzy: Engine of a Million Plots – This ’90s ska/punk band reunited for its first album of original material in 10 years, and churned out a catchy masterpiece. I was not familiar with any of their previous work, but I am quite familiar with bassist Scott Kerr’s, the frontman of gone-too-soon power-pop beasts Yellow Second and author of my favorite record of the aughts. Given Kerr’s involvement there was little chance I wouldn’t like this record, and I was extremely pleased to find that the songwriting is top-notch — no surprise given that Scott co-wrote 11 of the album’s 12 songs — with hooks aplenty, huge power-pop-punk energy, smart arrangements (while the brass section plays a key role in the band’s sound, it also doesn’t overwhelm it) and outstanding musicianship. Things kick off in high gear with “Against of Sea of Troubles” and “So Far,” and the band — led by a tour-de-force vocal performance from lead singer Reese Roper — never lets up, lending a blissful feeling of endless infectiousness to the proceedings. There are also a couple of neat easter eggs for Yellow Second fans — the incorporation of a previously unreleased YS song into the second half of “Zen & the Art of Xenophobia;” and album closer “Blizzards & Bygones” was originally written by Kerr for Yellow Second, and is unmistakably his.
2) You, Me & Everyone We Know: Entire Catalog – I first discovered YM&EWK at the end of last year, stumbling across the “A Great Big Hole” EP on Bandcamp. I subsequently wore the title track out like nobody’s business this year. The sad tale of singer Ben Liebsch’s rise and hard fall with his bandmates (all of whom eventually quit due to Liebsch’s alcoholism; he has been sober ever since) is laid bare in one of the most preposterously catchy three-and-a-half minutes you’ll ever hear. The awesomeness of “A Great Big Hole” forced me to dig up YM&EWK’s entire catalog, which unfortunately only consists of one full-length — 2010’s “Some Things Don’t Wash Out” — and a handful of EPs. The good news is that Liebsch has cleaned up and is hard at work on a new LP, while continuing to produce EPs to tide fans over in the interim. I really can’t stress enough what kind of achievement “Some Things Don’t Wash Out” is. In any other year it would have been an easy choice for my album of the year; one of the only things keeping it out of the top slot is that it came out three years ago. That, and Wyatt Funderburk made an all-time record for the ages. Still, “Some Things” will go down as one of my favorite records of all time — I certainly listened to it enough times this year. It seems crazy to say, but Liebsch & company somehow seemed to rewrite the playbook on absurdly catchy pop-punk, both channeling their various influences while putting their own unique spin on what can be a pretty limiting genre. Pop-punk records are a dime a dozen, but when they come with this much innovation, bombast, guts, hooks and gut-wrenching, leave-it-all-on-the-field pathos — seriously, I’ve never been one to listen to music for the lyrics, but I was utterly riveted by Liebsch’s various tales of woe throughout this LP, despite the words being completely unrelatable to my own life — you can’t help but pay attention, and hope that a talent like that continues to be nurtured. It’s rare to come across a record with the punch-in-the-face adrenaline-pumping opening trifecta of “Shock & Awe,” “Losing Weight for You” and “Livin’ th’ Dream,” and it doesn’t end there. Not even close. The entire album features hugely hooky earwork after earworm, with the only misstep being “James Brown is Dead.” Anyone who went through a huge jeans, buy-every-album-Fat-Wreck-Chords-put-out-even-though-99%-of-them-sucked long-haired skater phase in the mid-90s owes it to themselves to get their hands on this record, but it’s no blast of nostalgia — this is the sound of pop-punk for the 21st century.
1) Wyatt Funderburk: “Novel & Profane” – In 2005, my musical life changed. I discovered both the aforementioned “Altitude” by Yellow Second and an EP called “Greetings from Mount Rockmore” by a band called Second Saturday. All five songs on “Rockmore” were utterly mind-blowing (“Arianna” and “The Fox” are still among the catchiest songs of all time), and I immediately sought out whatever else I could find from the band. That turned out not to be much outside of their debut LP, issued a year prior. While I wore the hell out of “Rockmore’s” five tracks, I waited patiently for new music from the band, even contacting frontman Wyatt Funderburk to let him know how much I enjoyed his work and how eager I was for more. Funderburk teased us with “In the End,” a tantalizing demo on Second Saturday’s MySpace page, but it was not to be. Fortunately for music-lovers, Wyatt managed to carve out a successful career co-writing and producing some of power-pop’s biggest names – including Kurt Baker, whom he joined on tour last year — so he didn’t completely disappear, never to be heard from again like so many others, but it seemed for a time that we might never hear original Funderburk compositions again. Until now.
“Novel & Profane” kicks off with a 40-second cut of classic Funderburkian harmonies and wistfulness with the longing “Wondering,” which tees up “Summer,” probably the most pure power-pop song on the album, not to mention one of my favorites. “Summer” is a brilliant showcase for Funderburk’s mastery of the art and beauty of both classic pop songwriting and the unconventional: ultra-catchy verses? check. Ridiculously catchy bridges? Of course. However, the craziest part about “Summer” is that it kind of just keeps going with very little acknowledgment of the chorus — the chorus is in there, and catchy as hell, but Funderburk drops so many musical earworms into this song that you can almost miss it. Madness. “You Know What to Do” slows the pace down but not the hooks; “Mandolin” ramps the pace back up with what is probably the fastest, most pop-punk-style song I’ve heard from Wyatt; and “Feeling Good Tonight” is probably the best alt-country song I’ve ever heard, at least until the album nears its close with “North on 65.” The album hits another high point with the emotional ballad “Nights Like This,” a song that perfectly anchors the album and represents a true closing to the first half if this were an actual physical record with Side A and Side B. “Side B” kicks off with “Love Will Lead the Way,” which was selected as the first single, although it’s a bit too by-the-numbers for me (which is likely why it was chosen to try to get Wyatt in front of the widest number of people. I know how it goes). Still, even an ever-so-slightly less compelling effort on this album is still stocked with the requisite hooks. The synth-driven “Try to Be” is perhaps the perfect space-rock love song, and will wind its way into your brain in mere seconds; “Never Seen the Sun” sounds like it should’ve been the 15th song on “Rubber Soul,” and “Right Now” and “If I Ever Wanted Easier” are just straight-up slices of pure power-pop hypercatchy euphoria that bring the album to an incredibly satisfying close yet want you leaving more, much more. And in addition to world-class songwriting, Wyatt’s singing on this record is as fantastic as ever. I think it’s probably implied that the vocals are great by virtue of the no. 1 ranking, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge an overall outstanding vocal performance, highlighted in part by some killer high notes at the end of “Feeling Good Tonight,” and that extra-long hold in the coda of “Nights Like This.” Epic stuff all around. Hats off to Wyatt Funderburk for crafting one of the purest examples of power-pop songwriting and craftsmanship I have heard in long time, and hopefully it won’t be another near-decade between releases.
I recently found myself captivated by a Beer Advocate discussion entitled “At this very moment, what is the best brewery in Texas?” and as I find the topic both incredibly interesting and important, wanted to also post my response to that thread here as well:
“Best” is so, so subjective, and will change on a dime the next time a local brewery puts out an amazing or shitty beer. Of course, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t love organizing, categorizing and making lists of things, and I am as guilty as the next when it comes to enjoying subjective rankings. But it’s important to keep in mind that, like anything else, tastes continually evolve, and the brewing process itself — particularly among newer breweries, which Texas is replete with — can be highly volatile. I have the utmost respect for the brewers that have the temerity to dump an obvious bad batch, tweak a recipe (for the better), or consistently turn out a world-class example of a style.
The ranking of “best” is also tricky because your own personal preferences are going to come into play. While I’m sure everyone enjoys a wide variety of styles, I’m almost always going to view what I consider the best breweries through the lens of their hoppy beer portfolio. So while I have a ton of respect for a brewery like Jester King — who is almost certainly the most innovative in the state — they don’t make a single beer that I absolutely love (though I have not had AR yet, and that could very well change things). But, I’m glad as hell they exist, and you couldn’t have a conversation about best in the state without including them.
Quality control — both on the part of brewers as well as bars/retail establishments — freshness, and time spent on shelf aren’t issues unique to Texas, but certainly play a role in my assessment of certain beers as well, and something that I think occasionally gets lost when reviewing beers. If your first experience with a given IPA is a six-month-old version of it, then of course you are going to think it sucks (see pretty much everyone not located in Santa Rosa who tries Pliny the Elder for the first time).
Since moving down to Texas I’ve seen several local breweries take some huge steps forward, though ultimately I find a lot of the core beers somewhat lacking. As a hop head, there’s almost no reason for me to ever buy Karbach’s Hopadillo when fresh Sculpin is sitting on the shelf (unless I’m not in the mood to get gouged that day :)). I also find Hopadillo to be a very different experience on tap. I was excited for Weekend Warrior to get canned and hit year-round, but the sixer I grabbed tastes muted compared to the batch I tried last winter, and I’d imagine Karbach probably had to adjust the recipe to scale up, perhaps sacrificing some of the flavor notes I recall really enjoying when it was draft-only.
Yellow Rose seems universally agreed upon as the best IPA brewed in the state, and I was going to end this post with a statement to the effect of “once Lone Pint starts bottling/canning this thing, Texas will finally have a must-have packaged IPA,” although in noting some of the struggles I’ve experienced elsewhere — not to mention needing to monopolize entire Mosaic crops to satisfy demand — I’m not sure packaging Yellow Rose would actually be in Lone Pint’s best interest, at least from a QC perspective (financially, of course it would).
Back at the beginning of the year I took a look at The Top-Rated Beer Advocate American Double/Imperial IPAs by State, The Top-Rated Beer Advocate American IPAs by State and The Top-Rated Beer Advocate American Pale Ales by State (and then further broke those down into New York and Texas lists). As noted in those posts, I selected those styles for my data set because they are the three I gravitate toward most frequently.
Fast forward to six months later and those lists are a bit out of date. However, rather than relive that nightmarish process again, this time I identified the top IIPAs, IPAs and APAs from each of the 10 regional Top 50 lists Beer Advocate tracks — New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont), Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C.), South (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee), Great Lakes (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin), Pacific (California, Hawaii), Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota), Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas), Mountain (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming), South-Atlantic (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia) and Northwest (Alaska, Oregon, Washington) — as well as what percentage of the Top 50 for each region the IIPAs/IPAs/APAs grouping was responsible for. The data yielded 129 total beers, though it is important to note that this is not a set of the 129-highest-rated overall IIPAs/IPAs/APAs on Beer Advocate, but rather a cross-section of the top-rated beers in those categories limited to the regional Top 50s [spreadsheet available here].
Interestingly, despite the West Coast’s development of and reputation for world-class double IPAs, the East Coast no longer plays second fiddle and hasn’t for some time. Of New England’s Top 50 beers, a region-leading 48% are either DIPAs, IPAs or APAs, followed by the Mid-Atlantic region, with 32%. The Pacific region doesn’t check in until 5th out of 10, with 30% of its list comprised of the pale ale triumvirate. Granted, there are a handful of factors at play here — in New England’s case it’s being almost singlehandedly propelled by Vermont, which is of course home to the highest-ranked double IPA (and overall beer) in the world in The Alchemist’s Heady Topper as well as Hill Farmstead, which boasts a brewery-high 7 DIPAs on the New England Top 50 (and 6 of which are among the Top 20 American Double/Imperial IPAs that comprise this 129-beer sample). That said, New England Brewing Company has also established itself as one of the finest brewers of hoppy ales on the East Coast, with its Coriolis Double IPA (22nd in New England, 32nd in the overall 129-sample list), Gandhi-Bot Double IPA (46th in New England, 70th overall), Fuzzy Baby Ducks IPA (7th in New England and currently the highest-rated IPA in the world right now) and Supernaut IPA (44th in New England, 67th overall) all in New England’s Top 50. Another factor is that in addition to myriad outstanding DIPAs, the Pacific is also home to some of the beer world’s most highly regarded Imperial Stouts and Wild Ales, which is partially why the Pacific Top 50’s percentage of IIPAs/IPAs/APAs isn’t higher than 30%.
This chart shows the shares of the 129-beer sample by region, and basically tells the same story as the previous graph. Given Colorado’s and Oregon’s substantial contributions to beer culture, it’s surprising to me that there aren’t more highly-rated DIPAs/IPAs/APAs hailing from the Mountain (7%) and Northwest (3.9%) regions. The Mountain region doesn’t check in until #74 on the overall list, with Odell’s Myrcenary DIPA; though the Northwest does have two of the Top 20 DIPAs in Boneyard’s Notorious Triple IPA and Hop Venom.
And the above pie chart is another chart that shows just how much Vermont (a state-high 13.2%) is dominating the hoppy ale segment, though California is of course the only other double-digit state, at 11.6%.
Some stray observations:
- It’s been an amazing year for Peekskill, which deservedly earned the Governor’s Cup for Best Craft Beer in New York State at the TAP New York Craft Beer & Food Festival back in April for its Higher Standard Imperial IPA. Higher Standard checks in at #32 on the Mid-Atlantic list (86th in the overall sample), but more importantly for New Yorkers, that ranking makes it the highest-rated double IPA brewed in New York state. Those familiar with Peekskill’s superb offerings won’t be surprised to learn that head brewer Jeff O’Neill is also responsible for the best-rated American Pale Ale brewed in the state, with Amazeballs coming in at 21st on the Mid-Atlantic list, and 77th overall. And another O’Neill creation still reigns as the Top American IPA in New York State, Ithaca’s Flower Power IPA (though it wouldn’t surprise me to see O’Neill eventually best himself in this category and earn Peekskill the NY state IIPA/IPA/APA triple crown with the tremendous Eastern Standard IPA).
- Ocean, New Jersey’s Kane Brewing Co. has emerged as among the top breweries in the Garden State, with three entries on the Mid-Atlantic list (not to mention the only entries from New Jersey): Head High (#23), Double Dry-Hopped Galaxy Head High (#18) and Overhead (#30).
- Moving south to my adopted homestate of Texas, it’s exciting to see 8 beers making the Southwest Top 50, with Karbach’s Hop Delusion (#12 on the Southwest list) and Austin Beerworks’ Heavy Machinery DIPA (#15) coming in as the top two American Double/Imperial IPAs brewed in both the state of Texas and the Southwest region (and 98th and 100th on the overall list, respectively). Lone Pint’s Pioneer Yellow Rose has unsurprisingly become the best-rated IPA brewed in the state of Texas, though top IPA in the Southwest region belongs to La Cumbre’s phenomenal Elevated IPA (#3 in the Southwest). (512)’s IPA also made the list, coming in at #39 on the Southwest Top 50.
“What are those full bottles in the garbage can.”
“Those are one of the best double IPAs in the world.”
“Why are you throwing them out.”
“They are old.”
“The bottled-on date is from two days ago.”
“I know. After one day they don’t taste right; the flavor starts falling off at about hour 23.”