Winner: Veteran Alternative Rockers
If rock and roll is truly dead, then these longtime acts didn’t get the memo.
Just eight days into the new year, the long absent David Bowie announced his first new studio album in a decade on his 66th birthday. Released in March, The Next Day proved that old age is no obstacle for one of the great pioneers of alternative rock. Curiously recycling the artwork for his influential Heroes LP (with big white squares covering the front and back covers which feature album and song titles, respectively), the only bad number on the standard edition is the album’s first single, Where Are We Now?, which surfaced shortly after his surprise announcement. Sadly, he let longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti do all the talking about it. Bowie’s a much better interview.
Recorded slowly and quietly over a two-year period (totally out of character for the once prolific, fast working superstar), it was one of the most acclaimed records of the year. It’s also been nominated for a Best Rock Album Grammy. Second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), is up for Best Rock Performance.
Bowie made a surprise cameo on Reflektor, the epic title cut on the latest Arcade Fire release. The best band to ever come out of Montreal continued to delight with this eclectic, strangely funky double set, their fourth full-length release. Other standout cuts include Here Comes The Night Time, It’s Never Over and Porno, the last of which evokes early Peter Gabriel.
The same month Bowie’s Next Day was issued, another important British act were marking their return. Depeche Mode’s Delta Machine is their first album since 2009’s Grammy-nominated Sounds Of The Universe. Featuring the sublime single Heaven, it’s their best collection in years. Middle age has not mellowed their moving, often melancholic melodies. Why they’re still not in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is an irritating mystery.
Also in March, The Strokes presented Comedown Machine, a bit of a departure from their usually straightforward garage rock sound. Singer Julian Casablancas takes a huge risk singing in falsetto at times. He could’ve sounded ridiculous but thankfully doesn’t, as Chances, the record’s best song, aptly demonstrates. It’s not their finest effort but it’s nice to see them evolve more than a decade away from Is This It.
It had been six years since Iggy Pop reunited The Stooges for their first studio LP in more than 30 years. But after the untimely death of lead guitarist Ron Asheton in 2009, their future seemed doubtful. However, after a phone call was made to James Williamson, Iggy & The Stooges, the Raw Power version of this deeply influential proto-punk band, was reborn.
In April, they released Ready To Die, a tight collection of sexually charged rockers, tender treatises on mortality and a surprising amount of bitterness. Approaching 70, the eerily chiselled Pop has not lost any of his timeless vocal vigour nor his contemptuous rage.
In June, after a six-year absence in their own right, Queens Of The Stone Age finally released the follow-up to the marvellous Era Vulgaris. It takes a few listens but Like Clockwork is a stunner. Featuring welcome, ecclectic cameos by Elton John and Trent Reznor, and the return of Dave Grohl on the skins (he last appeared on Songs For The Deaf), there isn’t a bad song to be found here. Glad to see the great Josh Homme, the Carl Wilson of the 21st Century, finally overcome his personal demons to lead the way in making what might be the greatest record he’s ever created. He’s never sounded more in tune with himself.
In August, after a four-year break, Scotland’s danceable Franz Ferdinand returned with Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions. Good hooks, good lyrics, good album.
After taking some time out to score a couple of David Fincher movies, one of which led to a surprise Academy Award, and to work on a side project, Trent Reznor finally got around to putting out another Nine Inch Nails album in September. The Grammy-nominated Hesitation Marks is more evidence that nearly 25 years after Pretty Hate Machine, he is as vital as ever. How he got Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham to play ax on a few tracks I’d love to know.
Kings Of Leon might really be the kings of radio-friendly hard rock. Mechanical Bull is loaded with accessible gems like Supersoaker, Temple and Wait For Me. Five years after they broke through with Only By The Night, these four sons of a Southern preacher are eager to stay relevant in an era of annoying, empty dance pop. With Mechanical Bull, they’ve succeeded.
Finally, there was Pearl Jam, the sole surviving band of the 90s grunge explosion. Lightning Bolt picks up right where they left off with 2009’s Backspacer. An entertaining mix of hooky rockers and lovely ballads, there’s still some bombast left in Eddie Vedder’s distinctive vocals. Now if only there were as pissed off at Obama as they were at W.
Loser: The Conservative Party Of Canada
It was a completely avoidable scandal, a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the crime. But leave it to the micromanaging Canadian Conservatives to dig their own political graves with tiny shovels.
In late 2012, three Conservative Senators were being audited for irregularities regarding their expense claims. Mike Duffy, the former CTV journalist, was caught trying to claim a summer home as his personal residence. He also tried to get reimbursed for Conservative fundraising ventures declaring he was actually doing “Senate business” and even attempted to apply for a Prince Edward Island health card even though he doesn’t live there full-time.
Pamela Wallin, another former CTV journalist, who is supposed to represent her home province of Saskatchewan actually resides in Toronto which is against the rules. She got caught declaring hundreds of thousands of dollars in inappropriate travel expenses. Patrick Brazeau, already in trouble for a serious domestic violence incident involving his wife, pulled a Duffy, as well. (So did Liberal Senator Mac Harb, the only one who actually resigned from serving in the Senate.)
Unfortunately, when the audit on all these Senators was complete, an important part involving Duffy’s reluctance to be fully cooperative was magically removed from the final report. Once that became public knowledge, the story, which had been quietly brewing for a year, entered the mainstream.
Soon, we learned that Duffy didn’t pay back the $90000 he owed with his own dough. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief Of Staff Nigel Wright cut a cheque for him on his behalf. Wright eventually resigned. At the time, Harper declared that he reluctantly accepted him quitting. But during a later radio interview, he claimed he fired him, greatly confusing a key part of this story.
As NDP Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair peppered Harper and the Conversatives in Parliament day after day after day with tough, direct questions (as did many other MPs including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau) without getting anything but mostly the same, phony, robotic talking points in return, the scandal grew. Wallin and Duffy were kicked out of the Conservative caucus. (Brazeau had already been forced into independence months earlier.) A re-audit was conducted. And after Harper started further distancing himself from Wright and the three Senators, Duffy fired back with some damning allegations about the PMO, claiming that there was a second cheque, this one to cover his legal fees, and that he was coached on how to deal with the media. He backed it up with documentation.
Meanwhile, the RCMP were called in to investigate. Their official allegations have kept the scandal very much alive. About a dozen or so Conservative officials, we’ve learned, knew about the Duffy cover-up. However, it’s still not certain if Harper himself knew. It seems preposterous that he didn’t.
In the end, after a long debate, the Senate voted to suspend Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin for the remaining two years of their current term without pay. (Along with Mac, all have declared their innocence despite reluctantly starting to pay back these wrongfully declared public expenses.) And Harper’s Conservative Party has lost a lot of credibility. (They promised to be more ethical than the Liberals. Ha!) Furthermore, most Canadians don’t believe the infamously controlling Conservative leader was unaware of what Nigel Wright and Duffy were up to. And long dormant talk of abolishing the unelected Senate arose yet again.
If all of this weren’t bad enough, secret documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed Canada’s creepy alliance with the American spy agency, a scandal that’s sure to grow substantially in 2014.
With talk of Harper not running in the next election (something he adamantly denies), what are the chances his seriously damaged Conservative Party will be re-elected in 2015? Barring some unforeseen circumstances, it might be time for him and his cronies to think about political retirement.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, December 24, 2013