Sunday, December 25, 2005

MMM Band of the Year: Stereophonics

Like Neel over at Brevity ... is Wit, I'm not going to go overboard with year-end awards. If I have something to say about the year, I'll just say it.

And I do, and it's this: The MMM Band of the Year is Stereophonics.

The guys from Wales are criminally overlooked in the States. Just check out the two-sentence dismissal in Rolling Stone, one of those self-contradicting pieces of tripe in which the reviewer clearly wanted to slag the band despite having nothing specific to explain why. XM gives them a fair amount of airplay, but they may be best known in the U.S. for the riff from High as the Ceiling that powers a TV ad for the Nissan Xterra.

Fortunately, they had a better year in Britain. Dakota, as I've noted before, hit No. 1 in England (ousting Nelly) and was downloaded like the U.K. equivalent of Hollaback Girl. (If you know of a more depressing contrast between U.S. and U.K. tastes, please don't tell me.) From what I've read at the NME and BBC sites, it seems Stereophonics had to win over a lot of detractors, though their albums -- including this year's Language. Sex. Violence. Other. -- have never had any trouble hitting No. 1 in the U.K. They've surely silenced their critics across the pond now, as evidenced by NME's Stereophonics in decent album shocker review.

Because they're such unknowns here, I've been discovering them gradually. Last summer, my Launch player dug up Help Me (She's Out of Her Mind), an epic mix of laughing and crying over a rocky relationship surely influenced by lead singer Kelly Jones' breakup with a girlfriend of 12 years. (See's MacKenzie Wilson's take on 2003's You Gotta Go There to Come Back, the album that kicks off with Help Me.) I downloaded Dakota in April, and it's now ranked second on my iTunes/iPod play count behind my little boy's favorite song, Bohemian Like You.

I'm past the days of judging bands on one or two songs, so I didn't rush out and proclaim myself a Stereophonics fan. But other songs piled up. There was Moviestar, a synth-driven study of fame. The band's top song at iTunes is the melancholy Maybe Tomorrow. That pairs nicely with the peppier and thoughtful Rewind, another 2005 release. And those who like the classic power rock that the critics can't stand these days should try 2005's Doorman or High as the Ceiling, which is more than just a truck ad.

I think that's enough to prove this band isn't some sort of fluke.

While today's critics (and surely some fans and most radio programmers) seem to prefer predictability in their bands, Stereophonics know how to shift gears. They're a power trio with plenty of power, but they don't mind flipping on the synthesizers when it helps. Best of all, Jones is a lyricist equally adept at writing pop hooks and resonant verses. Dakota is wonderfully wistful, Rewind challenges the listener with a classic carpe diem verse that would make a high school English teach drool, and Moviestar offers surprising layers of complexity. Even on High as the Ceiling, a flat-out revved-up rocker, Jones refuses to get lazy and write mind-numbing filler around his hooks.

I've written about these guys three times in the past few months. So rather than let this become the Stereophonics fan blog, I've summed it all up here. (At least until they release a new one.) There you have it: MMM Band of the Year.

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