In the 21st century, Phoenix punk and alternative rock have had an underappreciated renaissance, an emergence of boundless energy and new creative forms of music not possible in earlier times. To highlight the resurgence of the Arizona rock scene in the past decade, we’ve chosen a short sampling of some of the great new albums that give a taste of what’s been happening.
Dog Problems (2006) – The Format
Before he went on to found fun. and reach international stardom, Nate Ruess was in a not-very-little, not-at-all-obscure band called The Format. The band’s blending of mid-2000s pop rock with some of the prominent folk-punk elements in Phoenix’s music scene made them a national success. While it’s tough to argue that The Format were anywhere near as influential as their fun. counterpart (thanks for making every pop song need orchestral strings, Nate Ruess), they were part of a movement that kept guitar pop fresh through the 2000s when it easily could have stagnated.
Dog Problems came at a critical point in The Format’s career, as it was the first album released after the band’s departure from Atlantic Records. The band used their newfound freedom to publish Dog Problems on their own label: The Vanity Label. This resulted in an album that took more chances than some of the band’s early work. The mix of ’70s- and ’80s-style pop with Arizona’s folky cowpunk influences resulted in something special, even if it doesn’t stay in your head the way “Some Nights” might.
People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest Kind of People in the World (2007) – Andrew Jackson Jihad
Andrew Jackson Jihad’s People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest Kind of People in the World is to acoustic folk-punk what My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is to shoegaze: it defines its subgenre. The country twang of cowpunk and the political consciousness of folk music combined to build this collection of catchy analysis of Arizona’s social problems. While People didn’t exactly inspire a wave of acoustic folk-punk imitators within the Phoenix music scene, it did put Phoenix and AJJ on a shortlist with the likes of Ghost Mice and Defiance, Ohio.
Musically, People is catchy enough for a casual listen, with most of its depth and replay-ability coming from singer Sean Bonnette’s lyricism. It seems fitting that one of Phoenix’s definitive albums would cover topics ranging from replacing religion with people to ending racism, HIV and drug use in one fell swoop. Phoenix is a city that tries to tackle everything in a grassroots art scene, and People is an album that tries the do the same with just a few acoustic guitars.
Knifeman (2011) – Andrew Jackson Jihad
Knifeman signaled Andrew Jackson Jihad’s transition from a top-tier local band to one with national acclaim. Thematically, it maintained much of what AJJ came to be known for –- social and political commentary that hits extra close to home in Phoenix. It feels like most Phoenicians can relate to lyrics like “I wish I had a bullet big enough to f—— kill the sun/I’m sick of songs about the summer/And I hate everyone.”
While Knifeman‘s lyrics may have only been a small progression from albums like People, it was a more notable evolution on a musical level. The simple acoustic setup from People was mostly gone, in favor of electric guitars and a full band. Strangely enough, the band’s musical styling grew closer to the hardcore punk bands that are prevalent in Phoenix today as they expanded further away nationally.
Checkognize (2012) – Treasure Mammal
Some people might say that anything with synthesizers and spandex doesn’t belong on a punk rock list. Some people might not have heard of Treasure Mammal. Few things are more definitively Phoenix than the blow-up doll-“interacting,” ripped clothes-wearing, audience-harassing joy that is Treasure Mammal. While they haven’t exactly blown up on a national level, they’ve certainly become a mainstay in Phoenix’s scene -– and they might be the only synth-driven band to do so.
Checkognize itself is as manic and all-over-the-place as a Treasure Mammal live performance. The album varies dramatically, from the dance-y, feel-good “Shake Weight” to the emotional (but still feel-good) ballad “Bromance.” It’s tough to really put the music of Treasure Mammal in words, though. Like any great performer, their loveable insanity must be experienced live to truly be appreciated — and their location means that’s an advantage the Phoenix music scene has.
We’ve chosen a low number of albums for this new time period, and we’re hoping to encourage response. Phoenix has never been a greater wellspring of underground rock than it has been in the 21st century. What albums do you think should be enshrined with the greats?