Four essential picks of 21st-century Arizona punk and alternative

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.

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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?

Five essential picks from ’90s Phoenix alternative rock

The ’90s is the decade that punk splintered into alternative, achieving a mainstream visibility as the spirit of the original punk diffused into an incredible diversity of styles across the world. Similarly, Phoenix punk transformed from the familiar punk sound of the ’80s into new sounds.

Forbidden Places (1991) – Meat Puppets

Meat Puppets hopped onto a major label for Forbidden Places — the ultimate gesture of ’90s alt-rock opportunism — with a successful elaboration of their country-punk fusion. They kick it off with “Sam,” which runs at about quadruple tempo to their earlier material, country at the breakneck pace of hardcore. “Open Wide” also buckles the band into a turned-up hard-rock speed with virtuoso guitar showmanship that comes as a surprise from the previously lackadaisical band. Other songs like “This Day” slow things down to a jangly, laid-back speed with an eye for the wide-open desert sky. Despite the major label bump, the band never quite took off in the age of grunge, even with the endorsement of superstar fan Kurt Cobain.

Sacrifice (For Love) (1991) – Greg Sage

Greg Sage is the driving force behind experimental punks The Wipers, a legendary Portland act whose first three albums are still recognized as pioneering examples of hypermodern, sleek post-punk. Sage was the undeniable auteur of these records and even envisioned The Wipers as a band that would only exist in the recording studio without any touring presence — a dream that was deflated by fans clamoring for live shows. Few that come to The Wipers’ original albums today know that Sage left Portland for Phoenix in the late 1980s. Sage’s solo album from the period, Sacrifice (For Love), completely embraces the mood of his new locale, from the cacti and smiling skeletons decking the cover to the sun-scorched, rootsy sound contained within. In Arizona, Sage left behind his previously uber-tight modernist aesthetic for swingier, open pop arrangements. Hearing Sage adopt the persona of a lonesome, western cowboy, equipped with only a drum machine, should be an exciting experience for both committed Wipers fans and newcomers.

330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda (1996) – Sun City Girls

This is where it gets weird. Avant-garde band Sun City Girls released two double-album opuses in the decade, 1995′s Dante’s Disneyland Inferno and 1996′s bafflingly titled 330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda. On Crossdressers, the Girls indulged in their impressions of Southeast Asian and Indian folk sounds, free-form improvisation and psycho bugged-out jams for more than two hours. If this sounds daunting, well… it is. But the album is also one of the most rewarding experiments in rock music history, a frenetic display of what a band that is at once totally in control of their direction and yet completely off-the-wall unhinged can come up with.

A Fascination with Heights (1996) – Half String

Half String is one of a handful of shoegaze southwestern rock bands who adapted the British genre to the desert. Shoegaze, most associated with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride, is a mix of dreamy pop and crushing layers of distortion, reverb and echo. A Fascination with Heights backs soaring guitar lines and mumbled vocals with powerful, propelled drumming. The band’s best-known alumna is Kimber Lanning, who owns Stinkweeds record store and Modified Arts and runs Local First Arizona. If you see her at Stinkweeds and want to make her day, pick up this album.

Clarity (1999) – Jimmy Eat World

Simply put, Jimmy Eat World reinvented the possibilities of emo for the 21st century on Clarity. Though its commercial failure would result in the band getting dropped from Capitol Records, Jimmy Eat World set the stage for their triumph on 2001′s Bleed American while simultaneously growing the scope and ambition possible on an emo record. Countless “third wave” emo took direct inspiration from the expansive palette of the album, which includes electronic beats and lush orchestration. Its position as a predecessor to emo’s popular breakthrough certainly warrants attention, but the album holds up as a classic across genre lines.

So, there it is: Proof that some interesting things were actually going on in 1990s Phoenix rock.

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