But every year around this time, as we winnow through all the quality releases that came from these parts in the past 12 months to present a short list of the best, things get pretty rough. It's never been harder to compile this column than it was in 2004, and many great bands had to be left out (the New Loud Reeds, Lucky Pierre, Rambler 454, and the Volta Sound, to name a few). But we sucked it up and did some real work for a change. Read on, as we recuperate.
1. Disengage, Application for an Afterlife (Fractured Transmitter) -- On its long-awaited third LP, Disengage picks at Cleveland's scabs: An album of urban dystopia writ large, it attacks the town's ills with buzzing guitars, Jason Byers' fevered yelp, and a rhythm section tighter than a termite's ass. For a city with fading vitals, here's an adrenaline shot.
2. Keelhaul, Subject to Change Without Notice (Hydrahead) -- There's a moment about 20 minutes into Keelhaul's latest when singer-bassist Aaron Dallison shrieks so hard, for so long, that he nearly runs out of breath. By then, you can relate, as Subject to Change is downright exhausting. Intricate and overpowering, Keelhaul's third disc is a marathon of mangled riffs and concussive force that renders the majority of metal releases unnecessary.
3. Iyan Anomolie, The Book of I (Iyananomolie.com) -- Iyan Anomolie accomplished locally what Kanye West did nationally: He bridged the gap between the increasingly dogmatic hip-hop underground and the increasingly dull rap mainstream with a crisp, sonorous flow and a wicked sense of humor that hip-checks his politics. Think CNN's Crossfire with a laugh track.
4. Conya Doss, Just Because (Uniquebeatentertainment) -- Conya Doss's debut was baby's-butt smooth. Here, she adds more grit and 'tude to her sensual soul; her empowered anthems stand in welcome contrast to the degrading, anything-for-my-man submissiveness of Destiny's Child.
5. Amps II Eleven, Amps II Eleven (Smog Veil) -- Every song on this cirrhosis-courting debut sounds like it was written through a hangover. The vocals are hollered like a drunk ordering another round. Twin guitars rip out greasy leads, with burping, acid-reflux bass piled on top. This is blue-collar rock that defines Cleveland as much as shitty weather and shittier sports franchises.
6. Saul Glennon, Touch Feely (GDR) -- Never are there clouds on Jack Rugan's street. The lawns are all a deep green, and the squirrels all crap gummi bears. At least, this is what the latest from Rugan's '60s-minded outfit, Saul Glennon, suggests. An effervescent, impossibly sunny double shot of pristine psychedelia, Touch Feely is all Calgon harmonies and optimism coated in Kevlar.
7. This Moment in Black History, Midwesterncuttalistick (Version City) -- Like the International Noise Conspiracy without the socialism, suits, or sucky songs, This Moment in Black History shouts out protest anthems you can dance to. Whether you're shaking a leg or shaking a fist, it's damn near impossible to remain seated while their raw-lunged indie soul is spinning.
8. Lovedrug, Pretend You're Alive (Militia Group)/ Brandtson, Send Us a Signal (Militia Group) -- These discs take all the fun out of hating emotive modern rock. On Pretend You're Alive, Lovedrug posits itself as the region's next breakout act with a lush, bloodletting sound that recently led to a deal with Sony. Brandtson countered with starry-eyed power pop and narcotic two-part harmonies that ended the band's reign as Cleveland's most overlooked act.
9. Jackie Warren, Near You (Jackie Warren Industries) -- Like scotch and blue jeans, some things get better with age. Having taken up piano at age five, Warren made the rounds locally for 15 years before dropping her stirring debut. It was worth the wait, as she deftly tames Miles Davis one minute, then sweats up a Latin tango the next, all with the grace of a hummingbird.
10. Red Giant, Devil Child Blues (Small Stone) -- Budget-minded music fans can save lots of money on drugs with the contact high from Red Giant's third LP. Bluesy, howl-at-the moon vocals, a monsoon of dual-guitar gymnastics, and songs about time machines make this one of the most far-out discs of the year.