Just as the Reagan administration and the Moral Majority inspired countless punk bands in the '80s, the Bush regime and the rise of Christian evangelicals in the new millennium has provided ample material for pissed-off records. But few exude the charm of The Thermals' The Body The Blood The Machine or the smarts of Channels' Waiting For The Next End Of The World.
And none of them—in fact, perhaps no other album this year—opens with a song as fantastic as The Thermals' "Here's Your Future," a hook-laden garage-rocker that immediately establishes the theme: "God reached his hand down from the sky / he flooded the land, then he set it afire," sings guitarist-vocalist Hutch Harris, later adding, "so bend your knees and bow your heads / save your babies, here's your future." The tyranny of religious zealotry makes that future (and present) look ominous, and The Thermals make sure no one misses the point, with a painting of Jesus on the album cover and another in the liner notes of Moses wielding the 10 commandments at the Capitol building. But The Machine isn't about subtle commentary: It's 36 minutes of loose garage rock with massively catchy melodies sugarcoating the biting sarcasm.
Channels frontman J. Robbins specializes in subtlety. With Jawbox and Burning Airlines, he never fully tipped his hand thematically in his songs. But Channels come out swinging on the opening track "To The New Mandarins," which begins with "it's tricky to relax / when bracing for impact / call it your patriot act" and ends with "seal yourself in plastic / and wait for the next disaster / you've got to hand it to the bastards." None of the album's 11 other songs is so thematically forthright, but their unease is palpable. "Chivaree," which appeared on Channels' debut EP, reappears here in looser form, but remains the best song on the album. The sound sticks to the angular post-punk Robbins has perfected over 17 years, but the album isn't transcendent. That's a lot to expect, but Robbins has such an excellent body of work that an album that's only really good feels like a small letdown.