Review Summary: They've stood their ground, and here they are: the swan song of a band whose 20 years have cemented them as punk legends.
Strung Out aren't like any other band. It sounds cliche, but if you look at the closest comparisons -- Pennywise, Lagwagon, Ten Foot Pole -- it's easy to see that Strung Out are miles ahead of the average punk musicians. In addition to being one of the most technically impressive punk bands still making music (kind of), lead singer Jason Cruz has always added a gifted ear for melody and deep, insightful lyrics to what could otherwise be your run-of-the-mill melodic punk rock act. Put that together with their 20 years of expertise in crafting musically and thematically consistent albums, and it's no surprise to see how much they've grown and matured as artists. Top Contenders
is the ultimate collection of Strung Out's finest work, and serves as a testament to their new-found maturity shared by few of their contemporaries.
Strung Out has always had a knack for killer opening tracks, and Top Contenders
is a prime example. Featured on this compilation are the 7 opening tracks from each of their 7 LPs (Population Control, Firecracker, Too Close To See, Velvet Alley, Analog, Calling, and Black Crosses), and after hearing each of them it's quite apparent why it can be so easy to get sucked in to a Strung Out record. The opening tracks are the epitome of Strung Out's sound -- gigantic hooks and sing-along choruses over metal-punk shredfests that land comparisons to Propagandhi and A Wilhelm Scream.
is bursting with anthemic fan favourites such as 'Bring Out Your Dead', 'Mission Statement', and 'Everyday'. Songs like these are what fills up venues and seemingly all of Strung Out's live shows, and it seems that the majority of Strung Out's die-hard fanbase knows every word to every song they've ever written. No surprises there; these songs WILL get stuck in your head.
What makes this compilation different from other 'Best of' compilations is that every song has been remixed and remastered by (the ***ing man) Ryan Greene. Albums that suffered from horrendous production (Exile In Oblivion, Blackhawks Over Los Angeles) have been brought to life and the songs sound better than ever. It no longer sounds as if the band is wading through a subterranean tunnel carved by Glenn Danzig which has been flooded with mud and dead bodies since Reagan was in power. However, the songs that had already been mixed by Greene (Element of Sonic Defiance's 'Everyday' and 'Scarecrow' sound incredible. Hire this man if you want your punk record to sound as immaculate as this.
But perhaps the most exciting part of Top Contenders
is the 3 brand new originals that the band recorded exclusively for this record: 'City Lights', 'Saturday Night', and 'Here We Are'. It's like Christmas morning for Strung Out fans whenever the band releases new material, and never before has it been as heart-wrenching as it is exciting. The band continues along the anthemic punk rock path, but this time with more heart and maturity than they've ever shown. The new songs -- particularly 'Here We Are' and the undeniably catchy 'City Lights' -- show the signs of a band ready to come to terms with its own age. They feel more like looking back on great memories with the band and their fans, rather than pushing forward as they have always done on past records.
In the end, Top Contenders
really is the ultimate Strung Out Collection. There are some cult classics that were missed, and some criticize the selection for being a 'singles' collection, but there is a reason those songs were chosen -- they're simply the best. New listeners can grasp the accessible side of Strung Out, and for older fans, it's not unlike going to one of their live shows; don't be surprised to hear most of these songs at any given Strung Out concert. Top Contenders
is Strung Out at their finest: perpetually uncompromising, blindingly technical, wonderfully articulate, and catchy-as-hell punk rock anthems that the SoCal quintet has been chugging out since Tim McIlrath was just getting pubes.