As a rule, music lovers begin their journey square in the middle of the mainstream, and once they’ve gotten a taste for more adventurous fare, they take off for the fringes, often never to return. Over time, I’ve slowly found myself coming back to the middle. I have to say, I never thought this would happen. But then again, I never thought I’d move back to Ohio after over a decade in Boston and Chicago, but that’s life for ya: it changes you in ways you can’t anticipate.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that my list, much like last year’s list, isn’t exactly hip, or edgy, but that’s mainly because I’m not hip or edgy. I like what I like, whether it’s Massive Attack or Mandy Moore. And here are five albums from this year that I really, really like.
I am admittedly late to the Emily Haines Show – a friend of mine persuaded me to download Live It Out a few years ago, but it never hooked me – but their latest is a monster blast of New Wave-tinged DOR that Garbage would kill for. Metric – “Stadium Love”
Epic, sky-high pop that recalls the best of the Verve, Keane and even the Wonder Stuff in singer Antony Genn’s delivery. The title track is a “Common People”-style slow burner and one of the finest pieces of British pop I’ve heard in years. The Hours – “Big Black Hole”
Doves: Kingdom of Rust
After an interminable four-year break between albums, Doves grace us with new material, and surprise! It’s awesome. Is it finally time to throw their name into the ‘Best Band in the World’ discussion? Doves – “Jetstream”
Pet Shop Boys: Yes
After losing their way somewhat with the mellow yet angry Fundamental, the Pet Shop Boys go back to what they do best and turn in their best album since 1993’s Very. Perhaps the most amazing – and a tad galling – thing about Yes was that they held one of its best songs, a duet with Human League’s Philip Oakey, off of the single-disc release, forcing synth-pop fans to splurge for the two-disc special edition in order to get it. For those who didn’t take the bait, we would like to say: you’re welcome. Pet Shop Boys feat. Philip Oakey – “This Used to Be the Future”
Patrick Pleau: Hype-Moi
This all-French album from pop wunderkind Pleau was everything I was hoping Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s Catnip Dynamite would be, and more. It’s also less, when I think about it; Manning’s album went beyond over-the-top, and Pleau has a kitchen-sink mindset too, but has a better sense of when enough is enough. I don’t understand a word of what he’s saying – though one reader informed me that one of the songs is called “Blue Screen of Death,” so he clearly has a sense of humor – but that is one of the joys of music, isn’t it? Get your French on. Patrick Pleau – “Bocalophobe”
Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown
It’s four songs too long, and Billie Joe Armstrong is 15 years removed from taking these lyrics seriously, but 21st Century Breakdown is still a wildly ambitious and highly rewarding piece of work. Oh, and don’t look now, but they become eligible for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in six years. Book ’em, Dan-o. Green Day – “Peacemaker”
Tinted Windows: Tinted Windows
Call it bait for the haters. A smashed Pumpkin, a founder of Wayne, a Bun on the drums and — a Hanson brother, yet there have been few really fun, crank ’em up & rock ’em out albums of late. The debut from supergroup Tinted Windows is just that.
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
Freshening up her Americana-pop sound (calling it country would be misleading,) Case’s most recent solo album is her most textured, but at the same time most accessible…
Devin Townsend: Ki (HDR / InsideOut)
When Townsend closed the shop on both The Devin Townsend Band as well as maniacal metal dervish Strapping Young Lad, fans expected never to hear from him again. True for almost two years, but Townsend is back with perhaps his most focused, and sincerely most beautiful, album to date.
The Gathering: The West Pole (Season Of Mist / Psychonaut)
So what is to be expected from the band’s first album since lead vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen’s departure? Well, certainly not what you get, which is a great thing. Back is a newfound sense of aggression without sacrificing those trip-rock touches, yet at the same time, new vocalist Silje Wergeland fills Anneke’s range witout copying her. The new era starts off in promising fashon.
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse: Dark Night of the Soul
A multi-participant project, Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse pull great new songs from The Flaming Lips, Frank Black, Suzanne Vega and David Lynch (yes, THAT David Lynch who has also created a full book of photography for the project.) The catch is that, purportedly, the record label involved with the project got cold feet when it came to juggling so many names, rights and residuals and, for the time being, the album’s been shelved. That is, of course, unless you have a little interwebs saavy. The book will even include a recordable CD-R for such purposes, not that those involved are advocating such things. Wink wink.
Dishonorable mention: U2: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)
It’s not that U2’s most recent album is bad. Had they not been U2 Almighty, it might even have been alright. But the hype machine went into cardiac arrest while pumping up this one, and with so much propaganda involved, the disc should have had more than just one incredible song (“Magnificent”). It’s like witnessing the second coming of Christ, but He’s only stepping out of the cross-town bus.
Mojo Flucke, Ph.D:
Black Smokers: Used
These guys have the energy of Jon Spencer, the rockin’ blues sensibility of ZZ Top, and the lo-fi vibe of the best 1960s garage rock. They’re my “clear the sinuses” album of 2009 so far. As in, if you’ve heard “Single Ladies” one too many times and have it rattling around in your head, you don’t have to put a ring on it. Just put these deep blues dynamos in your rig and let ‘er rip. No synths, no heavy studio production, they just bring the rock.
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)
The more this band persists, the more Jeff Tweedy & Co. stick to one’s craw. They’ve morphed from a semi-focused pop band with country-folk leanings in the 1990s to this decade’s version–all poetic, ethereal pop, a sound unto itself. The concert scene’s fantastic, too, sort of like a Phish/Grateful Dead scene for serious music fans who go there for the concert and not for the silly hippie atmosphere. “Wilco (The Song)” and the “You and I” Tweedy/Feist duet are just two of several high points.
Booker T: Potato Hole
There’s no getting around how Booker T is one of America’s musical treasures. The architect of Memphis soul, a multi-instrumentalist who made his name with the Hammond organ. The co-writer of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The leader of the backing band to many of the grat Stax singles, including Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. So for his first album in decades, he just rests on his laurels and puts out a bunch of pat covers of current soul hits like he might have back in the day, right? Wrong. He hires the Drive-By Truckers to back up his Hammond, and somehow talks Neil Young into a rare guest appearance, playing heavy lead guitar on all but one track. All originals, all new soul jams, updated for 2009. At age 64, Booker’s still a monster at the organ. Get this record, now.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives: Communion
Weird, folky, garage-y, and with downright scary album art, these Swedish rockers are a throwback to the pre-Hendrix rock era, where melodic-acoustic songs were actually appreciated. Dark at times, beautiful at others, and rocking hard the rest, I was late to the “T.S.O.O.L.” table, as they call it. But it’s good stuff, rock craft that shouldn’t be left to wilt in obscurity. While the band’s stock in trade is almost a Mamas & The Papas sound, the band mixes it up well and for my money, the hard-driving electric psychedelic blaster “Mensa’s Marauders” is this double CD’s best track.
We’ll go with Medsker on this product (see his writeup) of the Candian Broken Social Scene clique. It’s a pretty great little record that can’t easily be shaken from one’s iTunes playlist once it worms its way in.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!
I wasn’t a big fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ last full-length album, Show Your Bones, so I wasn’t terribly interested in even listening to their latest offering. But an advance copy made its way to me a few weeks before its release and I decided to give it a try, and boy, am I glad I did because I love it to bits. In fact, I don’t think it’s left my MP3 player since I got it, and that’s really saying something. Standout tracks for me are “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” “Dull Life,” and “Hysteric.”
Pomegranates: Everybody Come Outside
I’m not just choosing this album because it was made by a band from my hometown, nor do I love it because I know they boys in the band. I am choosing it because I think it’s an amazing record made by some of the most talented young musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. These guys are going to be big, you mark my words. If you get the chance to see them live, please do it. You won’t regret it. Favorite tracks include “Everybody Come Outside,” “This Land Used to Be My Land, But Now I Hate This Land,” “Southern Ocean” and “Corriander.”
St. Vincent: Actor
I was a huge fan of the first St. Vincent record, Marry Me, and I was really excited when I learned there would be a new album out this year. While I haven’t connected with it in the same immediate way as I did with the first album, I still adore it. Many of the songs have a grittier edge than the last album and I like that a lot. At the time of this writing, I am anticipating seeing her live for the first time when she swings into the Cincinnati area and I’m really looking forward to the show. Favorite tracks include, “Save Me from What I Want,” “Marrow,” “The Party” and “Just the Same But Brand New.”
PJ Harvey and John Parish: A Man a Woman Walked By
I didn’t really get into PJ Harvey until Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And after that album, I slowly started becoming a full-fledged fan. However, until this album’s release, I hadn’t heard but a couple songs from her previous album with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point (and I admit that I still need to get that album). When I first listened to this record, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Then I listened again, and I was pretty sure I liked a few times. Then, after the third listen, I was hooked. I really loved PJ’s last solo album, the excellent, but subdued, White Chalk, but I was really itching to hear some harder and grittier songs from her; this definitely does the trick. Standout tracks include, “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” “A Woman A Man Walked By / The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go,” “The Soldiers,” and “Pig Will Not.”
Cotton Jones: Paranoid Cocoon
This one kind of snuck up on me, out of nowhere. I was recently on vacation in Chicago and, when my original plans for the evening fell through, I decided to head to Schuba’s to catch Cotton Jones. I had heard a bit of their performance on a WOXY Lounge Act Session a couple of days before, and liked what I’d heard. I knew that a couple of the band members had previously been in Page France, so I had a feeling I’d enjoy them. I am really glad I went to that show because I ended up loving their performance. Not long after I got home, I bought a couple of their records, this one included, and I found myself listening over and over. One of my favorite things as a music fans is discovering a band through their live performance before hearing any of their recorded material. Favorite tracks include, “Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have),” “Gotta Cheer Up,” “By Morning Light” and “Blood Red Sentimental Blues.”
Heartless Bastards: The Mountain
Another local band done good. I adore the latest offering by this incredible trio. The first time I saw them play was when they opened for The Black Keys several years ago.Erika Wennerstrom has such a unique voice that begs comparisons to other great female vocalists, but that really is in its own league. I’m really happy these guys have found such great success because they absolutely deserve it. Standouts include “The Mountain,” “Hold Your Head High,” “Nothing Seems the Same” and “Sway.”
There are several others that I wanted to include, but they’ll have to wait until my year-end list. Also, biggest disappointments this year for me, so far: Tori Amos and Prince.
Felice Brothers: Yonder Is the Clock
After an outstanding, self-titled debut in 2008, the Catskill boys take it up a notch. Dark tales of murder and suicide set to jaunty beats and sing-alongs.
Buddy and Julie Miller: Written in Chalk
The Nashville couple release their second duo album in the midst of near personal tragedy. The music, however, is a triumph, as Julie Miller demonstrates once again that she is one of the nation’s best songwriters, and Buddy shows why Steve Earle has called him the “best singer in Nashville.”
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life
Forty-plus years into his career, one begins to run out of platitudes. Dylan once again banishes any thoughts that age has caught up with him, as he nears his 70th birthday. Self-produced, and featuring his road band, this is one of his finest albums in years.
The Revelations featuring Tre Williams: Deep Soul
For better or worse, there are a lot of people jumping on the retro soul bandwagon these days, but none are doing it better than the Revelations. Led by a genuine force of nature, they take on everything from Philly Soul, to the Memphis sound of Al Green, and make it all their own.
Justin Townes Earle: Midnight at the Movies
A singer/songwriter with potential, Earle moves closer to glory with his third release. More Hank Williams than his father Steve, Earle sprinkles the honky tonk with just enough balladry ala Townes Van Zandt, from whom he got his middle name.
Kasabian: West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
The newest album on my list, Kasabian’s third album finds them really hitting their stride with a striking blend of psych, prog, and Britpop.
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
The tenacious singer-songwriter hits a peak for stylistic and emotional accessibility with her latest album, Middle Cyclone. Yet she remains as mysterious and alluring as ever, as she roars through vivacious tracks like “I’m an Animal” and “This Tornado Loves You,” and darker songs like “Prison Girls” and “The Pharaohs.” Long enough to find new discoveries in each repeat lesson, but poignant enough to be memorable.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Over their past albums, Animal Collective have developed a rather self- destructive image, constructing pieces of pop perfection only to turn them into obnoxious, ear-grating breakdowns. With Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band finally exercises their pop muscles without shame, and without delving into the dreaded territory of being “boring.” It took them awhile to get here, but was entirely worth the wait. Animal Collective, “No More Runnin'”
Akron/Family: Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
Some may call this inconsistent, but those with open ears would call it versatile. Jumping from freak folk to noise to quiet pop, this eccentric trio stops at nothing. Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free is a must-hear album from a must-see band. Akron/Family, “Many Ghosts”
St. Vincent: Actor
Annie Clark delivers another sweet and salty LP under her St. Vincent moniker. Actor is more salt than sweet, finding Clark upping her previous effort with more guitar showwomanship and more pointed lyrics criticizing “The American Dream.” But her affection towards detail and metaphor, as seen in lines like, “Oh, my pockets hang out like two surrender flags,” from “The Party,” remind us she’s not all bite.
Dan Auerbach: Keep It Hid
Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach releases a two-sided effort, one part folk troubadour, one part Black Keys’ redux. Though not necessarily revelatory, Keep It Hid shows that there is seemingly no end to Auerbach’s creative well. Dan Auerbach, “Trouble Weighs a Ton”
Mastodon: Crack the Skye
Bludgeoning, layered, complex, melodic, mind-melting. I hear something different every time I put it on. Must be listened to in one sitting, at a very high volume, if you can take it. I strongly encourage you to try.
Miranda Lee Richards: Light of X
Now that Patty Griffin is only putting out records every three or so years and Shawn Colvin is consistently underwhelming me of late, I lean on artists like Shannon McArdle, Kelly Buchanan, and Kathleen Edwards when I require strong songs with the singer/songwriter vibe and a woman’s voice and perspective. I’m adding Miranda Lee Richards to that list. Light of X is an extraordinary record more people should hear.
Red Light Company: Fine Fascination
Big songs. Big vocals. Big production. Sounds like they’re ready for the Big Time. They should open stadium shows for Coldplay. They would fucking bury Coldplay. I hate Coldplay.
Kelly Clarkson: All I Ever Wanted
Yes, it’s pure product. Yes, Clive Davis’ Crypt-Keeper fingerprints are all over this. Yes, Clive Davis is still a tool. However (and that’s however with a big H, sonny) Clarkson simply has a voice that makes it all work-always has, and if she doesn’t blow out her throat singing “My Life Would Suck Without You” over and over again, always will. Everything on this one is immediately ear-catching. A perfect pop album.
Green Day:21st Century Breakdown
I didn’t get American Idiot at first — who expected massive song-suites from a band most adept at four-minute snotty, amp-blowing singles? — but Breakdown has immediate and (I’m predicting) lasting impact. Am I the only one who hears “Come On Eileen” in the melody of “Before The Lobotomy?” Discuss.
Great Lake Swimmers: Lost Channels
I loved Ongiara, and Lost Channels is just as good. Tony Dekker’s got one of those voices that blows right through me- understated and vulnerable, yet it could knock down a mountain if he wanted to, and the harmonies that weave around him just make that even more apparent. This is one of those late night/lights out albums I just don’t hear much anymore.
Medeski Martin & Wood: Radiolarians II
The middle chapter in the Radiolarians trilogy â€“ the band’s Empire Strikes Back, if you will — focuses on more of the acoustic Jazz sounds andstructures that lay at the band’s core. It’s not as angular and off-the-wall as Radiolarians I, but it’s still born of the same concept â€“ completely new material that the band wrote on the road.Improvisations, explorations, all distilled into a chaotic chemistry, bottled up into a trilogy. The album covers a lot of ground â€“ sometimes sounding as sinister and abrasive as Bauhaus jamming in Tom Waits’ tool shed and other times sounding like the score to a psychedelic film noir. It’s brilliant and bright stuff and I can’t wait for the final installment so I can listen to them all back to back or jumbled together. Here’s the video to the song â€œAmber Grisâ€:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/4sNQbctS5ow" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]
Grateful Dead: To Terrapin, Hartford 77
When I was compiling my â€œbest of 2008â€ list, someone asked me, â€œDon’t you just list whatever 10 Dead reissues and Dick’s Picks came out that year?â€ TouchÃ©! To Terrapin is special because ‘heads have been waiting and waiting for an official release of a concert from the storied month of May 1977. May 8th , 1977 at Cornell is considered by many to be the absolute finest concert the band ever performed, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad night during the entire tour. The songs â€œTerrapin Stationâ€ and â€œEstimated Prophetâ€ were just a couple months old; fresh and alive with a kind of urgency that defines that Dead â€œX-Factor.â€ The three discs of To Terrapin capture the last night of the tour – May 28th in Hartford. â€œEstimatedâ€ and â€œTerrapinâ€ are both here, as well as what could be the all-time best â€œSugareeâ€ — an epic workout that transcends any other version. Big props to Rhino for finally releasing something from this magical time in the Dead’s history.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: A Stranger Here
A Stranger Here is the first new Jack Elliott album since my father’s passing. My father was a big fan of Ramblin’ Jack and he introduced me to his music. When I was like 16 or 17 my dad and I saw Ramblin’ Jack in San Francisco; Jack regaled the crowd with stories and songs for about two hours, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen. This old cowboy from my dad’s records was a real guy. A Stranger Here is his second release for Anti-, and this time around, Jack covers a set of old Depression-era American blues and as haunting as these dark old songs are, there is an undeniable warmth that comes with hearing Ramblin’ Jack’s voice fill my house, even the hair-raising â€œDeath Don’t Have No Mercyâ€ or the lonely meditation of â€œSoul of a Man.â€ As we get further from our roots, from the dirt beneath our feet, it’s a comfort knowing that even now in this day and age, Jack Elliott is still rambling.
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life
Remember those old commercials for the Time-Life â€œOld Westâ€ series of books? â€œBig handsome books with the look and feel of hand-tooled saddle leather…â€ While Bob Dylan never killed a man for snoring, each new album feels like another volume in some great encyclopedic set â€“ the story of American music laid bare on the pages. Together Through Life is a much more visceral and raw affair than the streamlined Modern Times — Bob sounds damn near out for blood in some moments, singing about gypsy curses and cries of pain. Robert Hunter is along for the ride, providing some lyric contributions (their first collaboration since 1988’s â€œSilvioâ€), along with David Hidalgo (who also appears on Ramblin’ Jack’s latest) and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers.
Ozric Tentacles: The Yum Yum Tree
A lot of bands have only just figured out how to meld trancey electronics into their live jams, but Ozric Tentacles have been holding it down in the UK for over two and a half decades. Their distinctive blend of psychedelia is vivid and vivacious â€“ tightly wound spirals of sound that integrate everything from fusion to trance â€“ with Ed Wynne’s guitar soaring over everything. Like any band who has been around, the Ozrics have had many lineup changes, fluctuations and evolutions in their sound, but they never stray too far from the formula. The Yum Yum Tree yields more meditative and ambient spaces in their sound (â€œNakuru,â€ â€œOolong Oolongâ€) but there are plenty of white hot jams (â€œMooncalfâ€). Ozric Tentacles are the sacred elders in a world of sound that more and more people are finding themselves wanting to venture to.
Sonic Youth: The Eternal
â€œDowngradingâ€ to an indie label (and the venerable Matador Records at that) after almost 20 years at Geffen seems to have completely reinvigorated Sonic Youth. How else to describe the sensation that feeds into the pumped up energy of The Eternal? Theyâ€™re sticking closer to the classic rock jams of their last few albums than one might expect, given the freer rein associated with indies. But whoâ€™s complaining? Thereâ€™s been very little worth complaining about on SY records since 2002â€™s Murray Street steered the band far away from the acquired-taste-even-for-die-hards art rock that dominated their output post-Washing Machine. Now, theyâ€™re taking what has worked so well the past seven years, adding ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold to the mix, and pumping up the adrenaline a couple notches over 2006â€™s solid but comparatively tame Rather Ripped. Thurston Mooreâ€™s â€œNo Wayâ€ is a hard driving, fist-pumping kiss-off (â€œIâ€™m not talkinâ€™ to you no more / and Iâ€™m never ever gonna shout at your doorâ€), Lee Ranaldoâ€™s tunes are dependably smile-inducing, and if it werenâ€™t for Kim Gordon dating â€œMalibu Gas Stationâ€ with a reference to Britney Spears, youâ€™d think this was the same Kim who snarled her way through â€œDrunken Butterflyâ€ in â€™92.
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life
Gnarly, grizzled and sharp as ever, Dylan has always been an ideal voice for the coming of the apocalypse. Some might argue that itâ€™s already here, in which case, thereâ€™s no better time to hear him crack jokes about our dire situation â€“ â€œStateâ€™s gone broke, countyâ€™s dry / donâ€™t be lookinâ€™ at me with that evil eye,â€ he quips in â€œMy Wifeâ€™s Home Town.â€ Hell might be his wifeâ€™s home town, but it ainâ€™t a bad place to be as long as heâ€™s there reminding us that it truly is â€œall goodâ€ (do we detect a note of sarcasm?). Besides, a little house fly never hurt your dinner. Thatâ€™s protein! Beyond the vermin in the kitchen, Dylan sticks to the dirty, funky basics that have marked his last couple of acclaimed long players this decade: Willie Dixon- inspired electric blues, a touch of rockabilly, and at least one pretty, semi-pop inspired tune (the lovelorn ballad â€œLife is Hardâ€ fits the bill this time around). With some Tex-Mex accordion added to the mix, Together Through Life sparkles with vibrancy, in spite of Dylan himself sounding like heâ€™s one croak away from heavenâ€™s door.
The Parson Red Heads: Orangufang
Where my favorite band of friendly, harmonious L.A. indie rockers in all-white uniform take the 7â€ vinyl plunge. Orangufang may only be a three-song EP (the third song, â€œI Knew a Young Girl,â€ is included with the free digital download that comes with the record), but you canâ€™t accuse the Parson Red Heads of skimping on quality. Both the jangly â€œRaymondâ€ (named after pedal steel player Raymond Richards, their friend and occasional band member) and â€œYou Can Leave Itâ€ â€“ from the pen of chief Red Head Evan Way â€“ brim with hooks, warm harmony vocals, and a sound that seamlessly blends Byrdsian folk-rock, Neil Young- inspired country-rock, and the familiar charm of Tom Petty. Theyâ€™ve still got some aces up their sleeves, but weâ€™ll have to wait for the follow-up to their debut full-length album, 2006â€™s King Giraffe, to hear them. Till then, Orangufang is a welcome homegrown stop-gap. Only downside â€“ they pressed just 200 of these little platters.
PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman a Man Walked By
The last time Polly Jean Harvey shared billing on a record with John Parish…well, letâ€™s just say my memory is only as strong as what enters it. This time around, itâ€™s a different story. Merging the creepiness of 2007â€™s relatively quiet White Chalk with the loud, guitar-driven barks and trills that make PJ Harvey records so exciting, A Woman a Man Walked By delivers swift crotch kicks nearly every other turn. As Harvey inhabits characters who are alternatively dejected (â€œCaliforniaâ€), defiant (â€œPig Will Notâ€), and batshit crazy (the title track), Parish matches her vocal with skillful, thoughtful musical accompaniment that doesnâ€™t veer far from usual PJ Harvey territory. Best of all is â€œPassionless, Pointlessâ€ â€“ itâ€™s the sound of quiet resignation in the face of a crumbled love affair, a la Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. In other words, a tearjerker as only Polly Jean could conjure.
M. Ward: Hold Time
Iâ€™ve yet to hear an M. Ward album that sounds remarkably different from the first one I ever heard (that would be 2003â€™s Transfiguration of Vincent). So it was a safe bet that Hold Time would at least be marginally good. Ward is still much more animated and electric when performing live, but no one can touch the warm â€œau naturalâ€ vibe he captures on his all-analog recordings. All the better to suit his rustic folk and classic pop songcraft. It may not have as many drop dead gorgeous songs as Vincent, but what Hold Time does have â€“ a Brian Wilson-Phil Spector homage in “To Save Me,” the Pet Sounds-worthy string-laden title track, a fun reworking of Buddy Hollyâ€™s â€œRave Onâ€ with Mâ€™s She & Him cohort Zooey Deschanel, and perhaps the finest vocal these ears have ever heard from Lucinda Williams on the albumâ€™s other cover, Don Gibsonâ€™s â€œOh Lonesome Meâ€ â€“ is plenty to keep returning to it on quiet Sunday mornings.
Vetiver: Tight Knit
The â€œfreak folkâ€ tag should be gone for good now that Vetiver has effectively gone MOR with Tight Knit. Their label debut for Sub Pop, Tight Knit plays like the hippest musical wallpaper youâ€™re likely to see, like if Wilco were bereft of acrimony-inducing ego. Mind you, this isnâ€™t a bad thing. That Andy Cabic and crew have created a mellow folk rock record that jumps from the subdued side of Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac (â€œThe Rolling Seaâ€) to Smiley Smile-era Beach Boys (â€œEverydayâ€) to the sound of white folkies soaking up a tinge of â€˜60s Motown funk (â€œMore of Thisâ€), and yet none but first track are instantly memorable or really scream â€œclassic,â€ is a blessing in disguise. If I donâ€™t know what else to listen to, I know I can spin
Tight Knit and a) not be annoyed, and b) not ever get sick of it. In other words, itâ€™s an all-purpose fall-back record for those indecisive days when Erik Satieâ€™s solo piano works are just a little too mellow.
Steve Martin: The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo
Steve Martin. Banjo. Music-only album. This is part of his ironic, deconstructive sense of humor, isn’t it? No, no, no. Anyone with any familiarity of Steve Martin’s career knows that he is a SERIOUS banjo player, and this album shows it to be true. All but one of the songs is a Martin original, and the other is a reworking of his own arrangement of two standards (first performed on his Comedy Isn’t Pretty album). Most of the album is instrumentals, performed with acrack band of complementary country and bluegrass instrumentalists. There are a couple of vocal turns, including one by Martin himself, and a lovely duet featuring Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, but the best track might be the opener, “Daddy Played the Banjo”, which started out as Martin’s attempt to specifically write bad poetry (or, as he might call it, pure drivel). However, the saccharine phrasings are elevated by both Martin’s wonderfully lilting tune, a great arrangement, and Tim O’Brien’s beautiful vocals.
Leonard Cohen: Live in London
This could have been Cohen’s version of Bob Dylan’s Live in Budokan: a man, far from the height of his powers, trudging through songs and turning history into shtick. Instead it’s his Cheap Trick Live in Budokan: a man recalling the greatest of his powers, interacting with instead of at the audience, and breathing life and fire into his greatest musical moments. Once again, a crack band helps push the proceedings along, but it cannot be denied that it is the coolest m-f’er on the planet who is the reason to listen. Cohen is in exquisite form here-perhaps his best “vocals” since The Future or even I’m Your Man.
Pearl Jam: Ten (Brendan O’Brien remix)
Consider this a whole new version of the seminal album. As you may remember, the video’s for the first two singles from Ten (“Alive” and “Even Flow”) used live performances, because Pearl Jam was unhappy the album’s mix — overseen by producer Rick Parashar-believing it didn’t accurately portray the band’s “true” sound. Brendan O’Brien’s complete remix of the album from the original recording tracks strips away the “grunge” that originally defined the album (and the era) musically. What you are left with a greater clarity of both vocals and instruments: the crashing, slashing sounds of the guitars are now prominent, and the interplay of the rhythm section is no longer muddied in aural waves of unnecessary sound. The new mix shows that Pearl Jam had as much in common with The Who and other “stadium” bands of the 1970s as they did with the other Seattle groups that the emerged from and were lumped into–and is definitely now the go-to version of the album.
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse: Dark Night of the Soul
This one is a grower. I downloaded this album due to the interesting story behind it, and the first couple of times through I found it a pleasent diversion full of artistic noodling and variable highs and lows. But it has grown on me, and now it feels more of a whole: the ability to construct a constant mood out of disparate patchworks of contributors; and that would be the success of the two artists whose names appear at the top. Among the high points are the opener “Revenge,” featuring Wayne Coyne, and “Angel’s Harp,” featuring the man once and now again known full-time as Black Francis, but other high points are contributed by Jason Lytle, Nina Persson, and the vocal stylings of David Lynch (yes, THAT David Lynch).
A freebie given away via their website, this live album finds Coldplay in their most natural and best sounding environment: the live performance. The crowd noise here is amazing–lifting up the proceedings and sometimes carrying songs on after the music has ceased. It’s something that you don’t hear much in live recordings, most of which are pretty much assembled piecemeal in the studio in order to “clean up” band performances and fly in actual crowd emotion. Here, neither is needed, as Coldplay proves themselves to be the latest (and possibly last?) incarnation of a band which works better when the crowds get larger.
N.A.S.A.: The Spirit of Apollo
Take a freewheeling hip-hop collective, sign them to one of the hippest labels around, and this is what you get: A beat-heavy set jam-packed with guest stars dripping with cred from within the rap world (Chali 2na, Gift of Gab, KRS-One, Wu-Tang) and without (Tom Waits, David Byrne, Karen O). The songs are smart and inventive, and the verses are generally a lot stronger than you’d expect from an on-the-fly collaboration like this. The Spirit of Apollo didn’t leave heavy rotation on my iPod for months. Here’s the song that made me want to buy the album: N.A.S.A. – “The People Tree” (feat. David Byrne, Chali 2na, Gift of Gab, and Z-Trip)
Steve Martin: The Crow: Songs for the Five-String Banjo
No joke. Mr. Bolin has already done a fine job of singing The Crow‘s praises, so all I’ll say is that this is another one I haven’t stopped listening to since it came out — although I prefer the title track to “Daddy Played the Banjo.” Steve Martin – “The Crow”
Dave Matthews Band: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
I was prepared to be just as bored with GrooGrux as I’ve been with almost everything else DMB has ever done, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s actually the tightest, most aggressive album of their long, often ponderous career. Whether this is a sign of things to come or simply a bittersweet side effect of founding member LeRoi Moore’s unexpected death, I can’t say; all I know is that tracks like “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” “Why I Am,” and “You and Me” will pop up on my playlists all summer. Dave Matthews Band – “You and Me”
Mos Def: The Ecstatic
After dropping a turd as pungent as 2006’s True Magic, most rappers could just bend over and kiss their careers goodbye, but then, most rappers never build Mos Def’s level of cred. And most of them don’t have the sack to give their fans a record as woolly as The Ecstatic — like Jodie Foster in Nell, this album speaks a language all its own, slipping from one dense, elastic groove to another, with room in between for crazy shit like, say, Def singing in Spanish. It makes for a frustrating first few listens, but once you absorb it, the album really leaves a mark. My favorite track at the moment: the spare, spastic “Quiet Dog.” Mos Def – “Quiet Dog”
Partially thanks to a cameo from Kirk Hammett, K’naan had a hit with the annoyingly gimmicky “If Rap Gets Jealous” earlier this year — and given that another of Troubadour‘s cuts, the equally inane “Bang Bang,” features vocals from Adam Levine, the Somalian rapper’s label probably isn’t finished with the stunt crossover singles. But Troubadour‘s true appeal rests solely on K’naan’s slim shoulders, and the album’s at its best when he forgets about hits and just talks about his incredible journey from poverty and war to the world stage. For my money, “Wavin’ Flag” is one of the best songs of the year. K’naan – “Wavin’ Flag”
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt
Levon Helm is a national treasure, but his solo albums haven’t always lived up to his talent. Even 2007’s Dirt Farmer, which netted Helm a Grammy and was a sharp return to form, didn’t really take full advantage of his prodigious gifts. Electric Dirt, on the other hand, lives up to its title, injecting some good old-fashioned rock & roll back into his sound. The production is dry, the songs are solid, and Helm’s tuneful yowl is just as sweet as ever. Unlike our dear Mr. Shane, I was disappointed with the Felice Brothers’ new one, but Electric Dirt satisfied my jones for a cantankerous, moonshine-fueled good time. Levon Helm – “Tennessee Jed”