With the release of “Port Of Morrow” the Shins are now four for four and have quietly become one of the best bands of the last decade +. While their 3rd & 4th albums don’t match the first two, there’s much to love here. There is a five year gap between “Port Of Morrow” and the Shins last album, 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away”. In between Shins head honcho James Mercer effectively broke up the band and starting a new collaboration with Danger Mouse called Broken Bells. You could be forgiven for thinking the Shins would never record again, at least effectively. Like Billy Corgan with the Smashing Pumpkins, the Shins are now Mercer and a cast of musical and studio collaborators, but the sound of the group has not changed all that much. It’s still equal parts lush, orchestral music inspired by the Beach Boys and 70’s inspired power pop ala Big Star and Badfinger. Lead single “Simple Song” is a power pop masterpiece and one of my favorite songs of the year. “For a Fool”, “September” and “It’s Only Life” are other winners.
It seems strange that this is Jack White’s first actual solo album. He has been constantly working and collaborating since starting the band he became famous in- the White Stripes. While White’s screeching vocals and unhinged guitar wailing put his stamp on any music he has his hands in, going solo does seem to free him up to stretch himself musically more than even before. “Blunderbuss” is both slightly more subdued and more varied than any of his other projects, though tracks like the lead single “Sixteen Saltines” & “Weep Themselves to Sleep” crank as hard as any of his best garage rock tunes. Opener “Missing Pieces”, 2nd single “Freedom at 21” and “Love Interruption” are other album standouts. I can find at least a few tracks to love on every album White has ever done, but “Blunderbuss” may just be the best White album since 2003’s “Elephant”. It’s always fun to see where this restless and intensely creative artist will go next.
2nd full length album by Brooklyn based electro pop duo who mine 80’s synth-pop for inspiration. Chairlift was actually a trio on their list album which garnered an Apple-ad hit in the great track “Bruises” but not a whole lot else. “Something” is a big artistic leap forward for the group. Caroline Polachek handles all of the vocals which can be both heartbreaking and ethereal. She can sound like a slightly more subdued Florence + the Machine. Though several tracks can come off a bit cloying, the standouts tracks are some of the best synth pop songs you’ll hear all year. Especially “I Belong In Your Arms” shines, but also “Met Before”, “Sidewalk Surfari”, “Frigid Spring” & “Amanaemonesia”. If you like Robyn or Class Actress check these guys out- this stuff would be all over the radio in a cooler world.
“Visions” is the debut album and breakthrough for blog superstar Grimes, a one woman art project featuring the talented and eccentric Claire Boucher. Though still pretty unknown by the mainstream, Grimes is large as can be in her own niche. Her music is experimental pop which has much in common with pop singers with an indie bent like Robyn, Solange, Annie or even Rihanna, but also with the more outre’ witchhouse scene featuring groups like Crystal Castles, Salem, Fever Ray & the Knife. Her chirpy vocals are off putting to some people, but I think they further add to her originality. She is D.I.Y. to a T but you could also imagine some of these tracks actually getting radio play- namely “Oblivion” (Pitchfork’s #1 song of the year) and “Genesis”. My bet is that Grimes goes on to do even bigger things in the future.
After three great singles in 2011, male/female duo synth pop blog fave finally releases their debut album and it’s anything but a disappointment. All three singles are included, as well as great 2012 single “Fineshrine”. Those four tracks are good enough to make the album shine on its own, and the first few times I heard the album the rest of the tracks sounded like nice window dressing, but repeat listens make the other tracks stand out more as well. Purity Ring sound like a more radio friendly version of icy, experimental synth groups like the Knife or Crystal Castles. Though most of the tracks can stand alone as great singles, while listening to the album as a whole, there are only subtle variances between each song. The album flows nicely and is less than 40 minutes. As soon as it ends you want to press play again.
The Men fit right in with the last few years of aggressive punk rock & hardcore like Iceage, Fucked Up & Metz or the more hard-hitting indie rock of Japandroids and Cloud Nothings. “Open Your Heart” is their 2nd album in less than a year and is far more varied and accessible than their pummeling debut “Leave Home”. Nearly half of the songs are instrumentals and the Men play around with both country & krautrock. Every track brings its pleasures but the more straight forward punkish songs like the title cut, album opener “Turn It Around” & “Animal” are my favorites. This album is a blast from start to finish.
Frankie Rose is probably my highest rated fairly still under the radar release this year. She’s been kicking around New York City’s lo-fi garage band scene playing drums/guitars and singing in Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts & Vivian Girls- all known better than her as a solo artist. She did release her debit as Frankie Rose & the Knockouts but changed course in a big way on “Interstellar”, her second album. She takes her cue from late 80’s early 90’s groups like Stereolab & the Cure- groups with densely layered synths and lush arrangements. Like the Cure her songs come off like either bouncy New Wave or gorgeous and shimmering. Rose’s voice is as light as air and meshes perfectly with the music.
Buy Fear Fun (Bonus Track Version) – Father John Misty
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Father John Misty is the pseudonym of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman who moved down from Seattle to Los Angeles’s legendary Laurel Canyon. Like all of the Foxes Tillman is a wonderful singer and harmonizer and with “Fear Fun”, his re-imagines himself as the torch bearer of the early seventies singer songwriter folk rock Canyon scene. While the singing and playing on the album is beautiful and earnest- you can hear the ghost of Nick Drake all over the album and Tillman lists him as one of his biggest influences- the lyrics are upbeat and playful. The allusions to drugs, drink & sex are plentiful. It’s like the dude is hanging out with Harry Nilsson and David Crosby. So much music is such a bummer these days, even when it’s great. It’s a breath of fresh air listening to something so spaced out and celebratory.
*Album not available via iTunes
“Devotion” is the debut album by understated British songstress than brings to mind sexy but subtle R&B like Sade or even modern R&B-based indie rock of the xx. Ware had mostly been a background vocalist in previous years and she never saw herself taking the lead. But after standout performances on lead vocals on EDM artists like SBTRKT and Joker, she decided to dip her toes in the water. “Devotion” plays as a sleek, downtempo modern soul album. This is not your teenagers’ radio made R&B. It’s adult oriented fare, sultry bedroom music- filling the same niche as “Avalon” by Roxy Music and the above mentioned Sade. Ware absolutely shines as a vocalist and each track is well written and produced. The production is split by 3 producers so some of the tracks have a deep bass music feel, some are hookier and others are more dance floor ready giving the album some nice variances. “Devotion” is my debut album of the year.
*Track not available via iTunes
Buy Sweet Talk
*Track not available via iTunes or Amazon
Grizzly Bear are a musicians’ band. They mostly forgo hooks and catchy singles in favor of intricate, heavily textured tracks. They are one of the most orchestral groups in indie-rock. Their detractors often describe them as sleepy or boring and it’s honestly a bit surprising that they have quietly become one of the biggest bands in the indie world. “Shields” is the 4th full length album by the four piece from Brooklyn. Its predecessor “Veckatimest” was their commercial breakthough and in my opinion, their best album. I’m not sure “Shields” better it, but it comes close. Tracks “Yet Again”, “Sleeping Ute”, “Speak In Rounds” and the stunning, epic 7 minute closer “Sun In Your Eyes” stand alongside any other track in their catalog. Grizzly Bear seem to be getting better as musicians and compositionally more complex with each album and in their case that’s a good thing.