Posts Tagged ‘Kimbra’


Seth’s Top Picks for 2012

January 7, 2013

Happy New Year, everyone.  We’re still here.  Mayans can suck it.  And here are my top album picks for 2012.  Each year somebody stumbles across this for the first time, so let me dispense with the disclaimers and caveats.

This is just me, spouting my opinions.  There are no required “categories”.  I didn’t listen to much prog, jazz, or hip hop this year, and I liked the stuff here better than the prog, jazz, and hip hop I DID listen to.  So there’s no need to write me, irate that I didn’t include any prog, jazz, or hip hop.  Et cetera.

I’m a music snob and a musician; the worst combination to find in someone wearing the hat of “music critic”, and you’re completely entitled to scoff at my choices.  But this isn’t about competition; this is me, waving a flag for what I think are worthwhile albums that people should spend their money buying and their time listening to.  I have no agenda here other than to keep the quality of the music in your life HIGH.

Also, the order of presentation is, as usual, somewhat elastic.  There are days when any of these releases could slip up or down a few notches, depending on my mood.

One more thing: One of my picks from last year won a Grammy, and two of my picks from 2011 have been nominated for Grammys in 2013… it has to do with their cut-off date for eligibility and other assorted blah-blah.  My point in mentioning it is that I find it a promising trend — I mean, I haven’t agreed with the Grammy Awards that much in over a DECADE.  To boot, one of my picks from 2012 is nominated for a Grammy this year…. who knows if any will make the 2014 list.

It either means that the world is waking up to what’s good, or I’m slipping in my old age.  I’m going with the former.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Therefore, I recommend that you LISTEN ALONG as you read by opening up my iTunes Playlist with selections from these records,

or click on each album cover to listen more specifically.



1. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young?  

Each and every time these guys play, they raise the bar for what can be done with acoustic instruments.  Specifically, the acoustic instruments used in the traditional makeup of a bluegrass band: guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, and double bass.  Punch Brothers have been around (under different names) since shortly after the demise of legendary bluegrass/pop group Nickel Creek, when mandolin-master-of-not-unappealing-voice Chris Thile attempted to get together a bunch of guys who could play as maniacally and sing as prettily as he can and make everyone else in the world wish they were them.  It worked.  These guys are amazing, fun, and unstoppable, and this is their best work yet.

The band teamed up with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Amber Rubarth, Norah Jones, Mutemath, etc) for this, and the difference from PB’s last album (“Antifogmatic”; see my 2010 list) is instantly audible. This whole record conveys the ambiance of a live performance in a small theater — there are no startling shifts in aural texture or instrument placement from song to song, and each track seems to have a similar amount of reverb/delay/ambiance.  The brilliance of this “set it and forget it” production approach is that it lets all the interest and surprise come from the musicians themselves; from the dynamics and arrangements of the songs.

And damn, but there are some excellent songs on this record.  Case in point: “This Girl” is absolutely one of the best songs of the year on a number of levels, and it’s rare that I’d give that honor to a song that’s not a heartstring-tugger.  It’s the rollicking, fun, one-sided conversation between a man and the God he abandoned until he met a girl who hadn’t… hilarity ensues.  Given Thile’s history of not-so-humorous stories of relationship trouble between believers and non-believers (check out “The Blind Leaving The Blind” on the group’s second offering, “Punch”), it’s great to see that time has steered that message more towards satire and away from plain old…   ire.

There’s a burden on a supergroup: What does “the band who can play anything” choose to PLAY??  Do they constantly flex and go over the top to prove themselves by injecting odd time signatures and wild key changes into every song?  They do, but nowhere near as much as they used to, and I won’t lie — that’s what got them to the top of this page; it’s welcome.  They got the secret formula just right.  These songs are a bit milder in their presentation than PB offerings of the past, as if King turned down the “Prog Knob” just enough to make them palatable without losing their essence.

That is not to say that they don’t cut loose; no way.  The opening track is propelled along by rapidly pulsing, impossibly in-tune double stops from bassist Paul Kowert (who seems to have found the “overdrive” knob on his preamp — nice!!), and the award-winning Noam Pikelny’s banjo playing on the minor and moody “New York City” sounds like someone lit his hands on fire.  Violinist and harmony vocalist Gabe Witcher shines in both roles in the haunting “No Concern Of Yours”, and in a PB studio-first, he takes the reins as the lead vocalist on the gritty, funky “Hundred Dollars” in a way that makes me want more more more.  Guitarist Chris Eldridge only makes his presence known for brief but intense moments in each song, as if to remind us that if he wanted to, he could blow the roof off this place one-handed, but instead he chooses to add to the greatness of the ensemble.

One more thing — late in 2012 the group released an EP of tracks (mostly cover songs) that didn’t make it to the full-length release.  It’s called “Ahoy!”, and I’d have included it in the “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, but since you’re already reading this, I’ll save you the scrolling.  Buy them both.  Hugely worthwhile music here.  Fifty years from now, these guys will be the stuff of legend, and your grandkids will be asking you why you weren’t listening to them/catching their shows at every opportunity.  Don’t let your grandkids down.


2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

When Apple first came on the scene, I was immediately struck by her voice… There was something about her smoky alto that was so DIFFERENT than anything else on the radio…  When her second album dropped a few years later, it hit me immediately: she doesn’t use any auto-tune. Then as now, it is so refreshing to listen to a singer who can actually SING; who embraces the ever so occasional imperfection in a vocal performance and uses it to emphasize the sentiment they’re trying to get across instead of flatlining, tan-and-bland, all across the board.  She’s got a wicked instrument in her throat, she knows how to use it, and she has never failed to impress.

The instrument located less than a foot ABOVE her throat, however, seems to encounter more than occasional discordance… and Apple has made a career out of letting us in on her internal monologue. And thank goodness for that. She makes the emotional turmoil inside her head into the jarring-yet-captivating poetry we’ve come to love from her. She’s always been a righteous drama queen; neurotic and sardonic, yet at the same time aware of the tragic circumstances she creates… it’s like she has bouts of rational clarity in which she writes these brutally honest songs of self-analysis… and then revisits the songs when she’s back down the rabbit hole, snarling and howling the self-critical lyrics as if she can’t believe that bitch had the nerve to call her out publicly. The album opens with “Every Single Night”, which is her, coming to terms with living inside her own head, and floats through various scenarios explaining how that head of hers has sabotaged her relationships with partners, from the process of picking them to the way she seems to keep messing them up…. but by the end, she seems to be reaching some kind of reconciliation with herself, and puts forth the idea that she might yet find solace.

Musically, the majority of these songs showcase Apple doing what she does best: exploring chord voicings at the low end of her very old-timey, saloon-sounding piano. No matter what else surfaces, it and her voice are the constants.  She always plays it in a way that accentuates the most dissonant notes in any line, and it’s what gives her music that dark-and-quirky feel; the thing her many imitators can’t duplicate.  It’s one of her stamps, and she uses it to great effect all over this collection.

Producer Charley Drayton, who serves as the percussionist on each track, is also a responsible party for this album’s fantastic sound. Most of the songs are backed by some kind of clacka-lacking, finger-drum-thumping, thigh-slapping, brushed-snare drum-rolling, bells-and-chimes-a-dinging, off-kilter rhythm.  This doesn’t thwart Apple’s lyrical impact though — in fact, these upbeat arrangements help a few songs from sinking under their own morose weight, and add a playful spirit to her self-depricating sarcasm on others.

Of note: the big exception to everything I’ve just mentioned is the album’s closer, “Hot Knife”. It is, for lack of another explanation, a fun little sing-along. As far as I know it’s the first time she’s ever recorded a massive vocal overdub fest, and it’s sure to have female a cappella groups at universities all over America hard at work for the next year.


3. Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind  

What a delightful surprise this album is.  Folds posted sneak-peeks of all the songs well in advance of the album release date, but I only heard three of them. I thought he was messing with us; each of the tunes I got a look-see at were deeper cuts from this collection; not the instantly gratifying, ultimately catchy, raucous and irreverent awesomeness the band make its hallmark back in the late nineties. These songs were good, but they were… MATURE, and not unlike the more adult contemporary fare from Folds’ solo career.  I was annoyed.  What was the point of reuniting BF5 if they weren’t going to be jackasses again??

And yet, when I hit “play”, the opening fuzz-bass of “Erase Me” slammed out of the speakers, and all was again right with the universe.  THIS is the album we hoped we were getting back in 1999 when they gave us “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner”; it’s got the advanced musical sensibilities and cool harmonies of that era in the band’s existence, but the delivery and spirit of play the band exudes on each cut calls to mind their heyday, when even the most serious and heartbreaking songs of “Whatever And Ever Amen” had a sharp sense of irony.

There are equal parts “jackass” BF5 and “storytelling” BF5 here, and it’s a good balance.  For every introspection (“Sky High”, “Hold That Thought”, and the brutal-yet-uplifting “Away When You Were Here” are quite worthy), there’s an in-your-face rocker (the title cut, “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”, and “Draw A Crowd”, whose hook you will never get out of your head… even if you really want to).  When Ben is funny, he’s hysterical, and when he’s sad, you’ll be crying too.  Drummer Darren Jessee contributed the song “Sky High” to the collection (and he’s no joke; he co-wrote the band’s biggest hit ever — remember “Brick”?), and in a move that made me grin, they set a piece of author Nick Hornby’s prose to music to create the album’s mighty title track.  Folds and Hornby did a whole album this way back in 2010, and it was awesome.  This cut is even more of that same awesomeness.

The decade-plus apart doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the trio musically… these guys can still play their asses off.  From Fold’s face-melting piano solo in the opening track, to Sledge’s eternal mastery of lead-distorto-bass on “Draw A Crowd” and “Do It Anyway” (also note his tasteful double bass playing on “Sky High” and the brilliant and steady outro to “Hold That Thought”), to Jessee’s spot-on, zero-to-sixty drumming (the way he drives the bus on both the title track and “Draw A Crowd” are Keith Moon-worthy)… There may be those subdued, mature passages, but there is never a dull moment. The single, “Do It Anyway”, may be remembered more for the video than the song itself (because Fraggles are awesome), but it’s fun regardless, and it features the band jamming away relentlessly.  You can hear it: they’re having an absolute blast.  And it’s contagious.


4. Butterfly Boucher – (self-titled)   

Boucher has released three records in the past decade, and all three have made this list.  Particularly this year, when so many of my all-time favorite songwriters released albums that didn’t move me (Ani Difranco, Aimee Mann, Peter Mulvey, Andy Davis, Foy Vance… the list goes on), the fact that she’s three-for-three should tell you something; you’ve been missing out on this chick.  If you love real pop music, get hip to Butterfly.

Boucher is equal parts 90’s smart pop, 60’s retro, and 70’s punk, with today’s dance floor sensibilities and a penchant for occasional and delightful 80’s schmaltz. She’s one of those self-producer-plays-every-instrument-and-has-a-killer-vocal-range types who can make an entire professional album in her bedroom with a few instruments, tubby toys, kitchen utensils, and a microphone… and near as I can tell, since leaving the major-label-nightmare a few years back (remember when her label put her on a “Shrek” soundtrack back in the day…?), she’s become the reigning queen of Nashville indie-pop-rock.

The opening cut, “5678!” (the quintessential choreographer’s cry, but possibly also a tongue-in-cheek response to Leslie Feist…?) got a low budget video and some decent promo, but it deserved much more; it stands up to (and in fact, crushes) every successful pop hit of the past year.  You won’t just hear this hook, shrug, and move on; it will grab you and make you listen repeatedly. “The Weather” is as ballsy a rock tune as ever you’ll hear on a pop record, showing off Boucher’s killer pipes and chops on every instrument.  It kicks serious ass, providing great contrast to more synth-heavy, danceable offerings like “Not Fooling Around” and “None The Wiser”. Undertones of 60’s baladeering abound most prominently in the gorgeous “The Warning Bell”, and syncopated, gritty-yet-synthy anthems like “I Wanted To Be The Sun” and “Take It Away” embody everything I love about her as an artist; engaging but not overused chord progressions, gorgeous harmonies belting out bittersweet lyrics, and all propelled by a slamming rhythm section.
If there’s anything you can count on in a Butterfly Boucher song, it’s that it will have at least one cool-ass modulation that you will not see coming, and that will totally capture you no matter how many times she throws it at you.  She’s the goods, and I wish she would (finally) get her due.  To boot, the album is only seven bucks on iTunes. Deal of the year right HERE.


5. Bob Mould – Silver Age

I don’t know why the last Grammy-winning Foo Fighters record didn’t grab me like this ass-kicker does.  This thing is relentless. Mere moments after I was made aware of it’s existence, I typed the following statement:

“Each of my eardrums is now vying to be this album’s personal slam-hound.”

And I’m sorry to be so crass, but it’s as true now as it was then.  38 minutes of face-smashing non-stop straight-ahead rocking like I haven’t heard anyone do in a long while (and yes, I was effusive about Pearl Jam’s latest offering not too long ago, but this is definitely superior with regard to the face-smashing non-stop-rocking).

Bob’s music stands apart from all the younger acts that produce records in the same vein because of two characteristics: His anthemic writing style embraces tension rather than embracing release… and regardless of where he is in a musical phrase, he always EMBRACES NOISE.  After digging on this album, anything produced after 2001 will sound… clean. Polite. Apologetic.  Bob has never been ashamed of the messy sounds that drums and electric guitars make.  He’s never tried to tame them; in fact his recordings have always sought to make the kick drum thump your chest, the guitars rattle your ribcage, and the bass punch you in the sternum.  He’s gotten *really* good at that by now. The only problem with this was that he used to make it happen at the expense of his own voice in the mix, but that has largely been remedied here.  At only one point do I find myself looking to tweak the EQ to bring out the lyrics a bit more.

This is the kind of album that gets me speeding tickets. People, if you remember Husker Du: this rocks harder.  If you remember Sugar:  this rocks harder.  If you’ve been a fan of Bob’s solo stuff but have become convinced that he lost his edge:  IT’S BACK, and it’s… hard.

And if you’re a youngin’, and would only have a frame of reference for Bob Mould if I told you that a snippet from one of his old tunes is currently used as the theme music for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”…   Yes.  This rocks much harder than that, and you should *really* give this old dude a shot.


6. John Mayer – Born and Raised

Mayer used to sneeze and get a Grammy nomination. It was usually for the smarmiest, pappiest tunes he would include on otherwise brilliant records.  This year he produced what will no doubt be hailed as one of the best albums of his lifetime, and the Grammys are snubbing him so hard it’s audible.

This got hyped as a “country” album. And that’s both fair and unfair. Unfair because that label automatically tainted it for thousands of people before they ever heard a note, when in fact it is no more country than albums considered “classic rock” by Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, or Crosby Stills & Nash (in fact, on the chorus of the title track, you’ll swear it’s actually Nash and Crosby singing harmony — and you’ll be correct). Fair though, because it is, in part, truer to the sound of actual country music than anything that say, Taylor Swift has ever made (…you see what I did there, right?).  There’s even a great pub-music style tune that’s at least as good as that song Mumford and Sons keeps recording over and over again.

It’s not supposed to be a barn-burner, but this a mysteriously accessible album. There’s always a payoff to whatever degree you’re listening, but it varies greatly depending on how deep you want to go.  You can let it wash over you without picking up a single thing from it, and if so, you won’t hate it but you may not love it either.  However, if you turn it up when you want to get lost, you’ll find plenty to fascinate you.  If “Heavier Things” was the soul-searching of his twenties, then “Born and Raised” is the reckoning of his thirties. Beautiful work, John.  If your Grammys are the measure of how much you’ve pandered in the past, then you should be absolutely proud to have finally made a record that won’t get one.


7. The Novelists – Backstory   

Singer/songwriters are tortured souls, and the hardest thing for tortured souls to do is play nice together, and the more any particular solo artists have going for themselves, the more reticent they usually are to even try teamwork.  Oh, and jazz musicians are the last people on earth who will shelve their hip gigs to play diatonic pop music and assist in singing four-part harmonies with said tortured souls.  I could go on with the gross generalizations, but suffice to say that this junior supergroup’s existence proves them all wrong.

Four seasoned singers: a gravelly baritone (singer/songwriter Joel Ackerson), a classic tenor (ridiculous young jazz bassist Zach Teran), an Irish tenor (singer/songwriter Eric Andersen), and above them all, the melismatic soprano of Megan Slankard (check last year’s list at #3).  Ready to go out on a limb with me?  Imagine Elvis Costello, Josh Groban, Bic Runga, and a young Elton John all standing around the same microphone.  Easy, right?  Of course not. These are not easy voices to make blend into a cohesive whole.  Usually, when you’re putting together a vocal harmony, you seek out voices that blend together, and what that entails is each voice sacrificing its own character for the sake of many voices sounding as one.  It’s the reason famous singers with distinct voices usually sing their own harmonies in the studio… because otherwise it can distract a listener.  No; if you’re going to do harmonies with four voices so very different from each other, they had better be *awesome* singers.

…and goddamn, so they are. There it is, at some sudden point in every song… that SOUND. It’s unlikely greatness, and a sound that, if enough people hear it, will take them wherever they want to go.

The arrangements of every number are breathtaking.  Each writer contributes at least two songs I’d place on par with the best I’ve heard from each of them, and the sequencing of the record makes for an engaging listen that leaves you yearning for more than just these nine tracks.  Each has an individual, professional music career.  They also live in three different cities spanning two time zones (San Francisco, Reno, and Boulder).  So here’s hoping that this group stays together for the long haul, that they keep letting the whole be stronger than the sum of its parts, and that their next release is a 12-songer.  If they last, they will move mountains.


8. Soundgarden – King Animal

Soundgarden: Masters of that elusive “The record’s skipping… oh wait, no it’s not…”-badass rock groove; the grunge warriors who took those otherwise rehashed pentatonic licks to a new plane of existence. They were always that band everyone tried to emulate, but who nobody ever COULD emulate.  Simply put, they are the world’s best avant-garde-blues-rock band, and as the opening track laments, they have indeed been away for too long.

And where the hell have they been?  Kim Thayll and Ben Shepherd have been virtually invisible since the band’s last album sixteen years ago, while drummer Matt Cameron has played with Geddy Lee, The Smashing Pumpkins, and most notably in Pearl Jam since 1998. Chris Cornell, of course, was busy making his three solo records, that album he sang for Slash, and the whole overblown charade of Audioslave…  all of which turned out to be underwhelming in comparison to what he once did and has done again with this band.

Those close to me know that I have always been fascinated by Cornell’s fantastic upper vocal register, and when he uses it to its potential, it hardly matters to me WHAT he’s singing — I still find it captivating. It’s like hearing the hunting cry of some rare mammal in the arctic tundra, and it’s worth listening to just because it’s so uncommon.  As Cornell hasn’t treated us to this many high notes in a few years, it’s interesting to hear how their timbre has taken on a new character.  It’s angrier; more primal, like it’s coming from a different place in his voice box… or perhaps it’s just a new hellfire demon being housed in his earthly vessel. Whatever the case, he sounds positively wicked.

….as does the whole ensemble.  At their best, the songs seek to force you into submission, and most achieve this. They aren’t pulling out many new tricks here; with one startlingly cool exception (no spoilers, but you’ll either love it or loathe it, and I love it…), all the sounds you hear are sounds you’ve heard from them in times past; the components have simply been brought together better than ever before. Lopsided, slightly dissonant ostinato riffs meeting bombastic, surgically precise drumbeats… it’s like jackhammers locking in with sledgehammers, and it’s mighty.  Add Cornell’s voice over the top, singing at least as many hooks as on 1994’s “Superunknown”, and you get the triumphant return of a cutting edge group who’s proven they still do this better than anyone else.

Oh, and there’s cowbell.  And it’s brilliant.


9. Justin McMahon – Second Chances and Irreparable Mistakes

Full disclosure: I played bass on four of the songs on this collection.  Regardless, I feel not a bit awkward about endorsing it as one of the best of the year as far as modern folk albums are concerned.  Justin has been Reno, Nevada’s best kept secret for at least half a decade now, and it’s gratifying to see him finally touring the country and promoting his music in earnest.

McMahon has a rare and irreconcilable combination of traits: he is a hopeless romantic, full of enthusiasm for the sweetest sensations life has to offer… but also possesses a disdain for the human condition that places him somewhere between a mild sociopath and a total misanthrope.  Add to this that he is also a consummate linguist and poet, and you begin to see why he makes such an interesting songwriter. The beauty of his lyrics comes from the push and pull between the poles of his psyche — depending on the song, it’s anyone’s guess which will get the upper hand — will he throw his sense of self-worth down the well, or does hope spring eternal, and will he press on to get it right next time?

I’m not doing him justice with that, as his delivery is anything but comic. He articulates his stories in ways both blunt and satirical that will either wound you deeply or make you wish you’d thought of it first. Then suddenly he’ll be a life-loving optimist, giving you a much needed boost of serotonin, and bolstering you for the rest of the message:  Yes, life is suffering. We are going to care about people who are going to make awful decisions.  We’re all going to let down the people we love.  We’re trying as hard as we can.

It’s not the easiest message to hear, but it might be the most important.


10. Beck – Song Reader       

This is so retro it’s nouveau.  Beck’s been a hipster since before being a hipster was disdained by hipsters, and this is arguably the biggest hipster move EVER.

This is not a sonic record.  It exists only as ink on paper… like all music did prior to the discovery of electricity.

And I love it.  It’s brilliant.

Because what does this record sound like?

WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO.  That’s the point.  Because it’s not a record yet.  At least, not a record by Beck.  He never recorded any of these pieces, so if you want to hear them, it’s up to you to perform them, or to find musicians capable of reading music and having them do it.  You can perform the songs exactly as written, or interpret them any way you are moved to.

The album is the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s both the antithesis of the digital era (take that, piracy!) and the best thing that ever happened to it all at the same time. Nobody ever needs to hear these songs the way you do, but if you feel like contributing to the planet and want to demonstrate how you’ve honed your version of one of these tunes to perfection, you can upload a video of it to a website set up for that very purpose:

Then you can listen to the versions others have posted, and expand your ideas about what can be done with a piece of music.

I think it’s one of the coolest ideas ever (and I’m not alone in that… I mean, it was also considered very forward-thinking about a century ago), and as soon as I decide which of these tunes will sound best on a solo bass guitar, I’m going to get involved myself.


HONORABLE MENTION – Kimbra – Vows (2012 Version)

Last year I chose “Vows” as my full-throttle #1 pick.  My only lament was that the release was Australia/New Zealand only, and that the rest of the world had to get creative to procure a copy.  2012 saw the record released to the rest of the planet.  However, American record labels being what they are, they had to mess with it.  “Vows 2012” is not the same album as “Vows 2011”.  Four of the songs were cut and six were added.

Not that the new songs are “bad”… compared to most other artists, they range from passable to quite decent; it’s just that the placement (and REplacement) of these new songs totally destroys the sequence and vibe of the original record, and that was part of what made it so powerful.  Never underestimate the power of song order; it’s what takes you on the listening journey.  The original album is simply magical, and the impact of most of the songs is severely diminished on the new version.  One of the most important transitions on an album; the first thing that determines how people will perceive the work — it’s the transition from Song One to Song Two.  On the original album, this was brilliant, and set up the listener for the ride to come.  On this version… total let down. Another big point is how you END a record, and the last song on the original, “The Build Up”, was an esoteric, bold statement that solidified in my mind that Kimbra is a legit artist with something to say.  This version ends with an 80’s throwback collaboration with the dude from Foster The People.  It’s like Kimbra joined The Human League.  Not an awful tune, but ultimately disposable.

No, what puts her here for (sort of) the same album she got #1 with last year is a song that, had it appeared on the original version, would have put it on my Desert Island List. In fact, thanks to iTunes playlist creation, I now have my own customized version of “Vows” that does just that. The tune is called “Come Into My Head”, and it is my JAM.  I can listen to this tune on repeat for an hour in the car and be just fine.  That NEVER happens.  It recalls the best seventies horn-section funk with a playful, spacey, P-Funk style twist, and I can’t get enough of it.  If you dug the original record, download this tune (and to be fair, the live version of Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” has a pretty spectacular payoff if you listen long enough, so that one too), and cobble them into the first version for non-stop listening awesomeness.


Seth’s Top Picks for 2011

January 7, 2012

Happy New Year, World!

I waited a few extra weeks to post it this time around, as so much music got released late last year.  All the album covers are links to listen, and in some cases, purchase.  For those who like to listen along as they read, I’ve cobbled together a short iTunes playlist HERE.

Have at, and please do remember: This is just the honest opinion of one man who likes what he likes.

Enjoy.  :]

1. Kimbra – Vows
A young woman from New Zealand (by way of Australia) took a chunk of the world by storm last year, and only the hipsters in maybe two American cites are even aware of her existence.  This must change now.  Everyone wants to talk about Adele and Amy.  People, I’m ’bout to ‘splain something to you:  You need to get hip to Kimbra.

Most folks heard about her last year when she wore nothing but paint while she sang a guest vocal on another artist’s song, and that song went mega-viral on YouTube (if you actually DO live under a rock, that “other artist” is Gotye [see #2, below]).  She has a lot to thank Gotye for, as well as the YouTube search algorithm, because once I heard that, I knew I needed to give a fair shot to hearing her solo stuff.  I clicked on the first sidebar link that showed her name; a song called “Settle Down”… and then sat there for the next four minutes with that awestruck, mashed-up face I get when I hear something that grooves ridiculously.  Not only was the songwriting brilliant, but the production was as well, and the thing that hit me the hardest; the powerful, throaty voice I first heard in her guest vocal had been replaced by a playfully vibrant, agile, breathy singer more suited for an old school R&B number.  The transformation was more than intriguing, and from there, I watched all the other videos of hers I could find.  I learned that she was only days away from releasing her debut album, and was immediately ready to get it.

And then it wasn’t released in America.  Or Canada.  Or Europe.  In fact, it was ONLY released in Australia and New Zealand.  This was the worst idea EVER, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for now, suffice to say that I DID get a copy of “Vows”, have listened to it scores of times these past months, and am not even the least bit tired of it.  

So creative, so bold.  Kimbra is above all the current “white girls with soul” because of a few major factors: First, she’s such a fresh and exciting singer because she doesn’t sing like a “singer”.  She sings like a horn player.  Nearly every song on the record features at least one main vocal hook, as well as another vocal hook with no words.  It’s not scat-singing in the purest sense, as that implies improvisation, and she never “takes a solo”, but she uses her voice as a lead instrument as much as she uses it to deliver her subtly profound lyrics, and not with the typical milquetoast pentatonic runs we hear from every white-girl-with-a-record-deal.  Kimbra can SING. Flawlessly. God DAMN.  

Second, she’s a ridiculous writer.  It’s not too technical for me to tell you that her chord changes and melodies are INSANELY cool.  It can be hard to tell what contributions to an album come from the producer as opposed to the artist, but all you have to do is check out some of the videos of her performing in pared down settings to realize that this girl honestly does have all this stuff in her head, and she can’t sing it out fast enough.  What’s also alarming is the balance of poetry and honesty in her lyrics… The theme of an album called “Vows” is, not surprisingly, commitment, and each song presents an appropriately different viewpoint and scenario.  It’s hard to believe someone this young has tapped into these feelings or had some of these experiences, or that she appreciates irony the way she does.  And just while you’re thinking, “What an old soul is she”, she busts out the album’s supreme cover tune: Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring”… and you’re completely won over, ’cause she CRUSHES it.

“Vows” sculpts daring and varied arrangements that constantly blow me away; I just don’t hear pop artists taking this many chances any more.  The ‘Showtune-meets-Stomp’ groove of “Settle Down” is captivating enough, but when the B-section kicks in, it’s just sick, and when they ramp that same section up a notch again at the end of the song? Undeniable.  “Cameo Lover” throws the album’s biggest curveball: it starts out shockingly contrite, with cliche production that pales in comparison to the song before.  You don’t see the curveball coming until it hits you in the face, and every time I hear it I’m reminded of that first moment when it came out of nowhere… and I can’t stop grinning. “Old Flame” is a tale of nostalgic love set to an uber-lush arrangement reminiscent of the Purple One in his prime — the drum sounds and synth patches may as well be the same ones used on Prince’s ubiquitous “The Beautiful Ones”, but the song is all Kimbra, and the tune’s amazing bridge alone is worth the price of admission.  On “Call Me”, the band kicks out the most modern soul groove of the collection, and it’s startling; the groove stays so relentlessly on the back side of the beat you will forget to breathe, and Kimbra sings her ass off.  That’s really a given — there isn’t a song on here in which her voice doesn’t sound supreme. From seductive to playful to flirtatious to scorned to vindictive, she kills it every time.

Though they’re not the crowdpleasers of the album, the final two official cuts are probably her most visceral and vulnerable performances — “Withdraw” is a simmering, old school 12/8 number that puts the “tortured” in torch song, and in which Kimbra sounds like she’s actually been crying before she cut the vocal, while “The Build Up” is a resigned look back on why things go wrong; a tension-filled orchestration that it seems like Bjork might have included on “Post”, but let Kimbra re-write instead.  Every song goes somewhere new… sometimes BRAND new.  Nowhere on the album is this more evident than on the mind-bending “Wandering Limbs”, which can aptly be described as a jazz waltz doing battle with a thick layer of drum loops implying a syncopated four-count beat.  If that’s not a dense enough musical underpinning, what goes on over the top of it is crazy; Kimbra duets with one Sam Lawrence  …a white guy… who sings like Al Green (I am aware them’s fightin’ words — go listen).  They begin so delicately, with such restraint… but by the end, they’re riffing off each other madly, and the whole effect is sonically intoxicating.

Kimbra’s deal with Warner Music has now been extended to the US… but as I mentioned earlier, THEY WON’T RELEASE “VOWS”.  Instead, they released a short EP that includes “Settle Down”, a live version of “Plain Gold Ring”, a misguided remix of “Cameo Lover” that misses the entire point of the original, and “Limbo”, which, while a wicked cool deep album cut, isn’t one of the few songs anyone should get as their first taste of Kimbra.

So. I am on a mission to make sure everyone hears what she’s supposed to sound like before the suits have a chance to water her down.  For the first time, I’m endorsing the idea that you all go get my favorite record of the year by any means necessary.  I’m not saying you should steal it.  I’m just saying… get it.  However it is that you “get” music not released in the US and not available for legitimate, legal download here.  Buy the Warner EP on iTunes as well if it helps you sleep better at night, but whatever you do, don’t listen to a note of it before you hear “Vows”; the real album from a shining new artist in her prime, making fantastic noise.

(addendum: on the day I posted this, Kimbra announced that there WILL, in fact, be a US version of “Vows” released this year — apparently with bonus tracks.  Hallelujah! :)


2. Gotye –
Making Mirrors

Yet another amazing Australian export won me over this past year.  In truth, I discovered Gotye and Kimbra at the same time (as most Americans did) through Gotye’s smash hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know”.  The song didn’t just go viral on YouTube because of the profound video; it wasn’t just because he and Kimbra were naked and covered in paint; it wasn’t just that half the world suddenly gasped and said, “Holy crap; that guy sounds like old-school STING!” — it was also because the song is great.  I would not be the only person to suggest that if 2011 had “a song”, that was it.  

Gotye (apparently pronounced “GOR-te-ay”), is actually one guy named Wally De Backer.  Imagine having a name that Belgian and moving to Australia, listening to the populace mangle it mercilessly day in and day out for years…  you’d get your vengeance by picking a universally obscure and hard-to-say band name, too.

Undeniably, the first thing to bring up about Gotye is THAT VOICE.  When he sings in his lower register, as he is prone to do when opening a song, his voice is devilishly silky smooth, and at first it’s unclear; is this a baritone singing high or a tenor singing low?  It’s as if he knows when you’re contemplating this, and that’s when he attacks with the high notes — the impossibly high, crystal clear, brilliantly agitated notes he is capable of belting out at the top of his gorgeous tenor voice.  The Sting comparisons are by no means unwarranted — Gotye is the closest thing we’ve had to a younger Sting since…  younger Sting, and to be honest, this guy has more control and versatility.  Any who doubt need only listen to “I Feel Better”, this album’s homage to the Motown of yore.  It’s un-fricking believable the pipes this guy has.

“Making Mirrors” is a wonderful listen; a perfectly paced journey with all the songs in the right order.  The album opens with the short title track: soothing, ethereal synth pads and DeBacker’s breathy voice lulling you into the false impression that this will be some sort of Peter Gabriel-esque excursion. Sixty seconds later, that expectation is bombastically shattered by “Easy Way Out”, which is one of the greatest “get your attention” tracks ever put at the front of a record. Here we are presented all at once with De Backer’s prowess as a drummer, a singer, and a producer (a trend that will continue). The song is perfect both on its own, and as the perfect set-up for the next track…  which happens to be “Somebody That I Used To Know”; the aforementioned jaded-breakup-hit of last summer.  Much has been said about this tune, and I’ll add that I think it is a stellar example of how using samples integrated with real instrumentation can actually elevate a song rather than mire it in comparisons to the source track.  It seems that this is the method used in creating many of the songs on the remainder of the album, and Gotye pulls it off time and again with admirable creativity and inspiration.  

Of all the different song styles presented, I was most surprised by the slow, trippy, dub grooves… the sort of jams one listens to with some sort of mind-altering substance close at hand.  One of the album’s triumphant moments exemplifies this in “State Of The Art”, wherein a sample of a fifties lounge orchestra is married to a deep one-drop groove and accentuated at every turn by sounds from a vintage home-organ (called the Cotillion) to create the enormously clever and grandiose backdrop for… a song about a vintage home-organ called the Cotillion.  To boot, every single vocal part on the track (of which there are many) is radically pitch-shifted, making De Backer sound like some synthetic monster.  Sound weird?  It is, and it’s pure magic.

The album’s closer is a beautiful and somber song called “Bronte”, and before you get any ideas about it dealing with classic literature, I’ll say simply that “Bronte” appears to be a namesake, that the song deals frankly with mortality and love, and that it is devastating.  I cry endlessly when I listen to it.

(Once you’ve checked this album out a few times, I recommend searching for his short “the making of” video on his YouTube page; the mad-scientist aspect of how he tailored the unique sounds present all over this recording is explained, and after watching it, one listens again with even more awe; this guy is uber-talented.)

The defining characteristic of Gotye seems to owe to the fact that DeBacker is that rare triple threat: vocalist/drummer/producer.  Throughout the album, the songs’ identities are established by their unique rhythmic aspects, their melodies, their unique timbral qualities, and many times, the way the organic sounds have been meshed with samples of vintage recordings. It makes sense that DeBacker approaches songwriting from all three directions at once: from the drums up, from the vocals down, and then from the middle OUT with all his orchestrated sounds and samples.  Keeping all that in balance is no mean feat, and the resulting album is an awesome achievement.

He’s already been around the world once promoting this album, and of the three cities he’s played in North America, I was close enough to one of them (Toronto) to get tickets and hold my breath.  Then my car experienced some trauma, and I had to cancel the trip.  So, like most of the US, I have only experienced the Gotye live show via YouTube.  But next time, folks. Next time I’ll be front row, air-drumming and emphatically singing along to all those beautiful notes I can’t hit.


3. Megan Slankard –
A Token of the Wreckage

Ms. Slankard has been making high quality pop music in the Bay Area for over half a decade now, but only recently has she made serious strides towards breaking out.  It’s long overdue, as she’s a marvelous talent.  She’s a gifted songwriter with an undeniable ear for a hook, and I’ve been listening to her releases since 2005.

But “…Token” secures her arrival as a big gun.  This record is captivating from start to finish, and it doesn’t open with a bang… but a flourish.  It’s become boilerplate for an indie artist to try and place the catchy toe-tapper hit in the starting gate in the hopes of keeping a listener’s attention, but Slankard has opted for artistic purity here and opens with the title track; a simmering mid-tempo number filled with bittersweet melancholy, and one in which her voice just owns you.  It’s a tough thing to create a number that is equal parts torch song and break-up lament, but for future reference: this is how it’s done.  It’s to her credit and to the album’s benefit to begin this way. From there, Slankard and her crackerjack band journey through an inspiring set of pop gems, constantly changing up the groove and the intensity, and providing the female singer/songwriter genre with every song we’ve been hoping one of the mainstays would write for the past decade. Seriously: in attendance are a slew of brilliant hooks that would have saved the mainstream careers of Julianna Hatfield, Lisa Loeb, Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Tanya Donelly, Bic Runga, or any number of erstwhile chanteuses had they occurred to other writers.  But no: they are all the product of this one particular songwriting force with a mega voice.

So if she writes such great songs, why hasn’t she been snatched up by the star-makers?  A bit of insight as to why you may not have heard of Slankard before: the star-makers prefer that their pretty-blondes-with-guitars also be hopelessly trite and pedantic, and she couldn’t be further from that.  She’s a storyteller.  The lyric she sings now will provide needed context for the lyric she sings ten seconds from now, and she’s not going to dumb it down for you.  You’re either listening, in which case you will “get it” and realize the artistry behind the words, or you’re obliviously “la-la-la-ing” along… and unfortunately, so many people la-la their way through today’s music.

As a vocalist she is quite fascinating; she often takes poetic liberties with enunciation for the sake of phrasing her melodies, and this can catch a new listener off guard.  I remember being distracted listening to some of her earlier work due to some of her inflections, to the point that I actually wasn’t sure if English was her first language.  Time seems to have tamed her uniquely stylistic tongue, however: Slankard now uses this ability to cleverly shape words rather than to confuse, and only once was I shocked to discover that one of my favorite songs, “My Obsession With Bass”, is, in fact, actually called “My Obsession With BEES”, which makes far more sense in context.  

The whole record is hot, so I should point out that the “molten”-spots include “Fair Enough And Farewell”, “Our Little Secret”, “The Tragic Life of Caleb”, “The Last Thing You Say”, and the fantastic closer, “Show Up”.

Megan has, in the past year, joined The Novelists, a songwriter collective disguised as a band formed by some friends of mine in Reno.  Their first release is due this month (January 2012), and I have *very* high expectations for both the album and the group (see “Looking Forward To…” at the bottom).


4. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile –
The Goat Rodeo Sessions

“Ahem” moment:  I gave Nickel Creek props for Number One years ago; I gave ex-Nickel Creek mandolin-badass Chris Thile a nod on last year’s list, and received feedback from a few people I’d previously considered discerning listeners saying that “everything Thile does sounds the same”.

That all depends on how narrow your focus is when you listen to music.  It also depends what you’re used to hearing. When I play my songs with nothing but my voice and bass guitar, I know damn well that each song possesses it’s own identity, and that the keys, tempos, meters, chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, and modulations are all unique to each song.  Nonetheless, it’s been said by some that everything I do “sounds the same because it’s all just on a bass”. This is no more true than it is of any music typified by a certain arrangement of instruments.  Remember: To old people, “All that new music sounds the same”, and they’re talking about everything since the seventies.  Keep your ears open.

So. Yes, Thile is prominently featured in this crew of superb musicians, and as he is usually the only instrument using a plectrum, his contributions are often prominent, but don’t make it such a crime to play the mandolin that you miss out on all the other amazing elements happening in this music.  Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much heralded as the greatest cellist alive.  Edgar Meyer takes the same title on the double bass.  Stuart Duncan is certainly one of the most intensely wicked and wonderful master fiddlers to walk the Earth.  As I understand it, Meyer has recorded before with Ma and also with Thile, and Duncan played with Thile at some point as well, but they’d never worked together before.

The way these four artistic beings come together is nothing short of gorgeous.  From the odd-meter-irish-jig-on-queludes of “Attaboy” to the slow, simmering, constantly modulating build of “Helping Hand”, to the shifting modal funk (yes, funk) of “Goat Rodeo” to the sudden guest vocal appearance of Aoife O’Donovan joining Thile for the more traditional bluegrass feel of “Here and Heaven”…. You get the idea.  It defines “eclectic”.

In listening to any one particular song, one keeps being tempted to consider it a feature for one of the members, but just when you believe the piece to be hitting the point, another member takes the ball and starts developing the theme, or joining in to expand it into something greater.  Or they seamlessly shift the meter so as to convince you they’re in a different time signature. Or Thile takes a breakbeat solo on his mandolin.  Or something.  Then they start experimenting with other instruments.  Thile joins Duncan on fiddle for “Where’s My Bow”, and it’ll make your head spin.  Duncan returns the favor and switches to banjo on “Less is Moi”, and it sounds like they’re doing material from Sting’s hip days as a bluegrass tribute… very cool indeed. My point is: the spirit of play on this recording is just awesome.  It could fly well over the heads of those with too many preconceived notions about certain genres of music, but that would have more to do with the listener than the album, because this is staggeringly wicked work.  Highly recommended, to some as a means of expanding horizons, and to others purely as the musical gift it is.

5. The Milk Carton Kids –

MCK are, by far, the hardest-working act in show business for 2011.  They have been absolutely relentless in their quest to make a dent in the “New Music Industry”. I salute them, because of everyone who talks about the idea of “Give away the music for free and just tour, tour, tour ’till the cows come home”, this duo is the only act I see actually DOING IT.  

It doesn’t hurt that they are stellar in every respect, either.  Here it is: Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are filling the long-standing void left by Simon and Garfunkel.  You’re not allowed to say that, I guess, or maybe you won’t be allowed to say it until both those guys are dead, but I’m all for bucking convention.  It’s true; while these two may owe those two for setting the benchmark, on their worst day they shine as bright as S&G ever did, and most of the time they display levels of versatility and virtuosity that far exceed that fabled duo of yore.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s all about the songs.  It has to be, and both Ryan and Pattengale are great songwriters.  But they’re each also great musicians.  They’re each also great performers.  Most importantly, they have the elusive synergy that makes a duo more than the sum of the parts.  They released two albums in the past year; the first was released under both their names and featured each artist’s pre-existing material as performed live by the duo at a series of gigs.  “Prologue”, while their second release, is the first one done under their “band” moniker, but that’s not the only difference.  These guys have established as deep a telepathic connection as ever I’ve heard among performers, and it’s mesmerizing to behold.  Then there are the sonic considerations; this record was done live in the studio, and the rich overtones that result from live vintage guitars and two sonorous voices all blending into high quality microphones are just majestic.  You can truly sit a few feet away, close your eyes, and believe that you’re sitting in the studio with them.

Whereas with most of this list I dig deep to be descriptive to convince you to take the plunge and buy the music, I don’t need to with these guys.  Just click the cover and go download it for free.  It’s all part of their plan, I know, but…  is their plan working?  Have they made so much money between the two of them from touring that giving their music away hasn’t been a liability?  Will they be able to take any time OFF the road and not starve?  The jury is out.  I know they haven’t taken more than a few weeks off from touring since they started, and I know they were robbed at one point, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down, so either they are also “The Trust Fund Kids”, or maybe this philosophy is worthwhile.  If anyone happens to know, I’m extremely curious.


6. Tom Waits –
Bad As Me

Man, this album is so damn infectious.  Waits has made a career out of making the strident, the dischordant, the strained, the tense; the uncomfortable; the cacophony… listenable.  Nay, not just listenable, but PREFERABLE. After listening to Waits, your usual piddly pop music just won’t have enough bite for you anymore.  He gleefully excludes the weak-stomached from the ranks of his listeners, and they cock their heads to the side, squint, wince, and go back to spinning the latest Nickelback or Taylor Swift, confused as to why the rest of us would ever hunger for artistry with a unique voice.

Good riddance to them.  Waits has crafted an awesome record here, and what’s more, he’s exploring a new bit of stuff I’ve never heard him try before.  That unique voice of Waits’ has always harbored a cast of different-sounding characters, but there are a couple new singers here we haven’t met yet.  His pipes give life to every variety of gravelly-voiced miscreant over the course of the album, and for a short time it’s cool to sympathize with the dregs of humanity; largely because through Waits’ words, it’s easy to identify with them.  Musically, nearly the entire album is a tip of his hat to the music of the 40’s and 50’s (not that Waits doesn’t favor “classic song forms” all the time, but this effort is definitely pointing to that era — even when he goes out on a limb, there’s an underlying swing to it all), but true to form, it’s overwrought with lo-fi production in that delightfully ugly way that shows him at his best.  Never do the most startling and disconcerting sounds and words come together so wonderfully as they do in the hands of this guy, and he’s in top form on this record.  I know he’s put out some discs in the recent past that may have veered too far into the self-indulgent, but this is Waits with his ass on fire, folks; the goods are in the box.  So get it…  in fact, for you iTunes-folk out there, spend the extra two bucks and get the extra three songs on the deluxe version; they’re some of the finest cuts in the whole deal.

7. Elbow –
Build A Rocket, Boys

This band took my breath away and made me gasp with their 2008 release “The Seldom Seen Kid”, which I hailed as the best album I’d heard in years.  They didn’t try to make that record again.  They COULDN’T, really, even if they tried, and you can’t hold that against them.  “Build A Rocket, Boys” is the much-anticipated follow-up, and when I first heard it, I fell into the trap set by any follow-up that is “much anticipated”; I compared every note to my memory of their last album.  So I had to take it out of the player for awhile and come back to it.

This was a good call.  “…Rocket” is indeed a great album, but it’s much mellower, and far more subtle than the last.  It’s that “putting out the feelers”-album most great bands will release after a blockbuster to test the waters and explore new directions.  You just need to listen to it when you’re not expecting Elbow — dare I say it makes for a spectacular listen when you’re in the mood for some later-years XTC.  I mean that in a musical sense; lyrically, Elbow goes for the overtly sentimental as opposed to tying the point up in excessive wordplay, but that honesty is what is so refreshing about songs like “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl”, “Lippy Kids”, and “Dear Friends”.  Sometimes you just say something true, and that’s all that’s needed.

No doubt this will be looked back upon as a “sleeper” album in the band’s discography.  It might not be the first one to play on a long car trip… but then when they pull out “The Birds” at a concert five years from now, there won’t be a fan for miles who isn’t singing along.  Whereas the band made an effort to create a ‘Wall of Sound’ on “…Kid”, here they seem to be embracing… space.  Every song is full of it.  Don’t get me wrong – they still groove when it’s time. They still layer complex arrangements at unexpected junctures.  They’re still Elbow.  They’re just breathing.  And it’s constantly cool to experience.


8. Bright Eyes –
The People’s Key

The opening two and a half minutes of this record probably prevented the rest of it from being heard by a lot of people.  Worse yet, it may have predisposed people to dislike everything they heard thereafter.  That’s a shame, because some of Conor Oberst’s most progressive work is on this disc.  Here’s what happens when you start up the album:  A man named Denny Brewer speaks at you about evil in the Universe in a way that is squirrelly and disarming… and with a delivery that suggests more than vaguely that he was somewhat high when it was recorded.  Just when you’re wrapping your head around that brick of an intro, Bright Eyes creeps into “Firewall”, which, while cool, dense, symphonic, and pretty neat, is not the sort of song you generally open an album with unless you’re already so successful you can afford to alienate a few people.  You know all those albums up higher on the list that got kudos for putting an engaging cut first?  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.

From there on out (though you’ve not heard the last from Mr. Brewer, be warned), the album presents the qualities that landed it on this list.  Lyrically, Conor spends most of the moments here coping with being an adult.  There are moments of resignation, such as on “Ladder Song”, that I don’t think would ever have happened on a previous release, and there are unjaded moments that are downright playful… equally rare in Oberst’s history.  Bright Eyes has visited many genres on previous albums, and with each visit they’ve stirred the pot admirably.  This time around, they concentrate their efforts back on indie pop-rock… but the startling thing is that in the years since they’ve delved into this, they have LEARNED TO PLAY REALLY WELL.  Musically, this is some of the best writing Oberst has exhibited.  The chord progressions, motifs, and arrangements of these tunes are fresh and engaging, and Oberst’s decade-plus of growing into his own voice pays off in spades… finally.  There are hints of devices used by the band years ago:  it’s intriguing to hear how a song like “Approximate Sunlight” evokes memories of the songs from “Fevers & Mirrors” or how “Haile Selassie” echoes of the songs on “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” — but at the same time, the new material clearly stands superior.  The point being: If you’re going to evoke a memory of how you looked in high school, make sure you look better now.    Looking good, Oberst.


9. Alkaline Trio –

I felt like I needed to make this an “asterisk” entry, as this album is mostly a retrospective collection of the band’s landmark songs, newly recorded with very acoustic arrangements, but last year I included two albums of nothing but cover songs… so think of this as A.T. covering themselves.

Listening to the songs this way, so many things are instantly apparent:
-Alkaline Trio dwarfs just about every other power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it band in existence.  
-I’ve never heard so many similarities between power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it and traditional Celtic balladeering.  That’s way cool.  At times they sound like Great Big Sea on anabolic audio sterioids.
-I always knew the guys in A.T. were great musicians, but stripped down like this, without distorted guitars to hide behind, it’s fantastic to hear just HOW great they perform.  
-Being a power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it band does in no way mean you have to restrict yourselves to use of two tempos, three variations of the same melody, four chords, and a sound derivative of every other band in the genre.  Listening to A.T. in this setting drives home just how consistently solid their songwriting has been.  

The collection is 15 tunes; 12 are fan favorites, 2 are new (of those, one is only about 90 seconds long and is pretty much just for fun), and I guess when you’re this sort of band using acoustic guitars, you have to include a Violent Femmes cover, and… they did.  Many of the standout cuts are at the beginning (“Calling All Skeletons”, “Nose Over Tail”, “This Could Be Love”) and end of the collection (the classic angst-anthem “Radio”)… but the whole thing is a damn fine trip.


10. Incubus –
If Not Now, When?

I gotta say, I did NOT expect to respond to this album like I did.  I really dig…   half of it.

Incubus has had a long and varied career, and when I was an irreverent longhair of 24, I was a fan of their exploration of heavy music on “S.C.I.E.N.C.E.”  After that, they were kind of touch and go for me, and it’s because of my love/hate relationship with Brandon Boyd’s vocals.

Hear me out: his voice has never sounded better on a recording than it does on this album — his tone, pitch, and usually, his timbre, are for the annals of rock history.  But for some reason, over a decade of riding the pop music gravy train has NOT gotten it through Boyd’s skull as to how one should marry a lyric to a melody.  At times it’s as though he seeks to weaken the inherently beautiful sounds his instrument makes by intentionally phrasing his words as unnaturally as possible.  To the point: it make-a the baby Jesus cry.

As the title track revs up to open the album, you may wonder how the pressing plant accidentally put a U2 disc in the wrong case…  but as it dawns on you that this is actually the latest in the evolution of a band that seems to try everything once, you will be pleased to note that they do the modern pop anthem really, really well.  I’ll go so far as to say that Boyd’s voice was made for this style (I’ve heard that a vocal contingency of the band’s very loyal fan base hate this direction for the group — I, on the other hand, think they’re just hitting their stride).  From there, “Promises, Promises” is refreshingly piano-driven rock about misguided groupies, “Friends and Lovers” is pretty self-explanatory, “Thieves” is overtly and enjoyably smart-ass and political, and “Isadore” recalls their sound on “Make Yourself” with a bit more of an acoustic bent.  All these songs have really great hooks.  It marks the growth of this ever-changing entity into as fine a pop-rock band as ever they’ve been in all the other genres they’ve tried.

The middle of the album is, frankly, pretty weak, but it comes back to life before it’s over.  The closing sequence starts with “Switchblade”, a strange hybrid of styles that recalls the band’s early days when Boyd rapped pretty much all his verses, though there’s definitely a very poppy element to the choruses, and still a strong showing of acoustic guitar.  It’s really cool; the stand-out track for me, and I should point out – Boyd’s phrasing is on point here; maybe because rapping doesn’t allow him to accent weak syllables as easily.  The last two cuts retread well-worn territory for the band, and probably pleased a lot of the people who keep them in business.  There’s nothing wrong with that… I’m surprised that they blazed as many new trails as they did, and it’s nice to see.  But had this collection been a six-song EP, I’d be raving about it from the rooftops.


Artists with new material to be released in 2012 that I’m looking forward to:

* means already released

The Novelists*
Meika Pauley
Justin McMahon
Steve Lawson*
Alex Wong
Petteri Sariola
Ani Difranco
Van Halen

Seth Horan

Yeah.  I said it.  Hey; it’s my blog.  :)