A little over a year ago I took on a challenge I dubbed “the year of the album” — review everything that came across my desk which had inspired more than a cursory listen. In the end I knew that goal was a lofty one — too lofty, really — and in the end I managed to publish 89 album reviews under the “Year of the Album” banner, and had I reviewed every album I listened to more than a few times, that list would have been at least doubled. But the music I did write about in 2011 was definitely enough to disprove the theory that there’s nothing good to listen to in the pop music world. Far from it, I head into 2012 inspired to continue to ferret out as much independent pop music as I can, to show you dedicated “Hear! Hear!” readers that there’s always plenty to listen to when we’re willing to take charge and dig for it. That’s really the lesson to take from 2011 — there’s no longer a gatekeeper, so without radio to blame we have to blame only ourselves if we can’t find enough music outside the mainstream to keep our blood pumping.
For those of you who missed a review or two, here’s a one-stop shop of album reviews from the “Year of the Album” project:
01. Todd Alsup – “Todd Alsup”
02. Plain White T’s – “The Wonders of the Younger”
03. Blood Red Shoes – “Fire Like This”
04. SIMS – “Bad Time Zoo”
05. Phoenix – “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”
06/07. Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin” / Darius Rucker – “Charleston, SC 1966″
14. Art of Dying – “Vices and Virtues”
15. The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bright Morning Stars”
16. Alexander – “Alexander”
17. Noah and the Whale – “Last Night On Earth”
18. The Mountain Goats – “All Eternals Deck”
19. Steve Earle – “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”
20. Danny Schmidt – “Man of Many Moons”
21. Hyland – “Weights and Measures”
22. Augustana – “Augustana”
23. Lawrence & Leigh – “Odyssey Vol. III – Hills and Masts”
24. The Cars – “Move Like This”
25. The Morning Birds – “The QUICKENING”
26. The Lonely Island – “Turtleneck and Chain”
27. Vanessa Carlton – “Rabbits on the Run”
28. L’Altra – “Telepathic”
29. Eddie Vedder – “Ukelele Songs”
30. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
31. Hugh Laurie – “Let Them Talk”
32. Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”
33. Only Son – “Searchlight”
34. Kate Bush – “Director’s Cut”
35. Roxette – “Charm School”
36. Christina Perri – “Lovestrong”
37. Randi Russo – “Fragile Animal”
38. The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”
39. Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill”
40. Silverstein – “Rescue”
41. The Wombats – “This Modern Glitch”
42. Sunday Lane – “Bring Me Sunshine EP”
43. Egypt Central – “White Rabbit”
44. Peter Bradley Adams – “Between Us”
45. Weird Al Yankovic – “Alpocalypse”
46. Graham Colton – “Pacific Coast Eyes”
47. Lonesome City Travelers – “Lonesome City Travelers”
48. Johnny Mainstream – “Shipwrecked”
49. Girls Guns and Glory – “Sweet Nothings”
50. The Fair Weathered – “Last Year”
51. Ian Lawler – “Future Nostalgia”
52. Condition Oakland – “Find Home Friend EP”
53. Amanda Shires – “Carrying Lightning”
54. Chris Thile and Michael Daves – “Sleep With One Eye Open”
58. Fitz and the Tantrums – “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”
59. Committed – “Committed”
60. Chthonic – “Takasago Army”
61. Matthew Sweet – “Modern Art”
62. Matthew Good – “Lights of Endangered Species”
63. This Old Ghost – “Island of Violent Lovers”
64. We’re All Just Passing Through – “Bedroom Recordings, Vol. 2 (EP)”
65. Ronnie Milsap – “Country Again”
66. The May Bees – “Saint Denis”
67. Zucchero – “Chocabeck”
68. The Bandana Splits – “Mr. Sam Presents the Bandana Splits”
69. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers – “Gift Horse”
70. Jasmina Maschina – “Alphabet Dream Noise”
71. The Darcys – “The Darcys”
72. Sister City – “Carbon Footprint”
73. The Perms – “Sofia Nights”
74. Brown Bird – “Salt For Salt”
75. Kasey Chambers – “Little Bird”
76. Matt Lowell – “Drop Your Guns EP”
77. Deer Tick – “Divine Providence”
78. Foster The People – “Torches”
79. Vince Gill – “Guitar Slinger”
80. The Golden Seals – “Increase The Sweetness”
81. Mandolin Orange – “Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger”
82. Mac Miller – “Blue Slide Park”
83. Needle – “Saint Timothy’s EP”
84. Coldplay – “Mylo Xyloto”
85. The Trophy Fire – “Modern Hearts”
86. Grand & Noble – “Grand & Noble”
87/88. Dolly Parton – “Better Day” and Pistol Annies – “Hell On Heels”
89. Will Currie and the Country French – “Awake, You Sleepers!”
Year of the Album — #089
Will Currie and the Country French – “Awake, You Sleepers!” (2011, File Under: Music)
These songs show a distinct vision for what pop can become, a far-reaching panorama of music aimed at adults who have discerning musical palates and are willing to support a band for daring to aim high. Awake, You Sleepers! is a winning combination of daring and verve.
This is among the best pop albums of 2011, for those of you out there who felt pop was a dead art. A winning combination of daring and verve, Will Currie and the Country French aim for the fences and succeed largely because, when all is said and done, the music is beyond reproach. Read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #049
Girls Guns and Glory – “Sweet Nothings” (2011, Lonesome Day Records)
Girls Guns and Glory’s Sweet Nothings showcases an alt-country band coming firmly into its own at long last, a worthy album to push the band closer to mainstream acceptance. Read the review I wrote of the album on July 23, 2011 here at “Hear! Hear!”
Year of the Album — #087
Dolly Parton – “Better Day” (2011, Dolly Records)
Better Day isn’t a comeback, because Dolly Parton’s never gone anywhere and she’s not apologizing for that. Rather, this is a statement that she’s heading into her sixth decade as a recording artist while showing no signs of falling off artistically. That’s more than enough reason to stand up and cheer.
Year of the Album — #088
Pistol Annies – “Hell On Heels” (2011, Sony Nashville)
This auspicious debut for the country supergroup proves wholeheartedly that this trio, and in particular Lambert, have the talent, drive, and darkness-tinged wit to completely own the country scene in 2011 and beyond. This is country music like nothing else recorded this year.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take part in the voting, and then writing, for the PopMatters Top 10 Country Albums of 2011 list, and the music — despite a downturn in “major tier” country releases, proved to be exceptional. It’s nice to see a band like Girls Guns and Glory make the list among country legends like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. To read the full article, click the link above and check it out at its source … I don’t want to reprint the whole thing here, since a quick visit to PopMatters is liable to get you hooked on the rest of their end of year coverage and the constant stream of new reviews and commentary. Enjoy!
Year of the Album — #086
Grand & Noble – “Grand & Noble” (2012, Independent)
I’m really getting excited about the music coming in 2012, and Grand & Noble’s self-titled debut (out January 10, 2012, or right now as a name your price download via the band’s website) is right at the front of the pack. Fronted by Jon Elling’s emblematic vocals, which resonate immediately and provide a real sense of depth to the music, the band rocks out with touches of Wilco-inspired alt-country and more than a bit of modern piano blues-rock thrown in for good measure. “This Light” gets the album going in the right direction with a touch of Ryan Adams guitar melded with a bassline which brings to mind Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. Lyrically it’s right up Kellogg’s alley: “Call me up and say what’s there left to do but save our money for some ordinary shoes? I don’t believe the fun must end so soon …” Elling queries, raising his plaintive vocals to the sky as he wails the chorus: “Don’t say it’s over! Don’t say it’s over! Don’t say it’s over ’til you’re through.” By the time the song reaches its zenith you’ll be hoping this song won’t have to be over anytime soon.
“Paris (and Danielle)” picks up the reins from there with a touch of bass-heavy blues melded with a throughline of piano which pushes the song into the territory of top 40 music too good for top 40 to ever dare to play. “Feel the heat now, feel the friction – living life without permission,” Ellis sings forcefully, as the song takes its own motives to heart, the guitars crunching with wild abandon as the band breaks it all down and makes this seem so damned easy. But the band really brings it home on the soulful, introspective “Episcopal,” which features excellent harmonies over acoustic guitar and piano: “Somewhere in my shattered faith the chance I want is waiting there,” Elling sings as the band provides him wth a backdrop so filled with measured yearning it’s impossible not to keep the faith in what this band’s offering.
The rest of the album lives up to the challenge these songs set for Grand & Noble, crafting a debut of self-assured daring and willingness to build on what’s come before while forging their own identity. This is an album which is immediately revealing of a major artistic force, while the music reveals intricate original touches that will challenge any self-respecting music fan to listen repeatedly long into the new year. I’ll go out on a limb and say you won’t find many more adventurous debuts in 2012 or any other year. Put succinctly, Grand & Noble is a keeper.
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You can sample songs from the album below via Bandcamp:
Year of the Album — #085
The Trophy Fire – “Modern Hearts” (2011, Greyday)
The hooks might get them through the door, but Modern Hearts features music barely half as memorable as Trophy Fire thinks it is.
There’s a lot about the Trophy Fire’s Modern Hearts that I liked, and much of it lied in the strong musical hooks these songs offered up. But the album as a whole left me feeling cold, and it wasn’t just because the best song on the album was a cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats.” In the end hooks alone aren’t enough to live by, and this blend of energetic alternapop came up short in the long run. You can read my entire review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #084
Coldplay – “Mylo Xyloto” (2011, Capitol Records)
This review is reprinted with permission from PJ Media, where it ran as part of my weekly column on music and culture under the title “Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto and Why Sometimes Pop is Just Pop.”
Expectations can be a beast in the world of music criticism. Bands can blow up overnight thanks to blog reviews, even when they don’t have an album to promote – the live shows are that good. Then, when the album drops and it isn’t as magnificent as people expected, the band is dropped like a hot potato, while sites like Pitchfork leap to the next flavor of the week they can’t help hyping to death.
The dreaded sophomore slump isn’t so much named for a significant drop in quality or artistic vision, but rather for the frequent sales drop-off when fans don’t like a band’s second album as much as the one they worshiped maybe a year prior. Worse is the fate doled out to bands who initially sound like another popular act; they initially get a benefit from that comparison, only to have fans turn on them when their music either doesn’t follow closely enough in the footsteps of the iconic act, or conversely fails by following too closely with the original.
Such has been the fate of Coldplay, a band which clearly can’t win for losing.
If you were to spend too much time reading what the majority of the criticsphere has to say about Mylo Xyloto, the latest Coldplay album, you’d have to wonder if this one collection of songs happened to be the worst thing to happen to music since Kevin Federline’s rap abortion. “It’s a bit uplifting, but ultimately insipid,” was the write-up they received in the UK’s Observer, while the Guardian referred to the album as “standard issue Coldplay” in the perjorative, as though a band’s fifth album sounding like anything recorded prior to its release is somehow a brutal disservice to all appropriately cultured music fans.
It’s almost been a competition to see who can damn the album with the faintest praise. You see, what’s worse than a sophomore slump is the brutal crash to earth which comes when a band previously christened as a “hipster alternative to pop” decides to continue recording pop music long after the hipsters have decided to throw said band to the dogs.
I, for one, was never a particularly huge fan of Coldplay. “Yellow,” off their debut Parachutes, bored me to tears with its repetition and was doomed by radio overplay. And A Rush of Blood to the Head, the band’s sophomore effort, featured solid songs but frequently seemed to this critic as though the band was trying too hard to come up with songs to match what radio wanted from a follow-up to Parachutes. That, and the band was fighting to avoid becoming overly pretentious. While many have always lumped them in with the 90s brit-pop of Oasis and the rousing stadium rock of U2, with others clamoring for Chris Martin to follow in Thom Yorke’s avant-garde footsteps, the band was merely at the time trying to find its own voice and follow its own path.
Over the last eight or nine years, however, the band has grown on me. They’ve proven to be willing to push the envelope and try experiments with style, while sticking primarily to the world of pop music. While Radiohead saw a chance to go mainstream with the uber-success of OK Computer and then turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction, choosing to avoid pop at all costs, Coldplay wants to be the pop band everyone likes, with hooks that stick in your head and won’t leave, like tiny musical viruses. They finally found songs that led in that direction on Viva La Vida, which had a title signaling pretension even as the music was more mainstream than ever: I dare you to keep the tribal hook that is “Lost!” out of your head once it sneaks in.
After reading all the negative reviews for Mylo Xyloto, an album which I will admit is saddled by one of the most ridiculous titles ever, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that really what the band chooses to present here is a rational follow-up to Viva La Vida. Mylo Xyloto doesn’t stand up to a great deal of lyrical scrutiny, which is why so many critics have slashed at Martin’s throat by going after his lyrical failings.
But where the album shines is from a pure pop standpoint. “Hurts Like Heaven” is mindlessly catchy in a way few songs have been so far in 2011 – even when you hear yourself singing along to a line as inane as “You use your heart as a weapon but it hurts like heaven,” you’ve got to marvel at the tunefulness of the underlying melody, a melody which segues seamlessly into “Paradise,” the band’s seeming follow-up to “Lost!” which opens with strings and synths piling slowly upon each other until half a minute when the dark crunchy bass end comes into play. “She expected the world but it flew away from her reach,” Martin sings. “She ran away in her sleep into paradise!” The stuttering falsetto chorus – “Para-para-para-paradise!” — coupled with Martin’s “Oooh oooh oooh” harmonizing – turns the song into a barnstormer. If you can’t find something fun in this listening experience, you’re so jaded I don’t know that I want to know you.
The rest of the album is a joy to hear because it builds as a logical progression. The frantic desperation of “Charlie Brown” pumps up the energy just in time to drop off completely into the somber simplicity of “Us Against The World” (as apt a title as any on the album), which allows Martin to play with his more acoustic side, a la X&Y’s “Til Kingdom Come.”
“I just want to be there when the lightning strikes and the saints go marching in,” Martin sings, and it’s his mantra. Coldplay is here to be the world’s pop band even if the world isn’t ready to stand up to the hipsters and admit it wants a pop band.
We all say we want experimentation, raw creativity, explosions of avant-garde pretentiousness. But when push comes to shove, Coldplay will be there when we’re ready for something which strips all that away, leaving nothing but the pure, comforting essence of pop. It’s telling that “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” the band’s choice for lead single, is far from the most exceptional track on the album.
It comes down to expectations. If you see Coldplay as Radiohead-lite, you’ve already decided their music is something less than that of a band you already revere. As for the “it’s so sickly sweet” mantra, Coldplay’s music has always been something of an aural diabetic’s enemy … if you can’t tolerate sugary pop music, you’ve been coming to the wrong band and simply aren’t going to be able to judge the album for what it’s really offering. Mylo Xyloto doesn’t so much take Coldplay in new directions as it works to cement the band in the eyes of its fans as one firmly planted in the world of pop. Any experimentation which is to be done will be performed with the aim of pushing their music more fully into the world of pop.
In the end there’s the “relevance” debate. I, for one, don’t feel a band’s relevance depends on a willingness to completely reinvent its sound album to album. Coldplay succeeds in the same vein as journeymen pop acts like Train – when “Hey Soul Sister” became a smash hit this year, it wasn’t because Train sold its soul for a pop hit. They simply kept making albums the way they’d done since Train hit shelves in 1999, and eventually the pop radio world came back around and found them playable again. Coldplay is never going to be something for everyone. They’ll remain a punching bag album in, album out for critics who refuse to admit that there’s more than one way to experience music.
Sometimes all we want is pop music for pop music’s sake. To quote the band’s latest single: “I turn the music up, I’ve got my records on. I’ll shut the world outside until the lights come on.” Indeed. Coldplay’s latest may not be the brilliance everyone seems to have expected, but it’s a perfectly acceptable fifth album from a band clearly set on continuing to craft addictive pop confections long after their critics have put down their pens. If it’s not your cup of tea, there’s always another remix album of Radiohead’s King of Limbs you can dig into while venting about how bands like Coldplay don’t live up to expectations.
Needle remain comfortably under the radar, but if their latest EP, Saint Timothy’s, has anything to do with it, they’ll soon be having their indie pop breakthrough. Strains of Sufjan Stevens and hints of the early experimental songwriting of Lindsey Buckingham permeate these seven slow-burning pieces of raw pop beauty, showcasing the intricate songwriting of Julie Sea and Steve Beck. “Let It Go” gets its hooks in quietly and asserts the duo’s ability to craft memorable melody from its most simple elements. “Slip your hand into my little world and let it go,” Sea and Beck harmonize, providing a chorus which is both bare-bones and evocatively beautiful in its simplicity. “The Scenery” is quietly ominous thanks to the echoing vocals and plodding piano, intimately haunting: “Memories will follow me,” sings Sea mournfully, and you’ll want to put the song on repeat so you can let it roll over you and soak in. This is meaningful, raw pop music for those among us who appreciate the delicate structure of avant-pop for its fundamental beauty. Saint Timothy’s is as rewarding a listen as you can expect to find as we head into 2012.
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Get a pre-release copy of Saint Timothy’s EP through the band’s website.
The album’s official release date is January 10, 2012.
Year of the Album — #082
Mac Miller – “Blue Slide Park” (2011, Rostrum Records
It is possible on one hand to see the hedonistic “white-boy awesome” tropes which fill the grooves on Blue Slide Park as simply a reflection of the album’s times. These are the youth of the 99 percent, hoping they can avoid the traps of 9 to 5 drudgery in the hope that they’ll stumble on the secret to living like Donald Trump. But there’s also the distinct sense on this album that Mac Miller is all flash and no substance, equally a product of his times in that he’s here today, gone tomorrow, nothing but a good time you later have to sweat off a hangover to atone for.
He built his reputation on a series of online videos, including those for “Knock Knock” and “Donald Trump.” The former is relentlessly catchy, blending Miller’s laid back b-boy hip-hop styling with a beat built upon the best of 60s bubblegum, but he’s got to bog things down with typical crass misogyny:
Mouth my words, don’t say shit
Shhh … shut up bitch and ride this dick!
I’m just playin’, let’s have a ball!
He goes on to argue that he’s “young fresh and so damn intelligent … I’m actin’ like a gentleman.” I’ll call bullshit on that. But he’s got style and flair, and the videos for his songs are so professionally produced it’s hard to find fault when you’re listening … the flaws float slowly, painfully to the surface as you step back and think about it. Much like the party lifestyle he encourages, Mac Miller’s music is fun while you’re part of the party, and painful when you deal with the aftermath. His aforementioned videos pushed him into the internet hip-hop mainstream to the point where he’s able to launch Blue Slide Park as the #1 album in the nation despite the fact that few people off the internet even know who he is.
Take the album for what it is — an extended party anthem — and you’ll enjoy it while it lasts. There’s nothing here that’s going to put Miller on the path to long-term greatness, but as far as albums go when based on being a YouTube sensation, he does have a good ear for old school samples which he deftly merges with modern hip-hop delivery.
Oddly enough, the songs which made him known on the Internet (the aforementioned “Knock Knock” and “Donald Trump”) are not included on this album. But despite that, “Party on Fifth Ave” and “Frick Park Market” are likely to please the already converted. But there’s nothing particularly fresh to push this into memorable lyrical territory. “I’m heroin ’cause everything I talk is dope,” he raps on the latter, showing a never-ending willingness to pump himself up as the best thing happening in New York, despite the fact that he rarely adds anything of substance to back up the brags.
The song titles tell the story for you. We open up in Blue Slide Park, head to Fifth Ave for the party. If you’re on Mac’s Team you can stay Up All Night Loitering, letting your money burn a Hole in Your Pocket while you show off the Diamonds and Gold you wish you had more of. But because it’s a series of party anthems at its core, Blue Slide Park is all “up,” no moderation, and in the end that prevents Miller from developing any depth or range as an artist. If he ever gets the chance at a second album he’ll either quickly wash out when the party comes to an abrupt end or he’ll attempt to become more of a serious lyricist. Based on this debut it’s impossible to guess whether he’d be able to succeed in that regard … or even whether his fickle young fans would even follow.
Year of the Album — #081
Mandolin Orange – “Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger” (2011, Mandolin Orange LLC)
The music is impressive in its scope, though perhaps it should have been a single album with a united musical vision. Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger is definitely another step forward from a band Rosanne Cash called an unmitigated pleasure.
Mandolin Orange’s double EP experiment, Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger, is an album which truly does showcase the depth of the band’s bluegrass sound, which crosses genres ably. Stretching the experience over two EPs which feature nearly twenty songs, however, is a bit much. I wish we could accuse more bands of being “overly ambitious,” however, in the current musical climate. Read the rest of the review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #080
The Golden Seals – “Increase The Sweetness” (2011, Zunior)
The Golden Seals leaves its most obvious influences unnamed, but if you believe one thing you read today, it should be that Increase the Sweetness is the best thing to happen to contemporary pop since Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds Five made indie-pop cool again.
If you’re a fan of indie and power pop music, you’re going to love what the Golden Seals have done on their latest album, Increase The Sweetness. Check out the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #079
Vince Gill – “Guitar Slinger” (2011, MCA Nashville)
Vince Gill may have spent a lot of effort and professional capital on These Days, the massive four-disc set of all new material he issued back in 2006, but that set did conclusively show how broad his tastes really are. Now that he’s pushed the envelope, he’s chosen to maintain the forward momentum of those discs musically, while paring things down and focusing on a much more straightforward sound as a whole.
The result, on Guitar Slinger, is his best work in years, a fully focused effort which showcases why Gill remains one of the most interesting voices in country music. “Tell Me Fool” has a Gospel-meets-Country vibe which gives Gill’s voice room to soar even as he gives ample room to his fellow musicians to shine equally in the spotlight. The title track suggests he’s got plenty more rock in his veins as well, via a honky-tonk romp which should burn up the country charts. And “True Love,” featuring Amy Grant on guest vocals, is the kind of adult-contemporary crossover track country acts used to do all so well before the emphasis shifted toward younger, poppier demographics.
Guitar Slinger is a refreshing album from a veteran songwriter who is willing to let his experience as a performer over three decades in the business speak for itself. He’s proven to be a top-notch performer in the bluegrass, country and gospel genres, and this album pushes him one step closer to “elder statesman” status in the genre, and he’s definitely earned the distinction. Five years may seem a long time to wait for new material, but Gill, now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has proven that when it comes to his music, patience is a virtue well rewarded.
Year of the Album — #078
Foster The People – “Torches” (2011, Columbia)
Foster The People’s Torches is a pop album for lovers of in-your-face pop cheese, the kind of unabashed super-singable anthems which build their emphasis through repetition. And since repetition breeds memory, once these songs make it onto a radio station near you, said songs become ubiquitous. Then familiarity breeds contempt; the songs which initially earn your listens due to their initial sense of fun soon wear out their welcome as you hear them played infinitely. It doesn’t take many repetitions of “all the other kids with the pumped up kicks / better run better run faster than my bullet” to wring anything interesting from the song. One dubstep remix too many and you’re left with a pop carcass.
That said, though 2012 is unlikely to remember Mark Foster’s namesake album as much more than an odd novelty, the songs are at least catchy. And the concept of launching what is essentially a “first person shooter” ode almost all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 does lead to some head turning. But as an album Torches comes up short, a fun diversion headlined by disposable pop songs which simply lack a distinct sound the band can call its own. Songs like “Color On The Walls” will live on via advertisements for years to come, outlasting any name recognition Foster may have earned. But the album as a whole will soon be little more than a brief footnote in the “2011 Pop Hits” column.
Year of the Album — #076
Matt Lowell – “Drop Your Guns EP” (2011, BNS Records)
Matt Lowell earned my listens immediately with the Peter Gabriel-esque opener “Calling,” which would have seemed right at home alongside songs like “Games Without Frontiers” in the early 80s. What stands out the most about Drop Your Guns is that Lowell seems perfectly unafraid even as he subverts what we initially expect from his blend of electronic experimentation and alt-pop confections. Fans of Coldplay and Radiohead will appreciate what he’s doing the most, but I’d imagine it’ll be hard to find any fan of adventurous pop arrangements who can’t find something to praise in the chaotic, Massive Attack inspired stunner “Taking On Water.” And “Better Alone” closes out the EP with piano and vocals, showing he’s equally capable of stripping a song down to its basics. The vocals on this one put Thom Yorke to shame, and left this listener breathless for a repeat performance. Drop Your Guns features 15 minutes you won’t soon be able to get out of your head, making this one of the strongest EPs to come out this year. Here’s hoping it’s only a sample of greatness yet to come.
Year of the Album — #075
Kasey Chambers – “Little Bird” (2011, Sugar Hill)
For those of us already initiated into the Cult of Chambers, Little Bird is immediately accessible as a reintroduction to her already tried and true formula of Australia-tinged pop-country Americana. But with songs like “Little Bird” and “Someone Like Me” populating this record, it’d be a shame if she found herself simply singing to the already converted. Chambers has always had a soft touch when it comes to crafting intimate, honest songs of rare beauty but she’s stepped it up a great deal in the hook department, making this an album which should push her closer to the same audiences who already love current superstars in the Taylor Swift vein.
“I don’t want you that bad,” Chambers sings to a lover who insists if she just changes herself enough, he’ll want her back on that titular single, speaking to everyone who has ever kept quiet and suffered rather than be true to oneself. It’s the perfect song for the current teen generation, speaking of believing in yourself rather than expecting anyone to do it for you. “Somewhere” tone down Chambers’ vocal eccentricities on an exceptional ballad which hones in on themes of depression and desolation: “Somewhere there’s somebody waiting for the day to come / Somewhere there’s somebody on the wrong end of a gun / Somewhere a word is spoken meant so unkind / Somewhere a promise is broken for the hundredth time / And I’m all cried out.” But there’s a sense that hope still abides, even if you have to look a little deeper. When you’re all cried out, what’s next? You fight to find something to believe in.
Chambers is one of those artists you can put your faith in, and Little Bird only builds that reputation. Album in, album out she manages to produce music of the highest caliber, and her output over the last decade, from 1999′s The Captain onward, has been beyond reproach. If you’re already a fan, relish this effort as proof that Chambers is pushing into the new decade head-on, ready to continue crafting amazing music. For neophytes, this is just as good a spot to settle down and get your feet wet. You’ll soon be glad you did.
Year of the Album — #074
Brown Bird – “Salt For Salt” (2011, Supply and Demand)
This album is a spectacular example of what can be done within the framework of traditional music to push it into the headphones of a new generation, without falling victim to incongruous stabs of modernity.
Brown Bird’s Salt For Salt is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year easily, and it’s by far the strongest folk release so far. With influences ranging from classicist folk to gypsy and alternative influences (Vandaveer comes to mind) Salt For Salt is one of those rare albums which sticks with you and all but demands praise. You can read the rest of the review at PopMatters.
Like an alliance between Weezer and Fountains of Wayne, Winnipeg Manitoba’s own Perms arrive here in 2011 to bring good old fashioned power pop back to the masses! “Make It Through” sounds like a long lost Blue Album gem, getting the album off to a particularly solid start, and the hooks just keep coming as Shane and Chad Smith front the band with reckless abandon. “You I’m Thinking Of” could be a candidate for pop single of the year if it had any chance of getting radio play, but lack of exposure won’t stop you from singing along with the chorus by midway through the first time you hear it. The album doesn’t overstay its welcome, taking a half hour to get in, rob your brain and get out again before anyone realizes the band blew the safe. These guys are masters of the elemental pop song, melding the best of what made alt-pop in the nineties great with the DIY aesthetic which is central to making it in 2011. These songs are as good or better than anything mainstream you’ll hear the rest of the year, and Sofia Nights is one of those albums you’ll be glad to brag about to friends. It’s a real winner, and deserves to have more folks in the pop blogosphere talking about it.
As the band members of Sister City scream at the end of “Hit Too Hard,” the first track on Sister City’s Carbon Footprint, they’re doing the same thing many other bands before them have done in the pop-punk realm, only they do it just a little bit differently. The album, as it develops, becomes more of a grunge or post-punk endeavor, with plenty of rocking elements to balance out the pop hooks.
But what’s most impressive about this album is that, unlike many of his peers, Adam Linder doesn’t seem bogged down in self-referential diary entries. These are lyrics with something to say. “How Much” is an album stand-out, a gloomy ballad with thudding percussion and bass providing the propulsion as Linder sings of war and the final frontier: “I want to know what I don’t know … I want to know what no one knows,” Linder sings, “or I will tread water and gracelessly sink below like death is a puzzle and I learned where all the pieces go.”
Still, he saves the best of his bile for himself on “Ellis Island Blues,” a wild ride of crunching guitars and full speed percussion as he imagines what his ancestors would think of his generation:
So I wander like the ancestors that I’ve forsaken
Where is my respect?
If my great-great grandparents had only known
That their great-great grandson
Would end up turning people into stone
Do you think they’d have set a fucking foot onto that boat?
I don’t, I don’t
Linder’s lyrics fit perfectly with the tone of the rest of the song, and “Ellis Island” (which originally was intended to open the album) proves to be the true centerpiece of an album which focuses as much on the self as the big picture. “Life is what you make of it,” he sings, “and I am on the verge of something big.” Indeed he seems to be, and Sister City’s Carbon Footprint is an auspicious debut.
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Purchase the album via the band’s Bandcamp page … you can name your own price for the download, and it’s only $5 if you’d like a hard-copy on CD … can’t beat that!
Year of the Album — #071
The Darcys – “The Darcys” (2011, Arts & Crafts)
This isn’t sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs music, but the melodies of these songs are perfectly matched to the intended mood, and the resulting mix is an inspiring blend of polished pop and more avant garde experimentation.
This is definitely a discovery I would not have made had I not been writing for PopMatters, as this album came through one of their connections. But I must say, despite the fact that the band has to date done little to build a name for itself here in the States, the Darcys have stumbled on a sound which is likely to make them household names if they can get their blend of pop and experimentation into our collective headphones. You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #070
Jasmina Maschina – “Alphabet Dream Noise” (2011, Staubgold)
Despite moments where one might be tempted to write it off as a waste of time, there are glimmers that something truly amazing is buried deep in Alphabet Dream Noise.
This will be an interesting album to go back to a year from now and revisit, seeing if it turns me off quite the same way as it did upon my first listen. There are certainly glimmers of hope that Jasmine Guffond has the ability to create songs which challenge listeners while at the same time providing palatable entertainment, but the moments of disappointment certainly outweighed the few times when I found myself shaking my head and thinking “there’s something I’d want to hear again.” You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #069
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers – “Gift Horse” (2011, Vanguard)
Featuring some of Kellogg’s strongest melodies and most introspective lyrics yet, this album stands as the best album yet from an artist who seems not to know the meaning of second best.
I’ve been a big fan of the Sixers, and Stephen Kellogg, for far longer than I have for most other indie groups, and I’m pleased to see the Boston band continue to step up to the plate and hit musical grand slams every time out. Gift Horse is their best album since Glassjaw Boxer and should be a competitor for album of the year when all’s said and done. And with the band getting a shot at a $3.99 Amazon promotion earlier this week, it wouldn’t be surprising if it provides them their best Billboard debut when everything’s tallied up. Here’s hoping their “best kept secret” status is a thing of the past. You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #068
The Bandana Splits – “Mr Sam Presents The Bandana Splits” (2011, Boy Scout Recordings)
In many ways, the last few years have been defined by pop-culture throwbacks. Now Brooklyn’s Bandana Splits arrive to provide their spin on 50s and 60s bubblegum pop and doo-wop. The result is a respectable diversion, reviving, but not innovating, the genre.
This was my audition piece for PopMatters, and I wrote it almost two months ago. The album didn’t blow my mind, but as far as retro revivals of classic styles go, this one’s going to please genre purists and make many more listeners stop at least for a moment to lend these ladies an ear. Sometimes we expect too much “innovation” from pop music anyway … some of the best pop songs are simple, ear-catching bits of ephemera to begin with, and they’re still great songs. There’s plenty to enjoy on this album, even if the individual songs don’t necessarily dig their way into the memory banks. You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #067
Zucchero – “Chocabeck” (2011, Decca)
Chocabeck is stadium rock for those who idolize David Foster, and who think Josh Groban produces operatic pop at the same level as Pavarotti. Its melodies fail to resonate coupled with vocals that fail to define Zucchero as anything but an Italian rock curiosity.
Yes, this is a review of an album I didn’t like, so for those of you who like hearing bad music get ripped to shreds, you can read the rest of the review at PopMatters. Zucchero (or “sugar”) Fornaciari has been dubbed the “Bruce Springsteen of Italian rock.” If listeners believe that comparison is truly apt, I feel sincerely sorry for them and wish them better music in the future.
Year of the Album — #066
The May Bees – “Saint Denis” (2011, Wampus Multimedia)
The best thing which can be said about the May Bees’ “candy-apple thrash” on Saint-Denis is that the Dutch band’s music hearkens back to the mid-’80s garage aesthetic while maintaining a true sense of modern pop depth.
If you’re a fan of garage pop in the vein of R.E.M. or Guided By Voices, with pop hooks that occasionally merge into U2′s zone, you’ll find something interesting I’m sure within the confines of Saint Denis. The album’s something of a mixed bag, but there’s plenty of good music to go around here. Read the rest of the review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #065
Ronnie Milsap – “Country Again” (2011, Bigger Picture)
The music which built his career now sustains it, and Milsap makes no apology for continuing to go his own way. That alone makes Milsap’s comeback one of the more inviting albums of the year for fans of traditional country.
I recently was brought on as a contributing writer for PopMatters, and my first review for the site is of Ronnie Milsap’s Country Again, a comeback which more than lives up to expectations. This is one of the more rewarding classic country releases of 2011. Read the full review at PopMatters.