Stornoway opens the new year with a single like a “Knock to the Head” — Where’s this been all our lives?


I’m still wrapping my head around this astonishing new single from Stornoway, a band fully capable of dominating the pop music landscape any time they dare pick up an instrument. “Knock Me on the Head” announces the band’s upcoming album Tales from Terra Firma in grand style, with an epic instrumental intro melded to an all-in melodic pop single you’ll be singing all year.

You hung an albatross around my neck
When you needed to knock me on the head
And say “No! No! No! No!”

This is what great music can be when a band’s willing to push pop conventions beyond what we’ve been brought to expect. It’s refreshing to see that a band can pick up where an album as stunning as Beachcomber’s Windowsill left off and find ways to avoid that dreaded sophomore slump. This song is the perfect knock to the head needed at the start of a new year to remain vigilant, in search of pop music which can be more than just mere fluff. Though it’s way too early to start crafting “Best of 2013″ lists, Tales from Terra Firma tops my list of “must hear” albums.

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FEATURED SONG: Blisses B – “Regal Goodbyes”

Blisses B

Blisses B definitely brings the hooks to break you out of the winter doldrums.

Fans of Vampire Weekend and Stornoway need to prepare for immediate auralgasms, because Blisses B’s single “Regal Goodbyes” is going to rock your world. Their album, Thirty Days, Sixty Years, has been out since late 2010, but the San Francisco band has yet to find its well-deserved breakthrough. Still, we have this song, and what a hook it builds, twisting psychedelic pop influences in with the genre-bending explorations of artists as disparate as Paul Simon and Andrew Bird, with enough sun-drenched melodies to make it the perfect antidote for the winter blues. Check out the song, then head to the band’s website to hear the rest. You won’t be disappointed!

The Mid-Year 2011 Music Crib Sheet

Music

We are the music makers... and we are the dreamers of the dreams. (vhm-alex, courtesy of deviantart.com)

If you’re still one of the naysayers who believes there’s no good music out there simply because radio doesn’t play good music, or because MTV doesn’t play videos, then 2011’s music probably hasn’t changed your mind if only for the simple reason that you won’t have heard it.

Face it, in this modern era of self-publishing, indie releases on the internet, and a general decentralization of the pop music world, you’ve got to go out and find the best music – it’s not going to knock on your door and hit you over the head. And if you think corporate radio has any interest in helping you find good music, think again: they just want to help spread lowest common denominator music, so they can line their own pockets and keep the “old system” alive.

So what, you might ask, is a listener supposed to do? There’s so much music out there, how do you wade through the junk to find yourself the good bits? Well, you could start by subscribing to this blog. And if you are new to reading here, you may have missed all the great music being discussed so far this year.

Since end of year lists are often arbitrary, and they tend to miss great albums from the first half of the year, here are some mid-year crib-notes to catch you all up and show you the good which 2011 has, so far, had to offer fans of what matters in pop music.

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POP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Augustana – “Augustana”

Eponymous albums are supposed to be statements of a band’s new direction, and Augustana’s third album  for Epic is definitely that; like an unholy vocal alliance between Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Bruce Springsteen, Don Layus’s powerhouse vocals anchor this album’s ten tracks with an incredible barrage of hooks the likes of which I haven’t heard on a pop album in years, if even in the last decade. With music this brazenly addictive, Augustana deserves to be 2011’s version of 2006-era Snow Patrol, lighting up the radio with hit after hit and selling millions. But if they’re simply destined to remain 2011’s best working band, putting out great music for a loyal audience of converts, maybe that’s just as good.

ALTERNATIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”

From the opening eighty seconds of the album, the blistering “Wrecking Bar,” its immediately clear that anything this band writes is going to be fully capable of rocking at Clash-like levels. All my expectations were instantly blown out of the water. From that point it’s a steady succession of radio-ready singles – almost enough to set your mind to reeling. There’s not a weak track in the bunch. It’s clear from the first listen that the Vaccines are destined to become a household name; if radio won’t play them here in the States, it’s time to load up a car with friends, stick the album in the CD player and blast these brilliant pop confections for everyone to hear.

HIPSTER ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album follows a very classically folk-oriented formula, recorded very much in the moment — Pecknold aimed for Astral Weeks’ timeless quality, and while only time will tell whether the album holds up as well, the resulting depth and quality of Helplessness Blues speaks for itself. That much of the album’s vocals were recorded in one take (“even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there,” Pecknold told the Guardian) it’s impressive just how many layers there are in these songs to slowly peel away on repeated listens. This is the kind of album you’d hope Simon and Garfunkel could be producing had the duo ever reunited in this modern musical age.

HIP-HOP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
SIMS – “Bad Time Zoo”

There may be something in the water in Minneapolis, considering the amazing underground hip-hop scene which has developed there over the last decade. Whatever it is, Sims’ Bad Time Zoo has something to say and gets its points across with beats that blend jazz and world-beat with modern flair that would set radio on fire if anyone had the balls to play these songs. Regardless, Bad Time Zoo is the first must-hear hip-hop album of 2011, and it’s an early contender for my year-end top ten. Here’s hoping Doomtree Records has the push to get this album out to the wide audience it deserves.

COUNTRY ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin”

The 9513 wrote of a potential 2011 revival of traditional country on the radio airwaves, and if they’re right, true country fans have a ton to rejoice about when listening to Easton Corbin, which is the best traditional meets modern country album I’ve heard since Eric Church’s Carolina. “I’m A Little More Country Than That” is one of the most straightforward, honest country top tens I’ve heard in years, and it sounds like the new traditional country I grew up on in the eighties and early nineties, when artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Steve Earle were tearing up country radio. Several cuts on this effort even sound like Corbin spent time in the room with Earle while he put together Guitar Town, the best album to come out of that era. Listen to “Leavin’ A Lonely Town” or “This Far From Memphis” and tell me you disagree.

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And now a few honorable mentions:

Hey Rosetta! – “Seeds”  — Like Arcade Fire on Neon Bible and Sufjan Stevens with Illinois, Hey Rosetta builds their melodies with garage rock ferocity which is consistently punctuated with stunning bursts of fiery orchestral bliss.

Baby Teardrops – “X Is For Love” — They’ve definitely got the hooks to be successful on radio. “Smooth Sailing Ahead” could have been a top ten hit for the Gin Blossoms in the mid-90s, but here it has a more grunge-oriented sound which is both out of place and wlecome in today’s rock landscape.

The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bright Morning Stars” — In a world where Taylor Swift is a worldwide superstar bringing pop music to so called “traditional” country stations, it’s about time real roots music made a comeback. This album is the most deserving so far of 2011 to get that shot.

Noah and the Whale – “Last Night On Earth” — Fink and his band Noah and the Whale have managed to create the perfect tribute to Springsteen with this album because they’re willing to build on the sounds that came before with a story that is at once their own, while also being one we’ve all experienced. Meanwhile, they’ve taken such a magnificent leap forward that this sound is suddenly new again, and all their own.

Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill” – Yes, it came out in 2010, but I didn’t hear it until 2011, so it counts. The bottom line is that even a cursory examination of “Zorbing,” the opening track from Beachcomber’s Windowsill, showcases the band’s incredibly dextrous, multi-layered arrangement, a mindblowing combination of subtle folk and alternative influences that is purely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in pop music in recent years. And that’s definitely worth checking out.

ALBUM REVIEW: Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill”

Stornoway Beachcomber's Windowsill

Year of the Album — #039
Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill” (2010, 4AD Records) 

British alternative band Stornoway is more than just the next Mumford and Sons, as they are often dubbed conveniently in America. They’re more than a simple comparison. Yes, there are the Mumford similarities if you’re not willing to look below the surface, but just even a cursory examination of “Zorbing,” the opening track from Beachcomber’s Windowsill, showcases the band’s incredibly dextrous, multi-layered arrangement, a mindblowing combination of subtle folk and alternative influences that is purely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in pop music in recent years.

The band gained notoriety in the UK when they became the first unsigned act to get the opportunity to perform live on venerable TV program Later … with Jools Holland, and this album’s become a success there without really gaining much traction in the US. And though American tastes frequently diverge from those from across the pond, Beachcomber’s Windowsill is a rare album, as richly deserving of Stateside praise as Adele’s 21, which has become one of the biggest albums of the year pretty much everywhere.

The biggest thing that sets these songs apart, aside from the layered melodies which refuse to cater to conformist tastes, is the band’s production ability; these arrangements frequently feature instumentation which plays in one ear counter to the music we’re hearing in stereo. The round-styled vocals on “I Saw You Blink” are so unique to the current pop landscape, they’re likely to throw a listener completely for a loop before the pure perfection of the concept sinks in and demands repeated close listening.

Stornoway, to put it simply, has stumbled on musical constructs which set their music apart from pretty much everyone else recording pop music in the UK, America or elsewhere. With singles like “Fuel Up” that conjure up the easy comparions to Mumford and Sons, they’re going to have a hard time dodging those close-eared critics who might like to stereotype them. Avoid that with a passion! This is some of the most inventive pop music you’re going to hear all year, if you haven’t been lucky enough to hear it already. There’s nothing quite like this music out there elsewhere, and that’s the best thing I’ve been able to write in a good long while.

Hear it now, hear it often!