This year, building a music discovery platform called TastemakerX, I was looking harder than usual at new music. I was doing this primarily to prove my thesis that music discovery is becoming increasingly more difficult. This is due in part to the enormous decrease in the costs of producing and distributing music, thanks in part to technology (for production) and the internet (for distribution). As a result there is much more music being produced than ever before and, not surprisingly, it is nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. You’d think that the internet would have solved this problem, but algorithms don’t turn people onto music, people do, and for the most part digital music hasn’t been very social up to now. With that said, this has been another stellar year for music. You should make a point to try it all.
1) Angus Stone – Broken Brights (Nettwerk)
I didn’t pay much attention to Angus & Julia Stone last year, so when I stumbled in to see Angus playing a gig supporting his new solo album I was woefully unprepared. As history will prove, I am a sucker for the warm modern but nostalgic music of today’s bearded neo-hippie indie folk scene (Fleet Foxes, Head and the Heart, Midlake). “Broken Brights” is far and away the album that has stuck with me most deeply.
Although, Stone is an Aussie, the 13 songs on this record are cut crisply from 70’s Americana lore. There are all sorts of obvious reference points from Neil Young (“Bird and the Buffalo”) to Dylan (“Monsters”) but there is nothing merely derivative here. The band, which features a lovely assortment of strings, brass, guitar and banjo, is just sublime. Every year there is one that raises above all others, and this year it is Angus Stone. This is that warm, woody music that will never feel out of time or place. Angus Stone
2) Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Ribbon Music)
Some music just gets under your skin. Alt-J is an acquired taste but once you turn onto it it sticks hard – like the first Violent Femmes record for a dated example. “An Awesome Wave” is a delicate, textured experiment in genre bending rock. There are quiet pianos, and soulful vocals, that come across almost like B-sides from a Windham Hill record juxtaposed with songs held together by a broad smattering of loops, blips, and drum lines that bounce around like bare feet on hot pavement.
A bit like Zappa filtered through a lava lamp, but every song here is sliced from the same pie in an impeccably produced series of soundscapes as potent as anything this year. From the edgy and beautiful “Dissolve Me” and “Fitzpleasure” to the pristine balladry on “Mathilda” or “Bloodflood.” Like Django Django, Alt-J runs the modern history of rock through a psychedelic sieve and comes up multi-colored roses. Alt-J
3) Django Django – Django Django (Ribbon Music)
As much as I love mellow countrified indie rock, my other real musical love is for groove based new wave music. This includes almost any music that probably uses the Velvet Underground as a starting point, passing through Pink Floyd en route to Radiohead. Django Django is one of two bands that broke through using that blueprint this year (the other being Alt-J).
The band is another in a series of great Scottish bands (The Beta Band, Hot Chip) that fuse incredibly catchy songwriting with approachable electronica. “Django Django” is a relentlessly upbeat album (“Default” and “Hail Bop”) although it is more light bursting through the shadows than beach music. It’s hard to resist the toe tapping beats, and bite sized chorus’ throughout, and they rarely give you time to catch your breath. Django Django
4) Polica – Give You The Ghost (Conveyor)
Polica’s singer Channy Leaneagh, a former member of Minneapolis supergoup Gayngs, and starring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is a legit star. Just watching her move on stage is something else, and then she starts to sing. On tracks like “Lay Your Cards Outs” and “Dark Star” you fall immediately into the smoothest grooves, with the double drum tracks steering gently towards something on a hazy horizon.
I first saw Polica at SXSW in 2012. I knew almost nothing about them, but the music felt immediately recognizable yet brand new. Like a torch passed from the great female vocalists from the 90’s (Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Frazier, and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards), trip hop it seems is again alive and well. Polica
5) Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
Although it’s fair to describe “Swing Lo Magellan” as the Projectors most “accessible” album to date, it is still a challenging record. “Swing Lo Magellan” is truly a brilliant accomplishment: complicated, melodic, harmonious, discordant, catchy, and somber. It is the most unique “pop” record of the year by a city mile, bathed in lush instrumentation and Ivy League lyrics.
The band is the brainchild of Yale dropout David Longstreth, and what is most distinctive about Dirty Projectors music is both the ridiculously difficult guitar lines and tunings, and the incredible transitions. In the end what we get is a collage of sweet discovery (“Swing Lo Magellan” and “Impregnable Question”) mixed with strange pop incarnations like “Dance With You” and “About to Die.” It is a weird and wonderful joy. Dirty Projectors
6) Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again (ATO)
Not since the 70’s masterpieces by Curtis Mayfield, Issac Hayes, Rodriguez (and others), has there been a record this soulful and authentic. Kiwanuka is a 24 year old Brit with a voice as smooth as anything you are likely to hear. Discovered by The Bees Paul Butler, himself a musical revivalist, “Home Again” is an album of anachronistic magic, and old-fashioned modern soul.
Kiwanuka originally imagined himself primarily as a guitarist, but on instant classics like “Tell Me Take” and “I’ll get Along” you hear Hendrix filtered through Van Morrison, silky and smooth. The production and instrumentation is a perfect compliment to the truly special magic that happens on “Home Again.” It doesn’t get much better. Michael Kiwanuka
7) Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (Jagjaguar)
I remember the first time I saw Jeff Buckley live, solo and plugged into a small amp at Sin-é Café on St. Marks in NYC. I had heard the tapes, but to see him live was to get the context that made it all make sense. I feel the same way about Sharon Van Etten. She is a blossoming genius with a heavenly voice, hugely personal lyrics and a presence that is both surprisingly whimsical yet profoundly intense.
Some artists write beautiful lyrics or music, others have voices like angels or devils, while others bleed passion and genius across a complete spectrum. But the very best of them transport us to a totally new place, they get hold of us and don’t let go until the last chord is strummed, the last lyric falls, leaving us longing for more. Sharon Van Etten is that rare combination of raw honesty and accessible emotion. Three albums into what will hopefully be a long career, Van Etten, has found a middle ground between the precious, raw and spare “We Are Fine” and the straight forward rock ““Serpents”. I’m in love. Sharon Van Etten
8) Foxygen – Take The Kids Off Broadway (Jagjaguar)
When two kids about a third the age of their apparent idols: Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and Nick Cave, reinterpret the 70’s, the result will either be disastrous or incredible. “Take The Kids Off Broadway” is a brilliant breezy trip to the past channeled through something uniquely modern. If Wes Anderson were looking to score his movies with modern artists, Foxygen would be his house band.
On tunes like “Waitin’ 4 U” you are hurled back into a Stonesy state of mind, and a moment later on “Make it Known” it is more like David Johansen’s New York Dolls swagger. For most people born after 1965, this whole era of music was missed completely, which is a tragedy. Thanks to bands like MGMT and Foxygen, dirty, dirgy rock music is alive and well again. Foxygen
9) Tame Impala - Lonerism (Modular)
Australia’s Tame Impala is an old school, big time psychedelic rock band. From the very first chords on “Lonerism” (the sublime “Got to Be above It’) you feel transported back to an epic Pink Floyd show from an age long gone. Most of the band members were born a decade after “The Wall” but with a breadth of keys, swirling guitars and a steady baseline, everything just falls neatly into place despite the controlled cacophony.
To see the band live is to re/experience what a rock show used to be like: extended jams, trippy lights, and long improvisational moments of musical theater. Songs like “Elephant” thump and thud with an irresistible hard rock beat, while much of the rest of this minor masterpiece reflects the past through a two way mirror into the future. Tame Impala
10) Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)
Like the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear aspires to something well beyond conventional rock music. Their musical abilities have finally caught up with their ambition. Alternating between precious and raucous, the band refuses to play it straight and instead chooses a stranger road paved with unexpected transitions and odd tunings.
Occasionally they make it easy on the listener with tunes like “Yet Again” and “Gun Shy,” which seem to glide on a careful pop structure, filled with crystalline vocals exchanged among the band’s multiple vocalists. Other times they tend to push you into an entirely different direction, as in “Sleeping Ute,” where the melodies explode into a wall of sound. “Shields” is a magical place, filled with magical players and sounds. Grizzly Bear (more…)