The Bestest 2010 – Tunage

This year everything old seems particularly new again. Perhaps that is because I am now officially over forty, and I have been paying more attention to what is in the past than I ever did before.  There was a time not so long ago that bands were empowered to communicate directly with fans through a short lived (in retrospect) juggernaut called MySpace. Flash forward a few short years, and a few companies (Twitter and Facebook) have enabled bands to speak directly to fans without interference from the advertising littered, corporatized chaos that MySpace had become.  In an age where musicians rely on touring more than ever before, the portability of music on phones, tablets, Pandora, and wifi connected TVs and stereos has finally made listening to anything and everything, whenever and wherever, as easy as we thought it would be when we first started imagining a new paradigm a decade ago. For me Sonos, Spotify and my iPhone are the paraphernalia that hold my drugs of choice. This year I fell into an entirely new crop of retro soul, folk and power pop. With countless hours logged on airplanes and in airports, it’s hard to imagine what I would have done without the persistent soundtrack blown through headphones, on moving walkways and 747s. In a world without record stores, live shows fill the void, and the universal language of music is never more tangible than experienced from right in front of the stage at Fillmore, Coachella and the Greek, and this is what I listened to:

1) Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)

There are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when your first real exposure is watching a band you know very little about play live. This is how I first experienced Local Natives. I caught them early in the day at Coachella, not far from their LA home, and watched them rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of “Weekend Foxes,” but to me they are more percussive and with the anthemic intensity of a much bigger band. You can hear bits of “English Settlement” era XTC mixed with the rootsiness of Blitzen Trapper and the emotion of the Frames.

With all festival and internet buzz bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin or Indio. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill shows in playing live and delivering contagious energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but their songs are big. On “Shape Shifter” think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on “Wide Eyes.”  I listen to them as I write this and can’t help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.

2) Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill (Rough Trade)

It took perhaps thirty seconds for me to know that “Beachcomber’s Windowsill,” the debut from Stornoway, was something rare and special. It reminded me immediately of how I felt when I first heard Belle & Sebastian well over a decade ago – a kind of pure happiness usually reserved for children, best heard on songs like “Boats and Trains” and “We Are Battery Human.”

Stornoway makes perfect pop music, theme music for a fairy tale, innocent yet cool. Musically the band mixes strings, banjo, and piano into a more traditional indie pop structure like their thematic and instrumental soul mates, The Decemberists (see ‘The Coldharbour Road’).  But ultimately Stornoway soars on the wings of infectious vocals and harmonies, part barbershop quartet part orchestral hipster. Every year there is one record that seems miles out in front of the next.  I hope this band can make as prolific a career of this as Belle and Sebastian have done. We all could use a little piece of our childhoods back, even if only for three or four minutes at a time. [Read more…]

Broken Bells – Broken Bells (Sony)

 

Product DetailsI got an advance of this record in late January, and was floored within 30 seconds. I then managed to forget about it for a month, and happily rediscovered it after beginning to see a small groundswell across the twittersphere. 

This is a dream collaboration between Danger Mouse and the Shin’s James Mercer and is a short but impeccably dreamy piece of work. For Mercer, this was a much needed break from the Shins whose great records haven’t evolved much since the beginning. For Danger, who lost me a bit on Gnarls, has again proved himself the most versatile producer/composer on the planet.

The ten songs here borrow from late 60’s Beatles on “Sailing To Nowhere,” to a much simpler slower ballads like “Float” to dancier beats-driven tunes like “Citizen,” and my favorite the Cure-esque “The Waiting Game.” But the sound has a crisp and cohesive feeling, based in part on the lush Mercer vocals and Danger’s specific spacey vibe that runs throughout. But like a “fun sized” candy bar, you keep wishing there was more …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)

Bitte OrcaTo say Dirty Projectors is an acquired taste would be both a probable understatement and disrespectful to the band. This is the kind of music that only happens when a kid from Yale with a big vocabulary, great taste in music and a broad musical education decides to make indie rock records. The result is mash-up of well appointed classical strings, unusual choral and vocal timings, synth-based electronic beats, and incredibly diverse guitar lines. This is art rock for those with a pop sensibility.

“Bitte Orca” is one part Jeff Buckley, one part “Graceland,” and part ’77 era Talking Heads. Any attempt to describe what happens over the course of the album’s nine songs could be seen as misleading: broadly dance music, but nothing I would know how to dance too, but then something way more precious and chamber music-like, best relegated to a drawing room, and then vocal gymnastics not really definable at all. The only real thread for me is that all directions initiated within these songs lead to and start from somewhere I can comfortably call brilliant. 

Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

fightened.jpgI am a huge sucker for that occasional ‘big’ sounding rock band not yet big enough for me to immediately discount, yet melodic enough to enjoy as some sort of profoundly guilty pleasure without the guilt. Unfortunately armed with a silly name, sure to polarize audiences, Frightened Rabbit are a Scottish band who seem like long lost soul mates to Ireland’s Frames, Scotland’s Snow Patrol or even the recently pop-afflicted Okkervil River.

But to be clear this is large, emotive, and crescendo building rock record, but I don’t care. If not for the recurrent use of the F word, the song “Keep Yourself Warm” would blow up through the blogosphere right into the dreaded world of commercial radio. Perhaps this is why they jinxed the song in such a way. Of all the finds you are not likely to stumble upon, do seek this out!   
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The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)

helio.jpgBarely a month into 2008 and we already have a contender for the best record of the year. This is a soaring emotive affair filled with songs as ambitious as those of “War” era U2, and complete with an often oddly familiar sounding guitar riffs and vocals that almost allude to those of a much younger Bono. But having never seen the band live, it is hard to imagine how a two piece band can create songs at this scale. Unlike the other guitar and drum dominated duos like the White Stripes or Black Keys, The Helio Sequence creates complex song structures that remind you more of the shoegazing serenity of My Bloody Valentine, than they do of more stripped down and direct rock outfits. Like the great studio bands of the 70’s (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, etc.), there is a purity and a clarity that seems refreshing in an age of electronica.

The ten songs on “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” begin with big rock anthems and end in the form of a quiet folky acoustic numbers akin to what you can hear sprinkled throughout the later career Replacements albums. The band is equally capable on both ends of the spectrum, capturing both the intimacy and emotion but making sure each carefully crafted song leaves enough room for easy joy. Like labelmates Band of Horses, this is a record for people who love melody and harmony, and appreciate bands who study the history of rock and continue to add to the legacy.
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