The Bestest, Tunage 2012

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 [Read more…]

Coachella: Beautiful music, not enough bandwidth …

I’ve been going to Coachella for many years now and I have also been to almost every other festival of its kind, but somehow Coachella is different. In many ways, depending how you play it and like all great festivals, Coachella can be a genuinely spiritual experience. It is not just about the groove of any individual set, but the overall vibe of the festival that continues on a beautiful three-day loop. First, the painted desert surrounded by exposing mountain views cultivates a surreal dream-like state. Then there’s Coachella’s programming that for certain kinds of music fans (i.e. indie rock, electronica, and certain flavors of hip-hop), there’s just no comparison.

Other festivals cater to different musical preferences. Bonnaroo and Outside Lands favors rootsier rosters. JazzFest speaks for itself and draws an eclectic crowd. The ACL and Lollapalooza line-ups appeal to broader audiences whereas smaller festivals like Picthfork and Sasquatch are hyper-focused on the indie hardcore. There’s even Ultra and Electric Daisy that focus on electronic and dance. It’s all good because regardless of what people prefer, it’s just important that they see live music, whatever the flavor, as often as possible.

The resurgence of musical festivals in the US is worth noting because of three major cultural drivers. First, there is a desire for like-minded people to converge into communities and experience their passions ‘together’ despite the connected yet impersonal society we live in (see Sherry Turkles’ “Connected, but alone?” talk at the TED conference this year).

Second, efficient and popular social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and, the subject of my last year’s Coachella update, Instagram (now Facebook) enable artists to communicate with fans. For the first time ever, indie musicians are using social media to build massive followings and reach audiences that would have been impossible 5 years ago.

Finally, landmark changes to the amenities have altered the overall experience of these outdoor gatherings. Music festivals have evolved into legitimate cultural events complete with diverse food options (Korean BBQ, a poutine truck, and fish tacos), ever-creative art installations, and a mass convergence of the creative class.

So, it’s clear that people need, crave and want events like Coachella to look forward to and organize around. They want to drop out of real life and immerse themselves in a different world for three glorious days. But these same people, now hooked on the most potent drug in the world – the internet, “expect” to be able to publish all of their experiences to the broader virtually-connected world and in real time. But just when the urge to share seems strongest, you notice one bar on your phone and the moment passes without a chirp. We’re all accustomed to the sea of bright “fail notices” pulsing brightly from smartphones during concerts and festivals. Mobile users are now accustomed to their favorite apps failing at large events – Foursquare, Instragram, Twitter, and our own TastemakerX Music app struggle with this and just when you want to use them.

Perhaps if festivals weren’t the ripest place on earth to harvest legitimately interesting content, photos, videos, deep thoughts, shallow thoughts, occasional moments for real clarity, it would be easier to accept, but we now have these amazing apps, so not being able to use them is frustrating, preoccupying and time seemingly tragic. As much as we’d like to just blame AT&T for incompetency, the problem, although addressable, is also a non-trivial task. It’s a complex problem and one hand, deprives the world of incredible content and on the other, spares us from a mountain of banality. Either way, one thing is clear: we live in a world where people want and need to share.

Back to the festival, because in the end I go for the endless sea of exquisite music that bathes the Coachella Valley in visible waves of passion (and not the functionality of my mobile apps). This year the unusually cold weather cast a vastly different vibe than the survivalist mindset caused by the scorching temperatures in the desert. Most years the quest for shade dictates your every move but this year, the quest for warmth was the serious consideration: indoor tents over outdoor stages, warm earthy music over thumping dance sets.

Day 1: And so it begins. My Coachella 2012 began Friday afternoon with youthful Dinosaur Jr. revivalists Yuck, playing a tight homage to past and present. Coachella’s trademark juxtaposition of old and new is always interesting, so one must see James for a song or two to see how they have held up, and they did just fine. And then there was the groovy chill wave of Neon Indian playing to the kind of crowd that signals this band will only get bigger, hipsters shaking there hips and head in uniform synchronicity. Next to the throwback guitar genius of Gary Clark Jr., whose Hendrix meets Shuggie Otis and Stevie Ray Vaughn in 2012 energy neutralizes the pounding deep house directly next store. Some artists are born rock stars, and others will it into existence. Gary Clark has a bit of both. This bleeds right into a few tracks from one of the last living reggae legends- Jimmy Cliff, decked out in a gold suit and sounding as smooth as ever despite his 64 years. “The Harder They Come” has never sounded better.

Then the strongest back-to-back sets of the festival commenced with the ethereal modernism of Girls, a near genius San Francisco band who mixes the pop songwriting of Elvis Costello with the introspective intensity of the Velvet Underground. Next up, the bright and beautiful Americana rock of Dawes, accessible like Jackson Brown, while still edgy enough to appeal to critical fans. Also performing was Wu Lyf, the raspy, percussive Manchester new-wavers with the growl of Tom Waits and the dark energy of Joy Division. Shivering in the desert night, Pulp played nostalgically to a large crowd, followed by Mazzy Star who performed their first live set in over a decade blissfully into the night. The Black Keys sucked most of the festival towards the main stage as they pounded out bluesy rock tune after bluesy rock tune (which they single handedly resuscitated back into the mainstream).

Coachella is as much about serendipity as anything else so mind-blowing instrumentals of Explosions In the Sky, just kind of happen as you drift from stage to stage following the magnetic energy. Occasionally, bands are assigned to stages they have already outgrown, as was the case with M83. Crowds spilled out of the Mojave Stage and established M83 as one of the most anticipated acts of the festival (Yes, they are great. Believe the hype). The rest of the evening belonged to Swedish House Mafia, where massive beats pounded throughout the night to what seemed like all 100,000 Coachella attendees. Although I get the appeal, I prefer a different cup of tea.

Day 2: With the threat of rain now over and despite temperatures colder than I can remember, this was one of the best single Coachella days in quite a while. The soft jazz indie music of Destroyer was the perfect way to reenter the day, followed by the Brit wave rockers, The Big Pink, who pick up a bit where Coldplay left off after “Parachutes.” This was followed by the old school rock of Grace Potter, and the much-heralded reunion of fIREHOSE. Then things got serious. The Head and the Heart, still my favorite band of 2011, just keeps getting better before my eyes (it’s a good sign when everybody in the crowd knows every word to every song). Kaiser Chiefs played during the last bit of warm sun, and proved to be perfect music for the yoga session my posse spontaneously started on the grass beside me. Andrew Bird’s orchestral pop-smithing bled nicely into the sublime folk of Laura Marling, who at 22, sings with remarkable old soul wisdom.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated set featuring Neutral Milk Hotel (aka Jeff Mangum) playing solo occurred on a stage that was too big and at a time that was too late in the day. He’s a genius but one that requires more intimacy than the Outdoor Stage could provide. St. Vincent, an art-rock goddess who exists between Bjork and PJ Harvey, ripped into a swirling frenzy while, on the main stage, The Shins played to a crowd acquainted with almost every lyric. Feist played up against Bon Iver, the folkie from nowhere to Grammy-winning savant. Iver performed one of the most blissful sets of the festival, well beyond the preciousness he exudes in the studio. Yet despite a day filled with incredible, passionate, inspired, creative music, it quickly became evident that there’s everybody and then there is Radiohead. No live band on the planet touches the intensity, complexity, and range as they do. Really.

Day 3: The weather was hot and welcomed. Saturday night went late and the first show of the day was Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, big mountains of seminal Afrobeat under and blazing son from Fela’s youngest son. Santigold ripped away at her infectious genre-defying blend of punk, dance, electronica on the main stage next door. In some ways, one of my favorite sets of the weekend was the blissful dreamy guitar rock of Real Estate because it gave me an excuse to merely sway rather than dance after I had found some shade. Phone cameras were snapping mightily but the web was nowhere to be found. Fitz and The Tantrums played a typically upbeat set while Wild Flag proved, once again, that girls totally rock. Thundercat’s Afro-funk jammed and was the logical primer for Parliament/P-Funk.

It’s not often, but occasionally Coachella “miss-stages” acts but validating how good they are and the pace at which this band blew up (thanks to “Somebody That I Used to Know,”) the crowd at Gotye was massive (M83 was similar). Every year there’s a band like this. Last year it was Foster The People. Beirut played another one of my favorite sets of the weekend with Balkan brass blazing, real instruments bumping up against the distant sounds of Girl Talk, blasting into the night. My favorite electronic show of the festival was also a brilliant and fitting close to it. DJ Shadow mixed his signature genre bending beats with a guest shot from Zach de la Rocha. As we walked back towards the main stage, Florence was entertaining most of what was left of the festival. She’s good and will probably end up closer to Madonna than Bjork, but I am okay with that. By the time Snoop and Dre hit the stage with the hologram of Tupac and more guests than a Johnny Carson episode, I was sated. And so it ended, at least until Friday because for the first time ever Coachella added a second weekend.

As all this occurred in the Indio Valley, people could watch the YouTube live stream from their homes. At one point, the audience peaked at hundreds of thousands of people from around the world watching the festival in real-time. This virtual audience is growing exponentially every year and I believe it’s a very good thing. Music is  inherently social and intensely personal. For some, the festival is purely social, with music as the backdrop. For me, it is all about music, from beginning to end, genre to genre, all day and all night. But like the web, to fully experience the right parts of the festival you need a Sherpa. Someone or some way to better know what you need to see. Social platforms are one way, but as I mentioned, they are tough to use in highly populated and bandwidth constrained environments. I know this will change, and for the sake of TastemakerX, Soundtracking and other platforms best used at live events, I hope it happens soon.

In the end the chance to spend 3 days, wandering from stage to stage, in the presence of genius, show after show many times over is an enormous privilege. You are showered in song and surrounded by the pure joy that music inspires in people. It is easy to forget how many people love the music you love, until you stand in tents and around stages with thousands of people wearing the same immensely satisfied smile on their faces as they are transcended at least for a moment into a completely different place.

Music Matters

If I were to look back at my life and choose the one thing that has mattered the most and defined me as a person, without question it would be music. I’m not sure when it started but somehow, imagined or real, I have this vague but powerful image of myself as a child riffling through the records housed in an antique armoire belonging to my parents and stumbling upon the curious cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I asked my father to drop the needle on the record, and within moments my life changed. The scratchy, groove worn melodies began to flow from the old speakers right into the rest of my life. I was transfixed, or so I imagine it to have been.

Ever since that day, music was the one thing I could always depend on. Music is a drug, any drug you need it to be at any given time: Prozac, ecstasy, aspirin, vicodin, dopamine, or caffeine. Despite the fact that taken in the right doses it is often habit forming, music is not a pill. Those familiar sounds carry with it memories, the times and places all but forgotten, triggered by a few notes or choruses. It transports you back to great loves, crippling breakups, perfect summer nights, endless road trips, or the birth of a child. There is nothing in this world that even comes close to the associative power carried in song.

Beginning with REM’s “Chronic Town,” the mournful optimism of anything by the The Smiths, Nick Drake’s gorgeous “Bryter Layter,” Jeff Buckley’s heroic “Grace,” Neutral Milk Hotel’s astonishing “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea,” Midlake’s soulful “The Trials of Van Occupanther,” to the blissful eponymous Fleet Foxes debut, these are a few of the records that comprise the soundtrack of my life. Everyone has one but most people they don’t play theirs enough.

The first thing I did after getting my drivers license, was drive 30 miles to Cleveland to a record store that was light years better than the one in my small Ohio town, or the chain store in the nearby mall. This was a ritual that continued until recently when I finally relented and began to embrace that infinite record store in the sky. These trips were literally journeys towards self-discovery. The vinyl and CD fruits of each of these voyages changed my life a little bit every time.

There are also those incredibly transcendent moments when you find yourself standing before a stage of musicians who are so completely in the moment, so at ease with each other and the crowd before them. If I were religious, I suppose these moments would be those moments. You are somehow transported to a different, better place, at least for a short period.

My eldest child has been sick for years. When I look back at how I have dealt with the helplessness that I have felt there are only two things that helped me get through it: the smile he wears so effortlessly and music. I have no idea what else I would turn to in its place. Somehow the two together have helped me see life in a different way than I could have possibly expected.

But music is also a game. For some it is the game of “I discovered that band first.” This is ammunition of hours and hours of spirited debate. For others it is the game of trying to figure out another person, and steering them towards that perfect record that they didn’t know existed. There is no better feeling than turning someone on to that album that might change his or her life, or at least brighten a day. The best part of the game of music is that it never ends. Every day there is another great band or album to discover. For every current artist there is a new record or tour to look forward to someday.

And so, after four decades of trying to fit a passion into a profession, TastemakerX will launch, beta warts and all. It’s a game about music, for anybody who cares about music, or wishes that he or she still had time to stay tuned in like they did when they were young. If I were a doctor at the top of the list of daily musts, along with fruits and vegetables, I’d prescribe at least one uninterrupted song a day or one album a week listened to front to back, away from the internet, just the music playing. It doesn’t matter what you choose, music is a kind of food for your soul. Just listen intently, voraciously and to as much as you can.

The Bestest 2011– Tunage

If you look hard enough, any year can turn out to be a great one for music. Long gone are the days when commercial radio called the shots, when proximity to a killer record store or access to a suitable tastemaker could serve as an excuse for embracing mediocrity. Spotify is finally stateside. Record stores hardly exist anymore. Pandora is available in some cars. Satellite radio has XMU. You can hear KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on your phone. You can listen to your iPod over Bluetooth on a Jambox. You can push your 500+ gig collection to anywhere over Sonos. Coachella, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Outside Lands … so many festivals, so little time. There is simply no excuse not to take advantage of turning on to something truly life affirming. 2011 was another year steeped in brilliant, resurgent, rootsy Americana indie rock. There was also the emergence of some incredible new female voices, and a healthy dose of chill wave electronica. In the end music can make the world go round, so plug in, life is too quiet without it.

1) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (Sub Pop)

The greatness of some bands is immediately apparent. A few chords, a few harmonies, and you are hooked emotionally with melodies tattooed on your mind for the balance of the day or week. I have been listening to this masterpiece for almost a year now since its release in January of 2011, a year in which I have seen them four times, each a bit better than the time before. Like the love child of Mumford and the Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart is both pop enough to eventually become a massive hit, but with enough indie cred for tastemakers to keep coming back for the follow up, hopefully for a long time . The band is a five piece band, three of whom trade equally compelling vocals.

This record is part of the new Americana rock movement that emphasizes 70’s harmonizing, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and thematic preoccupations with nature and love. I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I have little idea how big this band has gotten over the past half year, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a record for the ages for those into folk, pop, jam, or indie rock. The production is warm and earthy, while the songwriting both harkens back and is very modern in a dusty respectful way with soaring melodies and chorus’ that build into rainbows of joy. This is a very special record indeed.

2) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)

There are few artists who growl as beautifully as Ellery Roberts from WU LYF.  In fact Tom Waits, “The Pogues”, Shane McGowen, and Captain Beefheart might be the only ones. But WU LYF, a self-produced Manchester band, hits you immediately like an emotional ton of bricks, although you are left a bit uneasy trying to get your balance right. Musically, things seem familiar enough, big distant sounding percussion which builds little by little with every song, sparse keyboard sounds emerging now and then, with a kind of bright melodic guitar line holding it all together. Hard to place, familiar, but really like nothing you have heard before.

But back to the vocals. I’m still unsure whether to try to focus hard enough to understand the gruff emotive howls, or just let it go and let the words pour over me like a beautiful but indistinct instrument. On “Dirt,” my vote for the signature track, you get this euphoric and transcendent musical groove swirling, and every once in a while you catch a lyric or two that you can understand, but then, as quickly as you caught it, it disappears. That is the beauty of WU LYF who flirt dangerously close with the traditional but then mess with it just enough to make it too weird for those not willing to let go. On “Concrete Gold” you latch onto a familiar enough sounding guitar, but realize that so much is happening behind the surface you can’t resist getting sucked in. So is life (or LYF).

3) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)

Some artists are born to rock while others will it into existence. Some do both. At 21 Laura Marling is a student of rock history taking equal parts Fairport Convention, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, and blending them into some of the starkest, sultriest folk rock in decades. She has the dusty weathered voice of a wounded angel, and the sensibility of Led Zeppelin, often beginning with a few gentle strums before erupting into cacophony of hard driving rock.

On the transcendent “The Beast” and “Salinas”, you are tricked into expecting something hushed and acoustic, but quickly drawn into something dark and beautiful. In an age where Adele and Gaga rule the airwaves, Marling seems satisfied with channeling the blues and transforming it into something altogether bigger, badder, and ultimately better.

4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguar)

I am a total sucker for sparse emotive indie folk. Heartbreaking mythology now a few years behind Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma,” Justin Vernon’s follow-up is a much thicker, schmaltzier masterpiece. A self-confessed lover of Bruce Hornsby and all things almost beyond ironically cool, “Bon Iver” is a richly textured road through small towns like “Calgary” and “Perth.”

Like his most supergroup side project Gayngs (whose 2010 full length is, in some ways, even better) this record is a silky smooth affair, gliding on the confident calm of Vernon’s occasional falsetto. In some ways this album suffered from over play, stuck in my car CD player for months, but it is rare to hear a song as simultaneously moving and cool as “Holocene.” It is hard not to be rooting for and hoping that this is the beginning of a long and lush career.

5) elbow - build a rocket boys (XL)

Tragically for most people, elbow seems like a new band, but in truth they have been around for a dozen years cranking out moody crescendo-bending music. I have always loved brit pop, starting with the Manchester Factory records, the ethereal bliss of 4AD in its prime, and through the historic Creation records. So it is no surprise that the only still viable keepers of this flame, elbow, with “build a rocket boys” has reawakened such a wonderful nerve. As easy as it is to fall in love with the recorded songs, to see this band live, complete with a singer whose angelic, soaring almost operatic voice defies his physical likeness to Ricky Gervais, is to truly understand them. At the Austin City Limits festival this year after the longest draught in Texas history, a few songs worth of much needed and beautiful rain fell from the sky as this band had the crowd swaying hands up and fingers approximating the fall from above. A beautiful moment.

The ten songs here all tend to build from lush and fragile to full flung explorations of sound and emotion, most notably the opening track “the birds” and “with love” that begin innocently enough before exploding into something other-worldly. In the end whether you have been tracking this band from the beginnings as serious, perhaps moderately pretentious yet immature art rockers, yet still serious and fully formed musicians, or you just drop in on them this time around, they are something to behold.

6) Girls – Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matador)

Full disclosure, I am an unabashed zealot for Girls. Their debut record and follow-up EP topped my lists for the past two years. This time out, the band travels even darker and deeper into themselves than their previous two brightly lit trips to paradise lost. As in previous efforts, they alternate between long brooding epics like the incredible “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” and lighthearted Beach Boys meets Elvis Costello ditties like “Honey Bunny” and “Alex.”

Christopher Owens, the principal songwriter and guitarists, is a true morbid savant. He is a musician whose troubled upbringing has made him both wiser than his young soul should be, but also still innocent enough to make you really care. Whether or not he becomes the next Brian Wilson or Lou Reed, the music of Girls is a real treasure, worthy of patient honest reflection.

7) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Universal Island)

Of all the female rockers to emerge from the early 90’s, only PJ Harvey is  still down her own dark dirty road, still hungry and creative. In many ways she is like a soul mate to Tom Waits, never at a loss for words or emotion, complete with raucous percussion, and embracing experience and translating it into words, accompanied for the first time in a decade, and creating genuinely accessible bliss.

Tunes like “This Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are infectious grooves, while she lets down her grizzled guard on ballads like “On Battleship Hill” and “Hanging on a Wire” making it easy to jump aboard and bathe in light. Some records have the power to rip you out of a moment and transport you to a wildly different place. “Let England Shake” is very special and proof that youth isn’t wasted on the young.

8) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before a bunch of bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies and their mid-70’s meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists like Mumford, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect – earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, they recorded these songs, scrapped and rerecorded them a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” and the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a tremendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many will grow to love it more with each passing year.

9) Real Estate – Days (Domino)

Some music fights its way into your psyche while others merely roll over you like waves of joy and calm. Real Estate is the latter, a convertible on a summer day with music playing while the breeze blows through your hair. The band is kindred spirits to fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies (“It’s Real”) but with a hint of the jangly poppiness of Luna or early REM (“Easy”).

“Days” is equal parts tranquility and infectious guitar bliss. There is a certain effortless precision that spills from Real Estate songs, like a peaceful homage to the simplicity of youth and a peaceful suburban childhood. This is a record that asks very little of the listener but gives so much.

10) A Band of Bees – Every Step’s A Yes (ATO)

I will start by saying A Band of Bees is easily my favorite band from the Isle of Wight. Despite owning all of their prior efforts, I had pretty much forgotten about them until recently when this record surfaced in the “recommended” section of some forgotten mp3 blog. The resulting find is one of the best records of the year, with perhaps the best song in a decade – the “Astral Weeks” caliber “Really Need Love Now” which just keeps building on the refrain. The sixteen songs on “Every Step’s A Yes” is like a long stroll back through time with a bunch of different flavors of psychedelia from Byrd’s era entries like “Silver Line” to the string infused lullaby “Tired of Loving” to the Velvets homage “Change Can Happen.”

There is a lushness in the production here that is truly a relic of another era. This is a record for music heads, though, for all of the joy I take in hearing musical influences from Van to The Fairport Convention, this album is a sleepy, subtle orchestral journey into the past, refreshed just slightly for modern times. With its shimmering strings, woodwinds, harps, this is not merely a collection of songs but more a fully realized albums in an age that has all but forgotten what this means. Fortunately we live in a headphone world, so grab some good ones and bliss out for 75 minutes transported back to somewhere you probably haven’t ever been. [Read more…]

Dawes – Nothing is Wrong (ATO)

About ten seconds into ‘Nothing is Wrong’ you figure out that Dawes is either the next big thing, or perhaps it already is. The band is more polished than Wilco was at the beginning, and with a real knack and ambition to write legitimate pop songs – a lot like mid-career Ryan Adams. Not only are they great songwriters, with a gifted lead singer, they have a genuinely rootsy sound that is considerably more commercially accessible than Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Midlake and the rest of the modern Americana canon. In fact you’d have to go back to the California scene in the 60’s and 70’s which included the Byrds, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac to get the kind of authenticity you hear on ‘Nothing is Wrong.’

From the apropos and radio friendly opener ‘Time Spent in Los Angeles’ to the anthemic ‘My Way Back Home’ you hear greatness, both mass and indie. When the band isn’t channeling “Music From the Big Pink” they are lyrically and vocally more in sync with Jackson Browne (I say this in a good way) whose write sweet, honest largely upbeat songs about love, loss and everything in between (see ‘Fire Away). I listen to music to trigger a variety of feelings, each band and each song its own little drug to twist and contort my state of mind into a conducive place. With Dawes it’s mostly a happy pill that works every time.