With the rise of music streaming services, it’s easier than ever for artists to get their music out there. Of course, that means a lot more to sift through to find your favorites. Here’s mine from this year:
Durand Jones & The Indications – American Love Call – Vintage late-60s/early-70s style soul music of the highest order. The songs are as tightly written as Motown classics, but performed with the direct, down-home passion of the finest from Stax/Volt. Durand Jones has an ideal soul voice — a nice balance of grit and honey. But the band’s secret weapon is drummer Aaron Frazer, who provides co-lead and harmony vocals in a falsetto that would do Smokey Robinson and Frankie Valli proud. His steady snare sound is also high in the mix, backed by sweeping strings, in-the-pocket bass, and the occasional chiming guitar — think Al Jackson, Jr. and the Hi Records band that backed Al Green on his biggest hits. I invoke the names of these soul music touchstones, because even though this band came together as crate-digging aficionados of soul music, this is not some tribute band — this band is a true revival — worthy of consideration alongside the soul/R&B influences that spawned it.
Gang Starr – One Of The Best Yet – DJ Premier finally secures the rights to some of Guru’s final studio recordings, and builds an album that stands as a worthy tribute to the late MC and their partnership. Premier sounds like, well, Premier, which is actually pretty stark and fresh versus modern hip-hop beats, and several of Guru’s raps hit with that old school intensity. Premier brings in a mix of old friends and modern proteges as guest MCs, who fill in the gaps admirably. This is not the place to start with Gang Starr, and it’s probably not going to supplant their 90s classics for most people, but I think it’s better than The Ownerz from 2003, and nearly a decade on from Guru’s death, stands as a reminder that they are among the true hip-hop greats — one of the best yet, indeed.
White Reaper – You Deserve Love – They started out as scuzzy, independent, low-fi power-pop and now, after signing to a major label, are set to take their shot at the “big time”. Of course, their brand of melodic hard-rock and power-pop had it’s heyday decades ago with bands like Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, and The Cars all of whom are undoubted influences. But credit the band for writing a solid set of songs, and letting the melodies breathe by not keeping the guitars cranked to 11 all the time (like they did on their last release). The resulting album is one of their best. Rock may be for old people now, but this is an album that can be appreciated by both teenagers and their Dads.
Chromatics – Closer To Grey – Their scuttled album Dear Tommy has become like Smile by the Beach Boys or The Black Album by Prince — a lost gem, perhaps to be released sometime in the future and heralded as a masterpiece. In its place we get Closer To Grey which may seem underwhelming at first, given the hype around its unreleased predecessor, but other than a couple of songs sounding rushed/underdeveloped, it’s another solid Chromatics album. The sound is built around Johnny Jewel’s patented low BPM thump paired with cinematic synths/production and topped off with Ruth Radelet’s breathy croon. Chromatics always aim to make their music a soundtrack to an unwritten noir film and they succeed yet again.
Bleached – Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough – L.A. style punk-influenced pop band, led by the Clavin sisters. Something like a modern version of the Go-Go’s or Blondie. They’ve got a knack for catchy melodies/choruses and an uncommon songwriting touch that makes some of their more typical subject matter seem distinctly personal and real. The album is a grower — definitely snuck up on me to become one of my favorites.
Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride – Vampire Weekend return with a bit of a stylistic shake-up. Previous albums fused indie-rock grooves with African and world-music styles, similar to Talking Heads. They are still blending some of the same styles, but front man Ezra Koenig has taken the lead role. They are following the singer-songwriter path — their muse seems to be Paul Simon more so than David Byrne this time around. The songs mostly succeed, and the best, “Harmony Hall” and “This Life”, are simply fantastic. There’s a few filler tracks that could have been left off to make the album a tighter package, but overall this is another winner from Vampire Weekend.
Mike Mains & The Branches – When We Were In Love – Indie rockers deliver their finest album, an autobiographical song cycle about true love, infidelity, depression, forgiveness, and redemption told from the perspective of lead singer/songwriter Mike Mains about his marriage to band member Shannon Mains. He’s clearly a man of faith, as evidenced by the religious references and genuine regret, angst, and depression he feels at what he has done. It’s his wife’s forgiveness that allows him to emerge from the darkness a new man and a better husband. To his credit, he documents a difficult time in their relationship with a clear-eyed viewpoint and he and the band ensure that every song has a cracking, ultra-catchy melody. It’s easy to enjoy the earworm tunes without truly digging into the emotional core, but it’s an album that rewards a deeper dive.
Operators –Radiant Dawn – Sophomore release for the 1980s-style electronic side-project of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. Lyrically the album continues an exploration of the dark side of the 80s — fear of nuclear apocalypse, ennui, helplessness, mental illness, nihilism. But all of Boeckner’s lyrical bleakness is countered by an upbeat bounciness in all the songs, as if a Jane Fonda workout might help cure all that ails him. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the album more interesting than the typical 80s revival. I prefer it to the more recent work from his main band.
Cigarettes After Sex – Cry – Hypnotic ambient pop built around languid tempos, gentle bass throb, minimalist percussion, wispy, echoing guitars and the idiosyncratic song styling of Greg Gonzalez. His androgynous tenor is mixed front and center, effectively setting the stage for his heartfelt vignettes of love, lust, and loss. Sometimes his lyrics can be a little clunky, but when it all connects, it creates an enchanting mood. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but this album was a definite late-night addiction for me. If you like it, make sure to check out their self-titled debut album as well.
Mark Feldman’s Level 5 – Sybil [EP] – I love instrumental jazz/funk, e.g. Booker T. & The MGs, The Meters, The JB’s, Medeski, Martin & Wood, etc. The Sybil EP from Mark Feldman’s Level 5 is the best I’ve heard recently. Feldman is a noted drummer and drum teacher in NY, who recorded the EP with noted session bassist Will Lee, guitarst Oz Noy, and Adam Klipple on keys. Credit to Noy for writing a solid and memorable set of songs that serve as a durable base, allowing the improvisational skills of all four contributors to shine. Everything is instrumental, but as with the best ones, each song seems to have a very distinct story. In particular, the sudden segue of swinging funk to heavy-metal crunch in the title track is a brilliant wordless description of a psychotic mood swing. Here’s to hoping for more from this group, though it looks like this may have been a one-off, at least with these specific musicians.
The Hold Steady – Thrashing Through The Passion
Hatchie – Keepsake
The National – I Am Easy To Find
WESTKUST – WESTKUST
Chic – The Chic Organization 1977-1979
The Police – Every Move You Make: The Studio Recordings
O.M.D. – Souvenir: The Singles Collection 1979-2019
Prince – 1999 (Deluxe Edition)
The Springfields – Singles 1986-1991