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Saturday, February 9, 2013

John's Albums of the Month: January 2013

Hello everyone,
At this little blog, it's go big or go home. The other guys have made Tracks of the Moment, Picks of the Week, New Albums from Three Weeks Ago and Gentlemanly Conversations. How do I compete? Broaden the scope and the time. Every month, I will be presenting the ten albums that I thought were the best new releases from the last thirty odd days that I have heard. Of course there will be missteps and I may miss great albums, but I will do my best. The month of January was a pretty solid one for new music. Artists who disappointed in their anticipated releases were A$AP Rocky and Christopher Owens, but most delivered and impressed.

Honorable Mention: The Ruby Suns - Christopher (Sub Pop), Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up! (Stax), Nosaj Thing - Home (Innovative Leisure), Tomahawk - Oddfellows (Ipecac), Ex Cops - True Hallucinations (Other Music)

10. Toro y Moi - Anything in Return (Carpark) 

It's no secret that South Carolina-born Chaz Bundick was known as one of the major players in the chillwave movement several years ago. In his 3rd album in four years as Toro y Moi, Bundick puts forth an effective house/R&B hybrid that makes you think twice about that label. This refined sound is most overt in the opening tracks "Harm in Change" and "Say That", which throw in angular yet warm piano chords and chopped-up vocals. He shies away from these elements somewhat as the album goes on and a stab or two at a slow burner falls a little flat, but this album is too well put together to write it off as a chillwave rehash.

Key Track: Say That

9. Jose James - No Beginning No End (Blue Note)

Modern vocal jazz doesn't have many champions these days, but Jose James is definitely one of them. Signing to legendary Blue Note records further establishes that jazz is at the root of James and "No Beginning No End". The album also takes a few pages from D'Angelo's "Voodoo" (see the trumpet fills of opener "It's All Over Your Body") and its hip-hop elements. Yet James's sultry voice is always at front and center, projecting hope and comfort at worst and sublime beauty at best. It's nice to hear a jazz/hip-hop fusion that starts on the other side.

Key Track: Vanguard

8. Local Natives - Hummingbird (Frenchkiss)

With Grizzly Bear's "Shields" still fresh in everyone's mind, it's tough out there for indie rock bands with soaring vocal harmonies. That being said, L.A. band Local Natives's second album holds up pretty well. Lead singer Kelcey Ayer's range and timbre offer favorable comparisons to Robin Pecknold minus the twang. "Hummingbird" is a bit uneven and meandering at times, but when Local Natives hit their mark, they really hit it. Check the majestic chorus of "Heavy Feet" or the rollicking "Wooly Mammoth" and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Key Track: Breakers

7. Villagers - {Awayland} (Domino)

Dublin band Villagers, led by singer Conor O'Brien, have been known for their slightly eerie indie folk since their 2010 debut album "Becoming a Jackal". Nothing has changed for this sophomore effort, yet "{Awayland}" is far from stagnant. Tunes such as "Nothing Arrived" and "Passing a Message" show that this band can really drive with thundering drums and plucky bass lines while still maintaining an underlying creepiness. And while we get a showcase on what the band can do, O'Brien's vocals are still so intimate that you almost can hear every vibration of his larynx.  

Key Track: The Waves

6. Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)

This Hoboken, New Jersey trio is thirteen albums and almost three decades in, but they still manage to thrill and surprise. Their newest album "Fade" is a departure from the previous "Popular Songs" (and most of YLT's discography) in that wild eclecticism is not one of its driving factors. With new producer John McEntire at the helm, the band puts forth a world-weary and shoegaze/folky sound. This album won't blow you away any time soon; it's more of a passive beauty--like the tree on the cover--that you have to absorb. 

Key Track: Ohm

5. Broadcast - Berberian Sound Studio (Warp)

Indie electronic band Broadcast tragically lost vocalist Trish Keenan on January 14th, 2011 as they were working on the original soundtrack to Italian horror film "Berberian Sound Studio". The 39 tracks a virtual minefield where you come across things such as the sickening synth in "Mark of the Devil" and the terrific flanger drums of "The Equestrian Vortex". And the fact that remaining member James Cargill actually finished the job and filled in the gaps makes the album an even more emotional journey. When Keenan's vocals do appear on "Teresa, Lark of Ascension", you might as well have heard a real ghost.

4. Mountains - Centralia (Thrill Jockey)

The ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania is the very antithesis of Chicago, Illinois, the hometown of drone duo Mountains, but I wouldn't be surprised if that contrast alone was inspiring. Of course the synths and digital effects of electronic drone are present here (notably on "Propeller" and "Liana"), but you also get acoustic finger picking that touches on Appalachia (see "Tilt"). In all, "Centralia" continually churns and simmers even through its implied isolation, a juxtaposition that Mountains displays expertly.  

Key Track: Tilt

Guitarist Matt Mondanile has a pretty good main gig in New Jersey indie rock band Real Estate, but on "The Flower Lane" his work as Ducktails really makes a name for itself. As Steve said in his recent Pick of the Week, Mondanile sounds much more confident in his songwriting than his previous effort "Arcade Dynamics"   and that confidence pays off in a big way. Tracks such as "Ivy Covered House", "Under Cover" and "Timothy Shy" are coated in a healthy pop sheen with great instrumentation, but its the simple, pretty melodies that still shine through and stick with you.

Key Track: Under Cover

2. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (What's Your Rupture?)

This post-punk gem of an album from Brooklyn based band Parquet Courts was actually self-released in 2012, but was thankfully reissued by What's Your Rupture? in mid-January. The best thing about "Light Up Gold" is that its personality and its heart breathes fresh air into its genre even though its not doing anything particularly new. "Master of My Craft" is straight-forward punk, but once lead singer Andrew Savage launches into his distinctive "Forget about it", many preconceptions of the album you're hearing go out the window. To take the album cover as a metaphor, Parquet Courts is riding the bull of their genre with ease.

1. Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (Jagjaguwar)

Jonathan Rado and Sam France, the Agoura Hills, California duo known as Foxygen, seem to have been making retro 60's psychedelic rock obsessively for longer than anyone cares to know. It's astounding that they were "discovered" only in 2011 by producer and current Shins member Richard Swift when you know that this album is what they had in store for us. Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones head a long and dizzying list of artists that influence "WAT21CAOP&M" and especially the latter considering singer France's dead-on early-70's Mick Jagger impression. However, Foxygen make compiling this long list irrelevant because of their brilliant synthesis of a few decades worth of pop-oriented rock. Songs like "Shuggie" and "Oh No" shift between tempos and styles without a hitch, while "In The Darkness" and "San Francisco" are pretty without sounding too precious. To be honest, it'll be hard to top this one.

Key Track: Shuggie

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