Well, this is awkward...almost halfway through April and I'm just putting out March's best. I have quite a lot of catching up to do. But never mind that now, it's never too late for good (and fairly new) music! March was loaded with the stuff, with several big name veterans such as The Strokes, Devendra Banhart and Suede putting out solid records that didn't even make the list. Bigger names such as Justin Timberlake and David Bowie led the pack in terms of anticipation, but not always in quality. Like any month, there were many, many surprises along the way. Here's to the start of Spring!
Honorable Mentions: Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (RCA), Josh Rouse - The Happiness Waltz (Yep Roc), Javelin - Hi Beams (Luaka Bop), Julian Lynch - Lines (Underwater Peoples), Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum)
10. Wavves - Afraid of Heights (Mom + Pop/Warner Bros.)
Wavves, the punk/surf rock project of San Diego's Nathan Williams, has had a tumultuous five years of addiction issues, meltdowns and lineup changes. Williams seems to have weathered the storm with "Afraid of Heights", his first output since 2011's "Life Sux" EP and his fourth album overall, but only just. Album opener "Sail to the Sun" opens with a mocking cuteness complete with glockenspiel, then promptly charges forward with a hook about "dying alone just the way we live, in a grave". Though "Heights" bares more than a slight sonic resemblance to early 90's grunge--a ways away from Wavves' lo-fi origins--"Sun" and most everything else is classic Wavves, still focusing on his bread and butter of feeling lonely and getting high.
Key Track: Lunge Forward
9. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
Birmingham, Alabama-native Katie Crutchfield may be 24, but the high-school anxiety and grief riddled throughout her sophomore effort belies her age. "Cerulean Salt" is not a bedroom project like her debut, but comes close; it was recorded in Philadelphia in a group house where she lives with her sister and their boyfriends, drummer Keith Spencer and producer Kyle Gilbride, respectively. That intimacy plays into the confessions of "Salt", as if Crutchfield could bare her soul only to those closest to her. There are drums on eight on the thirteen tracks, but some of the highlights such as "You're Damaged" and "Blue Pt. II" thankfully leave Crutchfield be, bringing out the somber southern twang in her voice. Though she is still looking back, Crutchfield has a startling maturity to her songwriting.
Key Track: Coast to Coast
8. Suuns - Images du Futur (Secretly Canadian)
Whether Suuns knows it or not, they are in the business of breaking barriers. The Montreal quartet mixes deep, unsettling electronics into a dark, almost nihilistic experimental rock format. That's a combination that most bands never dream of pulling off, let alone making it work. "Mirror Mirror" would sound like a clearer late 80's My Bloody Valentine track if it wasn't punctuated by fluttering and screeching synths, the latter straight from "Homework"-era Daft Punk. At the same time, "Sunspot" and "Bambi" sound like Sunns trying to reconcile dank art rock and minimal house. It's true that industrial sounding electronics are nothing new, but pitting them up against stellar indie rock guitar and singer Ben Shemie's Thom Yorke-esque mumurs is another matter altogether.
Key Track: 2020
7. The Men - New Moon (Sacred Bones)
The rate at which Brooklyn quintet the Men release albums these days--four in the last four years--is almost as blistering as their music. Yet "New Moon", released 364 days after their 3rd album "Open Your Heart", surprisingly opens with "Open the Door", a piano and organ led, country-sounding song. The next few songs continue to borrow from unexpected areas, such as 70's rock on "Half Angel Half Light", without letting go of their trademark roughness. And just when you think that the band has gone country rock for good, they pummel you with "The Brass". It's exciting to see a band find new ground so effortlessly, even incorporating Wurlitzer and harmonica with the ease of seasoned veterans on "Bird Song". They're using older influences, but the Men sound newer than ever.
Key Track: The Brass
6. DJ Koze - Amygdala (Pampa)
The amygdala is a section of the brain that processes memory and emotional reactions. Hamburg-native Stefan Kozalla, who records under the name DJ Koze, must want that section to be completely overwhelmed. Unlike many of his genre, Kozalla puts an eccentric personality (the album cover says it all) at the forefront of his music. Yet it's clear with "Amygdala" that he has a certain magnetism and vision in his work, recruiting big names such as Caribou and Matthew Dear for the album. Minimal techno forms the backbone of this record, but its layers and chopped-up vocals often make it veer into full-blown house. "Das Wort" even morphs into such a lush yet nostalgic rush (complete with Marvin Gaye sample) that it would make the Avalanches blush. Expansive and colorful, "Amygdala" is quite a ride.
Key Track: Magical Boy
5. Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia (Kill Rock Stars)
New York's Marnie Stern has shredded and finger picked her way through four albums and considerable critical acclaim as a technically gifted musician. All of Stern's guitar prowess is still apparent on "The Chronicles of Marnia", but things have changed. Along with a new drummer in Kid Millions from Oneida, her vocals are clearer then ever and the guitar parts are not as layered. But with well-crafted songs such as "Year of the Glad", which proves to be undeniably catchy with its pervasive "Yaw eee eee", Stern makes you want to hear every detail instead of washes of distortion. There may be more space in "Chronicles", but it's never squandered. "Still Moving" serves as somewhat of a punk waltz with many stops and starts, finding a way to capture as much energy as her previous work.
Key Track: Year of the Glad
4. Phosphorescent - Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, has been gradually gaining steam as a singer-songwriter ever since his debut in 2003. After ten years, six albums and recently personal troubles, the hard work has payed off: "Muchacho" is the big one. Houck's indie folk has been good, but not this good. In fact, the album is sometimes stunning for what is absent. Instead of the expected guitar, "Song for Zula" takes a string section and subtle electronics, sounding like a country Jens Lekman. "Terror in the Canyons" also surprises as a soft country ballad that later swells into a majestic chorus with strings and trumpet. The vocal harmonies can't help but recall Fleet Foxes at some points, even though they are kept from the forefront. However, Houck's assured and bold songwriting is what drives "Muchacho".
Key Track: A Charm / A Blade
3. David Bowie - The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
As the ultimate musical chameleon and one of the greatest rock artists of all time, a new album from David Bowie completely devoid of promotion and a following tour is surprising to say the least. All we know is that he got the itch again after 10 years of silence. "Here I am, not quite dying" he says on the title track. On the contrary, "The Next Day" is Bowie as alive as he's been in 30 years. The ambitious range of the album gives it an extra power, as if he's been digesting music trends of the last ten years. The halting, saxophone-driven "Dirty Boys" is a mile away from the rollicking dance-punky "If You Can See Me", for instance. "Where Are We Now?" with its strange, circular chord changes and "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" with its jagged and dissonant guitar riff also make a great one-two punch of singles. While it's impossible to compare "Next Day" to his 70's output, the new album only expands and deepens Bowie's wonderful career.
Key Track: The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
2. Rhye - Woman (Innovative Leisure)
Who is Rhye? We know now that Rhye is the downtempo R&B duo of Canadian electronic musician and vocalist Mike Milosh and Danish electronic musician Robin Hannibal, but they didn't let us know at first. We didn't even know if a boy or girl was singing due to Milosh's breathy, highly androgynous voice. After a mutual appreciation of each other's work and independent moves to the U.S., the duo is now based in Los Angeles with "Woman" as their debut album. There's something very miraculous about this collaboration, and it may be the best debut album of its kind since "xx". Though "Woman" is similar to The xx among other artists, the ten tracks they put forward are unmistakably warmer and sweeter. The first track "Open" sets the tone, using muted electronics and snaps as a bed for Milosh, letting out a sultry croon of "I'm a fool" to his lover. "Shed Some Blood" and "The Fall" use the same formula, drawing from quiet yet constant syncopation to drive the songs while also showing a bit of anxiety. It is this kind of tenderness and attention to detail that makes "Woman" so excellent.
Key Track: Shed Some Blood
1. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union)
In his 45 years of life, John Grant has had more than his fair share of trials and tribulations. He grew up as a gay man in a homophobic Midwestern environment, then experienced severe drug and alcohol addiction after moving to Colorado as a member of alternative rock band The Czars. Even after his stunning 2010 debut "Queen of Denmark", he was diagnosed as HIV-positive last year. How can you experience so much pain and not fall into a crippling depression? In Grant's case, he was able to cope with his past demons by openly confessing them on "Denmark" and now "Pale Green Ghosts". Yet while "Denmark" was recorded with indie rock band Midlake, "Ghosts" is a result of a retreat to Iceland and a collaboration with Gus Gus, the country's pioneering electronic artist. It's then no surprise that electronics pop up throughout the album, but their effectiveness with Grant's sonorous baritone is still startling. "Blackbelt" and "Sensitive New Age Guy" work extremely well with a driving yet dark techno beat and Grant's disparaging remarks about his ex-boyfriend. "GMF" and "Glacier" are more like his previous work, but the echoing depth of the former and the string swells of the latter are further proof that "Ghosts" is not so much an album as it is a tour de force.
Key Track: Pale Green Ghosts