Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Best of 12 So Far

I've probably said it before,  but this has already been a banner year for music. The rough draft Best of 12 Playlist I have going already has more than 20 items and I know there's lots more good stuff to come.

There's no reason to give more details about the eight albums I've reviewed so far this year (here and here) but I will say that after living with releases from Breton, Brooklyn Rider, Leonard Cohen, Field Music, Hospitality and Sleigh Bells for several months, only the Leonard Cohen has not demanded much listening. While I'm glad Old Ideas is out and Cohen is still active I just haven't felt compelled by it. The others are all still jockeying for position for that year-end countdown, especially Breton's outstanding debut album.

However, if I had to do a top 10 today, it might look something like this:

1. The Walkmen - Heaven With their sixth album of original songs, Hamilton Leithauser and co. have taken yet another great leap forward. I don't know if Leithauser went to the crossroads and sold his soul to Robin Pecknold, but touring with Fleet Foxes seems to have rubbed off on him and he is firmly one of the great American singers now. Producer Phil Ek has cleared away the wonderful haze of previous records and created a crystalline space for Leithauser to engage in some of the most open-hearted singing of his career. With a set of dynamic and dramatic songs that seem to tap into some ancient through-line of human tradition, this may be their most affecting collection yet. "My gun still shoots and my bird still sings/These tricks are tricks I learned from the king," Leithauser sings on Song For Leigh and who am I to argue?

2. Breton - Other People's Problems and Blanket Rule (EP) Catch them live if you can - they'll be back in NYC in September.

Early orders of Fear Fun came with a bonus CD-R of demos
3. Hilary Hahn & Hauschka - Silfra I've already written extensively about this collaboration in my guest post on The Glass but suffice it to say that this beautiful set of pieces brings some brand new colors into the world. They've inspired some great visuals as well.

4. Father John Misty - Fear Fun In which the man called J. Tillman blossoms into a new persona, joins forces with super-producer Jonathan Wilson and unleashes a barrage of fractured (and sometimes hilarious) Americana. While I'm curious and only slightly concerned about how Fleet Foxes are going to replace him, I am loving this record. Who could deny the wit and wisdom of a guy whose "reality is realer" than yours? And the live show? Non pareil.

5. Quakers - Quakers It was obvious from many of the sounds on Dummy that Geoff Barrow and his Portishead compatriots were hip hop heads from way back. But that didn't make it obvious that Barrow, along with co-Quakers 7-Stu-7 and Katalyst, would come up with a rap classic holding 41 (!) tracks of beats, rhymes and life. Featuring a hand-picked selection of word slingers from both sides of the Atlantic, the short tracks keep it all very fresh and full of surprise. All the voices have something to offer, be it a turn of phrase or a passionate delivery (usually both), but Jonwayne, now also signed to Stones Throw, may be the most likely to blow up big with his debut album. While you're waiting, download a head-nodding mix tape or two from his website.

6. Patrick Watson - Adventures In Your Own Backyard His last album, Wooden Arms, firmly established Watson as an otherworldly singer, a distinctive songwriter, and a sound-sculptor par excellance. Performing with the the Royal Concertgebeouw Orchestra was a very natural extension of his work, and you can't say that for every Canadian dude making a record these days. Perhaps informed by that experience, Adventures... adds a new sense of the epic to his already emotion-filled universe. I don't always agree with the All Songs Considered folks (actually, quite rarely), but when they called his SXSW performance a religious experience, I believed them 100%. Catch Patrick Watson live on July 6 - it's free so no excuses if you're in town.

7. The Darcys - Aja One could be cynical and say that for an obscure Canadian band, covering one of the greatest records of the 70's (hell, the 20th century - let's face it) is a naked bid for attention. But considering the fact that few have tried covering Steely Dan, especially their later work, and most have failed in the attempt, this would be a beyond-quixotic career move. One reason people founder on the shores of the Becker-Fagan archipelago is that they get hung up on the musicianship of their enterprise while ignoring the spectacular songwriting in evidence, full of dark themes and indelible characters. The Darcys are all about the songs, exploring that pitch-black sensibility with a jagged but slinky sound and a seductive near croon. The drum sound is often different on each song but the delightfully nasty guitar is a finely honed weapon in their arsenal that proves surprisingly versatile. While the vocals fall slightly short on Peg, which famously almost sent Michael MacDonald around the bend, this record is a triumph that stands solidly on its own while also deepening one's engagement with Steely Dan's original achievement. Surely you're curious - download it for free.

8. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music A protege of OutKast, Michael Render has been hoeing his row for quite a while, starting with the near-great Monster in 2003. Since then, his output has been somewhat scattershot, featuring indifferent beats and overused lyrical concerns. Last Year's Pl3dge was a move in the right direction, with an often gleaming production and more emotionally engaging lyrics. Now he's hooked up with Brooklyn's own El-P and come up with what must be the greatest producer-rapper combo since Alchemist and Prodigy dropped Return Of The Mac. While he still has a filthy mouth (and mind) Killer Mike is also furiously intelligent and less shy about unleashing his more cerebral side on songs like Reagan and Ghetto Gospel. This is one for the ages - welcome back Killer.

9. Hospitality - Hospitality

10. Brooklyn Rider - Seven Steps

Bubbling Under

Fenster - Bones This German-American hybrid has come up with a charmingly ramshackle sound to set their solidly-constructed songs. This gives the album title a nice double-meaning, referring both to the skeletal production and tunes that stand solidly on their own.

Seth Cluett - Objects of Memory This is the 48th in a series of releases from the LINE imprint featuring the work of "international sound artists and composers exploring the aesthetics of contemporary and digital minimalism" and it is a wild ride, although ambient to the point of recessive. Each disc is a limited edition of 500 so I feel lucky to have stumbled on it while trolling the record stores of DC. Looking forward to further listening, both to this and other items in their catalogue.

Peaking Lights - Lucifer I was going to include their last album 936 in my What I Missed department but then this came out and it's easily their best record. Slightly less rough-hewn than their earlier work but in no way slick, this hypnotic dubbed out stuff is joyfully odd. Who knew Wisconsin had this in it? Fans of Perfume Tree, get on board.

Bon Iver - iTunes Session While this not essential and certainly doesn't replace the live show, it's a good document of the band sound Justin Vernon has been touring behind since the second album came out. It's also nice to have his cover of Bjork's Who Is It. If you're a fan, you'll want it.

Old Stuff

Little Willie John - Complete Hit Singles A's & B's He was James Brown's favorite singer, waxed the first recording of Fever, and delivered 16 top 20 hits on the R&B charts from 1955-1961. In short, the diminutive William John was a huge part of the landscape of popular music for a solid span of time. Naturally, it all ended horribly in 1968 when he died of pneumonia while serving out a manslaughter sentence in Walla Walla penitentiary. James Brown's tribute album that same year was not quite enough to maintain LWJ's spot in the pop firmament and he became nearly forgotten, although he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The reason he had all those hits, however, was because he was THAT good and Real Gone Music have done a public service with this collection. The remastering is unbelievable, putting you right in the room with this terrific singer and his crack band. While a few of the songs are slightly cheesy, mainly due to unnecessary backing vocals, this is a fabulous reissue.

Simple Minds - X5 This bargain-priced set reminds us that before they went all "streets of Belfast" on us, these guys were one of the best of the post-punk era, with at least three albums of the five included standing the test of time without reservation. While there are no liner notes (Mojo did a nice feature on them earlier this year if you need annotation), there's a heap of bonus tracks.

Can - The Lost Tapes All albums by these krautrocking wizards contain almost equal parts astonishment and frustration and this amazing collection is no different. But the astonishing stuff is at least as good as their best work and the frustrating bits are not uninteresting. Essential and revelatory.

Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974 - 1974 While most of these folks are deservedly neglected by history, Dante Cartegna's fascinating collection of bedroom soul is worth a listen. The Makers track has a great groove and will probably crop up in a few of my mixes, but the sad fact is, for all their ambition, not one of these performers came up with a song as good as Stevie Wonder's pioneering Look Around, which would seem to be the Kubrickian black monolith that catalysed these oddities.

On The Horizon

Prodigy's HNIC3 mix tape was quite good but the real thing comes out July 3rd and I'm expecting excellence. Killing Joke's MMXII has been getting great reviews; I got tired of waiting for a U.S. release and have the import on order. J. Dilla's mom is extending his legacy with Rebirth Of Detroit; the preview mix was scintillating so I'm anticipating the full release. The spectacular Talea Ensemble will be delivering their debut recording, premiering five works by the late Fausto Romitelli - my breath couldn't be more bated. I'm also a proud pledger of new music from Luscious Jackson and Holly Miranda - looking forward to what they come up with.

A Couple I Missed

Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise This limpidly beautiful and mysterious record would certainly have been on my 2011 top ten had I heard it in time. Though it seems I was the last to know about the precocious Mr. Jaar, I'm spreading the word just in case.

Superspies From Outer Space On the planet Umour, a religion has formed around Donald Fagan's Kamakiriad, Ken Nordine's word art and Matt Helm movies. Thanks to producer Kol Marshall, known for his work with the likes of Ministry and Mercyful Fate, we now have a window onto the Umourian world in this witty, jazz-inflected collection.

Whatchu been listening to?