THE BEST OF 2016
As 2017 inches ever so closer, it’s time to look back and count down the 20 albums that mattered most over the past 12 months.
20. THE LONDON SUEDE — “Night Thoughts” (January)
The Britpop legends continued the comeback that started with 2013’s “Bloodsports” by releasing a record that was even more intriguing and ambitious. “Night Thoughts” ended up being one of the finest albums of a career we thought was over a decade ago.
19. PETER BJORN AND JOHN — “Breaking Point” (June)
The Swedish indie pop band recovered with an album that was its most accomplished since what many consider the group’s career peak, 2006’s “Writer’s Block.” “Breaking Point” found the boys rejuvenated. The songs were their best in quite a while.
18. SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS — “SVIIB” (February)
The most bittersweet entry on the list, “SVIIB” would be this indie duo’s final release. The album was completed shortly before multi-instrumentalist/producer Benjamin Curtis’ sudden death because of lymphoma. The record did, however, find the band going out on a very high note.
17. THERMALS — “We Disappear” (March)
The Oregon indie rockers continued to keep things short and sweet, delivering another loud, punchy and, most importantly, catchy collection of terse tunes and fiery deliveries. And even though the band didn’t necessarily break new ground on “Disappear,” it captivated us all by doing what it does best.
16. DAWES — “We’re All Gonna Die” (September)
California folk/rock outfit Dawes always made honest albums, blending indie rock with elements of roots music and modern country effortlessly. “Die” just happened to be its most satisfying and tightest roster of songs so far this decade.
15. CRYSTAL CASTLES — “Amnesty” (August)
Canadian electronic duo Crystal Castles almost imploded shortly after the release of 2012’s “III.” Vocalist Alice Glass split with producer Ethan Kath over the usual pesky “creative differences.” Kath later found vocalist Edith Frances, and the end result was the wickedly compelling “Amnesty.”
14. PORCHES — “Pool” (February)
New York synth-pop outfit Porches dodged the sophomore slump with an album recorded in leader Aaron Maine’s apartment. More “intimate” than most electronic albums, “Pool” was a tidy affair with acoustic tendencies placed within switched-on settings. This juxtaposition of sensibilities simply clicked.
13. MARISSA NADLER — “Strangers” (May)
New England modern folkie Marissa Nadler continued to dazzle us with her stunning voice and candid songwriting. “Strangers” held very few surprises but further displayed the woman’s genuine talents, giving us stark performances without an ounce of gloss in the process.
12. BLEACHED — “Welcome the Worms” (April)
Another dodge of the sophomore slump, this time with the California Clavin sisters and crew giving us an album equally aggressive and infectious. The melodies might have forced you to call this concoction “pop punk,” but that assessment would have been unfair.
11. SANTIGOLD — “99 Cents”
Musically, this record was all over the map. Santigold co-wrote the entire album herself, and “99 Cents” embraced everything from pure pop to electronic to hip-hop to R&B. A highly unpredictable undertaking, the set was worth far more than its title implied.
Uh-oh. Out of room. Come back next week (and next year) and we’ll go over the top ten.
LADY GAGA — “Joanne”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Lady Gaga turns 30, ditches most of the theatrics (no meat dress this time) and releases a stripped-down fifth album.
THE BAD: No real gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: 2013’s “Artpop” may have been too pretentious for its own good. While the record had its fantastic moments, the concept sometimes overshadowed the music. Now “Joanne” (named after a late aunt who died about a decade before Gaga was even born) finds the singer tackling a multitude of genres with a bevy of producers (Mark Ronson serves as “executive producer”). However, the songs and the woman’s vocal abilities always take center stage.
Even a slew of high-profile guests stars (everyone from Beck to Brian May) can’t steal away the spotlight from these raw vocal performances. Whether it’s the country-tinged ballad “Million Reasons” or the stomping and soaring “Dancing in Circles,” the songs are direct, crisp and packed with emotion. And the album’s mood swings from jubilant (“A-Yo”) to somber (“Angel Down”) keep things unpredictable.
BUY IT?: Surely.
REGINA SPEKTOR — “Remember Us To Life”
THE GOOD: Russian-born singer/songwriter Regina Spektor comes back with her fifth major-label album.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Guided by British composer/producer Leo Abrahams (Frightened Rabbit, Wild Beasts) and recorded with a full orchestra, “Life” is a lush affair. Yet it features many instances of that bubbly brand of Spektor pop — feisty vocals guiding bold melodies that bounce over cruising rhythms. Bright bits such as “Older and Taller” and “Small Bills” pull you in immediately and never let go.
Much of the album, however, is more subdued and serious; mid-tempo pieces find Spektor and her piano placed against a backdrop of warm, sweeping strings. Those are the most memorable moments. Songs like “The Light” with its graceful ebb and flow or the brash and ever-shifting epic, “The Trapper and the Furrier,” show off her stirring vocal abilities (minus the silly yet charming chirps and quirks of records past). “Obsolete” is a sumptuous study in sadness and loss.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THE PRETENDERS — “Alone”
THE GOOD: Post-punk indie legends the Pretenders are back with their 11th (and first in eight years).
THE BAD: Not necessarily “bad,” but this time, the “Pretenders” are essentially songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and the musicians she happened to play with in the studio. (Remember “Packed” in 1990?)
THE NITTY GRITTY: And since Hynde is working with producer Dan Auerbach, “Alone” often sounds like a later Black Keys album for which Hynde happens to supply all the lead vocals.
Still, at 65, Hynde’s songwriting and voice both remain strong. Auerbach helps add some jagged textures to even the gentler tunes, giving the entire record a much-welcome realism that’s painted in both light (the sharp title track and growling “Chord Lord”) and shadow (the cloudy “Let’s Get Lost” and moody “Blue Eyed Sky”).
The ballads aren’t syrupy. The rockers don’t reek of desperation. And even the keyboard-colored, pop-infused closer “Holy Commotion” doesn’t come off as forced. Hynde and Auerbach made a damn fine record.
BUY IT?: Sure.
ROCKIN’ THE BACK YARD
CHRIS FARREN — “Chris Farren Can’t Die”
THE GOOD: Fake Problems frontman/guitarist Chris Farren stays busy while his band is in limbo (Broken up? Resting? Who knows?).
THE BAD: The mix is “lo-fi,” but that’s part of the album’s D.I.Y. charm.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Farren recorded some of “Die” in his Naples, Florida, home and some in Iceland (talk about your diverse locations). The end result is a tight, 11-song collection that draws influences from emo, indie rock and a splash of modern folk. One detects echoes of early Jimmy Eat World, mid-period Ben Lee, Bright Eyes album tracks and even the serious, country-tinged bits from the classic Beat Farmers catalog.
Tracks such as “Brighter” and “Say You Want Me” are near-perfect pieces of infectious guitar pop — feel-good sing-alongs with uncluttered arrangements and BIG melodies. But the same can be said for most of the set; Farren is perfectly content using his songwriting abilities to deliver simple pleasures without stepping into self-indulgent progressive territories. As it should be.
BUY IT?: Sure.
CONOR OBERST — “Ruminations”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk) releases his seventh solo outing.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After retiring Bright Eyes, Oberst returned to his punk outfit, Desaparecidos, for a reunion album (2015’s blazing “Payola”) and tour that was cut short because of health issues (laryngitis and nervous exhaustion). Oberst suddenly found himself recuperating and facing an Omaha, Nebraska, winter alone. And that’s when the songs came pouring out of his pen, creating a reflective collection of tunes begging for intimate treatments.
So Oberst recorded the entirety of “Ruminations” in about three days’ time, self-producing the effort and going about it all alone (the only accompaniment is the man’s acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica). The end result is an emotionally raw collection in which the personal observations and delicate melodies are set against a stark, secluded backdrop. A perfect record for the dead of winter, “Ruminations” feels cold and gray but with an occasional ray of bright sunshine penetrating the gloom.
BUY IT?: Yep.
KINGS OF LEON — “WALLS”
THE GOOD: Tennessee
rockers Kings of Leon return with their seventh.
THE BAD: Tennessee
rockers Kings of Leon return with their seventh?
THE NITTY GRITTY: I’ve come to the conclusion that these guys are popular simply because they’re so damn predictable, kind of like Journey in 1981. “Walls” has its share of catchy tunes boasting seamless rhythmic thumps, big guitar riffs and frontman Caleb Followill’s slight southern drawl. But is that enough? You can just hear this stuff pouring out of the nearest barroom jukebox.
It may be difficult to ignore the sheer rock “power” of driven cuts such as “Waste a Moment” and “Around the World,” but it’s tough to fully embrace this carefully crafted noise too. “Walls” eventually blends into the background, sounding close enough to “Come Around Sundown” (2010) and “Mechanical Bull” (2013) to make all these records interchangeable. Even somber moments such as the title track and “Over” lack any true grit, and thereby ring emotionally hollow.
BUY IT?: Same drab posturing, different year. Whatever.
FUZZED OUT AND FIZZY
WILD BEASTS — “Boy King”
THE GOOD: British indie rockers Wild Beasts come back with a funkier fifth.
THE BAD: The music is less intriguing, while the lyrical concept can be overbearing. This record is good but flawed.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The guys attack masculinity, or at least “masculinity run amok.” And with song titles like “Tough Guy,” “He the Colossus” and “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis,” the message is hardly subtle.
There’s a musical shift too. The guitars take a backseat to more prominent electronics and bigger rhythms. “Boy King” remains a rock album at its core, but a song such as “Get My Bang” sounds less like Clinic or Liars (past resemblances) and more like ’90s-era Prince.
One definitely has to approach this challenging record with fresh ears and a tolerant attitude. Only time will tell if “Boy King” is a good move or not. The band either will build upon these sounds next time around, or this album will end up that strange misfire in the catalog.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
BAD SUNS — “Disappear Here”
THE GOOD: Los Angeles-based indie rockers Bad Suns dodge the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: “Disappear Here” won’t shake up any established rules. However, it doesn’t need to.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Sometimes you crave a tight record with momentous backbeats, decent riffs and big hooks. No frills, nothing else. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong that, especially if you latch onto a set that’s done CORRECTLY.
“Disappear” is that set. Guided by vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Christo Bowman, Bad Suns pulls us through 13 cuts of varying tempos and attitudes, each one a potential single and semi-epic slice of guitar pop. With its rolling rhythms and soaring chorus, the driving title cut launches this session with great confidence. From there, it’s neither uphill nor downhill, just strong songs bursting fourth on an even keel.
Personal favorites include the equally infectious “Heartbreaker” and the more delicate and cascading “Swimming in the Moonlight.” After a while though, singling out individual tracks becomes irrelevant, because they all carry a certain straightforward, simple charm.
BUY IT?: Surely.
THE GOOD: San Diego post-punk indie outfit Crocodiles gives us its sixth.
THE BAD: “Dreamless” is solid but doesn’t break new ground within the catalog.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by singer/guitarist Brandon Welchez, Crocodiles continues to recall much of what was great about the 1980s — namely the noisy, deadpan, Gothic grooves kicked out by the likes of Love and Rockets or the Jesus & Mary Chain. This time, the lively yet sinister “Maximum Penetration” even conjures up the Madchester beats of Happy Mondays (never a bad thing).
So what the guys lack in originality they more than make up for in cruising (if not slightly spooky) jams worth cranking a few times. “Dreamless” is a record that works best after sunset, whether your current setting is a lonely, remote farmhouse or a run-down dwelling on the wrong side of town. While we’ve heard these sounds before, a wild unpredictability still permeates the songs. A jagged edge here, a hint of danger there; yeah, we like that.
BUY IT?: Yep.
WILCO — “Schmilco”
THE GOOD: Chicago-based indie rockers Wilco give us a subtle 10th.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: In 1971, Harry Nilsson released “Nilsson Schmilsson.” Now Wilco offers up “Wilco Schmilco,” a mostly acoustic affair recorded during the same sessions as last year’s “Star Wars.”
“Schmilco” is divine in its simplicity, an intimate set that finds frontman Jeff Tweedy writing about his childhood and formative years, sometimes gazing back fondly, sometimes zeroing in on past insecurities. The songs are very direct; the guys being spontaneous — playing it loose but “together” — replaces any prominent studio experimentation on past efforts.
Wilco feels comfortable in its current surroundings (maybe too comfortable); some songs turn into rambling jams giving off carefree vibes (even when the subject matter isn’t so cheery). It’s almost like stumbling in on a rehearsal session that’s going extremely well, one where all the pieces gel effortlessly while creating an instantly enjoyable album with moments that can never be replicated.
BUY IT?: I would.
THE PIXIES — “Head Carrier”
THE GOOD: Indie legends the Pixies return with their sixth full-length album.
THE BAD: Original bassist and female vocalist Kim Deal is NEVER coming back. Touring
bassist Paz Lenchantin, who has some mighty big shoes to fill, officially replaced her. Is she up to
THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with new producer Tom Dalgety (Royal Blood, Ghost), “Carrier” feels like a completely fresh start for the band. Too bad the relaunch is far less exciting than this seminal group’s past.
While the new record is still better and more coherent than 2014’s “Indie Cindy” (an album that was simply three EPs all smashed together), a lot of the sharpness and potential danger of the band’s classic period is sorely lacking. “Carrier” feels too damn safe. Even “All I Think About Now” resembles a watered-down “Where Is My Mind.”
Still, “Carrier” boasts more than a few good songs. Perhaps “Doolittle” (1989) or “Bossanova” (1990) can never be topped. So I suggest adjusting your expectations accordingly.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
GREEN DAY — “Revolution Radio”
THE GOOD: California pop-punks Green Day release their 12th album overall and first as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
THE BAD: Not “genuine” enough for some? Maybe.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These guys still come off as angry young men even if they have next to nothing to be angry about anymore. Rock has been very good to their bank accounts indeed. But “Revolution Radio” strikes all the right chords in all the right places. Billie Joe Armstrong and the boys get political without getting TOO specific, get angry without becoming TOO aggressive and get good and loud without sounding TOO disjointed.
So “Revolution Radio” ends up a tight rock album that’s all about an endless barrage of hooks. Tunes such as the title cut and “Say Goodbye” are big on soaring choruses. “Troubled Times” is gorgeous, mid-tempo melodrama. “Too Dumb To Die” is so sing-song it resembles the nursery rhyme “This Old Man.” You get the gist. Dig the surface. Don’t delve too deep.
BUY IT?: Sure.
CRYTSAL CASTLES — “Amnesty”
THE GOOD: Heavy electronic outfit Crystal Castles comes back with an abrasive (of course) fourth.
THE BAD: Usually the group’s music is very confrontational. This time, many of the confrontations took place behind the scenes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontwoman Alice Glass left over personal and creative differences with long-time partner/producer Ethan Kath. The break-up was ugly, and many thought Crystal Castles was done. However, Kath replaced Glass with new vocalist Edith Frances. The two female voices are close, and casual fans won’t even notice the difference. Only time will tell if Edith shares Alice’s penchant for outrageous on-stage behavior.
Musically, “Amnesty” doesn’t exactly play it safe. However, it does feel tamer than past releases. Yet, the record still packs a mighty punch, with music built upon pounding beats, screaming synths, buckets of distortion and an overall vibe exhumed from the darkest places imaginable. Even more delicate pieces (and there aren’t many), such as the swirling “Sadist,” send a sense of dread running up your spine.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.
M.I.A. — “Aim”
THE GOOD: British rapper/singer/songwriter/producer M.I.A. comes back with her fifth.
THE BAD: M.I.A. claims “Aim” will be her last album. While sad, maybe that’s how it should be.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The new record is much less confrontational than past efforts. One finds politics spread throughout the deluxe edition’s sprawling 17 tracks, but not as much anger. The production also sometimes lacks “punch.” So even though “Aim” remains a worthy effort, it’s the artist’s least-exciting set. Is it better to quit now before sliding further down a slippery slope? Possibly.
A bunch of producers lend their styles to the proceedings (Blaqstarr, Diplo, the Partysquad and Skrillex to name a few). So the album either lacks focus OR plays like a pretty awesome mix tape. That depends on the listener. However, there still are enough banging jams on this thing to warrant a purchase, or at least make us hope M.I.A. has a change of heart about quitting.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
PHANTOGRAM — “Three”
THE GOOD: New York indie duo Phantogram (vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and vocalist/guitarist Josh Carter) comes back with its third.
THE BAD: No real gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Phantogram’s profile grows all the time, so it’s only logical that it vies for a little mainstream success. This time, the duo recruited producer Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Robin Thicke, Meghan Trainor) for some help behind the boards. “Three” doesn’t come off like a sell-out, however. In fact, the new record is more compelling than 2014’s “Voices” (the low point in Phantogram’s catalog).
Tracks like shuffling lead single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and the reserved yet gritty “Cruel World” boast enough big beats, noisy samples and trip-hop flashbacks to squelch any jaded listener’s low expectations.
The collection also retains its momentum. Even the murky “Barking Dog” or the somber “Answer,” with its warped piano squiggles and delicate street beats, don’t slow down matters much. And the record ends on a high note with the bashing “Calling All.”
BUY IT?: Actually, yes.
WYE OAK — “Tween”
THE GOOD: Baltimore indie duo Wye Oak (multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack) comes back with its fifth album (sort of).
THE BAD: “Bad?” No. “Non-traditional and experimental?” Yes. Be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Tween” falls somewhere between an EP and an LP, a collection of eight outtakes from the band’s previous two records, “Civilian” (2011) and “Shriek” (2014). And what a varied collection it is. From the opening ambient piece, “Out of Nowhere,” to the synth-colored, beat-heavy, catchy goodness spread across “If You Should See” to the droning yet divine “Better (for Esther),” “Tween” is a bunch of songs that comes together far more harmoniously than it should.
If time travel were possible, the record also could serve as bridge between “Civilian’s” folk-leaning indie rock and “Shriek’s” heavier electronic tendencies. Even though that original transition wasn’t jarring to begin with, “Tween” now makes it smoother and even MORE logical after the fact.
BUY IT?: Yes. Outtakes aren’t usually this consistently good.
OKKERVIL RIVER — “Away”
THE GOOD: Texas indie rockers Okkervil River return with their eighth.
THE BAD: Prepare for another shift in direction. Not necessarily “bad” though.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Away” plays more like a solo record from frontman Will Sheff as opposed to a proper band album. We also hear more modern folk and reserved jazz this time.
Sheff wanted to get away from the narrow pop/rock aesthetic tried on 2013’s “Silver Gymnasium.” He also dealt with some band members jumping ship and the death of his grandfather. So “Away” is a very introspective and somber work, recorded spontaneously and intimately in less than a week’s time.
“Okkervil River R.I.P.” is the work’s launching piece; Sheff closes one chapter in his professional life before opening another. The rest of “Away” only flirts with sounds from the past; the singer/songwriter instead chooses to embrace outside influences. At its core, “Away” remains an indie rock set. However, acoustic, jazz and classical sounds dominate; the overall effect is both unexpected and refreshing.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART — “Signs of Light”
THE GOOD: West Coast indie outfit Head and the Heart jumps to Warner Bros. for its third.
THE BAD: “Light” is formulaic, folk-tinged indie rock (the band will never win an award for innovation), but it’s also a tight and deeply satisfying record.
THE NITTY GRITTY: If you want a no-nonsense collection of good guitar-based pop songs, here it is. Tunes like “False Alarm” and “Library Magic” boast robust melodies and rich harmonies, all of them built upon foundations that either rock steadily or gently sway on a bed of acoustic guitars. Producer Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, Halestorm) also gives the album a nice sheen, further enhancing the compositions.
One can’t help but make comparisons to bands like Lumineers or Mumford & Sons. And for some, visiting those safe territories may be a turn-off. Still, there’s no denying the album’s overall charm. Changes in mood and tempo also keep the fixed collection from slipping into monotony.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE VEILS — “Total
THE GOOD: New Zealand indie outfit the Veils comes back with an ambitious fifth.
THE BAD: Expect a definite shift in direction. It also takes a few spins for “Total Depravity” to unleash its total power.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This time, passionate guitarist/songwriter/frontman Finn Andrews collaborated with El-P of Run the Jewels fame extensively, thereby giving “Depravity” a much harder edge than past efforts. It’s certainly light years away from the Gothic-leaning pop of 2004 debut “The Runaway Found.”
The album also is very dramatic; intense vocal performances add impenetrable darkness to tracks such as clamoring lead single “Axolotl” and the foreboding “Here Come the Dead.” Yet, lighter touches (the sparkling female back-ups on “Do Your Bones Glow at Night” and the soaring melodies coloring “A Bit on the Side”) also sprinkle the album, making the overall effect much more multi-dimensional. All the while, Andrews never lets up on his own vocal intensity.
BUY IT?: Despite the shake-ups (or maybe because of them), yes.
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS —
THE GOOD: Legendary Australian indie outfit Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds comes back with a mournful 16th.
THE BAD: “Skeleton Tree” is not the breeziest of albums.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Albums from Cave never are really “up” affairs. However, “Tree” is even more somber than usual. During its conception, Cave’s 15-year-old son fell off a cliff and died, so it’s no wonder that “Tree” explores love, loss and grief as its three central themes.
Musically, the album sounds less like a rock collection and more like a poetry reading. Many of the tracks find Cave reciting the lyrics within half-spoken melodies over ambient backdrops comprised of loops, layered noises and instruments played in non-traditional ways. It’s only when we get around to the final few cuts that the melancholy melodies swoop in and bring real tears to our eyes.
BUY IT?: Yes, but expect to make somewhat of an effort slogging through this one.
STILL CORNERS —
THE GOOD: London electronic dream-pop duo Still Corners (vocalist Tessa Murray and songwriter/producer Greg Hughes) leaves Sub Pop and self-releases a pulsating third.
THE BAD: As usual, overall atmosphere overshadows individual songs. You don’t go into a Still Corners record expecting stuff that would be truly memorable outside of its spaced-out, ethereal settings.
THE NITTY GRITTY: During the first handful of tracks, “Blue” puts the beats out in front more so than usual. Cuts such as “Lost Boys” and “Crooked Fingers” are very direct; rhythms establish them as tight bits of synth pop.
As the record plays on, the duo brings back the murkier, haunting style we’ve come to expect. “Down with Heaven and Hell,” for example, swirls around and washes over the listener like a slice of classic Cocteau Twins. These echo-drenched, wispy reverberations then stick around, meshing with the driving spirit of “Dreamhorse” and the urban vibe spread over “Night Walk”; the overall effect places us halfway between reality and fantasy.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Frost and Wires
Flume — “Skin”
THE GOOD: Australian electronic artist Flume (Harley Edward Streten) dodges the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: “Skin” ebbs and flows. Flume doesn’t quite pull off every experiment or collaboration. But the banging tracks outnumber the duds.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Flume is already a superstar in his native Australia, and he may be the “next big thing” here in the states. On the other hand, “Skin” is just wonderfully weird enough to keep the guy firmly entrenched in the underground. The record is a wicked combination of down-tempo, EDM, electropop and even older subgenres such as trip-hop.
Flume also welcomes a bunch of guest vocalists who run the gamut from newbies like Kai and AlunaGeorge to modern legends such as Beck and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon. However, the man makes sure these vocalists become PART of the mix as opposed to dominating their respective cuts. Flume also cranks out mightily infectious instrumental tracks.
BUY IT? Surely.
The Avalanches — “Wildflower”
THE GOOD: Australian production outfit Avalanches finally gives us its second album.
THE BAD: Absolutely NOTHING.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Way back in 2000, Avalanches released the stunning “Since I Left You,” a sample-heavy sound collage that brought together everything from instrumental hip-hop to ambient electronica to classic pop. It was a record to which you didn’t just listen; you analyzed it and noticed something new every time you played it.
Now, after a decade and a half of outside collaborations and projects (some finished, some abandoned), Avalanches offers “Wildflowers.” The new record is more of the same and a natural progression of the debut. Some tracks were even recorded (or at least started) immediately after “Since’s” release. Others were wholly conceived earlier this year, so there’s a definite mixtape quality to the album.
But “Wildflowers” is also a logical step forward; the boys use some live instrumentation and guest vocalists (everyone from Biz Markie to Mercury Rev). The music remains sample-based though, and all outside elements are woven into the borrowed fabric seamlessly.
BUY IT?: You must.
Glass Animals — “How To Be a Human Being”
THE GOOD: British indie rock outfit Glass Animals returns with
THE BAD: No sophomore slump but…
THE NITTY GRITTY: …“Human Being” is another modern pop collection combining rock elements with a healthy dose of electronic (think works by Passion Pit, alt-J or maybe even Foals). It’s good stuff all around, but hardly distinct. Guitarist/vocalist Dave Bayley is the brains behind the operation, a white guy unafraid to embrace the funk or turn on a soulful falsetto.
Songs either make a boisterous noise (“Youth”) or play it much smoother and cooler (“Season 2, Episode 3”). Either setting works. However, Bayley embraces the latter much more, especially during “Being’s” less diverse and more spaced out second half. It’s here that the set begins to resemble Hot Chip’s subdued yet psychedelic beginnings, although, with Glass Animals, these cosmic vibes are not quite as enticing. And when the tempo changes cease, the album becomes somewhat repetitive. Oh well. Better luck next time.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Back On the Street
OF MONTREAL — “Innocence Reaches”
THE GOOD: Georgia indie outfit Of Montreal returns with a “switched on” 14th.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: At times, “Innocence” feels more like a Kevin Barnes solo outing as opposed to a proper band album. The other players are present; they’re simply not as prominent as on the past couple of records, especially 2013’s rock-heavy “Lousy with Sylvianbriar.” That’s probably because Barnes has rediscovered synths. Tracks like “My Fair Lady” and “Trashed Exes,” while not exactly slamming, are still very rhythm-centric and big on electronic sounds. And this time, those synthetic parts are the album’s finest moments. Barnes has always worked well within these artificial settings; the guy certainly is capable of latching onto a groove and running with it.
But those still craving a loud guitar now and again will find it on more rollicking bits such as “Les Chants de Maldoror” and “Chaos Arpeggiating.” Either way, “Innocence” is Barnes playing his usual frantic and flamboyant self to great effect.
BUY IT?: Sure.
DE LA SOUL — “And the Anonymous
THE GOOD: Long Island, New York, hip-hop legends De La Soul come back with their first album in a dozen years, and eighth overall.
THE BAD: Not “bad” but…
THE NITTY GRITTY: …This isn’t 1989. “Anonymous” wasn’t made in the same era as the essential “3 Feet High and Rising” or “De La Soul Is Dead.” These days, all samples need to be cleared, and that’s expensive. So the exciting turntable work that defined those early albums has been replaced by mostly live instrumentation, a lot of which is grounded in jazz, R&B and daring string arrangements.
And while that’s not a “complaint,” it’s a move that takes getting used to. The guys also augment the record with a plethora of eclectic guest stars, everyone from Snoop Dogg to ex-Talking Head David Byrne to former Gorillaz collaborator and Blur frontman Damon Albarn. Some appearances blend more smoothly than others.
Yet, “Anonymous” is still rock solid lyrically, so this crew proves its relevance within the genre.
BUY IT?: Your call.
JAMIE T — “Trick”
THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter/rapper Jamie T turns 30 and releases his fourth.
THE BAD: Is the man’s BEST work behind him?
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ten years ago, it seemed the most exciting hip-hop on the planet came out of the United Kingdom. Jamie T rode the latter half of that revolution, releasing two excellent rap/indie hybrid collections — “Panic Prevention” (2007) and “Kings & Queens” (2009).
After a five-year hiatus, though, it felt like the magic (or at least T’s uniqueness) was sorely lacking. 2014’s “Carry on the Grudge” was OK but not nearly as memorable as those first two outings. Now, “Trick” somewhat recovers; the singer is getting CLOSE to getting back on track.
The disc is very British, brimming with English idioms and references (“Tescoland”). The funk and hip-hop elements are turned up (“Dragon Bones”). And even though he’s older, T still plays the part of “angry young man” with great aplomb (“Police Tapes”).
BUY IT?: Maybe. At least “Trick” makes us more hopeful about Jamie T’s future.
Dinosaur Jr. — “Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not”
THE GOOD: Indie rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. come back with their 11th album and fourth since the 2007 reformation.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Who knew a comeback could be this good for this long? When J. Mascis and Lou Barlow finally buried the hatchet and unleashed the blistering “Beyond” in 2007, most of us figured that album and subsequent tour would be it. But then came “Farm” (2009), “I Bet on Sky” (2012) and now “Glimpse.” So this period of Dino Jr. is now the most prolific. And if the new record is any indication, the guys are far from finished.
“Glimpse” is damn good, with the usual mix of loud guitars and thunderous drums carrying melodies both graceful and strong enough to hold their own against the din below. Mascis produces and supplies the bulk of the material. However, Barlow pens and sings two of the finer songs he’s done since returning to the Dinosaur fold.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.
The Kills — “Ash & Ice”
THE GOOD: Indie garage rock duo the Kills (American singer Alison Mosshart and British guitarist/producer Jamie Hince) regroup and release their fifth album and first in five years.
THE BAD: “Ash & Ice” could use a slight trim. Thirteen tracks spread across 50 minutes might be too much for the Kills formula (rock guitars and raw, female, soul-riding, beat-box thumps) to handle. The album starts repeating itself after nine or 10 cuts.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Ice” also feels sluggish in spots. The slicing guitar licks and vocal wails of the past seem somewhat reserved this time. But while that lower energy level can be detrimental in spots, it’s also responsible for some of the record’s most distinct tracks. “Days of Why and How” combines a bit of the blues with distant echoes of trip-hop to great effect. “Hum for the Buzz” cuts out the beats altogether; Mosshart spills her guts over intertwining organ and guitar lines, not quite a capella but definitely hypnotic.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Deerhoof — “The Magic”
THE GOOD: American (mostly) avante-rockers Deerhoof come back with a loud 13th.
THE BAD: Nah.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rock is the defining genre this time for the experimental band. The squiggly keyboards and occasional horn bits step aside for your standard guitar/drums/bass lineup. But in Deerhoof’s capable hands, that combination goes to some very weird places.
Recorded in less than a week, there’s an abrasive spark to the music, as if it might spontaneously combust at any second. Above the airtight rhythm section rides an assortment of jagged guitars and Japanese lead vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki’s unique, charming brand of sing-speak and vocal chirps. “The Devil and His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue” immediately draws us in with bubbly six-string riffs and crashing drums. “Criminals of the Dream” is more sedate, with fragile melodies still delivering a good amount of volume. “Model Behavior” and “Debut” bring on the funk. Then there’s the surreal cover of the Ink Spots standard “I Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire.”
BUY IT?:Oh yeah!
PURO INSTINCT —
THE GOOD: Five years after the distinctive yet uneven “Headbangers in Ecstasy,” sisters Piper and Skylar Kaplan finally return and shake up their sound for album No. 2.
THE BAD: Their shoegazing side is turned way down on “Autodrama.” Be prepared for a reboot.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Actually, the new album is surprisingly tight, accessible and way more accomplished than anything these girls have ever done before. Tracks like “Peccavi” and “Tell Me” are slick, catchy, synth-heavy pop songs;
the two bridge the gap between vintage indie acts like Book of Love and ultra-modern fare such as
OK, the album does lose some momentum across its second half. Tunes like “End of an Era” and the album’s title track feel too ambitious and overreaching. Fortunately, “Autodrama” recovers with the cool, swaying “Want Your Love” just before its conclusion, leaving us already looking forward to the Kaplans’ next move. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another half-decade to hear it.
BUY IT?: Yes.
NITE JEWEL — “Liquid Cool”
THE GOOD: California-based singer/songwriter Ramona Gonzalez (stage name Nite Jewel) reclaims her independence with her third proper album.
THE BAD: No real issues, but no really distinct music either. “Liquid Cool” is a good, electronic-based pop record. But there are a LOT of those out there.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After battling over musical control with ex-label Secretly Canadian, Gonzalez is again a free agent. “Liquid Cool” is a return of sorts to her do-it-yourself roots. Yet, she doesn’t completely abandon the slick tendencies of 2012’s “One Second of Love.” The artist simply injects a bit more atmosphere and experimentation into the new stuff.
Gonzalez sounds more at home in these settings too, giving the music an amateurish quality that’s more charming than distracting. Whether it’s the bass-heavy, foreboding strains of opener “Nothing but Scenery” or the ultra-bubbly “Kiss the Screen,” the woman delivers the mysterious yet accessible goods. Now that she’s obtained her freedom, though, perhaps Gonzalez should find a voice all her own.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
BAT FOR LASHES —
THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter Natasha Khan (stage name Bat for Lashes) tells a story on her fourth.
THE BAD: “The Bride” is a concept album. Therefore, it sometimes falls into the usual trappings of concept albums and/or rock operas. Some of the individual parts lose their momentum or even relevance when taken away from the greater work.
THE NITTY GRITTY: I’ll always be the girl that was denied. “The Bride” tells the story of a woman in love who’s left at the altar after her fiancé is killed in a car crash en route to the ceremony. After the tragedy, our main character goes on the honeymoon alone and then tries to put back together the rest of her life.
Lyrical tales aside, the record is typical Bat for Lashes. We get the usual mix of shoegaze, electronic new wave, post-Goth overtones and modern folk. A heady, hypnotic concoction carried flawlessly by Khan’s soprano, “The Bride” perfectly blends focused narrative and ethereal pop.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THE TEMPER TRAP — “Thick as Thieves”
THE GOOD: Australian indie pop outfit Temper Trap regroups on their third.
THE BAD: Same record, different year? Maybe.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band scored a genuine worldwide hit with “Sweet Disposition” off their 2009 debut “Conditions.” The tune was a slick offering built upon chugging U2 guitars and frontman Doug Mandagi’s soaring falsetto. “Conditions” was more of the same — standard contemporary adult alternative stuff straight out of the Coldplay handbook. 2012’s self-titled sophomore effort got a bit more experimental with the electronic elements (if I recall correctly; it’s been awhile). Now, “Thick as Thieves” finds the band getting back to their roots (already?). The guitars are turned up (just a smidge) and the arrangements more straight forward. So “Thieves” ends up a very enjoyable (but ultimately forgettable) pop/rock amalgam. But that’s Temper Trap’s biggest hang-up. Their music doesn’t stick to anything. It sways and simmers, but the songs eventually settle right beside Keane’s “Perfect Symmetry.” Remember that one? Didn’t think so.
BUY IT?: Maybe.
TRAVIS — “Everything at Once”
THE GOOD: Scottish indie pop/rock pioneers Travis come back with their sparkling eighth.
THE BAD: It’s 10 gems in about 33 minutes. “Once” is a case of quality over quantity that’ll leave you wanting more.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman Fran Healy and crew stick with the Travis formula. Its mid-tempo guitar-based tunes ride solid backbeats, augmented by light harmonies and the occasional string arrangement. The guys are often compared to other Britpop acts like Keane, Snow Patrol, Delays and Coldplay (not to mention the two other bands reviewed on THIS page). But Travis came before ALL those groups, and they still do the “sensitive but not sappy” thing better than any of them.
The feel-good “Magnificent Time” rides a boundless stomp. “Everything at Once” goes for bigger grooves and a splash of the electronic. “Strangers on a Train” is more fragile, a melancholy closer telling of definite endings. Travis moves from piece to piece effortlessly, carrying us along on a ride built for pure pleasure.
BUY IT?: Surely.
YOUNG THE GIANT — “Home of the Strange”
THE GOOD: California indie rock outfit Young the Giant comes back with their third.
THE BAD: Might as well be their first, second or, for that matter, seventh.
THE NITTY GRITTY: YTG are very good at creating safe, pleasant sounding, and easily programmed modern rock that’s sort of enjoyable as long as you’re not paying close attention. Take a hard listen and you realize there’s not much substance here.
Nor is there much that differentiates the new record from the previous two in the YTG catalog. “Something to Believe In” is the new “My Body.” “Mr. Know-It-All” could swap places with “Cough Syrup.” Nice mid-tempo tunes with just enough “edge” to keep one foot firmly planted outside the mainstream. Hey, but the Gin Blossoms also did that 20 years ago, and nobody really misses them. (And if YOU do, I’m sure they’ll be playing a casino somewhere soon.)
BUY IT?: Entirely your choice. “Strange” has its catchy moments and isn’t all that disagreeable. Just don’t expect anything truly captivating.
ROONEY — “Washed Away”
THE GOOD: L.A. indie pop band Rooney returns after a five-year hiatus with a new lineup and their fourth album.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Robert Coppola Schwartzman (Talia Shire’s son and Jason Schwartzman’s younger brother) remains the brains behind the operation. So even though everyone else in the group is “new,” this is STILL Rooney.
And with Rooney comes finely crafted guitar-based pop songs boasting airtight harmonies and huge glorious hooks. “Washed Away” sticks with this well-worn formula and is practically interchangeable with the band’s past three albums. Then again, why mess with a good thing?
From the “Ooo la la la’s” and handclaps spread over “Come On Baby” to the rousing choruses of “My Heart Beats 4 U” to the terse riffs adding a most welcome punch to “Do You Have To Go,” we get another shimmering collection of super-sweet ear candy that crosses classic British Invasion aesthetics with modern sensibilities. Yummy!
BUY IT?: Of course.
FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS — self-titled
THE GOOD: Zzzzzzz.
THE BAD: Zzzzzzz.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Sorry. I was playing the album and dosed off. Yep, that neo-soul/indie pop band from Los Angeles is back and just as boring as ever.
Calculated and contrived? You betcha! This is the modern goo you hear on young housewives’ Spotify playlists so they can jam out when little Timmy goes down for his nap and it’s time for the daily dose of boxed wine. Hey, they totally rocked on the Ellen show today!
And you can bet the album’s lead single “HandClap” is already being played twice daily on the pool deck of every Carnival cruise ship at sea, right between “The Cha Cha Slide” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Look, Grandma thinks she’s “at da club!”
Yeah, the beats are tight, and every song has a hook. But there’s a “sameness” to these tunes that makes you immediately forget everything you just heard once the album is done. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.
BUY IT?: Absolutely not.
HOT HOT HEAT — self-titled
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers Hot Hot Heat release their first album in six years (and fifth overall).
THE BAD: More “sad” than “bad.” “Hot Hot Heat” is the group’s final bow. As of now, frontman Steve Bays and company are calling it quits.
THE NITTY GRITTY: At least they’re going out on a somewhat high note. The new record is typical HHH, with tight, catchy, guitar-heavy pop/rock tunes and Bays’ skittish vocals way out in front. There was always something slightly nervous about these boys.
Tracks such as “Kid Who Stays in the Picture” and “Modern Mind” cover a lot of the same territory as past triumphs like “Bandages” and “Middle of Nowhere.” If you liked the band then, you’ll like them now.
And the guys score points for making sure this last set isn’t simply some self-indulgent throwaway. For even though Hot Hot Heat never made a GREAT album, this self-titled effort is one of their most enjoyable ones.
BUY IT?: Why not?
KEEP ON PUSHING
THE BOXER REBELLION — Ocean by Ocean
THE GOOD: British/American indie hybrid Boxer Rebellion unleashes a glistening fifth.
THE BAD: Textbook “sensitive guy rock?” Maybe. But there’s no denying these melodies.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You can’t accuse these guys of creating anything strikingly original. Boxer Rebellion formed at the tail end of ’90s Britpop before things got all “punchy” with the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party in the U.K. So they resembled “lighter” contemporaries such as Keane, Coldplay, Travis and even (if we’re stretching) 2000s-era U2.
Ocean By Ocean carries on those delicate traditions. Despite sounding like a bunch of records we’ve heard before though, there’s a spark within these songs that keeps you returning time and time again. Tracks like lead single “Big Ideas” and the introspective “Redemption” find gorgeous melodies riding seamless rock rhythms while ringing guitars form dreamy backdrops accentuated with a hint of echo. The overall effect is hypnotic, yet the songs themselves are strong enough to avoid fading into all these fluffy atmospherics.
BUY IT?: Sure.
BEAR HANDS — You’ll Pay for This
THE GOOD: Brooklyn-based indie rockers Bear Hands come back with a full-bodied third.
THE BAD: Bear Hands are cut from the same super-slick cloth as synth-embracing peers like Passion Pit, Reptar and MGMT. Not “bad,” but not all that distinct either.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band still makes a highly enjoyable record, if only for the purpose of supplying ultra-modern stuff that paces your next jog around the neighborhood. Tunes like snarky lead single “2AM” and super bubbly “Déjà vu” aren’t short on big hooks, bright synths, a pinch of guitar “bite” and airtight backbeats. Even softer bits such as the whispering and murky “The Shallows” ride smooth grooves.
Frontman Dylan Rau can either purr with a delicate falsetto (the airy and unsettling “I Won’t Pay”) or break out a more commanding vocal presence (the jittery and infectious “Like Me Like That”); either extreme works. Pay is also a cool amalgam of tempos and textures, never sticking in one place for too long.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
SUUNS — Hold/Still
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers Suuns come back with their hypnotic third.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Somewhere between Clinic’s unbridled noisiness and Radiohead’s chilling personality is the droning and abrasive post-punk clatter of Suuns. Fronted by vocalist/guitarist Ben Shermie with his upper register rasp (not exactly a falsetto and not all that distant from Thom Yorke’s spooky coo), the band crawls, buzzes and blips their way through syncopated tracks built on rudimentary rhythms and effects pedals in overdrive.
Whether it’s the whirring guitars flying behind “Un-No” or the stuttering riffs giving “Resistance” a jagged bite, the music forces listeners into submission; the audience falls under the spell of otherworldly vocals and intense, repetitive countermelodies. And if the slightest hint of the electronic moves to the forefront, the songs take on an industrial nature, harkening back to those subdued instrumental bits buried within the second half of old Nine Inch Nails albums.
BUY IT?: Yes. And then embrace the chills running up your spine.