In the world of independent music, learning on the job is frowned upon. It's easier than ever for kids to make professional-grade records and have them heard, but any sign of weakness-- a lackluster stage show, a questionable interview, a dud follow-up-- and listeners will let you know how duped they feel. Few people know this better than Nathan Williams, who made his buzzy second album Wavvves at his parents' house and spent the rest of 2009 on a badwill tour (live disaster, canceled tour, fistfight) that earned him Lohan/Hilton-levels of derision in certain circles.
Though some of indie's brightest leading men have come through Virginia's halls of higher education (Steve Malkmus, David Berman, Travis Morrison), your average college rock band in the Old Dominion area probably sounds more like Agents of Good Roots. So if you live in a place like Blacksburg, Va., home of the Virginia Tech campus and not much else, and you want to be in a tropical punk act (Facepaint), an introspective singer-songwriter project (Jack & the Whale), or a band that covers Kate Bush instead of Dave Matthews (Wild Nothing's breakthrough rendition of "Cloudbusting"), you'll probably have to do what Jack Tatum did and start them yourself.
The group's sophomore effort, Public Strain, pushes forward in both directions-- the hooks are noisier, the noise is hookier, and both are fogged over with enough reverb to make Felt records seem bone-dry by comparison.
If you've followed Matthew Dear over the years, then you know he doesn't like to stay in one place for very long. Even as a primarily electronic artist in the early 2000s, Dear hopped from label to label, switched aliases often, and made everything from steely microhouse to harder Detroit techno. But his biggest departure was 2007's Asa Breed, the record where he stepped out from behind the decks and reached for the mic. Singing on tracks and leaning more heavily on song structure, he built strange hybrid music that had one foot in techno and the other in pop.
There were few voices that articulated the anxious, fractured state of America in the 1970s and early 80s as well as the clear baritone of Gil Scott-Heron. As a spoken-word artist and poet, he could pinpoint the fissures in the American dream and exorcise them with a wit that blended righteous anger and arch sarcasm. As a singer he could envelop those same uncomfortable confrontations in a rich, emotional tone that brought out the empathetic face of unrest. Yet except for a chorus cameo on Blackalicious' "First in Flight" and a memorable shout-out on LCD Soundsyste m's "Losing My Edge", he was rarely heard or cited in the early years of America's great post-traumatic decade, even if his pained depiction of "a nation that just can't stand much more" in "Winter in America" rang as true in 2002 as it did in 1975.
Innerspeaker demonstrates a subtle yet encompassing sense of control, never obstructing the grander motifs while still offering a variety of odd details that guide you back to the album's hooks.
Drake sings or raps the word "I" 410 times on his debut album. Even in the realm of hip-hop-- a style famous for its unswerving solipsism-- this is a feat. For comparison's sake, noted mirror watcher Kanye West managed to work only 220 "I"'s into the verses and hooks of his big break, The College Dropout. Illmatic; 210. Reasonable Doubt; 240. With Thank Me Later, Drake attempts to enter the pantheon of those rap game-busters by the sheer force of first person singular pronouns. All eyes are on him-- especially his own. But considering this mixed race, half-Jewish, all-Canadian "Degrassi: The Next Generation" alum looks and sounds unlike any major rap star before him, betting the house on nothing but himself turns out to be a wise gamble.
Delorean helped define the bright, beachside vibe of last summer's indie landscape, but they also deserve to be placed in a broader context. On their new album, Subiza, the Spanish four-piece deploys the build-and-burst tempos of 90s house and techno music, and they do so explicitly, never shying away from arms-in-the-air piano bridges or incandescent raves. This music is proudly informed by the resiliency and vigor of classic club music, and its title (named after the Basque town in which the album was recorded) recalls the famously nightclub-centric Ibiza and the Balearic dance music that originated there.
Scene-famous boyfriends, a quote-generating Twitter feed, scuffles with bloggers, and the most meme-generating feline since Keyboard Cat got carpal tunnel: Yeah, it's safe to say Bethany Cosentino, who writes and records with cohort Bobb Bruno as Best Coast, is a long way away from her days as a member of drone/psych outfit Pocahaunted. Best Coast's full-length debut, Crazy for You, serves only to increase that distance from the outré-music scene; the brief record delivers on the promise of a strong string of singles released over the past year. Just as Pocahaunted loosely capture the basic feel of dub and reggae, Crazy for You is a meditation on the stickier hooks of classic indie pop, with slight detours into surf-rock ("Bratty B") and countrypolitan balladry ("Our Deal"). While Pocahaunted cover their signifiers under piles of static and delay-triggered noise, Best Coast take the opposite route, slathering honey over every song and letting them drip-dry in the sunshine.
If you came up as a rap fan in the 1990s, it's hard to come to grips with the fact that the Illmatic/Doggystyle/Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) ideal has become outmoded. Rappers rarely start with a fully-formed classic right off the bat. And sometimes, a guy who was underrated, underappreciated, or even considered a joke earlier in their career actually generates so much momentum that they eventually become undeniable.
Describing Emeralds' music feels a little like capping that underwater oil spill must: how do you get your hands around this stuff? The Cleveland trio may favor methodical cadences in their music, but their releases come fast and furious. According to Discogs.com, they've put out around 40 releases in just four years, most of them CDRs and cassettes. There are variations of mood and intensity, and each major release has its own particular signature, owing in part to changes in gear and technique, and in part to being a band that improvises and records non-stop. Any given album feels like a snapshot of the band in time.
Pesky comparisons to Bob Dylan have dogged Kristian Matsson throughout his short career as the Tallest Man on Earth. In 2006, his self-titled EP introduced a singer with that familiar croak, a songwriter with a folk-revival revival sensibility, and a guitar player with an impressively agile fingerpicking style. The next year, his full-length debut, Shallow Grave, expanded nicely on those ideas, buffing away some of the rougher edges but emphasizing fully realized and beautifully evocative songs. The Wild Hunt, the second Tallest Man on Earth album and first for Dead Oceans, makes a few specific nods to Dylan at his most earnest and bare-- including a reference to "boots of Spanish leather" on "King of Spain". Ultimately, though, Matsson interprets Dylan, just as Dylan himself interpreted Guthrie. Mor e to the point, Matsson translates him into the Scandinavian countryside, where he sings about changing seasons and quiet, lonely places far from cities. His lyrics are rough and often ragged, more concerned with evoking aching emotions than with making explicit sense. But that coded aspect only makes him sound more urgent, as if he's trying to convince you of something he couldn't possibly put into words.
The-Dream earned his respect as a songwriter who co-wrote larger-than-life pop anthems, penning "Umbrella" for Rihanna and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" for Beyoncé, as well as less-known but evocative tracks for everyone from Usher ("Trading Places") to Rick Ross ("All I Really Want"). His solo debut, 2007's Love/Hate, broke through with minor hits "Shawty Is Da Shit" and "Falsetto", whose wildly addictive hooks papered over his slight persona. The rest of that record created a constellation of characteristics that laid out his aesthetic-- the lush production courtesy of beatmakers L.O.S. and Tricky Stewart, songs that wash into each other in the mode of a DJ mix to create a miniature suite with precision sequencing.
Kieran Hebden first came on the scene in the 1990s as a member of Fridge, a post-rock outfit that to me always looked better on paper than they sounded on record. Whatever you think of his first band, Hebden's subsequent career can be seen as the idea of post-rock done right. His appetite for music, on the evidence presented in his albums, singles, DJ sets, and collaborations, is voracious. But Hebden has a way of transforming and integrating influences rather than channeling them. So if his loose improvised collaborations with drummer Steve Reid captured something of the spirit of the classic late-60s free jazz records on Impulse!, they also managed to carve out a unique and identifiable aesthetic that sounds very much like today. When working with others, like the wooly free-folk unit Sunburned Hand of the Man or the dubstep producer Burial, Hebden knows when to lead and when to get out of the way. But all the while, whatever the context, he's absorbing. And when it comes to his own records as Four Tet, he has a knack for combining sounds from all over and making them his own.
Ever since Hot Chip started as indie kids seemingly dabbling in classic soul and modern R&B, they've been underestimated (not least of which by us). Delivering lines about "20-inch rims" and "Yo La Tengo" in a proper English accent, as they did on their 2005 debut, can have that effect. Yet on their two subsequent records-- 2006's The Warning and 2008's Made in the Dark-- Hot Chip steadily rebuilt their reputation by toughening up their sophistipop side. Their melodies began to develop an itchy, nervous twitch, and they earned dancefloor credibility through an association with DFA.
And that brings us to "Angela Surf City", the song on this album that deserves a place alongside "The Rat" and "In the New Year". It starts off tense and withdrawn, Leithauser singing about some relationship without ever letting us in on what, exactly, is going on. Underneath, there's a tense, withdrawn surf-rock beat. And when the chorus starts to well up, the music underneath keeps surging upward, becoming huger than anything the song should be able to handle, then getting even huger from there, as Barrick lets off relentless Bonham-level thundercracks.
How to Dress Well is to my mind the biggest breakthrough in home-recorded lo-fi in years. It feels brave, like it's going places a lot of artists in this sphere are afraid to go.
In his decade-long career, Caribou's Dan Snaith has fluidly moved between genres like folktronica, shoegaze, krautrock, and 1960s sunshine pop, assimilating their most familiar traits until they're practically in his DNA. His albums have felt warm, loose, and ecstatic (especially 2003's still-career-best Up in Flames), despite Snaith's behind-the-boards meticulousness.
Once in a while a record comes along that makes you re-think loud: King of Rock; The Land of Rape and Honey; Nation of Millions; Super Ae; I Get Wet; Kesto. Setting aside the quality of the material-- there are classics here, along with albums I never listen to anymore-- these albums are notable for me because the first time I heard them, music just seemed bigger than it had before, like it took up more space and hit with more force and went further than once seemed possible. When I was getting into these records, I'd get a specific kind of kick just from putting them on. They felt like rides at an amusement park, and I'd get a feeling in my stomach when the first notes kicked in: Here we go. I'm adding another record to my list.
It all turns out so ridiculously fun-- with Ken Burns-style readings of speeches from Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, daguerreotype cover art, and song titles all participating in the reenactment-- that it never even begins to approach the pretentiousness these elements might suggest.
Ariel Pink's best songs are surprising, and there's a real sense of musical delight on Before Today; the sections sound logical but never predictable, and there are wild bridges and short bits that emerge seemingly randomly but wind up taking the song somewhere unexpected.
The best songs feel more like conversations rather than artworks to be hung on the wall and admired from several paces away. Newsom seems to sing from somewhere deep inside of them, and her earthy presence has a way of drawing you in, bringing you closer to her music than you've been before.
Every great rap group has one MC who is-- possibly unfairly-- perceived to be slightly lesser than the other. DMC. Parrish Smith. Malice. Pimp C, at least up until he died. Big Boi's been on that list ever since André Benjamin started rocking pith helmets and neckerchiefs. Big Boi's not underrated, exactly; everyone who knows rap knows he's a great rapper. It's more that he's taken for granted. Virtually every OutKast review of the past decade and a half has posited Big Boi as the earthy, street-level anchor to André's spaced-out visionary, the guy responsible for securing the group's cred when André was trying to invent new colors. Expect Sir Lucious Left Foot to change those conversations. We haven't heard a major-label rap album this inventive, bizarre, joyous, and masterful in a long time, and it's almost impossible to imagine André putting out a solo album this strong anytime soon.
Halcyon Digest is a record about the joy of music discovery, the thrill of listening for the first time to a potential future favorite, and that sense of boundless possibility when you're still innocent of indie-mainstream politics and your personal canon is far from set.