10} Van Hunt : What Were You Hoping For?
The career of Van Hunt is the perfect example of major record labels’ increasing uselessness and irrelevance. This is a guy who looks at Prince and thinks, yeah, I can do that. And he can. Not that he should be thought of as Prince Jr. It’s just that, like His Purple Majesty before him, Hunt successfully fuses rock, pop and r&b with genre-blasting ingenuity. He can sing the tenderest ballad or the dirtiest funk, and he practically sweats out great songs. Hunt’s two records for Capitol were sumptuous, booty shaking, ear popping, slabs of should-have-been-hit singles. Instead of supporting this massively talented musician, the label left his brilliant third album, Popular, unreleased and moved on to their next piece of plastic pop waste product. No worries, you can’t keep a dude this funktastic down. Van’s latest, the cheekily titled What Were You Hoping For?, is a wild and wooly soul train, independently released and exploding with the creative freedom that affords. It’s not quite as luscious and bejeweled as his major label efforts, but the more homespun atmosphere allows Hunt to fly his musical freak flag high. He concocts garage-funk, punk-soul, and ethereal r&b. He mingles surf guitar with sensuous grooves. He also remembered to write a stone rocker classic in Eyes Like Pearls, and an absolutely epic ballad called Moving Targets. Moving indeed.
9} Fleet Foxes : Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues is the sound of a band who really, really didn’t want to disappoint their fans with a sophomore slump. Their debut LP grabbed a good portion of the listening public by the ears and gently magicked them into an alternate universe where Brian Wilson decided to become a producer instead of go crazy, and CSNY hired him to put the Good Vibrations mojo on Deja Vu. Or, at least, listening to Fleet Foxes’ shimmering harmonies, oceany reverb, and wildflower melodies made us dream of such stuff. Well, Grown Ocean from Helplessness Blues actually delivers that folk-rockgasm fantasy. Better yet, the album expands, sharpens, brightens, and deepens their lovely racket, giving fans more than they thought to hope for. For those closet hippies out there, this is musical perfection. Folk music without corniness or naivete. Transcendent rock-n-roll without goofy drug psychedelia. New age pop without new age cheeze.
8} Raphael Saadiq : Stone Rollin’
Heavily retro stylings in pop music can be an iffy proposition. For every Amy Winehouse there are a hundred lifeless, empty 60s soul re-treaders. For every Yeasayer there are a hundred nauseatingly ironic 80s synth pop bands. Simple imitation and inventive homage are very different things. Raphael Saadiq strolled smoothly into the latter category with his amped-up Motown album The Way I See It, and he does even better with a sexy, earth tone palette of early 70s soul on Stone Rollin’. If you can get as close to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions as Saadiq does on this record, then you can be as retro as you wanna’ be. He doesn’t rip off Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. He sews his own fly-ass velvet pimp suit from scratch, re-carpets his studio in rust colored wall-to-wall shag, finds a big, fat outdated microphone, fuzzing and glowing with analog ambience, and sings his got-damned heart out.
7} Low : C’mon
Low have a somewhat understandable reputation as miserablists. However, that tag is much too reductionist to be very meaningful. They’ve made a career out of exploring angst and melancholy in gorgeous, slow-motion, honey-drip songs, so finely wrought they might as well be set in platinum and worn around your finger. As impressive and fruitful as this course has been in their career, it’s nice to see them loosening up their taut control on the last couple of albums. Cranking up the guitar distortion on The Great Destroyer, and utilizing jittery, programmed/looped beats for Drums And Guns. Low’s latest sees Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker still singing sadly in that swoony, gilded braid of harmony, but with a freer, more open quality. A new humor comes through in lyrics like “All you guys out there trying to act like Al Green,” and a lightness of step in the warm, waltzy strum of Try To Sleep. Don’t get me wrong, melancholia still abounds on C’mon. It’s just that much more effective when set against an almost merry melody as in Something’s Turning Over, or overcome by an ecstatic, Neil Youngish, electric guitar blitz in Nothing But Heart. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of the moment when the Ugly Duckling realizes he’s been a beautiful swan all along.
6} Sondre Lerche : Sondre Lerche
Sondre Lerche is one of those destined-to-be-under-appreciated musicians: too quirky and subtle for big mainstream success, too classical and tasteful for hipster cred. It’s okay. There will always be a die-hard audience for pop music this well-crafted. Lerche has delved into spiky aggressive power-pop a la Elvis Costello, suave neo-Cole Porter wordplay with a cool Jazz trio, stripped down solo guitar sets, lushed up orchestral backings, and everywhere in between. His latest, self-titled album is a perfect distillation of the Norwegian’s best qualities: indelible melodies, inventive arrangements, and incredible energy. Just put some headphones on, pour your favorite beverage, listen to “Domino” and envision Paul McCartney and Neil Finn in a no-holds-barred cage match for the songwriting credit.
5} TV On The Radio : Nine Types Of Light
It’s great when a band is really a band, when you can hear each member striving to make their contribution to the sound. It’s even better when that sound is cohesive and interesting: a band working in harmony to create something greater than the sum of its parts, to alchemize sonic newness. The great art-rock bands do this: Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Radiohead, TV On The Radio. I’m sure Talking TV Head will be just as cool. But seriously, Nine Types Of Light is a towering layer cake of ex-and-implosive beats, dancing guitars and whirling synths– a solid block of laser-carved rock songs delivered in Tunde Adibempe’s dreamy soul shout with Kyp Malone’s ingeniously strange and wonderful harmonies orbiting around like a wandering alien looking for a new home.
4} Tune-yards : Whokill
Tune-yards could so easily be a disaster. Much of the best music takes chances, does something difficult to pull off, something that could be laughable or cringe-inducing unless you get it just right. But most of the time these truly ear-popping bits only happen once in a while– even in really talented, interesting artists’ work. Merrill Garbus and friends made a whole album of songs that seems entirely made up of those edge-of-your-seat aural cliff jump moments. Tune-yards makes a kind of urban dance-rock that successfully breathes in hiphop, African and Dub reggae stylings, then sweats out the result in exhilarating blasts of compressed melody and super-powered rhythm. A band made mostly of ukelele and drum loops sounds like a hipster nightmare on paper, but Tune-yards music manages to feel simple, natural and new, intricate, alien and ancient. Every track on Whokill takes a great pop song, strangles it, chops it up, paints the pieces forty shades of hot pink, then rebuilds a sexy, funky frankensong that shouldn’t be– but somehow– it’s alive! Maybe the key is Merrill Garbus’ elastic knockout punch of a voice. As cool as it is to hear the instruments breakdancing all over punk/funk/pop/rock history, it wouldn’t be a fraction as impressive without that growling, caressing, kissing, biting, sweet-n-sour bundle of vocal dynamite to set it off right.