Standout Tracks: All three of them. (No, seriously.)
Though only a three-track EP, Burial's latest clocks in at over a half hour and is tough to pass over. My first exposure to the young Londoner's work makes clear why his top-rate productions have been receiving the accolades they have. Unmistakeably electronic but never completely mechanical, his experiments crackle with a vinyl-static electricity that invokes mad science but breaks through as very human. Burial's dance deconstructions seem to unearth, as it were, old attic relics of house, bass and dub, blowing the dust off, examining their parts, and refashioning murkier off-kilter versions that feel artfully cohesive if slightly sinister, never once compromising groove for concept -- always a great listen.
Purity Ring - Shrines
Standout Tracks: "Crawlersout"; "Fineshrine"; "Grandloves (feat. Young Magic)"
Showcasing its impressive plumage, Montreal production duo Purity Ring makes a strong debut with Shrines, their own take on all things downbeat, modern, emotive and shiny. Once more, flesh and blood trump synths and circuitry in this female-fronted collection of heartfelt electro. Led by Megan James's youthful voice, most of the tracks contain some element ranging from childlike (joyful, nursery-rhyme-esque sing-song hooks) to teen-tinged (poetic angst proclaiming, "I'll stick red toothpicks in my dirt-filled heart"), giving the album a very fresh-to-the-world feel -- which makes sense, given their average age of twenty-two-and-half. Nevertheless, the production quality reflects a maturity and experience -- top-notch, crisp and often dark -- making for a curious contrast that begs to be heard on a killer speaker system.
Yeasayer - Fragrant World
Standout Tracks: "Fingers Never Bleed"; "Longevity"; "Blue Paper"; "Henrietta"
The third of our backyard stars in my Top Ten, this Baltimore-cum-Brooklyn group comes in at #8. To zoom out a click: Anyone who knows me knows I'm a big fan of D.C.'s local art-audio production/performance duo, the brothers Holladay, aka Bluebrain. Part experimental, part electropop -- with vocals and soulful jams recalling Prince's blend of rock, R&B and synthpop -- their older studio work is fantastic... and, to bring it back, yes, bears an uncanny resemblance toFragrant World, which feels too much like listening to a new Bluebrain album to deny that reaction. Now while comparing bands is usually not a compliment to either, in this case, both are doing such solid work, and both bear enough resemblance both in sound and story, that it feels like high praise squared. And since I was exposed to Bluebrain first, it's very hard not to hear Yeasayer in in that light. Point being, while I know the stretch between D.C. and Brooklyn is massive, it'd almost surprise me if these two acts aren't each aware of one another, just as much as it would thrill me if they were on a double bill together very soon.
Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor II
Standout Tracks: "Strange Fruition"; "ITAL (Roses)"; "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)"; "Bitch Bad"
Time to roll up our sleeves, kids: Who's gonna accept the risk of ending up on a government watch list for endorsing this bad boy? Well, someone needs to (and probably should've done so in a Top 5 slot), because it's just that good. We all know too much time has passed since socially conscious hip-hop's heyday, even though the need certainly remains -- possibly more amplified now than ever. So too is Lupe's response to this call. Good thing, too, as few voices in today's musical world are as credible and well-equipped to reflect upon and tackle the myriad pitfalls present in a modernity mired in mixed messages, ever-growing divides, and seemingly permanent states of conflict and corruption. Thus Lupe stands: in stark opposition, not just to the powers that be, but to that veritable sea of hollow if shiny voices devoid of meaning, purpose or agency. And thus Lupe delivers: a hefty and deft dose of message-heavy rhymes, dope beats and hip-hop swag that moves our bodies while challenging our minds, calling attention to complacency and inspiring critically honest evaluations of ourselves, our culture and our world.
Beach House - Bloom
What can I say? I'm STILL a sucker for this dream-pop duo whose party I'm late to. Yet another among the plethora of stellar bands beneath our noses and in our own backyard, Beach House does the mid-Atlantic scene a solid. Black trenchcoats and chronic daydreamers sway for days with this fourth release -- a fairly deep catalog that, if this album is any indication, clearly demand a much deeper dive.
Van She - Idea Of Happiness
Standout Tracks: "Idea of Happiness"; "Jamaica"; "Sarah"; "We Move On"
Disclaimer: This album isn't so much innovative as it is masterful -- a near-perfect and utterly pleasurable manifestation of its mission, even if that mission is to make another '80s-hearkening electropop album so prevalent in the past half-decade. Nevertheless, this crisply-produced and well-executed collection of catchy hits will have you singing and dancing, often in conscious spite of the thought-provoking, and at times dark and lonely, lyrical themes running throughout. Possible side effects: Uncontrollable steel drumming and tropical cocktails enjoyed poolside.
The Twighlight Sad - No One Can Ever Know
Standout Tracks: "Alphabet"; "Dead City"; "Sick"
You'd be forgiven for wondering on first pass whether The Twilight Sad is even singing in English. Perhaps best-known for the lead singer's thick Scottish accent and their infamously loud live shows, this three-piece's excellent third album marks a sonic departure from their earlier styles, toward what some have called a "sparser," "colder," "more militant," and "more considered" sound that feels a bit to me like a fresh take on and welcomed revival of early-aughts post-punk revival. The opening moments in "Sick" which feel like Radiohead's "Knives Out" are a stirring reminder of why this band is reminiscent of so much long-beloved goodness yet holds a unique power and voice all its own. Special thanks to Ivan for putting them on my radar.
Wild Nothing - Nocturne
Standout Tracks: "Shadow"; "Nocturne"; "This Chain Won't Break"; "Paradise"
The first of three regional acts on my Top 10, Blacksburg-VA-based Wild Nothing shines in this follow-up to their much acclaimed debut, Gemini. Though similar to previous efforts both in technical mastery and in clean, reverb-drenched, shimmery '80s nostalgia-pop creation, there may not be much else about this album that would necessarily land it in the top three... other than nearly every song striking a visceral chord deep within my musical soul, a reminder of just how and why music has always been able to speak in a way that overrides and transcends any analysis of it. Bravo, guys.
Polica - Give You The Ghost
Standout Tracks: "Amongster"; "I See My Mother"; "Violent Games"; "The Maker"
Formed in 2011, these highly creative Minneapolis-based newcomers are both unique and promising enough to warrant a #2 spot and many more listens over time. While an R&B influence and electropop vibe are undeniable, the overall feel is still far more organic than these tags might suggest. Channy Leaneagh's strong voice and Polica's vocal-centric songwriting approach lie at Give You the Ghost's core, and the effects and production work in their service, rather than vice versa, never feeling like they're there merely to mask inadequacies; it instead works as its own instrument and, like in Chromatics, warrants accolades for, among other things, best uses of autotune, delay and other vocal effects in recent memory. Relying equally heavily on rhythm-intensive acoustic tribal drumming, reggae- and dub-inspired basslines, and other active elements of organic and synthetic instrumentation and surprise, the sounds produced on this album are at once both sparse and ample, again bearing a refreshing confidence and clear identity, particularly impressive to see in a debut. Shout-out to Carrie for making me aware of this hotness.
Chromatics - Kill For Love
Standout Tracks: ALL OF THEM (C'mon, this is #1 here, people.) Personal favorites: "Into the Black" (Neil Young cover); the ever-seductive "Lady" and its chaser "These Streets will Never Look the Same"; vaguely oldschool-metal-guitar-ballad instrumental "The Eleventh Hour"; and penultimate flood,"The River.")
Up a very key notch from my mid-year Top 10 and into the #1 slot, Johnny Jewel's cooler-than-school nouveau-Moroder-meets-cinematic-moodscaper outfit stays fresh, minimalist, slightly blurry, and just out of reach. Still evoking something vaguely noir, distinctly urban and nostalgically modern, this gem is confident and sexy while understated and is a work of art from start to finish, worth all the peaks and valleys and best taken in behind the wheel and after dark, Gosling style.