Purity Ring make Cocteau Twins-style dream pop by way of Salem’s hard-hitting witchhouse on an album more notable for its smooth blending of related genres than for its actual songwriting, but they’ve got a sweet sound nonetheless.
Cold Showers’ short and sweet debut heralds the arrival of a great new L.A. band, beaming shoegaze guitars over darkwave synths and goth-style vocals. (Read my review of Cold Showers' show here.)
Django Django are like a friendlier cousin to Clinic or The Beta Band (to whom the band’s David Maclean is actually related). Their songs surge with electronic heartbeats and chopped vocals, even as they concoct catchy, psych-pop songs with Western overtones. Though their sound isn’t highly original, their debut holds high promise, and the band is so affable, you don’t mind that they look backward as they look forward. (Read my interview with Django Django here.)
Thee Oh Sees slowed their output this year by only releasing one album instead of two, the lazy bastards. But Putrifiers II is perhaps their most balanced record yet, sacrificing some of the hard charge of albums like Carrion Crawler/The Dream for a hippie shuffle that suits them just fine.
Katy Goodman of Vivian Girls makes the case for her La Sera project being the headlining act on Sees the Light, which is full of juicy power-pop tracks that mask heartbreak in singalong melody, such as the irresistable “I Can’t Keep You in My Mind.” (Read my interview with Goodman here.)
The Soft Pack augmented their garage-pop sound with horns (“Tallboy”) and electronic beats (“Bobby Brown”) while keeping things low-key and laid-back on the immensely pleasurable Strapped. (Read my interview with The Soft Pack's Brian Hill here.)
Talk about a leap forward. Indie poppers Chairlift first found success with the catchy but pretty annoying “Bruises,” an earworm that found its way onto an Apple commercial. Four years later, their second album ups the electronic angle and axes most of the cutesiness — tracks like “Sidewalk Safari” are as skewed and strange as there are tuneful. Of course, Chairlift can’t resist a sappy little ditty or two, but the romanticism of songs like “I Belong in Your Arms” is so complete and overwhelming, you can’t help but be swept up in it. (Watch/hear a Japanese version of "I Belong in Your Arms" below!)
Along the same lines as Chairlift, Tennis are a cute indie pop duo whose first album had some nice moments but was altogether a bit cloying. Their second album tosses away the sea-shanty feel of the first, and in its place is a stunning maturity. Songs like “Origins” search the sky for answers in vague, yet entirely relatable ways.
I’m a total sucker for Prince Rama’s conceit on Top Ten Hits of the End of the World, in which the Brooklyn new age psych weirdos pretend to be 10 different made-up acts channeling the pop hits of the end of times. Some songs fall flat on pseudo-world nonsense, but the ones that up the pop factor — the psychotic disco of “Those Who Live For Love Will Live Forever,” the industrial Cirque du Soleil style of “No Way Back,” and the early ’90s alt-pop feel of “So Destroyed” — really do feel like decades of pop trash stuffed into irresistible confection.
I tried many times to like the Dirty Projectors and sort of gave up after a while. Too showy, full of unnecessarily ostentatious playing for my taste, and occasionally grating to boot. But in 2012, Dirty Projectors became a band that was as much fun to like as they were to admire with two releases, the pretty About to Die EP and full-length Swing Lo Magellan, whose middle portion especially — the appealingly low-key hippie folk of the title track, the Mali-style guitarwork of “Dance for You,” the tunefulness of “Impregnable Question” — redeems their need to belt and shred away with abandon.
Best Coast peeled back some of the distortion and reverb from their debut, Crazy for You, for this more mature follow-up, which looks more toward country, Phil Spector and Fleetwood Mac for guideposts. The change suits Bethany Cosentino’s voice, which has grown more masterful and affecting over the past few years, hitting all the right notes on songs like the stark “Up All Night.” (Read my interview with Cosentino here.)
I knew I’d like Diiv from the outset, given the involvement of members of Beach Fossils and Smith Westerns, and I loved their early singles, particularly “How Long Have You Known,” as perfect a guitar-pop song as you can find. After seeing them live, in which the band tears through Oshin’s songs at a feverish pace, I grew to like the hazy vibe of the album more. As its oceanic title would suggest, Oshin moves like a wave, building and crashing, scenic and blue, with the melodies seeping through to you over time and repeat listens. (Read my live review of Diiv's show here.)
This is one of those albums that has a few very high points, namely its ’80s dance-pop influenced tracks like “Know Me” and “Night Swim,” but which largely deals in spaced-out ethereality. It’s an intriguing mix, and when you’re in the mood to take the trip, Interstellar will take you to the moon.
Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is an arch, brainy affair, which is fine in and of itself, but there’s an important humanistic element too. Tucked away in its Laurie Anderson-style vocal manipulations and classically trained keyboard work are beautiful icy melodies, as on the mournful “Our Sorrows.” (See photos from her Amoeba performance here.)
A beautiful, warm, strange folk record that was largely overlooked from the former Deerhoof and Cryptacize member. Despite his pedigree, which pops up in miraculous guitarwork here and there, Overgrown Path is most similar in spirit to Yo La Tengo, full of just-ornate-enough instrumentation and melodies so fragile they threaten to break.
Chelsea Wolfe stripped most of the electric instrumentation from her doom-folk sound for this remarkable record, which finds all the terror it needs in heart-splitting vocals and empty space. (Read my interview with Wolfe here.)
33. Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions
It says something about Schoolboy Q that for the first 30 seconds of dingey electronics and steady rhythm that introduces his album, before he delivers a smoky, syncopated and intriguing rap on “Sacreligious,” you might not even know what kind of music you’re hearing. After hearing the album’s 18 tracks of tripped-out beats and rhymes that can be either spacey and abstract or cutting (or both, as on “Oxy Music”), you might still not know.
Crushingly beautiful, beautifully crushing, a complete and austere journey. With only four tracks the post-rock kings envision desolate locales, depraved warlords and inexplainable beauty with little more than a few stringed instruments and fewer words.
Whereas Frank Ocean made an overarching statement of love and truth with his remarkable Channel Orange and How to Dress Well went for the painfully intimate with Total Loss, the third greatest R&B release of the year was nothing but jams, jams, jams. (See photos of his Amoeba performance here.)
At first blush impossibly, almost aloofly sleek, Twin Shadow’s Confess ultimately proves its worth by virtue of George Lewis Jr.’s impassioned vocals, which blends the nervous, throaty croon of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel with Prince-like abandon on songs like “Five Seconds’” cathartic “That’s no way to get it on!,” in addition to stellar production. Though everything sounds like an ’80s radio dream reconstructed by memory, Lewis Jr. breaks through the Instagrammed, instant-memory sheen by flashing some vulnerability. (Read my live review of Twin Shadow here.)
Dreamy and insular, Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum threatens to never get outside his own head with his music. Luckily for us, he pulls himself out and throws us a rope ladder with elements like “Midnight Song’s” Marvin Gaye-inspired melody and the ’80s pop propulsion of “Only Heather” so that by the time we get to the meticulously lush “Paradise,” we’re sucked in.
Some records aim for big and make it, while most fail somewhere along the way. Grass Widow’s Internal Logic has a narrower aim, churning out spindly post-punk whose surf-pop surge and ethereal harmonies float over atonal, sci-fi inspired riffery. What makes it work is an utter dedication to its sound, which never falls onto kitsch as a crutch but rather burrows forth confidently and coolly. With little fuss about it, Internal Logic ends up becoming one of your favorites — it asks little of you and gives in spades.
Some records make their presence known through a few songs that stick with you, while records like Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems create a knowable yet seemingly new mood that you can recall independent of its songs. Stott’s strung-out dubstep is encanced by the enchanting voice of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s childhood piano teacher. Skidmore’s heavenly but disembodied vocal makes her sound like a drowned ghost amid Stott’s deep tones and grimy, thumping beats.
Total Loss slightly ups the fidelity from its predecessor, Love Remains, but Tom Krell remains shrouded in reverb for much of the record. As before, it casts an enchanting spell, but importantly, Krell breaks through by opening up, either by indulging his inner Prince on the snap-along jam “& It Was U” and the “Purple Rain”-esque “Talking to You.” And the heartache of “Set It Right” is completely his own, a naked statement of loss set to walls of distorted samples.
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