Rock

Dim Mak 20th Anniversary (CD)

Steve Aoki’s homegrown LA record label reaches the two decade mark this year, and to celebrate they’ve put out a comprehensive retrospective featuring 20 of their most seminal releases. Dim Mak first made its mark in the 2000s, releasing essential material from indie bands who would go on to immense success, such as Bloc Party and The Kills. They later positioned themselves at a forefront of the burgeoning EDM scene, as reflected in the album’s opening cut, the now-ubiquitous “Warp” by the Bloody Beetroots. Dim Mak’s eclectic approach is displayed in Aoki’s selections; this compilation pulls from a diverse pallet of sounds and attitudes, but congeals around its shared mission of releasing music that is energetic and impossible to ignore.

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I Could Be Happy (CD)

Nouvelle Vague could almost be mistaken for a novelty act if they weren't actually so good. The duo of Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux (plus several delicate, soft-spoken female vocalists) has made a name for themselves by transforming tracks by The Sex Pistols, XTC, Joy Division, and The Buzzcocks into loungey, space age era bossa nova songs that belong more at a tiki themed party than in the loud timbre of a punk venue. But I Could Be Happy introduces something new: original songs. And the best part is that they don't fumble for one bit. Maybe by cutting their teeth on covers of perfect and complex rock songs, their original material doesn't land flat. "Loneliness" could be taken as a nostalgic crooner track that seems influenced by the exotica vibes of Yellow Magic Orchestra as organic sounds are gently stirred with an electronic flavor than can only be described as "chill." But the unique covers are still there! New wave band Altered Images' seminal single "I Could Be Happy" not only provides the title of the album, but is also a real highlight. The joyous, bouncy track feels like it took a handful of painkillers as it slips into a mellow variation that's more like a walk on the beach than a jolt of punk electricity. The Cure's "All Cats Are Grey" was already a haunting track that was seeped in a mysterious atmosphere and offered a taste of what more serious-minded '80s bands would do. But Nouvelle Vague's cover has a childlike whimsy that overshadows the brooding nature of the original. Instead of droning synths and echoing drums, the air of tragedy is added by touches of Celeste and an accordion that fuels the angst. As 2016 proves to be a grim year, I Could Be Happy is a musical ray of sunshine. It's pure candy for the ears and a quiet treat to end the year. Pairs excellently with a sweet cocktail.

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Better Ash Than Dust [EP] (CD)

Orange Country hardcore/metalcore group Stick to Your Guns have released a powerful, brutal statement with the Better Ash Than Dust EP. The songs are relentless and aggressive, so it might come as a surprise to discover they’re also…ridiculously catchy. Combined, the hard-hitting guitar riffs, primal drums, and urgent, melodic vocals take metalcore to a whole ‘nother level. And that’s what makes Stick to Your Guns so great; even with your ears ringing and your teeth clenched from head banging, once the EP is over you’ll be jumping out of your seat to put it on again.

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Love & Other Crimes (CD)

Madison, WI four-piece Masked Intruder have created the perfect party record on their short but sweet Love and Other Crimes EP. The riffs are hard, the lyrics alternately heartfelt and hilarious (case in point “Everything is awesome when you’re running from the cops” from, yes, “Running from the Cops”). The songs are simple but dynamic: a real testament to the power of the mysterious masked band’s songwriting skills. If you’re a fan of snotty good-time pop punk, you’ll want to turn this one up loud.

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Citizen Of Glass (CD)

Berlin-based singer Agnes Obel’s Citizen of Glass is a quietly intense, devastatingly lovely album inspired by the German legal term gläserner berger, or glass citizen, a nod to our lack of privacy in the internet age. Obel, a classically-trained pianist, creates dark, crystalline chamber pop by incorporating the sounds of centuries past — the celeste, the spinet, a 1920s synth called a Trautonium — with lush string arrangements, voice modulation, and electronic effects. The LP is dark and enchanting, well-suited for the winter months ahead. It’s a forward-thinking album rooted in the sounds of the past; you’re unlikely to hear anything else like Obel’s singular vision this year.

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Three (CD)

On Three, Phantogram have perfected their unique combination of gritty electronica and earworm indie pop. The duo draws inspiration from hip-hop, soul, and electro to create truly dynamic songs like the seductive, defiant “Run Run Blood” and the infectious “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” The music may be buoyant, sometimes startling, and always catchy, but the lyrics often do an about-face into darker themes of failed romance, power dynamics, and addiction. If you’re looking for a little more danger on the dancefloor, Phantogram deliver.

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Lady Wood (CD)

Tove Lo makes pop music of a different kind: smart, wild, and emotionally raw. On her latest, Lady Wood, the Swedish singer delves into similar lyrical territory, but adds a fine layer of gloss and studio sheen. Lead single “Cool Girl” delivers on its promise; it’s witty, self-deprecating, minimalist, and yes, icy cool. Wiz Khalifa makes an appearance on “Influence,” a downer party jam about club life, confidence (or lack thereof), and chemical use. Tove Lo once again stakes her claim as pop diva of disco darkness.

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Emotions & Math (CD)

Margaret Glaspy’s debut LP Emotions & Math will appeal to fans of bold yet barebones songwriting à la Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and Laura Veirs. It’s a surprising album not only for Glaspy’s take-no-prisoners lyrical approach to love, relationships, and breakups, but also because of the way she builds on her diverse influences from the worlds of grunge, country, and folk. Glaspy alternates between gritty blues rock and ‘90s snarl, which means her sudden turns towards the introspective pack even more of a punch. With confident, versatile vocals, down south guitar and minimal percussion, the New York-based artist manages to tick all the boxes required for an indie singer-songwriter, while creating her own unique take on the genre.

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Head Carrier (CD)

On Head Carrier, the Pixies prove they're just as raw, smart, combative, and thoughtful as when they burst onto the scene with their 1988 full-length, Surfer Rosa. This is the band's first LP with new bassist/backing vocalist Paz Lenchantin, whose dulcet voice serves as an interesting contrast to some of Black Francis' more aggressive moments. At times the songs on the LP are bristling and confrontational, in other moments the music is lovely and nearly sweet, but with a barely hidden edge to it. Head Carrier covers a lot of ground, both emotionally and musically, and it's impressive to see a band who has been so consistently awesome throughout the course of their career knock another one out of the park.

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We Can Do Anything [Indie Exclusive] (CD)

The Violent Femmes are in rollicking, raucous form on their country-inspired recent LP, We Can Do Anything. Album opener "Memory" sets the tone with an upbeat, infectious, sing-along chorus before Gordon Gano and crew inject some fairytale silliness into the epic "I Could Be Anything." (Seriously -- references to battling dragons and winning the hearts of princesses abound.) The tracks here include many taken from old Violent Femmes demos, some co-penned by Gano with various songwriters, and one track ("What You Really Mean") is a cover of a song written by Gano's sister. Quirky, good-natured fun.

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