Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories” -- “Random Access Memories” sounds like a big, meticulous studio statement and it showcases a painstaking attention to sonic detail that bands like Steely Dan, Genesis and Pink Floyd brought to their recordings in the 1970s. If it sounds tad too tricked up for your ears, give it time to grow on you. “Get Lucky,” the CD’s hit single (you may be a little sick of this one already and I wouldn't blame you!), owns an irresistibly danceable beat taken straight out of the Nile Rodgers playbook, (no big surprise as Rodgers is listed as a collaborator on the liner notes). But “Get Lucky” is just the gleaming icing on the disco layer cake. The rest of the disc requires repeated listening to appreciate the ambitious reach of this great band and their most original and daring recording to date.
Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside – “Untamed Beast” -- This Portland band sounds like punks who grew up listening to rockabilly and Charles Mingus. And Sallie sings with a swagger that’s sexy, sultry and natural. The All Music Guide described her vocal performances like this: “With a voice that can belt, soothe, caress, and flat-out spit sass, attitude and raw street emotion, she sounds like a dream cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin.” Songs to download: “They Told Me”, “Bad Boys” and “Do Me Right”. But be sure the house doesn’t burn down while you’re listening.
Patty Griffin – “American Kid” -- I’ve been a sucker for this Maine singer-songwriter since first hearing “Living With Ghosts”, a stripped down 1996 acoustic set of poignant vignettes that plumb the depth of love, loss of love and family life. Her latest collection is reminiscent of that initial effort, songs that detail her relationship with her father. They were written shortly after learning of her father’s impending death and explore his impending absence in her life. Her new beau, Robert Plant, sings background on several of the songs, most notably “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” Americana’s finest recorded moments of 2013.
Iron & Wine – “Ghost On Ghost” -- It can be hard to handle the earnest yearning of Sam Beam’s warm as oatmeal vocals on occasion. But this year’s Iron & Wine effort sounds like a nod to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks/Moondance” era. Beam’s baritone is backed by a blend of soulful horns and augmented by the thrum of acoustic bass, violins and tasty female background vocalists. His singing feels lighter and more carefree this time around. Standout cuts include “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.”
Laura Mvula – “Sing to the Moon” – On her first full length CD, newcomer Laura Mvula channels Nina Simone’s special brand of soulfulness. From the first notes of this marvelous debut, the UK singer uses deft, velvety vocal textures as counterpoint to jazzy arrangements that create the intimate vibe of a late night club scene in Harlem, circa 1950. Keep an eye on this rising R&B/soul singer. Stardom feels inevitable.
The National – “Trouble Will Find Me” -- The National is a band that found a winning formula on 2010’s “High Violet” and they follow the same sonic formula on this year’s disc. Nothing wrong with that, because “Violet” was one of the year’s crowning achievements in pop music. If it feels a little bit like they’re treading water, it’s hard to imagine their fans will mind. Matt Berninger’s baritone always adds buckets of gravitas to lyrical revelations that can be knotty and labyrinthian. The songs that work best this time around are “Humiliation” and “Pink Rabbits” (a drink he invented).
Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold” – Fifteen kick ass songs in just 33 minutes. Not one of them feels like filler. This Brooklyn rock quartet (they originally hail from Texas) take the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement, the Feelies and Guided By Voices to new heights and turn that 1990s template into something that sounds fresh and original. Songwriter Andrew Savage’s wry observational takes on politics, pop culture and personal relationships suggest he spent more than a few months of his teenage years listening to Jonathon Richman. Start with “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time.” Let the slacker angst wash over you. Revel in the innocent glory of a garage rock band finding their voice.
Red Baraat – “Shruggy Ji” -- Red Baraat takes its name from the Indian wedding ceremony in which the groom, joined by his friends and family, walk to the bride's family's dwelling to pick her up – all the while accompanied by a rollicking brass band following behind. If this sounds faintly like a rejiggered New Orleans street tradition, well so does Red Baraat. Led by Sonny Jain on dhol (a large drum that Jain wears on a strap over his shoulder), the Brooklyn collective is a fusion of brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, bhangra funk and Indian wedding music. If there is any “fault” at all it’s that the studio album does not measure up to the band’s live performance. Don’t miss them if they’re playing within a 50 mile radius. You’ll smile for days afterwards. Irresistible and imminently danceable.
Frank Turner – “Tape Deck Heart” – Former front man for the British punk band Million Dead, Turner turned to a more tradition band of Brit folk rock later in his career and has released a string of near great CDs that mine the same territory as Billy Bragg, whose liberal politics provide a nifty template for Turner’s own voice on “Tape Deck Heart.” “There Is No God” stakes a riotous claim for atheism and the celebratory “Recovery” makes addiction sound like a necessary part of living a full life. This vastly underrated artist deserves attention and this CD is one of the hidden gems of the year.
Satellite Hearts – “Imperial Green” – This power pop trio from the Philly area released "Imperial Green" at the end of 2012, but I had to include in the mid-year rock report. Inventive and brash, the Hearts sound like a mash-up of Brit ‘70s rockers Thin Lizzy, T-Rex and the Clash. For a band comprised of guys in their teens/early 20s, they play with surprising assurance. Their wall of sound approach has been used by many bands, but few make it work this well. “Dumb Down Daisy” and “Substitute” sound like the stand-out tracks to me, but the whole shebang works so well it’s hard to find the best of the best.
The Will Callers – “What Else Is Left?” – If you like your alt-country ballsy, loud and with a slathered side of greasy greatness, you’ll dig the Will Callers, Fort Worth’s finest. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard (the bespectacled Texas hippie whose “Grifter’s Hymnal” topped my best of the year list last December), this just released CD is shot through with gunslinger attitude. The band earned a statewide Texas rep by winning the Shiner’s Rising Star contest in 2010. This is their first full length studio CD and marks them as a band to watch carefully in the near future. “One Single Tear”, “Weight of the World”, “Heart Like Mine” and “87 Miles” will rock the house.