Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mid-year pop music report: 10 CDs worth finding from the year so far

Should world music artists be included on a "pop music" report? That's a question I find myself pondering lately as my interest in true Billboard-style top 40 acts wane and I find my ears drawn to different sounds, textures, beats and, yes, even languages I cannot immediately comprehend.

I am aware that adults long have complained about the musical tastes of younger generations of listeners. This had been happening long before the age of rock 'n roll stunned my own parents. Did Bach and Beethoven advocates complain when their kids raved about Gilbert and Sullivan operas? You bet. Did Dixieland fans resent their kids bringing beebop into the home? Of course. 

When your granddad's Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs and Bob Wills 78s were deemed passe in lieu of your dad's devotion to those lowbrow beer-swillers and pot smokers, Willie, Waylon and Merle were voices raised and fits thrown?  I have no doubt.

Yet even as my appreciation for my 21 year old daughter's contemporary R&B / hip hop playlist has evolved and deepened, I still find a lot of today's auto-tuned hits hewing too closely to cookie cutter formulas and inane sentiments. 

Maybe it helps I can't always know what Juana Molina is  singing about in her Spanish-language songs. Maybe knowing the subject of the song would seem as trivial to me as Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber's "Despacito", which ruled the charts for most of June and is also mostly sung in Spanish.  "Despacito", catchy as hell, sold millions of digital downloads. But ultimately the song's ubiquitous popularity makes it as irredeemable as Lou Bega's chart topper "Mambo No. 5" became in 1999.

Once you dig into the hypnotic, electronic mood induced by the subtle percussive click-clicks that start the first track of Molina's new album, "Halo", you'll realize you're hearing something uniquely engaging and possibly life-changing: the way immersing yourself in a foreign culture can do. 

At any rate, below are 10 CDs I that have captivated my ears, engaged my attention for repeated listenings, and opened my mind to new possibilities of how music can make me feel. I have little doubt at least three or four of these albums will rank among my favorite CDs of the year. These are listed in alphabetical order, so you can judge for yourself. 



Dayme Arocena -- "Cubafonia" (Brownswood Recordings"). 

Regarded as one of Cuba's finest young singers, Arocena's second full-length album shows a highly versatile singing voice  and plays to the strengths of her Cuban band. Brassy, bold, immanently danceable and, always, fun. If you love Cuban music (count me among the island's fans), this one belongs in your collection. (A big shout-out to my son, Luke, for knowing I would dig this and for giving it to me on Father's Day!)



Ron Gallo -- "Heavy Meta"  (New West) 

Philadelphia's own Ron Gallo (formerly of Toy Soldiers)  has released my favorite rock n' roll record of the year and what might be my favorite song, "Young Lady, You're Scaring Me." Fuzzy guitar crunch, a kick ass support band, and a lead singer who's found his voice with material that shows a hard-earned streetwise sensibility. If its hard rock edges seems like musical nods to the Stones, the Faces and T. Rex, you won't get any complaints from me. This one continues to grow on me.



Ibibio Sound Machine. "Uyai." (Merge)

If you can imagine a band that seems to channel both Nigerian club music from the 1970's with James Murphy's LCD Sound System, fronted by a dancing dervish, you have some idea where Ibibio Sound Machine is going. Places. Dance floor places. Lots of them. Checkout the percolating rhythms of "Let's Dance" or  "Give Me a Reason" and see if you can resist the many charms of Eno Williams, singing in ibibio, the native language of southeast Nigeria.




Valerie June. "The Order of Time" (Concord).

June plows the fertile fields of Americana music more quietly than many other musicians but her voice is distinctive and seductive and I'm willing to bet her Appalachian, blues-based sound (and that amazing head of hair!) will launch her into a far longer career than many other bands who find the genre convenient as a trendy peg. Not quite alternative; not quite blues; not quite country. Just Valerie. Plenty enough.


                       

Kendrick Lamar -- "DAMN." (Interscope)

Lamar's follow-up to 2015's influential hip hop masterpiece ("To Pimp a Butterfly") is grittier but just as compelling. His social commentary about growing up black in a nation that elected Donald Trump president is likely to feel as relevant in 2050 as Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron sound today.




Laura Marling -- "Semper Femina" (More Alarming Records) 

Marling's quest to meld her own introspective feminist sensibilities with a desire to increase awareness of global women's issues make this a political album for people who don't want their pop stars to be spokespeople. This, Marling's sixth record, compares favorably to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and "Court and Spark." Like those classics, this one feels like it will be around a while.




Juana Molina -- "Halo" (Crammed Discs). 

The high priestess of Argentinian electronica has released another mesmerizing collection of hypnotic dance pop. As good as the records are, her rare live performances are as magical as they are memorable. This, her first release is more than four years, is worth the wait. Buy it.



Chris Stapleton -- "From a Room" (Mercury). 

Although it clocks in at only 32 minutes, these nine songs are among the best Nashville has produced this year.  The album sounds sparse and introspective, compared to the 2015 CMA Album of the Year winner, "Traveller".  I would suggest giving two rowdy rockers a listen ("These Stems" and "Second One to Know" before you fall for his softer side ("I Was Wrong"). His long hair and beard suggests he's mining Jamey Johnson's act, but his singing reminds me more of Ronnie Van Zant.



Tinariwen -- "Elwan"  (Epitath).

I had to teach the night they played XPN's World Cafe stage and were joined by Philly's own Kurt Vile. I'm still kicking myself for not cancelling class. It would have been the right thing to do. Tinariwen hails from the Saharan desert of northern Mali and their multi-layered guitar attack owes a lot to blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure, their countrymen. If you wish to become immersed is a new meaning of the blues, try "Elwan" for a spin. You'll thank me.



War On Drugs -- "A Deeper Understanding" (Secretly Canadian). 

It won't be released officially as an album for two more months (August 25th is the official drop date). But if the two new songs -- "Thinking of a Place" and "Holding On") -- XPN has put into its rotation are any indication, this one will be another guitar blitz masterpiece. They are playing the Dell Music Center on Thursday, Sept. 21st. Hope to see you there!

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