This list is not my favorite new releases; instead, it is the best of the albums I listened to since this time last year. This list is also in alphabetical order because agonizing over a precise order would take all the fun out of remembering these albums:
Alt-J, An Awesome Wave:
Named after the keystroke for making a delta (i.e., triangle) sign on a Mac by holding down the Alt and J keys, the Leeds, England–based trio Alt-J is inspired by the symbol’s mathematical definition of change…. Its take on postmodern pop mines the best elements from folk-rock, garage rock, dub-pop, indie rock, vintage cinema scores, and a cappella harmony before constructing layered, angular arrangements with sonic ore. (iTunes)
Atoms For Peace, Amok:
Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace involves longtime Radiohead engineer/producer Nigel Godrich (Ultraísta) and bassist Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), as well as two session veterans in drummer Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Ultraísta) and percussionist Mauro Refosco (Forro in the Dark). (iTunes)
With that line up, need I say more?
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest:
In the few short years of their existence, Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear has taken their cavernous, whispery indie pop to the peaks of critical acclaim while stacking up a new set of building blocks as reference points. Vecktatimest continues the trajectory, working on a more epic level, but still providing a kind of hand-crafted, weird Americana feeling via their sparse arrangements and echoing, deep-in-the-basement feel…. Veckatimest is an ornate collection of left-field pop music, at once familiar and curious, and also one of the sweetest, and more moving pop albums you’re likely to hear. (iTunes)
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars:
Like any union that carries some measure of professional convenience, the Civil Wars encountered difficulties as they began to mature. Unlike other groups whose history extended to a professional gathering of songwriters and singers, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White were blessed with considerable immediate success: their 2011 debut climbed its way into the U.S. Top 10, going gold and winning two Grammys along the way. Any other band would’ve basked in such success, but the Civil Wars began to splinter, announcing in November of 2012 that they were taking a hiatus, leaving behind this, an eponymous second album…. Ultimately, the Civil Wars are impeccable craftsmen, taking weathered elements and repurposing them for something that feels new and never haunted by what came before.
Yet another outstanding volume of Bob Dylan’s continuing Bootleg Series, where rare and previously unreleased recordings are restored to their finest quality. This collection features solo performances made for publishing purposes. They’re loose and affecting…. Fifteen of the tracks have never been officially released. It’s absolutely scary how good Dylan was at such a young age. (iTunes)
The release of Volume 10 prompted me to got back and catch up with Volume 9, which I had neglected previously. I’m very glad I did.
Moon Hooch, Moon Hooch:
The reaction is instantaneous. It doesn’t even matter when they’re the opening act no one in the room has heard before — as soon as Moon Hooch starts playing, it’s as if the room becomes a living, surging, pulsing thing. They call it ‘cave music’: like house music, but more primitive and jagged and raw. But there are no DJs or laptops here — just one drum kit and two saxophones. Moon Hooch met while all three were students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. They found in each other a similar drive to work harder, practice more than anyone else, and put in eight hours a day in the school’s rehearsal rooms on top of their coursework. They played their first ‘gig’ busking in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art before moving on to the L train subway platform at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn initiating the first of many impromptu underground raves. (They’ve since been banned from playing in the Bedford station by a weary NYPD. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, friendlier stations.) The ‘cave music’ sound developed around an organic approach to playing electronic dance music. The looping, frenetic sax melodies and James’s furious drumming are fierce and trance-like, as Mike and Wenzl rock back and forth, pushing and pulling each other from across the stage. Sometimes Wenzl switches over to a contrabass clarinet, or inserts a long cardboard tube into the bell of his sax to create the deep, throbbing whomp of a dubstep bassline. It’s manic, and thrilling, and perhaps a little bit evil…. And every night, it’s the same story: they take the stage to a few hundred people who might have no idea what they’re in for, and leave the stage to the roar of a few hundred people who are going to tell all their friends the next day, ‘Dude, I saw something incredible last night.’
John Darnielle’s plan is simple, but it’s never easy. As drummer Jon Wurster lays down a basic, sturdy beat, Darnielle grabs an acoustic guitar or, more recently, sits at a piano and sings an easy, flowing melody with an ambush of lyrics. (iTunes)
My wife and I have gotten really into The Mountain Goats this year, and this is one of a handful of excellent albums from them we’ve listened to in recent months. So far, we love them all.
Son Lux, Lanterns:
On his third album as Son Lux, producer Ryan Lott returns with Lanterns, an intricately assembled album of delicate harmonies and solidly crafted beats that sits at the intersection of bedroom pop and left-field production…. With its dense layering, the album always feels like it’s in motion, constantly shifting and changing in a way that makes its deliberate construction feel like nothing short of a miracle as the album effortlessly drifts along. (iTunes)
Thelonious Monk, Complete Albums Collection:
Only $24.22. “The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums brings together the most popular of Monk’s recordings of the period, including Monk’s Dream (1962), Criss Cross (1962), It’s Monk’s Time (1964), Monk (1964), Straight, No Chaser (1966) and Underground (1967); albums that found the influential and iconoclastic pianist and composer collaborating with one of the most sympathetic interpreters of his lyrical and thorny music, the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. While Monk had been acknowledged by fellow musicians as one of the linchpins of modern jazz, it wasn’t until he signed with Columbia Records that he achieved considerable popular recognition. His albums sold widely, his quartet became a considerable live attraction and, amazingly enough, he found himself on the cover of Time Magazine in early 1964. This comprehensive six CD set also boasts a beautifully designed booklet filled with previously unseen photos capturing Monk and his musicians at the historic recording sessions.”
Typhoon, White Lighter:
Portland, OR’s 11-piece orchestral Alt-Folk rockers scanned 13k+ independently after receiving stunning reviews from Bob Boilen/NPR to Rolling Stone to Paste, appearances on Letterman, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Fest, Sasquatch & Osheaga. The album looks to be the band’s launching pad as Alt-Folk’s new darling.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
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