Artist: Purity Ring
Another male-female duo. More Canadians making SWEET electronic music. And more James Blake-like restraint. It’s like Purity Ring dipped into everything fashionable this year to make their debut album Shrines, which came out July 2012. Crispy cool electronic beats loop and spiral and float, full of restraint and dreamily moving much slower than the pace of the world. The high pitched female vocals are complicated, but repetitive, and just forceful enough to hold their own as they weave in and out of the electronic sounds. I didn’t expect so much diversity among the songs. The album happens to be excellent.
Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, released May 2012, is probably, no definitely, the best rap album of the year so far. It’s hardcore and raunchy at times, and it’s about as in your face as Killer Mike himself, who is, to say the least, a large imposing figure. But it’s buoyed by the fact that it’s also smart. The album, like Killer Mike, is politically outspoken (check out the song Reagan) and overtly and articulately addresses issues of race and class discrepancies in this country.
Patrick Watson combines classical music and quiet indie pop into swirling happy soundscapes and warm sounds. He’s a Canadian combination of…ready, here goes …Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and Regina Spektor. Regina Spektor for the classical influence - espcially the the off-kilter, supremely beautiful piano - that is the foundation of every song, as well as a pinch of the same gimmicky quirkiness. He has the steady pace and quiet tone of Andrew Bird. But mostly, I hear Sufjan, for the steep crescendos and sharp unexpected turns. And for the song Into Giants, which is a perfect, and quite lovely, replica of the Sufjan’s sound. I’ll throw another into the pot too: the quiet wisping falsettos of Bon Iver. Mix all that together and see what your imagination comes up with. Watson released his fourth studio album, Adventures in your own Backyard, in April of this year. He plays the type of music I just want to snuggle into - like just lay down, close my eyes gently, smile, and be held and happy.
It hasn’t been a particularly consistent road, but I’m digging the dark-electronic-chillwave spot Chromatics is currently occupying. Retaining elements of their lo-fi leanings of previous albums, their latest release Kill for Love (March 2012) is easy and cathartic. Even where songs are driving or upbeat, the listener is rarely asked to focus on more than two or three sounds at any given time, and the sounds trade off the spotlight slowly, so as not to overwhelm. For the synesthesiacs among you, think thin lines (angled differently depending…) and small dots topping steady blocks overlaid by blue or grey haze. Stand out songs: Kill for Love, Lady, Birds of Paradise, and These Streets will Never Look the Same.
“Long lit up tonight and still drinking/Don’t we have anything to live for?/Well of course we do/But till they come true/We’re drinking.” OR. “Gimme that night you were already in bed, said Fuck It got up to drink with me instead.” AND THEN. “When they love you, and they will/Tell em all they’ll love in my shadow/And if they try to slow you down/Tell em all to go to hell.” YES. A few lines from Japandroid’s Celebration Rock, released June 2012. Exhibit A: pretty damn close to how I feel all the time. Exhibit B? Doing my best to bring that me out, but failing more and more. Exhibit C: I do…all the time.
Not all the songs are about drinking or drugs or being angry, but they ARE all enlightened, and more than a little empowering, punk rock punches about being young. Or not so young - anyone in that time of life where you know how to enjoy it before it gets the best of you. And you know you know, as you sit fearfully on the outskirts of that patch, glancing or staring outward trying to bring the rest of it all into focus because you’ll have to at some point anyway. That’s the premise of the album, created by two uninhibited (not uncontrolled) guys - a guitarist and a drummer - fast punk rock that skirts the line between angry and searching, but not without a lot of wit and insight. Potential album of the year.
Another point for amazing female artists of 2012. Kimbra, Sharon Van Etton, Beach House, the Ting Tings, Lower Dens, La Sera, First Aid Kit…the list goes on and on. Now Mynabirds. Led by Laura Burhenn, hailing first from DC, now Omaha, NE, and buddy-buddy with the likes of Conner Oberst, Mynabirds is classic female-led indie music. A beautiful woman with bright eyes, long hair, and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, defining the fashion trends for Urban Outfitter’s upcoming season, singing mostly alto and playing her keyboard in some combination of soul and modern pop, with sometimes thrashing, but always controlled, emotion. Generals, out tomorrow, is their sophomore album, named for the best song, by far, on the album. Generals builds slowly until the title track, which is third, then oscillates on a slow downward trend in energy level. But the album still sustains itself, because it’s completely driven by beats and electronic sounds, which, even when slow and uninteresting, are still catchy.
FUN. is quick-changing, formulaic capital F-U-N fun., grounded by resonating lyrics of feeling alone and lost and then the struggle to discover what’s meaningful in life. Sophisticated in it’s message and it’s production, Some Nights (February 2012) is perfect pop for the 20-something whose life is at least part, if not mostly, one giant existential crisis. Nate Ruess’ versatile poptastic voice, charging forth, declaring, wondering, with big choruses, crescendos, breakdowns, falsettos, distortion, hip hop beats, piano, horns, bells and whistles of all kinds bringing us elation and solidarity, perfected by squeaky clean production. I think I can see his facial expression at any moment just by listening, and did I just hear Queen? Estelle? Sleigh Bells? All over the place in the best way possible. It’s a far cry from Nuess’ start as The Format, which I still miss terribly, but I couldn’t dislike this album if I tried.
La Sera is the side project of Katy Goodman, one of the three Vivian Girls. The group has the same lo-fi, beachy Vivian Girls/Best Coast style - music that is reminiscent of an simpler, more innocent time of the past. Boyfriends, heartbreak, best friends; but with a heavy dose of 21st century female empowerment, as well as the wit and creativity required to pierce through today’s cluttered indie environment. Their latest, Sees the Light (March 2012) is at least in part a breakup album, though you might not guess it at first listen. Katy Goodman’s soprano voice happily dances and rolls across a simplistic guitar-bass-drums backdrop, often amusingly contradicting her lyrics. It’s an easy, fun, not terribly gut-punching album - listening is like spending the day riding roller coasters at Coney Island in slow motion with your field of vision tinted in instagram. And she has this adorable expression plastered on her face 100% of the time: a serene, spacey, almost possessed, smile, somehow always looking like she’s innocently barring her soul and wearing her heart on her sleeve, but with a big twist of something else up the other sleeve. This expression is especially fitting for the man-killing/singing with decapitated people part of the video Never Come Around from 2010. But it’s also her MO everywhere else: in every other videos; or walking down the street and into the venue at a recent show in DC; and the entire time on stage at said show, whether serenading the audience, interacting with her band or dancing in her own world. Which is awesome, because if facial expressions could be a music style, then La Sera’s matches up perfectly.
The more talented, more deeply in touch with things-meaningful, more creative, indie version of Katy Perry…or (fill in the blank pop star). Kimbra is all pop, yes, refined though, not overproduced, and it’s not the ambient kind of pop that only requires your most surface level senses. Coming to mainstream after the unanticipated success of her collaboration “Somebody that I Used to Know” with Gotye (I’m sure you’re one of the now 213 million people who have seen the video), Kimbra has released her debut album Vows in the States (May 2012). Kimbra’s single “Settle Down,” also the first track on the album, is nothing to sneeze at by YouTube standards either, probably because it so compellingly and deeply hits a few different versions of our core and playfully mocks all kinds of Americana (note: she’s from New Zealand). It’s also a great example of her creativity and diverse talents; she’s introspective, fun, accusatory at times, above all passionate, expressing all these through an incredible vocal range. I mean Mariah Care-level lows to highs, beat boxing, a cappella, and much more, her voice driving forward, falling playfully, and lifting - her lisp a constant and delightful accent - often all within the same song.
Lower Dens is the latest project of eccentric-folk artist Jana Hunter. The songs characteristically pulse and build; but the defining feature for this five person band from Baltimore is Hunters alto voice, alternating between rolling, low sounds to piercing, beautiful cries. It’s the sure driver of the music, but it’s embedded in the instrumentation rather than overlayed. Nootropics, released May 2012, is not significantly different from their debut, Twin-Hand Movement, release in 2010. Except that the band seems to have matured, doing a better job on this latest release highlighting their strongest features, namely, Hunter’s voice. This song, “Brains,” is the catchy single that gave most people their first introduction to Lower Dens.