Ra Ra Riot‘s third album, Beta Love, sounds like it’s going to be a big departure from their earlier records The Orchard and The Rhumb Line. The album’s first two singles, “Beta Love” and “When I Dream,” kept their signature strings but piled on drum machines and synths.
“Dance With Me” totally ditches the chamber pop for a snaking bassline, thick synths and dance music. It could be the catchiest song they’ve ever written, and I can’t be the only one anxiously waiting to find out what other surprises Beta Love has.
Beta Love is out January 22 on Barsuk.
1. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
This year’s top record might be a surprise, unless you’ve actually heard Who’s Feeling Young Now?. Punch Brothers‘ third (technically fourth if you count Chris Thile‘s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which also featured the band) album mostly left what the critics called “progressive bluegrass” in favor of something pretty close to indie folk.
After mixing genres like bluegrass and classical on their first albums, Who’s Feeling Young Now? focuses more on songwriting. Thile and the rest of the band still pluck and bow at virtuoso levels, but this time it’s more about how the instruments work together — often in the background — instead of the heavily layered bluegrass.
There’s also a great deal of instrumental manipulation. The violin on “Hundred Dollars” is about as far from the fiddle as you can get, and I’m still baffled how they managed to so perfectly cover Radiohead‘s “Kid A” with mandolin, acoustic guitar, violin, double bass and banjo.
And what better way to celebrate our album of the year than by seeing them live on New Year’s Eve? Tonight, Punch Brothers finish off their three-night run at Bowery Ballroom in New York, and I couldn’t be more excited.
2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
The best thing about Japandroids isn’t their music. Don’t get me wrong, Brian King and David Prowse are incredible musicians, but what really got me about their debut Post-Nothing and still gets me on Celebration Rock is the feeling that comes with it.
Most albums have perfectly planned highs and lows, but Celebration Rock is all highs, and better for it. It’s an unrelenting tornado of youth, energy, sing-along shouts and distortion that borders on perfect. It’s heart-racing, fist-pumping rock that never stops and never wears out.
In his review of “The House That Heaven Built,” Pat Hosken of Astro Cannon said, “Anthem is too soft a word.” It definitely is, but I can’t think of a better one. Celebration Rock is an anthem. And it’s changing rock music entirely.
4. John K. Samson – Provincial
This list has featured a lot of music’s greatest songwriters. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are legends, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is certainly working his way there as well. But leave it to John K. Samson to fly in under the radar.
Samson has long been a master songwriter in my book. As the frontman for the Weakerthans, he makes it seem easy to write from the point of view of a cat or about explorers in Antarctica. And while his debut solo album is different, his brilliant character-driven fiction still shines through.
As its title might suggest, Provincial, is about Samson’s homeland of Canada. Some tracks, like “www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” — a literal petition to the Hockey Hall of Fame — are unmistakably Canadian, but most carry familiar themes like the small-town boredom of “Cruise Night” and the frustration of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis.”
That’s what makes Samson a great songwriter. His songs read like works of fiction, with creative characters and settings, but they always boil down to something universal and true.
5. Flume – Flume
It was a big year for Flume. At only 20, the Australian producer also known as Harley Straten toured with the xx, got over a million YouTube views and even has a gold record in his home country.
But even without all that, Flume’s self-titled debut album would still make this list. Streten creates fascinating electronic music full of rich textures and vibrancies. But it’s his rare talent of turning those sounds into great songs that puts him above most other electronic musicians.
Streten’s already got an even bigger 2013 lined up. In addition to headlining tours, he just signed to indie mega-label Mom + Pop — home of Andrew Bird, Metric and Tokyo Police Club, to name a few — for the U.S. release of Flume. Get ready to hear a lot more about Harley Streten.
6. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean‘s excellent debut mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA., caught the attention of Kanye West and Jay-Z, and honestly, he outshined them on his two Watch the Throne tracks.
So expectations were high for his debut studio album (and early singles “White,” “Pyramids” and “Sweet Life” raised them even higher), but Ocean unquestionably delivered. channel ORANGE featured guest spots from big names like André 3000, John Mayer, and fellow Odd Future members Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, but Ocean’s presence — in both his songwriting and singing — is so strong that you barely notice them.
Now, with several Grammy nominations, Ocean is contemplating not making any more albums. Although he just said it in passing and it’s hopefully not true, channel ORANGE would be an incredible standalone legacy.
Posted in Album Reviews, Music Reviews
Tagged André 3000, Channel Orange, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, John Mayer, Odd Future, Pyramids, SoundCloud, Sweet Life, Tyler the Creator, White
7. Tame Impala – Lonerism
There’s more to Tame Impala than the Beatles comparisons. Sure, Kevin Parker — who is Tame Impala in the studio — really does sound like John Lennon, but more importantly, his music captures the Beatles’ penchant for pop.
Parker takes that basic Beatle pop and skews it into something his own. His warped psychedelic effects on both Lonerism and its predecessor, Innerspeaker, sound more acid-soaked than when the Beatles actually were on acid. But the massive synths, blown-out riffs and reverb never wash away the pop at the heart of his music. And nobody writes pop like this anymore.