Lorde, Pure Heroine: Let’s just get this out of the way early: “Royals” is one of the very best songs of the year, maybe THE song of the year. It’s the perfect balance of what’s hot right now and what’s indie right now, which is also a great way to describe the album. Her voice isn’t that special, and a special voice seems to be the quality we most desire in our female artists, for better or for worse. But Lorde has a hand in writing all her songs; she mixes cynicism about pop culture with a wise sincerity, which is how she can easily transition from the line “we’re on each other’s team” to “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.” They say the best way to critique a movie is to make another movie; Lorde, who is only 17 (!), proves this is true for albums too.
Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt: This one’s a hit for me insofar as I love Pearl Jam’s early records, and this is a nice addition to them; their sound hasn’t changed much over the years, and the melodies on this one are a sight better than the hooks on their last two albums. If that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough to qualify as a hit, that’s not how I mean it, I swear. I love this album; but it doesn’t represent a drastic leap forward or a step back. Instead, it’s a wonderful representation of how Pearl Jam’s sound has expanded over the years from when they first broke into the grunge scene in Seattle. A piano makes an appearance and several songs lean toward a more atmospheric aura. But put this next to Vitalogy, Vs., Ten, and it absolutely holds up. They may have this rock music thing down.
Pusha T, My Name Is My Name: I’m not sure what it says about me that I included an album about selling cocaine in my hits for last month. But Pusha T has been making music about dealing crack for longer than I’ve even been into music, so maybe he deserves the benefit of my doubt. This is the first time Push sounds like he’s considering the consequences of his actions, especially on the soulful songs “Hold On” and “40 Acres”. The standout “Nosetalgia” probably has the best name ever for a song about cocaine. It deserves to be considered one of the best songs of the year, not because there’s anything admirable about what Push and guest Kendrick Lamar cover in their verses, but because no other rap song chronicles the experience of selling crack (or the feeling that selling it was necessary) quite like this one- and that includes those great Clipse songs from the mid-2000s. (Disclaimer: There is definite usage of explicit language on this album, as well as copious references to the procuring, selling, and usage of drugs.)
The Avett Brothers, Magpie and the Dandelion: Goodness, what happened to the Avett Brothers? It’s not like they were the most insightful band in the world before, but over their past two albums, this one included, they’ve become the most cloying band in folk music. I and Love and You is a modern classic, and they participated in one of the great moments for twang in the 21st century when they teamed up with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the 2011 Grammys, but now they’re singing lines like “Even though I know there’s hope in every morning song, you have to find that melody alone.” Those are the kinds of pandering lyrics that would have made Cat Stevens or the Carpenters cringe. The Avett Brothers would do well to find those two acts’ knack for selling kitsch as an organic commodity rather than wholesale and bargain-bin.
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2: JT’s 2 of 2 is everything The 20/20 Experience threatened to be but avoided. It’s overlong, overproduced, and overblown. It’s over-everything, and I’m over it.
Paul McCartney, New: New isn’t a bad record, but it encapsulates everything you expect a Paul McCartney album to be, and especially the negative aspects, which makes it a disappointment. After listening to several of Macca’s albums, you begin to appreciate John Lennon’s frustrations with McCartney as a songwriter. There’s no denying that Paul McCartney has written some of the world’s best pop songs (both in the Beatles and outside of them). But his focus on building catchy, quirky hooks can sometimes belie his ability to connect with people. A lot of New sounds like he was having fun performing the songs, but nothing sounds as full of life as his biggest hits or as immediate as his last album of originals, Memory Almost Full. But he’s Sir Paul McCartney, so who will hold it against him?
Under the Radar
Dead Gaze, Brain Holiday: Dead Gaze may have started out as a guy named Cole making shoegaze music on his laptop in his bedroom, but now that he’s got a band in a studio, he sounds like the greatest throwback to ‘90s rock since Surfer Blood’s first album. ‘90s nostalgia appears to be in now, doesn’t it? Well, Dead Gaze stands apart from the crowd in two ways; one, you probably won’t hear about them other than reading this little blurb right here. And two, their new album is full of great songs from beginning to end that champion youthful creativity. Come for the alternative revival, stay for the brass band that bolsters standout track “Runnin’ on the Moon”.
The Hawk in Paris, Freaks: Dan Haseltine didn’t need another great record this year- he already has Jars of Clay’s sublime Inland to his name. But this side project has its own distinct charms to offer. Billed as a mix between acoustic and electronic elements, The Hawk in Paris is Haseltine’s outlet for more pop-oriented music, rather than the contemplative folk-rock Jars of Clay fans are used to. The catchy hooks of “Beg for Love” and “Put Your Arms Around Me” are evidence of this, but there is profundity to be found, such as in the title song’s ode to nonconformity and the exploration of the feeling of finality after a breakup in “Curse the Love Songs”. While the similarities to Jars of Clay are inevitable, The Hawk in Paris distinguishes itself with earworms and production that is unmistakably not the product of a collaborative band, but still a whole product.
Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond: I know next to nothing about Mutual Benefit other than that this is a lovely album, full of the kind of dream-pop that sounds like it was almost created by accident. Gems like this don’t just pop up in this manner every day, fully formed and cut to perfection. Even Dead Gaze, which I love, seems raw and not set in its ways. Mutual Benefit, on the other hand, sounds like they were found encased in amber, a gift from the music gods, smiling down on us. If all of this sounds bit too effusive for you, just go to their bandcamp page and enjoy; after you’re done basking in their sound, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Off the Grid
Arcade Fire, Reflektor: This section belongs to any release about which I just haven’t made up my mind yet. Arcade Fire is both deceptively indie and popular. They’ve enjoyed indie cred from Funeral through Neon Bible to The Suburbs (an Album of the Year winner at the Grammys in 2011, which would matter if 5 of the previous 10 winners weren’t completely left-field choices that merited little to no reaction among the general populace), but the average participant in a trivia night at your local bar wouldn’t know them from Vampire Weekend (they’re the ones from Canada, right?). This album is decidedly not indie nor will it be popular. I don’t know what I think about. There are no big, sweeping hooks of the kind that I loved from previous works. Instead, Reflektor boasts a singular ambition that trumps anything Arcade Fire has attempted up to this point. Judgment officially reserved till I give it another ten or so listens, or until my head explodes after listening to the eleven-minute “Supersymmetry” for the sixth time.