Billie Joe + Norah, Foreverly: This record isn’t getting nearly enough attention, but it seemed wrong to include it in the Under the Radar section since both Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones have had multi-platinum albums. Foreverly is a re-creation of the classic Everly Brothers record Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Billie Joe and Norah sound great together. These are simple songs, but they’ve paid painstaking attention to the blending of their voices. On first listen, this may seem like a poorly disguised attempt to capitalize on the recent Americana boom. But the Everlys, and particularly Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, occupy a very different realm of traditional folk music than bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. Hearing the updated versions of the Everlys’ songs by two out-of-left-field artists is less about zeitgeist and far more about appreciating the universal impact of music that was born directly from the roots of our culture.
Jake Bugg, Shangri La: It’s entirely possible you still haven’t heard of Jake Bugg, which is a shame, because that means you missed out on one of the best debuts of the year in April. Shangri La isn’t as immediately impressive as his self-titled, which is fine, since the new has worn off a bit. He also tries his hand at a few more ballads this time around, some of which work and others of which do not. But there are blisteringly great songs on this record. “Slumville Sunrise” is a magnificently sixties-flavored tribute to escaping less than desirable roots. “What Doesn’t Kill You” plays at the edges of punk while celebrating playing at the edge. And while those two songs are probably where Bugg feels the most comfortable, my favorite song is “Storm Passes Away”, a slower, more thoughtful tune that asks the kinds of existential questions pop music just doesn’t deal with anymore.
One Direction, Midnight Memories: I know what you’re thinking: there had to be better records in November than freaking One Direction, right? Maybe there were; but then again, maybe there weren’t. From the first song’s “oh-oh-oh, yeah-yeah-yeah”s to the final track’s throwback guitar riff, I was hooked. And it’s not like I was a One Direction fan before this. Sure, “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” is on my iPod, but that’s normal, right? Listen, Midnight Memories is the best pop record of the year not made by a guy with the last name Timberlake. I can’t help that. It’s not my fault. You try listening to “You & I” without wishing you had someone to sing it to. I’m just a guy who’s had “Story of My Life” on repeat for the past three weeks. I don’t write the narrative, I just report it.
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP2: I’m over Slim Shady. I gave him some time, allowed him some space, and finally, I’m done. He’s been washed up for years, with pseudo comebacks in Recovery and Relapse, both of which had hits, neither of which will be among the three albums Eminem is remembered for. The Marshall Mathers LP2 is no different, but this one is the most blatant about resting on Em’s past, what with that title and the opening song, “Bad Guy”, hearkening back as a sequel to one of his best songs, “Stan”. “The Monster”, which continues Rihanna’s track record of spitting in the face of the people who want her to dissociate from people like Chris Brown, is a huge hit, but Rih is the best thing on it; Eminem hardly registers. It’s not that he’s lost his ability to flow; there are several songs on which he sounds like he never left the peak of his talents. But it’s hard to stay invested in a man who continues to rap about being violent toward “b*tches” and “fa**ots”. There are other rappers who use those deplorable words, but they come across as honest and self-aware, whereas, with Eminem, it’s gradually become more and more of a schtick.
M.I.A., Matangi: When viewed in light of the album that came before it (/\/\ /\ Y /\), Matangi belongs in the Hit column. Because that album sucked. But taken on its own, Matangi is another disappointing product from a woman who used to make art. On Kala and Arular, M.I.A. was one of the best sound collagists, compiling musical styles from around the world into a synthesized celebration of love, political revolutions, and foreign cultures and ways of life. Since then, M.I.A. has forgotten how to do all this while making listenable music. /\/\ /\ Y /\ was near unlistenable; Matangi at least has several bangers that pull you in and lift you up in celebration like her songs of old (“Bad Girls” is the best example, by far). But such songs are few and far between, and by the end of the album, you feel a bit underwhelmed.
Various Artists, Inside Llewyn Davis: The soundtrack to the new movie has received way too many comparisons to the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which I guess is fair, since Inside Llewyn Davis is another music-centric film and both soundtracks were curated by the great T-Bone Burnett. But this soundtrack was never going to be O Brother; O Brother began the current obsession with Americana, and Inside Llewyn Davis offers us nothing stylistically that we haven’t heard for the past ten years. Even with lowered expectations, too few of the movie’s songs resonate beyond their two or three minutes. There are a few gems, especially the version of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” by both Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.
Under the Radar
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe: The best R&B is unapologetic. That’s why R. Kelly has been the undisputed king for years, why Frank Ocean reached so many ears last year despite being relatively unknown, why Blood Orange deserves to be heard. Occasionally you may find their earnestness about sex and love and melodrama kind of funny, but you always believe them, and it’s this honesty (sometimes bluntness) that cements their songs in your brain. In Blood Orange’s case, his honesty is helped by a variety of arrangement styles. We thought we had the guitar grooves of the year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, but several moments on Cupid Deluxe give Niles Rodgers a run for his money. And the star of the show might be the saxophone that shows up several times, most notably at the end of “Chamakay”, putting a period on Orange’s lament for complicated relationships.
Cally Delorme, Song of the Sparrow: I’m sure you don’t need another folk artist to seek out, but let me commend Cally Delorme to you above the rest. Among the redemptive themes that play out across her songs, there’s an authentic low-key vibe that stands out. Her music sounds organically made, like hymns from long ago. I challenge you to find more soul-refreshing music than this.
Kevin Morby, Harlem River: There are probably six or seven ‘60s-‘70s troubadours you could compare Kevin Morby to (Dylan, Lou Reed, Harry Nilsson, to name a few). But it doesn’t matter who you ultimately land on as Morby’s old-school doppelganger. He’ll be great no matter who you compare him to. Me, I like thinking of him in the same lane as Bill Callahan. They both have a dreamy feel to their songs, and both have a casual disregard for the status quo, allowing their music to dwell on motifs that more mainstream artists would have given up on after the standard 2.5 minutes. You could also compare him to Phosphorescent or Kurt Vile, though he’s more deliberate about his melodies than those two artists (even more than Vile, surprisingly). Regardless, I want to get lost in this record again and again. You should too.
Off the Grid
Destroyer, Five Spanish Songs: I would follow Dan Bejar most anywhere after the last album he put out under the Destroyer moniker. But I don’t know what’s going on with this EP. Sure, it’s in Spanish, but that doesn’t bother me; I have no idea what any of the songs are about, but it doesn’t bother me. The real problem is that there’s not any consistency. There are lullabies and then there are songs that sound like they belong at a fiesta. But it’s also some of the most listenable music of the year. So I don’t know, maybe it’ll grow on me. One thing I do know: “Bye bye” is a song everyone should hear.