The Black Keys, Turn Blue: If Brothers weren’t a perfect album, Turn Blue would be my favorite Black Keys album. As arguably the biggest arena rock band (Arcade Fire might have something to say about that) that has also achieved something close to critical acclaim, the Black Keys don’t have anything left to prove. And this is the first album where that statement has actually sounded true. They’ve reteamed with producer Danger Mouse (who, apart from sporting one of the most annoying names in pop music, also produced their middling 2008 album Attack & Release, “Tighten Up”, and El Camino), and after their masterpiece of blues rock, Brothers, and an album that tried to make every song a single with mixed results (El Camino), the Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney) have seemed to settle into a groove. People have claimed Turn Blue as the Keys’ breakup album, since Auerbach is in the middle of a messy divorce, and the lyrics do seem more preoccupied with being wronged (“Year in Review”) and people’s potential for sin (the title track). But they seem most preoccupied with their own potential for great variations on blues rock, allowing Danger Mouse to complement their bare-bones riffs with stylistic flourishes.
Crowder, Neon Steeple: The David Crowder*Band (I’m legally obligated to include that asterisk, btw. Okay, that’s not true, but I’m including it in the hopes that someone will explain to me why they stylized their band name that way) could not have picked a better way to go out in 2012 than their final album Give Us Rest and their last tour. The band’s split, by all accounts, was amicable and due to a desire to pursue different musical paths. Mr. Crowder is now making music under the moniker “Crowder”, which doesn’t exactly scream “new direction”. And lo and behold, Neon Steeple, his new album, sounds more or less like a less guitar-driven DCB album. The dearth of any sense of newness or originality is a little disconcerting, but can I really complain about a solid album of David Crowder music? It would be nice to see what other veins Crowder has in his musical body rather than only either straight-up worship music or neo-bluegrass hymns. But when the results produce 10-12 great songs that would have stood out on any DCB record, who needs innovation?
tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack: “Water Fountain” is one of the best songs of the year, a blistering screed on political corruption that also doubles as a playground chant. While Merrill Garbus fills the song with her unmistakable yelp, the song’s pots-and-pans rhythm section press her lyrics into increasing fits of anger and cynicism. But is it flippy-floppy of me to say this song gives me joy? Ever since M.I.A. fell off the map after her brilliant record Kala, no one’s been able to harness world music in protest the way she did. Garbus’s last record, w h o k i l l, was a small slice of Afrobeat heaven. She already exhibited a talent for exposing institutional issues in songs like “Powa” and “Gangsta”, but w h o k i l l was content to remain in its small bubble. Nikki Nack reaches both farther and wider, with stronger production that doesn’t leave behind her signature homemade approach.
Coldplay, Ghost Stories: I like Coldplay, but sometimes I hate liking Coldplay. They get a pretty bad rap in this more enlightened age that has forgotten that A Rush of Blood to the Head was a pretty great album. But it’s not the fact that other people think they’re bad that bothers me- it’s that I’m starting to think they’re bad. After the dud of X&Y they came back strong with the nearly brilliant Viva la Vida, but it seems like without Brian Eno they didn’t have any more ideas. Mylo Xyloto was all pop pretension, and their new album Ghost Stories is a misguided attempt to return to the more stripped down roots of their first album, Parachutes. Back then, Chris Martin and Co. still had something resembling mid-20s angst. As tumultuous as Martin’s life is right now, they’ve lost whatever passion used to come through in their music.
Lily Allen, Sheezus: Ditto for everything I just said about Coldplay, without the references to Chris Martin and Brian Eno and with references to the fact that “Air Balloon” and “Hard Out Here” are awesome.
Lykke Li, I Never Learn: The phrase “power ballad” keeps coming up in relation to Lykke Li’s new album, but it seems a little forced. There’s not too much power behind any of these songs. With the exception of “Never Gonna Love Again”, the last song on the album, every song is kind of a slog to sit through. Gone are the spark-plug melodies of Wounded Rhymes. Instead, Lykke Li has stripped her sound down to give us nary a tune to sing along to. She took her best asset and cast it aside. I’m tempted to do the same with this record.
Off the Grid
John Fullbright, Songs: Upon first listen, John Fullbright’s Songs seemed a disappointment to me. His last album, From the Ground Up, was one of the best records of 2012 and a fun, occasionally angry collection of folk-rock songs that embraced its Oklahoma roots. Songs comes off as a softer record, something I didn’t expect from the writer of “Gawd Above” and something I wasn’t sure I wanted. On my second listen though, Songs struck me as the equivalent of a Billy Joel record. Fullbright uses the keyboard a lot more on this album, but it’s not just that. On closer inspection, his lyrics are still just as insightful and evocative as they were on Ground. I think a third listen will be necessary to figure out just how I feel about Songs.