The Front Bottoms, Rose: EPs have to be really good to end up in the same conversation as the best LPs. The shorter format should technically be easier to fill with great songs. Still, it’s rare for an EP to stand out to me. The Front Bottoms are hardly a big name, but after loving their faux-emo Talon of the Hawk from last year, it was a pleasure to find Rose building on their simple formula into something more ambitious. Rose is still filled with the kind of blunt punk rock that tends to expose other punk bands as frauds for their elaborate production. The lyrics are still biting and honest. But on Rose the Bottoms are exploring the boundaries of what they can do without compromising, and the results are gradually getting more and more entertaining. Favorite song: ’12 Feet Deep’ RIYL: Frank Turner, Parquet Courts
Miranda Lambert, Platinum: I’ve already written about why Platinum is an important album (TL;DR: It’s a feminist country album that’s bold in proclaiming identities for women apart from any sort of man.), but I’d like to devote some time to how enjoyable of an album it is. I tell people that I don’t like country music, but that’s not true. I don’t like most country music, because most country music today is terrible and usually not trying for anything meaningful. You could never describe Miranda Lambert that way. She had country music mastered from her first album after appearing on Nashville Star, Kerosene, and she’s spent the past 9 years getting better and better. That means Platinum should be her best yet, and she backs that up with 16 (!) great songs and no filler. From the wistful ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (feat. Little Big Town)’ to the rebellious ‘Somethin’ Bad (feat. Carrie Underwood)’, Lambert has laid claim to the world of country music and doesn’t appear to be letting go anytime soon. Favorite song: ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (feat. Little Big Town)’ RIYL: Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire
Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal: Parquet Courts don’t give a shit. Let me clarify: it’s not that they don’t care about their music. Their music often receives the misnomer of “slacker rock”, when really, like Pavement before them, they have to work hard to sound like they’re not working hard. No, what Parquet Courts don’t care about is your opinion of them. They’ll fill the entire second half of ‘She’s Rolling’ with harmonica improvisations, because they can. They have no problem allowing their title song devolve into a chugging riff with a barely perceptible guitar solo in its midst. And if their best song, ‘Instant Disassembly’, has its protagonist addressing a woman as “Mamacita” for no discernible reason, well- you’ll just have to accept it. Because they’re the best young rock band in America. And at this point you can tell they know it. Favorite song: ‘Instant Disassembly’ RIYL: Pavement, Sex Pistols
Jack White, Lazaretto: Speaking of being the best young rock band in America, that was Jack White’s band 15 years ago. It’s a hard pill to swallow that he’s now one of rock’s elder statesmen, even though he’s always kind of seemed like an old man. By now we accept blindly that White is a genius; his body of work is more than enough for us to allow him to coast. But what’s truly scary is when he’s obviously not coasting and he still makes a mediocre album. Blunderbuss was exciting even if it was more of the same from White. Lazaretto is more of the same, but with a countryish flourish. I like the idea of mining country’s tropes for fresh ideas, but White mostly succumbs to the temptation to fit his style into a box rather than bringing a different style out of one.
Under the Radar
The Donkeys, Ride the Black Wave: It’s not too hard to tell Ride the Black Wave is inspired by California. The occasional slide guitar would be enough, but the sun-drenched harmonies are the giveaway. The Donkeys aren’t a big band, and they don’t seem to aspire to one. But Ride the Black Wave will inevitably make you yearn for a beach. And if you squint hard enough while listening, you may even see one. Favorite song: ‘Shines’ RIYL: Dawes, Deadstring Brothers
Preson Phillips, In Our Winters: 2014 has already seen three really interesting worship albums, two from veterans David Crowder and John Mark McMillan and one from newcomer Liz Vice. In Our Winters feels of a piece with Vice’s. Crowder’s and McMillan’s are big albums with no shortage of production and songs that feel ready to fit into many contexts. Vice’s is a small album, specific to a world of R&B and soul. Phillips’s Winters is small too, and feels like it belongs in a world of acoustic instruments. Burden Phillips with too much production and you rob songs like ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and ‘Lamb of God’ of their simple power. Favorite song: ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ RIYL: David Crowder Band, The Ember Days
Robert Francis, Heaven: It would be a shame if the radio were still our primary channel of discovering music. The good rock and roll never makes it to the radio anymore. Some of the best rock and roll isn’t even getting attention on the Internet, that place where everyone gets to be famous. Robert Francis, like The Donkeys, is from California, and again the influence is apparent in his music. But unlike The Donkeys, Francis stretches for something a little more stylistically ambitious. Heaven finds its way from Bruce Springsteen rock to Nick Drake folk, all the while spinning tunes with greatest-hits-album-level melodies. Favorite song: ‘I’ve Been Meaning to Call’ RIYL: Ryan Adams, David Ramirez