Saturday, June 23, 2012

Q2: A Tad Preemie, but whatevs...

So, this is actually a little early with impending scheduling issues approaching, so I thought I'd better get this out ASAP, especially since there are SO MANY FREAKING GOOD albums to talk about this quarter.  With a general dearth of good albums being released in Winter 2012, it seems as though the Spring was absolutely ON FIRE.  When you are finding it difficult keeping up with everything new, that can only be a good sign.  Without further ado, here are my personal picks for best albums of Spring least, the ones I managed to get onto this list:

1) SAINT ETIENNE--Words and Music by Saint Etienne
Without question the best album of 2012 to date, this one's gonna be hard to beat come year's end.  Their first new full album in 7(!) years, Sarah, Bob, and Pete have come up with a record to rival their best full length, Tiger Bay from 1994, 18 years ago.  While Tales From Turnpike House (2005) came very close, this one even beats that, coming from a very personal place in these pop musicians' hearts, reflecting on a life lived in a pop world, first as observers, then as participants, now as elder statesmen.  "Over the Border", with its spoken-word verses, may be one of the most personal songs they've ever written, mentioning old record labels and music journalists, and wondering if Marc Bolan would still matter once children entered their lives.  "I Threw It All Away" may be one of the most lovely things they've ever recorded, full of piping recorders in what one can only describe as a depressing waltz.
This album is not without its corkers either.  Songs like "Tonight" and "I've Got Your Music" are some of the most euphoric notes they've committed to tape in their over-20-years of existence, as well as "DJ", a stormer dedicated to those tune-spinners that try to make you feel something on a dancefloor.  Follow those up with the Saint's most melancholic Pet Shop Boys-styled moment, "When I Was Seventeen", and the magical closer, "Haunted Jukebox", and you've got perfection.  I won't say anymore because I'm sure I'll be saying more later this year, but for now, this is IT.

2) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--Electra Heart
Some reviewers have been a bit harsh to Marina, and personally, I cannot understand it.  The girl has TALENT.  She writes amazing songs with catchy hooks, and had the inclination to seek out some of the top producers in the business to see her vision of self-obsessed popstrels through.  If Britney Spears had recorded Electra Heart, there's no way she would have been in on the joke.  Marina gets it.  An album stuffed with so many good songs that the lead single, "Radioactive", has been relegated to bonus track status in the UK (wisely it is being added in the US).  The kind of single that could compete with some of the best from Rihanna isn't necessarily even the best song here, with strong entries "Primadonna", "Starring Role", "The State of Dreaming", and "Power and Control", not to mention the extremely smart "Sex Yeah" (a modern female empowerment anthem if there was one), Marina has crafted one of the strongest pop records beginning to end in recent memory, and stronger than her first--there's no sophomore slump here! 

3) BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT--Make Me Believe in Hope
An album that I keep coming back to again and again, Rod Thomas has created an ultra-modern masterpiece on an indie level that synthesizes so many elements of pop music's past to perfection.  You know the sign of a good album when your favorite song is constantly changing, and there are so many inspired moments here, it's hard to pick a standout.  Some of these songs existed for a bit of time before the album release as Rod was recording and compiling them bit by bit, creating the record solely on his own budget, an admirable feat.  When people look back on this era and talk about how professional sounds can be made with less expensive equipment at home, I will look at this album as a masterpiece debut of the era.  I simply cannot choose a favorite song as they are ALL GOOD.

4) HOT CHIP--In Our Heads
Hot Chip have been making albums for a while now, and when they began I found them to be an acquired taste.  Well it took a while, but now that they've progressed, I've definitely acquired it.  This (their fifth album) is their best yet, with lots of throwbacks to bygone eras without ever sounding derivative or a pastiche.  The beats are turned up a little here, which is a good thing as ballads are generally not their forte.  It's hard to pick a favorite song, but right now it's between "Don't Deny Your Heart" and "These Chains".  You'll probably see this on the year-end list too.

People were griping before this album arrived that it wasn't another Night Work.  Well, there can only be one of those, and Magic Hour ticks most of the boxes one would want from a followup without losing energy.  "Only the Horses" is a great single, but there are lots of other good things here as well, and arguably featuring more variety than any other Scissters album.  The three opening songs are all killer: "Baby Come Home" is all retro funk, "Keep Your Shoes" a kooky, kicky technopop romp, and "Inevitable" a heartfelt mid-tempo ballad recalling the sounds they mined on their debut.  The only song that doesn't really work for me is "San Luis Obispo", but it's a fun little song on its own that sounds like mid-70's Dr. Hook hits the beach.  Closer "Somewhere" is a favorite.

6) GOSSIP--A Joyful Noise
This may not be the complete success that the Gossip were looking for when they signed on with super-producer Brian Higgins and Xenomania, but this record does manage to take their sound in a more sophisticated and adult direction without losing much of the fun.  Beth Ditto sounds like she's having a good time, and turns in some of her best vocal performances ever, especially on tracks like "Casualties of War", a bit more of a slow burn that allows her to really find the heart of the song.  Some are pining for the thrashy, less-melodic and glossy Gossip of old, but right now, they've made a little go a long way, and "Move In the Right Direction" is one of the best songs of the year.  Props also to "Get a Job", "Get Lost", and "Love in a Foreign Place".

7) DONKEYBOY--Silver Moon
I'm even surprised this album is so highly placed, but I really do like it, and much better than the previous one.  "Silver Moon" is a great opening track, while "City Boy" and "Drive" get even better.  There really isn't a weak song on this album, which manages to be just electro enough to satisfy tech-heads but enough warmth and melody to still be pop.  It's an endearing affair from start to finish, and "Pull of the Eye" is a favorite.

8) CHROMATICS--Kill For Love
Because I wanted a CD for this album, I went through the process of ordering it from their website as it is not available in regular stores or regular distribution channels.  They also only charged $5 for it...bargain!  The album IS a little long (nearly 80 minutes), and when you don't have a lot of time in the modern world, you try to hear as much as you can in your limited frame.  There are long, ambient stretches here that could probably be shortened, BUT, that would disturb the mood of the record and the art being created.  Sonically closer to M83 usually fronted by a female is the closest thing I can think of this sounding like, and if you've seen the movie, Drive, you've heard some of their music, which is decidedly hypnotic.  Still, there is some great 80's-derived alterna-pop here, especially in the forms of "Lady" and the title track.  Also, beginning with a mopey electronic-inspired cover of Neil Young's "Into the Black" is genius.  Favorites include "Back From the Grave" and closer "The River".  Five years in the making!

9) GARBAGE--Not Your Kind of People
Like Saint Etienne, this album took a seven year break to make, and while Etienne were recording singles and putting out deluxe remastered editions of their past albums along with collections, Garbage were essentially mothballed after an abrupt ending to their last tour and Shirley Manson becoming an actress.  During this period she came up with solo material that the record company rejected as being too dark (basically too much like Garbage), so she & the guys patched things up and came up with an energized record which will go down as one of their best.  The first three songs are some of the best they've ever written: "Automatic Systematic Habit" throbs with electronic intensity, "Big Bright World" is poppier and reminiscent of album Version 2.0, while first single "Blood For Poppies" could have been from their 1995 debut.  I am deducting only half a point as the album is absolutely perfect ending with track 11, "Beloved Freak", but then come four bonus tracks displaying relative levels of success.  I guess if I think of them as tracks that would have been used as B-sides, I may be able to overlook them a little more--they're not bad, just average.  Still, the greater portion of this record is the best album of the quarter to come from a band that came from roots based in 90's alternative rock and grunge.

10) NIKI & THE DOVE--Instinct
One of the strongest debuts of the year is this Swedish couple who sound like a cross between "Running Up That Hill"-era Kate Bush and other Swedish art-duo, the Knife.  What separates Niki from the Knife is their ability to be extremely catchy and somewhat more accessible, especially on big opener, "Tomorrow", full of choirs that sound dropped in from a Florence & the Machine record, while "DJ Ease My Mind" is like Lykke Li's more capricious little sister.  There is also a witchy Stevie Nicks-meets-Bat for Lashes vibe on this record as the startlingly good "Mother Protect" alludes to.  A US release is planned for early August from Subpop.

11) FLORRIE--Late EP
More great electropop offerings from the British lass, soon to deliver a full length.
12) METRIC--Synthetica
This band is finally beginning to get the attention they deserve with this album, entering Billboard US at #12.
13) MORTON HARKET--Out of My Hands
A-Ha's frontman goes solo again, but means it this time with this elegantly understated jewel.  Featuring a new Pet Shop Boys song.
14) LEMONADE--Diver
Alluring album for summer lounging with light R&B touches and a great raveup in "Big Changes".  A winner!
15) THE PIERCES--You & I
Bringing back memories of prime-era Bangles (not the cheesy stuff), this Coldplay-endorsed sister act has it.
16) SOULSAVERS--Light the Dead See
Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode does vocal duties on this which acts as the best LP he's made outside his regular band.  A bit of gospel and blues never hurt anyone.
17) KINDNESS--World, You Need Another Change Of Mind
Again virtually self-made, this album sits somewhere in the strange Prince-influenced record category, but I find it absolutely intriguing.
18) RUFUS WAINWRIGHT--Out of the Game
Sometimes Rufus the man can be a lot to take, but paired with Mark Ronson, he has created one of his best albums, and the best since the Want series.
28 years is a long time to take off, but PiL did and managed to come back invigorated with one of the best albums they ever made.  Astonishing.
20) A SILENT FILM--Sand & Snow
Like Keane but better.
21) KEANE--Strangeland
22) GEMMA RAY--Island Fire
23) AMANDA MAIR--Amanda Mair
24) MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Sea
25) PAUL WELLER--Sonik Kicks
26) TANLINES--Mixed Emotions
27) VIOLENS--True
28) LADYHAWKE--Anxiety
29) ULTRAVOX--Brilliant (another 28 year layoff with good results)
30) BOBBY WOMACK--Bravest Man in the Universe

The other good ones:
BLONDIE--Panic of Girls (I FINALLY got a deluxe CD--a winner for best package)
SANTIGOLD--Master of My Make-Believe
NICKI MINAJ--Roman Reloaded (Deluxe Edition)
ADAM LAMBERT--Trespassing
CRIBS--In the Belly of the Brazen Bull
NORAH JONES--Little Broken Hearts

There were some disappointments as well:
SIGUR ROS--Valtari.  Or when slow gets slower.  I'm not even sure Jonsi was around during half this record.
PALOMA FAITH--Fall to Grace.  Another slowie.  Let's call it adult contemporary.
FIONA APPLE--Idler Wheel...  Maybe I'll grow to love one day.  Right now the sound of a bleating sheep over stark percussion by someone who should be medicated isn't floating my boat.  She IS talented though.
EMELI SANDE--Our Version of Events.  Album didn't live up to the singles.  Snoozy at times.
SAM SPARRO--Return to Paradise.  Instead of channeling his R&B electo side we get Jamiroquai.

BEST REMASTER--The Everything But the Girl series of the first four albums.  BRAVO!
WORST REMASTER--Morrissey's travesty in cutting up his best solo album, Viva Hate.  Removing "Ordinary Boys" was alarming, replacing it with something that sounds like a rough demo distressing, but cutting nearly two minutes of "Late Night, Maudlin Street" is INEXCUSABLE.  People who were angry about Kate Bush tinkering with Red Shoes and Sensual World would be appalled by this hackjob.  I think I'll keep the originals, thanks very much.  Oh, and Morrissey, have you gone INSANE??

Finally, what do we have to do to get DRAGONETTE and LITTLE BOOTS to announce their official album release dates?

Q3 can't possibly get better than this.

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