We’re two months into 2015 and already some great albums have dropped. There are a lot of albums by big names coming out this year like Coldplay, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, Madonna, Blur, Kid Cudi, Muse, even Fleetwood Mac. I won’t be writing about those.
Here are a few of my favorites so far, followed by a list of the releases I’m most excited about.
Panda Bear vs. The Grim Reaper (Domino) January 13
I’ve been aware of Panda Bear via Animal Collective since they played at my former home, Lobot Gallery, back in 2004. I’m a big fan of the production going on here, right up my alley with what I’ve been making and listening to lately. The beats are influenced by 90s hip hop, and co-producer Sonic Boom’s (Spacemen 3) classic wall of swirl is in full effect. It’s trippy and weird and ambient and noisy and psychedelic and groovy all at once. I’m going to be playing this a lot this year. Watch the trippy video for Boys Latin.
Belle & Sebastian “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” (Matador) January 19
In my mind, from 1996 to 2000, this band only released magic.
Stuart Murdoch even admitted they got a bit lost after that in his latest Pitchfork interview. I hear some of that magic again here. I especially appreciate the special edition 4 LP vinyl release that has the dancier tracks, like The Party Line, on sides of their own at 45 rpm, like classic dance 12”s.
No one seems to be talking about it yet, but “Play for Today”, a synth pop duet with Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls is dance floor jammer. It is like an updated version of Lazy Line Painter Jane, one of my favorite B&S tracks ever.
This is the first LP I bought this year, by the way, it was an excellent choice.
Natalie Prass “S/T” (Spacebomb) January 26
Much to Natalie’s dismay apparently, this album was recorded in 2012, but wasn’t released until January 2015. It doesn’t really matter because the songs are timeless, it would’ve sounded just as relevant in 1970. Check out the video for Why Don’t You Believe in Me?
About to Drop:
1. Chromatics “Dear Tommy” (Italians Do It Better) March
Johnny Jewel, the mastermind behind one of my favorite labels, Italians Do It Better, has been busy this past year and he's showing no signs of slowing. In addition to scoring Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, soon he'll be releasing the follow up to Chromatics' 2012 masterpiece, Kill For Love, entitled Dear Tommy. He has already dropped the first single from it on Soundcloud, entitled Just Like You. It is a free download, and he says he'll be releasing a single a week from the album until its release in March. For free. Who says downloading is killing music? This guy writes, records and produces for several bands (Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, Symmetry), runs a label, scores films, and stays active in their mail order store and on the Facebook page. The last time new merch went up in the Italians Do It Better store, it sold out within minutes. This label is doing everything right by releasing impeccable albums with timeless artwork, creating a mystique all their own, and most importantly, treating their fans well. And I haven't even mentioned what it sounds like. The first single is a woozy, downtempo torch song buoyed by classic analog electronics and Ruth Radelet's mesmerizing alto. Poised to sail easily into my Best of 2015...
2. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love (Jagjagwar) May 26
The title track from the soon to be released album, Multi-Love has got all the elements that made me fall in love with this Portland, by way of New Zealand, three piece late last year. Their signature timeless recording style makes it sound like it could be an obscure 60's track or carefully curated samples cleverly layered into something new. Some might say retro, but it sounds more future to me. Combining elements old and new to create unique and original sounds is about as forward thinking as it gets in my mind. The moody songwriting is strong as ever and his croon seems to get croonier which each album. It’s crusty, funky and soulful and it appears to be getting even synthier. I love it.
"Multi-Love checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room." Perfect.
To quote frontman Ruben Nielson: "“It felt good to be rebelling against the typical view of what an artist is today, a curator. It’s more about being someone who makes things happen in concrete ways. Building old synthesizers and bringing them back to life, creating sounds that aren’t quite like anyone else’s. I think that’s much more subversive.”
For the last year or so, Ruben has been hard at work in his home studio, coming up occasionally to share with us two extended experimental explorations, SB-01, available only for download on Christmas 2013, and SB-02, for Christmas 2014. What joyous gifts! Given the wondrous melodic synth lines, arpeggios and dirty drum heavy rhythms of SB-02 and this new single, I’d say it’s a safe bet this will be one of the best records of 2015.
Multi-Love is being released on May 26 by Jagjagwar. You can preorder now via SCD/Direct. If you're like me, you'll want the deluxe bundle that includes a 12" of both SB-01 and SB-02 for the first time on vinyl, and a cool UMO embroidered patch. Is it just me, or does it seem like a good number of bands are taking better care of their fans these days?
I’ve been an admirer of Andy Cabic’s mellow brand of soulful folk rock for years since our bands shared the stage in the backyard of long defunct Oakland coffee shop, Mama Buzz in 2003. Though he has been associated with the freak folk movement of the mid 2000s and considered steadfastly “indie”, his records always seem to stand on their own as timeless and unique in my mind. Perhaps it is because of his near encyclopedic musical knowledge -- every time he DJs I learn about some new artist, if not some whole new genre to explore. Maybe it is the musicologist in him that makes his music seem almost devoid of genre in its eclecticism. It just ends up sounding like classic American music to me. Anyhow, I’ve always been a fan of the times he gets groovier, like Can’t You Tell from his last release,The Errant Charm. So, if this sneaky little clip and the first single, Current Carry are any indication, I’m going to really love this one. J.J. Cale left a big hole in my musical heart when he died in 2013. Vetiver helps me fill it back up with organic goodness.
Johnny Jewel and Ida No of Glass Candy have been working on the follow up to their groundbreaking 2007 album, B/E/A/T/B/O/X, for several years now. In the meantime, they’ve teased tracks like The Possessed and Beautiful Object, which were released on the IDIB compilation, After Dark 2. They’ve mentioned a few times that Body Work is coming, so I’m not necessarily holding my breath on this one. Given the quality of the label’s releases over the years, I’m happy to wait until they’re ready. Like most Italians Do It Better artists, they are master distillers of their influences -- creating a sound from elements from synth pop, diva house, spoken word, italo-disco, hip hop, and kraut rock. It always sounds fresh and unexpected. Ida’s lyrics are art in themselves, referencing the metaphysical, Yogic Philosophy and the strength of female energy. She says the album’s title is "a tribute to acupuncture, yoga, Rolfing." Her words and persona, so simple, deep, and positive, have become an inspiration to generations of kids who were born in the decades when Glass Candy’s heroes were at the top of their game.
Excerpted from Warm in the Winter:
“If ever you should look in the mirror
And wonder who it is that you are
And wonder what it is that you came for
Well I know the answer
You came from heaven
You came down to this place
To fill out the dark corners
With your everlasting light
And that's why I love you
We love you”
See what I mean?
5. Sturgill Simpson (Atlantic)
This singer songwriter was one of my great discoveries of 2014. You can read about that here. In the year or so since then, he’s gone from opening for Drive By Truckers and Willie Nelson to headlining venues like the Fillmore, where he’ll be playing on April 18. He’s released a record a year since 2013, so I assume he’ll do another one this year. He signed with Atlantic at the beginning of this year, so that might slow things down, but I would venture to say there might have been some things in his contract regarding artistic freedom. His albums keep selling out on his bandcamp page. This guy doesn’t need a label, they need him. Folks are calling him the savior of country music and such, and in interviews he’s been clear about rolling all that off. He just makes the music he wants, the way he wants, with the people he wants to make it with. It all seems pretty simple to me. He’s also mentioned repeatedly that his influences span the gamut, which I think is why his last record had such an impact. I for one am excited to see he comes up with. Especially since he told the Nashville Scene, “ I still and have always listened to everything.-- I don't know. I love The Beatles, man! Can't help it. I don't like cowboy boots, and I love The Beatles. People who love this record may hate the next one. You never know! Flavor of the month!”
I like the sound of that.
6. Matthew E. White “Fresh Blood” (Domino) March 10
This man’s debut album, Big Inner, was one of my favorites of 2012. It stayed on repeat for most of the fall of 2012 when I was working at a display carpentry shop outside of Nashville, running a KOMO Mach Xtreme series CNC router. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music while the machine was actually running, because the sound it made was the best indication of how it was functioning, usually a better than watching it. But while cleaning it every morning and in between cycles while changing out the materials, I would treasure pressing play and letting his comforting breathy baritone wash over me.
It was my first experience with the Spacebomb sound. Spacebomb is the label/collective that Matthew founded with his cohorts. In their own words, “We are a house band, a unified crew of arrangers and musicians, artists, scribes, vibe-gardeners and business men who feel it takes a village to produce a record.” It is a sound so steeped in the tradition of classic R&B, rock, and folk that I still sometimes forget I'm listening to what I like to call modern classic. Populated by dry drums, tight bass lines, strings and horns and female backing singers -- it’s a place I’d like to stay for a while. Sometimes it sounds like The Band, sometimes Ray Charles, sometimes Curtis Mayfield. But always with that dry low voice that sounds like it is whispering in your ear.
His new album, Fresh Blood, drops March 10th, the latest song previewed from it, “Rock & Roll is Cold,” is another fine example of that modern classic sound. A little more upbeat than the tone of his last album, perhaps the result of his co-writing with old friend, Andy Jenkins. Whatever it is, it’s a good thing and his jump from his own label to bigger fish, Domino, doesn’t seem to have affected the music at all. We all have to evolve, even in the context of a sound as well honed as this one.
I’m already getting excited to see him play the new tunes at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco on March 25.
7. Death Cab for Cutie “Kintsugi” (Atlantic) March 31
Death Cab for Cutie’s new album is titled Kintsugi, named for the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than something to disguise. It is a wonderful analogy for them, since long time member and producer, Chris Walla, announced his departure during the recording process. Not to mention the first time they used an outside producer. The first track released, Black Sun, is great, and instantly recognizable -- this band knows their strengths.
Then right around the one minute mark, the traditional instrumentation falls away to arpeggiated synths and delayed drum machines, a hint of what is to come perhaps?
With the advent of reasonably priced analog synths and even more reasonably priced emulation software, almost anyone can afford to plop a Minimoog into their mix. The trick is making it a part of the song, which they definitely do. The rock returns with a distorted guitar solo, but the evolution is still apparent.
Then comes another track, “No Room In Frame”, starting with some distorted, delayed synthy goodness. A swinging drum machine pattern pulls along a fresh lyric about driving in Southern California with chiming guitars slowly creeping in over a Brian Eno bed of ambience. I like this, a lot. There is an appealing amount of space. The full band kicks in and now we’re really swinging. I’m doing the side to side in my chair. OK, sign me up already. Thanks, guys, for doing what you do best without repeating yourselves.
8. Giorgio Moroder “74 is the New 24” ( Giorgio Moroder Music LCC)
Listen to Right Here, Right Now featuring Kylie Minogue. I’m excited to hear if the rest of the album will be in this vein. This is pretty much what I thought new music by this pioneer of electronic dance music would sound like. Where would be be without the synth bass arpeggio rhythm he created for Donna Summer’s I Feel Love? Upon first hearing, Brian Eno said to David Bowie “This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years." He was pretty much right on. There are supposedly a ton of guests on this album, Britney Spears, Sia, Charli XCX, Kylie Minogue, Mikky Ekko, Foxes, Matthew Koma and more. Curious to see how they all pan out.
9. Waters - “What’s Real” (Vagrant)
I must admit I go way back with this band, really since before it existed. I was a member of Van Pierszalowski’s previous outfit, Port O’Brien, back in 2009. I’ve watched him and his songwriting evolve over the last 8 years since our first encounter when our bands toured together in 2007. Van grew up in California on 90s alternative rock, and while his first musical output skewed DIY indie folk -- in the years since Waters’ 2011 debut, Out in the Light, he has embraced those sounds even more.
Nirvana, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, it’s all in there. He explains in a note to his fans on the Vagrant website, “I started writing this album as soon as we got home from touring behind our debut record Out In The Light. All of a sudden, I was sitting still for the first time in years, and I dove into my early musical influences to find that what I once thought were alternative anthems of recklessness, of angst, of societal alienation, were also perfectly constructed songs. It wasn’t pop. But it became popular for a reason. And as a songwriter I began to see that music in a new light. I approached this album from that place. From a place of seeing that songs can sound big, feel big, and still be incredibly personal. Still be brutally honest. Still leave everything on the table. And while current alternative radio is pumping out songs about the “best day of my life” and “wanting to be like the cool kids”, I wanted to write songs about heartbreak, about finding clarity, about feeling stuck in your hometown. And I wrote it with the hope that people connect with it in a visceral way. In an emotional way. The way I am connecting to it. A connection I feel is not as expected these days.”
Add to that sentiment the uber melodic synth influences from co-producer Ryan Rabin of Grouplove and the results are explosive. Check out “Stupid Games” for a good example.
The songwriting is as strong as ever, but now they sound like you could hear them on the radio. Oh wait, I just heard “I Feel Everything” on Live 105. Go Van! Produced by Van, Christopher Chu (POP ETC) and Ryan Rabin (Grouplove), “What’s Real” drops April 7th on Vagrant Records. Stoked indeed.
10. Lady Lamb “After” (Mom + Pop Music)
I discovered the track “Billions of Eyes”, big slice of upbeat melancholy, when someone compared it to one of my favorites of last year, the Chad VanGaalen produced, self titled Alvvays album. There is a similar jangle pop vein here that hits my heart in just the right spot. Sometimes, you just believe someone’s voice as soon as you hear it. Lady Lamb is one of them. It’s rough and ready and wise beyond young Aly Spaltro’s 20 something years. Right out of the gate with a yell/sung series of “da da da das”, I'm sold. Then she makes meaning out of conversational lyrics like “But the kitchen in this new place has a window there, you can grown basil on the sill maybe. You can call your neighbors by name now.”
Then, I find another song from the soon to be released album called “Spat out Spit.” Wait, she gets funky too? These rhythms are great. Now she’s singing sultry over a sparse bass and drums verse that explodes into an epic chorus of St. Vincent proportions. By now, I’ve already pre-ordered her new album, After, due out March 3 on Mom + Pop Records.
I’m excited to see her play these tunes live at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco on April 25.
11. Lower Dens “Escape From Evil” (Ribbon Music)
The video for the new single, To Die in L.A, from Lower Dens’ upcoming album, Escape From Evil, is wonderful and weird and delusionally awesome. I'm still a big fan of their 2012 record, Nootropics. I discovered them through an old bandmate of mine who plays guitar in the band. One of the advantages of playing in too many bands over the years, trusted recommendations are a nice filter for the clutter.
This new track definitely picks up where they left off, synth heavy arrangements with pulsing live drums and spacey guitars. That's pretty much my jam these days. I like that, from the outset, the racing, motorik drum beat could go in a number of directions, then the expansive synth arpeggios and reverbed out guitar come in and let you know that this is more Neu! than Billy Idol. As always, Jana Hunter’s voice glides over the top, leaving plenty of room to ponder her crooning meditations on relationships. I know they might hate me for saying this, but something about it reminds me as much of 70's Krautrock as it does Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” That’s a good thing in my book. The new album, Escape from Evil, was produced by Jana and Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio, Future Islands). Additional production on select tracks was provided by Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Vampire Weekend, Snoop Lion) and John Congleton (St. Vincent, Rogue Wave, Waters, Two Gallants).
Escape from Evil drops March 30 on Ribbon Music.
12. Kelley Stoltz “Untitled” Fall (Castle Face Records)
Cross Your Mind, the single Kelley Stoltz released in 2014, is another perfect psychedelic pop gem in the already rich catalog of this multi-instrumentalist, singing, songwriting master. Kelley’s last record, Double Exposure, was easily one of my favorites of 2013. It's the first LP I bought in celebration of getting a new job that December. Who could resist the video for Kim Chee Taco Man, starring local super drummer James Kim (Kelley Stoltz, Magic Trick, Extra Classic, The Fresh and Onlys, etc.), as the mystical Taco Man doling out deliciousness? I’ve long been a fan of Kelley since I first encountered him and his album, Antique Glow, back in 2002. Over the years, I’ve seen him many a time and shared the stage with him on tour. He turned me on to one of my favorite Harry Nilsson songs, Turn on Your Radio, when he covered it at a show at the Great American Music Hall back in 2003. Double Exposure quickly became one of my essential DJ records, one that never seemed to leave the crate because it worked in so many situations. A great transitional record -- rock & roll, 60s psychedelic, 80s britpop, and even a bit funky at times, it could get me from one place to another with ease in a DJ set. The word from the horse’s mouth is "new album in Fall I reckon..." on John Dwyer's Castle Face Records, followed by more live dates in the Fall and Winter. A true local treasure who deserves worldwide recognition.
After touring with Tame Impala in 2010, Melody Prochet collaborated (and perhaps more) with the band’s lead singer, Kevin Parker, and released her first album in 2012, titled Melody’s Echo Chamber. I still DJ it all the time. It’s one of those timeless mashups of French kitsch, samples, electronics, and psychedelic dream pop that sticks in your ear -- an Ohrwurm as the Germans call it. The details surrounding her new album are hazy at best. One song, Shirim, was released via Soundcloud last year and then deleted. It is still available on KEXP as the Song of the day. She has shows booked for May in New York and LA, and an appearance at Austin’s Levitation Psych Fest. Right now, that is all we know. I tend to believe this is as she wishes.