The Best Albums of the 90s: 15-19

Living_Colour_Time's_Up#19 Living Colour: Times Up

Released: August 20, 1990

Label: Epic

Fresh off of their multi-platinum debut album Vivid, New York-based heavy metal/hard rock/funk outfit Living Colour returned with Times Up. Like its predecessor, Times Up featured a sound that borrowed from a variety of genres. Sonically, its sound was defined by lead singer Corey Glover’s pop-meets-soul melodies and guitarist Vernon Reid’s artful but heavy guitar riffs. What truly made them a first-rate band though was the power and precision of the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun.
The palette of music was varied with songs that were light (“Love Rears its Ugly Head”), politically conscious (“Pride” “Under Cover of Darkness”), and of course heavy (“Information Overload”). Yet the two albums differed in that the latter was far more dynamic in sound and tone. Always a central figure in the band, guitarist Vernon Reid dialed back the blistering guitar solos, in favor of heavily delayed riffs (“Fight the Fight”) even playing clean on the Caribbean-influenced “Solace of You.” On “Love Rears” Reid takes the opportunity to show off his jazz chops with an off-kilter solo that would have made his former collaborator Bill Frisell proud. Unfortunately, Times Up would be the last full-length album featuring the incredible rhythm section of Skillings and Calhoun, as Skillings would leave the band shortly thereafter.

Select Cuts: Type, Pride, Undercover of Darkness

AqueminiOutKast#18 Outkast: Aquemini

Released: September 29, 1998

Label: LaFace/Arista

Aquemini, Outkast’s third studio album signified a turning point for this Atlanta-based rap duo. It was the album that made them a household name, largely on the strength of the single “Rosa Parks.” But the album was also important because it gave some indication of where the duo was headed. Like their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic, Aquemini featured their signature smooth, drippy, southern-rap/funk sound, featuring live musicians (and not sampled). Yet the themes played out in their songs were rooted mostly in the lore of street pimps and gangster life on previous outings. On Aquemini, rappers Andre 3000 and Big Boi seemed to opt for a more conscious tone lyrically; the result was a rousing success.

Select Cuts: Return of the G,  Rosa Parks, Aquemini, West Savannah

Beastieboys_checkyourhead#17 Beastie Boys: Check Your Head

Released: April 21, 1992

Label: Capitol

The career trajectory of the Beatie Boys – from boisterous, obnoxious, white hardcore rappers to 3-dimensional, politically/socially conscious musicians – is the stuff of legend. Indeed, by 1992 most average joes (including me) thought these guys were washed up. In fact, when someone told me they had a new album out (Check Your Head) I thought they were kidding. I guess the joke was on me, as Check Your Head would serve notice to the rest of the world that the Beastie Boys had no intention of being a flash in the pan. Drawing from all manner of influences, including two in particular (The Meters and Bad Brains), Check Your Head would serve as a template for later albums to come with songs ranging from straight-ahead rap (“Pass the Mic”), to rap/rock (“Gratitude”), to chilled out funk instrumentals (“Lighten Up”). Also, MCs Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D served as instrumentalists on Check Your Head proving that there was far more to this group than most folks originally thought.

Select Cuts: Pass the Mic, So What’Cha Want, The Maestro, Professor Booty

PearlJam-Vs#16 Pearl Jam: Vs.

Released: October 19, 1993

Label: Epic

If you’ve been paying attention, there’s a trend forming here: follow-up albums. Like several other albums on this list, Vs. was the follow-up to Pearl Jam’s multi-platinum debut album Ten. As one of the progenitors of the Seattle Grunge sound that defined 90s rock music, Pearl Jam would eventually forge a name for themselves; not only for the quality of their music, but as well for their longevity. Vs. is also the album that set the cast on a bond that would be forged between millions of devoted fans and the band as it proved decisively that Pearl Jam was here to stay. While the single “Daughter” stands out, arena-rock standards like “Go” and “Animal” made Vs. the behemoth that it was. Tonally, the album takes the group to new places with the PJ staple “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” To put it frankly, Vs. may be the group’s most concise album, and definitely one of the decade’s best.

Select Cuts: Go, Animal, Dissident, Elderly Woman, Indifference

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream#15 The Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream

Released: July 27, 1993

Label: Virgin

20 years later I can still say, without hesitation, that I’ve never heard an album quite like Siamese Dream. Written almost entirely by the mad scientist himself – lead singer/guitarist Billy Corgan – Siamese Dream incorporated a variety of different influences to make an album that was refreshingly well-balanced. There’s energy (“Cherub Rock” and “Quiet”), beauty (“Sweet Sweet” and “Luna”) and of course plenty of emo (“Disarm”). While singles like “Disarm” and “Today” garnered most of the attention, Siamese Dream was more than a few token singles. Accompanied by skilled drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, bassist D’Arcy, and rhythm guitarist James Iha, the Pumpkins were on top of the world after this release. Of course, this begs the question: was 93′ a better year for music than 91′? 

Select Cuts: Cherub Rock, Hummer, Rocket, Soma, Mayonaise

The Best Albums of the 90s: 20-25

RageAgainsttheMachineRageAgainsttheMachine#25 Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine

Released: November 3, 1992

Label: Epic

You’ll be hard-pressed to find an album that can channel the anger, resentment, and disillusionment of the social and political currents of the day with more clarity. Better than anyone before or since, these guys combined the best elements of hard rock and rap music to make a distinctive style of music defined by the bombastic vocals of lead singer Zack de la Rocha and the frenetic wizardry of guitarist Tom Morello. From the album’s opening song “Bombtrack” all the way to the closing track “Freedom”, Rage Against the Machine is a tour de force that still holds up well after 21 years of existence.

Select Cuts: Bombtrack, Killing in the Name Of, Take the Power Back

Oasis_-_(What's_The_Story)_Morning_Glory_album_cover#24 Oasis: What’s the Story Morning Glory?

Released: October 2, 1995

Label: Creation

I don’t know that any band of the last 25 years comes close to being more hated than Oasis. Whether it was the rather public disputes between brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, or the constant comparisons by the media and band alike to the Beatles, these were the guys you just loved to hate. Still, off the heals of their much lauded debut album Definitely, Maybe, the Brothers Gallagher found lightning in a bottle when they released this multi-platinum blockbuster album. While many will recall hits like “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova,” other gems like “Roll With It” and “Some Might Say” made this one of the decade’s best.

Select Cuts: Roll With It, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Wonderwall, Some Might Say

GNR_Use_Your_Illusion#23 Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion (Parts I & II)

Released: September 17, 1991

Label: Geffen

It would not be hyperbole to say that Use Your Illusion was one of the most highly anticipated follow-up albums in rock history. Guns N’ Roses stormed the music world with their debut album Appetite for Destruction, which would eventually sell 35 million copies worldwide. Fortunately, they avoided the sophomore slump with Use Your Illusion, by building on the hard, heavy, bluesy rock sound that defined Appetite. Not only was Use Your Illusion ambitious in sound, but it was also ambitious in other respects. As a double album, it spanned 30 tracks and nearly 3 hours of music. It spawned several high-profile music videos, and a world tour (one of the longest in rock history) and featured a song on the Terminator II soundtrack. Ultimately it would signal the beginning of the end for the band, as it would be the last album of original music released by the core of the original members (most notably Duff McKagan and Slash), but it was a thing to marvel.

Select Cuts: Live and Let Die, Don’t Cry, You Could Be Mine, November Rain, The Garden, Double Talkin’ Jive

Sister_Sweetly#22 Big Head Todd & The Monsters: Sister Sweetly

Released: February 23, 1993

Label: Giant

Few albums evoke memories of college more so than Sister Sweetly. I’ll never forget the day my freshman year roommate Rob Sharp brought this CD (yes that’s what we used in the old days) home. He played the hell out of it, and it drove me nuts. 20 years later, I’m the one that still listens to it, while I doubt he’s listened to it much. So why is it on the list? Great American rock and roll, with a touch of blues. Lead singer Todd Park Mohr is a pro on the axe and the album is rife with blistering blues leads which have kept me coming back for 20 years.

Select Cuts: Broken Hearted Savior, Circle, Bittersweet, It’s Alright

Fiona_Apple_-_Tidal#21 Fiona Apple: Tidal

Released: July 23, 1996

Label: Clean Slate, Work, Columbia

Only 21, but singing with a maturity and charisma far beyond her years, singer/pianist Fiona Apple set the music world ablaze with Tidal, her debut album. The single “Sleep to Dream” set the stage with a sultry haunting sound, and the video to match. But what followed was a string of follow-up singles that made Apple a household name. While the album featured a few clear misses like the Caribbean influenced “The First Taste,” others like “Shadowboxer” proved that Apple was a formidable songwriter with the vocal chops to match.

Select Cuts: Shadowboxer, Sleep to Dream, Criminal, The Child is Gone

Sundays-readingwritingarithmetic#20 The Sundays: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Released: January 15, 1990

Label: Rough Trade

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic may be the best album you’ve never heard of. The album jangles (“I Won”), it shimmers, it’s haunting (“Joy”) and it evokes bands like R.E.M. and The Smiths, but in ways that bring out the best in both. Centered around guitarist Dave Gavurin and singer Harriet Wheeler (husband and wife), The Sundays would go on to release 3 full-length studio albums. While all good, none encapsulated the beautiful vocal stylings of Wheeler with the shimmery craftsmanship of Gavurin on the guitar.

Select Cuts: Here’s Where the Story Ends, Hideous Towns, Joy, My Finest Hour, Can’t Be Sure

The Best Albums of the 90’s

Greetings all! As some of you may know, my good friend and co-host of the “Bring Tha Noize” podcast Scott Hoyer and I recently had a discussion on the best albums of the 90s. Both of us put together a list of what we each considered the 25 best albums of that decade; I’ll be sharing this list with you all in the next few days. Looking back on that decade some 20 or so years later, I was surprised with how many rap albums made my list. I suspect that when most of us think of the 90s we think of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the grunge scene that ushered out the age of the “hair band.” Yet the 90s were a period of time in which hip-hop/rap music truly established itself as a genre of music that would appeal to the masses. With that, let’s get started shall we?

In Defense of Ziggy

Detroit Lions fans are understandably quite weary of the team’s most recent draft pick: Ziggy Ansah (DE, BYU), the 5th overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Well call me the contrarian, because I think Ansah will be a great player for the Lions. Pollyanish? Actually, I think that if you take a closer look at his background, and his combination of size, speed, and athleticism you just might come away from this a bit more optimistic. But before I go on fawning over the guy, it’s important to understand context here: the nature of the NFL Draft.

Take a look at where the most elite players in the NFL were drafted and you’ll see that no one can predict with any real precision, how great a player will turn out. For every Peyton Manning there’s a Tom Brady; for every Jason Witten, there’s a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski; for every….well, you get the point. Often times, it can be tough to project how well a player’s skills will translate to the next level; especially in a year when many consider the top-level talent to be thin.

Compounding the issue of top-level depth was the issue of need. With the top 3 offensive tackles going first, second and 4th, respectively, the Lions missed out on addressing their most glaring need- offensive tackle. Thus, they were only left with the choice of either trading down for more picks, or drafting most likely LSU DE Barkevius Mingo, Alabama corner Dee Milliner, or Ansah. While I would have equally endorsed the Milliner pick, given his speed, size and pedigree, I don’t think I would have chosen Mingo over Ansah. At 6’4”, 248 lbs., he wouldn’t have been a great fit for the Lions 4-3 wide 9 scheme. Sure he’s played against superior competition, but the metrics here just don’t work as well. And anyway, Ansah has a higher ceiling. Maybe trading down would have helped, but then who would they have taken, at which pick, in exchange for what? Given those choices, I like Ansah as the pick the most. If anything, the kid has the sort of attributes that make great players, just look at his background.

Ansah came to the US from Ghana on an academic scholarship hoping to walk on to the basketball team. As a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, he chose to do so at BYU. Having failed to make the basketball team, Ansah was encouraged to move over to football where he finally flourished in his 3rd season. Ansah knew very little about football before he came here. Yet he was able to walk on to the football team (and track team where he ran a 10.91 in the 100m).

As a senior, he played every position on the defensive line, including nose tackle, registering 4.5 sacks and 62 tackles. Is that enough to merit first round consideration in the draft? Well, no. For one, 4.5 sacks isn’t all that impressive. But keep in mind, he played 5 different positions at BYU. He wasn’t merely a rush end so his numbers are a bit skewed. What was impressive however was how Ansah managed to dominate at the Senior Bowl. Under the guidance of the Lions coaching staff, Ansah led the South defense with seven tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, raising the eyebrows of NFL brass everywhere. From there, he went on and ran a 4.6 at the NFL combine; for a 6’5” 271 lbs end that’s pretty impressive.

As a Lion, he will play for a head coach in Jim Schwartz that has coached his share of great defensive players in the NFL (Haynesworth, Suh, Vanden Bosch), and he will again be able to have an impact in different ways. The Lions will likely move the newly acquired Jason Jones around on the defensive line, as they have done with Ndamukong Suh. Down the road, they could use Ansah in a similar capacity.

Nevertheless, Ansah’s success will likely turn on his character, and this is where I think the Lions may benefit the most. This is a kid that is living a real-life fantasy. A few years ago he emigrated here from Ghana in pursuit of a dream to play basketball. Today he’s an NFL player and a millionaire. He’s worked hard to learn the game.  He’s smart, and he seems humble. Considering Ansah’s journey, he might realize, more so than his fellow players, that playing in the NFL is a privilege. Just one more reason why I think Ansah will be an excellent addition to the Lions.

The Best Albums of 2012: The Complete List

Cloud_Nothings_Attack_on_Memory_album_cover#20 Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

Release Date: January 24, 2012

What began as one slow, sad, slog of an album ended as one of the year’s best. Attack on Memory is a raw, rag tag of a rock album, but it’s good. Engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), the album is distinctively stripped down with lead singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals front and center. Outside of the opening track, the distinctively dark and moody “No Future/No Past,” the rest is pretty upbeat, offering up hints of  punk, and late-eighties rock. It’s fun, it’s dark, angry and even a little trippy; but most of all it’s short, clocking in at just a hair over 30 minutes.

Select Cuts: Fall In, Stay Useless, Cut You

Beach_House_-_Bloom#19 Beach House:Bloom [Sub Pop]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

Positioning Bloom at #19 is probably a bit unfair. Standing on its own, Bloom is a magnificent piece of work. Grandiose, majestic, and composed of great songwriting, Bloom is the ideal go-to for the melancholically (is that a word?) inclined. Lead singer Victoria Legrand is once again in full command of her rich, husky tenor voice, and guitarist Alex Scally’s chord voicings shimmer. Through it all, it’s like one long dream sequence. So then what gives; why so low? The ranking is a reflection of the fact that Legrand and Scally offer nothing new here. Their breakthrough album Teen Dream offered up, what has become their signature dreamy, shimmering sound. What I had hoped for with their follow-up was a fresh take on the formula that worked for them before. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, so Bloom gets taken down a few notches. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen; it’s a wonderful album.

Select Cuts: Myth, Lazuli, Other People

Norah_Jones_-_...Little_Broken_Hearts_cover#18 Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts [Blue Note]

Release Date: April 25, 2012

Payback’s a bitch… the saying goes. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Little Broken Hearts,” Norah Jones’ fifth full length release that was inspired by a recent breakup. The album is a collection of tracks that were put together with producer Brian Burton a.k.a Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), before and during the period in which the two also collaborated on 2011’s Rome. One listen to Little Broken Hearts is all it will take to notice Jones’ emotions. The album is often times dark, and yes, Jones is pissed. But it is her anger that gives the album a degree of depth previously unseen by the chanteuse. In the video for the first single from the album “Happy Pills”, Jones is seen as the jilted lover, plotting the death of her partner. On the song “Miriam,” perhaps the album’s best, Jones almost relishes the thought of bringing an end to “the other woman.”  The music tracks the grand orchestral vision of Burton’s Rome, which mostly works. While there are a few lulls in the middle, “Little Broken Hearts” is a welcome addition to the Jones canon.

Select Cuts: Little Broken Hearts, Happy Pills, Miriam

Vets_large#17 Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music [Williams StreetGrand HustleAdult Swim]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

I stopped keeping close tabs on the rap game a long time ago. I’m not sure if this change coincided at all with my discovery of Hendrix or Zeppelin. Or, if the change coincided with the demise of Yo’ MTV Raps (particularly Fab Five Freddie’s involvement; Ed Lover & Dr. Dre bugged the hell out of me, “Who’s the Man” notwithstanding). Nevertheless, I still listen to a lot of rap music, just not as much as I should, so it was a pleasant surprise when my friend Dave Jeromin recommended both R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer for Cure. Originally I preferred the latter. Then I saw the video for the single “Big Beast,” (heavily inspired by the movie Drive) and I was sold. Initially it was the video that hooked me (hookers, zombies, a car chase, you name it), but then the song sunk in and it was all I needed. It’s loud, bombastic, features a coterie of characters (Bun B., T.I., and Trouble), and it is a lyrical tour de force that represents the very best of southern rap. At its core, R.A.P. Music is hard-core southern rap that paints on a pretty wide canvass. Killer Mike addresses everything from the dope game, to politics in the age of Reagan, and then turns the album into a southern rap revival; somehow it all works. El-P works wonders as the producer, as the album draws from both Killer Mike’s southern influences, as well as the sounds that represent El-P’s east coast background.

Select Cuts: Big Beast, Southern Fried, R.A.P. Music

Bat_for_Lashes_-_The_Haunted_Man_cover#16 Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man [Parlorphone]

Release Date: October 11, 2012

Bat for Lashes’ (Natasha Khan) The Haunted Man was an album that came courtesy of my good friend, and co-host of the “Bring Tha Noize” podcast, Scott Hoyer. Unfamiliar with any of her work, I was eager to give this one a try, and I was not disappointed. On this, Khan’s third studio album, we find what many have described as a more muted sound; less on the electronic beats and rhythms, thus providing a sparer production. There is a haunting, yet orchestral feel to the album,  but it’s not overdone. Vocally, Khan evokes memories of art-rock singer Kate Bush, which just adds to the lushness of the sound. But don’t take The Haunted Man to be entirely awash in melancholy, there’s a few up-tempo tracks that recall some of Khan’s earlier work, sprinkled in just enough to make this one of the year’s best.

Select Cuts: Lilies, All Your Gold, A Wall

Catpowersun#15 Cat Power: Sun [Matador]

Release Date: August 29, 2012

After nearly twenty years as a recording artist and 9 full-length albums to date, Cat Power (Chan Marshall) has established herself as one of the industry’s most talented but enigmatic performers. Throughout her tumultuous career, she has found herself embroiled in all of the trappings of success: drugs, depression, eccentricity and disappointment. Yet Sun– Marshall’s first album of entirely original material since 2006’s The Greatest- is that album that comes along every so often for the talented and fortunate artist, at the right time. It’s that album that signifies somewhat of a rebirth. Needless to say, this was done purposefully, as the title “Sun” represents light, and a certain freshness that permeates throughout the album.  Self-produced, the album stands apart from Marshall’s previous offerings. Looking for a more dynamic feel, Marshall introduces all sorts of drum beats, loops, synthesizers and other unique sounds to bring about this new direction. Both lyrically and tonally the album seems to deliver the message that Marshall is back, ever more bold, and- as she and pal Iggy Pop make clear- she’s got “Nothin’ but Time” to finish what she started.

Select Cuts: Cherokee; 3, 6, 9; Peace and Love

Fearfunfatherjohnmisty#14 Father John Misty: Fear Fun [Sub Pop]

Release Date: April 30, 2012

Joshua Tillman’s (Father John Misty is Tillman’s nom de guerre) 2012 release Fear Fun, is a throwback album of sorts. Incorporating the sounds of classic 70’s rock n’ roll, Fear Fun recalls the best moments of artists like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John; heck, I even hear a little of Lennon’s solo work here. Yet somehow the album doesn’t sound dated; probably a result of modern production. Or maybe, it’s just that Tillman wanted to make an album rooted in great storytelling, and filled with rich layers of sound that marry the old 70’s nostalgia with modern folk influences like Wilco and even the Fleet Foxes (the band with whom Tillman once toured). Regardless of intent, Fear Fun succeeds as an enjoyable listen.

Select Cuts: Fun Times in Babylon, Nancy from Now On, This is Sally Hatchet

KendrickGKMC#13 Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city [Interscope, Aftermath, Top Dawg]

Release Date: October 22, 2012

It’s not every day that a hip-hop artist releases something like good kid m.A.A.d. city (“GKMC”), yet somehow Compton’ California’s latest export, Kendrick Lamar, manages to do just that……..on his first try.* Showing wisdom, and a bit of musical genius well beyond his years, Lamar’s major label debut lives up to all the hype, as Lamar skillfully explores the themes that often accompany West-Coast rap: drugs, violence, misogyny, and poverty, just to name a few. But what is unique about GKMC, is how Lamar delivers these themes: in the form of a concept album that follows Lamar, as a teenage kid, as he travels throughout his world.

Lamar has been compared to a wide variety of artists such as Tupac (his idol), Dr. Dre, and Outkast. Personally, I think he sounds like a cross between Andre 3000 and Kanye, but I’m certainly no expert. What I do know is that GKMC stands alone as one of 2012’s most refreshing releases- rap or otherwise.

Select Cuts: Sherane, Swimming Pools (Drank), Compton, The Recipe

*His first album on a major label

homepage_large.2ac068b1#12 Frankie Rose: Interstellar [Slumberland]

Release Date: February 2012

Frankie Rose’s unmistakably titled debut Interstellar is yet another entry into the catalog of records that have comprised the 80’s nostalgia movement of the last 5-10 years. Yet describing Interstellar as nothing more than an 80’s rehash record would be misleading; there’s more here than meets the eye.  Rather than dousing the songs with shimmery guitars and heavy synth, the approach here is often sparse. Sure, Rose’s vocals are washed over with delays, a heavy dose of reverb, and then doubled just for safe measure. But the sounds that invade Interstellar give Rose’s vocal melodies room to breathe, most notably on tracks like “Had We Had It” and “Moon on my Mind.” But the real beauty of Interstellar comes in the way of the more grandiose tracks like “Pair of Wings” that literally embody the ambition of Instellar; an album that not only attempts but also succeeds in taking the listener along on a journey across various musical soundscapes.

Select Cuts: Pair of Wings, Apples for the Sun, The Fall

FP1273_Walkmen_Heaven_Cover-31#11 The Walkmen: Heaven [Fat Possum, Bella Union]

Release Date: May 29, 2012

Emerging out of the ashes of the post-punk revival of the early aughts, The Walkmen have since managed to forge a path as indie-rock mainstays. With Heaven– their 7th full-length album- the New York outfit head off into a slightly new direction with an Americana-styled record. Heaven probably won’t make anyone forget about Wilco’s Being There, but it is some of the most jangly music they’ve put together, perhaps ever. The spirit of the album is best embodied with songs like the opener “We Can’t Be Beat” that offer up a straight-forward rock n’ roll approach, with both acoustic and electric guitars played side by side. There are still some of their post-punk sensibilities at work here, especially on songs like “Love is Luck,” but otherwise Heaven is mostly an album full of new flavors.

Select Cuts: Love is Luck, Line by Line, Heaven

Tame_Impala_Lonerism_Cover#10 Tame Impala: Lonerism [Modular Recordings]

Release Date: October 5, 2012

No one is making music like Tame Impala right now.* From the outset, Lonerism– rife with buzzing noises, quirks, and all sorts of psychedelic sounds- asserts itself as the bold, dynamic statement of a record that it was intended to be. Taken in its entirety, Lonerism harkens back to the halcyon days of rock n’ roll, when psychedelic rock was all the rage. Kevin Parker (the genius behind Tame Impala) uses the psychedelic template and turns it on its head, by incorporating elements of pop and all sorts of different rock varieties (even glam) in order to produce one of the most refreshing albums to emerge from the land “down under” (or anywhere for that matter) in quite some time.

*See #2 on the list

Select Cuts: Apocalypse Dreams, Music to Walk Home By, Mind Mischief

GrizzlyBearShields#9 Grizzly Bear: Shields [Warp]

Release Date: September 18, 2012

I have to admit I never really cared for Grizzly Bear. Heck, the  only song I ever seemed to think much of was “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest. So it was with trepidation  even cynicism- that I gave Shields, (their 3rd full-length album) a shot; boy was a I surprised. Not surprised that it was good, because there are plenty of albums out there that are good, but unappealing (to me). No, I was shocked at how much I liked what I heard. I’m sure some folks might think of Grizzly Bear as highfalutin hipster drivel, but the music here is rich and full of all sorts of influences. These young lads, hailing from the Capital of Hipsterville (NYC) have created something grand here: catchy (see “A Simple Answer”), but experimental, psychedelic rock, with little sprinkles of contemporary electronic music (see “Speak in Rounds”). Perhaps what I like most about Shields is that underneath all the sounds (electronic or analog) there’s a touch of soul in the vocals that gives the music yet another dimension.

Select Cuts: A Simple Answer, Yet Again, Speak in Rounds

twinshadow confess#8 Twin Shadow: Confess [4AD]

Release Date: July 10, 2012

If you can imagine what Duran Duran might sound like if they released an album produced by Prince, then you have an idea of what Confess is all about. Twin Shadow (the nom de guerre of George W. Lewis) turns it up a notch here, building on the 80’s inspired pop/funk template of his debut Forget, by opting for a bigger, brighter, and yes happier sound. Lewis, who is also a very capable guitar player, spends some of his time shredding (“You Call Me On” and “Patient”), and some of it bouncing along (“The One”). At all times though, Lewis is singing about a longing for love, which is a theme that permeates throughout this sonically rich album.

Select Cuts: You Call Me On, Run My Heart, Be Mine Tonight, Beg for the Night

doc#7 Dr. John: Locked Down [Nonesuch]

Release Date: April 3, 2012

Dr. John (or Mac Rebennack if you prefer) is as synonymous with New Orleans as beignets or Mardi Gras. With a career spanning over 50 years and 20+ albums, Dr. John has achieved legendary status as a singer, songwriter, and pianist, playing music rooted in zydeco, R&B, jazz, soul and funk. His achievements were finally memorialized with his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. So it was only natural that I immediately delved into Locked Down, especially after discovering that Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach would be producing the album. Fortunately my eagerness was rewarded. Locked Down is fun, frolicking, boastful, introspective, and well crafted. Dr. John has writing credit on all of the songs, which is unsurprising as they draw from his diverse interests with hints of Afrobeat, soul, funk, rock and jazz. The brilliance of Locked Down is that Auerbach’s production gives it a nice gritty garage rock veneer, unseen in previous offerings.  

Select Cuts: Locked Down, Revolution, Ice Age, Eleggua

Boys&Girls#6 Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls [ATO]

Release Date: April 9, 2012

The worst thing you can say about Boys & Girls, the debut album from the Alabama Shakes, is that it’s a rehash of  the classic 60’s southern soul that originated in places like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis Tennessee. But that’s hardly surprising given the proximity of the band’s hometown (Athens, Alabama) to both Muscle Shoals (approx. 46 miles) and Memphis (approx. 200 miles) where Stax Records originated. Indeed, “Boys & Girls” is a concise collection of wonderfully crafted songs that reflect the band’s gritty but soulful influences.

Manning the vocals is the uniquely talented Brittany Howard. Armed with a big voice to match her stout frame, Howard’s voice is unique. Husky, throaty, if not androgynous, her voice has a timbre that is hers and hers alone. It is a style that is always passionate, as Howard draws upon her emotions in a way that most vocalists are unable to do. She’s aided by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson, who together, make up a sound that reflects a maturity beyond their years as musicians.

Ultimately, Boys & Girls is heavy on the classic soul. But characterizing it as a soul album alone is misleading; these kids still manage to rock it out (check out “Hang Loose” and “On Your Way”). In fact, the first time I heard the album, it made me wonder what the Black Keys might sound like with a female vocalist. Now I know why: the Black Keys recorded their last album Brothers at the Muscle Shoals studio.

Select Cuts: Rise to the Sun, I Found You, I Ain’t the Same, Be Mine, Heartbreaker, On Your Way

Shearwater_-_Animal_Joy#5 Shearwater: Animal Joy [Sub Pop]

Release Date: February 28, 2012

Unbeknownst to me, Shearwater (a side project for members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff, apart from their work with Okkervil River) has been making music for years. Indeed, Animal Joy is their seventh, and likely best effort to date. It’s a grand affair, dynamic in feel, with both slow brooding pieces and excitable up-tempo rockers.

Select Cuts: Animal Life, You as you Were, Insolence, Immaculate

cover#4 The Jezabels: Prisoner [Mom & Pop Music]

Release Date: April 3, 2012

It doesn’t take long to figure out what Australian indie-pop outfit The Jezabels are trying to do on their debut album Prisoner. Behind the sultry voice of lead singer Hayley Mary, The Jezabels have staked their ground as a group seeking to do big things. Indeed, Prisoner is rich in texture, offering a big sound, anthemic choruses, and a wall of guitars. It’s as if Tori Amos decided to collaborate with U2, and they brought in Phil Spector to run the boards. At times you’ll hear echoes of the 90s, and at others, hints of 80s new-wave (a la’ M83). But, if I have one complaint, it’s that the album lacks focus. Clocking in at just under an hour, Prisoner is a little long in the tooth. What’s more, the shimmery guitars alongside Mary’s vocals are front and center on every song, thus making the album sound less dynamic. Still, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, making Prisoner one of the year’s best thus far.

Select Cuts: Endless Summer, Trycolour, Rosebud, Horsehead

Celebration_Rock#3 Japandroids: Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl]

Release Date: June 5, 2012

For most of 2012, Celebration Rock was #1 on my list; and for good reason. It is the best expression of the energy and angst that defined a sound made famous by alternative rock (formerly college rock) progenitors like Husker Du, The Minutemen, Pixies and The Replacements (among others). Consisting of Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals), this duo managed to unleash power and energy through hooky melodies and a guitar-driven sound, accompanied solely by drums; much like Local H and the White Stripes. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Celebration Rock is loud, jarring, and abrupt. It starts out with a bang (well actually fireworks) and ends the same way. Sandwiched in-between are 8 well-written songs, without any low points.

Select Cuts: Fire’s Highway, Evil’s Sway, Adrenaline Nightshift, Continuous Thunder

melodys-echo-chamber#2 Melody’s Echo Chamber: Melody’s Echo Chamber [Fat Possum]

Release Date: May 11, 2012

Melody’s Echo Chamber is the eponymous debut of French twee-pop singer Melody Prochet, who collaborated with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to create this magnificent album. Parker’s fingerprints are all over this one, with psychedelic influence front and center, as noted by songs such as “Crystallized.” But the album isn’t merely a Tame Impala record with Prochet on vocals. Rather, it flourishes with Prochet’s dreamy, echo-laden vocals, along with all of the sensibilities that come with the vocalist’s French influence. Together, they’ve made an album that is painted on a canvass filled with all manner of colors. I don’t know, maybe it’s my guilty affection for Serge Gainsbourg, but I just loved this one, instantly. Check it out, it’s a great listen.

Select Cuts: I Follow You, Crystallized, Some Time Alone, Alone, Bisou Magique

Channel_ORANGE#1 Frank Ocean: Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Release Date: July 10, 2012

“Why see the world, when you’ve got the beach”? – Frank Ocean; “Sweet Life”

As much as I loved some of the other albums on this list, I could not deny the brilliance of Channel Orange. Last year Ocean acknowledged that he once had feelings for a man. This deeply personal admission sent waves throughout the world of music; particularly within the community of Hip-Hop and R&B. Even Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons took note, going as far as to say that Ocean’s admission was “a big day for hip-hop.” Against this back drop comes Ocean’s highly anticipated debut-album; thankfully it did not disappoint. Conceptually, Channel Orange is quite abstract. While themes of love, life, regret, struggle, and privilege permeate throughout, they all coalesce around Ocean and his view of the world (particularly in his adopted home of California). As a singer, Ocean’s style alternates between falsetto, spoken word and a normal tenor; shifting between all three deftly. The production is first-rate with Ocean working alongside a mix of other producers such as Pharrell Williams.  In its entirety, Channel Orange succeeds because it’s an album that sounds modern in its approach, while all the while drawing from traditional pop, R&B and soul influences. Should I feel like a sap for going along with the masses? Perhaps, but it’s hard to deny brilliance when you see it.

Select Cuts: Sweet Life, Pilot Jones, Super Rich Kids

The Best Albums of 2012: #19

Beach_House_-_BloomBeach House: Bloom [Sub Pop]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

Positioning Bloom at #19 is probably a bit unfair. Standing on its own, Bloom is a magnificent piece of work. Grandiose, majestic, and composed of great songwriting, Bloom is the ideal go-to for the melancholically (is that a word?) inclined. Lead singer Victoria Legrand is once again in full command of her rich, husky tenor voice, and guitarist Alex Scally’s chord voicings shimmer. Through it all, it’s like one long dream sequence. So then what gives; why so low? The ranking is a reflection of the fact that Legrand and Scally offer nothing new here. Their breakthrough album Teen Dream offered up some of the best music I had heard in quite some time. What I had hoped for with their follow-up was a fresh take on the formula that worked for them before. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, so Bloom gets taken down a few notches. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen; it’s a wonderful album.

Select Cuts: Myth, Lazuli, Other People

The Best Albums of 2012: #20

Cloud_Nothings_Attack_on_Memory_album_coverCloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

Release Date: January 24, 2012

What began as one slow, sad, slog of an album ended as one of the year’s best. Attack on Memory is as raw a rock album as you’ll find of recent vintage. Engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), the album is distinctively stripped down with lead singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals front and center. Outside of the opening track, the distinctively dark and moody “No Future/No Past,” the rest is pretty upbeat, offering up hints of  punk, and late-eighties rock. It’s fun, it’s dark, angry and even a little trippy; but most of all it’s short, clocking in at just a hair over 30 minutes.

Select Cuts: Fall In, Stay Useless, Cut You