Citay, Little Kingdom, Dead Oceans.
From "First Fantasy" to "Moonburn," Little Kingdom is 45 minutes of gorgeous, twin-guitar instrumental rock. Tim Green followers won't be surprised to hear he's got his hands on this; earlier this year, he released a solo album under the name Concentrick that covers some of the same territory, though less sublimely. Here, Green handles guitar, piano, and production. But the real credit belongs to Citay main man Ezra Feinberg, who wrote all the songs and plays most of the guitar parts, plus mandolin, synth, and percussion. Brian Eno fans will be delighted to hear echoes of Another Green World and Fripp & Eno, though no prior musical knowledge is required to fall in love with this.
HIJK, The Pen and the Letter, HIJK Music.
The artists formerly known as Hijack the Disco put a lot of time, energy, and money — a lot — into this album, and they want you to like it. Lucky for them, that's not hard to do. The Oakland trio's debut full-length, years in the making, recorded at legendary Sausalito studio the Plant with big-shot producer Enrique Gonzalez Müller (Les Claypool, MC Hammer, Dave Matthews Band), is a patient, expansive tome of pop and indie rock. Without shedding melody or toe-tapping rhythm, HIJK throws twists into every turn — new instruments, random outbursts, unusual bridges — and it's this attention to detail that makes The Pen and the Letter a model record.
John Vanderslice, Emerald City, Barsuk Records.
It seems John Vanderslice can do no wrong. Everything he touches, whether as studio whiz, musician, or singer-songwriter, ends up somewhere good. Emerald City finds the San Francisco indie kingpin at perhaps his most vibrant and creative — as a solo artist, at least — and that's saying something. Make this critically acclaimed album number six, wherein Vanderslice's playful sonic textures, meticulous songcraft, and sturdy, multi-dimensional lyrics (apparently there's a concept album hidden somewhere in here) firmly and finally erase any lingering doubt about his right to have spent the last decade at the center of a rich music scene.
Blktop Project, Blktop Project, Galaxia Records.
A super low-profile project, recognized only in passing by its label and members, lacking a web site of any kind, but adored by all who've heard it. Blktop Project consists of four stupidly talented skateboarding legends — including local hero Tommy Guerrero, who released an excellent solo album on Quannum Records last year, as well as Ray Barbee, Matt Rodriguez, and Chuck Treece — who jam together to jazz and soul as smoothly as they carve up the streets. Doug Scharin, of HiM and June of 44, joins them on drums. Blktop Project evolved from skateboard tour jam sessions to the studio to a debut record so laid-back and consistently satisfying it'd be a treat coming from anywhere, let alone a bunch of skaters.
The Most Serene Republic, Population, Arts & Crafts.
It couldn't possibly be another great Canadian indie rock group. No way. Well, yes — though in this case, the Most Serene Republic has yet to be hyped, so here's a chance to get in early. The young sextet hails from the suburbs of Toronto, claims six members, and — all irony aside — sounds much like a medley of Stars, Broken Social Scene, and Arcade Fire. Its music is soaring and grand, built upon ascending instrumental breaks, celebratory trumpets, crisscrossed male and female vocals — all that lovely, life-affirming stuff. None of this comes across as cloying, and any mischievous aspirations (a subtle critique in the "population" theme, plus poetically opaque lyrics), are beside the point. Nothing can rain on this parade.
Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, Temporary Residence.
Explosions in the Sky is either the best post-rock band since Mogwai or the best post-rock band around today, period. In 2003, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place established as much, and its proper follow-up, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, builds off that promise so convincingly that the intervening four years are made into days. The new record's dramatic, cathartic set charts a series of oscillating lulls and climaxes prone to wipe the mind's slate clean, or to bring out the philosopher in every secret stoner. Thirteen-minute centerpiece "It's Natural to Be Afraid" suggests this Austin band's handle on instrumental narrative, repetition, and layering may indeed be the best in the business.
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, Merge Records.
Not just one of the year's top albums, but also its best tour. Anyone who caught Arcade Fire at the Greek Theatre in June doesn't need to be told. Everyone else need only fire up Neon Bible and their imagination: Each song is perfectly suited for either the collective rapture or engaging drama of the world's best live music. The split-personality "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" (Régine Chassagne wrote the first half; husband and charismatic frontman Win Butler wrote the second), offers both. In concert, Neon Bible achieves a deeper dimension that can convert the fiercest devotee of Funeral, the Montreal band's spectacular debut. Then again, there's little use in picking a favorite.
Vieux Farka Touré, Vieux Farka Touré, World Village.
His famous father never wanted him to enter the music business. Ali Farka Touré, West Africa's biggest musical export throughout the 1990s, knew what pitfalls such a life could bring, and tried to escape it many times. Yet shortly before Ali passed away last year, he finally granted permission to his second son, Vieux, to record an album. And all mentions of pedigree aside, it's an excellent one. Vieux's guitar skills are already formidable, his singing strong, too, but it's more his vision that makes him important — and his career incredibly promising. Much as Damien Marley has reinvigorated the music of his father and his homeland, Vieux looks poised to do great things with African music. He already has.
Gaudi/Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dub Qawwali, Six Degrees Records.
The concept is highly suspect: Take a bunch of tapes recorded by Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan during the late '60s and early '70s and treat them to modern dub and reggae remixes. Sounds like a disaster. Quite the opposite; the final product, masterminded by London-based DJ and producer Gaudi, is a seamless (and tasteful) marvel. "Dil Da Rog Muka Ja Mahi," a dub framed around the central melody from Kraftwerk's "The Model," expands Gaudi's horizons even further. His reimaginings don't distort the original tone, yet cast such a pure new light on Khan's devotional incantations and ancient melodies that it's impossible not to be moved.
M.I.A., Kala, Interscope.
First things first: it's better than Arular. M.I.A.'s 2005 debut made quite a statement, and the roaring attention it earned the London-born, Sri Lanka-raised artist was well deserved. Most of it, at least. Kala arrived to much less of a commotion, and M.I.A. may never again be the household name she was two years ago, but musically she has grown even bolder. The new album was recorded in various studios around the world, with help from a broad cast of folks, and M.I.A.'s boundless string of ideas is fully fleshed out. Intense, vigorous, adventurous, and infectious, Kala is not quite pop, hip-hop, or dance, but a bit of all three, plus a touch of the avant-garde. Not to mention the Clash and Pixies samples. Though this hyperactivity can at first be exhausting, ultimately it's eye-opening and addictive.
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