The final batch of new releases for the year is a short one. Things really slow down around the holidays, which is probably why every publication puts out its best-of lists throughout December rather than waiting for the end of the year. However, there were a few standouts that came out in the final two months that may have been overlooked by the major pubs.
Here are my hot takes from months 11 and 12; and be sure to look back throughout the week for my own year in review posts.
Palace – So Long Forever … The debut full-length release for the British indie rock band is definitely one of the best of the year. It mixes so many enjoyable elements from other solid bands from the past few years. There are the chillwave guitars throughout, particularly on “Bitter” and “So Long Forever”, that would not sound out of place on an album by The XX. For much of the disc, lead singer Leo Wyndham’s vocals are reminiscent of the emotive folk Dry the River hit big with a few years ago. But there are a few times, most notably on “It’s Over”, that he sounds more like a Hozier knock-off.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Until the Hunter … Fans of Mazzy Star rejoice! Last seen on the band’s 2013 release, Seasons of Your Day, the lead singer is back with another side project. It’s a folkier version of what you might expect if you’re a Mazzy Star novice (like myself). The highlight here is her duet with Kurt Vile on “Let Me Get There”.
Jim James – Eternally Even … Admittedly, I haven’t listened to much of James’s side projects nor his main band, My Morning Jacket, in several years. So, perhaps the overall vibe on this, his second solo effort, is not too far out of line with where his music is at these days. That being said, I’m not a fan. This sounds more like an R&B/soul artist in 1970s Detroit rather than an alt-rocker from modern-day Kentucky.
American Wrestlers – Goodbye Terrible Youth … Former Working for a Nuclear Free City guitarist Gary McClure added Ian Reitz, Josh Van Hoorebeke, and his wife, Bridgette Imperial, for his second full-length release under this moniker. The result is an indie rock/chillwave hybrid that should help shoot this band to the top of every hipster “it” list. The first single, “Give Up”, is as good as anything you’ll hear this year. McClure’s grainy, pseudo-falsetto is reminiscent of Silversun Pickups’ leader Brian Aubert, most notably on standouts “Hello, Dear” and “Amazing Grace”. “Someone Far Away” is another one to look for.
Lambchop – FLOTUS … This album has nothing to do with Michelle Obama. The title of the latest release from the collective led by Kurt Wagner stands for “For Love Often Turns Us Still.” Despite being active since the mid-’80s, I’ve barely ever listened to this outfit, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a low-key, production effect-filled disc full of soulful lounge music.
You Blew It! – Abendrot … This Florida crew may not label itself as an emo band, but its third album can’t be called anything but. Like a slightly punkier version of Jimmy Eat World’s classic Clarity, this disc is loaded with pensive lyrics and sorrowful instrumentation.
Jacuzzi Boys – Ping Pong … This SoCal trio’s fourth album is pretty straightforward rock, with an indie-punk bent. Other than that, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it.
The Men – Devil Music … As several reviews intimated, the sixth full-length release from this Brooklyn post-punk quartet was more of a labor of love than anything else. Recorded over a weekend in January, it’s packed with distortion, reverb and fuzz and feels more like a two-day jam session rather than a proper record.
Martha Wainwright – Goodnight City … Having never gone out of my way to listen to her prolific catalog, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Turns out she’s like a cross between Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsome. (At least at this stage in her career.)
Emeli Sandé – Long Live the Angels … A Scottish version of Rihanna puts plenty of soul into her second album.
Kristin Hersh – Wyatt at the Coyote Palace … The Throwing Muses co-founder returns with her 10th solo offering. Her raw vocals and acoustic guitar highlight the lyrics, which are the star here. “In Stitches” is a standout.
Sad13 – Slugger … On her solo debut, Speedy Ortiz lead singer Sadie Dupuis comes off sounding like a modern-day Liz Phair.
Sleigh Bells – Jessica Rabbit … On their first three albums, I only liked one song by the Brooklyn noise pop duo — “Rill Rill”. Other than that, I could never really get into the abrasive, disjointed sound. But on their fourth disc, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller have managed to make something more accessible. Things are still plenty noisy, but, for the most part, the songs have enough going on that they’re tolerable. No tracks stand out; it’s just nice to hear something palatable from them.
Diana – Familiar Touch … The second album from the Canadian electro-pop trio is a captivating mix of pop, electronic and chillwave. The instrumentation often hearkens back to ‘80s pop/R&B — think Lionel Richie — but lead singer Carmen Elle does a good job of keeping things from seeming too nostalgic or corny. “Confession” is a solid table-setter for a disc filled with mostly enjoyable tunes and the occasional miss.
Highly Suspect – The Boy Who Died Wolf … The Massachusetts rock trio received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song for the opening track (“My Name is Human”) of its second album. The fact that I hated the song makes me wonder how bad the other songs are in that category. The band itself sounds like Chris Cornell fronting Filter — interesting to some listeners, but probably derivative to most.
The Weeknd – Starboy … The singles machine didn’t take too long with his third full-length album, and several songs have torn up the charts. I fully understand why people enjoy his mix of R&B, rap and electro-pop. Personally, I can only tolerate it for so long. The lone song I would deem worthy of repeating is the opening title track, which features Daft Punk.
Elephant Stone – Ship of Fools … The fourth release for the Canadian trio hems closer to indie-rock than psychedelia, but there’s enough of the latter that gives the whole thing a bit of a chillwave vibe. The crew, led by Rishi Dhir, also weaves in some Indian instrumentation to give it a little something extra. The standout here is “See the Light”.
The Trouble with Templeton – Someday, Buddy … A great mix of indie rock, emo and shoegaze, this is the second full-length release for the Brisbane, Australia, band led by singer/songwriter Thomas Calder. He started the group — which takes its name from a Twilight Zone episode — as a solo project in 2011 before fleshing it out as a quartet. Calder’s vocals range from sounding like David Gray on the low end to Grouplove’s Christian Zucconi at the higher octaves. Standout tracks include “Sailor”, “Heavy Trouble”, “Complex Lips” and “Vernon”, but, really, everything here is above average.
Angelina – Vagabond Saint … The debut for the mononymous British singer-songwriter falls somewhere in the overlap of blues, country, rock and soul on the Venn diagram of the music world. At times, she seems like she could go full Brittney Howard and bring down the house with her pipes. But she never takes it to that level. Instead, she focuses on keeping things raw and sultry.
Peter Doherty – Hamburg Demonstrations … The former Libertines and Babyshambles frontman classes it up with his full first name on his second solo disc. As for the music, it’s a whole lot of meh.
Neil Young – Peace Trail … The patron saint of Canadian rockers returns with his 37th full-length album. I’ve probably only listened to 3 percent of his solo work, so my knowledge base is limited. But this disc seems like what one would expect — plenty of acoustic guitar folk-rock with the occasional protest song (“Indian Givers”). If you’re a Younghead, you’ll probably enjoy it.