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"Simple Song" may well be the ultimate example of James Mercer’s dizzying aerial ballet.
HAPPY PILLS: A SOUNDTRACK TO
THE LAST SIX MONTHS
Shoo-ins (The Shins, Jack White), Perennials (Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson) and Sleepers
(Here We Go Magic, Hospitality)
You’ve gotta admit, a playlist that begins with a song titled “I’m Shakin’” and ends with one called “Just Breathe” is fitting for the present Age of Anxiety, just as Happy Pills serves nicely as a heading for the whole thing. I’ve got a bunch of either/or choices in the 25-track playlist immediately below, but most of them are from albums so loaded that you could pick any of five or six tracks as the standout—starting with The Shins and Jack White, as well as total pros Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, and a couple of bands I’d never heard before this year: Here We Go Magic and Hospitality. Along with the music listed below, I’ve spent a big portion of 2012 listening to tracks that either came out later in 2011 or took me awhile to actually listen to. In the former group are Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail”/”Staircase” single, a double-shot of late-year brilliance, and of course, The Black Keys’ irresistible, hook-loaded El Camino, an album I haven’t stopped playing since it came out in December. (Current fave: “Little Black Submarine,” with that fist-pumping Led Zep-inspired eruption in mid-song.) The ones I could’ve kicked myself for not picking up on sooner are Destroyer’s avant-garde/soft-rock hybrid Kaputt—especially the droll, delectable “Savage Night at the Opera”—and The War on Drugs’ churning, Springsteen-like Slave Ambient. My Top 12 albums at midyear follow the playlist. The links on the song titles are either YouTube clips of official videos, personally vetted live performances or, in the case of the several less celebrated tunes, lyric videos. Or you can go straight to the Spotify playlist here, containing my 25 selections plus 15 other tracks referenced in the copy. Bud Scoppa

HAPPY PILLS: A 2012 MIDYEAR PLAYLIST
Jack White
, “I’m Shakin’”: I was torn between the totally kickass “Sixteen Saltines” and this scintillating cover of a Rudy Toombs tune originally cut in 1960 by Little Willie John (check out his version here) and revived by the Blasters in 1981, but I went with “I’m Shakin’” because White has never grooved any more bodaciously than he does here, and because I’ve discovered the track is a can’t-miss party starter. So let’s get this party started…

Here We Go Magic, “Make Up Your Mind”: Nigel Godrich knows a thing or two about rhythm from working with Radiohead and Beck, and the producer has helped Luke Temple and his bandmates get their groove on here and elsewhere on A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian). Temple's specialty is filtering conventional song structures and standard rock instrumentation through loops, pedals and ambient sounds, and the LP sounds like a radio transmission from a distant station, where an all-night DJ spins what sounds like a low-down, souped-up J.J. Cale cut on the hyper-infectious “Make Up Your Mind” and the Everly Brothers on the similarly percolating “How Do I Know.” I can also hear hints of Nick Lowe (“Hard to Be Close”) and Paul Simon (“I Believe in Action”) on an album that’s fuzzy, fractured and slightly out of focus, which makes it all the more mesmerizing.

Beach House, “Myth”: With Bloom, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully have crafted an album that feels very much like the score for an imaginary film—an avant-garde French film, to be precise, an extended nocturne encompassing romance and its aftermath, the inexorable passage of time and the preciousness of the fleeting moment. This shimmering aural dreamscape comes off like a modern variation on ’60s girl-group pop, specifically suggesting Phil Spector’s wall of sound in its stacked, heavily echoed instrumentation. But Beach House’s wall of sound feels liquid in its density, like a tsunami in slo-mo.

The Shins
, “Simple Song”: Perhaps the ultimate example of James Mercer’s dizzying aerial ballet. I’ve played this track more than any other during the last six months, and it still gives me goosebumps—plus, I keep discovering additional nuances lurking in the cumulus clouds of Mercer and Greg Kurstin’s breathtaking arrangement. That’s true of pretty much every track on Port of Morrow, an album as compulsively listenable as it is musically and vocally ambitious. It’s my #1 album of 2012 so far—something I can, and do, listen to from start to finish, a rarity these days.

Hospitality, “Eighth Avenue”: The Brooklyn band’s full-length debut thrums with the street-level energy of New York City, which provides the backdrop for several of gamine-like frontwoman Amber Papini’s songs and the deft playing of multi-instrumentalist (and former bedroom savant) Nate Michel. The high-IQ torque of early Talking Heads powers “Friends of Friends,” while the elliptical character sketch “Betty Wang” is packed with as much detail as something from Fountains of Wayne. But “Eighth Avenue,” with its parade of embedded hooks, along with a vocal from Papini poised between girlish fragility and womanly self-possession, is this engaging young band’s definitive track.

The Ting Tings, “Give It Back”: The closest thing to a straightforward rocker on either of the duo’s albums, “Give It Back” shares a rapid-fire groove and sidelong aggressiveness with Spoon’s “Got Nuffin.” But the most infectious track on Sounds From Nowheresville, a terrific album that has been strangely overlooked following their worldwide hit debut, 2008’s We Started Nothing, is “Soul Killing,” with a pogoing groove from Jules DiMartino and Katie White’s skittering, playfully soulful (and vice versa) vocal. And by the way, that’s a snippet of “Hit Me Down Sonny” from the latest LP in the current Acura ILS spot.

Delta Spirit, “California”: The San Diego band’s smarts and muscle come together with a resounding whomp on their self-titled third LP. Matt Vasquez’s glorious celebration of his home state gallops along behind force-of-nature drummer Brandon Young’s snare-and-kick assaults alternating with a motorik drum-machine beat under a galaxy of shimmering harmonies. It’s one of three memorable songs on the subject to appear in this half year, along with Best Coast’s “No Other Place” and, unexpectedly, the next track on this playlist…

John Mayer, “Queen of California”: Mayer clearly signals his intentions on the opener of the Don Was-produced Born and Raised, name-checking Harvest and Joni Mitchell in opener “Queen of California,” while gracing the song’s Laurel Canyon lilt with his own high, lonesome harmonies. Here and elsewhere on the LP, the guitar hero does something unprecedented in his career, ceding the instrumental foreground to SoCal pedal steel master Greg Leisz, who serves as both guide and talisman in Mayer’s attempt to sublimely evocative tones. Note: The radio edit cuts off the rhapsodic instrumental interplay that takes the performance to a rarefied level.

Beachwood Sparks
, “Sparks Fly Again”: Back on Sub Pop after a decade of silence, the L.A. retro-rockers sound tighter and more mature throughout The Tarnished Gold, which finds the band embracing high fidelity for the first time, to their benefit. This buoyant track from Farmer Dave Scher reminds me of the Byrds“Wasn’t Born to Follow,” one of two Goffin-King covers on Notorious Byrd Brothers. “I wrote the chords and ideas to actually reference a bunch of the things we did way back in the roaring ’90s,” Scher told me. “I really tried to make chord changes that took elements of different songs that we had done before; I tried to write in our vocabulary, our idiom. And with the lyrics, I thought it would be fun to make it a description of what was actually happening, to do a full send-up of the kind of structures we used to really be into at the start, when we were our own strange little mini-culture. It was my way of saying, ‘Let’s light this baby up again.’”

Robert Francis, “Perfectly Yours”: Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard), the 24-year-old artist’s third album, is suffused with the atmosphere of the young artist’s native Los Angeles, from its cinematically vivid imagery to the intricate latticework of fingerpicked guitars and airborne harmonies that form its default setting. The turbulent theme of this brutally inverted love song is belied by its silky sound, as multi-instrumentalist Francis and his bandmates deftly juxtapose light and shadow. The track’s lush climax, topped by Francis’ yearning “I don’t want to lose this feeling” vocal payoff, sounds uncannily like Paul Buchanan and The Blue Nile—a band Robert told me he’d never heard. Another highlight is the thrilling closer “Dangerous Neighborhood” on which Francis embraces his rich musical heritage with a parade of crystalline Laurel Canyon harmonies while engaging in an animated left-right guitar conversation with Ry Cooder.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Never Go Back”: The Lion the Beast the Beat (Hollywood), Potter and company’s fourth and best album, crisply produced by Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco), contains three tracks they cooked up in collaboration with The Black Keys Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio. Auerbach loaned Potter his Mellotron and laid down the chugging Casio drum loop here on the lead single, with its insinuating “Oh no/oh no/I’ll never go back there no more” chorus hook. Catchy as all get-out.

Tennis, “My Better Self”: Give the drummer some. The Keys’ Patrick Carney produced Young & Old (Fat Possum), the sophomore LP from this male-female duo, which contains this summery cut, setting off Alaina Moore’s ingenuous, girl-group-style vocal against the crushing drums of touring member James Barone, whose muscular snare hits sound a lot like those of basher Carney himself. But there’s a hint of something darker below the surface that’s brought forward in the bizarrely choreographed video, with its “Twin Peaks roadhouse vibe,” as Stereogum put it.

Nada Surf, “Jules and Jim”: Gotta have some 12-string jangle, and this Truffaut- and McGuinn-referencing track from the reliable Matthew Caws and his mates, now including lead guitarist Doug Gillard, fills the bill. It also reminds me of Matthew Sweet’s “She Walks the Night” from last year’s Modern Art. But the centerpiece of The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk) is “When I Was Young,” which starts like a muted ballad from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends before erupting into a widescreen anthem.

JD McPherson, “Signs and Signifiers”: McPherson may be a ’50s rock & roll revivalist, but he’s no purist. Signs & Signifiers, the Oklahoma native’s debut album, delivers retro music laced with a rich payload of postmodern nuance—what McPherson describes, only half-facetiously, as “an art project disguised as an R&B record.” The title track is a perfect example of this perfectly poised duality—it’s a mesmerizing churner powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr’s part on The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” I could’ve easily gone with the quintessential JD tune, “North Side Gal,” a two-and-a-half-minute slab of smoked brisket that slams together Carl Perkins and Jackie Wilson—with a stunning self-directed video to boot.

The Walkmen
, “We Can’t Be Beat”: This full-throated, unselfconscious, nearly a cappella sing-out from the Brooklyn band—a ballsy choice for Heaven’s leadoff cut—gives the Fleet Foxes a run for their money…but then, they did get Robin Pecknold to sing on it.

Fiona Apple
, “Every Single Night”: A sense of foreboding lurks beneath the lilting surface of The Idler Wheel (etc.)’s first single and opening track, before giving way to hemorrhaging anxiety on the anti-diva’s bravest, most uncompromising work—and that’s saying something.

Norah Jones, “Happy Pills”: Happily, Jones’ contributions to Danger Mouse’s Rome last year led the two to make an album together, and the astute producer, musician and songwriter brings out both a dark undercurrent and a previously untapped effervescence in Norah, busting her out of the easy-listening ghetto. I haven’t spent enough time with …Little Broken Hearts as a whole to put it alongside my faves of the half-year, but the first single hooks me from the moment that chunky groove and treated nah-nah-nahs strut out of the speakers.

The Shins
, “40 Mark Strasse”: Mercer’s gorgeous tribute to Todd Rundgren in his Philly soul mode, as well as Todd’s homies Hall & Oates. This is familiar territory for producer Kurstin, who did a 2010 album of H&O classics as half of The Bird and the Bee with Inara George.

Bonnie Raitt, “Million Miles”: The 62-year-old artist is not only one of the best song interpreters on the planet (along with Willie Nelson; see below), she’s also carrying on the legacy of Little Feat auteur Lowell George with her powerful slide guitar playing. Slipstream, Raitt’s first LP in seven years (just like Fiona Apple—but that’s where the comparison ends), contains eight groove-focused tracks she recorded with her excellent longtime band—and four deep, dark performances with producer Joe Henry and his go-to guys. I could’ve gone either way in picking one song—like Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World” from the self-produced batch—but I keep coming back to her unhurried but intense Henry-produced performance of this bitter existential ballad from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the tracks from the Henry sessions.

Beck, “Looking for a Sign”: This one-off from the soundtrack to the 2011 indie film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is Sea Change revisited, and that’s more than OK with me.

Kathleen Edwards, “Change the Sheets”: On her fourth album, the Canadian writer/artist dramatically breaks out of the alt-country cul-de-sac, armed with a brace of intensely personal songs crammed with guided-missile hooks. As Edwards and Bon Iver auteur Justin Vernon co-produced the record, they were falling in love, which no doubt accounts for the ecstatic vocal and instrumental performances throughout. The songs bear the wounds of Edwards’ breakup and divorce, and Vernon’s gorgeous arrangements enwrap her vulnerable vocals like a down comforter. The lacerating yet life-embracing “Change the Sheets” is the most captivating track on an album loaded with them.

Paul McCartney, “Too Many People”: From Ram, the year’s most ear-opening reissue. The critics turned up their noses at McCartney’s second album—following the homemade “bowl of cherries” debut, which was widely regarded as a charming curio—partly because he wasn’t John Lennon, but mostly because Ram wasn’t The Beatles. That’s why listening to it now in reissue form is such a kick in the pants, starting with the opening track, which picks up where Side Two of Abbey Road left off, while foreshadowing the similarly variegated “Band on the Run.”

Jack White, “Take Me With You When You Go”: During a the course of a track with a mid-song transition as radical as The Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine,” Jack summons up practically every mode he’s leaned on over the years, from the pastoral to the epic.

M. Ward, “The First Time I Ran Away”: This sublime work-up from A Wasteland Companion has a similar Zen-like quality to Ward’s way-deep “Chinese Translation,” right down to the earlier song’s haunting animated video. The two clips are both the work of Joel Trussell.

Willie Nelson, “Just Breathe”: This Pearl Jam cover featuring son Lukas and Willie’s take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist” are both excellent examples of the ol’ pothead's uncanny ability to inhabit a song. “Just Breathe” could’ve been written for him. It begins, “Yes I understand that every life must end/As we sit alone, I know someday we must go,” and ends, “Hold me till I die/Meet you on the other side.” Willie claims both songs for himself, as he’s done so often during the last half century.

ALBUMS: A MIDYEAR TOP 15
The Shins
, Port of Morrow (Columbia)
Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian)
Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop)
Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream (Redwing/RED)
The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia)
Willie Nelson
, Heroes (Legacy)
Hospitality, Hospitality (Merge)
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, The Lion the Beast the Beat (Hollywood)
Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit (Rounder)
Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
Robert Francis, Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard)
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder)
Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk)
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Clean Slate/Epic)


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