These days, the difference between the marginally popular rock records I listen to and the massively popular dance/pop records being made by the likes of Dr. Luke, Max Martin Shellback and Benny Blanco has less to do with the use of synthetic sounds than with the purpose of their use.


A Gathering of Rebels, Upstarts, Underdogs, Along With Some Like-Minded Ringers
Before beginning this roundup of albums I particularly enjoyed during the last 12 months, some thoughts on form and function.

I acknowledge that my established stylistic turf is relatively narrow, predominantly falling under the rock umbrella. But the parameters of rock have expanded quite a bit in the last 10 or 15 years. If you want to give this stylistic and textural widening a symbolic genesis, the 2000 release of Radiohead’s Kid A is as good a starting point as any. You could also legitimately trace it to Trent Reznor’s sonic experiments with Nine Inch Nails during the ’90s, which he described in the Dec. 17 issue of The New Yorker as “A collision of something that wasn’t perfect sitting on top of something that was.” Indeed, it’s unlikely that records like A Thing Called Divine Fits or Django Django would or could have been made, or even conceived of, without these radical reshufflings of the deck.

These days, the difference between the marginally popular rock records I listen to and the massively popular dance/pop records being made by the likes of Dr. Luke, Max Martin Shellback and Benny Blanco has less to do with the use of synthetic sounds than with the purpose of their use. I know that because I do a spinning class every day, and I’ve heard hits from the likes of Rihanna, Flo Rida, Pitbull, J.Lo and Calvin Harris this year as much as the music I’ve played for pleasure. No, I don’t love these mainstream hit singles, but I do admire them. That’s partly because they’re insidiously catchy, but even more so because they do what they were designed to do so efficiently: they get people moving rhythmically on the dance floor or in the gym. The common denominator of their shared dynamic is the Big Buildup leading up to the chorus explosion—it’s the musical equivalent of an air raid siren starting up. This technique is what passes for a killer hook in the second decade of the 21st century.

During a recent conversation with Dan Wilson, who’s no stranger to the Top 40, I discovered that we share a certain ambivalence toward modern hitmaking. “I definitely enjoy really poppy stuff,” Dan told me, “but I’m more interested in great songs than I am in slammin’ tracks. With a lot of songs that are hits right now, you almost feel like they’re hits because of the mechanics of the production. They hit you with a really hard, beautifully constructed kick drum, and then they hit you with an even harder, more beautifully constructed kick drum for the chorus, and they also hit you with even more blaring guitars or synthesizers. It’s like the difference between getting a nice backrub from someone you love as opposed to a professional masseuse. You’re definitely gonna get your bones cracked in all the right ways by the pro, but there’s not a lot of feeling in it.”

Indeed, the most popular groove-centered tracks are so uniform in the way they function that they’ve led to the opposite impulse among many mainstream listeners, which goes a long way to explain the improbable commercial breakthroughs of what are perceived as “organic” or “authentic” records like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” fun.’s “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” and The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” not to mention all that Adele signifies. It’s also possible to effectively use the techniques found in formulaic pop hits in a rock setting without abandoning the emotional quotient, as Foo Fighters have demonstrated on functional tracks like “The Pretender.”

But—as you’ll notice if you listen to my playlist—Divine Fits, Django Django, Here We Go Magic and several others and have come up with tracks that connect with all the dynamism of their pop counterparts but without having to resort to formula. What these bands and artists have in common is an understanding that rock & roll is fundamentally dance music, which enables them to have it both ways, engaging the body and soul in equal measure.

I see no need to join the chorus of critics extolling the abundant virtues of The ShinsPort of Morrow, Jack White’s Blunderbuss, Grizzly Bear’s Shields or what’s shaping up as the consensus album of the year, Channel Orange from the crown prince of hip-hop soul, Frank Ocean. (All of the above are amply represented in the playlist immediately below.) Instead, my year-end roundup gathers a batch of worthwhile albums released this year by rebels, upstarts and underdogs—including new favorites like Django Django, Here We Go Magic, The Big Cats, Hospitality, Shovels & Rope and JD McPherson. The handful of prominent bands and artists that made my list are here because they made records animated by the same adventurousness and/or individualism that distinguishes the more obscure entries below. What further binds these ringers—from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Bonnie Raitt to John Mayer—is that their recent albums bear evidence of artistic renewal, even if, as in Mayer’s case, it was necessary to go back in time in order to locate a possible future for himself. The 30 albums below are arranged not in order of preference but rather by free-association—the same process I use to choose and sequence playlists. Speaking of which… Bud Scoppa

Here’s a collection of songs that jumped out of the pack for me this year (which you can check out on Spotify). The first half rocks, while the second half is my idea of mood music.

I’m in Sound: A Subjective Soundtrack of 2012
Shovels & Rope, “Hail Hail”
Django Django, “Default”
Divine Fits, “Would That Not Be Nice”
Here We Go Magic, “Make Up Your Mind”
Grizzly Bear, “Yet Again”
The Big Cats, “I’m in Sound”
Charlie Mars, “How I Roll”
The Wallflowers, “Reboot the Mission”
The Rolling Stones, “Doom and Gloom”
Divine Fits, “Baby Get Worse”
Jack White, “16 Saltines”
The Ting Tings, “Give It Back”
Django Django, “WOR”
Hospitality, “Eighth Avenue”
Divine Fits, “Flaggin’ a Ride”
Gold Motel, “Cold Shoulders”
Hot Chip, “Don’t Deny Your Heart”
Grizzly Bear, “Half Gate”
Jason Lytle, “Dept. Of Disappearance”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Walk Like a Giant”
The Mommyheads, “Science and Reason”
Donald Fagen, “Weather in My Head”
Beach House, “Myth”
Sea Wolf, “Old Friend”
Meiko, “Leave the Lights On”
Wye Oak, “Spiral”
Django Django, “Firewater”
The Shins, “40 Mark Strasse”
Grizzly Bear, “Gun-Shy”
Bruce Springsteen, “Rocky Ground”
Hot Chip, “Flutes”
JD McPherson, “Signs & Signifiers”
Robert Francis, “Perfectly Yours”
Beachwood Sparks, “Sparks Fly Again”
Aimee Mann, “Living a Lie”
Frank Ocean, “Thinkin Bout You”
Bonnie Raitt, “Not Cause I Wanted To”
Band of Horses, “Slow, Cruel Hands of Time”
Graham Parker & the Rumour, “Emotional Ride”
The Shins, “Simple Song”

Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge):
Divine Fits may be a side trip for Britt Daniel (Spoon), Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs) and Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks), but this LP is no mere lark. There’s a powerful kick to band’s dynamic, which pits Daniel’s dry, cerebral, hyper-rhythmic aesthetic against Boeckner’s open-hearted, overheated character “Flaggin’ a Ride” sounds like a souped-up sequel to Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On,” “My Love Is Real” recalls The Cure at their catchiest, “For Your Heart” crashes Hot Chip’s party, they crank up an epic version of the Birthday Party’s “Shivers,” and the churning “Would That Not Be Nice” is powered by a seismically deep groove. Throughout, producer Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Arcade Fire) forces Daniel’s mathematically precise guitar rock through a gauntlet of shuddering analog synths and dialed-up slap echo on the most infectiously tricked-out rock LP since El Camino.

Django Django, Django Django (Because): Just picked up on this album the other day, prompted by its appearance on so many respectable year’s best lists, and it continues to blow my mind as I play it obsessively. Sharp, propulsive, distinctly British (they’re from Edinburgh) and super-catchy, it’s like Grizzly Bear meets Hot Chip, with oddly shaped but beautiful harmonies chanted over irresistibly propulsive grooves—but that comparison falls well short of describing the band’s remarkable inventiveness. In essence, Django Django is fusing organic and synthetic sounds as if they were one in the same. In “WOR,” for example, surf guitars and harmonies that are part rockabilly and part glee club hop aboard hell-bent quantized rhythms to create an amalgam that is both highly cerebral and captivatingly immediate. The same can be said about “Life’s a Beach,” Default,” “Firewater,” “Love’s Dart” and everything else on this all-killer, no-filler tour de force.

Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian): Luke Temple’s specialty is filtering conventional song structures and standard rock instrumentation through loops, pedals and ambient sounds, and in Radiohead/Beck producer Nigel Godrich, he’s found a collaborator who is intimately familiar with this mashing up of the familiar and the alien. Here We Go Magic’s third full-length—and the second since Temple turned his bedroom project into a five-piece band— sounds like a radio transmission from a distant station, where an all-night DJ spins what sounds something like Nick Lowe (“Hard to Be Close”), J.J. Cale (“Make Up Your Mind”), Paul Simon (“I Believe in Action”) and the Everly Brothers (“How Do I Know”). Everything’s fuzzy, fractured and out of focus, which makes it all the more mesmerizing.

The Big Cats, The Ancient Art of Leaving: Two Parts (Max): During the ’90s, The Big Cats achieved local-hero status in Little Rock while remaining utterly obscure everywhere else. In recent years they’ve scattered, Jason White working as Green Day’s touring guitarist since 2000, while singer/guitarist Burt Taggart runs local indie Max, which released the similarly mind-blowing part one of this two-LP series in 2011. Despite rarely playing together in recent years, the quartet powers through its heady, Big Star-redolent brand of power pop like a well-oiled machine. The killer tracks come in waves of crisply contoured clangor: “I Can See Land,” with its pneumatic riffage and shimmering harmonies, the blistering “Probably Improbable,” the Lennon-esque “Mr. Memory,” the majestic “I’m in Sound.” A real find.

Hospitality, Hospitality (Merge):
The Brooklyn group’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. The laser-beam rockers “The Right Profession” and “The Birthday” also jump out of the speakers. 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.

Shovels & Rope, Shovels & Rope (Dualtone): Shovels & Rope’s Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent come across like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with bellies full of moonshine, whooping and hollering their way through a series of Appalachian-rooted original tunes with shit-kicking exuberance. Trent is as solid as an anvil in his straight man’s role, while Hearst is a real firecracker, hogging the foreground and powering through the payoffs of the spring-loaded “Keeper” and the brass-fueled “Hail Hail.” There’s also delight in the details, from the raucous thudding of the title track’s garbage-can drums to the “Moon River” harmonica that ramps up the poignancy of the change-of-pace ballad “Carnival.”

Jason Lytle, Dept. of Disappearance (Anti-): Like Sisyphus, the protagonists of “Matterhorn,” “Last Problem of the Alps” and the title track of Lytle’s second solo LP strain mightily to escape the gravitational pull of mortal dread as they seek salvation or oblivion, and the billowing arrangements follow suit, building from muted beginnings toward breathtaking climaxes. Inventively employing computer “tweakery” (as he puts it), this solipsistic artist/producer concocts synthesized symphonies and celestial chorales, consistently achieving emotionally charged results. On these existential anthems (“Young Saints,” “Somewhere There’s a Someone”) and what sound like themes for unmade Kubrick films (“Gimme Click Gimme Grid”), the former Grandaddy leader comes across as a hybrid of Neil Young and the lonely, post-apocalyptic cyborg of Wall-E.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill (Reprise): For lovers of immersive epics like “Cortez the Killer,” “Down by the River,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Like a Hurricane,” this double-CD is the mother lode. Of the four narcotic excursions that take up 70 minutes of the album’s two-hour-plus running time—marching along with an unvarying midtempo cadence from Tap-Tap and Boom-Boom—“Walk Like a Giant” is the most endlessly captivating. Each of its crisply contoured sections is crowned by a gigantic hook—the whistled overture, the wop-wop backing vocals and Neil’s gloriously hazed-out guitar forays—as the band maintains a mind-blowing intensity for more than 12 minutes before giving way to four and a half minutes of deconstructive skronk. There’s something characteristically ornery about Young’s refusal to end the song—and despite the fact that the five-minute radio edit I’ve heard on Sirius Spectrum makes for a thoroughly satisfying encapsulation of this opus, thus far it’s commercially unavailable. But then, being maddeningly uncompromising is a big part of what makes Neil Young one of rock’s most enduringly vital artists, along with Bob Dylan (whose “Like a Rolling Stone” is celebrated in the album’s “Twisted Road.” And Psychedelic Pill is a crucial late-career addition to the man’s voluminous canon. You don’t listen to this monumental work; as the title suggests, you clear a couple of hours and get lost in it.

Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos (Reprise):
The Steely Dan co-auteur’s fourth solo album dispenses with the mortal dread that permeated 2006’s Morph the Cat as Fagen re-immerses himself in the finer things— or the “Good Stuff,” as he puts it in one song— amid the life challenges facing aging Boomers (Fagen is 64). “Slinky Thing” revisits the generation-spanning romantic escapades of “Hey 19,” fueled by a groove that matches its title, as a “burned-out hippie clown” tries to put the make on “a lithe young beauty.” Fagen’s propensity for embedded mysteries has rarely been more intriguingly manifested than it is on “Memorabilia,” a song as slippery as it is catchy, with its references to U.S. nuclear tests in the South Pacific during the 1950s. In the hook-filled “Miss Marlene,” the protagonist finds love in a bowling alley, of all places. The album’s most sublime piece is “Weather in My Head,” a modified midtempo blues in the manner of “Pretzel Logic” and one of several scintillating guitar workouts for latter-day Dan mainstay Jon Herington, with its slam-dunk payoff, “They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what's to be done/Lord— ’bout the weather in my head.”

The Mommyheads, Vulnerable Boy (Dromedary):
Overlooked by all but a tiny core of fervent fans during their ’90s heyday in San Francisco, the Mommyheads must feel like they’re making music in a void since reforming in 2008. This, the third album in their latest iteration, is the brainy, virtuosic quartet’s most ambitious and challenging work yet, marked by radical tonal shifts, a la “Paranoid Android,” passages of shimmering McCartney-esque pop giving way to jagged shards of proggy, wigged-out ferocity. “Science and Reason,” “Gimme Silence” and “Medicine Show” comprise a mind-blowing display of rarefied musicality, at once deeply melancholy, self-mocking and defiant. The title of the LP’s coda says it all: “No One Gives a Damn About Your Band.”

Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop):
On their fourth LP, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally chose not to try to top what they achieved with their 2010 breakthrough Teen Dream, but rather to subsume their poppy tendencies beneath a unifying aural glaze, ambient sounds connecting one movement to the next. Despite this aural shell game, repeated listening gradually reveals the distinct shapes of individual songs, delivered elegantly and emphatically by Legrand’s siren-like vocals amid the shimmering aural dreamscapes. Heard individually, tracks like “Myth,” “Wild,” “Troublemaker” and “New Year” resemble nothing less than modern variations on ’60s girl-group pop, specifically suggesting Phil Spector’s wall of sound in the newly emphasized drumming and the stacked, heavily echoed instrumentation. But these walls feel liquid in their density, like tsunamis in slo-mo. And in due course, chorus hooks as undeniable as those on Teen Dream pop out of the lush sonic overlay like spires and minarets.

Charlie Mars, Blackberry Light (Rockingham): Making records in semi-obscurity for 15 years, Mars has come upon the ideal musical vehicle for his achingly soulful, Gram Parsons-like drawl and languorously meditative songs. Blackberry Light’s brace of whisper-close confessional ballads inhabits richly atmospheric soundscapes tugged along by a subtle but seismic rhythmic undertow. The album’s aural seductiveness can be partly attributed to Tchad Blake, whose spacious mix, echoing his indelible work on Los LobosKiko, italicizes the emotionally charged, secular-gospel uplift of “Nothing but the Rain,” “Back of the Room” and “Great Wall of China.” Nestled among these incandescent pearls is the hyper-funky, badass “How I Roll,” an unrepentant, all but defiant admission of extreme rock & roll misbehavior.

Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream (Redwing):
The 62-year-old Raitt is not only one of the best song interpreters on the planet, 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. Among the numerous highlights are the Randall Bramblett-penned “Used to Rule the World” from the self-produced batch and the unhurried but intense Henry-produced performance of the bitter existential ballad “Million Miles” from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the tracks from the Henry sessions.

Willie Nelson, Heroes (Legacy): Heroes may be elegiac, but it’s as spirited as it is poignant. Snoop Dogg, an outlaw pothead from another idiom, sings a verse on Willie’s shit-kicking “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” The Son of God Himself shows up twice—on Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s blues ballad “Come On Up to the House,” wherein Willie warbles, “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood,” and “Come On Back Jesus’ (co-written by Willie and his son Micah), whose refrain continues, “…and pick up John Wayne on the way.” Willie’s his sixth child, 22-year-old Lukas, penned three songs for the record and trades verses with the 78-year-old Nelson on half of the 14 tracks, sounding uncannily like his dad at the same age. Lukas is very much the co-star of Heroes, suggesting that the album represents a passing of the torch. The first single, Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” could have been written for him. Its final lines are “Hold me till I die/Meet you on the other side.” Heroes ends with a burnished rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” Willie claiming it for himself, as he’s done so often during the last half century.

Ry Cooder, Election Special (Palo Verde/Nonesuch):
Cranked out in a series of unrehearsed, live, single-take performances, Election Special is an impassioned screed against the dumbing down of America. But this is an uncommonly persuasive screed, because it’s set up not as polemic but rather as a series of vignettes, its harsh judgments lurking within sharply drawn narratives in which not a word is wasted. Throughout the record, Cooder creates and inhabits three-dimensional characters whose beliefs and opinions span the political spectrum of America in 2012. In the album’s high point, the brilliantly conceived and executed “Brother Is Gone,” he puts himself in character as neo-con oil tycoon Charles Koch, relocating Robert Johnson’s crossroads to Wichita, where young Charlie and his brother Davy make a deal with Satan. Cooder’s early albums were frequently described by reviewers as collections of Depression-era songs, and here he’s come up with a great song for this Depression.

Robert Francis, Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard): Francis’ third album is suffused with the atmosphere of the 24-year-old wunderkind’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 the brutally inverted love song “Perfectly Yours” 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 he engages in an animated left-right guitar conversation with Ry Cooder.

Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop):
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. The centerpiece cut is “Sparks Fly Again” from Farmer Dave Scher, which reminds me of the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” one of two Goffin-King covers on Notorious Byrd Brothers. “I really tried to make chord changes that took elements of different songs that we had done before,” Scher told me. “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.’” And that they do, sounding better than ever throughout.

John Mayer, Born and Raised (Columbia):
Mayer clearly signals his intentions on the opening track of 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. (Note: The radio edit cuts off the rhapsodic instrumental interplay that takes the performance to a rarefied level.) The Don Was-produced LP proceeds at an unhurried pace, featuring Jackson Browne-like confessionals (“Shadow Days”) and Young-style, harmonica-accented shuffles (the title song), much of it graced by the sublimely evocative tones of SoCal pedal steel master Greg Leisz. A couplet in the bittersweet “Speak for Me” italicizes this deft exercise in musical nostalgia: “You can tell that something isn’t right/When all your heroes are in black-and-white.”

Band of Horses, Mirage Rock (Brown/Columbia):
Ben Bridwell and his now-stable, all-Carolinian band have taken a big step in their journey to the past by hooking up with legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns, whose métier is capturing inspired performances on the fly. There’s uncommon immediacy to ramshackle Crazy Horse-style bashers like “Knock Knock” and “How to Live,” as well as big-sky ballads like “Long Vows,” which is cut from the same flannel as the Eagles’ Johns-produced first LP. “Feud” fuses the raging power chords and earnest harmonies of the two modes, “Electric Music” is a virtual greatest-hooks medley of early-’70s West Coast rock from Poco to Jackson Browne and “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” sounds like it was recorded after midnight in Big Pink.

Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk): Blasting this super-smart, hyper-melodic album, it’s hard to believe Nada Surf started out as a sort of JV Weezer with their 1996 altena-nerd hit “Popular.” The New York-based band, now a quartet with the addition of lead guitarist Doug Gillard, is now carrying on the legacy of the Byrds, exemplified by the 12-string jangle of the Truffaut- and McGuinn-referencing “Jules and Jim.” Their latest LP combines the band’s most intensely rocking performances with bandleader Matthew Caws’ heaviest songs—“The Moon Is Calling,” “Teenage Dreams” (not a Katy Perry homage) and the culminating “The Future” powerfully reflect on time’s undertow pulling us inexorably toward the unknown. “When I Was Young” starts like a muted ballad from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends but then erupts into a widescreen anthem, providing the elegiac centerpiece for Nada’s career record.

Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder):
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.

Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit (Rounder): Since their first album, Ode To Sunshine, in 2008, Delta Spirit have left their alt-country roots in the dust, Matt Vasquez’s maturation as a writer and singer accompanied by a tightening and toughening of the band’s sound. Guitarist Will McLaren, who arrived following 2010’s History From Below, gives Delta Spirit a second heavyweight musician, joining force-of-nature drummer Brandon Young. The band’s smarts and muscle come together with a resounding whomp on the new LP with the galloping “Empty House,” the jubilant “Tear It Up” and the glorious “California,” on which Young’s snare-and-kick assaults alternate with a motorik drum-machine beat under a galaxy of shimmering harmonies. Delta Spirit is now pushing Dawes as the best young SoCal band.

The Honeydogs, What Comes After (Grain Belt): Like fellow Heartland auteur Jeff Tweedy, Honeydogs founder Adam Levy has been making smart, heartfelt rock since the early ’90s, though under the radar, while also holding down a day job as a social worker. His eighth full-length with the Honeydogs, now a seven-piece, is Levy’s least thorny and most immediately appealing collection. It also covers a whole lotta stylistic terrain, evoking The Band (“Particles and Waves”), Beatles (“Devil We Do”) and Summerteeth-era Wilco (“Fighting Weight”), along with acoustic pieces both burnished (“Everything in Its Place”) and syncopated (“Better Word”), even as Levy’s lyrics consider such heavy themes as blue-collar burdens, atrophying relationships and encroaching mortality.

Aimee Mann, Charmer (Superego): Eight albums into her solo career, Mann hasn’t wavered in her melancholy milieu—sharply rendered songs of regret and rebuke piped forth by her dolefully elegant voice. The belated follow-up to 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, Charmer plies the familiar recipe on a lush bed of pealing guitars and burbling synths. The title song takes a shot at manipulative narcissists, while, on “Labrador,” Mann compares a withered romance to the relationship between an obedient pet and her master—and manages to wring poignancy from the analogy. On “Living a Lie,” another understated grabber, her fluty alto is ardently enfolded by the elastic countertenor of the ShinsJames Mercer.

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): Apple boils down her high-strung sensibility to its tortured essence on her first album in seven years, inviting the listener to examine the gnarls of her scarred psyche. Stark and unremittingly intense, The Idler Wheel… features little more than Apple’s husky, close-miked contralto, her stabbing piano chords and jittery percussion. A sense of foreboding lurks beneath the lilting surface of opener “Every Single Night,” giving way to hemorrhaging anxiety. “Daredevil,” “Left Alone” and “Regret,” the riskiest pieces, seem too raw to be called performances, yet it’s Apple’s refinement as a writer and singer that makes this harrowing psychodrama so gripping; indeed, no modern-day vocalist fuses technique and idiosyncrasy so deftly.

Gold Motel, Gold Motel (Good as Gold/Thirty Tigers): On the follow-up to its engaging 2010 debut Summer House, this female-fronted quintet continues to connect the tuneful aggression of Blondie with the SoCal sassiness of Rilo Kiley. The ingenuous, high-spirited Greta Morgan— whose cooing alto is a dead ringer for Debbie Harry’s—maintains a commanding presence throughout this spunky set, keeping her cool amid her bandmates’ high-revving grooves and meaty slabs of distorted guitars. The band shows its range on the buoyant midtempo gem “Slow Emergency,” which gives way to the incendiary rocker “Cold Shoulders,” with its “Heart of Glass”-like chorus and a climactic rave-up that echoes the Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement.”

The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia): Jules De Martino and Katie White came out of nowhere to score a global hit with their infectious debut album, We Started Nothing, but today’s fans have notoriously short memories, and the duo’s follow-up was roundly ignored despite the comparable pleasures it offered. “Give It Back” rocks with as much ecstatic power as anything on Jack White’s LP, and “Hang It Up” rivals the previous album’s “Shut Up and Let Me Go” in terms of ’tude and infectiousness, while “Soul Killing” and “Hit Me Down Sonny” are bootie shakers of the first order. By all accounts, the album was a grind to make, but it’s a sheer delight to listen to.

Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-):
On her first album since 2001, surrounded by a superbly understated studio band featuring soul legends Booker T. Jones and James Gadsden, onetime Jody Grind frontwoman Hogan explores the nuances of songs written for her by talented friends like Robyn Hitchcock (the title track), Vic Chestnutt (“Ways of This World”) and Jon Langford (“Haunted”). The real standouts are “Daddy’s Little Girl,” in which M. Ward puts her inside the head of Frank Sinatra, and the Jack Pendarvis-Andrew Bird collaboration “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which places Hogan’s honeysuckle voice at the intersection of country, soul and ’60s pop, where this gifted song interpreter resides.

JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers (Rounder): McPherson is 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.” But the quintessential JD tune is “North Side Gal,” a two-and-a-half-minute slab of smoked brisket that slaps together Carl Perkins and Jackie Wilson—with a stunning self-directed video to boot.

Graham Parker and the Rumour, Three Chords Good (Primary Wave): Playing together for the first time in 31 years, the Rumour tackles Parker’s material with immediacy and masterful finesse. The reunited musicians forcefully reclaim their turf with the fittingly vitriolic opener “Snake Oil Capital of the World”, as Parker nicks the intro of Howlin’ Wind’s “Don’t Ask Me Questions”—a cosmic coincidence considering that he wrote these songs with no clue he’d be recording them with his former band. On the following pair of midtempo cruisers, “Long Emotional Ride” and “Stop Cryin’ About the Rain”, both album highlights, the band’s economical playing leaves Parker plenty of space to explore the nuances of the song and the shadings his earthily elegant mature voice. The Dylan-esque “Coathangers”, the album’s most aggressive track, is distinguished by a taut, tasty ensemble performance, all six bandmembers clearly reveling in the fact that they’re waking up the echoes.


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