"It was like we were all going on an expedition together to find something magical, and there it was."
——MMJ producer Tucker Martine on “Circuital”


25 Recently Minted Gems Served Up for Your Rocking Summertime Pleasure
THE GETAWAY  / a midyear playlist

This 25-song compilation of mostly recent stuff, with a running time of an hour and 50 minutes, will get you from L.A. up the 101 North past Santa Barbara and up the Chumash Highway to Santa Ynez, assuming the traffic is light (fat chance). If you wanna hear Adele, just pause your iPod and turn on the radio.

1. “Doors Unlocked and Opened,” Death Cab for Cutie: The band showed its ability to explore the nuances of a groove with the elongated but everchanging “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Here, producer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla and his three bandmates work similar magic over a relentless motorik beat. This is the half-year’s most effective “get in your car and drive” track, and a great way to kick off this midyear mix.

2. “Windows Are Rolled Down,” Amos Lee: Here, though it was serviced to Triple A in the dead of winter, is the perfect summer single (in my wife Peggy’s opinion). While this balmy, cruiser may be closer to del amitri than to “Thunder Road,” it’s so evocative that you can practically feel the breeze whipping through your hair.

3. “Perfect Day,” The Constellations: This percolating track is from 2010, but I just got hooked on it during the last month, and it fits my overarching theme so well that I couldn’t resist. It’s got a ton of ’tude and a smokin’ groove.

4. “Calamity Song,” The Decemberists: Ain’t it ironic that Colin Meloy and company cemented their status as a world-class band by making their most down-to-earth album? Amid the masterful early R.E.M. and Harvest appropriations sits this shimmering nugget of harmony-rich folk rock, my favorite recording in this hallowed genre since Band of Horses’ “Laredo.” The goosebump moment occurs when the hyper-verbal song, riding its galloping Murmur-like groove, explodes into joyous falsetto ahh-oohs. (Also, “Down by the Water,” “Carry It All,” “June Hymn”)

5. “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” The Strokes: A song that would’ve fit nicely on any of the Cars’ early LPs, this rock nocturne closes Angles on an expansively romantic note—an unequivocal first for the tres chic Noo Yawk posse. I also hear The Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” and Peggy mentioned Guster’s “Satellite” when I played it for her. In my Paste review, I wrote, “If anything on the upcoming Cars reunion album is as strong as this, it’ll be hailed as a full-on return to form.” (Also, “Two Kinds of Happiness,” “Gratisfaction”)

6. “Sad Song,” The Cars: And what did the Cars do after a 24-year-break but make their second best LP ever, after the untouchable debut. Throughout its 10 tracks, Moves Like This boasts that readily identifiable (and often imitated) contoured crispness and in-your-face immediacy, deftly captured by producer Jacknife Lee (R.E.M.’s latter-day go-to guy). The Cars’ potent chemistry is undeniably present in this grabby instant classic: the taut interaction of guitarist Elliott Easton and synth player Greg Hawkes, the howitzer snare hits of David Robinson, Ric Ocasek’s wry, terse vocal persona. That these long-separated musicians were able to make a quintessential Cars LP now constitutes a small miracle. (Also, “Keep on Knocking,” “Blue Tip,” “Hits Me”)

7. “Sydney (I’ll Come Running),” Brett Dennen: On his fourth and most engaging LP, the lanky Californian with the androgynous voice comes off like a modern-day version of Van Morrison circa St. Dominic’s Preview, surrounded by his rock-steady, surprisingly hard-hitting band. The hooks are piled up one another until they explode in an impossibly high falsetto chorus, on which Brett expresses the extent of his devotion as he comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. “Straight from the airport,” he promises, “right to the couthouse, Sydney, I will testify,” as the handclap-punctuated groove trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible fashion. There was a time, 35 or 40 years ago, when a song like this would’ve been a Top 40 smash. (Also, “Comeback Kid [That’s My Dog]”)

8. “Circuital,” My Morning Jacket: Damn, Tucker Martine produced two of the best rock albums of the half-year back to back, The King Is Dead in a barn in Oregon, Circuital in a Louisville church gymnasium. The pivotal moment on the latter project went down back in July when they got that keeper take of this seven-minute churner and climbed up on the stage at the end of the gym where Martine was positioned for the playback. “That was a really special moment,” the producer recalls. “They were all dancing around the room and bobbing their heads with their eyes closed, and then, when the song was over, they were hugging and high-fiving each other. It was so inspiring to see veteran musicians who were still able to get that much joy out of making music together. It was like we were all going on an expedition together to find something magical, and there it was. We found it, and no one was afraid to have unbridled joy about it. That’s how it should be.” It’s performances like this one—inspired, synchronous and clutch, like a veteran basketball team kicking it into high gear at crunch time in a tight playoff game—that make Circuital such a thrilling, even ecstatic, listening experience. (Also, “Outta My System”)

9. Grey Riders,” Neil Young & the International Harvesters: Here at last is that batch of stone-country tunes Geffen Records wouldn’t let Neil release back in 1985, culled from live performances with his super-tight, shit-kickin’ band, led by the late, great Ben Keith. Capping off the fittingly titled A Treasure is a radical change of pace—a stormy trademark rocker that would’ve fit on Zuma if Young had done it with Crazy Horse, but instead of the tap-tap/boom-boom force-of-nature intensity of that band, his blistering guitar runs explode out of a bed of sawing fiddle, honky-tonk piano and spot-on rhythm section. “Grey Riders” reveals a dimension we haven’t heard before from this ever-restless artist, and as such it stands as a revelation. Just imagine what it would’ve sounded like if you’d been there.

10. “He Don’t Live Here No More,” Robbie Robertson: The punchiest cut Robbie has fashioned during his spotty solo career—and make no mistake, How to Become Flamboyant is by far his best post-Band effort—sports the springy muscle of “Yazoo Street Incident” from Dylan & the Band’s Basement Tapes, which I happened upon and proceeded to blast on a recent Saturday night when Peggy was out of town.

11. “Seeing Black,” Lucinda Williams: Little Honey is a mostly understated album, but here, Lucinda’s studio band, anchored by drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton, cranks it to the max, and they sound like a force of nature, led by the guitar fireworks of Elvis Costello, who accesses his inner Neil Young in a breathtaking performance on which he continually tops himself. In a far subtler way, Matthew Sweet manages to adhere his voice to Williams’ vocal through her squalling without ever calling attention to himself.

12. “Calgary,” Bon Iver: Justin Vernon’s spellbinding second LP under the now-familiar nom de plume (which people are learning how to pronounce properly, if that term can be aspplied to his fractured French) plays out like the soundtrack to a summer sunset (like Danger Mouse’s Rome—see below). The centerpiece of Bon Iver (referred to in the label bio as Bon Iver Bon Iver), “Calgary” mates a soaring melody with a percolating groove, turning, as always, on Vernon’s signature move—multitracked vocals that take on the sonic dimension of instruments. And “Lisbon, OH,” the brief instrumental that follows, sounds like it was made by Wall-E. (Also, “Towers,” “Holcene,” “Hinnom, TX”)

13. “Montezuma,” Fleet Foxes: Don’t think the old-school harmony specialists’ second full-length, Helplessness Blues, hits the Bon Iver level of continuous gorgeousness, but I love the way they open their throats and really let it loose on this one—reminds me of Trip Shakespeare live at Club Lingerie back in the late 20th century. (Also, “Helplessness Blues”)

14. “Supercollider,” Radiohead: The bed groove on this seven-minute single “released” (or whatever this band does these days) shortly after The King of Limbs is as regular and accurate as the ticking of a Swiss watch, but they mess around with it so that it seems to be keeping time with one of Dali’s melting clocks. Colin Greenwood’s bass is the primary instigator, so delectably rubbery and nuanced in its slight upward slides. These guys manage to be both subtle and super-dramatic at the same time—check out Thom Yorke’s rhapsodic vocal—which is at the core of their relentless genius. (Also, “Morning Mr. Magpie,””Little by Little” )

15. “Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People: This song, reputedly about the Columbine massacre, turns out to be the feel-good hit of the summer, as immediate and sticky as anything from Phoenix, Gorillaz or, most obviously, MGMT (before they went down the rabbit hole). Fucking brilliant the way these guys work both extremes—affirmation and dread—so masterfully.

16. “Where Not to Look for Freedom,” The Belle Brigade: On which the Gruska siblings, Barbara and Ethan, employ their blood harmonies to channel Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks circa ’75 in what strikes me as the most infectious Fleetwood Mac song in years—at least until Lindsey does it himself on “That’s the Way Love Goes” from his upcoming solo LP, Seeds We Sow. (Also, “Lucky Guy”)

17. “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” Coldplay,: From the getgo, I much preferred this track to “Viva La Vida,” whose splashed-on primary colors just didn’t work for me, but I really connected with the single during the closing credits of NBC’s U.S. Open final round coverage on June 19, when it played over footage of winner 22-year-old phenom Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland. At first I thought it was U2 and then Big Country before realizing it was the new Coldplay, and in truth Johnny Buckland’s guitar arpeggios evoke both The Edge of early epics and Stuart Adamson’s rousing bagpipe-y runs on “In a Big Country.” This guy is an underrated guitarist—but then, Coldplay is a ridiculously underrated band. Exemplifying the cross they bear, the poll question the other morning on Dan Patrick’s sports-talk show was something like, “Is it unmanly to admit you like Coldplay?” Probably just envious that Gwyneth picked Chris Martin. In fact, maybe that’s at the root of the critical savagery the band has been hit with for the last half decade.

18. “Funky Donkey,” The Beastie Boys: And now for some bootie-shakin’ comic relief from the longtime masters of that move.

19. “Revolving Doors,” Gorillaz: We return to our “doors” motif with this gem from what is essentially a Damon Albarn solo album dreamed up and executed on his iPad during the recent Gorillaz tour of the States. The track is the musical embodiment of the cover of the June 13 & 20 issue of The New Yorker, drawn by David Hockney on his iPad. Yet another score for Steve Jobs.

20. “So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon: The funky yet silky title track from the master’s late-career classic embodies its core elements: lyrics that investigate the metaphysical from ground level, embedded in springy, slinky settings over which Simon’s voice glides with apparent effortlessness, rueful and life-embracing at the same time. The resolutely rhythmic whipped up by Simon’s ace band, led by his own repeated electric guitar licks, maintains a vibrant, insistent physicality, pulsing with life. (Also, “The Afterlife,” “Dazzling Blue,” “Rewrite”)

21. “See My Friends,” Ray Davies and Spoon: No driving mix should be without a Spoon track, and on this one, from the Kinks auteur’s remakes of his classic tracks in tandem with a revolving cast of all-stars, the band manages to honor the original’s chiming grandeur while bringing their own signature rthythmic punch to the party.

22. “Stone Rollin’,” Raphael Saadiq: In which the righteously old-school singer/multi-instrumentalist testifies like Wilson Pickett while rolling out a humid, swampy groove straight out of Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou,” right down to Saadiq’s slithering guitar riffage.

23. “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars: What gets me about this rootsy hybrid is the duo’s ability to capture the ghostly vibe of ancient Appalachian ballads inside a meaty primal groove that recalls the late Chris Whitley at his soulful best.

24. “The King Knows How,” Over the Rhine: Resolutely indie duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler teamed with producer Joe Henry and some A-list players to concoct one of 2011’s sleepers in The Long Surrender. It’s startling to discover how soulful this literate married couple from rural southern Ohio can be when they get their groove on, as they do here, delectably.

25. “Season’s Trees,” Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi with Norah Jones: Here’s the perfect closer for my early summer getaway compilation. It sounds like a sunset over the Pacific, Jones’ sensual vocal interacting with the swaying strings like an ocean breeze rustling the palm fronds. It’s the next best thing to being in Kapalua, or Capri.

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Lamborginis and caviar Dry martinis, Shangri-La

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