By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
2008 was a weird year for music. Gloom and doom predictions about sinking album sales overshadowed the industry, and labels seemed to throw trends at the wall just to see what would stick. But despite these portentous omens, what didn't change is that a few diamonds in the musical rough still emerged. Over the following pages, the RFT's music writers weighed in on what they liked this year — the shows, the singles, the albums that rocked their world. (For what they didn't like, check out page 43.) For more from Village Voice Media writers, head to blogs.riverfronttimes.com/atoz/2008_music_lists, where we'll be rolling out a few top-ten lists per day.
Get Your Indie Kicks
While it was difficult to find an album that was stellar from start to finish, more than a few exceptional releases arrived in 2008. The self-titled debut from Seattle's Fleet Foxes was breathtaking, an album whose soaring, layered vocal harmonies and subtle (but driving) percussion sounded like a sunset viewed from the top of a rain-soaked Pacific Northwest mountain. It was a pleasure to hear Conor Oberst mature as a songwriter, as he ditched his Bright Eyes moniker and penned some of the finest songs of his prolific career, particularly "Danny Callahan," a darkly upbeat reflection on mortality and the after-life. Bonnie "Prince" Billy blew me away with the first two tracks on his album, Lie Down in the Light, where his warbling voice was simultaneously haunting and heartening. In indie rock, nothing was better than MGMT's Oracular Spectacular; songs like "Time to Pretend" perfectly embody the hipster combination of angst, irony and the desire to dance.
In the rap game, T.I. reestablished himself as king. The infectious singles "Live Your Life" and "Whatever You Like" dominated clubs and airwaves, while the strongest songs on Paper Trail ("No Matter What," "Dead and Gone") offered an honest, introspective take on his imminent trip to prison. Hip-hop hipsters had to love the flashy, flossed-out flow of the Knux, while the iconic emcee Q-Tip proved that the old school is still cool with his superb solo release The Renaissance emerging as the chill-out record of choice. Mashup master Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis exceeded all expectations with Feed the Animals, which kicked off with a badass blend of UGK and "Gimme Some Lovin'" and never looked back. And locally, the funky, futuristic beats of Black Spade on To Serve With Love were best.
— Keegan Hamilton
TV Blinded Me With Science
My favorite major release of 2008 was TV on the Radio's Dear Science. Holy crap, was I unprepared to deal with the magnetic, schizophrenic brilliance of that release. I tried to listen casually — you know, in the car, while doing the dishes, etc. — but I soon found myself up late at night, incapacitated by the weight of big-ass headphones, wide-eyed in wonderment and smiling in the dark.
After bumping hip-hop newcomer Kid Sister's tune "Beeper" on the daily, I spent an unprecedented amount of time — and a sickening level of ass-kissing — trying to scam an advance copy of her debut LP, Dream Date, from better-connected industry friends. Though it won't be released until March 2009, Kid Sister's playful, fly girl charisma permeates every song on the debut, and this hip-hop cutie has the skills to back up her Next Big Thing hype.
There were some hot reissues this year, including R.E.M.'s Murmur, Verbena's Souls for Sale, A.A. Bondy's American Hearts and the remastered Replacements discography. All were greatly appreciated — and rocked accordingly.
The best concert I saw in town was Sharon Jones at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room in January. I knew she would be good, but I had no idea how good. The sold-out, sticky, sweaty, shoes-off, swinging hair, soul-filled basement show had me jumpin' and forced my booty to do things heretofore unthinkable. Hallelujah.
Locally, I still crush on Bunnygrunt, the Humanoids, Sex Robots, Rum Drum Ramblers and Pokey LaFarge. I've seen each about 27,856 times this year and I'm still amazed at the spirit and passion their performances ignite. In addition, I can't say enough good things about the Livers. This extraordinary rock duo is relatively new, but it consistently churns out one of the most exceptional live acts in the city.
— Jaime Lees
BritPop Goes the World
Neither as loopy as their Henry Darger-inspired name would suggest, nor as fashion-addled as their Brooklyn buzz would portend, Vivian Girls made the record to fall in love with in 2008. Every few years, a record proves anew that short songs, simple melodies and hissy recordings can hold more possibility than any pristine, twenty-minute prog odyssey. This time, that record is Vivian Girls, 22 minutes of high emotion in lo-fi.
So what if the title conceit of the Magnetic Fields' Distortion amounted to little more than spackling some fuzz over a set of typically superb Stephin Merritt songs? If he keeps coming up with witty, melancholy gems like "California Girls," "I'll Dream Alone" and the brilliant "Drive On, Driver," he can play them with that barking-dog synth sound for all I care.
In the "taken for granted" file, the Hold Steady (Stay Positive), Supergrass (Diamond Hoo Ha) and Dirty Pretty Things (Romance At Short Notice) made great rock albums that sound pretty much how you'd expect them to. The Dirty Pretty Things album was the most unjustly overlooked, with "Tired of England" and "Plastik Hearts" proving that Carl Barât needs his old Libertines partner Pete Doherty like a junkie needs a virus. (Alas, the record fizzled and Barât broke the Things up in October.)
But the most unexpectedly great record I heard in 2008 wasn't released in 2008. It wasn't released at all, except in France, in late 2007. It's Time To Take Sides, the second album by the British band the Dead 60s. Their debut was an underwhelming set of Sandinista! sound-alikes, swiping the Clash's funk and reggae moves so baldly it put Radio 4 to shame. So I was blindsided by the passionate, punkish-rock fist-wavers found on Take Sides. This is what I always wanted bands like the Alarm to sound like: arena-scale guitars and catchy choruses, but yet still intimate and without an ounce of fat on the songs. Evidently, American record buyers will never legally hear it. But that's why file-sharing was invented.
— Jason Toon
C30, C86, C90, Go!
Most Unexpected Trend: C86 as an influence. It's been 22 years since NME released the C86 cassette, a compilation of noisy but tuneful British pop that made household names (granted, select households only) out of the Shop Assistants and Mighty Lemon Drops. It's been even longer since the Jesus and Mary Chain released Psychocandy, which answered the musical question, "What if we replaced Phil Spector's wall of sound with sheer distortion?" These records have been influential to generations of small indie-pop bands, but American bands explored the style on a grand scale in 2008.
In January the Magnetic Fields released Distortion, which was meant to be a conscious homage to Psychocandy's production style. Every instrument (even the drum kit) leaks controlled feedback over Stephin Merritt's typically Abba/bubblegum melodies and darkly witty lyrics. All this noise may have been surprising, even unpleasant, to those who came to the Magnetic Fields through 69 Love Songs and Merritt's recent theater scores. For long-time fans, however, Distortion was a welcome return to the simplicity of earlier works, and the most audibly fun Merritt-related release in years.
Two Brooklyn bands took the approach even further. Vivian Girls became the year's designated buzz band through a collision of sugary pop melodies and garage-rock energy. Its self-titled debut CD sounded like a melding of the Shop Assistants and the Shangri-Las. When it all came together — most notably on "Tell the World" and the haunting "Where Do You Run To" — the Vivian Girls were as sublime as music got in 2008. Crystal Stilts' Alight of Night took a darker approach, with lead singer Brad Hargett's deep croon seemingly emerging from a chamber deep beneath the studio.
There were many other bands exploring the C86 terrain in 2008, including Nodzzz, Cause Co-Motion! and their European counterparts Love Is All and Sexy Kids. But don't call it a "revival" on the order of the failed garage-rock and "dance-punk" scenes: All of these recordings sound absolutely current and vital, and their influence is sure to reverberate for years to come.
— Mike Appelstein
All Souled out
"You will not believe 2008!" squealed comic Patton Oswalt, during his show at Lumière Place this November. During a bit centered around an imagined back-to-the-future trip to the mid-'80s, he accosts the archetypal boombox-toter: "In 2008, any music you can imagine — more music than you will ever have time to hear — will all fit on a Walkman the size of a stick of gum! And guess who's gonna be president? A cool black guy!" He's right: It's been a revolutionary year, and my tiny, shiny blue Nano is packed with 2008 finds. Several tracks are from artists associated with endemikmusic.com, including my favorite new emcee, Portland, Maine's Sontiago (née Sonya Tomlinson). Her latest album, Steel Yourself, is inexplicably San Frantastic — she delivers bright, brittle lyrics over a warm cacophony of golden, occasionally folksy, funk. Yourself's "Crush the Rainbow" features another 2008 discovery, Montreal-based emcee bleubird, who would be a blustering lunatic if he weren't such a bleeding heart. He's as smart as Sage Francis, but he's hilarious and romantic, too, and endemik's production team buoys the sentiment on RIP U$A (The Birdfleu).
On the instrumental front, the Octopus Project's new album, Hello, Avalanche, is endearingly retro fun — the band has seen the future and has returned to us unscathed to reassure with tracks such as "An Evening With Rthrtha" and "Snow Tip Cap Mountain." Innovation notwithstanding, Hello, Avalanche makes me nostalgic, an emotion that's always caused the mercury in my timeless barometer to rise. My local favorite remains "Move Man" by Nato Caliph. I spent the early part of my St. Louis summer listening to Cipher Inside, which was produced with the help of Gramophone owner Andrew (Roo) Yawitz. In fact, the innocuously titled "Add On" remains my favorite local track of the year — balmy and effortlessly confident, it's the perfect summer song.
— Kristy Wendt
Hip-Hope Won't Stop
Between the trash-talking, ass-whoopings and chain-snatchings, 2008 has definitely been an interesting year in hip-hop. Although many artists' albums never quite garnered the same attention as their personal lives have, fans of the genre still had plenty of good music to go along with all the controversy.
Although he slipped under many people's radar this year, Ice Cube's Raw Footage spent a lot of time in my car's CD deck. You might think Cube had lost his edge since his foray into making family movies, but that's not the case: Footage retains his gritty, West-Coast style, and manages to keep it relevant. Also worth checking out is Little Brother's And Justus for All. Its soul-sample-driven music is layered with what I call "grown-folks' rap," which means no stripper anthems or ridiculous dance fads. I'm currently listening to Q-Tip's latest offering, The Renaissance. I was a little skeptical at first, but it's winning me over. Honorable mentions go to T.I.'s Paper Trail, Nas' Untitled and Bun B's II Trill.
During a recession, what better way to forget about your financial worries than with free mixtape downloads? Royce Da 5'9" released The Bar Exam 2, which shows how far the Detroit emcee has come lyrically since his dismissal from Aftermath Records — Exam is easily one of my top five albums of the year. Chamillionaire's Mixtape Messiah 4 is a decent effort, and the track "Internet Nerd's Revenge" is the funniest rap I've heard since Weird Al parodied "Ridin' Dirty." Atlanta's B.o.B is in position to hit it big with his debut album next year, and in the meantime Who the F#*k is Bob? leaves the impression that he may one day be the next Andre 3000 (a similarity he admits on the album). If you 're looking for something different, try Charles Hamilton's Sonic Hamilton. The album samples heavily from Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, which made me want to dust off my old Genesis and ditch class. On the local scene, Tef Poe, Gotta be Karim and Wafeek all have music available for free download.
— Calvin Cox
Dreampop a Roll
It's generally a good bet that working with Brian Eno will be a positive decision for your band. But in Coldplay's case, the pairing helped it craft one of 2008's very best albums, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. Now, Coldplay's no stranger to creating big, roomy soundscapes (and the production quality on its previous albums wasn't lacking), but Viva is atmospheric in a more developed and focused way. Eno's contributions are subtle but essential — the dismal organ and pulsing hand-percussion flourishes on "Lost," the spacious, swirling "Chinese Sleep Chant" and the uplifting chorus and bouncing piano stabs of "Lovers in Japan" all find the band at its most interesting, in terms of challenging arrangements and sonic exploration.
Portland, Oregon's the Helio Sequence made one of the most stylistically diverse records of the year with Keep Your Eyes Ahead. It hints at everything from reverb-drenched shoegaze to danceable indie pop to Bob Dylan — often in the same song. But the noise-laden post-rock explorations laid down by vocalist/guitarist Brandon Summers and former Modest Mouse drummer Benjamin Weikel are often juxtaposed with sparse, folky acoustic numbers that highlight the simplicity of Summers' heart-wrenching lyrics.
Bon Iver's stark For Emma, Forever Ago is a solitary and soulful outpouring of emotion that's my favorite album of 2008. Recorded mostly by vocalist/guitarist/producer/mastermind Justin Vernon in a cabin in remote Wisconsin, Ago is simply beautiful. It feels like winter (more specifically, like rural, snow-covered loneliness) and rests on introspective lyrics that are more like conclusions than complaints, more like healing admissions than self-loathing laments. The dynamic "The Wolves (Act I and II)" commences with Vernon's stirring falsetto whispers and delicate strums. Harmonies then gently lift the song toward its second act: a pulsing crescendo of spastic percussion and intertwining vocal lines. But the power found in these epic moments wouldn't exist were it not for Vernon's perfect use of eerie, spine-tingling, hypnotic space in his arrangements.
— Shae Moseley
It may be the end of the world as we know it for record labels, but musicians feel fine. While labels scrambled in the wake of an industry that has fallen like a Saddam Hussein statue in central Baghdad, the artists who actually make the music seemed to greet the forces that tore it down as liberators. With the conventional radio-rock mold demolished, artists celebrated their newfound freedom to break the hit-single rules. Take Canadian popsters Tokyo Police Club, for example, and their fantastic debut full-length, Elephant Shell, which melted Strokes efficiency with Colin Meloy wordiness and the sort of heartstring-pulling that only our neighbors to the north seem to be able to execute.
Most important, the group presented its densely structured tunes in the form of propulsive song-nuggets, opting to embed hooks into skulls with power-drill speed rather than repetitious hammering. One can only suspect that if Tokyo Police Club had existed five years ago, the temptation of mainstream crossover success would have inflated the band's arrangements with additional choruses, bridges and (gasp!) guitar solos. But by cutting the fat, the band makes economic pop for the Internet age, keeping the defiant spirit of indie rock alive while simultaneously catering to the ADD-riddled music enthusiasts who download albums faster than they can listen to them. And with only one of Elephant Shell's eleven tracks reaching the three-minute mark, Tokyo Police club may have inspired more repeat listens per listener than any other act of the year.
— Ryan Wasoba
Rag & Bone Buffet
In 2008 A few old favorites took up residence in my CD player. Death Cab for Cutie's Narrow Stairs satisfied all my sweet spots, with its complicated calculus rock and ambient prog and Tori Amos-lite rock and lonely weepers. R.E.M.'s Accelerate found the band turning guitars, bass, vocals and production gloss up to eleven (and thankfully losing the ponderous perfection that had dragged down recent work). And both Damien Jurado's wintry acoustic introspection on Caught in the Trees and Jack's Mannequin's autumnal piano optimism on The Glass Passenger built on the promise of their past work.
Lemuria's brittle punk on Get Better drew from the fuzzed-out flannel dreams of the '90s, but never aped them fully; same thing with the Whigs, whose brash, Southern-garage-rock opus Mission Control barnstormed like the Replacements and the Who and yet wasn't a rip-off. Alphabeat, in contrast, shamelessly borrowed from Day-Glo '80s synthpop kings and queens on its import-only This Is Alphabeat — Bananarama! Roxette! Human League! — but songs like "Fascination" and "Boyfriend" were so gloriously retro that it didn't matter.
On Cat Power's scorched-velvet covers collection, Jukebox, Chan Marshall skillfully melded her brassy soul present and skeletal-blues past. The Broken West's Now or Never shed the band's bland Cali-pop ambitions for a far darker (and far more satisfying) sound influenced by the Church. And Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin combined familiar influences — the Beatles, heartfelt rock, puppy-dog-eyed indie-pop — on Pershing, but it still engaged.
In terms of singles, the biggest hit that wasn't belonged to Rihanna's duet with Maroon 5, "If I Never See Your Face Again." Despite M5 vocalist Adam Levine's decidedly unsexy nasal honk, the song's blazing synth-funk riffs, lithe grooves and Rihanna's tasteful seductions combined for delicious tension — but never the satisfaction of sweet release.
— Annie Zaleski
Jazz: The Final Frontier
The sheer amount of music released these days means that even the most diligent music critic or reporter is likely to miss some good stuff in any given year. Couple that with the inherent subjectivity of criticism itself, and the notion of compiling a comprehensive year-end "best of" list can start to seem like an exercise in futility. So, let's just call the following a list of a few personal favorite 2008 musical moments:
M For Mississippi: Over the last several years, St. Louisan Jeff Konkel has done an exemplary job of recording lesser-known Mississippi blues performers on his label, Broke & Hungry Records. This documentary film, which was produced by Konkel and former St. Louis resident Roger Stolle, adds an essential visual dimension to the audio, while providing a fascinating, poignant and often funny look at a musical world that many thought had disappeared decades ago.
Mike Stern at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, March 12: Accompanied by St. Louisans Dave Weckl on drums and Tom Kennedy on bass, Stern clearly had a blast putting on what amounted to a high-energy, high-volume clinic in post-fusion jazz guitar.
Zappa Plays Zappa at the Pageant, Monday, June 9: Since their last appearance in St. Louis two years ago, the ensemble of young players and Frank Zappa alumni (which is led by Zappa's son, Dweezil) has evolved from a capable tribute act into a real working band. Its June show delivered confident, spirited renditions of music from the elder Zappa's vast and diverse catalog of compositions.
On CD, highlights included Miles From India — an all-star project featuring American jazz and Indian classical musicians reimagining the music of Miles Davis — and Pass It On, from bassist Dave Holland's superb new sextet. One Kind Favor was the strongest release in years from blues legend B.B. King, while a group of young Chicagoans named the James Davis Quintet released a sleek, nimble, modern-jazz album called Angles of Refraction.
— Dean C. Minderman
Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal: The best album of the peripatetic Austin songwriter's career owes a considerable debt to Chuck Prophet, the guitarist and co-songwriter of these thirteen limber and loud rock and soul songs. All of Escovedo is here, minus the conceptualism — unless you call hooks a concept. His previous album, The Boxing Mirror, was a surrealist death trip. This time, the trip is life.
Kathleen Edwards, Asking For Flowers: On her third studio album, the Canadian songwriter pulls off an unlikely trifecta: the year's best antiwar song ("Oil Man's War"), the best murder ballad ("Alicia Ross") and the best hockey song ("I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"). Each of Edwards' songs is a self-contained world worth exploring, and the killer session players — Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz and Jim Bryson, and that's just for starters — set those worlds on fire.
Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: On which the gloomy old cuss answers the question: Does the world need three alternate takes of "Mississippi," when the official version was a latter-day equivalent of "Like a Rolling Stone"? The answer is yes, and there's more where that came from: improvised destinies, live fabulas, unknown legends, acoustic demos and self-portraits in postmodern blues.
Dengue Fever, Venus on Earth: Multi-cultural, obscurantist cool gets trippy with LA's Dengue Fever, a band that plays Cambodian psychedelic surf-rock, a genre that represents a pyrrhic victory for the catastrophe of U.S. imperialism and a temptation to novelty-sampling hipsters. But with Cambodian soul diva Chhom Nimol purring and moaning in native and English tongues and a band sworn to jazz grooves, they create a soundtrack for living and dancing dangerously.
The Felice Brothers, The Felice Brothers: If your New Year's resolution is to never use the phrase "freak folk" again, then the Felice Brothers have your back. The Catskill Mountain country boys crack some beers, spark up a jay and roll tape on Dylanesque dream songs, untutored bluegrass and impromptu toasts to rural self-reliance and deliverance. They're freaks all right, but never pretentious in their wild unwinding of a torn and frayed Americana.
Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: At the dawn of the '90s, Tony! Toni! Toné owned a good portion of the urban-contemporary club scene, but founder Raphael Saadiq disbanded the group for a solo career bent on a more faithful approximation of '60s soul. Such good intentions should decimate originality, but on this stroll through Hitsville USA, Saadiq draws on the inevitable economy of Holland-Dozier-Holland's melodies for his own imaginative agenda. He turns up the bass and with a relaxed, swinging and sexy voice, captures a subtle and necessary spirit of love and resilience.
The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Does Craig Finn repeat himself? Very well, he repeats himself, but his band's smoking classic-rock aesthetic can still thrill, and the rotating cast of burnouts, born-again sluts, club kids and punks without a cause still ring true-to-life — even when they're repeating Led Zeppelin song titles like desperate mantras. Seek out the limited-edition version for three more songs of dexterous verbal wit.
Matthew Ryan, Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State: Opening with a seven-minute single that nicks a poem by Wilfred Owen, Nashville ne'er-do-well songwriter Matthew Ryan seems up to his old self-destructive tricks. But this is a grand rock-band album, with musical and emotional force that comes from sudden and surprising lyrical insights, whether he's digging through American dirt or begging for a brother to pull him back from the edge.
Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark: At nineteen songs, the Truckers' first album since the departure of Jason Isbell tries too hard, and the vocal and lyrical license given to bassist (and Isbell ex-wife) Shonna Tucker is ill-conceived. And yet it's another monster of what makes modern Southern rock matter: the defiance and honesty, in all its shades, from motel ballads to righteous rages, with fuzzed guitar clashes and one of the year's best rock singles, "Self Destructive Zones."
Marching Band, Spark Large: In 2008, the indie assembly line worked overtime stamping out "collectives" who should just sign up for the Fans of Arcade Fire Facebook group and be done with it. So it's good to hear upstarts like Marching Band, a Linköping, Sweden, ensemble get the anything-is-possible-in-pop approach right: the "Good Vibration" harmonies, the quick sparkle of guitar lines swirled up with marimba and chipper horns and the hopeful disposition. The band manages this whether rhyming sweet nonsense or finding idiosyncratic ways to say the old pop truths: Live like the sunshine won't end.
— Roy Kasten
As was the case the world over, 2008 was a tricky year for working bands in St. Louis. The continuing dissolution of the major-label system has reconfigured the definition of "making it," and the unstoppable force of the MP3 has made manufacturing compact discs seem as relevant as churning butter by hand. But St. Louis bands soldiered on through an abysmal economy and made great albums despite the uncertainty. In alphabetical order, here are ten of the best records released by local artists — proof that musical ingenuity, genre-defying practices and solid songcraft are alive and well.
Gentleman Auction House, Alphabet Graveyard: No band in town reaches for that brass ring of indie-rock success quite like the septet Gentleman Auction House. 2008 was the year that the group came tantalizingly close to grasping it: Alphabet Graveyard declared the band's new beat-heavy intentions while showcasing singer Eric Enger's penchant for sideways storytelling, clever wordplay and (best of all) cathartic, sing-along choruses.
The Helium Tapes, The Helium Tapes: The twin powers of Sunyatta Marshall's beguiling voice and Tim Lohmann's serpentine guitar-playing collide in a psychedelic daydream on the Helium Tapes' self-titled debut. The seeds of power-pop are sown deep within these songs, but the group pulls riffs like taffy — and then melts, separates and realigns them within the confines of these pop songs.
Jumbling Towers, Classy Entertainment: Jumbling Towers' self-titled debut was one of 2007's best local releases, and this six-song EP (which is available as a free download on the band's website) picks the best stylistic bits of that first record. Singer Joe DeBoer's predilection toward vocal theatrics is still very much alive, and his commitment to these songs, along with the dark tint of the instrumentation, helps entertainment get under your skin.
Kentucky Knife Fight, The Wolf Crept, The Children Slept: On its first full-length, the Edwardsville quintet Kentucky Knife Fight serves up a platter of greasy, blues-derived rock and booze-drenched alt-country. The music is perfectly tailored for a night at the tavern, and singer Jason Holler turns the songs into sermons of the damned, where the only salvation comes from the vices that bring us low.
Magnolia Summer, Lines from the Frame: Chris Grabau is often quick to point to the contributions of his collaborators when discussing his group Magnolia Summer. And while his third album features ace playing from members of Grace Basement, Tenement Ruth and the Bottle Rockets, his loaded lyrics and increasingly confident vocals can't help but burn brightly. Lines from the Frame finds the band playing at louder volume and with more aggression, which contrasts nicely with the quiet intensity of Grabau's songwriting.
Cassie Morgan, Pine So Sweet: Indie siren Cat Power may have abandoned spare, bleak folk-rock for soft-touch R&B, but Cassie Morgan proudly carries the torch on her first release. Morgan doesn't require much more than her guitar and your attention to make her mark; her songs sneak up on you with gentle sensibilities, while her lyrics cut to the quick.
Rough Shop, Here Today: The definition of "folk music" gets scribbled down, crossed out, and rewritten several times over on Rough Shop' s second album. The trio of singers, songwriters and instrumentalists swap guitars, dobros and turns at the mic throughout Here Today. In the process, Rough Shop reveals itself to be a talented interpreter of blues and bluegrass, even while it tosees in elements of jazz and rock & roll.
Raglani, Of Sirens Born: Imagine Odysseus' journey home to Ithaca plucked from the wine-dark seas and recast on a bed of analog synthesizers — and then Of Sirens Born starts to make more sense. Raglani's debut for the esteemed Kranky label finds him melding pastoral sounds and warm drones alongside white noise and sheets of static. The album is a reminder that experimental music can be every bit as engrossing as standard songwriting.
Splitface and June 16th, Raydeeohh: Unlike many rock & roll listeners, hip-hop devotees know exactly how crucial a great producer is to making a stellar track. Producers Nate Womack and Chris Krug (known as Splitface and June 16th, respectively) have the gift of wide-open ears and deft skills with the sampler, as snippets of classic jazz and dusty soul are matched with vintage-sounding drum machines and guests from the Frozen Food Section and the Deadly Alliance.
Theodore, Defeated, TN: Theodore's second album was only released on vinyl, which fits both the aesthetic of the fractured folk band and the album's back story. A box full of letters found in an abandoned house provided the LP's story line; singer/songwriter Justin Kinkel-Schuster and his bandmates provided the perfect amount of pathos, feedback and heart to make someone else's story their own.
— Christian Schaeffer