Year-end critics' lists are coming out, which presents a good opportunity to assess whether there were any interesting albums released earlier this year that I missed. Here's my rundown of a few I've discovered and enjoyed in recent weeks. All of these get a 4/5 rating.
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest. On Halcyon Digest, the Altanta-based indie rockers known as Deerhunter make dreamy music, layered with sounds both clear and distorted. Listening to it is like sifting through distant memories--some easy to recall, while others have become rough around the edges. Ethereal tracks like "Earthquake" and "Sailing" contrast with rockier songs like "Revival." "Basement Scene" has so much noise on it, that it probably was recorded in someone's basement, or least engineered to sound that way. There's a significant variance in song length here, from the 2-minute, short and punchy "Don't Cry" 7 and a half minute closer, "He Would Have Laughed." Some of the songs on the album sound awfully familiar, although hard to exactly pin down. "Memory Boy" reminds me of something British, "Desire Lines" reminds me MGMT and "Helicopter" really reminds me of something too, but I can't put my finger on it--all of these are great songs though. Best: Desire Lines, Helicopter, Revival, Memory Boy, Earthquake
The Roots - How I Got Over. The Roots are known to many as being Jimmy Fallon's backup band, but they actually have had a long career in their own right, recording albums since the early '90s. This year was a big year for them. They made a political-themed album with John Legend, Wake Up!, which I was interested in, but never got around to hearing. I got a sense of it though seeing them, as well as Legend, perform live at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity. Legend shows up here too, along with a string of other collaborators, although no one I've heard of. Much of the music has a late-night, classic R&B and jazz feel. "Walk Alone" and "Radio Daze," for example, repeat a jazz piano refrain under their rhymes. The album has a few samples, but unlike say Nicki Minaj, they aren't songs I'm familiar with. That doesn't mean they aren't interesting though. Smooth "Right On" samples folk singer Joanna Newsom while "Doin' It Again" samples John Legend, followed by "The Fire," which actually features Legend. Best: Walk Alone, Radio Daze, Right On, The Fire.
Robert Plant - Band of Joy. Anyone who thought the folksy side of Raising Sand came from Allison Krauss will be surprised by Band of Joy, which finds Robert Plant exploring some pretty down home sounds. The music is pretty rough around the edges and you'd expect it to basically sound the same live "House of Cards" sounds like a late-night jam in a country bar, while "Central-Two-O-Nine" has even thicker twang. This album isn't quite as good as Plant's 2007 Grammy-winning collaboration with Krauss, but it does have some strong moments. The name is more than just a descriptor, for Robert Plant has actually formed a band called Band of Joy for this album, named after his original band from the '60s before Led Zeppelin. Those who might miss Krauss will be pleased to know he's found another prominent female voice in Patty Griffin, who's featured prominently throughout the album on tracks like the slow-burning ballad "Silver Rider," the more upbeat "You Can't Buy My Love" and the darker-sounding "Monkey." Much, if not all of these songs are remakes (I'm not up on the style enough to know), and a couple are even credited as "traditional" in the liner notes, such as the sparse "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down." Best: House of Cards, Silver Rider, You Can't Buy My Love, Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down