On each of its first three albums, Frightened Rabbit’s ambition has grown. The Scottish band is still good at juxtaposing minimal passages with rousing dynamic swoops. But on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, their songs are sandbagged with sighing keyboards, screaming layers of melodious distortion, nested rhythms, choral harmonies—all the doodads that rock bands are liable to employ circa album number three. These more laborious arrangements occasion stirring moments on the epic scale of Coldplay or U2; this is burnished, stadium-sized, cloud-cover rock. The change is more one of scale than style. Hutchison’s earthy, inviting voice cuts through the vast instrumentation like a ray of sunlight. This is a different sort of intimacy: The Winter of Mixed Drinks is less of a breakup record than a post-breakup record, the more pathetic feelings having hardened into self-reliant moxie. Hutchison offers the usual wallowing introspection and off-kilter epiphanies (“She was not the cure for cancer,” he suddenly gleans midway through the album), but from a bird’s-eye view. On lead single “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” which includes a string arrangement by labelmate Hauschka, the singer is a tiny, bobbing speck, way out past the waves, nothing but a sea of chiming guitars and swooning strings on all sides. Frightened Rabbit wrings a winning simplicity from all this august isolation. A cardiac pulse animates many of the songs, a mightily thwacking unison at the core of all the kaleidoscopic embellishment. Sprightly rhythms still canter through the drafty corridors.—Brian Howe
After Illinois made Sufjan Stevens something of a household name in 2005, he seemed to flee from the spotlight, willfully sabotaging the momentum built with a trio of records, Michigan, Seven Swans and Illinois that were tied together by an orchestral-folk style—a sound that only occasionally peeks through on the much noisier Age of Adz. But looking back further, those three album represent an unusual consistency in a career marked with experimentation, progression and, well, noise. In that light, The Age of Adz and the EP that preceded, All Delighted People, aren’t so much a departure as an amalgamation of all that’s come before—the chamber elements, the synthetic dissonance and the heart-rending lyrics. It’s as carefully orchestrated as The BQE, employing a series of movements and a vast array of instrumentation within even some of the shortest songs. Instead of straightforward vignettes tackling the human condition, the lyrics are more jumbled enigmatic pleas. While The Age of Adz has no single song that stirs me like the short stories of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” its music is as equally layered and its poetry is often more complex. It’s what you hope for from your favorite artists in your best moments—evolution, a little difficulty and, especially, something new.—Josh Jackson
Last year, Phosphorescent braintrust Matthew Houck released a tribute to Willie Nelson featuring 11 well-chosen covers that avoided obvious hits and sentiments. He and his honkytonk band have obviously learned from that endeavor: The songs on their gorgeously sadsack follow-up Here’s to Taking It Easy evoke lost days and lonely nights with keen observations and road-weary melodies. “Baby, all these cities, ain’t they all startin’ to look all the same?” Houck laments on the rip-roaring opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama),” as the horn section roars ahead with trucker’s speed and the pedal steel somehow evokes both Junior Brown and My Bloody Valentine. All of Houck’s southern eccentricities remain gloriously intact, from his eloquently hangdog vocals to his minimalist songwriting on “Hej, Me I’m Light.” Best of all is “The Mermaid Parade,” an ode to a bicoastal break-up that’ll have you shedding a tear in your PBR.—Stephen M. Deusner
At first listen, The Suburbs didn’t seem likely to bear the same iconographic heft as its predecessors. But swelling at 16 songs and an hour-plus runtime, it’s Arcade Fire’s most ambitious and concept-driven effort to date. Vast stretches feel tamped down, as if the album is sonically emulating its subject. Where past Arcade Fire songs built upwards, these unfurl flat and wide; the euphoric spikes that served as Funeral and Neon Bible’s beloved rallying points are strangely absent here, spaced farther and farther apart. Arcade Fire seems to be testing us, luring us down into the lowlands. A vein of emptiness and Beckett-esque waiting courses throughout; as so often in real life, these suburbs are a kind of purgatory with no exit in sight. But Chassagne’s vocal turn on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” redeems. A disco backbeat and massive keyboard bassline blast skyward, achieving the sort of anthemic release Arcade Fire has perfected, a moment of catharsis that’s been brewing for nearly the entire album. As any kid bored to death in such cul de sacs knows, the only cure from the suburbs can be found in “shopping malls [that] rise like mountains beyond mountains,” and three minutes in, the song finds its own escape, attaining a euphoric release. She’s found hope in the darkness, even if it’s just neon and dim street lights beckoning with their irresistable clarion call: “Come and find your kind.”—Andy Beta
Treats, the debut effort from noise-rock newcomers Sleigh Bells, is the logical conclusion of the loudness war; it manages to challenge basic assumptions of how music can (and should) sound. You either buy the Brookyln duo’s central conceit or you don’t: bombastic synth-rock for bombast’s sake, with mixing cranked so high your speakers sound like they’re about to combust. It’s a preposterous juxtposition—Alexis Krauss’ way-past-sweet vocals as the sugary glaze on Derek Miller’s gritty and serrated riffing and beats—until the soaring power chords of opener and single “Tell ‘Em” kick off the album with a thunderclap, and you barrel through a 32-minute sonic rollercoaster that’s totally, gloriously, devoid of subtlety and restraint. Treats is engrossing, and urgent; Krauss and Miller toy with noise and listener expectations with Reznor-esque glee. It’s a supremely raw and visceral pop masterwork, one appropriate to rocking out with headphones on, windows-down bumping on car stereos, four-A.M. warehouse dance parties and countless other summer moments.—Michael Saba
If Bruce Springsteen sowed the seeds of small-town introspection, his fellow New Jerseyites Titus Andronicus are flooding the fields. The punk quintet deconstructed postindustrial life with its gut-wrenching debut, The Airing of Grievances. And the band’s sophomore LP, The Monitor, crushes the rosy spectacles of heartland rock, peeling away the façade of barroom camaraderie to reveal an entire generation inured to those highs. The comedown is a deeply pessimistic exploration of Americana and its now-quixotic quest for authenticity, loosely tethered to a fictional Civil War-era travel narrative spanning the trackless forests between New Jersey and Massachusetts. For Titus Andronicus, there are no more glory days to be had in Jersey, or anywhere else. “The enemy is everywhere” is The Monitor’s twice-invoked refrain, the central thesis of an album that’s both uncompromisingly bleak and impossible to ignore.—Michael Saba
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a nuanced, intimately personal record wherein even ostensibly boastful tracks are tangled with insecurities, both personal and professional. It’s also a much stronger work than anyone could have reasonably expected from West. His previous disc, the volatile, romantically despondent 808s & Heartbreak, found the artist in a uniquely unfocused state, as if he’d spent weeks in the studio with nothing expect his liquor and his confused, conflicted thoughts. Yet Heartbreak was patchy in execution, with lyrics that were hastily written and vocals that relied too heavily on Auto-Tune. The intervening years propelled West into a tailspin of isolation so severe that some wondered if he had another good record in him. But in 2009, West found his voice through a series of startling guest verses, upstaging great rappers like Jay-Z and Twista with a tightened confidence that he’d never quite exhibited before. Dark Twisted Fantasy is the logical next step: he handles these beats with poise and prowess. West has created a paradox that can be summarized thusly: It sounds like him, yet nothing like his previous work. It sounds like Chicago, yet retains an unmistakably universal appeal. It’s his fifth release, yet bustles with the bedazzled energy of someone aching to be heard for the first time. It oozes disdain, yet warrants empathetic listening. It is profoundly imperfect pop music, yet it is magnificent pop music. And in its many contradictions, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—perhaps this century’s definitive portrait of torment, vanity, self-delusion, and pathos—has given way to stirring new possibilities.—M.T. Richards
Sigh No More flutters to life with an apology. In an ethereal four-part harmony, the British foursome intones Benedict’s line to Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing: “Serve God, love me and mend,” and then the voices swell in unison: “And I’m sorry.” It’s one of the only pastoral moments on the band’s hour-long debut LP, but the sentiment lingers. More than anything else, this is an album chock full of gorgeous remorse—and it’s bursting at the seams. The tired snivels of the spindly-armed strummer have no place here; it’s an amped-up, bass-heavy, banjo-picking pity party made of the same violent stuff that once inspired a lusty 17th-century cleric to demand of his deity: “Batter my heart.” From that first flowery track to “Little Lion Man,” where frontman Marcus Mumford croaks: “It was not your fault but mine, but it was your heart on the line,” to “Timshel,” where he laments “Death … will steal your innocence,” it’s wide-eyed, giddy yawp of an almost saccharine nature. Lyrical subtlety is not Mumford & Sons’ strong suit, and it doesn’t matter at all. Sign No More works because it’s commanding in all aspects of its presentation: The unashamedly universal themes are matched by the group’s booming sound and imagery that stretches out over space and time.—Rachel Dovey
At long, long last, Janelle Monáe dropped her full-length debut on the world in 2010. It only seems fitting to look back on the moment two years prior when we first encountered her: ”’This is a historic night,’ the emcee shouts to the crowd. Waving blue and white inspirational signs, the assembly chants louder. The excitement is palpable. The diversity of the crowd—young and old, black and white, male and female—is itself a sign of the hope offered. When the shouts reach a fevered pitch, the guest of honor emerges. Welcome Janelle Monáe.
Sure, it’s only a club show, but—Barack Obama allusions aside—it does feel historic. You can’t help but feel you’re watching the birth of a superstar. ‘I’ve just watched Prince, Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Judy Garland and AC/DC all at once,’ a friend exclaims as we leave the show.
When I first saw the 23-year-old singer, I told my wife that I’d just had a Jon Landau moment—I’d seen the future of rock ’n’ roll. Monáe—barely five-feet tall and backed only by a guitar player and drummer—delivered a performance unlike any I’d ever seen.”—Tim Regan-Porter
Over the course of three proper full-length albums and a smattering of singles, LCD Soundsystem—the oft-one-man-show of New York DJ, producer and DFA Records co-honcho James Murphy—has become an increasingly sure bet. After 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” an eight-minute takedown of rock ‘n’ roll posturing, the band avoided novelty-act territory with a helping of self-skewering; Murphy dressed himself down almost more than anyone else, stripping away all traces of preening entitlement and pretense, readying himself for a three-album run that would build on—not trade on—his cutting wit. The records have a wry take on certain social graces, toying with the kids packing underground bars and the same kind of house parties that probably wound up blasting the songs. This Is Happening is, in all respects, LCD’s best album. There’s a remarkable sustained energy to this collection; its electronic textures thrum and shimmy, and wall after sonic wall is built up and torn down with impeccable precision. But there’s an odd tension throughout; Murphy sounds both all-in and like he’s keeping one eye on the exit—in no small part, surely, because he intends this album to be LCD Soundsystem’s last. It’s not a swan-song, exactly—that would require some degree of sentimentality and forced closure that seems wholly absent from Murphy’s world—but it’s deliberate and no-nonsense; he doesn’t want to waste his time, or yours, or anyone’s. Instead, we get a handful of parting gifts: The insistently lovelorn “Change,” featuring Murphy’s most oddly sophisticated vocal delivery to date; the percolating piss and vinegar of “Hit” and its record industry shrug-off; the skittering, spoken-word discourse, snide asides and comic-book chorus of “Pow Pow.” It’ll be a shame to see LCD Soundsystem go—but you know, the coolest kids always ditch the party early.—Rachael Maddux