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4play counts down the year’s best albums

January 30, 2013
Filed under 4Play

10. Andrew Bird — “Break it Yourself”

Multitalented virtuoso Andrew Bird has been applauded by critics for his experimental style of folk. “Break It Yourself” represents a more traditional, reserved side to the artist.

There is a certain exciting suspense in the unpredictability of “Break It Yourself.” Tracks like “Danse Carribe” shift genres on the turn of a dime, from samba to mariachi, in a fashion that upon first listen can leave one breathless and wanting more.

On the track “Near Death Experience Experience” Bird croons the lyrics, “And we’ll dance like cancer survivors, grateful simply to be alive.” Such melancholy reflections draped around worn cliche phrases are signature in Bird’s songcraft.

“Break It Yourself” features lively melodies alongside Bird’s impressive vocals and plucky instrumentals, and is the artist’s best album yet.

9. Caravan Palace — “Panic”

In a year saturated with electronic music releases, French electro-swing group Caravan Palace stands apart. This year the group offered up one of the most refreshing and fun albums of the year when they unleashed their album “Panic” upon the world.

While many electronic groups and producers these days are catering to the club scene — inserting dubstep drops and beats willy-nilly against house mixes — Caravan Palace challenges the status quo.

Tracks mix jazz-era brass with twitchy beats, fleeting piano samples, soundbites from silent film scores and Golden Age animation shorts. Despite consisting of recycled content the tracks feel brand-new and at times even futuristic.

8. Alex Winston — “King Con”

Modern pop music was invaded this year by a series of intellectual artists. Whereas some of these artists, such as Macklemore and Karmin, sought to subvert the industry by poking fun at it from the inside, Alex Winston embraced the genre and managed to produce one of the year’s most impressive albums.

Winston, a former opera singer who once opened for rock legends such as Chuck Berry and Ted Nugent, uses her voice to blend modern pop trends with classical flair.

The album opens with the grand and epic sounding “Fire Ants.” A hip hop beat greets listeners before devolving into a rallying war chant. On tracks such as “Velvet Elvis” and “Medicine,” Winston pines for bygone eras and toys with oriental instrumentals.

Despite her playfulness, Winston leaves all notions of irony at the door, presenting an honest and personal album laced with a poppy bite.

7. Oberhofer — “Time Capsules II”

Offering up a potent and eccentric style of indie-garage pop, Oberhofer’s album “Time Capsules II” is a collection of 10 sing-alongs, complete with barrels of oohs and handclaps.

What sets “Time Capsules II” apart from other indie pop efforts is its lo-fi semblance and relatively harsh instrumentals.

Front man Brad Oberhofer’s vocals would sound more at home in the realm of punk or grunge than the powerpop offered up here, and that quirky detail in itself is enough intrigue to warrant multiple listens. The tracks are extremely catchy, and though simple, interesting.

6. First Aid Kit — “The Lion’s Roar”

When sisters Johana and Klara Soderberg first uploaded a video of themselves covering a Fleet Foxes tune, they had no idea what kind of journey it would take them on.

The Swedish duo’s musical project, First Aid Kit, has brought them face-to-face with the likes of legends like Jack White, Connor Orberst and Paul Simon: the latter of which gave them a standing ovation for their cover of his song “America” during the 2012 Polar Music Prize ceremony.

First Aid Kit’s newest album, “The Lion’s Roar,” is rife with beautiful folk compositions that highlight the duo’s haunting vocals. Johanna and Klara’s adept harmonies are intoxicating, providing a soft, yet brooding, ambience to an impossibly youthful album about heartbreak.

5. Alabama Shakes — “Boys & Girls”

The Black Keys injected a shot of adrenaline into the blood of mainstream blues rock when they released 2010’s “Brothers” to critical acclaim. The band has since become one of the most sought-after musical acts in the country and by-and-large the royal family of modern blues rock.

Alabama Shakes may be the first band capable of challenging The Black Keys’ place on this throne. Their debut, “Boys & Girls,” is as satisfying as a plate of mashed potatoes. The raw vocal-styling of front woman Brittany Howard allows her to claw from underneath the album’s glossy production and spit gravely verses on tracks such as “Hang Loose” and “Heartbreaker.” The solid songwriting and awesome  performances on “Boys & Girls”  proves this band can live up to the hype of  their expansive marketing campaign.

4. Zammuto — “Zammuto”

Listening to the first release from electronic composer Nick Zammuto, it’s difficult to believe that nearly every sound, each drum beat and note, has been carefully programmed into a computer before being spat out on the other side as a masterpiece.

Zammuto first gained notoriety as the better half of electronic ambient group The Books were known for offering up scientifically programmed sound collages that would be  unrepeatable using analog means. Whereas The Books were oftentimes political, here Zammuto takes a page from artists such as The Postal Service and Imogen Heap, instead focusing on moods and the tension that everyday life brings.

Compositions like “Idiom Wind” and “F U C-3PO” are unlike anything heard elsewhere and great examples as to why Zammuto was one of the year’s most breathtaking releases.

3. Polica — “Give You the Ghost”

Featuring Channy Leigh, protege of indie icon Justin Vernon, Polica has proven to be a juggernaut of a group by its own merits.

This year the group released its debut album, “Give You the Ghost.” The album, produced by Spoon’s Brian Eno, comes on like a drunken fever. It takes cues from folk and electronic music and comes off as a more heartfelt rendition of the “Drive” soundtrack. Throughout its 11 masterful tracks, there is a bleeding remorse like a twenty-something’s journal.

Leigh’s vocals are pained and innocent, reminiscent of the drawls of Tegan and Sara. These vocals are lightly distorted — in a subtle way usually unheard of so far as Auto-Tune is concerned — and punctuated by amazing percussion offered up by the band’s duo of drummers as well as sultry R&B basslines.

“Give You the Ghost” is an achievement in listenable indie rock, a genre bending ride worth blasting on repeat.

2. fun. — “Some Nights”

The sophomore album from fun. brought the band to the top of the charts and made front man, Nate Reuss, a genuine celebrity. “We Are Young” dominated the year’s beginning and “Some Nights” was omnipresent at the year’s end.

Indie bloggers turned against their once-favored band for its newfound popularity, which was largely brought about when “We Are Young” was featured in an episode of “Glee.” While mainstream music critics panned the album for being too inaccessible.

Reuss is one of the most capable songwriters in the business and succeeds in his mission to recreate the grandiose sounds of Kanye West in the image of indie pop. He masterfully uses the much hated Auto-Tune as an instrumental tool on the album, and aside from the lone rotten egg in the bunch, “It Gets Better,” succeeds in creating a set of engaging and pleasant tracks.

1. Kishi Bashi — “151a”

Kaoru Ishibashi’s project Kishi Bashi emerged onto the scene this year seemingly from nowhere. This Asian-American composer and frequent collaborator for indie rock darlings Of Montreal and Regina Spektor broke free from the chains that the aforementioned musical acts held upon his creative spirit, releasing his commercially friendly album “151a” upon the world.

On the album, Kishi Bashi daringly warbles lines such as, “Am I the Antichrist,” in a pained innocence that contrasts with the sickly sweet pop melodies of the album. Like a sonic virus, Ishibashi’s infectious tunes, backed up by blooming strings, bury themselves deep into the subconscious of the listener. His flamboyant chanting vocals, prowess and raw energy make “151a” one of 2012’s most irresistible releases.

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