Happy 4th of July, my fellow Americans! Been a terrific six months for new music. Below are some of my favorite album releases that deserve early kudos at the half-way mark.
Six months in and the Philly-based quartet The War on Drugs' third long player -- Lost in the Dream -- is their best and one of the best releases of 2014. Even with Kurt Vile leaving in 2011 for solo frontiers, Adam Granduciel soldiered on with his bandmates and crafted a superb album. Even with most of the songs clocking in over five minutes in length, and even with a rather pedestrian video (above), "Red Eyes" remains one of the catchiest indie rock tunes this side of New Order! The galloping guitar break is just sublime. Pick it up today!
The tribal drum groove is unmistakable and wildly infectious, like the sideways Bo Diddley beat of "I Want Candy" meets Babatunde Olatunji with Talking Heads garnish. The third album by Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner -- AKA tUnE-yArDs -- is their most sophisticated, with plenty of polyrhythms and even R&B elements, but also their most engaging. Check out the video for "Water Fountain"; with its wacky Pee Wee's Play House-on-acid animation, it's inspired fun. Perfect for any road trip, rain forests and deserts alike.
The first three Zep albums have been remastered by guitarist Jimmy Page and re-released in various configurations including bonus discs and vinyl. Sonic upgrades with extra tracks -- both live tracks and songs-in-the-process -- once only found on bootlegs afford many new nuances in the tone and textures that were lost in previous versions. (The vinyl sounds amazing!) Suffice to say, they are ALL ESSENTIAL. The first effort, recorded in 1968, was recorded in just 36 hours and birthed the band's genre defining sound -- "heavy metal thunder" -- informed by the American blues, British Mod pop, English folk, and '60s psychedelia with plenty of volume and youthful exuberance. A few months later Zep II would find them using the studio to their sonic advantage -- Page's assertive, majestic guitar riffs and runs, John Paul Jones's melodic bass, John Bonham's thunder-of-the-gods drumming, and Robert Plant's raptured vocals sent the album to the top of charts in both the U.S. and U.K.. Side one may be the greatest collection of rock songs ever recorded. (Check out the rough cut version of "Whole Lotta Love" by the lads on the video above.) By the third album, Zep started to explore their collective musical roots and acoustic numbers would point the band towards new uncharted waters and their fourth album's massive appeal anchored by one of the greatest tracks ever committed to tape -- "Stairway to Heaven." The rest, as we know, is rock history. I can't wait to hear the remaining albums.
This is my favorite Americana/roots-rock record of 2014 even though it came out in late 2013. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Burch will be known to music fans who have followed his career along with his stellar bandmates the WPA Ballclub (Fats Kaplin, Jim Gray, Dennis Crouch, Jen Gunderman, and Marty Lynds). (Yeah, Burch played drums with Lambchop in the '90s, too.) He calls his sound "American groove" and it's so apparent 'cuz he's so comfortable and effortless in his songs, like Fogerty during his CRR days, or country legends Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Travis, Hank... damn, how did I miss this album? It's so refreshing to put on an album and want to play it over and over again. In today's ADHD society, it's so much easier to consume the best single from an album, but Mr. Burch has managed to hold this listener's attention all the way through. The video for the toe-tappin' "Couldn't Get a Witness" will make you grin every time you give it another spin!
Nothin' wrong with aping the roots of British blues rock -- I'm talking about rock 'n' roll circa 1965: Van Morrison's Them, The Animals, early Stones, The Who, Dr. Feelgood, et al. These Cavan, Ireland-based way-too-young rockers wear those influences proudly, yet they still sound remarkably fresh. Their much-heralded debut Snapshot was released in the U.K. in 2013 and in the U.S. in 2014. The video above for the kick-ass pub rock tune "Hard to Say No" is taken from their import 4 Track Mind E.P. You can feel them growing as songwriters and musicians right before your eyes and ears. Want your kids to think you're hip? Turn 'em on to The Strypes (name pinched from Mr. White's former band).
And speaking of former White Stripes front man, Mr. Jack White has become one of his generation's guitar heroes. While some of his songs may sound pedestrian to an older, wiser, and perhaps cynical critic, his tone and texture remain praiseworthy. He's learned from the masters, but he's more than capable of creating his own dynamics, and believe me, that is no easy feat. His second solo effort is his best release since The White Stripes' 2003 Elephant. He dials up all kinds of tasty git-sonics and memorable melodies. Case in point, the git-freakout instrumental "High Ball Stepper." It smacks you in the head sideways as nasty fuzz guitar riffs pummel the blues rock groove into your noggin and before you can say stop it, it stops for a moment, reloads, then smacks you a few more times before stopping altogether!
Take a tab of acid, put on your Fela finery, and hit play and you've got the relentlessly inventive Afrobeat groove of this Brooklyn-based 11-piece band.The basic tracks were recorded live to two-inch tape at The Bunker in Williamsburg, so the groove is real. Produced by their guitarist Mikey Freedom Hart, who adds sonic flourishes here and there to tease the ear into repeated listens. No finer dance record for me this year, so far.
Though it was released in 2013, my favorite new retro garage pop-rockers The High Learys released two amazing singles from their equally amazing CD this year. Above is the official video for "Two to Match"-- a wonderful cartoon homage to the Fab Four's '60s TV show. It's from their debut album Here Come The High Learys. What's not to love about this wonderfully upbeat psych-pop nugget from the Perth, Australia-based quartet -- named after Timothy, I'm guessing. Their first single, "Clear My Mind" (does the title pay homage to Scientology? Hmmm...) -- think "Incense & Peppermints" meets The Zombies -- featured a wicked Ray Manzarek organ break, too. While both singles are absolutely perfect for any beach blanket bingo dance party, I've not heard one dud on this album.
What's pushing your musical buttons these hot, summer days?