1. tUnE-yArDs, “w h o k i l l”
Experimental singer-songwriter Merril Garbus‘ second release and first venture into the world of hi-fi music, “w h o k i l l,” might seem like the perfect candidate for 2011’s sophomore slump album. Yet, Garbus not only manages to retain the raw, fervent sound of 2009’s “BiRd-BrAiNs” — which she recorded entirely with a handheld recorder — she actually expands the range of her music through the possibilities offered by the studio, most notably in her inclusion of a very effective horn section. And though this music seems less reliant on Garbus‘ broad, flexible voice, her ingenious use of vocal loops and stark timbal shifts mark “w h o k i l l” as distinctively her own. For me, the combination of intelligent production, that infinitely expressive voice, and Garbus‘ wonderfully idiosyncratic songwriting makes this a must-listen.
2. yMusic, “Beautiful Mechanical”
The classically-trained sextet yMusic is made up of a string trio, trumpet, flute and clarinet, and has a long history of studio and on-stage collaborations with artists ranging from Bon Iver to Björk. Their first album as an ensemble, “Beautiful Mechanical,” pays homage to that history while setting its sights on something new. yMusic doesn’t write its own music or, at least they haven’t yet. Instead, the group decided to call on some of their indie-rock connections including Annie Hall of St. Vincent and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond to put together a program of seven new pieces. Hall and Worden both contribute compositions, as do more classically-minded young composers including Judd Greenstein and Gabriel Kahane. Brooklyn-native Greenstein’s piece, “Clearing, Dawn, Dance” is probably the album’s high-point and definitely shows off yMusic’s sturdy chops. Annie Hall’s contribution, “Proven Badlands,” is another stand-out. Others fall short of inspired. All in all, yMusic’s performances are rather artful and the decisiveness with which they cross the line between classical and popular music definitely earns them a spot on this list.
3. A.A. Bondy, “Believers”
Bondy’s latest is on this list mainly because I heard his first album, “American Hearts,” at a time when I’d begun to lose faith in contemporary American folk music. And in the midst of his simplistic, threadbare songwriting seemed a timeless restatement of what it meant to be a folk singer. His latest album, “Believers,” speaks from a different place but with just as much candor and grace. Whereas Bondy’s sophomore release, When “The Devil’s Loose,” fell prey to somewhat lazy production, “Believers” is full of sparse yet lush textures that compliment each song in distinct and often unexpected ways. From the heavy, distorted bassline on “The Twist” to the short, swelling instrumental “123 Dupuy Street,” Bondy is testing his boundaries in interesting ways and for that I have to give him credit.
4. Gillian Welch, “The Harrow & The Harvest”
After a long period of what seems to have been writer’s block, Gillian Welch and her songwriting partner/guitarist David Rawlings have finally reunited for another album of understated, enigmatic folk and bluegrass songs. The great attention paid to detail on this album makes clear that Welch and Rawlings haven’t been doing nothing during their eight-year hiatus. Rather, it seems they’ve been perfecting their craft. Rawlings’ guitar playing here is as subtle and original as ever, Welch’s melodies have grown sprawling and complex and her lyrics seem to have become even more sparse and abstract. Some songs like “Six White Horses” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” sound timeless, almost as if they’d emerged from America’s wellspring of musical tradition fully formed. At the least, Welch and Rawlings provide a welcome respite from recent attempts to reconcile America’s folk tradition with trends in modern popular music while managing to avoid most of the clichés associated with other folk revivalists. There’s an authenticity to these songs that definitely warrants a thorough listen.
5. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”
Though Annie Hall’s music has already made a cameo in this list, her latest album, “Strange Mercy,” deserves some praise of its own. Although there is no shortage of earworm riffs and anthemic choruses in Hall’s music —- you’ll even find them in her piece for “Beautiful Mechanical” — these seem almost like brief moments of clarity in the midst of a chaotic haze of stylized allusions and unexpected tangents. For instance, the album’s title track moves from a simple, trance-inducing groove to a driving breakdown and back again to create a rather average pop song. But it’s in between each of those basic elements that Hall’s skill as a songwriter makes itself clear. The eery synth swells, distant electric guitars and the unanticipated harmonic shifts they tend to create make this music complex and interesting without sacrificing the comfortable structure of a pop song.