Sonic Youth and more...
Ineffable Mysteries From Shpongleland
Shpongle broke the mold when they made 2005’s sprawling epic Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost. For that masterpiece, they constructed 20 brilliant explorations and aural phrases without regard to genre classification, averaging about three minutes per track. Somewhere between progressive trance and psy-dub, given a distinctive character by choice samples plucked from Waking Life and The Simpsons, it was reported to be the final album spawned from the collaboration between Simon Posford and Raja Ram. However, the cat came back with a big bag of Terence McKenna, three tabs of Robert Anton-Wilson, and a saltshaker full of Bill Hicks. Ineffable Mysteries From Shpongleland teleported the duo back to their roots. Their first two pioneering, hypnotic hippy-dripping albums averaged eight tracks each at around eight minutes long, and so does their 2009 resurrection. The production is as razor sharp and intricate as anything off Nothing Lasts, the mood has never been more overwhelming and psychedelic, and the format is classic, right down to the Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd) cover art. It’s the perfect Shpongle album. Alan Ranta
Grounded in sex, death, and loss, Sonic Youth’s The Eternal kicks off with two discordant riffs, then “Sacred Trickster” breaks into a racing guitar/drum combo over Kim Gordon’s ghostly wail: “I want you to levitate me, don’t you love me yet?” As the first track slips seamlessly into the second, the band is at full roar when Thurston Moore sings: “Violation, penetration, anti-war is…” and Gordon shouts back, “It’s Anti-Orgasm!” On the hauntingly evocative “Malibu Gas Station”, Gordon sounds like Nico fronting the Velvet Underground. After 11 stunning songs, the band shuts it down on the last one, “Massage the History” and stares into the abyss of dissolution and despair: “All the money’s gone, funny it was never here,” Gordon laments, “Oil dripping on my head… bring you back from the dead.” In a year dominated by cheery pop, The Eternal is a dark, chaotic masterpiece. John Grassi
From the Forest to the Sea
The eccentric back-story is an indie rock shortcut these days. In almost every case, this strategy overcompensates for the pedestrian music attached to the label-ladled exposition. Athens/Dayton institution Southeast Engine ignores this tactic along with nearly every other ephemeral trend of modern rock, and the result is From the Forest to the Sea. Placing the story in the songs where it belongs, Adam Remnant uses a novelistic approach that conveys the experiences of an American everyman. Underpinning this character’s journey is distinctive, live-recorded musicianship that blends the timeless qualities of classic Americana with the band’s homespun rock. This is not so much a “concept album” as it is an exploration of the physical, philosophical and spiritual conditions that shape life’s uncertain path. A song cycle through ambition, prosperity, temptation, condemnation and grace, From the Forest to the Sea is an exceptionally conceived and realized work of art. Thomas Britt
Filled with disarmingly catchy and deceptively simple songs, Regina Spektor’s latest album, Far, depends heavily on her accented and oddly cadenced delivery, often with only minimal piano accompaniment. Spektor is at her best when she keeps her arrangements spare. She is also that rare artist on the indie scene who seems unafflicted by sarcasm or abstraction. Maybe it is too romantic a notion to attribute Spektor’s ability to transcend American snarkiness to her childhood years living in Soviet Moscow, but I am tempted nonetheless. The hummable melodies alone make this album worth owning, but when you layer on her commentary about death and religion, it becomes one of the best of the year. Like a well-crafted short story collection, Spektor captures the truth about human nature throughout this set. Few artists can get away with lyrical turns such as “No one laughs at God at a funeral”; Spektor can. Mike Landweber
Working on a Dream
Springsteen’s fifth studio album of the decade, capping a remarkable resurgence and rediscovery of his rock voice, did more than simply demonstrate his continued prowess as one of rock’s preeminent songwriters or provide a vehicle for another barnstorming run of E Street ministry. Working on a Dream was also Springsteen’s most radical departure and musically ambitious record in decades, a lush suite of ‘60s wall-of-sound ballads featuring the iridescent grandeur of Brendan O’Brien’s production and a sonorous, Orbison-esque singing technique from the Boss. Too divergent perhaps to reach beyond the faithful, the decorative splendor of “This Life”, “Kingdom of Days”, “Surprise, Surprise”, and others were nonetheless regal jackpots of prime pop vintage. All told, Dream was Bruce’s most romantic album ever—not in the pulling-outta-here mystique of his ‘70s highway restlessness, but in the open-hearted embrace of finding something good and settling in to win. Steve Leftridge
A Brand New Hurt
Louden Swain, you have stolen my toasted breakfast heart. “I dreamed that I ate your heart / It was like a strawberry Poptart / All hot and soft and sweet” quips singer/guitarist/lyricist Rob Benedict in his quirky croon, and that about sums up their third album, Brand New Hurt, right there. The LA pop rock band has a polished sound reminiscent of Marvelous 3, one that crackles and sparks with wit, humor, and a powerful mix of intellectual and musical playfulness and maturity. Bursting with energy and whimsy, Brand New Hurt holds testament to the band’s live personality and the simple unadulterated fun lost in so many jaded LA acts these days. Benedict draws you into his confidences and coterie with songs about finding your way in your 30s, declaring: “I’m gonna keep my fires burning / Gonna keep my records turning.” Put this record on, and keep it turning. Kayley Thomas
Sweet Billy Pilgrim
Twice Born Men
I’ve adored Sweet Billy Pilgrim since I first heard “Stars Spill Out of Cups”, and loudly trumpeted the merits of their debut (where it eventually found a home) to anyone who’d listen. Twice Born Men came out in March, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in July, and featured a few songs I already knew I loved. So, why the hell did I not give it more than a cursory listen until December, when I fell hard and fast for an album that more than lives up to its predecessor’s merits? Blame my fear of a sophomore slump, or the same instinct for denial of gratification that saw me wait a good six months to finally watch the fifth season of The Wire. Just don’t blame the band, who’ve made a gloriously inventive, sweeping record that hits you on all levels (brain, heart, guts) simultaneously. It’s the kind of album that deserves better acolytes than my lazy ass; listen to that Mercury panel instead. Ian Mathers
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.