Swedish musician Amanda Mair made a strong first impression in 2011 thanks to her debut single “Doubt”. An absolutely beautiful little song, it ingeniously takes the artsy, Kate Bush-derived style of Bat For Lashes and puts an affable, pop-oriented spin on the sound. The end result is classy and mature for something coming from a 17-year-old, but at the same time playful instead of dour. Released this past summer just before she turned 18, Mair’s debut album builds nicely on the promise of that single, thanks to a wonderful collection of songs written by Acid House Kings’ (and Labrador Records boss) Johan Angergård and Philip Ekström of the Mary Onettes. It’s a gently lively and eclectic album, combining that Bat For Lashes feel with lighter, Feist-derived fare (“Sense”), a fun ‘80s pop aesthetic (“Before”, “House”) and a nice dose of Lykke Li-style quirkiness. The end result is a record that has a lot more character than your usual singer-songwriter fare, and thanks to some very smart songwriting and a singer/musician with tremendous charisma and talent, this charming album stands above all the sound-alikes. This young artist has a very bright future. Adrien Begrand
Signs & Signifiers
With raunchy guitars, scintillating drums, jaunty horns, and a honed collection of tightly packed singles, Oklahoma native J.D. Mchpherson’s Signs and Signifiers burst onto the scene like a Memphis fireworks display, dusting off vintage gear to capture the propulsive sound of ‘50s rock and roll. While many records of the year reached back into bygone eras to high acclaim (most notably Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls), JD McPherson’s Signs and Signifiers distinguished itself by actually sounding like a true artifact from the genesis of rock and roll. Produced under the care of bassist extraordinaire Jimmy Sutton in the mold of early studio recordings, the two nailed the sound of blistering rockabilly and the thoroughly funky R&B backbeat of the 45-era.
There are Chuck Berry worthy singles like the fiery “Scandalous”, the gorgeous teen angst pop and Buddy Holly overtones of “North Side Gal”, and the deep and danceable Boogie Woogie groove of “Scratching Circles”. Combining the infectious fury of Little Richard and Chicago electric blues, McPherson dazzles with the shuffle of “I Can’t Complain” and even manages to reference both Bo Diddley and the Smiths in a stroke of genius on the title track. Precise in his aim to reclaim the past for the modern age, McPherson rocks with swagger, style, and greaser attitude. Josh Antonuccio
Over the last 15 odd years, Dan Melchior has patiently carved out a stubbornly independent and impressively prolific niche as one of the elder statesmen of the current DIY-garage-blues revival scene. Either as a solo artist, as the frontman of groups like the Broke Revue and Das Menace, or collaborating with luminaries like Billy Childish and Holly Golightly, Melchior has been responsible for over 20 albums’ worth of underground rock ‘n’ roll experimentation, crafting his own inimitable blend of mutated country, electronic-infused blues, and Americana-punk weirdness. He’s virtually earned the right to be classified as a genre all by himself.
All of this makes his latest effort so impressive. An artist with such a long and varied resume should be running out of tricks, but Melchior’s 2012 album The Backward Path is among his finest work, and a major stylistic leap forward. Inspired by his wife’s tragic battle with cancer, the songs on The Backward Path jettison Melchior’s usual blues and rock pastiche, and instead focus on deeply personal, painful, and heartfelt songwriting that is doubtless the most revealing and emotional of his long career. For old fans and newcomers alike, it’s a richly satisfying journey. Pat Kewley
Shut Down the Streets
Back when A.C. Newman was starting his solo career back in 2004, he seemed to be looking for ways to contrast his own material from that of his band, the New Pornographers. Hence, the songs were more baroque and fellow Pornographer Neko Case was replaced by other female backing singers. Eight years later, Newman seems completely comfortable with his solo career. As a result, Shut Down the Streets is a relaxed record that isn’t particularly concerned with going for the big hooky chorus on every song. Which isn’t to say that Newman has lost his songwriting touch. Songs like “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” and “Strings” are classic Newman, wordy and catchy, with soaring melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Other songs have subtler charms, like the use of the rarely-heard marxophone and pocket piano on “Do Your Own Time”, and the heartfelt but self-deprecating advice to Newman gives to his newborn son in “There’s Money in New Wave”. These 10 tracks are each excellent; there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. Oh, and this time Neko Case is all over the album, doing harmonies and backing vocals on nearly every song, and it’s gorgeous. Chris Conaton
Anticipation for Ohnomite, was always going to be high. Producer and sometime MC, Oh No had set the bar high for his solo work with 2009’s Ethiopium, an instrumental album which took its queue from the jazz and funk of East Africa, and found itself in PopMatters’ top five hip-hop albums of that year. So the thought of a more lyrically-driven album, built from samples of blaxploitation films (quite specifically those of Rudy Ray Moore) was an exciting prospect. He didn’t disappoint.
As a producer, Oh No’s work coalesces into a mixture of psychedelic funk, chopped up breaks and soulful rhythms, which nod to their sampled origins but crackle with grit and originality, whilst as a rapper, he’s less self assured, but also manages to surprise. With his greater talents clearly lying behind the mixer, we’re lucky that he’s also accompanied by a host of collaborators. From well renowned names like MF Doom, Eric Sermon and Phife Dawg, to more underground artists such as Rapper Pooh and Phil Da Agony who show a compelling raw energy on standout track “You Don’t Know Me”. The shadow cast by his elder brother Madlib may be long, but with Ohnomite, Oh No continues to steadily plough his own furrow, adding another high concept album to his catalogue, which ripples with a collective of rappers who’ve rarely sounded better, and beats so incendiary they might burn your face off. Tom Fenwick
Quantic frontman, Will Holland, has left the White Cliffs of Dover far behind and relocated to the city of Cali in Colombia in search of the authentic sounds of cumbia, salsa and other Latin American rhythms. Once there he quickly formed a friendship and musical alliance with Mario Galeano, bandleader of the awesome Frente Cumbiero. The pair hatched a plan and brought together some of the legends of Colombian music in the equally legendary Discos Fuertes studios in Bogota. The result is a startling album, recorded live, that fuses those Latin sounds I mentioned with jazz, funk, hip-hop, Afrobeat, electro and dub. From opener “Tiene Sabor, Tiene Sazón” all blazing horns and gorgeous female vocals, to a quirky take on Black Sabbaths “Iron Man” here cast as “I Ron Man” to the furious ska driven “Ska Fuentes” Ondatropica is an exquisite album, played by master musicians that aren’t afraid to stretch themselves and take risks. Ondratropica will take the ‘world’ circuit by storm next year and will cross over just as Buena Vista Social Club did a few years back. Check them out now before they become the band whose name is on everyone’s lips! Jez Collins