Musicologists may struggle to classify Porcupine Tree. Its genus, surely, is progressive rock, but Porcupine Tree has branched out from its roots in Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Neu!, Opeth and the Beach Boys to become its own species. As such, this four piece, indigenous to Britain, doesn’t slot easily into any radio format. No matter. The band’s 10th album, The Incident, entered the top 25 charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Chalk it up to word of mouth and a mainstream shift toward ambitious and nonlinear music (witness 2009 breakthroughs by Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective). The double album’s songs range from a lament for the children of a polygamous cult (“Blind House”) to the wane of childhood’s eternal summer (“Time Flies”). Throughout, songwriter Steven Wilson is more interested in melody and emotion than the operatic pomposity and instrumental verbosity so prevalent in prog rock. Here’s the only Porcupine Tree classification that matters: They’re great. Stephen Humphries
While much of the soul and R&B world rests on its laurels, intimidated by giants of the past like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Michael Jackson—and even more recent monoliths such as R. Kelly—Waajeed and Saadiq of PPP (formerly Platinum Pied Pipers) boldly made a statement only a couple of producers from Detroit could make. Namely, that soul is not dead. Like a lot of the current neo-soul movement, there is a very obvious debt to J Dilla’s brand of swing, but beyond the drums Abundance stands out as a fully unique work in a field that currently rewards retreading contemporary ideas with marketing dollars and ‘hype’, but little in the way of substantial product.
The highlight is certainly “Sanctuary”, a syrupy pseudo-religious celebration of comfort love that effortlessly blends the tropes of both hardcore Detroit hip-hop and smooth Detroit soul in one motion. That this is followed by the floor-burning hand clap single “Ain’t No Ifs ands or Maybes” only speaks to the excellent sequencing work done here. “Dirty Secrets” is another big-time highlight, ramming distorted guitars into a soulful romper that would have sounded much more pedestrian and easy to stomach in the hands of, say, Rich Harrison and Amy Winehouse. Abundance, thankfully, is raw and forward thinking soul that defies pigeon-holing and inspires musically like few other R&B performers are willing or able to.
Abundance doesn’t dare conflict with the shadows of the past, but this is because it’s one of the few recent R&B records to sound wholly unconcerned with the goings on of the outside world. This is that new Deeeeeee-troit soul, and hopefully the sound is here to stay. David Amidon
Invaders Must Die
With the tepid reception of 2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned firmly behind them, 2009 found Prodigy bandmates, producer Liam Howlett, emcee Maxim Reality, and John Lydon-throwback Keith Flint, reinvigorated and ready for war. During a year that was mired by saccharine-laced, Auto-Tune-slathered electro-pop, enter Invaders Must Die, the Prodigy’s long-awaited fifth LP, which is, in short, a sonic mud-hole stomping behemoth of an album. From the darkly textured riotous synth-bomb “Omen”, to the ‘91 old school sampling of True Faith’s “Take Me Away” on the anthemic, beat-labored “Warriors Dance”, to the bass-heavy cerebral assault banger “Take Me to the Hospital”, Invaders Must Die proves to be a genuine return-to-form record for the Essex-based dance act. What’s more, the album title itself serves as an apt response to the Toytown imitators and critics alike, who’ve long since written them off as nothing more than rebel-rousing rave-junkie has-beens, to pack it in and go home because those firestarters, twisted firestarters, the Prodigy, are back—to redefine that shining gold standard that they had set upon dance music so long ago. Aaron Basiliere
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela’s follow-up to their self-titled breathrough album offers more of the same, but nobody else is doing what they do. The metal-loving flamenco guitar duo add small new touches on 11:11 that subtly expand their sound, but the basics are the same. The two play the hell out of their acoustic guitars, from amazingly fast solos to surprisingly intense riffs, with a healthy side-dish of guitar-based percussion. Each song is dedicated in some way to an artist that influenced them, from the familiar (Santana, Hendrix) to the more obscure (Jorje Reyes, Le Trio Joubran). Testament’s Alex Skolnick even shows up for a tasteful electric guitar solo on the dedicated-to-Dimebag-Darrell tune “Atman”. The end result is energetic, upbeat flamenco with more than a bit of darker metal style thrown in for contrast. Rodrigo y Gabriela show that excellent musicianship and fun are not mutually exclusive terms in popular music. Chris Conaton
After finding success in 2001 with their chillout masterpiece Melody A.M., Röyksopp floundered a little on their followup, 2005’s The Understanding, which saw the Norwegian duo struggle to marry the gorgeous sounds of their debut with attempts at more traditional songwriting. The release of Junior revealed that they had overcome that particular hurdle, as the songs the album contained were as notable for their subjects and hooks as they were for their transcendent sonic tones. Ranging from the continuously-climaxing lament of the Robyn-starring “The Girl and the Robot”, to the squelchy, stuttering march-along of “Miss It So Much”, the earworms were inescapable, as were the icy-thrills of a pair of tracks featuring Karin Dreijer of the Knife. Unfortunately, while Junior did well with long-time fans, it failed to make much of an impact in a year when so many pop-starlets and indie-rockers were making their own forays into electro-pop. Alistair Dickinson
When former members of Bay Area hardcore band Yaphet Kotto decided to start an old school metal band, the “hipster” warning immediately sprang from the keyboards of skeptical metal purists. With every new record, though, Saviours has been gaining credibility, and their third is a true breakthrough. Like their peers High on Fire and Bison B.C., the foursome celebrates the camaraderie, escapism, and overall aesthetic of traditional heavy metal, but on Accelerated Living they finally start to forge their own identity, alternating between simple, early ‘80s thrash metal and the looser sounds of underrated British metal bands as Tank and Jaguar. With the quality of the riffs and hooks on “F.G.T”, “Acid Hand”, and the rip-roaring “Slave to the Hex” (as good as any metal/hard rock single that came out in 2009), it’s clear these fellas’ sincerity can’t ever be called into question again. Adrien Begrand
When not recording full-length albums with his idols or covering Ol’ Dirty Bastard songs for fun, Max Bemis must simply sigh and relegate himself to the fact that he’s merely fronting what is arguably the greatest emo-rock band working today. Of course, “emo-rock” is still a relative term to Bemis, who manages to totally steal the chord progression for “I Fought the Law” on the lead single from Say Anything’s self-titled third album, the biting stunner “Hate Everyone”. After paying tribute to his forebears with 2007’s In Defense of the Genre, Bemis—being perpetually too smart for his own good—now dissects emo-rocks cliches with laser-precision, knocking the Kings of Leon one moment before halting songs midway through because they sound too similar to his earlier hits the next. When Bemis goes pop, no one does it better (the utterly spectacular “Do Better”, the yearning plea of “Crush’d”), and when he wants to rock out (“Young Dumb & Stung”), he shows his legion of imitators just what they’re doing wrong. Meditating on deep issues like faith, fidelity, and even his own snarky sense of sarcasm, few groups make self-conscious rocking seem so effortless or fun. Then again, few groups are as good as Say Anything. Evan Sawdey