You might have noticed that I’ve taken a few weeks off from the New Release Spotlight feature. December’s honestly a very slow month for releases. Year-end lists are already done, award nominations are announced, and with the decline of physical media sales, the holiday gifting of MP3s just isn’t the same (though I recommend the gift of vinyl records to your music-loving friends and family). Rather than force lists of whatever I could scrape together each week, I’m doing a cumulative one for the whole month in two parts. At this point, everything of note has been released until January (at which point I’ll switch back to the weekly format).
Also, if you’re looking for some local tunes, Jessika did a fantastic writeup on iTunes’ recently released Nashville Indie Spotlight, which showcases a ton of great up and coming Nashville artists and is a steal at $7.99!
Here’s what I think should be on your radar over the holidays:
Ke$ha- Warrior (Deluxe Edition) & Deconstructed [EP] [RCA]
My Take: This is my first essential pick for December. I know, I know; haters gonna hate. I’m not claiming that this is necessairly the best album on this list; it’s just the one I think warrants your attention the most. Ke$ha is an indisputably polarizing artist (and I know we’re not the first unlikely site to give this record so much love). Make no mistake though, I’m not recommending it out of irony or suddenly jumping on the Ke$ha bandwagon; I sincerely think that this is a thoroughly entertaining and top-notch pop record with some serious rock and roll spirit to it (if you don’t believe me, keep reading until I get to the guest features). I unabashadely enjoyed the singer’s 2010 debut, Animal, and strong followup EP, Cannibal. Honestly, I’m a sucker for anything Max Martin and Dr. Luke touch (another opinion I share with many other seemingly unlikely sources- just look at how many year-end song lists Taylor Swift’s Max Martin tracks ended up on). But with Warrior, the singer steps beyond just a Luke/Martin machination and really injects more of her own artistry into the mix (in the somewhat absurd, occasionally vapid, self-instituted party girl/rocker chick characterization she long ago adopted). The record isn’t a huge departure, but rather an improvement on an established formula and simultaneous artistic expansion that lands stronger and more confidently than any of the Ke$ha’s previous output. Thematically, Warrior also showcases a distinct shift from the mostly shallow and lyrically impersonal previous releases and focuses more on Ke$ha’s feelings and personal struggles. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of tracks about partying, but it’s nice to see the enigmatic wild child pull the curtain back a bit.
There’s actually two records I’m recommending here, so let’s start with the EP. Deconstructed is available only in a special bundle from Ke$ha’s website, so it’s likely to fly much more under the radar than her previous EP, Cannibal. It’s being marketed as an “acoustic” EP, but last I checked synthesizers don’t count as acoustic. “Stripped down” would be a more accurate descriptor. Featuring two songs from Cannibal and two from Warrior (one of which is the previously released, stripped-down version of “Die Young”- a song penned by fun.‘s Nate Ruess), the real reason I’m calling this noteworthy is its opener- the mama Ke$ha-penned track “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” made famous by Dolly Parton. That’s right, Ke$ha’s mom was a successful songwriter. Who knew (actually, our own Jessika definitely knew- but that’s a story for another day)? Anyway, Ke$ha really tastefully and faithfully knocks that track out of the park, accompanied by an impecable arrangement that does the original justice without forcing the pop singer to stray into country territory (I doubt that would be pretty- despite her Nashville upbringing). The other reason I think Deconstructed warrants a listen is its rare glimpse into a calmer, more retrained, and more vocal-centric side of a singer whose output, for the most part, rarely dictates the need for any of those characteristics. It doesn’t sound completely without autotune, but the EP does give some credence to the hope that Ke$ha, as a vocalist, is not a complete construct of studio production.
The real record of note here, though, is Warrior. Make sure you check out the deluxe version. Though it clocks it at a rather lengthy (for this type of album) 16 tracks, the bonus 4 give a glimpse into what Warrior could have been, had it not carried the pressure to follow up the aesthetics pre-established by Animal and Cannibal. That stylistic dichotomy is present throughout, and makes for a really unbalanced, though still very entertaining, listen. Warrior sounds more like a compilation than an album proper (and, for all intents and purposes, it kind of is- the singer reportedly recorded many, many more songs with various producers and collaborators so this is the product of compromise between Ke$ha and the major label machine). You get the sense that you’re listening to two distinctly different types of songs: the Animal-esque, Luke/Martin-infused, hook-laden dance pop songs both expected and, at this point, required of the singer to churn out and the old school, throwback rock and roll and indie jams she would rather be making (and, in all likelihood, closer to the realm of what she more frequently listens to and identifies with). Ke$ha, as an artist, was a bit of an accident- a personality discovered by a superstar production team and plugged into Big Music in a way where her style was more or less pre-crafted for her. It’s not a bad style, fortunately, and even the more “classically Ke$ha” tracks on Warrior are mindlessly enjoyable and wonderfully poppy- as strong as or stronger than anything on her debut. At moments, her pop tracks get really unpredictable and avant-garde even, with occasional dubsteppy tendencies and pretty mind-blowing production turns (top 40 backbone notwithstanding). However, it’s the rock songs, the more “sincerely Ke$ha” tracks (which are sort of crammed into the middle as not to curb the pacing) that are the most intriguing. She snagged help from The Black Keys on this song (and just Patrick Carney here), The Strokes on this one, The Flaming Lips on this one (the only one to make the cut of a reported 6 or 7 produced) and Iggy Pop on a song in the style of Iggy Pop (how meta is that?). Bits and pieces of these tracks fall flat, but for the most part they work surprisingly well- especially her collaboration with The Strokes (which is essentially a Strokes song with Ke$ha on vocals). The pedigree of these collaborators alone gives the singer an air of legitimacy that few of her peers can claim. Sure, guest spots can be bought, but that’s not a list of artists who would stamp their name on just any track, no matter the amount being offered. I’m intrigued by just how good this record could have been, had Ke$ha really been allowed to reign unchained and unchecked. Even at her most rock and roll, she’s bogged down by incredibly glossy production, embellished hooks, and an abundance of autotune. These characteristics are a huge part of what makes Ke$ha so immensely enjoyable in many aspects, but the irony is the elements that make her music so irresistibly catchy are also perhaps limiting its own natural evolution into a more self-representative territory.
Warrior is not high art and you probably shouldn’t hold out hope for Ke$ha to quietly transform into the second coming of rock and roll on mainstream radio. But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable record nonetheless, and a shining beacon of promise in the sea of mostly unlistenable top 40 music of the moment. It’s not my guilty pleasure- it’s sincerely fun, light, feel-good music and I genuinely enjoy it and completely recommend giving it a listen, even if mainstream pop isn’t typically your thing. Warrior is also a reassuring testament to the fact that Ke$ha has high regard for the direction of her career and I seriously hope she keeps pushing to produce music that she likes on a personal level and infusing it with her established formula. Though her persona is clearly an embellishment, I do honestly believe that Ke$ha is a true outcast rocker girl with the most genuine of intentions, accidentally cemented in a position of pop radio prominence, whose musical mission is, to the best of her capability, to spread the rock and roll spirit and bring the party (probably the party she never got invited to in high school). And I’m solidly on board with that.
Check Out: ”Only Wanna Dance with You ,” the Strokes collaboration that just might be one of the best pop songs all year, the best thing The Strokes have had their name attached to in the past half a decade, and, hopefully, a blueprint for what we can expect from Ke$ha in the future. Really, though, check out all of the collaborations I linked to above.
Click “Continue Reading” what other December records you should be rocking (they’re not all top 40 pop records, I promise)!
Dream Boat- Eclipsing [Cloud]
Quick Take: As a debut album, Eclipsing is unreasonably refined and confident in exactly the type of sound Dream Boat (the duo of Page Campbell and Dan Donahue) are striving for. Musically, it’s lush, atmospheric, understated, and haunting. Thematically, it’s emotionally dense, beautiful, and subtle. Based out of Athens and pseudo-affiliated with the Elephant 6 Collective (the genesis of projects such as Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, and Elf Power), Dream Boat are a group that commands a reasonable amount of buzz out of the gate, and they live up to every bit of it with Eclipsing. They’re quite different than many of the other Elephant 6 bands, however. Stylistically they’re much more mellow and dreamy; very downtempo and deliberate. It’s almost tough to pinpoint the group’s specific, deep appeal- their minimalist sound and texture-heavy arrangements are nothing new, but crafted here in a way that connects on such a deeply personal level. Their lyrics are vulnerable and well matched aesthetically to the musical tone throughout Eclipsing, if not somewhat muddled and disconnected by the hazy, drawn-out production (but I forgive that fact because the production is perfectly suited to their delivery). The duo’s ability to co-opt varied stylistic influences and fold them into a unified sound throughout the record is simply mind-blowing. Rarely does Eclipsing falter, and when it does, it’s minor enough to hardly detract from the record’s overall effectiveness. Dream Boat are a hard band to describe and finding specific points of recommendation about their debut is even harder. It’s simply a solid piece of dreamy, atmospheric pop with smarter, more refined songs than most bands could hope to craft on a debut and, from beginning to end, it’s wholly gorgeous and enthralling.
Check Out: ”Sea to Sky,” the standout track on the record that is most perfectly demonstrative of Dream Boat’s dreamy, lush style and Eclipsing’s tonal foundation.
Heathered Pearls- Loyal [Ghostly International]
Quick Take: Heathered Pearls is the solo vehicle of Jakub Alexander (the co-founder of the record label Moongadget). His debut, Loyal, is an artistic and ethereal representation of ambient music at its true essence. Borrowing a distinct note from artists like Steve Reich and Matthew Dear, Loyal perhaps owes its greatest influence to ambient aficionado Brian Eno‘s school of understated, atmospheric aesthetics. Completely instrumental and somewhat loose in its structure, the record, as with much ambient music, does bear something of a point of entry to fully digest. Once you wrap your brain around exactly what Heathered Pearls has crafted, however, and allow the surprisingly concise tracks to reel you in, it’s a gorgeous and welcome musical journey. Using such sparse instrumentation (and even a limited range of textures and samples), Loyal still feels incredibly broad and thematic- constructing a story melodically with such an acute attention to detail few artists have the self-control or ear for. Though it’s somewhat hard to recommend because it takes a level of patience and determination to connect with, Hearthered Pearls’ debut is an intriguing and beautiful piece of art and a totally rewarding listening experience if you allow yourself the necessary immersion.
Check Out: ”Beach Shelter,” the ocean-conjuring, misty, and hugely atmospheric track that should give you a pretty solid taste of what you’re in store for with Loyal.
Scott Walker- Bish Bosch [4AD]
Quick Take: It’s pretty wild that the Scott Walker of The Walker Brothers and the Scott Walker of today are one in the same. Formerly a fairly straightforward orchestral pop crooner, Walker (a month shy of 70) has transformed into an enigmatic and critically lauded, surrealist experimental musician. It hasn’t been an overnight change; Walker began moving away from his earlier pop tunes and teen appeal as early as the ’70s, but it wasn’t until 1995′s Tilt (its own prototype somewhat laid out in 1984′s Climate of Hunter), that the Walker of today truly emerged. Walker has only been releasing an album a decade since the ’80s, his last 2006′s The Drift, so his despite his career evolution taking place over three decades, the musical change has been more incremental than one might expect. His latest, Bish Bosch, mostly lands in the same vein of the bleak, experimental tone of The Drift (the two, at six years apart, are his closest intervaled releases since the ’70s). It’s the darkest, weirdest, most fringe appealing, and avant-garde, yet, on many levels, brilliant thing Walker has produced in his strange and multifaceted career. Intentionally oddball structure abounds, and nonsensical lyrics delivered in Walker’s unmistakable baritone screech are juxtaposed with unpredictable arrangements. It’s a sometimes frustrating musical direction, trailing off in unforeseen and lingering turns, yet it never strays into the territory of boring. I think Bish Bosch is a brilliant, yet admittedly tough, listen and an essential December record which would ultimately have made a lot of year-end lists had it been released a bit sooner. I’m well aware that this one is going to be pretty polarizing, however, and very much expect a lot of people to regard it as practically unlistenable. Give it a spin and decide for yourself.
Check Out: ”Epizootics!,” which, clocking in at almost 10 minutes, has a tendency to stray into excess at points, but nonetheless is the sound of a very talented and spaced-out artist with a liberating absence of regard for how his art is perceived.
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T.I.- Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head [Grand Hustle/Atlantic]
Quick Take: Atlanta rapper T.I.’s last album, No Mercy (released in between two stints in prison), was competent, yet nowhere near the level of previous commercial and critical standouts King and Paper Trail. It seems like the rapper’s releases are stuck in the same pattern as the Star Trek films- the even releases are significantly stronger than the odds (See that? I just name-checked Star Trek in a T.I. review). In keeping with that pattern, Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head is an incredibly solid return to form from a reinvigorated T.I. Finally out of the litigious woods, and seemingly more at peace with his lifestyle, family, and outside business ventures, the record bears an air of increased clarity and assurance that was lacking on its predecesor. Trouble Man is not quite T.I. at the absolute top of his game, but with an outstanding panel of guests, more varied production than his releases typically tend to include, and the same self-assured southern swagger the MC is known for, it’s a lot of fun and rarely falters in its intensity or pacing. The biggest hip hop faux pas, perhaps, is how often the guests come close to overshadowing T.I. himself. Andre 3000 (always a welcome name to see on a track feature), Meek Mill, and A$AP Rocky all deliver their verses with such a confidence and fluidness, that you momentarily forget whose name comes first on their tracks. Despite those shortcomings, T.I. mostly holds his own on in welcome return to form which I hope is indicative of even better material to come.
Check Out: ”Sorry (feat. Andre 3000),” one of several standout tracks on Trouble Man. I’m recommending this as the one you’ve got to hear, mostly for the mind-blowingly good verse from Andre 3000- but T.I. holds his own on it as well.
BONUS: Chief Keef- Finally Rich [Interscope]
Why: Chief Keef first popped onto most people’s radar with the remix of his song “I Don’t Like” appearing on Kanye West/G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer compilation. The track also appears on Keef’s debut, sans West (and loses some of its luster without those star-studded guest spots). Finally Rich carries a lot of hype and, even beyond its best-known track, largely delivers. Thematically, it’s dark and sometimes troublesome- Keef’s disturbed worldview and distasteful notions extend well beyond the bounds of typical gangsta rap (but no worse than shock rappers like Odd Future regularly produce- the difference being Keef seems more sincere and less satirical). To be fair, Keef is a mere 17-years-old so we’re seeing the angst-ridden, complicated emotions of a young man thrust into a position of fame and influence. Themes aside, Keef’s knack for restrained, unique delivery perfectly matches the fairly top-notch production on Finally Rich and, overall, it really lands effectively. Check out the weed-inspired, Wiz Khalifa and 50 Cent-featuring “Hate Bein’ Sober” and stream the entire album on Spotify.
BONUS: Green Day- ¡Trè! [Reprise]
Why: The third and final release in a somewhat disappointing trilogy of studio albums, ¡Trè! hits closer to where a band like Green Day, at this point in their career, should. It’s not even that previous releases ¡Uno! and ¡Dos! were that bad, necessarily, but with a band capable of career high points like Dookie and the more recent American Idiot, they should be a operating at a much higher caliber at this point in the game. I’d like to chalk it up to overreaching ambition (the trilogy could have been trimmed down to one fairly solid output) and personal complications on frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s part. ¡Trè! is the strongest and most enjoyable of the bunch, but only time will tell if the group still has it in them to properly find their footing once more. Check out unabashedly catchy, yet still punk-tinged “99 Revolutions,” reminiscent of Green Day’s better days, and stream the entire album on Spotify.
BONUS: We Are Voices- Tread Lightly [self-released]
Why: We Are Voices have an incredible knack for crafting anthemic, melodic, and intelligent indie rock songs. On Tread Lightly, the band bounces from emotional, mellow, and layered (really showcasing singer Lucas Larson’s outstanding pipes) to driving, powerful, and moving indie romps. Hailing from Kasas City, it’s a bit shocking to see that We Are Voices are still fully independent. Tread Lightly is top-notch and refined in its production, and its appeal so broad yet substantial, that the band becoming a household name seems only a matter of time. This record is the perfect balance of artistry and accessibility, and I wholeheartedly recommend it! Check out the tastefully constructed, hypnotic, dynamic, and fantastically catchy jam “End“ and stream the entire album on Spotify.
We Are Voice will be performing at 12th & Porter in Nashville on Monday, March 11th. More details are available here.
BONUS: Time & Distance- On [EP] [self-released]
Why: I’m not exactly sure how to classify Time & Distance. They’ve been a band for a decade and came from a distinctly pop punk background, but On is definitely not a pop punk record. Alt rock? Powerpop? Rock and roll? The EP is a skillful and calculated merging of influences from a band who has spent many years, many tours, and several records honing the ability to craft the perfect hook. And On is full of not only hooks, but substance. Time & Distance were only somewhat on my radar previously, but if On is any indication of what the band capable of from here on out, I’m definitely paying attention. Check out the impossibly catchy, gut-wrenchingly honest, and primed for radio (if only radio was still kind to pop punk) “Little Disaster,” and stream the entire album on Spotify.
BONUS: Pat Maine- Doomsday Charades [Alive and Well]
Why: Though he hails from Salt Lake City, if I didn’t know better I’d swear Pat Maine was a product of the Minneapolis rap scene that brought us Atmosphere, P.O.S., and the Doomtree crew. Maine’s second full-length, Doomsday Charades is more focused, hard-hitting, and technically proficient than any of the MC’s previous output. The record meshes sharply delivered and poignant lyrics with mostly natural instrumentation (which, again, reminds me a lot of P.O.S.) in perfect balance. In a hip hop heavy month, Doomsday Charades is a worthy contendor and an underdog that deserves your attention. Check out the Dumb Luck, Sleep, and ECID-featuring, horn-laden, high-energy, fast rhyming track “A Monster,” and stream the entire album on Spotify.
HONORABLE MENTION: Merchandise- Children of Desire [Jagjaguwar]
Why: Children of Desire was officially released back in the spring (which is why it didn’t make my list proper) on small label Katorga Works. It’s an amazing (and completely overlooked) post-punk/new wavy output from a band of individuals who cut their teeth in the punk and hardcore scene. The label wasn’t able to keep up with physical product demand, so Jagjaguwar stepped in to newly wide release the fantastic album. If you missed it the first time around, I can’t recommend enough that you give it a listen! Check out the haunting, ambient, and sort of hard to classify single “Time” and download the entire record for FREE at Katorga Works.
Don’t forget to check out the December Release Spotlight, Part 2!