Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color: You already know Alabama Shakes as 2013’s Best New Artist at the Grammys and one of the most buzzed-about indie bands in years. But on their follow-up, Sound & Color, it’s pretty clear we didn’t know Alabama Shakes at all. Not content to just ride the Jack White-meets- Adele, retro-soul sound that got them here, Brittany Howard and company are apparently out to prove they can’t be fit into a box. Sound & Color is shadowy and complex, taking on a sound that sometimes recalls the late-70s eras of Led Zeppelin or the Stones without ever sounding like a mess. The songs become more ambitious as the album plays on, highlighted here by “Gimme All Your Love,” which goes from a slow groove to a speedy prog-rock romp by the coda. And then there are quieter moments like “Guess Who” that show that a band willing to do far more than just rock out. It’s an album that’s all over the place, without sounding all-over-the-place.
Alabama Shakes – “Gimme All Your Love”
Villagers – Darling Arithmetic: On the opposite side of the spectrum comes the new one from Villagers. Dublin songwriter Conor O’Brien has put out two Mercury Prize-nominated albums to date, but those were more grandiose affairs. Darling Arithmetic is more intimate—O’Brien personally recorded each and every instrument in his own home—and much more searing, examining questions of self-identity in romance both from the universal perspective and through the lens of a man newly open in his sexual identity. Lyrically, “Courage” and “Little Bigot” most starkly speak to the album’s theme, but I love two other tracks, “Dawning On Me” and “The Soul Serene,” even more—for the way they speak to everyday feelings with deceptively simple songwriting.
Villagers – “The Soul Serene”
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit: Australia’s Courtney Barnett may be the cynical millennial’s answer to Bob Dylan. Another rising star in indie circles, Barnett’s 2014 “double-EP” album earned her plenty of praise on this site and elsewhere. That was just a warm-up, though, because Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is a complete breakthrough. Still marrying her trademark smart-ass storytelling with driving early 90s guitar sounds, you’d expect a certain slacker aesthetic to it all—and don’t worry, there’s a bit of that. But underlying that is a fine-tuned attention to craft that signals Barnett may be destined for greater things. Full of humor, bitterness, and subtle wisdom, there’s just too much to love about Barnett’s music. Keep an ear on her.
Courtney Barnett – “Small Poppies”
The Wombats – Glitterbug: God knows this site loves Britpop. So the timing is perfect to take a first listen to Liverpool’s The Wombats, who are doing their best to put the “pop” back into the genre on Glitterbug. With an obviously teen-friendly sound, you’ll just have to forgive them for track names like “Emoticons,” “This Is Not A Party,” and “Your Body Is A Weapon.” This isn’t music for the Oxford and Cambridge crowds, and it doesn’t aspire to be. It’s just high-energy party music for those who still think there’s a place for guitars underneath all the sugary beats. And hey, there are far worse ways to start your career than being a bubble-gum pop band from Liverpool.
The Wombats – “Emoticons”
Say Lou Lou – Lucid Dreaming: Staying in the pop vein, Say Lou Lou come from a slightly different lineage. Twin sisters Miranda and Elektra Kilbey-Jansson are the daughters of members of the cult 80s alternative band, The Church, and the Swedish new wave group, Pink Champagne. If that sentence weren’t confusing enough, it actually goes a great way toward describing their sound: indie synth-pop with a heavy melodic flair and just the right amount of darkness. You’ll hear notes of everything from My Bloody Valentine to Coldplay on Lucid Dreaming, but unlike The Wombats, this one won’t leave a sickeningly sweet aftertaste in your mouth.
Say Lou Lou – “Beloved”
The Staves – If I Was: I dismissed The Staves after one listen to their 2012 debut, Dead & Born & Grown. They felt like just another bland acoustic folk band, the kind we must inevitably suffer through in the wake of The Civil Wars and The Lumineers. Then I heard If I Was, and I take it all back. Both the songwriting and the production have taken huge strides on this sophomore effort, and no doubt some of the credit for that lies with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who produced the record. But give credit also to the talents of the three Staveley-Taylor sisters, who definitely show the ambition to be something greater than the sum of their parts, with fuller instrumentation and songs that take surprising turns away from just folk and into a broader musical palette. If only I were wrong this often.
The Staves – “Blood I Bled”