Neil Young
and Crazy Horse

  • Americana
  • Reprise

After a nine-year hiatus, Neil Young and Crazy Horse reunite for an album that explores songs from the American canon. Young researched each track, searching out its country of origin, earlier interpretations and lost passages in order to understand its emotional pull on multiple generations. From there he puts his own, very modern mark on the songs. Stephen Foster’s “O Susanna” rumbles with grinding electric guitar. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” takes on a decidedly socialist leaning, thanks to re-instated lyrics. The band plays it loose in the studio with lots of incidental noise and no over dubbing. (RMW)

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Fiona Apple

  • Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  • Epic

Like her life, which has seen struggles with eating disorders and OCD, Fiona Apple’s albums haven’t always been comfortable, quiet rides. However, don’t dismiss her fourth, The Idler Wheel, as just a messy album from an eccentric musician. Apple has the ability to write pop songs, but as she states in the album’s opening cut: “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Looking for freedom from everyone (including her label), the album was recorded in secret with drummer Charley Drayton. Sparse production aside, this is not background music, with each song begging and deserving your attention. (CH)

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Father John Misty

  • Fear Fun
  • Sub Pop

Ex-Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman struck out on his own (he was already a singer/songwriter in his own right prior to joining Foxes) and rechristened himself professionally as “Father John Misty.” Some of Fear Fun’s tracks tend towards an almost cartoonish brand of folk-tinged indie rock: exaggerated in some respects, but usually with a heart or portend that keeps the bigness of the gestures in check. That said, the musicianship is fine, the songwriting fascinating and the melodies will stay with you. (MS)

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Patti Smith

  • Banga
  • Columbia

Patti Smith’s thirst for knowledge broaches many disciplines and cultures and weaves through her music. Conceived during a sea cruise with film director Jean Luc Godard, Banga draws inspiration from the Russian poets Mikel Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol, as well as the exploits of Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci and the works of Saint Francis. Smith offers a personal homage to the late film actress Maria Schneider and another song for singer Amy Winehouse. “Fuji-san” is a prayerful response to Japan’s recent tsunami. Smith is joined by her band, Johnny Depp, Tom Verlaine and her children, Jesse and Jackson Smith. (RMW)

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Simone Felice

  • Simone Felice
  • Team Love

Simone Felice is a fine solo debut from the former Felice Brothers band member (currently also in The Duke & The King). Felice veers capably between energetic clap-alongs like “You and I Belong” and stark ruminations of humanity’s dark side as in “Charade.” (Truth be told, the clap-alongs are few and far between on this somber and often-morbid release.) Few songs of 2012 feature lyrics as striking as “New York Times,” a shell-shocked indictment of modern madness. It’s an album that is frequently captivating and makes one feel Felice is a talent whose development demands close watching. (MS)

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Heartless Bastards

  • Arrow
  • Partisan

Erika Wennerstrom is the driving force behind The Heartless Bastards, a band that plays like they’re under the rock revival tent. For Arrow they team with Spoon drummer Jim Eno, and expand from a trio to four-piece. This release is crunchier than past releases with roots in classic driving bluesy-rock. Wennerstrom’s powerful vocals are the distinguishing factor here, and she’s growing more at ease in her delivery. “Parted Ways,” a song of heartbreak, sets the pace both musically and lyrically. “You Gotta Have Rock n Roll” could be a nod to T. Rex. Arrow is Heartless Bastard’s most cohesive release to date. (KS)

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Amadou & Mariam

  • Folila
  • Nonesuch

The idea of the collaboration album seems overused these days, but occasionally an artist and their musical “friends” get together to create something special. Enter Amadou & Mariam, the blind couple from Mali, who already collaborated with Manu Chao and Damon Albarn. On Folila (meaning “music” in the couple’s native tongue), the duo collaborate with rising stars of the indie rock and hip-hop world, including TV on the Radio and Santigold. The collaborations are so nicely integrated into Amadou & Mariam’s sound; if the guest artists weren’t mentioned in the track listing, you might not know they were on the album. (BMS)

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Blitzen Trapper

  • American Goldwing
  • Sub Pop

Blitzen Trapper have been around long enough to churn out six albums of quality, smart, indie-pop-rock. Their latest effort is more refined and sports a classic country feel that merges with their harder edges. Think Creedence Clearwater Revival meets Pavement. American Goldwing is aptly named, as it bears the name of a motorcycle meant for long hauls over open roads. The release is the perfect highway or dirt road companion, with its mixture of twang, sing-along melodies, magnified by great songwriting from Eric Earley. Like that motorcycle, this band is in for the long haul, producing great music year after year. (KS)

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John Mayer

  • Born and Raised
  • Columbia

John Mayer’s fifth studio album leans more towards the singer/songwriter’s folk-pop balladry of his roots instead of his more rock-oriented releases, but Mayer still strikes a good balance between his past styles. Now, in his mid-30s, Mayer is grappling with who he is as a person and what he wants to be as a performer. The songwriting is skilled and the vocals are sharp, despite a serious throat ailment besetting the singer during the making of the album. Musical assistance from such talents as David Crosby, Graham Nash, Chuck Leavell and Sara Watkins help to expand the sound. (MS)

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First Aid Kit

  • The Lion’s Roar
  • Wichita

The sophomore album by this Swedish duo of college-age sisters displays a remarkable mastery of folk-rock styles. The plaintive songwriting is sometimes augmented by dusty steel guitar or a string section, but the Söderberg sisters’ lovely harmonies are always and appropriately the focal point. Many of the songs deal with relationships, but First Aid Kit just as effectively portray their narratives in everyday imagery as they use a backdrop of great country music pairings, such as in “Emmylou.” Produced by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, the album’s blend of classic folk, country and indie rock is intriguing and often entrancing. (MS)

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Ingrid Michaelson

  • Human Again
  • Cabin 24/Mom+Pop

Human Again marks a change in Ingrid Michaelson’s attitude. Instead of her usual sweet, sad love songs, she offers a steelier front. She’s ready to fight for her emotional ground and she’s brought an army with her – a studio full of musicians. The album sparkles with gorgeous melodies, hyper string arrangement and a new dynamism in vocal arrangements. Michaelson states: “I feel like it's time to stand up and really sing. [This record] is fiercer and not as childlike.” It shows in her use of metaphor, describing emotional damage as scarring physical injury. Despite the blunt force, Michaelson retains her sense of intimacy. (CH)

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