Dar Williams

  • In the Time of Gods
  • Razor & Tie

Dar Williams masterfully blends folk melodies with pop production on an evocative new album that finds inspiration in Greek mythology and contemporary social issues. Producer Kevin Killen gathered a seasoned group of rock musicians to help mold the songs; and Rob Hyman (The Hooters) graciously offered his home studios and keyboard services. The album’s arrangements range from the superb pop of “Summer Child” to the Appalachian romp of “You Will Ride With Me Tonight.” Williams’ voice is inspired and emotionally resonant. She imbues passion into songs chronicling the roots of religious zealotry to poignant ballads of familial devotion. (RMW)

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JD McPherson

  • Signs and Signifiers
  • Rounder

Many artists have tried to re-create the magic of early rock n’ roll and have completely missed the mark. Former school teacher and punk rocker JD McPherson combines the feel of early Little Richard and Elvis with the swing of New Orleans on his debut Signs and Signifiers. Authentic is the word that continually comes to mind when listening to the analog recorded album. In the process of creating a workable collusion of Blues, Rockabilly, swing and vintage rock n’ roll, JD and his band put a new spin on the music, created their own sound, rather than recreating one. (KS)

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Norah Jones

  • Little Broken Hearts
  • Blue Note

Norah Jones teams up with producer Brian Burton, aka, Danger Mouse, for a highly stylized pop album that glistens with pristine production and textured layers. Co-writing with Burton, Jones mines the rage and despair of a broken love affair as the foundation for confessional songs, but also allows for moments of levity. While she stays mainly in the mid-tempo range, the momentum of Little Broken Hearts is built on Burton’s inter-mingling instrumentation and electronically altered vocals. Jones eschews the piano jazz of her early career, opting instead to experiment with electronic pop that hints at underpinnings of country and folk. (RMW)

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Beth Orton

  • The Sugaring Season
  • Anti

There is something quintessentially British about Beth Orton’s music. Like mist, her melodies rise from the Isles’ folk legacy and her language carries the cadence of the bards. Her voice, like well-steeped tea, is steeling with a slightly bitter bass honeyed by sweet tones. Stepping away from the “folktronica” that distinguished her career, here Orton and producer Tucker Martine opt for mostly acoustic arrangements. In addition to a variety of acoustic guitars, her songs feature violin, viola, cello, banjo, harmonium, pump organ, Wurlitzer, piano and accordion. Orton’s mood is generally thoughtful and optimistic with a sunny domestic bent. (RMW)

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The Wallflowers

  • Glad All Over
  • Columbia

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, say The Wallflowers. Following a seven-year hiatus, Jacob Dylan, keyboardist Rami Jaffee and bassist Greg Richling realized they missed making music together. Joining forces with new members, drummer Jack Irons and guitarist Stuart Keys, the band headed into the studio to record live. Glad All Over is a raucous affair with high energy vocals, revitalized playing, and absolutely no ballads. Mick Jones of The Clash appears on two reggae-tinged tracks. Dylan is a smart, loquacious lyricist. He and the band co-write the music as a unit, the first time they have done so. (RMW)

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Bonnie Raitt

  • Slipstream
  • Redwing

Bonnie Raitt’s latest album, the first on her own label, was recorded in two sections. The first recordings feature producer Joe Henry and a stellar line-up of studio musicians. Henry’s style is deliberate with mid-tempo rhythms and attention to detail. Henry wrote songs for Raitt and chose others that highlight her early blues roots. The second session was recorded at Ocean Way Studio with her long-time band. For this portion of the record, Raitt switches tempos and moods, tearing into tracks that leap from blues to rock to reggae. Bob Dylan, Gerry Rafferty, and Maia Sharp are some of Raitt’s favored songwriters. (RMW)

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Bruce Springsteen

  • Wrecking Ball
  • Columbia

Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s populist view of America as well as a harangue on economic inequality. Springsteen comes close to bellicose as he rages against the machine. “We Take Care of Our Own” is both rock anthem and a call for solidarity among the working class. It sets a defiant tone for other songs about the struggle of the working class. Springsteen mixes genres from epic rock, to activist folk, to vibrant gospel, while coloring the canvas with hues of Celtic, mariachi and rap. Appearances by E Street band members highlight the release, including the late Clarence Clemons. (RMW)

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Beach House

  • Bloom
  • Sub Pop

The fourth album from this Baltimore “Dream Pop” duo takes you to another world. Driven by the sweet, reverb-drenched vocals of Victoria Legrande, the group has just gotten better and better with each album. But, their music is more than just “dreamy,” it’s pastoral with catchy hooks and some beautiful layers of keyboards and drum machines (provided by Alex Scully). Beach House also leaves room for experimentation, and has found a subtle way to slip these moments in without freaking out the listener. This is definitely a band to keep an ear on. (BMS)

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Andrew Bird

  • Break It Yourself
  • Mom+Pop

After a flirtation with guitar as lead instrument, Break It Yourself returns the violin to the forefront of Andrew Bird’s music. His classical training is apparent, but so is his ability to use the instrument as a folk, jazz or rock instrument. It’s plucked, bowed, strummed, looped and distorted. The competing genres bleed through songs, making the progress of the album unpredictable. Glockenspiel and saxophone meander through acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. Bird’s trademark whistling is integral to his sound, adding contrast to his violin. Lyrically, he leans toward the metaphorical although relationships are the underlying theme. (RMW)

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Band of Horses

  • Mirage Rock
  • Columbia

The Band of Horses of 2012 is not the same band it was when they released their debut six years ago. Gone is the band’s then-trademark reverb, as well as most of the original members – leaving Ben Bridwell as the group’s mastermind and primary songwriter. Mirage Rock (my favorite album title this year) finds the band doing what they do best, as they jump among genres from track to track. From CSNY-style acoustic tracks to angry rockers, this album shows a band trying to find their footing while not making the same album over and over again. (BMS)

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