Flipping through this summer’s world music charts, one can’t help but mourn the insipidity of current mainstream offerings. Whether it’s a horde of gangsta rap and over-sexualized hip-hop, domesticated rock or the endless sea of formulaic, bubble-gum Arabic pop, major releases – with the exception of Coldplay’s unexpected return with “Viva La Vida – have failed to present any revelatory discoveries or excite the masses.
Flipping through the lesser-known releases of 2008, I was amazed to find several exceptional albums. Established bands like Goldfrapp, My Morning Jacket and Panic at the Disco changed gear with their new successful LPs, while Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes proved there’s a mass appeal for new, unconventional sounds.
The following list is comprised mostly of slightly obscure titles that went off the radar this summer. A bunch of these titles are popular chart-toppers, but have not received the credit they deserve. All albums though should provide a retreat from the noise of the fading summer and, possibly, an evening of great undiscovered music.
10) Joan as Police Woman – To Survive
Joan Wasser follows her 2005 angry debut “Real Life with a softer, confessional record. Combining the classic soul of Nina Simone with the rock experimentations of Sonic Youth, Wasser has crafted an intimate, thoughtful album that veers between guarded optimism (“Holiday, “Magpies ) and overpowering dejection (“To Survive, “To America ).
Best of all is “To Be Loved, a hymn of crushing tenderness and frightening vulnerability about loneliness and the impossibility of love.
9) Ratatat – LP3
An electronic album for those who don’t like electronic music, the New York duo’s third album doesn’t mark a big departure from their previous efforts. What it does though is expand the parameters of their soundescape, blending lo-fi electronica with sharp rock lines. Ballads like “Shiller and “Black Heroes perfectly accommodate the upbeat euphoria of “Falcon Jab and “Mirando. LP3 is a highly original, vivacious album equally perfect for chilled-out late night driving or partying.
8) She and Him – Volume One
Actress Zooey Deschanel and country-folk singer M Ward have combined forces to produce arguably the sweetest album of the year. Deschanel have written a charming collection of pop folk songs that feels like a soundtrack to an American 50s teen flick. Nearly every track, from the lovely, embracing “Sentimental Heart to the midnight crooning of “Take It Back, brim with saccharine. Playful, nostalgic and addictively buoyant.
7) Kathleen Edwards – Ask the Flowers
Following her two previous stunning albums, the Canadian alternative country singer/songwriter turns it up a notch for her new confident, lively record. Straight love songs are not abundant as in previous records, as Edwards delves into more serious territories in the form of “Alicia Ross, inspired by a true story of a murdered teenager, and “Oh Canada, a blazing critique of the injustices in her hometown. Edwards’ strength lies in her big, catchy choruses and Flowers contains two magnificent examples: “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory and “Oil Man’s War.
6) Spiritualized – Songs in A&E
Following their last disappointing record “Amazing Grace in 2003, Jason Pierce and co. make an extraordinary comeback with one of the strongest albums of their career. Pierce wrote the majority of the tracks while suffering from a near fatal pneumonia. No surprise then that the shadow of death looms largely over several songs, including the chilling “Death Take Your Fiddle. The greatest asset of the band’s sixth long player though is its diversity, both thematically and musically. From the Jesus and the Mary Chain-like hard rockers “I Gotta Fire and “You Lie to Cheat to the soothing gospel harmonies of “Sweet Talk and “The Waves Crash In,
Pierce has created an album of sublime beauty, keeping his overblown orchestrations to a minimum without sacrificing the grand powerfulness of the band’s sound.
5) Doveman – Footloose
While searching through the record collection of his deceased half-sister, art illustrator Gabriel Greenberg came across the 80s soundtrack of the Kevin Bacon starrer “Footloose. Greenberg consequently would ask famous New York keyboard player Thomas Bartlett to cover the entire album. The final outcome is nothing less of a surprise, a quiet, piano-driven record of captivating fragility about love, loss, desire and pain. Few of the soundtrack’s famous classics bear any resemblance to the original tunes.
Greenberg have sucked out the funk and ostentatious production values of the 80s, stripping down the songs to their core melodies. The album is almost flawless, but the majestic “Let’s Hear It for the Boy is the clear standout track.
4) Mohammed Mounir – Taam El Beyout
This is not exactly an obscure album. Mounir’s long awaited, much-hyped bestseller has been immediately snatched by his legions of fans upon release, only to disappear rapidly from charts. Critical reaction has been mixed, and it doesn’t indeed measure up to Mounir’s greatest records. After repeated listens though, “El Beyout gradually reveals the many rewards it holds for the listener. Mounir’s quintessential social and political subtext isn’t as intense as in previous records. His lyrics remain focused and poetic while his voice is crispier than ever. Production is superb, dabbling with electronic pop sensibilities of the 90s in the title track and mixing Egyptian folk with touches of country and blues in “Yabo El Ta’iyya. Mounir bears his soul with live favorites “Kan Fadel and “Soaal, but opening track “Yunis is the one that steals the limelight, an anthem of freedom and possession based on the folk tale of Abu Zied El Hilaly.
3) Paul Weller – 22 Dreams
The Modfather returns with an epic double album of new material. For one of the most prolific artists of our time, Weller has tackled every genre out there, and there isn’t anything drastically different in 22 Dreams. The album is essentially a retrospect of Weller’s long career, featuring several high-profile cameos by the likes of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and Blur’s former guitarist Graham Coxon. Weller’s sound remains brisk and fresh 30 years since his legendary debut with The Jam. The album encompasses everything from the psychedelic rock in “Echoes Round the Sun, the RnB tainted “Cold Moments, the jazzy “Invisible to the straight piano ballads of “One Bright Star and “Where’er Ye Go. 22 Dreams feels like a warm meeting with an old friend; you probably know what to expect, but you still enjoy every minute of it.
2) Jacaszek – Treny
This is not an album for the faint-hearted. Polish artist Michael Jacaszek sophomore record digs deep into the heart of darkness, unleashing a melancholic collage of instrumental compositions that gives the likes of The Cure, The Smiths and Nine Inch Nails a run for their money. Jacaszek’s slow trance beats envelopes his graceful classical melodies that rely mainly on cello and violin. The result is an album of heart-stopping beauty, elevated by weeping vocals employed as an additional instrument. Take a listen to the album’s finest cut, “Lament, on Jacaszek’s MySpace page; a track so sad, so haunting like nothing else you’ll listen to all year long.
1) Tom Waits – Live at Atlanta’s Fox Theater
This is actually not an album. Live at Atlanta’s Fox Theater is a podcast of Waits’ current tour, available at npr.org. The name of Waits’ tour, Glitter and Doom, says it all. Live at Atlanta is a showcase of the artist at zenith of his creativity 35 years since his trademark gruffly voice shook the airwaves; a tremendously entertaining evening clocking almost two and a half hours.
Everything is here, from fan favorites “Falling Down, “Singapore and “Anywhere I Lay My Head to neo-classics like “All the World is Green and “Hoist that Rag. His growling voice is on full display; the frequent interplays between each song remain morbidly amusing; his peculiar, hapless loners still dazzle. More than anything though, his
atmospheric settings, dark anecdotes and dynamic jazz, rock and vaudeville sound makes his concerts feel like a late evening at a secluded 70s cabaret, exemplified chiefly in the woos the united audiences cried out during “Lie to Me. Listening to this rare podcast may not match attending the concert, but it’s the next best thing.
You can listen and download the Tom Waits’ Live at Atlanta’s Fox Theater at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92916923.