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Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pistol Annies - "Hush Hush"
There's a classically Nashville polish to "Hush Hush," where the twists and wordplay are almost too pat, just as the instrumentation and production is sweetly slick. But there's a joy in hearing everything fall into its right place, and the Pistol Annies wind up enlivening their craft with humor and a nice subversive streak that's hardly hidden. Plus, it's catchy as hell.
Brad Paisley - "Outstanding in Our Field"
Not yet released as a single, "Outstanding In Our Field" captures much of what makes Brad Paisley the best country singer/songwriter of his generation. He sticks to tradition but bends it to suit his purposes, sampling a Roger Miller classic for the song's big-beat rhythm, then writes a series of puns worthy of Miller, spiking it all with limber, muscular guitar — the kinds of runs that cause John Fogerty to claim Paisley as his guitar hero.
Blake Shelton - "Boys 'Round Here"
Cut out the "chew tobacco/chew tobacco/chew tobacco/spit" — a line so embarrassing it still causes me to cringe some 20, 30 plays later — and Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" is pretty much an impeccable modern redneck anthem, bullshits about Jesus while celebrating girls in short shorts and cold beer, all set to a white-trash loop obscured by Shelton's big boned swagger. Blake is too slick to be a real redneck, but the pageantry is part of the appeal: he's got genuine showbiz panache, acting like this glitzy anthem has grit, which means he makes it way more appealing than it has any right to be.
Queens of the Stone Age - "If I Had a Tail"
Many great Queens Of The Stone Age songs have an undertow of sexual menace, and "If I Had A Tail" is the song on …Like Clockwork with the darkest, sexiest undercurrent. What impresses is the restraint and also the groove: QOTSA denies and withholds, ratcheting up the tension, so when the song reaches its explosive coda there's a feeling of relief accompanying the pleasure.
Primal Scream - "It's Alright, It's OK"
It hearkens back to "Movin' On Up," which itself was an interpolation of "Love The One You're With," thereby making "It's Alright, It's OK" a mirror mind-warp, a refraction of a reflection that's intoxicating in its self-reverence. Primal Scream always preferred to play with the past, and that might be what makes "It's Alright, It's OK" feel so triumphant: they're laying claim on everything that came before, acting as the torchbearers for all that's right and true in rock & roll. And as this closing song on the excellent More Light plays, they're quite convincing.
Burnt Ones - “Fountain of Youth”
The San Francisco trio makes all kinds of garage noise on their debut album for Burger, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Paint-peeling noise, fuzzy noise, super distorted noise, psych-y noise...you name it, they shred it. Beneath the squealing clatter are some very strong pop hooks that break through the racket to imprint themselves firmly on your battered brain, with the chief moment of noise pop brilliance in “Fountain of Youth.” A melody straight off a DeFranco Family album, production right off a Times New Viking single, a bouncing beat lifted from First Class’ “Beach Baby”...they combine to form a Wonder Twins tight early summer jam.
Daft Punk & Paul Williams - "Touch"
Random Access Memories provided plenty of ear candy like "Get Lucky" and "Doin' It Right," but the album's heart lies in its weirder, longer tracks like the Paul Williams collaboration "Touch." In its eight-minute sweep, the song covers everything from a simmering disco beat and guitar, to honky tonk piano and brass, to a robot choir insisting "hold on/if love is the answer you want." However, Williams' naked, impassioned vocals are the real star of the show: As he moves from wondering "where do I belong?" to the tentative hope of "you've almost convinced me I'm real," he helps make "Touch" one of Daft Punk's most eloquent explorations of their emotional side, which began as an undercurrent on Discovery and came to the surface on Human After All.
Sam Sparro - “Happiness”
As Daft Punk proved with “Get Lucky,” old school disco and soul are alive and well in 2013. If the French duo’s take on Studio 54-inspired club music got you moving, then don’t stop there -- you absolutely have to hear Sam Sparro’s equally infectious cut, “Happiness.” The first single off his June-released album Return to Paradise, “Happiness” is a perfect balance of positive-minded ‘80s house and melodic ‘70s disco, all exuberantly gift wrapped in Sparro’s own urbane, deco-soul persona.
Fitz and the Tantrums - “6 A.M.”
Fitz and the Tantrums already stood out among the neo-soul crowd of 2010 with their distinctive dual-lead-vocal sound and catchy, organic productions. Since then, the band has hardly rested on their past deeds, updating that old-school sound with a keyboard-heavy, ‘80s new wave approach on 2013’s More Than Just a Dream. As the single “6 A.M.” proves, the combination is pure musical alchemy, and the band sounds as fresh as ever.
X Ambassadors - “Down With Me”
Most people have yet to discover X Ambassadors’ unique mix of moody rock and electronic soul. “Down With Me,” off the Brooklyn band’s superb debut EP Love Songs, Drug Songs, is a lush, funky, exotic, and eminently steamy romantic ballad that showcases lead singer Sam Harris’ darkly resonant croon.
Attic Lights - “Breathe For Me”
Scotland’s Attic Lights make the kind of breezy guitar pop that was a staple of AM radio in the ‘70s. They update this sound on their second album with songs like “Breathe For Me,” which find a balance between contemporary and retro sounds -- think Snow Patrol crossed with Teenage Fanclub.
Paramore - “Grow Up”
With an addictive, candy-coated single like “Still Into You” riding the charts, its easy to overlook how good the other tracks are on Paramore’s eponymous 2013 release. In particular, “Grow Up” displays just how well the band reinvented their sound, incorporating their emo-rock roots into a newly discovered love of ‘80s dance rock. Also, it’s worth mentioning that on an album filled with songs about how the band eventually got over their much publicized split with two original members, “Grow Up” is one of the best getting-on-with-your-life anthems.
Jimmy Eat World - “How’d You Have Me”
With 2001’s Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World helped define the emo-pop sound that would become so indelibly linked to teen angst. More than ten years on, older and wiser, they’ve returned with 2013’s Damage, yet another masterpiece full of broken-hearted anthems. While the songs here are more mature ruminations on relationships gone bad than the band's material a decade ago, as “How’d You Have Me” shows, the tunes are still as catchy and emotionally resonant as anything they came up with back in the day.
James Christopher Monger
Ghost - “Year Zero”
Firmly situated smack dab in the middle of their opulently evil sophomore long player Infestissumam, the fist-pumping "Year Zero," which begins with an old fashioned sing-along/demon casting call (Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer) and ends with the inevitable arrival of the bifurcated tail/cloven hoofed big guy himself ("Hail Satan, welcome Year Zero") is hardly subtle, but you've got to admit that the heavily face-painted, dandily hooded Swedish End Times enthusiasts sure do make the idea of eternal suffering sound a lot more fun than it probably actually is.
Sigur Rós – “Brennisteinn”
The first track of their seventh album, "Brennisteinn" finds Sigur Rós throwing gentle ambience out the window with a mournful and surging opening track. The kind of My Bloody Valentine-meets-industrial noise vibe that the track cultivates is a little surprising in its capacity to both enthrall and unsettle, making for one of the most perfect album openers from the last few months.
Saturday Looks Good to Me - “Break In”
Wistful, yet oddly cheery, this gem from Saturday Looks Good to Me has been a real earworm for me lately. Sure, most of SLGTM's songs tend to live on the catchy side of the fence, but I find myself pulling the needle back on this one every time I give the album a listen.
Mac Miller - “S.D.S”
While I'd argue that his debut, 2011's Blue Slide Park, is the better overall album, Mac Miller's sophomore effort, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, displays great growth and is the more artistically filling of the two efforts. That's a surprise, considering the guy once looked like the leading poster boy for "frat rap", but as this crooked and weird, Flying Lotus produced track displays, Mac barely fits in the category of "pop-rap" anymore. I totally dig it.
Amel Larrieux - “Afraid”
King's "In the Meantime," Philip Owusu's "Goodnight," Shafiq Husayn's "Reincarnation," Thundercat's "Without You," 1-O.A.K.'s "Stay with Me," Zo!'s "Count to Five," and Quadron's "It's Gonna Get You" have led a bounty of uplifting, left-of-center R&B that's surfaced during the last few months. Last week, Amel Larrieux made a surprise return with her own entry, a casually funky and lovestruck jam that touches down somewhere between Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" and Erykah Badu's "Honey." Dig the Blue Lights in the Basement look of the sleeve. The wait for the singer's fifth album -- Ice Cream Everyday, due this August on her Blisslife label -- just got tougher.
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