Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astrology (Barsuk)
I know it's early, but this sure feels like the album of the year. In fact, I'm even ready to crown this the power pop album of the decade. Oh, there's an occasional ballad ("When I Was Young" is especially notable) that reminds of Matthew Caws's twee side, but mostly this rocks out, with guest Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices, Cobra Verde, Death of Samantha, etc.) an important presence -- that wild guitar on "Teenage Dreams" has gotta be him. Rarely has bittersweet sounded so tough. Nada Surf's made lots of excellent albums, but this is their best yet. A limited edition version comes with a second disc containing acoustic versions of five of the album's songs.
Sharon van Etten: Tramp (Jagjaguwar)
I understood why van Etten was a Brooklyn indie fave already based on her earlier releases: she sang like an acrobatic angel and wrote fascinating lyrics. But singer-songwriters have to write good songs, and on that count she fell short for me; on her previous full-length, there was one, perhaps two if I'm generous. Well, she gets over that hurdle here -- and how! The production is more aggressive as well, less folkie, more indie rock, and that puts a more appropriate frame around her powerful singing.
Van Halen: A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope)
If you want to like this album, it's not that difficult. (Can't say "it's not hard," because if there's anything this album is, it's hard.) Most of all, of course, there's the return of David Lee Roth, plus enough hot solos by Eddie that most fans will not be disappointed. Once past the atrocious first track, "Tattoo," the rest of the songs are decent enough, but only "Blood and Fire," "Outta Space," and perhaps the bluesy "Stay Frosty" (nice acoustic picking by EVH in the intro; yes, that recalls "Ice Cream Man," but the playing here is better) are worthy of their canon. Non-fanatics will have to deal with the nagging feeling that there's no ambition here other than recapturing past glory (or, if you're feeling cynical, past sales figures), which might be why so often one is reminded of their earlier and better songs (try listening to "Big River" without thinking of "Running with the Devil" -- it's impossible). Nonetheless, as reunion albums go, this is better than most on its own terms, and if you're choosing between this or Chickenfoot, it's an easy win for Eddie and Dave.
Jakob Olausson: Morning and Sunrise (De Stijl)
Until I researched this online, I assumed it was a rare 40-year-old outsider psych-folk private pressing, like the Gary Higgins reissue of a few years back. Nope, it's current. Olausson is a Swedish beet farmer (not "beat," "beet"), and this is his second album. But he or the label certainly seems to be aiming for that mystique, what with the bare-bones packaging that's so uninformative that it's practically a tabula rasa on which we can write our own assumptions and hopes. For instance, is this a one-man-band or are other musicians intermittently involved? Can't tell: the playing is so rudimentary that even on what sound like band tracks, it could all be overdubbed. (Is the pre-track studio chatter on "Engraved Invitation" real or a red herring?) The singing's pretty rudimentary as well (imagine Randy Jackson saying, "Yo dawg, kinda pitchy"), and the lyrics are more like mantras. Yet that feeling of primal DIY is part of the charm of this style, and as Olausson builds up sinuous layers of acoustic and electric guitars and overdubs multiple voice parts -- and sometimes goes no further than that -- he also weaves a magical spell.
Juancho Herrera: Banda (Juancho Herrera)
Singer/guitarist Herrera, now based in New York, is from Venezuela and Colombia, but the influences here go far beyond those borders. Not only does he also reference Peruvian festejo, Cuban changüí, bolero, merengue, and funk, he throws in some African guitar stylings as well. And, playing with the cream of NYC's Latin jazz community -- keyboardist Jason Lindner, vocalist Claudia Acuña, saxophonist/clarinetist Anat Cohen, bassist Ben Zwerin (Nouvelle Vague), drummer Yayo Serka (Lila Downs), and many others -- his lilting original songs (only one track is a traditional tune) have a jazzy sophistication. "Salta" in particular is harmonically active, at first recalling some of Nana Vasconcelos's work with Pat Metheny but soon building up a much edgier, more driving groove complete with an abrasive Lindner synth solo. I don't understand a word Herrera sings, but his tuneful melodies, sweet vocals, and versatile, virtuoso guitar licks have a universal appeal.
Mike Doughty: The Question Jar Show (Snackbar)
This offers the best between-songs spoken bits on a double live album since Nighthawks at the Diner 37 years ago. Doughty's answers to fans' questions are often hilarious, and sometimes revealing, even touching. But, of course, the songs are what matter, and hearing them in this stripped-down context -- just the singer/guitarist and cellist Andrew "Scrap" Livingston -- puts them in a new light. Doughty's arranging and production on his albums has often been so distinctive that it's almost overshadowed what a good songwriter he is; there's no overlooking that talent here.
A Place to Bury Strangers: Onwards to the Wall (Dead Oceans)
This five-song EP isn't going to make the Joy Division comparisons any less common (though this Brooklyn band's always been more than another copycat outfit). After 2009's marginally more polished Exploding Head, this marks a return to their earlier, rawer sound, but with the keenly honed songcraft of Exploding Head retained -- the perfect combination.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul Time! (Daptone)
Collecting songs not previously on any of their full-length albums -- singles, compilation/benefit/soundtrack one-ofs, etc. -- this snuck out in the middle of December to hardly any notice. Retro-soul fans shouldn't miss it -- Jones's powerful, sassy vocals and the Dap-Kings' authentic funk stylings are as good here as on their better-known, better-distributed material, and their cover of Shuggy Otis's "Inspiration Information" is a must-have. But for a cut more representative of their trademark sound, I'm going with "Genuine, Pt. 1."
The Twilight Sad: No One Can Ever Know (Fat Cat)
Suggested alternate title: No One Will Ever Guess It's Us. After years of shimmering shoegaze, this Glasgow band emphasizes cold synths instead of guitars and draws on a slightly earlier '80s sound (let's call it post-post-punk) that's harsher and edgier. Asobi Seksu made a similar move last year, but this is more beat-focused and more industrial. If you thought singer James Graham sounded alienated before, well, he ups the ante here. The band's knack for darkly nagging riffs fits just as well in this new context, and as much of a shoegaze fan as I am, I find the new sound even more compelling.
- Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle Songs of Mortality, setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo, is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.