My Life An Album A Year: Rock/Pop/Soul/etc.


As I wrote when I did this for jazz, my 50th birthday on March 29 put me in a retrospective mood. But rather than make lists of favorite albums that would cluster around my formative years (lots of '70s and '80s stuff), I decided to go a year at a time for a more nuanced and less obvious set of albums. Of course, I wasn't listening to any music at first, and not to albums until 1969, but we all discover some music not when it comes out, but years later when we explore territory new to us, and this list reflects that. Starting in the '80s, though, most of my choices do match my listening at that time.

1961 - Frank Sinatra: Ring-a-Ding Ding (Reprise)

Sinatra’s declaration of independence: his first album on his own label, and a rejection of the concept-album stricture that Capitol had been so big on. This is Frank at his brassiest and ballsiest. The man could flat-out sing rings around all the white pop competition

1962 - Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume Two (ABC-Paramount)

About as audacious a move as anyone could have made in 1962: Soul singer sings Country songs. But Ray Charles could make “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sound like a masterpiece, so with material as good as "Take These Chains from My Heart" it was brilliant.

1963 - Johnny Cash: Blood, Sweat and Tears (Columbia)

Cash embraced the concept album; this one contains songs about the American working man. His "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" is one of the very best takes on that classic.

1964 - Dionne Warwick: Make Way for Dionne Warwick(Scepter)

On her third album, Warwick struck gold with not only “Walk on By,” one of the greatest pop songs, but also “A House Is Not a Home,” "(You'll Never Get to Heaven) If You Break My Heart," and “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” all by the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach & Hal David.

1965 - The Beatles: Rubber Soul (Parlophone/EMI)

The Beatles had been quickly evolving since their big breakthrough the previous year, and Rubber Soul, their sixth album, was a new kind of rock album, vastly more sophisticated – in spite of the fact that it had been made in a rush in one month in order to get an album out in time for Christmas. The first stirrings of their nascent psychedelia can be heard.

1966 - Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)

The first double album in rock history gets off to an initially exhilarating but eventually annoying start with the raucous “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” then settles into some of the most adventurous songwriting of the time, not least the ode to his wife, Sara Lownds: “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is over 11 minutes and is the sole track on the album’s fourth and final side.

1967 - Buffalo Springfield: Again (Atco)

True, the first Velvet Underground ended up being more historically important, but did it have a song as brilliant and beautiful as “Expecting to Fly”? No. As a rabid Neil Young fan, I loved Buffalo Springfield more than the Beatles, and this was the quintet’s best album and the first great peak in his long career.

1968 - Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland (Reprise)

My favorite psychedelic album. Hendrix seems to be most lionized as a guitarist, but his songwriting was amazing too (which might be why some jazz musicians, especially Gil Evans, have arranged his songs). “My arrows are made of desire.”

1969 - Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica (Straight)

Beefheart invented a new musical language, and this was its first great manifestation. I go on about it at some length here.

1970 - Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros.)

My introduction to Van the Man. I fixated on the keyboards of Jeff Labes and scatted along with his and alto saxophonist Jack Schrorer’s solos on the title track. It was probably the first time I appreciated the importance of sidemen.

1971 - Sly & the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic)

Some have said that this is where the optimism of the hippies turned sour. There’s a certain amount of that, but it seems more like Sly withdrew into himself, made the album essentially by himself rather than with the band, and this insularity freaked people out. But it was a revolutionary sound, not least the frequent use of a drum machine, which emphasized that insularity. Once on a first date I rhapsodized about this album so much that it freaked out the woman. Oh well, anybody who can’t get Sly won’t get me either.

1972 - Yes: Close to the Edge (Atlantic)

I took this out of my local public library and was dazzled. Even the album art: the gatefold packaging that opened to reveal Roger Dean’s iconic picture of a flooded plateau. The completely untraditional song structures were mind-expanding. Did the lyrics make any sense? Not really, but they seemed to make something beyond sense, which was a neat trick. And for all the density and complexity of the music, it still had enough catchy moments to not seem forbidding.

1973 - Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (ABC)

These guys seemed like the height of cynical sophistication: jazzy chords, jaw-drop inducing instrumental chops, witty lyrics, a sort of grim nostalgia heavily flavored with ennui. I can’t tell you how many times I gradually turned up the volume at the end of “My Old School” to counter the fadeout in the middle of the song’s third killer guitar solo by (probably) Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (the wild harmonics in the second one make it the best).

1974 - Neil Young: On the Beach (Reprise)

I bought this album by mistake, having carelessly and rather ridiculously assumed, based on the album title, that this was where I would find “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Best mistake I ever made. At the time I was sorta disappointed; eventually it became my favorite Neil LP. Side two’s mournfully droning trilogy of the title track, “Motion Pictures,” and “Ambulance Blues” was often the soundtrack when I hit the period where indulging in self-pity became a favorite pastime. “You’re all just pissin’ in the wind / You don’t know it, but you are.”

1975 - Tower of Power: Urban Renewal (Warner Bros.)

True, the sheer overwhelming exuberance of Springsteen’s Born to Run was irresistible, kick-started my love for anthemic rock, and was my favorite at the time. But once I got to college and connected with funk via freshman roommate Marc Capelle’s LP collection (Marc eventually became a member of Mark Eitzel’s band and then American Music Club), Urban Renewal became an all-time favorite. Lenny Williams’s soulful vocals, the super-grooving rhythm section, and the honking horns made this the band’s best album.

1976 - Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)

The peak of Joni’s jazzy period, its sound defined as much by Jaco Pastorius’s sinuously melodic bass lines and the lush chording of Mitchell’s strumming as by her acrobatic vocals and highly personal lyrics. For a lovelorn teenager, this was a cathartic listening experience that culminated in the epic resignation of “Refuge of the Roads”: “It was all so light and easy / Till I started analyzing.” And, oh yeah, Joni’s perfect cheekbones, windswept blonde hair, and hip beret on the surreal album cover.

1977 - Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca)

At the time, my favorite album of 1978 was, like a lot of people, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Soon after, I caught up with the Sex Pistols and recognized the importance of Never Mind the Bollocks (and my band covered “Submission”). But the 1977 album that I have probably played the most over the years is Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, by a wide margin. Possibly the funkiest album ever, especially the anthemic closer “Flash Light.”

1978 - Wire: Chairs Missing (Harvest)

At the time, my favorite album of 1978 was Todd Rundgren’s The Hermit of Mink Hollow, but within two years I’d discovered Wire and Chairs Missing’s new post-punk sound. Sometimes it displays the headlong momentum of their punkier debut, Pink Flag ("Men 2nd"); sometimes it’s perfect pop (“Outdoor Miner,” complete with harmony vocals); mostly it suggests nothing so much as extremely concise and stripped down art-rock of witty abrasiveness (“I Am the Fly”). I love it dearly.

1979 - The Fall: Live at the Witch Trials (Castle/Sanctuary [originally Step Forward])

One of the great debut albums. This lineup of the band didn’t last long, and the keyboards that are equal with the guitars would soon be gone, which is why this is still my favorite album by Mark E. Smith’s ever-shifting crew. This was punk that, while embracing the genre’s enthusiastic amateurism, leaned heavily on Krautrock influences, but replacing Krautrock’s mushy mysticism with hard-edged and hard-earned political cynicism.

1980 - Joy Division: Closer (Qwest)

Perhaps the most influential underground band since the Velvet Underground. Dark, grim, clangorous, saved from sounding utterly inhuman by Ian Curtis’s somehow apt out-of-tune singing, it’s propelled by Stephen Morris’s machine-like drumming, grounded by Peter Hook’s fatly throbbing bass, with Bernard Sumner’s dangerously glinting guitar riffs and occasional atmosphere-enhancing synthesizer completing the picture.

1981 - Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.)

RLJ’s first album had a big hit on it, and was pretty good, but hardly prepared me for how amazing Pirates is. Only “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” and the parts of the title track recall the debut’s funky sessionmen’s jazz sound; almost everything else is darkly brooding and unusually structured. One heartbreaking tale after another, often in a whisper, is related in hipster slang, alternating humor and wrenching pain. And her singing is amazing, agile and full of unique textures. Possibly the most amazing singer-songwriter album to come out of L.A., and certainly the best since the '70s ended.

1982 - Cocteau Twins: Garlands (4AD)

If you think of the Cocteaus as all ethereal shimmering prettiness, well, here’s where their post-punk roots show through clearly. On this album, their debut, the bass lines throb ominously, the guitars’ jagged edges draw blood, and Liz Fraser’s vocals are lower, grittier, and rather Goth.  All good things in my book.

1983 - R.E.M.: Murmur (IRS)

It’s a mark of how different R.E.M. was compared to the rest of the mainstream musical landscape in '83 that the best comparison most critics could muster for their sound was...the Byrds. Okay, jangly guitar (though jangling in a very different way), but in any other terms, not even close. But then, if more comparisons to Pylon had been made, that would have meant nothing to most readers outside Athens. That R.E.M. never equaled this album’s artistic achievement (though they came close a few times) is no shame, because albums this great are hard to come by.

1984 - Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime (SST)

Most days, I think this is the greatest rock album ever. The original double LP is better than the abbreviated CD; stupidly, the download version is copied from the CD instead of restoring the LP tracklist, which means "Mr. Robot's Holy Orders," "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love," and (unforgivably!) "Little Man with a Gun in His Hand" are still missing; fortunately, the double LP is still in print. (1984 was a good year for double LPs: labelmates Husker Du’s Zen Arcade actually inspired the Minutemen to go back in the studio and double the size of what became Double Nickels on the Dime.) Though coming out of the hardcore punk scene, D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley brought in a wide range of other influences, partly shown by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Halen, and Steely Dan covers but especially by the sped-up funk aspects (bass lines, fast chord strumming) that made the band’s style so different from its hardcore peers, and made me love it so much more.

1985 - Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (EMI)

Ms. Bush was already one of the outstanding individualists in rock, her soaring voice immediately identifiable, but her albums could be a bit inconsistent. Then she made this great leap forward, a complexly layered album in both musical and lyrical terms, and yet also full of hooks in melodies and textures (even down to a single repeatedly bowed cello note on the title track). Definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

1986 - Slayer: Reign in Blood (Def American)

It was a good year for metal: Metallica put out Master of Puppets. But as monumental an album as that was, it lacked the sheer brutal power of Reign in Blood, simultaneously the greatest thrash-metal/speed-metal album ever AND the starting point for death metal. That the band was criticized for the violence and gore in its lyrics was absurdly ridiculous, given that a song such as “Angel of Death” merely documents real-life atrocities (in this case, the immoral medical experiments of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele at Auschwitz). But frankly, I don’t care what Tom Araya’s singing about (usually serial killers) nearly as much as I care about the lightning-fast guitar riffs and licks of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman and the relentless drumming of Dave Lombardo, and the lean precision that Rick Rubin’s crystal-clear production revealed, with all superfluity eliminated.

1987 - Sonic Youth: Sister (SST)

After a frustrating series of albums that saw the quartet making interesting sounds that added up to a nice ambience and occasionally even an excellent song, they finally got the hang of songwriting, stopped screwing around with trying to seem hip and cool, and made the fine Evol.  Could they keep evolving? Yes. They next delivered Sister, a top-notch album in which all those great guitar sounds were no longer abstract because they were wedded to words that mattered. (Much cooler than their previous poses.) And though the double-LP follow-up, Daydream Nation, is also great and often hailed by critics as their best, the more concise no-filler-all-killer Sister remains my favorite.

1988 - Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam)

A game-changer in hip-hop history, both for production and message. Too bad Chuck D’s politically aware and informed stance didn’t stay the model for hip-hop, which however much more popular it’s become in the decades since has never seemed as important as on this album and its follow-up, Fear of a Black Planet. Even the way the music was made – densely textured; mostly avoiding long, isolated, and obvious samples – seemed like the future yet has mostly been abandoned. But maybe that’s helped keep this album eternally fresh; the only unfortunate irony is the contrast between “She Watch Channel Zero?!” and Flavor Flav’s subsequent career.

1989 - The Cure: Disintegration (Elektra)

How many bands besides the Cure and the Rolling Stones have made their best album in their second decade of existence? Pretty good for the mopiest band in rock. Funny how the music makes feeling sorry for yourself seem uplifting. The sound is absolutely iconic and much imitated: not just Robert Smith’s anguished vocals, but also Simon Gallup’s trebly bass lines, tons of soaring synth lines, the contrasting guitars that occasionally shriek from the abyss (Smith and Porl Thompson), and Boris Williams’s minimal but hard-hitting drums. Nothing typifies '80s angst better than this classic.

1990 - Blake Babies: Sunburn (Mammoth)

I’m a sucker for anthemic indie-rock when a ballsy woman’s singing over chiming guitar riffs. Especially when she’s proclaiming, as Juliana Hatfield does here, “I’m not your mother,” or “I have a body and a brain / but I turn them off again and again / I know it’s stupid,” or “I like the salty taste in my mouth / ten minutes on my lips, ten days without.” And John Strohm’s guitar style is so crucial to this album that I forgive him for the one bum track, “Girl in a Box” (which might have worked anyway if Hatfield had sung it instead of him).

1991 - His Name Is Alive: Home Is In Your Head (4AD)

A magnificently weird album unlike anything ever recorded before or since by anyone else. Warren Defever’s discomfittingly fragmented music may to some degree be a product of the label’s remixing of his home recordings – of his previous album (HNIS’s debut, Livonia), Defever said, "[4AD owner Ivo Watts-Russell] took it apart, and he didn't put it back together." It’s matched to contrasting vocals – his own and those of Karin Oliver (mostly), Denise James, plus a few vivid samples. The sparseness of the music is already highly distinctive; the textures that are deployed are so varied – everything from overdubbed a cappella vocals to bursts of coruscating guitar noise to acoustic strumming, but rarely more than a few elements at a time – that the fragmentary aspect of the music is strongly emphasized by the stark contrasts.

1992 - Shudder to Think: Get Your Goat (Dischord)

This was the fourth and last release by Shudder to Think’s original lineup, a huge and daring advance over their also excellent yet comparatively tamer two earlier releases. Craig Wedren’s virtuoso vocals – stunning range, dazzling breath control – are heard in their best context, a sort of arty post-punk music supporting quirkily poetic lyrics. The overall effect from the combination of the unusual angularity and athleticism of Wedren’s melodies and his freaky lyrics is often surreal.

1993 - Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador)

Yes, our Liz has quite the potty mouth (“Flower” will make puritanical types’ heads explode in sputtering rage and shock), but while that’s certainly an important component of her style, even without it her songs would be great character studies, her cool vocal style and closely miked guitar sound a brilliant indie-rock sound. 

1994 - Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works vol. II (Warp)

Volume I was more dance-oriented; II (which unlike its predecessor might not be a compilation) finds Richard D. James (AKA Aphex Twin, AKA AFX, AKA Polygon Window, etc.) is lighter on the beats. James once told David Toop, "I just like music that sounds evil or eerie," and all the music on the two CDs/three LPs here easily fits into the “eerie” category, especially some detuned stuff. This is not the pleasant ambient of Brian Eno, but rather a warped (no pun intended) subversion of the concept. It’s absolutely fascinating, better the more closely you listen to it. James has worked in a lot of styles, but this is my favorite work of his.

1995 - Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)

The greatest album trip-hop ever produced, the British It Takes a Nation of Millions.... The contrast of Tricky’s mumbling and Martine’s tuneful singing is masterful, the production moves consistently startling (as avant-garde in its time as any of the actual avant-garde). It’s all so dense and mysterious that it surrenders its meaning slowly, only after repeat listens, and never with any assurance that your understanding is anywhere near complete or even mostly correct.

1996 - Junior Brown: Semi-Crazy (Curb)

Country made by a cowboy hat-wearing white guy who just happens to combine the talents of Jimi Hendrix, Lonnie Mack, and other guitar virtuosi. “I Hung It Up” is a prime example, and also showcases his special "guit-steel" double guitar, combining a regular electric guitar and a lap steel guitar on one body, as though one guy were both Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. And Brown’s a pretty darn good singer as well, with a rich bass-baritone drawl, and writes hilarious lyrics. For an idea of how traditional most of his songs are (guitar heroics aside), Red Simpson duets on the title track, about being a truck driver.

1997 - Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

In the mid-'90s, rock seemed played out, both commercially and artistically; then The Bends and OK Computer brought a new and quickly imitated sound. On a song-by-song basis, perhaps the former is better, but for sustaining an overall mood, OK Computer takes the prize. That Radiohead changed styles after OK Computer merely reflects the fact that with these two albums they had perfected the sound and needed to do something else to feel challenged. When lesser talents (Coldplay) cashed in on the most superficial aspects of the style, with diminishing artistic returns, it suggested that Radiohead had made the right decision.

1998 - Semisonic: Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA)

The first time I heard “Closing Time,” I was certain I recognized the singer’s voice. Sure enough, it was Dan Wilson from Trip Shakespeare, a band I loved that had never managed its big breakthrough. It was heartening to see Wilson and TS bassist John Munson finally achieve the success they so richly deserved. Even better is that the big hit wasn’t even the best song on the album: “Singing in My Sleep” is even better. Every song is an ultra-tuneful pop gem.

1999 - Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge)

Yeah, a three-CD set of 69 love songs (just like the title says) is a gimmick, but Stephin Merritt pulled it off with aplomb. His love songs are far from sap-fests, overflowing instead with enough snarky wit and clever wordplay to mark him as the modern Cole Porter, and between his then-familiar electronic style, his new forays into acoustic instruments, and female lead vocals on some tracks to switch up from his basso musings, there’s more than enough variety.

2000 - Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya (Artemis)

It’s true that in my survey of the past decade’s albums, Radiohead’s Kid A is the highest-ranking album of 2000, but this list is a more personal matter, and on that level, I’ve gotta go with the Z. A largely acoustic album nonetheless faithful to Zevon’s standard sound, with his usual chuckle-inducing turns of phrase, this is also a serious look at various facets of personal disintegration: the brooding, acoustic ballads "My Shit's Fucked Up" and "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and the rollicking title track. The major exception to the acoustic sound is "Porcelain Monkey," with an acidic electric guitar riff repeatedly snaking through the song and organ filling out the sound. Lyrically it gets off to a great start -- "He was an accident waiting to happen / Most accidents happen at home" -- and proceeds to detail the downfall of a loner. Its details seem mysterious, if poetic, until the realization hits that it's about Elvis Presley. At the album’s center is a ragged cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again," more a defiant wish than the triumphant promise of the glossy original; in Zevon's voice, it sounds autobiographical.

2001 - Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator) (Acony)

A truly magical album of Americana. Not only does this have Welch’s most adventurous songwriting, it’s also greater than the sum of its parts, a concept album about the American psyche as seen through the filter of history. There’s something inherently high-concept about an acoustic, defiantly folkie group, its sound based in old-timey duos such as the Stanley Brothers, casually referencing Elvis Presley and Steve Miller AND devoting two songs to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – that covers a lot of ground. The album ends in a double climax: the unsettling “Everything Is Free,” then the long (14:40), ruminative “I Dream a Highway.” Folk music doesn’t come more daring and epic than this.

2002 - Do As Infinity: True Song (Avex)

Not the best album of 2002 (that would be John Fahey’s Red Cross or, if you want to stick to rock, Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera), but I’m a sucker for anthemic J-Pop, especially when it’s heavy on the guitar. To a certain extent the original incarnation of DAI with Dai Nagao was a singles band (2005’s Do the A-Side, which compiled all 21 of the band’s pre-breakup singles, is killer from start to finish), but on this, its fourth album, there’s no blatant filler. Singer Tomiko Van has a gutsier voice than most female J-Pop singers, and interestingly, a few of the uptempo tracks have a bit of an emo feel, musically speaking, especially “Grateful Journey.”

2003 - Pretty Girls Make Graves: The New Romance (Matador)

Once again, I’m on record elsewhere as ranking a few other 2003 releases higher than this one, but I’m a sucker for anthemic art-punk. Somewhere between post-punk and emo, but (unlike most emo bands) featuring a tough riot grrrl singer, PrGMG stood out not only for that but for the way the band dramatically manipulated distortion and dynamics, combining forcebeat drumming and serrated riffs in buzzsaw songs that wed the urgency of a fire alarm to the precision of a Mercedes engine. This album runs you over, but then you roll back in its path to be run over again because it hurts so good.

2004 - Lali Puna: Faking the Books (Morr)

I’m a sucker for anthemic electro-pop. Actually, some electronic fans complained that it wasn’t electronic enough -- songs too rock verse/chorus structured, too much guitar (from The Notwist’s Markus Acher), occasionally even real drums with much cymbal-bashing (“B-Movie”). Usually, though, the songs percolate steadily, keyboard textures dominate, and the average rock fan would consider it electronic. Since I believe the rock/electronic divide to be a false dichotomy, what’s more important to me is how wonderfully the tunes grow in intensity, building through gradual addition of layers; how primal the melodies seem; the imaginativeness of the non-drum beats, the way the cool vocals of Valerie Trebeljahr are complemented by some of the warmest electronica of the decade.

2005 - Stars: Set Yourself on Fire (Arts & Crafts)

I'm a sucker for anthemic pop-rock. This New York-born, Montreal-based band crafted a modern-rock update of the male/female vocal template, complete with lush arrangements including horns (trumpet, French horn, trombone, saxophone), glockenspiel, a string quartet, and lots of synthesizer. The melodies are infinitely catchy; they deliver acutely observant dissections of romantic relationships, mostly wistful, occasionally humorous, but sometimes filled with desperate yearning, which I’m also a sucker for. Best album of the 2000s.

2006 - Asobi Seksu: Citrus (Friendly Fire)

No, wait, THIS is the best album of the 2000s. I’m a sucker for anthemic shoegaze. This Brooklyn band's sophomore release is full of massive shimmering wash of effects-laden guitar, heavy reverb on Yuki Chikudate's breathy female vocals, hooks sometimes darkly subtle and sometimes brightly brilliant, and extended song-ending thrash-aways. "Thursday" is the track to convert unbelievers. Whichever of this or Stars I’m listening to is the best at that moment. Music is not an elimination tourney.

2007 - Burial: Untrue (Hyperdub)

The album that made me a dubstep fan, which is a bit of an amusing paradox given that it’s so eccentric that dubstep orthodoxy declared it to not be dubstep. But I like how organic it feels, how asymmetrical its rhythms often are, and how it conjures a soulful, shadowy emotional world that’s alienated but longs not to be.

2008 - Gétatchèw Mékurya & The Ex - Moa Anbessa (Terp)

One of the greatest bands in the world teamed with the king of Ethiopian jazz sax (who’d been playing professionally for nearly sixty years at the time) to make a hypnotically compelling album that might be the best thing either of them ever did -- and given their awesome discographies, that's really saying something. Mékurya's 1970 album Negus of Ethiopian Saxin the Ethiopiques series is also a must-own.

2009 - Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol.  3 (Strut)

Another Ethiopian great teams up with a Western band, this time a London soul-jazz collective that ups the great’s groove quotient with wonderfully elliptical beats under his haunting modal melodies.

2010 - Kings Go Forth: The Outsiders Are Back (Luaka Bop)

Retro soul-funk with enough imagination in the songwriting and production to be more than an exercise in nostalgia. There have been a fair number of such revivals, but few have been vocal groups. This one is, which give it both its variety -- different guys take turns as lead vocalist, including an actual '70s singer, Black Wolf, who’s prominently featured -- and a major part of its distinctive style, sort of like Curtis Mayfield-era Impressions with funky early-'70s production and arrangements (with horns and strings where appropriate). Commendably, they distill their sound from a wide enough range of influences that the amalgam doesn't sound like an imitation. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose New Year's resolution for 2011 is to record his Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus and Japanese female poets song cycles.