1. Foxygen, We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
I saw Foxygen live and left totally disappointed. This album is an incredible, intricate, layered shindig that taps into my inner freewheeling 1960s party-attender (and many people's, judging from the MEGA ULTRA BUZZ surrounding the band).
Unfortunately, what could have been an amazing live experience fell pretty flat: it lacked the depth of the album, and Sam France seemed determined to be more theatrical than musical (he jumped off the speakers, jumped into the audience, laid on the stage, literally screamed every lyric, wrapped the mic cord around his neck, and told people to put their phones away because he "doesn't want to be on the Internet"). But whatever troubles Foxygen may have live--they left SXSW early, canceled their European tour, and were apparently kicked out of Wilco's Solid Sound Festival--don't make their new album any less obsessively listenable. I comfort myself with this as I mourn for my Favorite New Band That Never Was.
Listen to this right now: "On Blue Mountain." It's like The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones birthed a child who appreciates the drama of Broadway showtunes.
2. Iron and Wine, Ghost on Ghost
UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: I am a bigger fan of Iron & Wine's jazzier, more produced albums (this one and 2010's Kiss Each Other Clean) than his minimalist earlier work. Not that Sam Beam needs any production to sound utterly beautiful, but his voice and notoriously edgy lyrics + a full band is insanely satisfying. It's all good, though. Listening to one of Iron & Wine's older albums and then listening to Ghost on Ghost is like the difference between listening to the best lullaby and then eating the best five-course dinner.
I finally saw Iron & Wine live a few months ago and had a brand new life experience. I've never, ever, felt so calm and peaceful at a concert that I put my feet up on the seat in front of me. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF SAM BEAM.
Listen to this right now: "Lovers' Revolution." If you are attracted to musical drama like I am, you'll love it.
3. Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God
I'll try not to write a dissertation here but it's going to be a struggle. Sorry.
Although I use the term "genius" sparingly, I am 100% certain that Jim James is actually a genius. I can say this with utmost confidence because I am a massive My Morning Jacket nerd - such a nerd, in fact, that my sister made me MMJ cake pops for my birthday. I've written about Jim twice this year here and here and spent a lot of time trying to succinctly explain why the man is such a wizard. There are many obvious reasons, of course (hi, ridiculously good voice and hair mane), but the very root of Jim James' brilliance is his bottomless well of creative quests: he fearlessly glides between genres and sounds, never settles for long on one musical path, yet always manages to put forth quality work.
Clearly, I was super excited for this album - even more so when I read that Jim played all of the instruments on the album aside from the drums and strings. Awesome, a trip into an interesting person's brain! I resisted the temptation to listen to Regions before it was officially released: I wanted to have the rare experience of anticipating an album and not cheating with a leak. Bundled up in bed one night in February after a rough day at work, I finally listened to all of Regions and felt like I'd just uncovered a new aspect of this crazy genius dude's mind. Even though the songs follow a story arc inspired by God's Man, a graphic novel, most of the tracks have surreal overtones - like you're inside someone's head space, not totally sure what's going on but getting the basic gist of their thoughts. Love. Lust. Darkness.
Listen to this right now: "Dear One." There are lots of captivating songs on the album, but this one is my favorite. I'm a sucker for interesting love songs - that shit is hard to do.
4. Streetlight Manifesto, The Hands That Thieve
This band is closer to my heart than almost any other. I first got into Streetlight in 8th grade after my best friend burned me a copy of Everything Goes Numb, and they immediately turned into our #1 obsession. Our parents used to drop us off at Starland Ballroom and random places in the city so we could see them, and I continued going to shows throughout high school and college. Now, 10 years later, I just bought my tickets to the two final shows they'll play before they put the band to rest (hopefully not forever). I think my Streetlight love has sustained a decade because their material was serious, poetic, and deeply introspective from the start - even though teens love it, it's not shallow kid bullshit.
Streetlight has long been at war with their horrible, evil record label to the point where they couldn't even ship copies of this year's long-awaited album The Hands That Thieve. Much of the new album is clearly about the creatively oppressive label conflict (the album title says it all), but it doesn't come across as self-pitying. Tom Kalnoky's greatest strength as a writer is his ability to turn life experiences into broad, universal, important themes. Instead of penning some crap like "OUR RECORD LABEL SUX," he writes thoughtful songs about good vs. evil, calling the little guys to come together against unnamed super-powers, and other it's-not-about-me-it's-about-all-of-us musings.
Listen to this right now: "With Any Sort of Certainty." This song contains the lyric of our time: "Nobody mentioned that the pieces wouldn't fit / You can re-arrange them all you want, but the puzzle, it was rigged."
ALSO LISTEN TO THIS: An acoustic version of "With any Sort of Certainty" by Kalnoky (under the name Toh Kay). Unlike the version above, the softness of this one stirs up an entirely different set of feelings. The art in the video is incredible and so moving. Streetlight's label took this down shortly after Toh Kay independently released it, claiming copyright infringement since it's an alternate version of a Streetlight song. They also canceled his plans to release this song and others on his planned solo album. Thankfully, someone re-posted it, and I am happy to share it here: Kalnoky's talents are much too valuable to be silenced.
5. Tea Leaf Green, In The Wake
I'm ten years late to the party, but I didn't get into Tea Leaf Green until late last year when I saw them play two awesomely energetic sets at Brooklyn Bowl. At that show the band announced that they raised enough money on Kickstarter to put the finishing touches on their new album, In the Wake, and out it came this May all fresh like a spring lamb.
In the Wake will make you feel like you're existing in an epic non-sleepy dream adventure. One minute you're floating along all peaceful and mellow, the next you're listening to this crazy disco-bass solo, then there's a super rock-star arena stomp song and later a sweet and heartbreaking ballad that includes a lyric that might make you cry: "Don't go, my world needs you to seem fair."
Listen to this right now: "Give Me One More Chance." "Catchy pop tune" isn't the first descriptor that comes to mind when most people think of jam-fiends Tea Leaf Green, but this song proves they do it well: it's one of the most fun surprises on In the Wake.