White Denim's Explosion: From Austin they come, this trio of wily cats; and what they have in store for you is something that's nominally - and fundamentally - fuzzed-out garage rock. But it's really that concept blown up, and with no small amount of energy, focus and cojones. It's an album, and a band, provoking visceral reactions first, intellectual reactions second.
Stephen Malkmus' Real Emotional Trash: The end result can be broken down into a bunch of songs, and it's as fine a collection of songwriting and (dare I say it?) jamming that you'll find from a pretty solid batch of music released last year. Fused together into a single album, it's gotta be on a Top Whatever list.
Back Door Slam came through for moi with Roll Away. To listen to Davy Knowles' voice is to hear the passion behind the blues - thick-veins-on-the-neck-sticking-out-while-his-face-turns-red kind of emotion that really belies his 21-years kind of passion. If you can find a download of the group's live version of "Red House," and get it into your rotation.
And along came Punch, by the Punch Brothers (mando wizard Chris Thile, along with guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Greg Garrison, banjo-player Noam Pikelny and Gabe Witcher on fiddle). Punch is a bit of a dichotomy. On one hand, the playful nature of the opening "Punch Bowl" can relax you just enough that the 42-minute suite may become a pleasing background of textured string music, finished with three short gems of songs. But if you begin to pay attention to "The Blind Leading the Blind" and its four movements, Punch can be heard as a complex and invigorating piece of "baroque" bluegrass (or maybe "progressive pickin'"?). Twists and turns, runs of instrumental finesse by all five members of the band last for minutes, contrasted with conflicting dissonance, only to slow down to allow Thile to sing his narrative on love and loss. The suite is difficult to take in all at once, which allows the listener to hear something new with each play.
It is the self-titled debut from the four post-collegiate prepsters of Vampire Weekend that has refused to leave my rotation. Ezra Koenig and company have crafted an indelibly catchy album full of African guitar, worldbeat drumming and lyrics that you'd expect from an English major from Columbia: poetic ruminations on riding the crosstown bus and college crushes. To say that the band has had a successful year may be a bit of an understatement. While most kids just a year or so out of college are still getting used to life in the real world, the boys of Vampire Weekend have toured relentlessly - hitting every major festival, appearing on Saturday Night Live and the late-night talk show circuit.
Jenny Scheinman, a first-call violinist and string arranger for artists such as Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones and genre-bending guitarist Bill Frisell, has simultaneously released two fine albums. One features her clear and guileless vocals. The second, the all-instrumental Crossing the Field, sounds like a soundtrack in search of a worthy movie. If it needed a label, it would be a long one: jazz/classical/funk/folk/Americana. Imagine a happy mash-up of Monk, the lush soundscapes of Aaron Copland and the big-footed funk of the Bad Plus - all that, and it's drop-dead gorgeous.
Tiny Resistors is the latest from Todd Sickafoose, best-known as the bassist for Ani DiFranco. He has created a musical document that weds the indie-rock aesthetic to jazz practices with seamless pleasure. Pop advantages such as genial melody and rich texture work with challenging, long-form compositions and pungent improvisation. Some of the music has as much in common with Philip Glass or Radiohead as it does with Sco/Frizz. Other tunes reach to the gutbucket. But in every case, this is music that banishes whatever smugness is associated with indie rock and whatever sterility people hear in mainstream jazz.