Feist | The Reminder
Leslie Feist has indie cred through her association with Broken Social Scene and enough mainstream pop promise that Apple picked her “1234” for its iPod Nano commercial. On The Reminder (Interscope), her second solo disc, she doesn’t sound as voluptuous as Amy Winehouse or as straitlaced as Norah Jones — she splits the difference, sliding from sensuously jazzy to innocently alluring to playfully moody, with a natural, irresistible warmth.
Great Lakes Swimmers | Ongiara
In the fine tradition of Neil Young, Great Lakes Swimmers’ banjo-picking frontman, Tony Dekker, is a Canadian as steeped in rural Americana as any Smokey Mountain bandit. Except that Dekker’s touch on Ongiara (Nettwerk) is even lighter and more hauntingly textured than Young’s on Harvest, and his folk heroics seem happy enough standing on their own, without the punch of Crazy Horse rock. My favorite “discovery” of the year.
PJ Harvey | White Chalk
Every now and again, Polly Jean finds a little way to make a big change, and White Chalk (Island) is one of those. She’s put down her guitar before, but this time she replaces it with piano, an instrument she’s relatively new to. The results are as raw as Dry but quieter, more haunting, and even a bit darker. It’s a reminder that PJ’s still not ready to be pinned down and always worth paying attention to.
Modest Mouse | We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is the same Modest Mouse who emerged from a tiny town in Washington State in the mid ’90s sounding grungy, dark, and oh-so-serious. If you count the addition of legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr on We Were Dead (Epic), then it actually isn’t the same Modest Mouse. But the playful transformation that had singer/guitarist Isaac Brock on the same interplanetary path as the Flaming Lips, and out on some of the same Pink Floydian limbs that Doug Martsch was occupying with Built To Spill, started before Marr arrived. Now, Modest Mouse just have more texture to work with — and the smarts to do so tastefully.
The National | Boxer
This Ohio-by-way-of-NYC fivesome had already nailed their special yet familiar fusion of Amerindie jangle and neo-new-wave swagger on their overlooked Beggars Banquet debut, 2005’s Alligator. So with just a few subtle additions — some strings here, a little more studio polish there — they had little trouble making good on their promise to render sad-guy indie-rock fresh again by evoking Joy Division on an album that also delves into a little country-tinged Americana. Sometimes it’s just fun to be bummed. And misery does love company.
Radiohead | In Rainbows
Yes they scared the hell out of the music biz with In Rainbows’ pay-what-you-will business plan. And even Radiohead would probably admit that all the chatter about the manner of the disc’s release overshadowed the album itself. But now that I’ve spent some time with the 10 songs I downloaded for a couple of pence and I’m no longer as annoyed by the lack of liner notes and album art, I’ve discovered a new way to spin the whole mess: perhaps the circumstances surrounding the release of In Rainbows freed the band from the pressure to innovate that has at times strangled the life out of their post-“Creep” output. They even seem to be having a bit of fun here, fusing the electronic and the organic. And Thom Yorke has mastered the art of wresting beauty from sadness without sounding like a miserable bastard. Best of all, it’s an album that’s still growing on me, and it’s bound to grow in stature as plans for its proper CD release are finalized.