The Besnard Lakes, Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO (Jagjaguwar)
In the early ‘90s, the British band Slowdive offered a deceptively lulling take on the wall-of-guitars ‘shoegaze’ sound. A little bit of that floating-in-space feel finds its way into The Besnard Lakes’ fourth album. The Montreal band has been on an underappreciated roll for the last decade, and this release – with most of its tracks unfolding over five-plus minutes – requires a little more patience to appreciate. Also recommended: a good set of headphones, the better to let this rapturous music take over the space between your ears.
Boogarins, As Plantas Que Curam (Other Music)
The Tropicalia movement was Brazil’s answer to the flourishing of rock experimentation in the UK and US in the late ‘60s. It produced ground-breaking artists such as Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso, who played with form and blurred genre lines. Teenagers Fernando Almeida and Benke Ferraz follow in that spirit on their debut album. Their music has a free-flowing elasticity, in part engendered by their self-taught approach to using the recording studio as an instrument. Lyricist Almeida and multi-instrumentalist Ferraz grew up and developed their style far from urban centres of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janiero, so their music sounds slightly out-of-step with the times – much in the same way that the Tropicalia artists were seen as outsiders intent on upsetting convention.
Mikal Cronin, MCII (Merge)
Though his San Francisco pal and sometimes bandmate Ty Segall gets most of the attention in the punk and underground communities, one-man-band Cronin steps up on his second solo album. He’s that rare punk rocker who is classically trained, and his counterpoint melody lines and sharp string arrangements give MCII a sophistication and texture that’s part-garage rock, part-chamber-pop.
Deafheaven, Sunbather (Deathwish)
There can be beauty in oppressive darkness, and here’s proof. This San Francisco band evoke predecessors who combined metal’s heaviness with progressive rock, punk and even folk (think of Isis, Mastodon or Sweden’s OTEP). The seven songs sprawl across 60 minutes, with the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics of a particularly turbulent rollercoaster ride: slow ascents, crashing crescendos, hairpin turns.
Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Record (Merge)
As the vocalist in Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger gives voice to brother Matthew’s complex, puzzle-piece songs. On her second solo album, she favours more linear songwriting in tandem with John Wesley Harding, but with exotic touches – the chamberpop of I Am the Past, the bossa nova sway of Echo or Encore. It all coalesces around a calm, no-nonsense voice, confident that the excellent songs need nothing beyond her straightforward honesty.
The Handsome Family, Wilderness (Carrot Top)
Lyricist Renee Sparks’ fascination with nature and fantasy has led to some of the most moving songs about the human condition anyone has written in the last two decades. With husband Brett Sparks adding sonorous baritone vocals and inventive arrangements, The Handsome Family hit a new peak on their ninth album. Amid the folk and country melodies, the album’s centerpiece is Glow Worm, a mad journey to the centre of the Earth that combines Jules Verne with progressive rock.
Vic Mensa, Innanetape (vicmensa.com)
Mensa’s high school friend from Chicago’s South Side, Chance the Rapper, is getting deserved accolades in the US for his second mix tape, Acid Rap, but Innanetape is nearly as accomplished. The 20-year-old MC was in a high school band called Kids These Days that had signed a major-label-deal in April and then promptly broke up. But Mensa kept right on going – like Kids These Days, his music touches on a wide range of genres, including soul, rock and jazz. And he’s a sharp, multi-faceted lyricist as he shows his more playful side on the album’s first half, and a more pensive, introspective approach on the second.
Oblivians, Desperation (In the Red)
The mighty Memphis scuzz-rock trio reunite after 16 years. Though Desperation doesn’t pack quite the same chaotic, edge-of-sanity vibe that the group’s ‘90s albums did, it still makes 99% of the rock albums released in 2013 sound quaint. The group have cleaned up their vocal sound just a touch – which may disappoint diehards – but if anything they amp up the melodies that were previously buried in the avalanche of noise. And their knack for rediscovering and reinvigorating lost underground gems, including the zydeco burner Call the Police and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Loving Cup, remains acute.
Allen Toussaint, Songbook (Nonesuch)
One of the great behind-the-scenes figures in New Orleans music, Touissant wrote or produced countless classics over the last 50 years for Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, La Belle and others. Remarkably, he’s never made an album featuring just his voice and piano – until now. At 75, Toussaint remains a graceful singer and a brilliant musician; he turns the 88 keys into an orchestra. His interpretations of his best songs are revelatory, particularly his deeply personal reading of Southern Nights, about his childhood memories of the Louisiana countryside.
Wooden Shjips, Back to Land (Thrill Jockey)
The psychedelic travellers in this West Coast quartet dial down the volume a tad, as they push their sound in a more acoustic, bucolic and spacious direction. The noisy drone of old cracks open to reveal melodies and more structured songs – who knew?
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here