Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part I

[This is Part One of a Two-Part post. Part Two can be found here.]

Today is June 30th, the year's halfway point. Dave and I have agreed that we need to post more than we have been of late, so let's kick things off with some of my favorite records of 2009. Instead of regurgitating information you're likely already privy to (yes, the Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear records are top notch), here are a three excellent releases (I'll post two more tomorrow) from artists who mostly continue to float under the radar:

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns [Parlophone / Astralwerks]

Try as she might, Natasha Khan seems destined to not be taken seriously. Perhaps its the gaudy album art, the lazer shooting wolf videos, the regular exaggeration of the "concept" behind Two Suns, or the fact that Kate Bush is referenced in every single review of her work. It is true that like Bush, Bat for Lashes transforms what might otherwise sound like cheesy electronic music into majestic songs, but Khan's voice is much closer to Chan Marshall's of Cat Power. Khan's vocals on Two Suns are at times shockingly good (see: "Glass"), an enormous step up in range and ambition than what she displayed on her debut record, Fur & Gold. But more than the mere technical craft that went into this album's creation, the most impressive aspect of its 45-minute runtime are its eleven songs. If Fur & Gold hinted at Khan's talent as a songwriter, Two Suns announces it loud and clear from its kickin' first single "Daniel" to the crescendoed "Siren Song," her most ambitious track to date.

Visit Bat for Lashes' official website here.
Watch the must-see performance of "Daniel" on the Late Show with David Letterman here.

A-Trak - FabricLive.45 [Fabric]

A-Trak release reviews almost always mention his tenure as Kanye West's tour DJ, among his many other impressive credentials (e.g. youngest ever winner of the DMCs at age 15, and first ever to win all three major DJ competition titles). As they should; A-Trak should first and foremost be appreciated for his proficiency with his instrument. But where artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches pushed the envelope of what people thought turntables could be used for, A-Trak is simply doing what DJs have been doing for years, better than just about anyone else.

His Dirty South Dance mixtape was probably the record I listened to most in 2007. Despite consisting almost entirely of the most over-used and tired technique in the business, mash-ups, his layering of hip-pop and crate-dug electronic gems improved on every song in the bunch and flowed seamlessly from beginning to end. His newest mixtape, commissioned by London's Fabric nightclub, is as simple as they come: save for a single mash-up to start the tape, FabricLive.45 is just 25 killer tracks and remixes, perfectly beatmatched and mixed. Even if you're clueless as to the technical skill required to mix records as well as A-Trak does, his selection of bass-throbbing electronic jams will interest anyone hunting for the year's best summer driving album.

Visit A-Trak's official website here.
Preview tracks from FabricLive.45 here.

Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies [Bloodshot]

The way I see it, music lovers can hope for two types of records, those that push boundaries or explore new territories and those that execute a style to a tee. Justin Townes Earle, son of prolific country musician Steve Earle, has perfected the latter technique. Eight months ago I posted about The Good Life, his debut album and one of the finest releases of 2008. Less than a year later comes his sophomore effort, Midnight at the Movies, which continues on down the "traditional but damn good" road. The thing is, "traditional" country music is pretty hard to come by these days. So when Earle's twang takes front and center on "Walk Out," or when the harmonica on "Halfway to Jackson" mimics a southbound train, I guarantee you'll be more pleasantly surprised than you expect. Most impressive are the record's early stand-outs, "Mama's Eyes" and "Can't Hardly Wait." The former is a brief but sobering account of his dysfunctional relationship with his father, while the latter is a straightforward countrified cover of one of my favorite Replacements' tracks. Both succeed because they're exemplary of Earle's forté: uncluttered, perfectly-executed, memorable country.

Visit Justin Townes Earle's MySpace page here.
Watch the KEXP interview and performance, which includes "Mama's Eyes" here.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I love Midnight at the Movies, it's a balanced album that is lyrically heartfelt and musically lighthearted. Plus, seeing him earlier this year changed the way I listen to him, made him more believable I guess.

Thanks for the recommendations dude - looking forward to Bat for Lashes.