There is simply too much good music out there. Even with the accessibility of the Internet, several great albums get neglected or disregarded outside their certain circle. So, in hopes of reaching a larger audience, here are eleven “hidden gems” from the past year (listed in alphabetical order):
Buke and Gass – Riposte
The quirky sound of duo Buke and Gass, whose namesake comes from the two self-invented string instruments they play, is immediately intriguing. Vocalist Arone Dyer soars above the duo’s oft grating noise and constantly shifting rhythm. It’s apparent she has the tone and the ability to record a Top 40 hit, but apparently she’d rather play some sort of folk-based prog-punk. She goes back and forth from soft and sweet to slightly crazy like the meticulously fractured arrangements. Riposte is wholly unique and more than interesting.
Richie Cunning – Night Train
San Francisco’s Richie Cunning has produced the sleeper hit of the year. Judge this book by its cover: Night Train’s beats are as cool and jazzy as the Blue Note-esque cover implies and atop those beats Richie Cunning raps about how he needs to quit cigarettes as if he was just having a conversation with you. Although a modest release like this is easily overeshadowed by the iconic voices and more inventive releases by Big Boi and Kanye West (marketing budgets notwithstanding), sometimes we need a regular guy discussing everyday things and revisiting classic jazz-hop. This is an album not to be missed by a rising talent who’s shown he can stand among the best.
Kvelertak – Kvelertak
Metal this fresh is hard to come by. Complete with another beautiful John Dyer Baizley cover, Kvelertak will rock your face off with this release. Described as “black ‘n’ roll,” their music mashes up black metal with rock ‘n’ roll plus a bit of hardcore and punk. Not only do they lock in some sweet grooves and riffs, it is a lot of fun as well (another rarity in metal). Don’t miss this if you’re in need of something to satiate your appetite for metal and need something different.
Lower Dens – Twin-Hand Movement
This surprising new indie rock outfit mixes the noise pop of Women with guitar fuzz of Yo La Tengo and the melodic sensibilities and ambiance of Beach House. Twin-Hand Movement is at once rough, warm and sweet. The opener “Blue & Silver” is a shimmering slab of atmospheric pop with a certain edge that sucks you right in. Each subsequent track is inviting and rich with melody and texture. But beware, they can wreck you in the right setting.
Kermit Ruffins – Happy Talk
New Orleans jazz is nothing new, but that won’t stop you from dancing to this delightful offering by Kermit Ruffins, currently known for his role on HBO’s “Tremé.” The appropriately titled Happy Talk celebrates traditional New Orleans jazz with refreshing cheerfulness. It certainly fulfills his intentions to “put a bounce in your step and a smile on your face.”
Carla Morrison – Mientras Tú Dormías
A rare treat from Mexico, Carla Morrison’s EP Mientras Tú Dormías is bright, sweet and gorgeous. Carla sings in Spanish, but you don’t have to speak the language to get anything out of her music. Rather, hers is further proof that music transcends language and it brings nice diversity to indie pop. Taking some influence from groups like Grizzly Bear, most notably in the beautiful melodies and detailed production, Morrison will ease new listeners in and leave them anxious for a full-length.
Shackleton – Fabric 55
Shackleton uses his Fabric release to mix his own material. In doing so, he breathes a bit of life into the hit-and-miss series. His dark, dour material is not like anything else the series has offered. Containing plenty of previously unreleased material, the mix gives listeners the fulfillment of an album while also giving them a peek at his live sets for those who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing one. The mix is well paced with plenty of atmosphere and it is easily one of the finest mixes in the prolific Fabric series.
Sharon Van Etten – Epic
Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s Epic is actually quite concise. The seven songs barely break the thirty-minute barrier, but their impact does indeed reach epic proportions. Her voice is at once graceful and weathered, through which she connects to listeners on a personal level. Despite its simplicity and common lyrical themes, the material avoids being trite as so many singer-songwriters are wont to do. With an ineffable beauty and too many good lines to quote just one, Epic may be the best half hour of your day.
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society
Being an instructor at the Berklee College of Music at the age of 20, one would expect great things from Esperanza Spalding. And great things she creates. Her 2008 self-titled album stayed on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart for 78 weeks. Now, she somehow came out with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (never mind that this is her third album). And she is very deserving. Chamber Music Society dances about jazz, folk and world music in a classical chamber setting with both precision and style. She sings beautifully in three languages—four if you count scat, which is all over the place and absolutely superb—and her bass work is some of the most expressive you can find. She puts herself together with an equally talented group and the result is no less than stunning. An upset over Bieb (sigh) is unlikely, but the usually infuriating Grammys did well in giving her a chance to shine this year.
Velella Velella – Atlantis Massif
At long last, the follow-up to Velella Velella’s criminally unheard of debut The Bay of Biscay has arrived. Sounding something like Tortoise collaborating with The Avalanches to make a funk album, Bay was a super fun album replete with quirky samples and vocals, funky bass lines, sharp synths and bright vibes guaranteed to make you dance and feel great. Atlantis Massif continues the party with deeper bass grooves and more happy-go-lucky vocals. The listener will have as much fun listening to this as these obviously had making this album.
The Velvet Teen – No Star
After eight-plus years of struggling to find their identity, The Velvet Teen may have finally found their sweet spot. Working in the best elements from their past three full lengths, the band sounds full of life and creativity. The songs are high-energy with excellent rhythmic shifts under the passionate belting of Jonah Nagler, whose vocals have always been melodramatic and powerful, but never so real.