Last year was a good one for music, producing more truly enjoyable albums than I’ve heard in a while. Here are the seven discs that rose above the pack for me — a nice mix of veterans, newcomers, and acts settled into a solid groove.
The champ of the year was Oysterband with their stunning Diamonds On the Water. Together in various forms for over 35 years, the Oysters released their 25th album early in the year. I was delighted to hear its energy and power. Maybe reuniting with June Tabor a couple of years ago gave them a shot in the arm; it certainly gave her some great new energy too. Whatever the case, this is the band’s finest work in 20 years. Smart lyrics, tight playing, social commentary, and music with real heart all combine over 12 tracks without anything close to a dull moment. Highlights include the moving Steal Away, the anthemic Spirit of Dust and the haunting Palace of Memory.
The other six offer very different musical approaches, each with its own distinctive charm.
Lloyd Cole – Standards: Another long-time favorite resurfaces with his best album in many years. Cole has turned out a steady stream of quality albums; his more recent offerings have been more acoustic, folky discs. For this ironically titled disc (all but one song are originals), he plugs back in, reuniting with collaborators Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, and Blair Cowan. The result is a fresh, inspired set that finds the acerbic sage at his witty finest. Highlights include the John Hartford / Mama Cass cover California Earthquake, Myrtle and Rose and Opposites Day.
George Ezra – Wanted On Voyage: A fresh new talent from England, George Ezra Bennett moved to Bristol, dropped his surname, and launched a promising career. He landed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and parlayed that success into a record deal. After two promising EPs, he assembled a team that helped him pursue his musical vision. Gifted with an almost surreally deep voice, he knows how to use it to great effect, exploring his range while presenting a nice set of pop songs. Highlights include the frustration ode Cassy O’, the gospel-tinged Did You Hear the Rain? and the clever pop gem Blame It On Me.
Ingrid Michaelson – Lights Out: Michaelson has been turning out charming, often quirky folk-pop for a decade, working hard to maintain her independence while receiving signficant airplay through TV and other venues. Her sixth album sees her take a quantum leap, with stronger lyrics, more varied soundscapes, and more confident vocals. She invited a number of friends to the party, and the half-dozen co-credits enhance rather than distract. Kicking off the release with the brilliant Robert Palmer inspired video for her best song ever, Girls Chase Boys, Michaelson has emerged as a unique, mature artist. Other highlights are the wistful Stick and the boisterous regret anthem Time Machine.
Perfume Genius – Too Bright: Mike Hadreas’ first album was the quietly promising Learning, followed by the stunning Put Your Back N 2 It. For his third release as Perfume Genius, he really diversifies the sound. The result is much more uneven than the previous discs, and that inconsistency almost kept Too Bright off my list. When it’s on, however, it’s a powerhouse, and he deserves praise for stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with his sound. It’s also much less introspective, a nice evolution in writing and perspective. Highlights include the bold, angry anthem Queen; the eerie worldbeat tale Longpig; and the stirring, jarring Grid.
The Rails – Fair Warning: Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have two impressive but very different resumes. She’s the daughter of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson who has eased into her own impressive career. He’s a talented guitarist and songwriter who has been a member of Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Each performer released a fine solo album before they began collaborating. They got married and started a band, and their debut joint effort is stunning, a powerful mix of folk-pop, traditional songs, and grim rock. Highlights include the gripping Panic Attack Blues, an enchanting version of the traditional William Taylor, and the quietly urgent Breakneck Speed.
Thompson – Family: Thompson and Walbourne had a busy year, also participating in this aptly named project. Curated by Kami’s brother, Teddy, the album features contributions from all three talented performers as well as parents Richard and Linda (sharing their first full album credit in over 30 years), brother Jack, and nephew Zak Hobbs, plus James’ brother Rob on percussion and occasional moments from other family members. The result is a delightful assortment that is remarkably cohesive. Highlights include Teddy’s rave-up Right, Linda’s fragile Perhaps We Can Sleep, Kami and James’ Careful (which sounds like a brilliant Rails outtake with extra energy from the family), and Richard’s rousing protest number That’s Enough which features a nice singalong chorus from the extended family.