While everyone was buzzing about big releases from Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Mumford & Sons and Taylor Swift, you might have missed some must-listens. Here’s what you should know about, and why:
“Shields” is a semimasterpiece that feels both old and new — and in the best ways possible. Anchored by the voices of Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen, this Brooklyn, N.Y.-based foursome has created a disc that is genre-defying and consistent throughout.
The 10 tracks that make up “Shields” are drum-filled and smoky, and half the songs are more than five minutes long. That’s a bit unusual, but it’s also a break from mainstream pop music, and a needed one.
McKuen’s a crooner often dismissed as schlocky, but Freeman finds the earnest heart — and crushing heartbreak — in gentle ballads like “A Man Alone,” which could be the record’s theme song. The production on “Jean” and the title track are by turns lush and spare. Every track is suffused with a melancholy that draws comparisons to some of the best of Ween’s softer material, including the aching “Birthday Boy” and “I Don’t Want It.”
Ween devotees felt betrayed when Freeman broke up the band, and they were confused that such an accomplished songwriter opted to record someone else’s tunes. But “Marvelous Clouds” rewards multiple listens, and provides plenty of hints that Freeman will continue to surprise.
His second mixtape, “Isolation,” is an impeccable adventure of R&B and eerie sounds that heal your ears. He’s singing — really cooing — about heartache and heartbreak on this 12-track staple, but he doesn’t come off as annoying. He’s smooth. And cool. And reflective.
The epic “I’d Be Lying” is the best example, where I/O is motivated and looking for more in life. “Piece of Mind” is nicely jelled with electronic sounds, and his soft voice shines on “Strangers” and “We’ll Always Be,” with its addictive hook full of hand claps.
I/O, whose real name is Ayo Olatunji, is a newcomer on the rise. We’re onboard.
This is the wonderful calculus of “The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” a two-disc set with great documentation that travels back to the 1920s and unearths some of the earliest recordings of homegrown American music. Here’s the Fruit Jar Guzzlers (best band name ever?) doing a prehistoric version of the “Stack-O-Lee” ballad. Here’s blues legend Charley Patton going deep into the Delta. Here’s a fiddler named Elder Golden P. Harris sounding like something coming through the open windows of a 19th-century Southern church as he twangs out “I’ll Lead a Christian Life.”
Other traditions are represented, too: Two Eastern European tracks are welcome additions to the mix, jarring in the most evocative way amid all the country and blues. A great American musical lesson that puts the best of emerging legends alongside the long-forgotten — just as record collectors might dream of.
Cohen engages in intricate dialogues with another jazz clarinet virtuoso, Cuban-born Paquito D’Rivera, on four of the 11 tracks — ranging from the twisting, minor key “Nightmare,” Swing Era clarinetist Artie Shaw’s haunting theme, to the playful, danceable “Um A Zero” by the Brazilian choro master Pixinguinha. On “La Vie En Rose,” Cohen pays homage to Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans take on the Edith Piaf chanson, slowing the tempo and contrasting her smooth clarinet lines with Wycliffe Gordon’s growling trombone and gravelly vocals.
Cohen gives her music more variety by embracing other reed instruments. She makes her recording debut on bass clarinet on her own tune “Kick Off,” with Gilmar Gomes adding Latin percussion; plays a burning soprano sax solo on drummer Daniel Freedman’s “All Brothers” with its West African rhythms; and displays some soulful tenor sax chops on the closing, gospel-flavored “The Wedding” by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.
Rapper Stasia Irons and singer Catherine Harris-White’s thoroughly modern mash-up of hip-hop and soul is intoxicating — they call their songs “funk-psychedelic feminista sci-fi epics” — and the music weaves back and forth between fierce and fearless.
The folks at Sub Pop, who had a stellar 2012, discovered Irons and Harris-White after hearing a Shabazz Palaces song they contributed to. Already a veteran of several mixtapes, the self-produced “awE naturalE” is ridiculously self-assured and constantly interesting.
Looking for a little ear candy? Check out “QueenS,” which serves as something of a theme song, the jazzy “Existinct” and the fractured jam of “naturalE.”