[PRODUCER’S NOTE: Click the name for the artist’s website, the title of the album for a link to purchase it on Amazon and click the song title for a link to hear a sample or to buy a download.]
Selected and Written by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis
For their 50th anniversary, the Beach Boys made an unabashedly nostalgic album that acknowledges many decades have passed since the group’s AM radio heyday, but celebrates those times anyway. Brian Wilson and Mike Love even reconciled for this milestone, though their reconnection was shortlived. The melancholy at the heart of these celebrations of beauty and hedonism already lay at the heart of all the Beach Boys hits – and at the heart of California, the troubled paradise at the end of the American journey westward.
Album (single): Doom and Gloom
Song: Doom and Gloom
The Stones, of course, are another legendary band celebrating a 50th anniversary, which they’re doing with a new greatest hits set called GRRR!, a handful of live shows in London and New York (with more likely to come next year) and a roaring two-sided single. As things go with the Stones, one song is Mick’s (“Doom and Gloom”) and one is Keith’s (“One More Shot”), but both are propelled by definitive Stones guitar riffs. The battling brothers appear to have mended their relations, and on stage the group that called itself “the greatest rock & roll band in the world” is on fire.
David Byrne & St. Vincent * (sadly this song and discussion were cut for time from our PRI show)
Album: Love This Giant
Song: I Should Watch TV
It wouldn’t seem as if they’d have much in common. David Byrne, the legendary founder of Talking Heads, is twice the age of relative newcomer Annie Erin Clark, who calls herself St. Vincent. But they share a fondness for grounding big ideas in accessible pop settings, and a genial willingness to see the surreality in everyday situations, and to see the familiar in the genuinely surreal. Brass arrangements teeter on the edge of chaos, while funk percussion chatters beneath them. Byrne and St. Vincent, wander through our and their lives like anthropologists, marveling at everything they encounter, as if they were seeing it for the first time.
Album: The Idler Wheel…
Fiona Apple stands as a reminder that talent actually counts for something. Every time she releases an album, it’s surrounded by some sort of controversy. (She recently cancelled a tour because her dog is dying.) But each of her four albums is a strong, seductive statement, this one especially so. The songs here are as raw as it gets, and musically stripped down. The song “Jonathan” is about Apple’s former boyfriend, the writer and actor Jonathan Ames. “I don’t want to talk about anything,” she sings, and then, characteristically, she talks about everything.
Song: Call Me Maybe
Song: Gangnam Style
Two near-novelty singles proved virtually ubiquitous, prompting references from the unlikely likes of Barack Obama, Alan Simpson and Colin Powell. Each of them is fun and strangely effective in yielding so willingly to parody and condescension that, in a kind of cultural martial arts move, the energy to dismiss only prolongs their lives. That they’re both much smarter and better put together than most people realize is part of the reason why.
Track: Missing Pieces
Just when Jack White sets aside his countless band projects and finally makes his solo album, it turns out to be as idiosyncratic as everything else he has done. Rather than revealing an “essence” of some kind, White plays around with styles and approaches – opening the album with the keyboard and electronic riffs and beats of “Missing Pieces.” When the Grammys nominated Blunderbuss for Album of the Year, a friend asked me if I thought it deserved that status. “I’m not sure it’s going to live for the ages,” I said. “But Album of theYear? Absolutely.”
Album: Channel Orange
Song: Thinking ‘Bout You
Frank Ocean’s debut got a big lift when he admitted to having relationships with men, and the media covered the revelation with endless fervor and curiosity. Ocean was associated with an underground hip-hop collective and has worked with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West and Beyonce. It’s not a world that’s always so accepting of homosexuality, but Ocean was embraced and supported. So much was made about the pronouns in the songs, that it was all too easy to overlook their sensual appeal, regardless of which gender you prefer.
Album: The Heist
Song: Starting Over
I realize that we’re supposed to support politically correct rap, but too often it’s, well, a little boring. So much of listening to hip-hop is bound up in grappling with the violence, materialism, misogyny and homophobia in it that it can come to seem like that’s point of the music. But the white Seattle rapper Macklemore has made an album that makes gay rights, recovery and thrift shops sexy and compelling. On “Starting Over” he describes falling off the wagon, going to a meeting and meeting a girl who tells him that his music is the reason for her own sobriety. He’s humiliated, and makes that complicated encounter vivid, edgy and somehow inspiring.
Album: Girl on Fire
Track: Brand New Me
Alicia Keys’ fourth album continues her impressive musical development. She seems more confident than ever here, modernizing her sound with electronic beats but keeping her words, her lush piano playing and her bracing voice at the center of her songs. “Brand New Me” reassures both her fans and herself. After all her success, she’s still pushing and exploring – and reinventing herself.
Album: Sugaring Season
Track: Poison Tree
Beth Orton first made her mark as an English folkie who blended her songs with electronic beats. Now twenty years on, she’s returned to her folk sources with songs that address the historic concerns of English romantic poetry – the movements of nature and the seasons, the efforts of individuals to discover their place in the natural world, and to reconcile their internal emotions with some kind of external reality. On “Poison Tree” Orton takes an unsettling William Blake poem and crafts a perfect – that is, equally unsettling – musical interpretation of it.