by Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine
Artist: Arcade Fire
Track: Here Comes the Night Time II
Certain bands are not merely great, but they reflect and comment on their times in gripping terms. Arcade Fire is one of those bands, and Reflektor (note title) is one of those albums that prove it. A sprawling, double-disc set, Reflektor references everything from pornography to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the course of examining an age mesmerized – and seemingly paralyzed — by its journey into an abyss of narcissism. The energy and intelligence of the music stand as calls to action, however, inspiring listeners to see beyond their selfies and recognize their relationship to the larger human community.
Album: Get Up!
Track: Don’t Look Twice
It’s hard to believe that Ben Harper is now in his mid forties and has been making records for nearly twenty years. He approaches each project with an immediacy and force that make it feel like it’s his first time out of the gate. This collaboration with blues veteran Charlie Musselwhite is no exception. It works exactly as it should: Musselwhite’s bare-bones minimalism checks Harper’s occasional excesses as a slide guitarist, and Harper’s go-for-broke energy shakes Musselwhite, who is edging close to seventy, out of his genre’s clichés. When these two find their groove, with Harper’s slide guitar and Musselwhite’s harmonica wailing, it sounds as if they’re sitting calmly at the crossroads, jamming as they await the arrival of a dark, mysterious friend.
Artist: featuring Emmylou Harris, Anna McGarrigle, Krystle Warren, Martha Wainwright, Lily Lanken
Track: Heart Like a Wheel
Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle died of cancer in 2010 at the age of sixty-three, and the thirty-four tracks on this two-disc set pay tribute to her extraordinary career. She is best known for her work with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, who wrote “Heart Like a Wheel,” which the duo sang before Linda Ronstadt made it a signature song. The album features performances by Anna, as well as Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and such friends and fans as Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Thompson and the incredible Antony Hegarty. The songs are daring in their emotional honesty, like the woman they are meant to honor.
Album: Pushin’ Against a Stone
Artist: Valerie June
Track: Wanna Be on Your Mind
Valerie June generated a big buzz with this album, one of the most distinctive releases of the year. She’s had some smaller releases, but this is essentially her debut and it’s impressive. June calls her sound “organic moonshine roots music,” and I can’t do any better. She combines folk, country and blues in ways that are idiosyncratic – and haunting. We’ll be hearing more from her.
Album: Lily & Madeleine
Artist: Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz
Track: Sounds Like Somewhere
Sister groups are something of a trend these days, and my favorite is Lily & Madeleine, two teenagers from Indiana who sing with harmonies that sound like something you heard long ago in a dream and have struggled to remember ever since. The album’s opening track is called “Sounds Like Somewhere,” and that place for me is southern Indiana, where I went to graduate school. It’s an area that remains both beautiful and evocative, as simultaneously innocent and knowing as these two remarkable voices.
Album: Trouble Will Find Me
Artist: The National
As its title suggests, Trouble Will Find Me doesn’t exactly teem with holiday cheer, but the National once again walk on the dark side and find a seductive, unruly beauty there. When singer Matt Berninger croons “I stay down with my demons,” his relationship with them sounds far too cuddly, as if they were undomesticated pets, capable of turning on him at any time. But for the length of this riveting album, they remain under control, lurking on the edges and drifting into the center of these thirteen songs in unpredictable, unsettling and eerily captivating ways.
Track: Long Time Gone
Interestingly, this is the second of two albums that came out this year devoted to the songs of the Everly Brothers – the other is A Date with the Everly Brothers by the Chapin Sisters. The star power is higher here and surprisingly effective. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones are an unlikely pairing, but they fully commit to this twelve-song set and do the Everlys proud. They emphasize the folk and country elements of the duo’s music and select lesser-known songs – for better or worse, you won’t find “Wake Up Little Susie” or anything remotely like it here. But the Everlys’ gorgeous, eloquent harmonies shine through, and that’s more than enough to make Foreverly a sensual pleasure you’ll return to again and again.
Artist: Amos Lee
Track: Chill in the Air
Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song is Amos Lee’s fifth studio album, and he continues to grow both as a singer and a songwriter. Folk, country and soul continue to entangle in his sound, and without being contrived about it, he knows how to write a chorus. Alison Krauss joins him on “Chill in the Air,” and the combination sounds natural and effortless. Lee is proof that at least some artists can develop the way they did back in the old days of the 20th century – making one strong album after another, hitting the road and building an audience, gaining new devoted fans each time out.
Album: Mechanical Bull
Artist: Kings of Leon
Track: Don’t Matter
Kings of Leon sound so confident on their sixth album that it’s hard to remember that it seemed as if the band was on the verge of disintegrating just two or three years ago. But singer Caleb Followill seems to have sorted out his problems and the group is back now, roaring loud, as haunted by sex, religion and potential self-immolation as ever. As long as the danger remains in the art and not in the lives, as it is here, Kings of Leon will lose none of their power – and live to tell the tale.
Artist: Nick Lowe
Track: I Was Born in Bethlehem
Holiday albums run the risk of two extremes: annoyingly sentimental or self-consciously cynical. Nick Lowe understands that you can split the difference, acknowledging the legitimate emotional investment that people make in Christmas, but treating those feelings with intelligence, generosity and humor. On “I Was Born in Bethlehem,” Lowe gives Jesus the opportunity to tell the story of his birth in his own words – it’s simple, moving and a welcome addition to the seasonal music repertoire.
(Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a distinguished lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-writer of Clive Davis’s memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, and is currently working on a biography of Lou Reed.)