The Smiths have been defunct since the late 1980s, but man, this dreamy debut from British singer-songwriter Aries admirably resurrected that band’s shimmering guitar pop and mopey grandeur. Aries, who also plays with the Drums, coaxed a silvery tone from his guitar while singing prom-night anthems about young love and the pleasures of youth. “This Grave Is My Bed Tonight” was this year’s most underappreciated pop jam. “Unbloomed”? Quite the contrary.
“La Edad de la Violencia”
Mostly written while she was pregnant, Bastida’s “La Edad de la Violencia” was the Tijuana-born singer-songwriter’s attempt to make sense of such a turbulent world. Translated from the Spanish, “The Age of Violence” was not as heavy as it might sound. The songs brimmed with hope and an intriguing palette of sounds that Bastida mined from synthesizers, horns, and the elasticity of her own voice. It’s Latin pop sung in Spanish, but with universal appeal.
It’s been eight years since Frame’s last release, but the former Aztec Camera man has not lost anything off of his fastball. Whether it’s his smart lyrical style, his warmly engaging voice, or his inviting guitar pop, Frame manages to sound as fresh today as he did in his ’80s heyday.
The pedal steel guitar is always capable of conjuring an otherworldly beauty. But on Björklund's sophomore album, the Danish artist framed it in all sorts of unexpected contexts: psychedelic, tender, even menacing. It’s particularly fascinating how she reshaped its contours on “Missing at Sea.” Having recorded and toured with the likes of Jack White and Mark Lanegan, Björklund was the star attraction on this beguiling Americana album that often sounded like it belonged in a David Lynch film.
In his late 20s, Fullbright already writes and sings like a man reflecting on a full life. Similar to that of Mickey Newbury, the late, great songwriter who is one of his heroes, Fullbright’s attack is soft but cuts deep. He comes from the tradition of country songwriters who tell stories in plainspoken terms — think Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt — dressed up in little more than emotion. Even the title of his sophomore album, “Songs,” downplayed its staggering content.
“L’Amour” and “Romantic Times”
How fitting that these two albums went overlooked this year: They suffered the same fate upon release in the early ’80s. Knowing next to nothing about the artist, or even his whereabouts, Light in the Attic Records reissued two albums by a guy simply known as Lewis. The music, too, was an enigma, steeped in seasick synthesizers and his ethereal whisper of a voice. The label claimed to have found Lewis eventually, but, like these albums, he was happy to recede into the shadows.
NAOMI SHELTON & THE GOSPEL QUEENS
Shelton tends to get overshadowed by Sharon Jones, her label mate on Daptone Records who also released a terrific album, “Give the People What They Want,” early this year. Both women command your attention with the lived-in warmth of their voices and the conviction of their deliveries. Shelton’s latest was a seamless fusion of gospel fervor and lean ’60s soul, with the septuagenarian singing as if testifying from a pulpit.
If you can imagine Prince producing an album by indie-pop chameleon Ariel Pink, you’re almost prepared to appreciate the gonzo R&B and soul experiments of Silk Rhodes. The new self-titled debut from the duo of singer Sasha Desree and producer Michael Collins is full of velvety loverman pleas, instrumental interludes, and Delfonics-like seduction. These guys are clearly having fun bending R&B’s parameters to make it their own.
“American Middle Class”
Best known until now as one third of the supergroup Pistol Annies — with pals Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe — this coal miner’s daughter makes a dramatic solo debut with this solid album of no frills, funny, insightful, and whip-smart country, proving she’s hell on heels all on her own.