1. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Faithful Man
My friends are tired of hearing me say it, but I have to declare it one more time: this is the best soul album made since the heyday of the genre. No kidding. The songs and arrangements are perfectly constructed and the Expressions are so perfect for this occasion – tight yet elastic – that they rival the house bands at Hi and Stax. And yet this isn’t a pastiche of Memphis soul or “retro” à la Daptone, but rather a modern and authentic New York style. And then there’s Lee Freaking Fields, a soul singer who’s been hustling since the late ‘60s. Over forty years later and Lee sounds as fresh, vibrant, and sharp as he did when he first picked up a microphone. There are no affectations here, just straight soul music in its purest form.
2. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
I like to sing in the shower. I am certain Frank Ocean likes to do this as well. His album sounds like it was conceived from hundreds of unrelated vocal noodlings – the kind you create under a showerhead – but the difference between Frank Ocean and the rest of us is that he is able to formulate complete gems of pop songs with genuine, everyday life subject matter. Remember how Marvin Gaye used to layer velvety vocal harmonies to drape his albums? Frank Ocean does.
3. Quantic & Alice Russell – Look Around the Corner
These two have been flirting with each other for years, occasionally recording a song together, and thank Jah they finally made a full LP. Between Quantic’s hypnotic arrangements and Russell’s four-octave range, they have made the best Burt Bacharach album in decades. There’s some Latin influence and a whole lot of soul.
4. The Darcys – Aja
Out of left field (read: Toronto) comes a complete re-imagination of a landmark Steely Dan album from the ‘70s. Where the Dan executed with the precision of an accomplished surgeon, The Darcys layered their version with blurred edges and loving devotion in a softcore sort of electronica. It goes to show the power of good material: it stands up no matter how much you shift the focus and intent.
5. Brownout – Oozy
A band of hip Austinites with two distinct personalities. There’s Grupo Fantasma, the purveyors of modern Latin soul, and then there’s Brownout, their masked alter-egos who kick out funk party jams and boogaloos with mirror-ball style and just enough guitar shredding to qualify as rogue insouciance. And like everything they’ve done so far, each new record is more sophisticated and accomplished than its predecessor.
6. Dr. John – Locked Down
The swampiest album he’s recorded in years, due in large part to producer Dan Auerbach, his crack team of musicians, and the willingness of Dr. John to retrieve his voodoo stick from his closet. A hot sauce revival performed by disciples and their leader. And he plays a Farfisa organ solo.
7. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
I still don’t know what to make of this band. Are they for real? Or are they like Ween, just taking us for a ride? Joe Newman’s cartoonish voice isn’t a far cry from the worst of Adam Sandler, and yet when he warbles with a straight face over the toy electronica foundation, there is something loveable and impish about this music. It’s children’s music made by adult children. Start with the singles “Fitzpleasure” and “Breezeblocks;” if you dig them, you will love this album.
8. Grizzly Bear – Shields
As a rule, anything Pitchfork rates above 8 is usually a sure sign you’ll never hear from the band again and will soon regret listening to them in the first place. However, the law of averages suggests that occasionally they’ll be right, and in this case, they are. Grizzly Bear are becoming the standard bearer of what indie rock is supposed to be: challenging, low-budget, lyrically obtuse, and somehow great in spite of the very things that characterize it. This album is lush and rife with impossible harmonies while the arrangements and chord changes are the dreams of a mad prophet. Runner-up for indie album of the year: Yellow Ostrich – Strange Land.
9. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
It’s always surprising when a small album that I really like becomes a huge hit, especially by a very young band from a nowhere town in the South who aren’t playing what constitutes current “popular music.” It’s Southern rock/soul that skews away from guitar virtuosity and more towards what matters: the songs, which are well constructed and delivered by one of the best new voices in a long time – the gifted Ms. Brittany Howard. Seek out their version of Zep’s “How Many More Times” and you’ll hear all you need to know.
10. Amadou & Mariam – Folila
The magical blind couple from Mali teamed up with some stellar artists (Santigold, TV On The Radio) for a more decidedly western flavor. It’s a fusion that makes A&M slightly more accessible, and though some of the collaborations fall short of greatness, most of this album is loaded with pleasant surprises.