Simmer down, Fox News. If anyone’s waging a war on Christmas, it’s Spotify. Ever since the Swedish music-streaming service set up shop on American soil earlier this year and started offering its degenerate, pagan, gay agenda of bottomless free music with limited commercial interruption, it’s made it even harder to justify giving Target that $15 for the new Ke$ha record. Just as the pop/indie genre designation becomes less meaningful, the act of purchasing digital records becomes more and more abstract. And yet, Santa’s elves continue to cobble ones and zeros together in some icy workshop north of Björk’s recording studio for the listening pleasure of the good little boys and girls.
Speaking of Björk, the Icelandic nymph recently released Biophilia, a hugely ambitious science-oriented record complete with an iPad app for every track. The interactive nature of this package is one new way in which recorded music is beginning to transcend its easy disposability and return to the level of durability that could make for a great gift—that is, if you’re a Björk fan. The project has been panned by critics, but then this isn’t a list of year-end critical picks. Look out for those in a couple weeks.
Looking at my list here, the most economical, if discriminatory, way of breaking down my suggestions in the pop/indie umbrella category is by gender. Let’s start with the ladies.
Annie Clark just might be all things to all people. Performing as St. Vincent, Clark has managed to craft songs that highlight both her sweet, seductive vocals and absolutely menacing electric guitar playing. Strange Mercy is destined to top year-end lists and is a safe bet for both conventional and experimental musical tastes. It’s something to dance, rock and swoon to. On the vocal end of things, Clark owes a debt to Leslie Feist, who also has a new record. The former Broken Social Scene singer is virtually the archetype of the contemporary indie songstress, as powerful in her vocal approach as she is innocent at times. Adding to the physical appeal of the CD, fans were asked to vote on the cover art for Metals. Julianna Barwick’s debut album The Magic Place was originally filed under the new-age and ambient genres when it first came out, but don’t let that prevent you from checking it out. The singer is a one-woman choir, using loops and effects to stack her crystalline vocals into gorgeous, pastoral blankets of sound.
On the male end of the vocal spectrum, James Blake (the British musician, not the American tennis player) has crafted one of the most distinctive records of the year with James Blake. The former dubstep artist rebranded himself as a singer-songwriter, drawing on a toolbox of electronic effects—namely, vocal delay and window-rattling bass—to complement his icy, atmospheric songwriting. On his debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon also went the cold, lonely route, but with Bon Iver things took a turn for warmer climates. With detours into ’80s production values, the record goes for a big, swallow-you-whole sound, padding Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto with plenty of horns and guitar. Robin Pecknold completes the triad of distinctive male voices. Fleet Foxes’ debut absolutely bulldozed the industry a few years back, and this year’s Helplessness Blues was one of the year’s most anticipated. It was worth the wait. Here’s a record you can get for the 20-something indie rocker and 60-something classic rocker in your life. Just make sure it’s on vinyl.
But, wait: Tom Waits has a new record too. Most Waits fans would be content to listen to him sing the Betty Crocker cookbook (which I’m sometimes convinced he’s doing on certain tunes) and Bad as Me doesn’t disappoint. There’s as much jukebox growl on this record as on anything he’s ever put out.
So, I’m tempted to weigh in on the hip-hop side of the equation, but be careful here. You don’t want to go giving an Odd Future fan that Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration. They’ll be, like, “swag?” Watch the Throne was rivaled only by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV and Drake’s Take Care this year in the realm of larger-than-life mainstream rap. It’s no wonder, then, that so much independent stuff spilled out from under the radar. There were about six dozen Odd Future releases, but the single strongest freestyle-oriented record came from A$ap Rocky in LIVELOVEA$AP. However, if you like your beats with a strong dose of weird, Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up is a ranking record-of-the-year regardless of genre.