Steeped in tradition but always looking for a better tomorrow, rapper Killer Mike already had an incredibly strong discography before R.A.P. Music landed, but here he hits harder than any of his fans could have hoped. The album was released by the "Adult Swim"-associated label Williams Street and was produced by the dirty beatmaker and underground favorite El-P, and even if these bullet points are interesting and exciting, they are not the reason this is a vital piece of work. El-P plays a major part, as his funky, murky work has obviously inspired the stone-cold Killer -- and the shout-out that begins "Jojo's Chillin'" sounds like pure pride in his producer -- but those initials stand for "Rebellious African People Music", and Mike seeks to honor "every music that's been born on this continent from a group of people that were brought here in chains." Heavy words, and yet Mike delivers, not by giving a genre history lesson or delivering a linear concept album, but by joining a cause that stretches from Ellington to Nas, where pride isn't squandered and the struggles of your ancestors are always respected. As such, old friends T.I. and Bun B are brought back (remember the "Re-Akshon" remix from 2003?) for the opening monster dubbed "Big Beast" ("we some money hungry wolves and we're down to eat the rich") while "Go!" worships the West Coast and its legacy, all while kicking off with a startling sample that will welcome old-school heads. "Reagan" is pure politics, rallying against the President's legacy, while "Anywhere But Here" loves rolling through Atlanta and Harlem, but the memories there are the extreme definition of bittersweet as Mike relays the sights passing by the window (that's where I grew up, that's where Sean Bell got shot). While the strange, winding siren of "Untitled" is classic, prime El-P, for the rapper, the track is a new, insightful, intelligent high point, plus the first time (John) Gotti and (Salvador) Dali have been rhymed successfully. That last bit can't be stressed enough, and while R.A.P. Music is filled with all the heartbreak, pain, anger, and earnestness praised above, it's also an incredibly fly and fun record, filled with that prime MC/producer chemistry while striking that perfect balance of persuasive and powerful. Revolutionary stuff and absolutely no fluff, R.A.P. Music is outstanding.
Miike Snow are two Swedish producers and songwriters (whose credits include Britney Spears' "Toxic") and one NYC-based singer, none of them named Mike. (The band name comes from Japanese director Takashi Miike.) On their 2009 debut, they came across like fellow indie pop Swedes Peter Bjorn and John, only slightly slicker, all affably cool and simple, but highly catchy, melodies. Follow-up Happy to You doesn't alter the band's formula but rather reinforces their strengths—pretty keyboard parts, productions and arrangements that are exceedingly pop-smart yet appealingly unfussy—and if singer Andrew Wyatt's lyrics are sometimes melodramatic fluff, his airy delivery (and that cool vocal bend on "The Wave") is sweet enough to sell them. Another album of unassuming but charming pop tunes.
Eric Grandy, Google Play
Without putting a number on their worth, LA-based indie folk ensemble Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros have certainly proven irresistible to audiences who can't seem to get enough rootsy acoustic rock these days. (Frontman Alex Ebert's previous life with '00s dance punk trend-hopper Ima Robot was less successful.) Sophomore album Here should only solidify the Magnetic Zeros' appeal. The band works in basically three modes: twangy, campfire sing-along spirituals ("That's What's Up," "I Don't Wanna Pray"), soft-lipped acoustic ballads ("Dear Believer," "Child") and the occasional broad, rafters-reaching chorus ("Man on Fire") that recalls Arcade Fire, if not quite their fantastical lyricism. The best moments are their least accented or affected, like "Mayla," with its easy rhythm, nimble guitar flourishes, stately chorals and enlivening trumpet breaks.
Eric Grandy, Google Play
The resurgence of surf music in indie rock is an odd, but mostly wonderful, thing. After all, it’s one of the few styles that hasn’t been reinvented to death by subsequent generations of bands after its early-‘60s heyday; by the time the Beach Boys started making albums like Pet Sounds, they were retreating from the beach. Surfer Blood are from Florida -- not exactly the best place to hang ten, despite the tropical weather. However, on Astro Coast they take the sweet melodies of surf-pop to heart, evoking other California boys like Weezer and Pavement with big drums and riffs that dive right into the instant gratification center of the brain. “Floating Vibes”’ fuzzy chords and unexpected strings radiate sun and sand, while “Swim”’s tidal wave-sized reverb adds old-school surf drama to the song’s indelible choruses. While Surfer Blood pay proper respect to the roots of their music with “Take It Easy”’s lilting melody -- which sounds like it could be equally at home in ‘50s rock or ‘90s alt-pop as it is here -- and with the bouncy instrumental “Neighbour Riffs,” their appeal isn’t just nostalgic. Their walls of sound owe as much to Kevin Shields as they do to the Phil Spector era, especially on “Harmonix,” where the echoes that whoosh through the song feel completely modern, as do the surreal lyrics on “Twin Peaks.” Surfer Blood can slow down and stretch out just as well as they deliver breezy pop. “Slow Jabroni” puts the focus on John Paul Pitts’ sweetly boyish vocals for most of its expanse, until it culminates in thundering drums that would do “Wipeout” proud. Despite the quirky wordplay in the album closer, “Catholic Pagans,” there’s an innocence to Surfer Blood's lyrics and music that feels like a reaction to the increasingly cerebral bent of indie rock in the 2000s, and Astro Coast plays like a breath of fresh air.
Heather Phares, Rovi
Bob Mould made his name with expansively genre-defying punk/hardcore band Hüsker Dü in the '80s, but he's had a far longer and more prolific career as a solo artist and leader of '90s alt-rock act Sugar. In 2012, Mould is a 51-year-old indie rock veteran, and the title of Silver Age—and its angsty, bitter title track—suggests both a time of second bests plus hair (or what's left of it) going gray. Silver Age the album suffers from no such wear or fatigue, however. Mould's strident vocals and the band's muscular rock arrangements—hard-hit drums, piles of electric guitar—as well as the upbeat, unbridled energy of songs like "The Descent" all sound like the work of a headstrong rocker half Mould's age. This Google Play exclusive edition includes live versions of Sugar songs "If I Can't Change Your Mind" and "Hoover Dam," and Hüsker Dü's "Makes No Sense at All."
Eric Grandy, Google Play
Forged at a difficult time in the band's history, this album is a dark masterpiece that contrasts the band's signature high-energy power punk attack of On the Mouth with a far more somber, orchestrated approach, while still retaining the band's melancholy melodic majesty. From the opening track, "Like a Fool," with it's droning guitar and languid pace, Superchunk serves notice of their desire to move in new directions. The band itself was in flux, deciding to release Foolish on its own label, Merge, abandoning Matador, who'd help shepherd the successful On the Mouth album. There were also band tensions arising from the breakup of Mac and bassist Laura Ballance, hinted at in Ballance's morbid album art of a disgruntled woman with a butchered rabbit hanging behind her. There's also Mac's bitter words. He goes lyrically from the Icarus-fantasy "Water Wings," where a female "pointed to the black cloud in the sky/and said that's what happened when you try to fly," to "Without Blinking," where he laments, "when you said you're sorry, you did it without blinking/and you can not know how much that hurts." But great works are often forged out of misfortune. Wedding their melodic impulses with a more sedate approach that utilizes increasingly complexity, Superchunk create a emotionally taut album that maps the changing direction of the band as it moves away from its crunchy, arena-pop roots.
Chris Parker, Rovi
After the more laid-back, electronic-focused Omni, Minus the Bear return with a little more bite and purpose for their fifth album, Infinity Overhead. Where their last effort went for smoothness through layers of synthesizers, this album finds Minus the Bear falling back in love with their guitars, getting back to the intricate, mathy sound of their earlier work. "Toska" and "Cold Company" show off a return of the tapped-out guitar lines that helped to define their sound, with the latter featuring some truly dazzling flourishes. More impressive than the guitar work, however, is how casual the whole thing manages to sound. Whether they're firing off lightning-fast guitar licks or delivering something more languid and nuanced, like the plaintive and atmospheric "Heaven Is a Ghost Town," the effort level feels generally the same, with the band remaining in control. While this can sometimes cause the album's pace to feel a bit homogeneous, Minus the Bear's keen ear for layered melody provides a lot of depth for listeners to explore. Though Infinity Overhead isn't exactly a return to form for Minus the Bear, it does find them moving back toward what they do best, and is a step in a promising direction for fans hoping for the band to return to the more vigorous sound of Menos el Oso, and even though the album may lack a bit of fire, it feels like an olive branch to fans who may have been disappointed by Omni's more electronic sound.
Gregory Heaney, Rovi
Now six albums into their epic science-fiction prog rock story arc The Amory Wars (simultaneously being told as a comic book series written by frontman Claudio Sanchez), is it even possible to keep up with Coheed and Cambria if you haven't already been following along? The short answer on The Afterman: Ascension (part one of a double album) is: yes. For one thing, Coheed and Cambria's albums have all fallen out of linear narrative order anyway. More importantly, there's plenty of purely sonic drama on The Afterman: Ascension—laser-strafing punk-metal guitar riffs, an explosive and deep-rumbling rhythm section. While dedicated fans will no doubt get deeper meanings in Sanchez's lyrics, their broadly antagonistic sentiments and Sanchez's sneering and operatic delivery are universal enough even without the accompanying coffee table book.
Eric Grandy, Google Play
The Magnetic Fields' synth pop-saturated tenth studio album arrives after a trio of more guitar-oriented offerings (I, Distortion, and Realism). Love at the Bottom of the Sea feels like an amalgamation of Stephin Merritt's epic 69 Love Songs and his excellent work under the 6ths moniker, especially on the giddy and typically infectious first single "Andrew in Drag." Merritt can still work his subversive magic, as evidenced by the Ian Curtis-lite "Born for Love," the aforementioned "Drag," and the typically deadpan closer "All She Care About Is Mariachi," the latter of which manages to rhyme "Hibachi" and "Liberace" with famed ad agency "Saatchi & Saatchi."
James Christopher Monger, Rovi