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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Catching up on last year’s albums

Shortly before the holidays, I listed some of my favorite things of 2012. The list included concerts and movies, but I decided not to list albums, because I hadn’t heard that many. But over the past few weeks I’ve picked up a number of albums released last year, and I feel I can write about the year in music with slightly more authority. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

I did acquire two excellent 2012 releases over the summer: Dr. John’s “Locked Down” and the Alabama Shakes’ “Boys & Girls.”

“Locked Down” is a tour-de-force from an aging legend. Produced by Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, the album is a scintillating mix of funk, jazz, R&B and straight up rock and roll. Every song is a catchy and complex fusion of styles and moods, but what I like most about the album is its occasional weirdness. Like the song “Ice Age,” with its lyrics about how we’re all living in the ice age, or “Kingdom of Izzness,” with its equally ominous lyrics about how the “world is lost.” Such songs might give “Locked Down” an unsettling, apocalyptic vibe, but the album is still undeniably groovy.

“Boys & Girls” is an album that sounded great when I first heard it, and sounds even better now. One of the most impressive things about the Alabama Shakes is how young they are, and how unabashed they are about some of their decidedly unhip influences, such as AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. What makes “Boys & Girls” so memorable are the soaring yet gritty vocals of lead singer Brittany Howard, and the group’s Southern roots — it’s refreshing to hear great music that isn’t from Seattle, Brooklyn or any of the other places considered hotbeds of cool. At its best, “Boys & Girls” recalls the rollicking, no-holds barred music of performers such as Janis Joplin, while also pointing the way toward a promising future.

I’ve recently picked up Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” the XX’s “Coexist,” Rupa & the April Fishes’ “Build” and Passion Pit’s “Gossamer.” I haven’t fully immersed myself in these albums yet, but I’ve listened to them enough to form some rudimentary opinions.

I grabbed “Channel Orange” because so many people picked it as their top album of the year, and because I like Ocean’s song “Novacane,” off his acclaimed EP “Nostalgia, Ultra.” Anyway, I don’t usually listen to contemporary R&B, so it’s going to take me a little time to get used to “Channel Orange.” Some of the songs feel a little like filler to me, but the best songs are soulful and emotionally stirring, with interesting and unusual beats, rhythms and sounds. What makes it all work is Ocean’s astonishing voice (check out his cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”) and the way he combines a creative, unconventional attitude with emotions that are universal and true.

I really like the XX’s debut self-titled debut, and “Coexist” offers more of the same, though not in a bad way. The band has a very distinctive sound — cool yet seductive, a mix of soft guitars and lush electronica. Like the band’s first album, “Coexist” is something of a slow burn — one of those albums that envelops the listener in a dark, dreamy mood, rather than plying them with catchy hooks. The XX create a unique sonic world, and they invite the listener into it, but they don’t feel the need to please the crowd. Much as I like the band’s sound, I’d like to see them do something a little different on their next album.

I caught Rupa & the April Fishes at the Sanctuary for Independent Media last year, and finally picked up their 2012 release, “Build.” The album doesn’t quite capture the raucous energy of their live show, but it features sharp songwriting and the same rebellious, political spirit that was on display in Troy. The music is a melting pot of genres — ska, reggae, Latin, gypsy, etc. — perhaps best described by the bouncy track that concludes the album, “Electric Gumbo Radio.” I have the feeling that “Build” will grow on me the more I listen to it.

I bought “Gossamer” in preparation for Passion Pit’s concert in Troy next month. I’m a huge fan of the band’s first album, “Manners,” and initially “Gossamer” was a bit of a disappointment. It just didn’t seem to reach the heights of “Manners,” and the irresistibly catchy electro-dance pop showcased on hits such as “Sleepyhead” and “Little Secrets.” But the more I listen to “Gossamer,” the more I like it. The music isn’t quite as instantly hummable, but it’s more substantive and serious, with references to the stock market crash of 2008 and struggles with addiction. My guess is that it will all sound pretty good when I hear the band live next month.

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