The North American summer solstice happens on Wednesday, ushering in the season of fun while reminding us that, sadly, it’s all downhill from here. The days will now grow incrementally shorter, minute by painful minute. But there is one way to rage against the dying of the light: by listening to the freshest new music from the hottest established and emerging artists. We listened to scores of albums, discarding the clunkers to leave a tight collection of winners for your summer 2012 partying pleasure. Mix your margarita and hit play when you’re ready.
Daydream Vacation: Dare Seize the Fire
Defining Moment: The skittering synths that open the album’s title track, giving way to Asya’s angelic vocals.
Daydream Vacation (pictured) is a collaboration between Seattle musicians Asya de Saavedra of dreampop duo Smoosh and Dave Einmo of hip sampledelic electro-pop project Head Like A Kite. Their debut is a spirited alterna-dance party record, DIY in the purest sense (self-recorded, self-produced, self-released), but it sounds anything but amateurish (in a just world, the candy-sweet pure pop of "That Girl Don’t Sleep" would be a smash hit single). The songs are all short, catchy, and dancefloor friendly (excepting the downtempo album closer "Reincarnation"), and the record as a whole is appealing enough to make a compelling argument for the participants to make this their full-time gig.
Defining Moment: When vocalist Isaac Karns channels his inner Barry Gibb and jumps to a soaring falsetto in the chorus of dance pop stunner "Passaway"
For their fourth full-length, this Cincinnati indie quartet downplays its artier and more experimental inclinations and turns in their most listener-friendly album to date. "Ezekiel" strikes a delicate balance between breeziness and intensity, while uptempo numbers like "Sister" and "Lost Lives" are pure, exuberant indie power-pop. Both "Letters" and the lovely piano ballad "Dream" are destined for inclusion on many a summer Spotify playlist, and handily show the band’s ability to pull off love songs as well as their trademark quirky pop.
Defining Moment: The delicious keyboards meandering under the wordless vocalizing in the post-chorus of the sublime "Breathing Under Water"
Veteran Toronto alt-rockers Metric follow up their 2009 breakthrough Fantasies with another collection of impeccably well-produced, synth-laden alternative rock that shows no drop-off in quality from its Juno award-winning predecessor. Highlights abound. "Breathing Under Water" and "The Wanderlust" (the latter featuring a priceless vocal cameo from Lou Reed) are as good as modern rock gets. The vocodered chorus of the album’s first single, "Youth Without Youth," and the way Emily Haines’ treated vocals approximate the title feline in "Lost Kitten" even allow the band some flashes of humor on an album full of anthems for lonely souls and misfits.
Defining Moment: When Kimbra gets her Amy Winehouse on in the chorus of the irresistable ’60s pop pastiche "Cameo Lover"
She’s already a star in her native New Zealand, but you likely first heard the 22-year-old chanteuse Kimbra Johnson via her duet with Gotye on his international #1 smash "Somebody That I Used to Know." So maybe you did some internet research and found critical accolades and comparisons to Amy Winehouse, Katy Perry, Björk, Florence, and Nina Simone, and you thought, hey, she can’t be *that* good. Well, yes, she is *that* good, and so is her debut album, which proves that the fetching Ms. Johnson is an inventive and versatile vocalist, as adept at tackling soulful R&B as effervescent bubblegum pop. Vows lives up to the inbox-stuffing hype; it’s one of the best pop albums of the year so far, with no shortage of potential hit singles. Spring for the iTunes deluxe version to get the four bonus tracks, every one a keeper.
Defining Moment: Leslie Mann’s impossibly infectious bassline in the anthemic minimalist funk/disco jam "I’m His Girl"
The closest points of reference for this Brooklyn five-piece are Bush Tetras and In Search of Manny-era Luscious Jackson, with maybe a dose of ’60s girl-group sweetness, but their remarkable debut album Manifest! is truly it’s own magnificent beast. Frontwoman Samantha Urbani’s alluring vocals are the focal point, but it’s the bass and percussion underneath that is the band’s beating heart. "Mind Control," "Ideas on Ghosts," and the sunny, summery "Friend Crush" are among the standouts, but the whole album is teeming with hooky funk-pop with an aura of effortless underground cool: A perfect downtown summer party soundtrack.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing: The Cherry Thing
Defining Moment: Neneh Cherry’s vocal calisthenics midway through the gloriously twisted cover of MF Doom’s "Accordian"
How’s this for eclectic: Neneh "Raw Like Sushi" Cherry’s collaboration with trumpet icon Mats Gustafasson’s Norweigan/Swedish jazz trio The Thing is an album of bass-drums-trumpet arrangements by a broad spectrum of artists: The Stooges, Suicide, Ornette Coleman, MF Doom, and Martina Topley Bird. Here’s the blueprint: The band does its stripped-down avant-jazz thing, Neneh makes every one of these songs her bitch, the band cuts loose into a barely-controlled free-jazz melee, then comes back down to earth and everyone catches their breath. Less adventurous listeners will find the skronky atonal bits pretty rough going, though still worth hearing for the pleasure of hearing Ms. Cherry’s impressive return to active duty. If this sounds like your cup of spiked java, you will find the ‘The Cherry Thing’ an invigorating pleasure.
22-20’s: Got It If You Want It
Defining Moment: The sweat-drenched guitar solo in the down-and-dirty "Pocketful of Fire"
Your inner classic rock fan will love this British band’s fourth-and-best album of heavy psych/blues/rock. Cribnotes for the uninitiated: They sound like the Doors, with less emphasis on keyboards, and the guitars turned up to 11 ("White Lines" in particular sounds like a lost track from the Strange Days sessions). Frontman Martin Trimble’s dead-ringer-for-Morrison vocals will catch your ear first, but the band’s twin guitar attack gives it gravity. The heavier moments recall Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, or the Ravonettes with less reverb, which is to say, awesome. In a contemporary music lanscape overrun with recycled hip-hop beats and all manner of sythesizer bleeps and bloops, the 22-20’s’ rock is the right kind of retro.