Hot New Albums from Daydream Vacation, Metric, Kimbra, and More

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.
 
Pomegranates:  Heaven
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.
 
Metric:  Synthetica
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.
 
Kimbra:  Vows
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.
 
Friends:  Manifest!
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.

Ladyhawke’s ‘Anxiety’ Leads the Pack of This Spring’s Best Musical Offerings

Electronic effects and treated electric guitars dominate 32 year-old New Zealand alt-rock chanteuse Phillipa Brown’s (aka Ladyhawke) sophomore album Anxiety. Those effects often dress up some occasionally mundane lyrics, but the vocal hooks consistently get stuck in your head, and pretty much all of the songs here have ’em. If this album has an antecedent, it’s ’90s alt-rockers Garbage’s second album Version 2.0: exuberant, expertly produced, and packed with potential singles.

Potential singles are hardly a concern for Nick Zammuto, and there’s hardly a defining moment on the self-titled new album from his new band, Zammuto. Nearly every song sounds like the work of a different band. The album, which features his brother Mikey on bass, retains the spirit of humor, adventure, and experimentation his critically renowned former band The Books has perfected over the past decade. This album is total sonic schizophrenia with a charmingly high "huh?" factor: confusing, amusing, and consistently entertaining.

There’s also a consistently entertaining new album from Brooklyn dream-poppers Violens called True. Lovely melodies and reverb-drenched harmonies abound; think Ecstasy and Wine-era My Bloody Valentine with a Smiths fetish. While there have been some wonderful moments scattered across this Brooklyn trio’s prior releases, this album is where the band pulls it all together and truly earns its place alongside top-tier early-’90s shoegaze predecessors like Lush, Ride, and especially Ian Masters-era Pale Saints (to whom the band most closely resembles). It’s a modern masterpiece of the genre.

Also a masterpiece of its genre is the Cryptocracy, the new full length release from electro music wunderkind Huoratron. Missed your morning coffee? Any track from this album will provide an assaultive jolt of audio adrenaline. Under the moniker Huoratron, Finnish producer and experimental electro soundscaper Aku Raski fills the album with all manner of audio trickery, making pulsating electronic dance music that manages to sound aggressive and raw without being abrasive: First-rate contemporary hardcore techno.

We Are Not the Same, the first album from Seattle-based duo Lux, is a self-released, home basement-recorded tribute to D.I.Y. ambition and a music geek’s affection for their indie rock forebearers like Sebadoh and Black Tambourine (whose song "Black Car" is covered here as a hidden track). The band members alternate vocal duties amidst a sea of echoey synths and warm guitar fuzz, emulating their musical heroes with intoxicating enthusiasm. It’s a total charmer.

Chris and Dexy Valentine, the husband/wife team who comprise indie band Magic Wands, have dubbed the sound of their debut album Aloha Moon "lovewave." This seems to mean either ready-made porno soundtrack music or atmospheric, mid-tempo psychedelic pop that alternately shimmers and smolders. This is what space-age bachelor pad music sounds like in 2012, even though some of the lyrics might inspire laughter in the object of said bachelor’s seduction.

New Build is a new project featuring members of Grammy-nominated alt-rock/dance hybrid Hot Chip, multi-instrumentalist Al Doyle, and drum machine impresario Felix Martin and producer Tom Hopkins. Their debut, Yesterday Was Lived and Lost, gives them an outlet to celebrate their fondness for Human League and Born Under Punches-era Talking Heads with rewarding results. The songwriting is solid, the choruses stick, and there are plenty of nice sonic touches like the computerized steel drums that carry the languid "Finding Reasons" to keep things interesting throughout.

Comeback Kids: March Goes Out Like a Lion With Some Fantastic New Albums

The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
The Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt, one of the great living American songwriters, has returned to indie label Merge, picked up his synthesizers, and released his strongest album in years. No concepts or overarching themes this time out, just a collection of 15 short, crafty pop songs (all under three minutes) from a master of the form. The song titles alone will elicit giddy grins from fans (“God Wants Us to Wait,” “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”). Merritt covers a fair amount of ground: clever synth-pop, of course (“The Machine in Your Hand” is about wanting to be a crush’s mobile device); a spurned lover’s revenge fantasy (“Your Girlfriend’s Face,” which the song’s protagonist has hired a hitman to, um, remove); country (“Going Back to the Country”); and Gary Numan–style ’80s new wave (“Infatuation [With Your Gyration]”). Almost every track’s a keeper, and the (very) few that miss their marks are over before they wear out their welcome. It’s the band’s most consistently entertaining album since 69 Love Songs, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

The Ting Tings, Sounds from Nowheresville (Columbia)
Manchester pop duo and Apple darlings The Ting Tings follow up their ubiquitous international hits “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go” with a confident, polished collection of smart, sassy modern pop. Highlights abound: The twin chant-a-longs “Hang It Up” and “Hit Me Down Sonny” could pass for M.I.A. at her catchiest, and “Soul Killing” is an admirable stab at a ska anthem. Elsewhere, the album effortlessly shifts from the ’90s heyday electronica of “One By One" to the deft radio-ready pop of “Day to Day.” The spare, haunting closing track “In Your Life” ends the album with hushed vocals, acoustic guitar, and viola—a well-deserved cooldown after a half hour of uptempo, spirited fun.

School of Seven Bells, Ghostory (Ghostly International)
The third album from NYC’s answer to M83 is another inspired mix of electronica and early-’90s dreampop.The band is now a duo after the departure of vocalist Alejandra Deheza’s twin sister, Claudia, but the vocals here soar as effectively as on prior releases. Ghostory is a concept album (thankfully without the minor-key dirges or goth trappings its title might imply), but while close attention reveals a story  and the group’s trademark lyrical wordplay amid Benjamin Curtis’ swirling guitar textures, the individual songs are strong enough to stand on their own without narrative context. The propulsive opening track “The Night” is as good a song as any the band has yet produced, and “White Wind” packs a heavy, Garbage-like punch. Only on the trance-inducing “Show Me Love” and the percussion-less “Reappear” does atmosphere overtake songcraft.

Miike Snow, Happy to You (Downtown Records/Universal Republic)
Proving this Swedish trio’s stellar eponymous debut was no fluke, the self-produced Happy to You gamely picks up where its predecessor left off, with 10 more tracks of  sonically tricked-out, expertly crafted songs that stylistically fall somewhere between The Postal Service and MGMT. While no single track reaches the dizzying pop heights of “Animal” (the first album’s finest moment and one of the best songs of 2009), some (“Paddling Out,” “Pretender,” and “Archipelago”) come awfully close. The album as a whole is packed with an arsenal of production tricks, sound effects, and marching band brass and drums that will hold your attention throughout.

Nite Jewel, One Second of Love (Secretly Canadian)
L.A. singer Ramona Gonzalez’s sophomore album of hip, lean, laptop disco retains the D.I.Y. charm of her earlier recordings, which have earned her a legitimate cult following. The main difference here is the expected studio polish and her improved songwriting chops. Half of the album consists of hooky pop confections like “Memory Man,” “Mind & Eyes,” and the album’s infectious title track and first single, all benefitting greatly from the cleaner, leaner sound. The remaining half is more stark, minimalist, and experimental, and should appeal to adventurous ears—the kind of music enthusiasts who prefer their pop in quotation marks.

Bright Moments, Natives (Luaka Bop)
Multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt, who has played brass and wind instruments for the likes of Beirut, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, has released a solo album on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and it’s a charmer. Natives is a home-studio recorded confection of odd samples, warm vocals, keyboards, and Pratt’s trademark trumpet flourishes. The Kentucky native’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording fills out the album with all manner of nifty sonic details without making it sound cluttered, and the songs themselves are tuneful and melodic (Careful: You’ll have the melody of “Travelers” stuck in your head for days.) A promising debut.

Plants and Animals, The End of That (Secret City Records)
The Montreal trio’s third folk-infused, guitar-centric indie rock record has a raw, intimate, in-session sound, with Warren Spicer’s vocals way up front in the mix, suiting the material just fine. While the lovely harmonies that sweetened their Polaris-nominated debut album, Parc Avenue, are missed, understated acoustic moments like opening track “Before,” and the midway interlude “HC” nicely offset Crazy Horse–style rave-ups like “Crisis!” (featuring the priceless chorus “We’re somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time”). The End of That manages the neat trick of sounding contemporary, even as it harkens back to loose, ’70s-style guitar rock, ragged in all the right ways.