1. Hey, the Shins Are Back! (And They Disproved the Theory That No One
Ever Sounds Good on Saturday Night Live!)
After five years of complete silence, onetime indie-pop poster boys The Shins are on the comeback trail, with their fourth full-length, Port of Morrow. First single "Simple Song" is a stellar example of what they do best: complex, high-energy pop that makes perfect use of frontman James Mercer's glass-shattering vocals and his miraculous way with melody. The rest of the album is a bit more laid-back, but no less compelling. It relies more on acoustic guitars than usual, which is actually a pretty pleasant surprise, and it's bolstered by a sense of playfulness that can at times feel awkward but not at all unwelcome. (Also, for the record, they were on SNL last week and they sounded great. Sorry, Lana, but it can be done.)
2. Lucero–Women and Work
You can pull your hair out looking for some hint of subversion in the music of Lucero—surely, you think, at this point in 2012, frontman Ben Nichols and company can't really expect you to be down with lines like, "The women and the work and the booze in between got you puking in the aisles and smashing TVs." But you'll want to give up the search right now: there's no irony here whatsoever, just a lifelong commitment to the very particular (and, sure, unoriginal) brand of hard-living that goes along with a very particular (and, sure, unoriginal) brand of rock and roll. They do the whiskey-soaked alt-country thing better than anyone else currently working, and they've augmented it with a perfectly enjoyable touch of Memphis Soul, via expertly deployed horns. These songs are full of personal struggles, and of celebration, too, even when it isn't exactly justified.
3. The Decemberists–We All Raise Our Voices to the Air
"Good evening," says Colin Meloy at the outset of the Decemberists' new 3xLP live album, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, "Just thought I would mention… this is not the Keith Urban concert. If you mean to be at a Keith Urban concert, you will be sorely disappointed." This sort of anti-populist sentiment has come to be known by some as the most loathsome thing about indie rock, but fuck that: dude proceeds to back it up with 20 smart, energetic songs that fearlessly jump between styles without ever giving up much of anything in the hook department. There's such a huge amount of joy here, for the exuberant crowd, and for the band onstage, that it's hard to begrudge them much of anything—not their theater kid tendencies, not the senselessly archaic language, not the chart-topping success of last year's The King is Dead, and certainly not the right to release a 3xLP live album.
4. Daniel Rossen-–Silent Hour/Golden Mile
What this borough (and by extension, indie rock) needs desperately right now is another gorgeous, endlessly fussed-over collection of songs from the mighty Grizzly Bear, and while it seems that day will come at some point in the not too distant future, we get a nice little stopgap here with Silent Hour/Golden Mile, the debut solo release from Grizzly Bear guitarist/songwriter Daniel Rossen. It's a relatively brief affair, its five songs cloaking in at just over 23 minutes, but it's also predictably rich and engulfing, driven by Rossen's expressive vocals and his consistently surprising guitar work.
5. White Hills–Frying on This Rock
I don't often get stoned and sit on my couch by myself listening to music, because of all the kinds of lives you can have, mine is perhaps the least conducive to that sort of thing, but if I were to start, I would definitely do it while listening to Frying on This Rock, the new 5-song EP from White Hills. It's dizzying and sprawling, but it also engages in a good bit of old-fashioned ass-kicking.
6. Jim White–When It Hits You
You can't really talk about this record by Jim White without noting that White's wife walked out on him while he was making it. Unsurprisingly, it borders on uncomfortably personal, its dark subject matter matched perfectly by White's ragged voice and nudged just barely out of its own way by little touches like bluesy harmonica and standup bass.
7. The Pogues–"Bottle of Smoke"
You know, for St. Patrick's Day. And while there is of course the temptation to drift toward the many sadder songs in MacGowan's catalog, let's instead focus on this one, about the pure, simple joy of winning big at the track. "Twenty fucking five to one/Me gambling days are done/I bet on a horse called A Bottle of Smoke and my horse won." Ignore, for a moment, the likelihood that his gambling days aren't really done, and tip your glass.
8. Yellow Ostrich–Strange Land
It's surprising, I think, that no one seems to be paying all that much attention to the new Yellow Ostrich record, Strange Land, the follow-up to their much-praised 2010 debut, The Mistress. Alex Schaff, who basically was Yellow Ostrich before bringing on drummer Michael Tapper (real name, presumably) and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, remains perhaps Brooklyn indie rock's most gifted crafter of melodies and one of its best pure singers, as well. There are harmonies for miles here, and song structures that take plenty of unexpected turns. As ever for fans of the Weakerthans and Dirty Projectors.
9. El-P–"The Full Retard"
So, no, if I were a rapper I probably would not name one of my songs "The Full Retard," but I guess we'll go ahead and say that's beside the point here. El-P's back after a five-year absence, and on this, the first single from his forthcoming I'll Sleep When You're Dead album, he's in fine form, rapping over a beat comprised mostly of lasers.