LANA DEL RAY
Sure, she sucked when she performed on Saturday Night Live. So did Jimmy Fallon, and you gave him a second chance, right? Del Rey’s highly stylized ballads—she seems to have wandered, anesthetized, off the set of a David Lynch pilot—toy with the idea of the “bad girl,” leveraging her appeal as a way out of her dead-end small town. When she coos, “God, you’re so handsome,” she knows just what you want to hear. Posing as a femme fatale is safe these days, but with her red dress and “tar-black soul,” Del Rey’s character is more like Cora in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—an out-and-out cock tease. She split the world into two sides before she even released her first album, Born to Die. Brilliant.
Courtesy of Autumn de Wilde
Remember Kings of Leon, the Tennessee band that was going to bring back Southern music? Pretty soon they were writing songs about how boring it was to date models, and then they walked offstage because a pigeon crapped on them. That’s not exactly the rebel spirit. Now come the Alabama Shakes, a soul quartet led by Brittany Howard. She’s a shouter, and she turns each track on Boys & Girls into a roller-coaster ride—climbing up and up as she slowly drawls out lyrics, then plummeting as she roars a crescendo. Until recently she worked as a mail carrier for the USPS, and Alabama Shakes songs take a determined view of hard times. In “Goin’ to the Party,” she sings, “There’s gonna be dancing, and there’s gonna be a fight,” and she sounds equally excited about both.
Courtesy of Matt Barnes
Smiling like a kid, wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater, her hair in braided pigtails, Azealia Banks might look innocent—that is, until she warns you that it wouldn’t be difficult for her to seduce your girl. “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten,” she repeats. Banks mixes themes of innocence and sexual candor in the video for “212,” which adds a house bounce and a Jamaican accent to a hip-hop beat. Her mother once asked in exasperation, “Azealia, does every song have to be about sex?” The 20-year-old Banks—who grew up in Harlem, loving Broadway show tunes more than rap—is now making her first full album and recently declared her bisexuality. Not every one of her songs will be about sex, she says emphatically, “but some will.” We’re thankful for that.
Courtesy of Dan Reid
Skrillex recently became an electronic music star by taking a jackhammer approach to house music—every jarring beat dices your ear holes. For subtlety and beauty, we must turn to his occasional collaborator Avicii, a cherub-cheeked young Swede born as Tim Bergling, who guested on David Guetta’s last album. In a musical style dedicated to electrode shocks, Avicii—he also records under a few other pseudonyms—adds playfulness: funky R&B in “My Feelings for You,” a lightly skipping beat in “Bromance,” a whistling hook in “Street Dancer.” And on “Levels,” he builds a riot of tempo, color and harmony around a bluesy Etta James sample. There’s even a Skrillex remix, if you want it on blast.
Courtesy of Noah Conopask
Zeb Malik loves the “desperate, dark, badass” quality of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s late-1980s punk rock, but the distorted guitars remind him of a more spiritual sound—Muslim prayers broadcast on “busted-out speakers” in the Philadelphia mosques where his Pakistani parents prayed. Malik has a gift for turning noise into hooks, and it’s paying off: His band PO PO released a few scuzzy songs and rapidly went from playing for 30 people in Philly to 30,000 in Portugal, opening for Nine Inch Nails. On Dope Boy Magick, the six-foot-six Malik adds South Asian drone notes to aggressive, simple, garbled songs that can frighten or unnerve you, even when they sound as though they’re coming from your sock drawer. This is a new kind of music—call it Islamabadass.
QUIET IS THE NEW LOUD
Courtesy of Lourdes Delgado/EMI
As far back as the Velvet Underground, experimentation was synonymous with ear-shattering volume. Now, if you want to hear invention, you have to listen more closely. Great new electronic albums by Nicolas Jaar, pictured (Space Is Only Noise), who was raised in Chile and New York City; Tim Hecker (Ravedeath, 1972) from Montreal; the German musician Alva Noto (summvs, composed with ambient legend Ryuichi Sakamoto); and Oneohtrix Point Never (Replica), the recording name of Brooklyn-based Daniel Lopatin, deploy small variations of quiet and silence, with rippling results that are dreamy and dislocating. These adventurers don’t want to shock you. Quite the contrary; when told that his music was conducive to sleep, Jaar replied, “That’s exactly what I want.”
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, made in 1959, is the top-selling jazz album of all time, so anyone who covers it is immediately suspected of trying to cash in on a classic. But if Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez was aiming for a big payday, he wouldn’t have made Flamenco Sketches with such an unusual lineup: a bassist, a singer, a percussionist and a hand clapper, known as a palmero. (Quick, name a famous jazz hand clapper. We’ll wait.) Kind of Blue is a famously cool record, but Domínguez adds hot Iberian rhythms, moving from thoughtfulness to a strut to an exuberant frolic that makes the live audience forget their manners and holler.
MR. MUTHAFUCKIN’ EXQUIRE
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Are you tired of rappers who act like investment bankers? Who rhyme about their Audemars Piguet watches and tweet about their partnerships with Louis Vuitton? When did rap become a tool of the one percent? Meet Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, a down-and-passed-out underground MC from the Brooklyn projects who raps about bottom-shelf vodka, riding the subway and watching porn on Cinemax. He was enrolled in a school for the gifted but was soon robbing kids with a box cutter and dropped out in 10th grade. You can hear his smarts and his problems on two recent mixtapes, which bring to mind DMX’s dark meditations and the Geto Boys’ surreal hallucinations. If you gave him an expensive watch, he’d probably trade it for a case of Hennessy and a MetroCard.
GARY CLARK JR.
Courtesy of Myriam Santos/WB Records
For a tennis player, 28 is old, but for a bluesman, it’s still adolescent, if not embryonic. And Gary Clark Jr. might be young and vital enough to raise the blues out of its long, long slumber and back into the spotlight. The stylish and strikingly handsome singer, guitarist and songwriter from Austin, Texas cites influences that include Stevie Wonder, the Ramones and Tupac, some of which you can hear in his soulful falsetto ballads. But his roughhouse electric tracks land right in the pocket of blues tradition. Notice how he gets right to the point in the first line of his bruising song “Bright Lights,” for instance: “Woke up in New York City, lying on the floor.”
Once or twice a month, sometimes more frequently, the anonymous music freaks who run Blaxploitation Jive (blaxploitationjive.blogspot.com) post about a soul, blues or jazz dignitary worthy of greater recognition, such as Andre Williams (pictured). There are a lot of similar sites, but none is as thorough; not long ago, a post about the Meters, the great New Orleans funk band, included links to more than 40 different albums, compilations and bootlegs, most of them out of print. Lots of sites inform you about music you’ve missed; this one delivers it into your hands.
Courtesy of Jacob Hand
“Hip-hop is so depressing to me,” Serengeti once said. “It’s the same redundant ideas.” None of this underground Chicago MC’s ideas, spoken in a casual and unexcited voice, could be dismissed as familiar: not his song about White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, nor the one about a neglectful dad who reconciles with his son by shooting smack with him and certainly not his concept album about a middle-aged telephone booth repairman who adores actor Brian Dennehy. If you agree that mainstream rap sucks, buy a copy of Family & Friends. Serengeti deserves at least a small cult following.
Courtesy of Capitol Nashville
Two songs that mention Jesus in the title but three that mention alcohol (and that’s not counting “I’m Gettin’ Stoned”)—that’s the ratio of hell-raising to heaven praising we like to see in our country stars. On his third album, Chief, North Carolina singer and songwriter Eric Church reverses Nashville’s trend of neutering its men, proclaiming his sinful ways in a high, nasal, unapologetically mountain voice, pushed by guitar chords and crashing drums any Rolling Stones fan would recognize. While “Drink in My Hand” supplants all previous happy-hour anthems, Church also knows how dark it is at the bottom of a bottle: “I’ve thrown a punch or two, and gave a few black eyes, but Jack Daniel’s kicked my ass again last night.”