The Pipettes, “We Are The Pipettes”
If this was the year when British lasses with an attitude ruled (thanks also to fine releases by Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen), then the Pipettes clawed their way to the head of the pack by virtue of multiplying the formula by three. An inspired update on the girl-group era, the trio of frontwomen (and their sharp, oft-overlooked four-man band) captures the subject and feel of the songs of their forebears but with 40 years of wisdom standing unavoidably front and center. The blithely mean seduction being attempted in “Sex” relies on the singer being breathtakingly naïve, which seems unlikely considering how they turn it around on the fella in the very next song, telling him “Leave me alone, you’re just a one-night stand.” Ebullient, confident and gloriously catchy.
Nicole Atkins, “Neptune City”
Historical proximity makes comparisons between Nicole Atkins and Brandi Carlile inevitable, as both share a rich, open-throated vocal style, but Atkins’s range and timbre are lower and darker, like some magic blend of Stevie Nicks and Cass Elliott. “Neptune City” opener “Maybe Tonight” is fired through with the sense that something is about to happen, and she makes good on it with 10 songs fraught with the thrill of anticipation. Even when she steps away, in the itchier “Love Surreal,” from orchestrated guitar pop with perfect depth of field, she successfully weds the exuberance of the dance floor with the emotional heft she’s spent half the album meticulously establishing. Atkins’s only false step is in burying the title track midway through, since the self-described “cemetery song for summer” is as strong a farewell as an album could want.
The White Stripes, “Icky Thump”
Two years after the strained and self-consciously arty “Get Behind Me Satan,” Jack White seems to have remembered that his ongoing experiment of dressing up theory in primitivism’s clothing in order to drag it into the mainstream doesn’t work if nobody actually bothers to listen. Strange as it is to believe, the screaming-matador stomp “Conquest” seems to encapsulate the appeal of “Icky Thump”: it may be silly (to the point where Jack’s vocal gets so lost in the second bridge that he comes back into the song in a totally different key from anything that came before or is coming up), but it’s got fire underneath it. And so it goes, as Jack and Meg reestablish their rock bona fides, hone their pop chops and dig so deeply into the folk tradition that they end up somewhere on the Scottish border. Forget Radiohead; this might be the most avant-garde band in the mass market.
Eisley’s second album is, among other things, a declaration of independence: from the push and pull of find-us-a-hit-stat label demands, from the restrictive expectations of fans and detractors alike, very possibly from the family-band lifestyle that they’ve called their own for almost a decade. But their epic sweep remains, as do the curlicue voices of sisters Sherri and Stacy DuPree. “Combinations” unfolds gradually on repeated listens, revealing a touch that’s alternately lighter (on “Ten Cent Blues” and “If You’re Wondering”) and heavier (on “Many Funerals” and “A Sight To Behold”) than the band’s terrific past efforts while sounding more organic than ever. After a lifetime of sharing a roof and years of sharing a tour van, Eisley are apparently just now settling in.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand”
Combining the talents of the onetime golden god of heavy metal and the queen of neo-bluegrass was one of those ideas that seems so misguided that it’s almost no surprise that the results are brilliant. The two come to the project as equals: Plant only gets a writing credit on one song and Krauss only gets to fiddle on two. All that leaves them with is their voices, which nestle snugly in and around one another in a moody collection of covers that’s sad, serene and occasionally raucous. In one three-song stretch, they go from Sam Phillips’s cabaret exotica “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” to Gene Clark’s achingly slow “Polly Come Home” to the deconstructed rockabilly of the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” and it’s gorgeous enough to forgive the inevitable Ozzy Osborne/Reba McEntire collaboration that somebody, somewhere is probably already trying to make happen.
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