Beirut: Gulag Orkestar
Beirut is the musical vehicle of Zach Condon, a 20-year-old New Mexico native living in Brooklyn. Gulag Orkestar imaginatively blends the indie and folk music of America with the sounds of Eastern Europe. While it’s not for everyone, Gulag Orkestar is one of the most ambitious albums of the last twenty years. Beirut is not, as some have suggested, the next Neutral Milk Hotel; however, it is very likely that Zach Condon will inherit from Jeff Mangum the title of contemporary music’s most ambitious and independent talent.
Bob Dylan: Modern Times
He fades in and out of our lives, but, like any good friend, he always returns when we need him. Bob Dylan’s Modern Times is a minor masterpiece. The poet’s voice is stronger than it has been in years. The music displays youthful enthusiasm along with unparalleled lyrical wisdom. For Dylan, there is no past tense. If there was any doubt as to who the greatest songwriter of the 20th century was, Modern Times has settled the question. It should now be understood that the same man is the best songwriter of the new millennium, too. I spell genius D-Y-L-A-N.
Band of Horses: Everything All the Time
The Seattle group Band of Horses may have discovered a sound new to the Pacific Northwest with their debut Everything All the Time. The band follows neither the path trampled by Nirvana nor the one paved by Death Cab for Cutie. Everything All the Time is a great pop record with mournful melodies and epic crescendos. The fourth track, “The Funeral,” is the highlight of the album. The simple guitar work, coupled with Ben Bridwell’s vocals, illustrates perfectly the beautiful sadness of the album.
The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely
The most recent effort from the Mountain Goats is a slight departure from previous albums. Unlike the lo-fi All Hail West Texas from 2002, Get Lonely trades in frenetic singing for more somber ballads. John Darnielle still crafts typically verbose lyrics into stream-of-consciousness narratives. He shifts mood from album to album, but retains his music’s unique soul. This is an understated and brilliant record.
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
The Crane Wife melds contemporary pop music with an ancient Japanese folk tale. The album is unified and possesses artistic cohesion that is often lost in popular music when hit singles are the goal. Meloy creates a unit in The Crane Wife that stands as the band’s best work to date. By using both the sounds of pop and the tales of Japanese lore, The Decemberists have made a sophisticated album that successfully avoids esoteric pretension.