by Max Ashburn
Bayside – The Walking Wounded: This album marks a huge leap forward in songwriting for the boys from Queens. Creative melodies and tight, close harmonies are interweaved around two distinct guitar patterns. Songs like the title track and “Duality” are representative of what this band can do at its best: combine sharp vocals with alternating guitars and a strong back beat. Producers Shep Goodman and Kenny Gioia added some textured instrumentation on this album, with strings and vibraphones showing up on several songs.
Bright Eyes – Cassadaga: I didn’t want to like Bright Eyes for the longest time. The whole “Bright Eyes” persona seemed boring and pretentious to me. Then I bought “Cassadaga” on a whim. Style-wise Bright Eyes (Connor Oberst) bases most of his songs around an acoustic guitar, but fills them out with varied instrumentation. There are hints of blues, country and even a bit of rap on “If the Brakeman Turns My Way.”
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond: It’s been more than 20 years since Dinosaur Jr. first formed in the wilds of Amherst, Massachusetts. The original lineup reunites for the first time in 15 years on “Beyond,” and they sound better than ever! Head Dino J. Mascis handles most of the songwriting duties on the album, but bass player Lou Barlow adds his signature poppy sound to a few tracks. Early Dinosaur Jr. albums were defined by a low-fi production sound and a sense of barely-controlled chaos. On Beyond the production is more hi-fi but the sound is still bordering on anarchy.
Elliott Smith – New Moon: It’s saying something when one of the best albums of the year is a posthumous second-rate compilation of home recordings and outtakes. But that’s representative of the stark, simple and enduring beauty of Elliott Smith’s songwriting. It’s interesting to note that even on his home 4-track recordings Smith insisted on double-tracking his vocals. It was his signature style and it makes even sparse songs like “Placeholder” sound full and accomplished. His cover of Big Star’s classic “Thirteen” sounds surprisingly optimistic.
Chris Cornell – Carry On: “Carry On” is a very appropriate title for an album that was released only weeks after Cornell’s official departure from his last band, Audioslave. Cornell’s first band, Soundgarden, began life in Seattle nearly 20 years ago. Cornell has become known as one of the iconic rock singers of all time, and while at age 42 he doesn’t hit the high notes that he used to, his voice is still powerful and his songwriting is still inspired. Stylistically, the album covers a wide area, from the hard-rockin’ opener “No Such Thing” to the ethereal acoustic sound of “Killing Birds.” The only let-down on the album is the plodding and pointless cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
Queens of the Stone Age – Era Vulgaris: Many viewed the Queens’ last album, 2005’s “Lullabies to Paralyze” as a dark reaction to the personal turmoil the band endured after their breakout album, 2002’s “Songs For the Deaf.” The dark clouds seem to have lifted off the band on “Era Vulgaris” as it’s chock full of peppy sludge-rock in major-key tonality. The opener “Turning on the Screw” contains a maddeningly-slow and deliberate drum beat, while “Misfit Love” has a backbeat so intense you can’t help but shake your groove thing.
Interpol – Our Love to Admire: It had been three long years since “Antics,” the last album from New York City’s uber-moody Interpol. The band’s sound changed noticeably in the meantime. “Our Love to Admire” features more complex arrangements, more keyboards, and a slicker production sound. Unfortunately, the album is missing the signature quirky bass lines and octave jumps by bassist Carlos D, who plays more traditional parts on this album. Still, songs like “Rest My Chemistry” and “Pace is the Trick” show that Interpol is still the best band in the biz at crafting dark atmospheric rock songs.
Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight: Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis took 2006 off to record and tour for her solo album “Rabbit Fur Coat.” That album was a great acoustic-rock record that featured the delicious vocal harmonies of the Watson Twins. But it’s with Rilo Kiley that Lewis really shines as a singer and songwriter. “Under the Blacklight” is the band’s most stylistically varied album to date. Songs like “Silver Lining” and “Breakin’ Up” are the kinds of glorious pop songs that Christina Aguilera only wishes she could write.
The Cribs – Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever: The Cribs are a 3-piece band from England with twin brothers on bass and guitar who trade off singing duties but who sound, as one might expect, exactly the same. It sounds weird, but it works. The arrangements are sparse, with the guitar often playing a single-note line instead of chords, but the band creates a surprisingly full sound. Their lyrics are filled with typical English cynicism and wit, as heard on songs like “Girls Like Mystery” and “I’m a Realist.” I dare you not to tap your foot along with “Men’s Needs.” Go ahead, I dare you.
The National – Boxer: The National’s singer, Matt Berninger, has a voice reminiscent of Mark Lanegan’s baritone growl, though somewhat more polished and with a discernable vocal range. There is nothing groundbreaking on “Boxer” and The National’s sound is reminiscent of sparse auto-rock bands like Joy Division and Eugenius, but few bands are breaking ground these days and there is beauty in the spareness of “Boxer.” Even lyrically the band strives for a Thoreau-like simplicity, exemplified by songs like “Slow Show.”