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02 Jul

Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

Looking on the opposite side of the penny from yesterday’s┬áMid-Year Review of 5 Disappointing Albums, today sees an examination of 5 albums released in the first half of this year that have genuinely surprised me. To help clarify, as I also did yesterday, when I use the word “surprising albums”, it’s NOT intended to imply they’re the BEST or my favorites, but simply records that have caught me the most off guard. I was not expecting these records to be as good as they turned out to be, and I hope that if you haven’t heard these albums yet that you make it a point to sometime soon. As it was yesterday, these albums are not ranked, but are listed in alphabetical order to prevent such impressions from occurring. And on that note, what albums have surprised you so far this year? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Download: Conscience Killer)
After the disaster that was 2007’s “Baby 81″, my confidence in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was shot. Despite the relatively poor reviews their first two albums received, their fuzz-fueled Jesus and Mary Chain-baiting rock captivated me like few other bands at the time did. That they have been on a slow and steady drop in quality since then has been unfortunate. The reality is that I gave “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” a listen more as a formality in preparation for another scathing review attacking their inability to commit to a sound and the lack of passion they’ve been putting behind their songs recently. What happened instead was that for the first time in a long time, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club finally sounded like they were back in a big way. Think of them like pro athletes that slowly spiral into the dangerous world of drug addiction. “Baby 81″ was them hitting bottom, and now after a rehab program, they’re back in shape and almost in peak form. Let’s just hope they can keep on the straight and narrow from here on out. [Buy]

Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
For her entire life, Charlotte Gainsbourg has been living in the shadow of her father. No matter what she’s done, from her acting to her very sporadic music career, people almost always bring up Serge. In 2006, Charlotte released her first album in 20 years “5:55″, and given that she paired up with French pop duo Air, that record sounded like a tribute to her father rather than a statement of individuality. That wasn’t the intention, and thankfully for “IRM” she joined forces with Beck to make a diverse and fascinating record that’s actually the best thing either of them have done in a long time. We see a new side of Charlotte and though she didn’t write the lyrics or compose the songs, her vocal performance stretches beyond anything she’s done previously, and with more emotion too. [Buy]

The Futureheads – The Chaos (Download: Struck Dumb)
The Futureheads seem to have been slipping ever since their self-titled debut album. Of course a band that tends to specialize in short, 2 minute bursts of pure energy and hooks isn’t exactly built on a strategy for longevity. Still, continuing in their tradition of releasing a new album every two years, “News and Tributes” was a solid sophmore effort, but the band fell off the wagon when they tried to compose longer, more serious songs on their last album “This Is Not the World”. As if they’d gotten the message, “The Chaos” brings back to The Futureheads exactly what the title describes. Some of their poppiest, most addictive music since they first burst onto the music scene several years ago. Combine that with a highly combustible and insanely fun live show, and The Futureheads are more than equipped to surprise you in 2010. [Buy]

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Download: Sun Hands)
There’s been a slow and low build of buzz for Local Natives since their performance impressed so many at SXSW 2009, but I’ll admit to being late to that party. All too many times I’ve heard of bands being called “the next Grizzly Bear” or “the next Fleet Foxes”, only to be disappointed by these supposed next big things. When “Gorilla Manor” was finally released in the U.S. earlier this year, I wasn’t even fully aware of it until the high praise reviews started rolling in. Even then I was hesitant to even give them a try. It took stumbling upon the song “Wide Eyes” by accident one day while randomly surfing the internet to compel me to give Local Natives a try. And boy am I glad I did. The album is nothing short of amazing, and like Fleet Foxes scratched a certain itch for me in 2008, Local Natives satisfy that same part of my brain in 2010. This is an all-too-unheard album from the first half of the year that deserves every shred of recognition it gets, so if you’ve been holding out like I was, buy into these guys. They’re the real deal. [Buy]

MGMT – Congratulations
I’ve made it a point in the past to complain about MGMT. Their 2007 “debut” album “Oracular Spectacular” featured a handful of songs recycled from years old EPs, and it’s those songs that gained the band so much attention. That, along with an extremely poor live show from them I witnessed in 2005 drove my dislike of the band to near extremes. Well, their second record “Congratulations” earns them exactly that from me. Not only is it a full album’s worth of material that was completely written and recorded in the past year, but the songs on it give the proverbial middle finger to the rabid fans of their debut. That they didn’t go for the easy sell and made challenging, psychedelic songs while signed to a major label is seriously courageous. On top of that, the songs are pretty damn good too. Well played MGMT, you won me over and that was something I never saw coming. [Buy]

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