Raspy singer-songwriter Matthew Ward arrives at his seventh solo album after a three year run of collaborative work that spawned She & Him, the retro-pop project with Zooey Deschanel, and Monsters of Folk, a modern day Traveling Wilburys with Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. Historically, Ward's been more subdued on his own, favoring dusty stretches of Americana over the sugary hooks that made She & Him a commercial breakthrough. Any longtime fan will agree, the pensive storyteller is his best look (see 2006 standout, "Chinese Translation"). And luckily A Wasteland Companion returns to doing that, not without a few flair-ups of his more recent rockabilly fixation, so let's call this one a compromise.
On their full length debut, Alabama Shakes strike like a Janis Joplin fronted Black Keys, but also add enough of their own personality to keep from being just another blues-rock revival act (even when they in fact used to take on the oldies as a cover band). The key factor here is their soulful front-woman, Brittany Howard, who carefully howls over a tight arrangement of guitar/bass/drums and the occasional well-placed organ. Boys and Girls is a solid introduction to a band that probably has their strongest work ahead of them, and just landed opening spot on Jack White's next tour.
Virginia trio Eternal Summers rose to buzz-band fame in 2009, a year where the climate for sunshine guitar pop was undoubtedly warm. They released a handful of EPs and 7-inches leading up a debut LP in 2010, and are now circling back in history to gather them all in one collection appropriately titled The Dawn of Eternal Summers. The 12 tracks capture a band still sharpening its sound, and also having fun—covering The Lemonheads, Guide by Voices, and Neil Young.
World-class producer Bassnectar is back with another dose of speaker-splitting freeform electronic and aggressive dubstep, which is something he's done just about every year since the start of last decade. That persistence and large-scale tour domination has made him one of the biggest names in the EDM universe. Given the recent crossover of other industry superstars like Deadmau5 and the ever-divisive Skrillex, Vava Voom might be landing at just the right time. Plus Lupe Fiasco shows up on the massive title track.
Sisters Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri specialize in a kind of dream-pop that's been haunted with industrial darkness, not unlike The Knife, or more recently, Zola Jesus. Last year's debut EP proved not to be as reliable as those contemporaries, but it did generate a lot of interest in what would come next. House of Baasa is an improvement on all fronts, better balancing their use of uptempo tribal with the downbeat romanticism. And they recieved some help from Bear in Heaven's Jon Philpot along with Jessica's husband who fronts Hooray For Earth.
See What's In The Spotlight