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Sorry we missed you...Overlooked Albums of the Year

Sleigh Bells

When Alexis Krauss quit her job as a fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx to pursue music with guitarist-producer Derek Miller, she had no idea how big Sleigh Bells would become.

But all the Internet buzz surrounding the Brooklyn duo is more than justified—their debut album Treats takes rock and electronica into a direction that is too new to adequately categorize (“noise rock” is as close as it gets).

Sleigh Bells’ sound is so raw, so uncompromising, that listeners might have a hard time digesting it at first. The opening track, “Tell ‘Em,” hits hard with a thrashing, grimy syncopated base and soaring electric guitars that slowly simmer until Krauss’ vocals are introduced. The strident instrumentals are the driving force behind the song—and continue to be throughout the record.

“Riot Rhythm” and “Infinity Guitars” fully encapsulate the jarring pulse of the music, which is juxtaposed with Krauss’ bipolar delicate-then-shrill vocals. “A/B Machines” is the highlight of the album, with a build-up of guitar riffs, pounding beats and synth trimmings that explode into rich, full-fledged cacophony.

The themes of the songs seem very much informed by Krauss’ interaction with school children. “Kids” describes a raucous beach scene, while “Straight As” features the repeated screeching of, “Ain’t No Sleep/We Want Straight As.” The most accessible track of the album, “Rill Rill,” is an ode to high school, with playful lyrics like, “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces/What about them/I’m all about them.”

Treats is not a record to be taken lightly, and perhaps its intensity can be a little overwhelming. But Sleigh Bells are making a loud statement, whether we’re ready for it or not.

—Jessie Tang

The Love Language

Cross early ’60s British Invasion with Arcade Fire’s Funeral, record it on an 8-track in your garage and you’ve got something close to the Love Language’s Libraries.

On their sophomore album, the Raleigh natives continue with the infectious lo-fi foundation that made their self-titled debut an instant critical success. This time around, though, Stuart McLamb and company branch out a bit—the irresistible pop hooks remain, but they’re coupled with more stylistic experimentation. The orchestral opener “Pedals,” with its heavy echo and lush strings, is more grandiose than anything on the first record. “Horophones” furthers this exploration, merging Beach Boys-style vocal lines with noisy psychedelia. And the ethereal “Wilmont” employs heavy, complex percussion in the vein of fellow Raleigh indie-favorites Annuals.

Yet in spite of the additions to their sonic palette, the Love Language remain firmly rooted in the ’60s pop tradition. “Brittany’s Back” could easily be a lost Turtles or Zombies cut, while the effervescent “Anthrophobia” references Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”—both staples of the era—in the lyrics. This isn’t to say that they rely on simple mimicry; personal touches such as McLamb’s yearning wail, poetic lyrics (“Smoke signals blur the new frontier/Loud whispers are the hardest to hear”) and hazy lo-fi production contribute to a sound that is distinctly their own.

Although not excessively ambitious, Libraries showcases a highly-touted young band accomplishing the rare feat of living up to, and even surpassing, the expectations set by their debut. This is raw indie-pop in all its messy, unvarnished glory.

—Josh Stillman

Anais Mitchel

It’s a rare occasion when a talented, yet niche, artist envisions and brings to fruition a project as ambitious as Hadestown. It’s even less common that these experiments succeed, as this album does, likely beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Buoyed by the efforts of phenomenal guests—most notably, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon—Anaïs Mitchell crafted a masterpiece with this 2010 album, which was released this past spring.

Described as a “folk opera” and initially performed as a traveling orchestra, Hadestown is a reimagining of the Greco-Roman myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, now set in a derelict Americana wracked by economic despair and societal collapse. Although ostensibly a folk album and performed mostly by folk artists, the record transcends the typical boundaries of the genre as it guides the listener through the bleak world of Mitchell’s creation.

This is not an album built for singles, but for full, dedicated plays and emotional investment. It’s difficult to understate the talents of the guest artists—the main cast includes Vernon as a suitably pained Orpheus, Brown as a smooth-talking Hades and DiFranco as a sultry Persephone. But the most memorable, brief appearances are Ben Knox Miller as a vagabond, cackling Hermes on the standout “Way Down Hadestown” and the Haden Triplets as the spiteful Erinyes on “When The Chips Are Down.” Anaïs Mitchell herself binds the album together as an innocent and naïve Eurydice, and her fragile voice floats over the genre-bending tracks.

Together, the dynamic ensemble draws listeners into a grandiose epic that is both captivating and unforgettable. Hadestown is truly an album for the ages, as timeless as the myths themselves.

—Jeff Shi

Mountain Man

Musical America is a many-headed beast these days; maybe it’s always been. But there’s this band, Mountain Man, and if someone were to distill the country into a sound at its most basic, they might be it.

Mountain Man is a trio of women with lovely voices, playing a stripped-down, elemental folk music that trades in lush harmonies and floats on a tight knit of lo-fi fuzz. And Made the Harbor, their debut LP, paints America as a parade of migratory animals, Biblical hauntings and trembling, physical sexuality.

Whether any record this year opens with more inviting words than “Follow, follow, follow, follow the buffalo” seems an already answered question. Such organic come-ons make up many of the lyrics, and the instrumentation of the brief songs never strays far beyond a simply plucked acoustic guitar, if there are instruments at all.

The word “natural” comes to mind, for both the themes and the organic style, and when Made the Harbor reaches its denouement on track 12, “Babylon”—nothing more than Psalm 137 sung in a near-flawless round—Mountain Man seem to channel nature at its birth, when it was merely God and beast.

—Kevin Lincoln

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