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Originally published Tuesday, July 1, 2014 at 7:01 PM

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The 10 best albums of the year — so far

What are the best albums so far this year? Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times takes stab at a midyear list.


Los Angeles Times

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Summer offers ample time for the kind of concentrated listening that drives musical love affairs. Whether aboard a luxury liner headed for Alaska or in a hand-me-down Hyundai road-tripping to Joshua Tree, the season presents opportunities galore to catch up on hot records that plugged-in friends have had on repeat. Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 records released this year that I’ve been recommending to friends.

BECK, “Morning Phase” (Capitol). A lush, breezy record from a mercurial Los Angeles songwriter, “Morning Phase” sees Beck Hansen in contemplation mode. Through 11 songs and a couple of ethereal interludes, the artist responsible for ‘90s jams “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut” taps into the spirit of his languid cult classic “Sea Change.” At its best — “Blue Moon,” “Heart Is a Drum,” “Unforgiven” — Beck combines his way with grand melody and a minimalist lyrical touch that cuts away irony to focus on the honesty below.

TOUMANI & SIDIKI DIABATE, “Toumani & Sidiki.” (World Circuit) Those rolling through hills or across desert vistas looking for relaxing but vibrant accompaniment will love “Toumani & Sidiki,” the product of the first recorded studio session between the father and son Toumani and Sidiki Diabate. Both are masters of the kora, a 21-stringed West African instrument somewhere between a lute and a harp. It’s a beguiling sound, and when two geniuses bridge generations, you can hear echoes of a continuum stretching back centuries.

OPEN MIKE EAGLE, “Dark Comedy” (Mello). Funny without being slapstick, political without being preachy, L.A. rapper Open Mike Eagle is a wordsmith whose lines could be endlessly footnoted. One listen to “Very Much Money” should hook you, but don’t stop there. “A History of Modern Dance” couples an oblong beat with Eagle’s exquisite phrasing; “Jon Lovitz” is a surreal vision of a gig that occurs on the moon.

PROTOMARTYR, “Under Cover of Official Light,” (Hardly Art). Like Open Mike Eagle, Protomartyr singer and lyricist Joe Casey seems like he’s laughing to keep from crying. But unlike Eagle, Casey’s laugh is bitter, disgruntled and fed up. Through 14 post-punk tracks that suggest Joy Division and Interpol but with a layer of Detroit grit, “Under Cover” is as grim as it is infectious, filled with echoed beats and super catchy hooks.

ST. VINCENT, “St. Vincent” (Loma Vista/Universal). Few aesthetic experiences are as gratifying as hearing an artist hit her peak, and “St. Vincent,” the fifth album from the musician born Annie Clark, delivers such pleasure. With hints of new wave, experimental pop and art rock, Clark’s new work succeeds in documenting the here-and-now without sounding the least bit trendy. Touches of modern R&B (“I Prefer Your Love”) rub against frenetic guitar shredding (“Birth in Reverse”). Elsewhere she offers complicated love songs and relentlessly surprising structures.

SCHOOLBOY Q, “Oxymoron” (Top Dawg/Interscope). A wicked debut album from a should-be rap star, Schoolboy Q on “Oxymoron” makes a valid argument that he and label mates and fellow Black Hippy members Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul are an unstoppable force. Reporting from his home base of Compton, the artist born Quincey Handley couples hard, unflinching beats with a singsong lyrical delivery. The title track is particularly harrowing.

SWANS, “To Be Kind” (Young God). Warning: Wear a seat belt and helmet when strapping into Swans’ jumbo double-disc statement of intent, “To Be Kind.” To call it epic is true, but whether its density is pleasurable or not depends on your constitution and tolerance for furrow-browed art rock. Me? I haven’t heard a record this consistently powerful and frightening in ages. At full volume — the only way to really hear “To Be Kind” — the fury overwhelms. More impressive, the decibels are delivered with patience and forethought.

SHARON VAN ETTEN, “Are We There” (Jagjaguwar). A heartbreaking tangle of pretty melodies about a destroyed relationship, “Are We There” is the fourth album from a New York-based singer and guitarist who endured a doomed affair and survived to write about it. Unflinching, Americana-tinged rock that isn’t afraid to go dark, Van Etten on “Are We There” mixes little beatbox rhythms, hypnotic melodies and just a touch of twang.

THE WAR ON DRUGS, “Lost in the Dream” (Secretly Canadian). The breakout record from Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs will appeal to fans of guitar rock from across history. On the band’s third album are touches of Bob Dylan’s electric work, solos that suggest the tag-team efforts of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and beats that drive songs until they’re humming on cruise control. But the influences are beside the point. “Lost in the Dream” molds those sounds into something original, no small feat.

JACK WHITE, “Lazaretto” (Third Man). The album on which a restless Jack White stops, catches his breath and works to build structures as solid as his riffs, “Lazaretto” is essential because it showcases White the perfectionist. Opting to spend months in the studio rather than banging the record direct to tape, White’s patience is evident throughout, but especially on “Alone in My Home” and “Just One Drink,” two instant rock classics.



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