Friday, September 7, 2012


The recently formed Divine Fits has been widely touted as an “indie supergroup” because of the pedigrees of its members: Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Dan Boeckner (formerly of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) and drummer Sam Brown (the New Bomb Turks). There’s a powerful kick to Divine Fits’ dynamic, which pits Daniel’s dry, cerebral, hyper-rhythmic aesthetic against Boeckner’s open-hearted, overheated character (see Handsome Furs’ libidinal video for “What About Us” and this sexually charged press photo). And while A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge) barely sold more than 7k in its debut week, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the band’s prospective fans figure out who—and how good—they are.

The critics have certainly taken notice. The N.Y. TimesBen Ratliff describes the LP as “taut and right. It’s concentrated on the thing itself: a collection of shared songs, not the pile of individual wills. You can tell that what’s been taken out is as important as what stayed in… Having two singers doesn’t split the record in half; there seems to be an almost brotherly relationship here… Each can sound like a modified version of the other. Somehow, on deeper levels, they overlap.” The L.A. TimesRandall Roberts found one of the band’s recent run of L.A. performances “thrilling,” as he pointed out how “three men with recognizable gifts and a keen sense of song can build mesmerizing musical structures.” And in my review of the album in the upcoming issue of Uncut, I write that A Thing Called Divine Fits is the most infectiously tricked-out rock LP since El Camino. And seeing them tear it up last month at Hotel Cafe, playing like they'd been together for a decade rather than a few month, made it that much more obvious that Divine Fits is a major new band.

Here’s my recent conversation with Daniel, punctuated with shards of deadpan wit.

With Spoon very much a going concern, what motivated you to form another band?
I had known Dan for four years or so. I met him at a Handsome Furs show in Portland. When Spoon played at Radio City Music Hall, we invited him to come out and do one of his songs, and he played with us on one of our songs. I’d always felt that he was the real deal – loved his voice, loved his songs. So when he told me in February of last year that Wolf Parade was winding down, I immediately said, “We’ve gotta start a band then,” and he went for it.

Did you have a mission statement going in about what sort of a band it would be?
We didn’t. In fact, we talked about not having any kind of mission. When you’ve been in a band for a while, you start feeling a little bit boxed in in terms of what you can and can’t do, even if it’s not very conscious. And we talked about how great it was that we could do this, we could do that; we could use this instrument or that instrument; we could do this cover or that cover. “Let’s not say we can’t do anything.”

I think that comes across in the attitude of the album as well as the band onstage. I don’t know that I’d describe it as a carefree quality, but there’s less of the torment I expect from you on Spoon records. “Would That Not Be Nice,” for example, seems like a series of non sequiturs rather than any kind of heartfelt lyric expression.
That one came about from something I wrote in a letter to a friend. His band was on tour in Minneapolis and I was stuck at home feeling the pressure to write a lot of songs very quickly and not able to go out and do anything fun. The fun part of being in a band is when you’re on tour – and also the moment when you’re writing and something really great happens. So I was writing the letter about how I wished I was in Minneapolis and all the things I would do in Minneapolis. But that was the genesis of the song. And I don’t know, I guess I hadn’t gone through a breakup when we were making this record [near-laugh]; maybe that’s what you’re picking up on.

Did you each bring your own material to the band or did you collaborate?
A little of both. With “When I Get You Alone,” I wrote the music and I sent it to Dan and he sang on top of it. We wrote “Would That Not Be Nice” as a jam and I sang on top of that one. There were a lot of songs where I would bring something in, he would bring something in and we’d take what was there and reconstruct it or turn it around a little bit. And that was great to do because I’d never been in a band with a guy who was a songwriter first and foremost. He would come in with a song that was done in one way and I’d say, “Well, maybe we should make it half as many syllables.” Things like that.

The electronic aspect of the band is relatively new to you, although Dan has done a lot of it with Handsome Furs. How did that element come into play?¶When Dan was writing these songs, he was staying in this room upstairs in my house and he would go up there and work things. He’d do that all day and we’d listen to them at night. He had a keyboard and a drum machine up there, and so that shaped the way the songs turned out. He had just gotten the drum machine, and it had a really cool synth bass to it, so he was using that for the bass for all the songs he wrote, and because it affected how the songs progressed it made sense to keep it on there.

The drums seem to be a combination of Sam’s playing and quantized beats.
Most of them are played by Sam except for “My Love Is Real.” But you really get a sense of what a great drummer Sam is when you see him live—he’s just insane.

What caused you to bring in Nick Launay to produce the record with you?
Win Butler suggested Nick Launay to Dan. They’re buddies, and Dan used to be in an early version of Arcade Fire; I didn’t know that until recently. Win seemed real excited about this project, and he said, “You’ve gotta check out this guy Nick Launay,” who he had worked with on Neon Bible and The Suburbs. We looked at his discography, and he’d been working on records going back to 1980 when he produced a Public Image record. He’s done a lot of Nick Cave stuff, Grinderman, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

What did he bring to the party?
An ’80s sensibility [another near-laugh]. He has a good sense of how to get good performances quickly. He’s been doing this a long time and he’s good at it.

Is Divine Fits an ongoing entity?
Yeah, it’s definitely an ongoing thing. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a really different experience for me, because I’m not the primary focus. I do get to write songs and sing, but I don’t have to be the guy that does it all the time. I like backing people up that I believe in.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


You’ve gotta admit, a playlist that begins with a song titled “I’m Shakin’” and ends with one called “Just Breathe” is fitting for the present Age of Anxiety, just as Happy Pills serves nicely as a heading for the whole thing. I’ve got a bunch of either/or choices in the 25-track playlist immediately below, but most of them are from albums so loaded that you could pick any of five or six tracks as the standout—starting with The Shins and Jack White, as well as total pros Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, and a couple of bands I’d never heard before this year: Here We Go Magic and Hospitality. Along with the music listed below, I’ve spent a big portion of 2012 listening to tracks that either came out later in 2011 or took me awhile to actually listen to. In the former group are Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail”/”Staircase” single, a double-shot of late-year brilliance, and of course, The Black Keys’ irresistible, hook-loaded El Camino, an album I haven’t stopped playing since it came out in December. (Current fave: “Little Black Submarine,” with that fist-pumping Led Zep-inspired eruption in mid-song.) The ones I could’ve kicked myself for not picking up on sooner are Destroyer’s avant-garde/soft-rock hybrid Kaputt—especially the droll, delectable “Savage Night at the Opera”—and The War on Drugs’ churning, Springsteen-like Slave Ambient. My Top 12 albums at midyear follow the playlist. The links on the song titles are either YouTube clips of official videos, personally vetted live performances or, in the case of the several less celebrated tunes, lyric videos. Or you can go straight to the Spotify playlist here, containing my 25 selections plus 15 other tracks referenced in the copy. Bud Scoppa 

Jack White, “I’m Shakin’”: I was torn between the totally kickass “Sixteen Saltines” and this scintillating cover of a Rudy Toombs tune originally cut in 1960 by Little Willie John (check out his version here) and revived by the Blasters in 1981, but I went with “I’m Shakin’” because White has never grooved any more bodaciously than he does here, and because I’ve discovered the track is a can’t-miss party starter. So let’s get this party started… 

Here We Go Magic, “Make Up Your Mind”: Nigel Godrich knows a thing or two about rhythm from working with Radiohead and Beck, and the producer has helped Luke Temple and his bandmates get their groove on here and elsewhere on A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian). Temple’s specialty is filtering conventional song structures and standard rock instrumentation through loops, pedals and ambient sounds, and the LP sounds like a radio transmission from a distant station, where an all-night DJ spins what sounds like a low-down, souped-up J.J. Cale on the hyper-infectious “Make Up Your Mind” and the Everly Brothers on the similarly percolating “How Do I Know.” I can also hear hints of Nick Lowe (“Hard to Be Close”) and Paul Simon (“I Believe in Action”) on an album that’s fuzzy, fractured and slightly out of focus, which makes it all the more mesmerizing.

Beach House, “Myth”: With Bloom, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have crafted an album that feels very much like the score for an imaginary film—an avant-garde French film, to be precise, an extended nocturne encompassing romance and its aftermath, the inexorable passage of time and the preciousness of the fleeting moment. This shimmering aural dreamscape comes off like a modern variation on ’60s girl-group pop, specifically suggesting Phil Spector’s wall of sound in its stacked, heavily echoed instrumentation. But Beach House’s wall of sound feels liquid in its density, like a tsunami in slo-mo.

The Shins
, “Simple Song”: Perhaps the ultimate example of James Mercer’s dizzying aerial ballet. I’ve played this track more than any other during the last six months, and it still gives me goosebumps—plus, I keep discovering additional nuances lurking in the cumulus clouds of Mercer and Greg Kurstin’s breathtaking arrangement. That’s true of pretty much every track on Port of Morrow, an album as compulsively listenable as it is musically and vocally ambitious. It’s my #1 album of 2012 so far—something I can, and do, listen to from start to finish, a rarity these days.

Hospitality, “Eighth Avenue”: The Brooklyn band’s full-length debut thrums with the street-level energy of New York City, which provides the backdrop for several of gamine-like frontwoman Amber Papini’s songs and the deft playing of multi-instrumentalist (and former bedroom savant) Nate Michel. The high-IQ torque of early Talking Heads powers “Friends of Friends,” while the elliptical character sketch “Betty Wang” is packed with as much detail as something from Fountains of Wayne. But “Eighth Avenue,” with its parade of embedded hooks, along with a vocal from Papini poised between girlish fragility and womanly self-possession, is this engaging young band’s definitive track.

The Ting Tings, “Give It Back”: The closest thing to a straightforward rocker on either of the duo’s albums, “Give It Back” shares a rapid-fire groove and sidelong aggressiveness with Spoon’s “Got Nuffin.” But the most infectious track on Sounds From Nowheresville, a terrific album that has been strangely overlooked following their worldwide hit debut, 2008’s We Started Nothing, is “Soul Killing,” with a pogoing groove from Jules DiMartino and Katie White’s skittering, playfully soulful (and vice versa) vocal. And by the way, that’s a snippet of “Hit Me Down Sonny” from the latest LP in the current Acura ILS spot.

Delta Spirit, “California”: The San Diego band’s smarts and muscle come together with a resounding whomp on their self-titled third LP. Matt Vasquez’s glorious celebration of his home state gallops along behind force-of-nature drummer Brandon Young’s snare-and-kick assaults alternating with a motorik drum-machine beat under a galaxy of shimmering harmonies. It’s one of three memorable songs on the subject to appear in this half year, along with Best Coast’s “No Other Place” and, unexpectedly, the next track on this playlist…

John Mayer, “Queen of California”: Mayer clearly signals his intentions on the opener of the Don Was-produced Born and Raised, name-checking Harvest and Joni Mitchell in opener “Queen of California,” while gracing the song’s Laurel Canyon lilt with his own high, lonesome harmonies. Here and elsewhere on the LP, the guitar hero does something unprecedented in his career, ceding the instrumental foreground to SoCal pedal steel master Greg Leisz, who serves as both guide and talisman in Mayer’s attempt to sublimely evocative tones. Note: The radio edit cuts off the rhapsodic instrumental interplay that takes the performance to a rarefied level.

Beachwood Sparks
, “Sparks Fly Again”: Back on Sub Pop after a decade of silence, the L.A. retro-rockers sound tighter and more mature throughout The Tarnished Gold, which finds the band embracing high fidelity for the first time, to their benefit. This buoyant track from Farmer Dave Scher reminds me of the Byrds“Wasn’t Born to Follow,” one of two Goffin-King covers on Notorious Byrd Brothers. “I wrote the chords and ideas to actually reference a bunch of the things we did way back in the roaring ’90s,” Scher told me. “I really tried to make chord changes that took elements of different songs that we had done before; I tried to write in our vocabulary, our idiom. And with the lyrics, I thought it would be fun to make it a description of what was actually happening, to do a full send-up of the kind of structures we used to really be into at the start, when we were our own strange little mini-culture. It was my way of saying, ‘Let’s light this baby up again.’”

Robert Francis, “Perfectly Yours”: Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard), the 24-year-old artist’s third album, is suffused with the atmosphere of the young artist’s native Los Angeles, from its cinematically vivid imagery to the intricate latticework of fingerpicked guitars and airborne harmonies that form its default setting. The turbulent theme of this brutally inverted love song is belied by its silky sound, as multi-instrumentalist Francis and his bandmates deftly juxtapose light and shadow. The track’s lush climax, topped by Francis’ yearning “I don’t want to lose this feeling” vocal payoff, sounds uncannily like Paul Buchanan and The Blue Nile—a band Robert told me he’d never heard. Another highlight is the thrilling closer “Dangerous Neighborhood” on which Francis embraces his rich musical heritage with a parade of crystalline Laurel Canyon harmonies, while he engages in an animated left-right guitar conversation with Ry Cooder.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Never Go Back”: The Lion The Beast The Beat (Hollywood), Potter and company’s fourth and best album, crisply produced by Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco), contains three tracks they cooked up in collaboration with The Black Keys Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio. Auerbach loaned Potter his Mellotron and laid down the chugging Casio drum loop here on the lead single, with its insinuating “Oh no/oh no/I’ll never go back there no more” chorus hook. Catchy as all get-out.

Tennis, “My Better Self”: Give the drummer some. The Keys’ Patrick Carney produced Young & Old (Fat Possum), the sophomore LP from this male-female duo, which contains this summery cut, setting off Alaina Moore’s ingenuous, girl-group-style vocal against the crushing drums of touring member James Barone, whose muscular snare hits sound a lot like those of basher Carney himself. But there’s a hint of something darker below the surface that’s brought forward in the bizarrely choreographed video, with its “Twin Peaks roadhouse vibe,” as Stereogum put it.

Nada Surf, “Jules and Jim”: Gotta have some 12-string jangle, and this Truffaut- and McGuinn-referencing track from the reliable Matthew Caws and his mates, now including lead guitarist Doug Gillard, fills the bill. It also reminds me of Matthew Sweet’s “She Walks the Night” from last year’s Modern Art. But the centerpiece of The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk) is “When I Was Young,” which starts like a muted ballad from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends before erupting into a widescreen anthem.

JD McPherson, “Signs and Signifiers”: McPherson is a ’50s rock & roll revivalist, but he’s no purist. Signs & Signifiers, the Oklahoma native’s debut album, delivers retro music laced with a rich payload of postmodern nuance—what McPherson describes, only half-facetiously, as “an art project disguised as an R&B record.” The title track is a perfect example of this perfectly poised duality—it’s a mesmerizing churner powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr’s part on The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” I could’ve easily gone with the quintessential JD tune, “North Side Gal,” a two-and-a-half-minute slab of smoked brisket that slaps together Carl Perkins and Jackie Wilson—with a stunning self-directed video to boot.

The Walkmen
, “We Can’t Be Beat”: This full-throated, unselfconscious, nearly a cappella sing-out from the Brooklyn band—a ballsy choice for Heaven’s leadoff cut—gives the Fleet Foxes a run for their money…but then, they did get Robin Pecknold to sing on it.

Fiona Apple
, “Every Single Night”: A sense of foreboding lurks beneath the lilting surface of The Idler Wheel (etc.)’s first single and opening track, before giving way to hemorrhaging anxiety on the anti-diva’s bravest, most uncompromising work—and that’s saying something.

Norah Jones, “Happy Pills”: Happily, Jones’ contributions to Danger Mouse’s Rome last year led the two to make an album together, and the astute producer, musician and songwriter brings out both a dark undercurrent and a previously untapped effervescence in Norah, busting her out of the easy-listening ghetto. I haven’t spent enough time with …Little Broken Hearts as a whole to put it alongside my faves of the half-year, but the first single hooks me from the moment that chunky groove and treated nah-nah-nahs strut out of the speakers.

The Shins
, “40 Mark Strasse”: Mercer’s gorgeous tribute to Todd Rundgren in his Philly soul mode, as well as Todd’s homies Hall & Oates. This is familiar territory for producer Kurstin, who did a 2010 album of H&O classics as half of The Bird and the Bee with Inara George.

Bonnie Raitt, “Million Miles”: The 62-year-old artist is not only one of the best song interpreters on the planet (along with Willie Nelson; see below), she’s also carrying on the legacy of Little Feat auteur Lowell George with her powerful slide guitar playing. Slipstream, Raitt’s first LP in seven years (just like Fiona Apple—but that’s where the comparison ends), contains eight groove-focused tracks she recorded with her excellent longtime band—and four deep, dark performances with producer Joe Henry and his go-to guys. I could’ve gone either way in picking one song—like Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World” from the self-produced batch—but I keep coming back to her unhurried but intense Henry-produced performance of this bitter existential ballad from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the tracks from the Henry sessions.

Beck, “Looking for a Sign”: This one-off from the soundtrack to the 2011 indie film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is Sea Change revisited, and that’s more than OK with me.

Kathleen Edwards, “Change the Sheets”: On her fourth album, the Canadian writer/artist dramatically breaks out of the alt-country cul-de-sac, armed with a brace of intensely personal songs crammed with guided-missile hooks. As Edwards and Bon Iver auteur Justin Vernon co-produced the record, they were falling in love, which no doubt accounts for the ecstatic vocal and instrumental performances throughout. The songs bear the wounds of Edwards’ breakup and divorce, and Vernon’s gorgeous arrangements enwrap her vulnerable vocals like a down comforter. The lacerating yet life-embracing “Change the Sheets” is the most captivating track on an album loaded with them.

Paul McCartney, “Too Many People”: From Ram, the year’s most ear-opening reissue. The critics turned up their noses at McCartney’s second album—following the homemade “bowl of cherries” debut, which was widely regarded as a charming curio—partly because he wasn’t John Lennon, but mostly because Ram wasn’t The Beatles. That’s why listening to it now in reissue form is such a kick in the pants, starting with the opening track, which picks up where Side Two of Abbey Road left off, while foreshadowing the similarly variegated “Band on the Run.”

Jack White, “Take Me With You When You Go”: During a the course of a track with a mid-song transition as radical as The Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine,” Jack summons up practically every mode he’s leaned on over the years, from the pastoral to the epic.

M. Ward, “The First Time I Ran Away”: This sublime work-up from A Wasteland Companion has a similar Zen-like quality to Ward’s way-deep “Chinese Translation,” right down to the earlier song’s haunting animated video. The two clips are both the work of Joel Trussell.

Willie Nelson, “Just Breathe”: This Pearl Jam cover featuring son Lukas and Willie’s take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist” are both excellent examples of the ol’ coot’s uncanny ability to inhabit a song. “Just Breathe” could’ve been written for him. It begins, “Yes I understand that every life must end/As we sit alone, I know someday we must go,” and ends, “Hold me till I die/Meet you on the other side.” Willie claims both songs for himself, as he’s done so often during the last half century.

The Shins
, Port of Morrow (Columbia)
Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian)

Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop)
Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream (Redwing/RED)
The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia)
Willie Nelson, Heroes (Legacy)
Hospitality, Hospitality (Merge)
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, The Lion The Beast The Beat (Hollywood)
Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit (Rounder)
Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
Robert Francis, Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard)
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder)
Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk)
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Clean Slate/Epic)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A year ago this week, as I was finishing up my list of 2010 favorite albums, I finally got around to digging into the Black KeysBrothers, and—after kicking myself for having underestimated the band for so long—added the record to my Top 10 at the very last minute. Now, I’m making similar adjustments in order to accommodate the Keys’ new El Camino, an instant grabber, and wondering where it’ll wind up among my ’11 faves once the novelty has worn off. Don’t know yet how this year stacks up against other recent years in terms of quality, but with the addition of El Camino, I’ve got a rock-solid Top 10—and I have yet to uncork Tom WaitsBad as Me.

While I was falling under the spell of Brothers a year ago, I was also getting hooked on a trio of lead singles from albums that were scheduled to hit in early 2011: the Decemberists’ jangle-fest “Down by the Water,” Paul Simon’s wicked-clever “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” and Adele’s kick drum-driven churner “Rolling in the Deep.” I had no idea, of course, that I’d be hearing “Rolling” throughout the next 12 months, more than any other song, except, perhaps, for “Pumped Up Kicks” from rookies Foster the People—and though I left both off my 2011 playlist due to their sheer ubiquity, I admire them as performances and productions as much as any recordings this year.

As I put my 2011 picks to bed, I’m listening obsessively to tracks from a couple of albums coming in January: When I Was Young” from Nada Surf’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk), and “Change the Sheets” from Kathleen EdwardsVoyageur (Zoe/Rounder), which she co-produced with her significant other, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Both tracks are anthems of a decidedly personal nature, and both albums capture their authors in the very act of self-discovery. I’ll be surprised if Edwards and Nada Surf aren’t represented in my best of 2012 lists a year from now.

The non-musical works that captivated me this year were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (fiction); Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Mike MillsThe Beginners (films); Showtime’s enthralling Homeland and tragicomedy Enlightened, AMC’s unbearably intense The Killing and ABC’s zeitgeist-capturing sitcom The Middle (TV series).

Here’s a 25-song year-end playlist (which you can listen to on my Spotify page), followed by my Top 30 2012 albums, quick takes on a bunch of them and in-depth critiques of my big three.

1.      The Black Keys, “Sister”: It was the single “Lonely Boy” that first had me in its thrall, but this springy groove may stand as Pat Carney’s coolest rhythmic pattern on a record that’s all about the big beat.
2.      Foster the People, “Warrant”: Year’s best LCD Soundsystem tribute on the year’s hookiest album—with the possible exception of El Camino.
3.      Gomez, “Options”: My wife Peggy fell in love with this highway cruiser last summer when Sirius Spectrum started banging it, and Esquire has endorsed as one of the top 10 2011 songs you need to hear. The groove, the horns and the premise combine to make this souped-up shuffle the veteran band’s most irresistible cut ever.
4.      Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”: Austere, silken perfection, resolving into not one but two giant hooks.
5.      Feist, “The Bad in Each Other”: So sonically tactile that you feel it more than you hear it, this enthralling track showcases Feist’s urgent, Neil Young-like guitar playing, as she gets to the heart of a tumultuous romantic relationship.
6.      The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”: What gets me about this rootsy hybrid is the duo’s ability to capture the ghostly vibe of ancient Appalachian ballads inside a meaty primal groove. I’ve heard this track a ton, but it still seems fresh.
7.      Brett Dennen, “Sydney (I'll Come Running)”: On this Van Morrison-style hookfest, Brett expresses the extent of his devotion as he comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. “Straight from the airport,” he promises, “right to the courthouse, Sydney, I will testify,” as the handclap-punctuated groove trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible sing-along fashion.
8.      The Decemberists, “Calamity Song”: Amid the masterful early R.E.M. and Harvest appropriations of The King Is Dead sits this shimmering nugget of harmony-rich folk rock. The goosebump moment occurs when the hyper-verbal song, riding its galloping Murmur-like groove, explodes into joyous falsetto ahh-oohs.
9.      Radiohead, “Morning Mr. Magpie”: Can’t wait to hear the band tear into this scorcher on their 2012 tour.
10.  Wilco, “Art of Almost”: During its seven-minute course, this mind-blowing track builds from a careening off-kilter groove to a hyper-skronk climax of almost unbearable intensity.
11.  My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”: Another seven-minute widescreen extravaganza, as uplifting as the Wilco track is lacerating.
12.  Bon Iver, “Holocene”: The biggest surprise of this year’s Grammy nominations is one of the most exquisite soundscapes on an album you can get lost in.
13.  Paul Simon, “The Afterlife”: This whimsical first-person account of a soul taking his place in a queue forming at the pearly gates is the centerpiece of an album filled with insanely catchy songs about extremely heavy themes, as Simon proves there’s no reason to hang up his dancing shoes at age of 70.
14.  The Cars, “Sad Song”: Catchy and clever enough to fit seamlessly on the Cars’ brilliant 1978 debut album. 
15.  Lindsey Buckingham, “When She Comes Down”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Tusk.
16.  The Belle Brigade, “Where Not to Look for Freedom”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Rumours.
17.  Amos Lee, “Windows Are Rolled Down”: While this balmy, cruiser may be closer to del amitri than to “Thunder Road,” it’s so evocative that you can practically feel the breeze whipping through your hair.
18.  Fountains of Wayne, “A Dip in the Ocean”: Here, these brainy masters of specificity recount a dysfunctional couple’s drive up the coast on a weekend getaway in 1998, delivering the misadventure in a rollicking power-pop performance.
19.  Dawes, “Time Spent in Los Angeles”: The year’s best love-hate song to L.A. from the Jackson Browne- and Robbie Robertson-endorsed native neoclassicists.
20.  Robbie Robertson, “He Don’t Live Here No More”: The punchiest cut Robbie has fashioned during his spotty solo career.
21.  Daryl Hall, “Eyes for You”: The ardent flipside of H&O’s blow-off classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” but just as slinky and sexy.
22.  Beck: “Stormbringer”: If you loved Sea Change, this track from the John Martyn tribute Johnny Boy Would Love This will have you in the fetal position before the Beckster even opens his mouth. Gorgeous in its cloud-filled melancholy.
23.  Fleet Foxes, “Lorelei”: Don’t think the old-school harmony specialists’ second full-length, Helplessness Blues, hits the Bon Iver level of continuous gorgeousness, but there’s a real natural beauty on this soaring performance.
24.  Nick Lowe, “I Read a Lot”: A palpable sense of loss and loneliness leads to intimations of mortality on this modern-day standard.
25.  Death Cab for Cutie, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”: “You Are a Tourist” is the hookiest cut on Codes and Keys, and “Doors Unlocked and Open,” with its high-revving motorik groove, is one of the year’s quintessential driving songs, but this string-laden sleeper finds Ben Gibbard at his most compassionate and life-embracing.

1.      Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
2.      Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope)
3.      Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)
4.      The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)
5.      Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol)
6.      Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music/Concord)
7.      The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
8.      Foster the People, Torches (Columbia)
9.      My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO)
10.  Radiohead, The King of Limbs (TBD)
11.  The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord)
12.  Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone)
13.  The Belle Brigade, The Bell Brigade (Reprise
14.  Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow (Mind Kit)
15.  Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece)
16.  Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (ATO)
17.  Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes
18.  Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
19.  Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog)
20.  Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast)
21.  Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant (Macro-biotic/429)
22.  Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, Rome (Capitol)
23.  The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (sensibility)
24.  Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic)
25.  Adele, 21 (XL/Columbia)
26.  Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)
27.  The Strokes, Angles (RCA)
28.  The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time (Rounder)
29.  Bright Eyes, The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)
30.  Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues (Rounder)

The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch), Foster the People, Torches (Columbia):
The year’s two best rock albums are polar opposites. FTP’s streamlined, state-of-the-digital-art debut is a purring, crisply contoured high-end Audi to the Keys’ vintage muscle car, but they’re both brilliantly conceived and executed longplayers crammed with phat grooves and gigantic hooks—all killer, no filler. Torches comes off like a greatest-hits collection, striking proof of Mark Foster’s conjoined gifts for heady songcraft and dynamic production, while the Dan Auerbach/Pat Carney/Danger Mouse triumvirate is a marriage made in rock & roll heaven. Together, these two records make it absolutely clear that rock remains a vital form in the second decade of the 21st century. Put El Camino and Torches on shuffle and you have all you need for a rockin’ New Year’s Eve party, but I strongly suspect I’ll be blasting these two albums on any given Saturday night from here on out.

Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol):
The latest set from the hyper-prolific Adams hearkens back to the golden age of SoCal rock in the early ’70s—intimate, reflective, close-miked and melodically gorgeous. Ashes & Fire is the result of a close collaboration between Adams and legendary English engineer/producer Glyn Johns, whose body of work includes the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Eagles first three albums—a pertinent reference point for this LP’s peaceful, easy flow. Adams’ sensitive, introspective side is on full display throughout this poetic, bittersweet meditation on the nature of love and the passage of time. “Dirty Rain” contains the most soulful vocal Adams has ever put down on tape, the wood-grained title track evokes The Band in its prime, “Invisible Riverside” radiates with the burnished Laurel Canyon glow, the timeless “Lucky Now” is an instant classic complete with a rhapsodic chorus hook, and the culminating “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say” is almost unbearably emotional, with its poignant payoff, “I promise you/ I will keep you safe from harm.” Forget those comparisons to his 2000 debut Heartbreaker that every subsequent Adams LP has inevitably elicited; the austere, heartfelt Ashes & Fire sets a new standard for this restless, hyper-prolific artist.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol): A radical departure from 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists’ compact sixth album was recorded in a barn on Pendarvis Farm, outside the band’s Portland, Oregon, home base, and it sounds authentically homemade. Whereas the previous undertaking was a wildly ambitious reimagining of British traditional music and myth, the new album’s touchstones are Neil Young’s Harvest, which band leader Colin Meloy refers to as “the quintessential barn record,” SoCal country rock in general and R.E.M.’s pastoral jangle-fest Reckoning. Gillian Welch appears on seven tracks, updating the roles of Nicolette Larson on Young’s Comes a Time and Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons’ solo albums, while the R.E.M. homage is made literal by the presence of Peter Buck, who plays electric guitar on two tracks and mandolin on another. But more than a knowing tribute to the past, the LP gives the five band members a chance to step out of Meloy’s lavish facades and show what they can do playing it straight. Turns out that they’re one of America’s very best bands.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO: Here’s co-producer Tucker Martine recalling the band’s reaction when listening back to the keeper take of this epic moments after recording it live off the floor in a Louisville church gymnasium: “That was a really special moment. They were all dancing around the room and bobbing their heads with their eyes closed, and then, when the song was over, they were hugging and high-fiving each other. It was so inspiring to see veteran musicians who were still able to get that much joy out of making music together. It was like we were all going on an expedition together to find something magical, and there it was. We found it, and no one was afraid to have unbridled joy about it. That’s how it should be.” It’s performances like this one—inspired, synchronous and clutch, like a veteran basketball team kicking it into high gear at crunch time in a tight playoff game—that make Circuital such a thrilling, even ecstatic, listening experience.

The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord): A huge influence on countless contemporary bands, the Cars made a debut album so striking and hooky that nobody could equal it—not even the Cars themselves. But 33 years later, auteur Ric Ocasek and the three other surviving members have come remarkably close to achieving the contoured crispness and in-your-face immediacy of their greatest achievement. Their potent chemistry is undeniably present in super-sticky instant classics like “Sad Song” and “Keep on Knocking”: the taut interaction of guitarist Elliott Easton and synth player Greg Hawkes, the howitzer snare hits of David Robinson, Ocasek’s wry, terse vocal persona. That these long-separated musicians were able to make a quintessential Cars LP in 2011 constitutes a small miracle.

Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone): The most engaging tracks on the androgynous-voiced iconoclast’s third album deftly blend nimble grooves, creamy choruses and vocal performances of immediacy and genuine feeling, attaining a sort of carefree soulfulness that recalls Van Morrison circa “Brown Eyed Girl” (the seeming blueprint for the ecstatic “Cosmic Girl”) and Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs. The record’s a cavalcade of sprung rhythms resolving into cascading chorus payoffs, starting with the first three tracks: A pugilistically punchy groove and a guileless “nah-nah-nah” chorus provide “Comeback Kid” with its yin and yang; the balmy, string-laden “Frozen in Slow Motion” evokes the late-morning sun breaking through the marine layer at Paradise Cove; and the handclap-powered falsetto chorus of “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible fashion. Toward the end of the LP, the band stretches out languorously on “Queen of the Westside,” its sleepy-eyed rhythm not that far removed from the narcoticized reggae bump of the Stones’ “Hey Negrita.”

Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece): Defiantly unorthodox, but often playfully so, Modern Art is a stealth album, embedded with half-hidden hooks lurking in its recesses, just out of focus, waiting to be discovered. Nope, this is not a one-listen album, but a progressive deepening has always characterizes the most memorable longplayers, whose authors rarely put all their cards on the table right away. Not that there aren’t some instant grabbers here: “She Walks the Night” captures the Byrds of “Eight Miles High,” while “Ladyfingers” stomps along with the authority of T.Rex, and the tortured “My Ass Is Grass” could serve as the belated follow-up to “Sick of Myself,” the hit single from Sweet’s 1995 LP 100% Fun. At the other extreme are provocative, soul-deep, virtually unprecedented tracks like “Oh, Oldendaze!,” “Late Nights With the Power Pop” and the title song.

Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog): The twelfth studio album from the southern Ohio-based husband-and-wife team of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist is something rare—an intimate epic. “Sharpest Blade,” which the couple wrote with Joe Henry, who produced, sounds like some just-unearthed Billie Holiday torch song. Bergquist and Lucinda Williams trade off lines on the hushed ballad “Undamned,” which evokes a campfire gathering under a canopy of stars in a John Ford western. The smoldering “The King Knows How” is a sort of secular hymn, while the climactic “All My Favorite People” glows like embers in the hearth at the end of an evening of wine and conversation. Even more than OTR’s earlier records, The Long Surrender seamlessly interweaves the disparate idiosyncratic strains that form the many-colored crazy quilt of American music.

Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast): Just as Hall & Oates’ body of work is being rediscovered, the duo’s lead voice delivers his strongest solo effort since the first, 1980’s Robert Fripp-produced cult classic Sacred Songs. On these 10 beautifully crafted and arranged songs, Hall masterfully revisits his various modes: silky Philly soul (“Eyes For You,” “Lifetime of Love”), H&O’s edgy late-’70s rock phase (“Wrong Side of History,” “Talking to Myself”) and their folk-pop origins (the title track), throwing in a sultry take on Memphis R&B for good measure (“Message to Ya”). The LP strikingly captures one of the great singers of the last four decades (no racial or stylistic modifiers needed) in peak form.

Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic): Get To Know You”, the first track on the Detroit-born blue-eyed soul singer’s sophomore album, begins with a Barry White-style spoken-word boudoir call, which may lead you to figure the whole thing’s a put-on. But the ecstatic old-school falsetto chorus that follows makes it clear that Hawthorne is totally for real. There’s nary a false note on these dozen richly detailed pieces on which the singer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist recaptures the heart as well as the techniques of vintage Motown and Philly soul. The only liberty he takes is the R-rated lyric of “The Walk”, which is otherwise note-perfect—just like everything else on an LP that’s as deeply felt as it is technically adept.

The Strokes, Angles (RCA): Appropriating classic grooves is nothing new for the Strokes, dating back to their archetypal 2001 single “Last Nite,” which borrowed the high-revving power plant of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” Here on Angles, they lift blatantly and gleefully—the faux-reggae rhythm of Men at Work’s “Down Under,” of all things, on opener “Machu Picchu,” Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” on “Gratisfaction,” the Cars on the chromed-out, high-revving “Two Kinds of Happiness” and the rock nocturne “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” and practically the entirety of early-’80s synthpop on the new wave homage “Games.” There aren’t many instantly identifiable bands that can mess with the familiar recipe while somehow also honoring it, but that’s precisely what the Strokes have achieved on Angles, an album as warm as it is cool.

R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) Capitol/I.R.S.:
While not as celebrated as other R.E.M. albums, Lifes Rich Pageant holds an important place in the canon. Not only was it the band’s first LP to go gold, it’s the record on which they morphed from floating like a butterfly to stinging like a bee. Recorded at John Mellencamp’s Indiana studio by his longtime engineer/producer, Don Gehman, Pageant delivers one knockout punch after another, from the jangle-on-steroids opener “Begin the Begin” to the aggro-majestic finale “I Am Superman.” Second disc on the expanded reissue contains 19 demos, a bunch of them similarly explosive, none of them essential.

Talihina Sky: The Story Of Kings of Leon (RCA): In this feature-length rock doc subsidized by KOL’s label, Stephen C. Mitchell throws together vivid archival footage, revealing band member interviews and bizarre character studies of local yokels, with surprisingly cogent results. The chronology-be-damned approach, revolving around the Followill family’s annual gathering in the backwoods Oklahoma town referenced in the title, moves along at a headlong pace, juxtaposing spirituality and debauchery, sibling love and loathing. Rarely has an authorized documentary been so brutally honest in portraying its subjects.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar):
Adopting the nom de plume Bon Iver, Justin Vernon made the leap from unknown to major artist in the few seconds between the strummed acoustic opening and the first chorus of “Flume,” the first track of his unforgettable debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. The transformation occurred at the precise moment when his double-tracked falsetto voice abruptly multiplied into a celestial choir, rising to an even higher register to deliver the gut punch, “Only love is all maroon/Gluey feathers on a flume/Sky is womb and she’s the moon.” In that moment, Vernon touched a nerve, and many of those who discovered his album responded to its choral richness and psychological authenticity in an uncommonly deep way. Beguiled by its author’s Walden-like backstory, they were sucked in by his every wistful sigh, every cathartic outpouring, making the connection between this stunningly personal work and their own inner lives.

For Bon Iver’s full-length follow-up, Vernon no longer had the element of surprise going for him. On the contrary, confronting him were staggering expectations and the assumption that whatever he attempted next would inevitably fall short of the first album’s magical cosmology, its cavalcade of handmade hooks. As John Mulvey aptly put it in his five-star Uncut review, “For Emma, Forever Ago is such a hermetically sealed, complete and satisfying album, the prospect of a follow-up—of a life for Vernon beyond the wilderness, even—seems merely extraneous.”

Could Vernon come in from the cold of that isolated Wisconsin cabin with his artistry intact? As it turns out, he could, and he has. He spent nearly three years gestating the new record in a studio he’d built in Eau Claire, while also taking the time to stretch himself via outside undertakings with Gayngs, the Volcano Choir, St. Vincent and Kanye West. All this networking is telling because, unlike the first album, Bon Iver is a collective effort resulting from ongoing interaction with 10 other musicians, including pedal steel master Greg Leisz, three horn players, a string arranger and two Volcano Choir mates who provided “processing.” The full-bodied ensemble work results in an album with pace, scale and stylistic variety, but all of this sound and rhythm feels purposeful. Essentially, it exists to support the quintessential aspects of Vernon’s aesthetic: the soaring melodic progressions; multitracked vocals that take on the sonic dimension of instruments; the overtly poetic lyrics, whose elusive meanings are far less important than the sounds of the words, tactile with the textures of natural things.

The array of reference points Vernon hints at on these tracks is dizzying, and spotting them as they pop out of the fabric is part of the fun. The skewed orchestral tableaus of the sonically connected “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI,” which open the record in widescreen yet elliptical fashion, recall Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise, while Vernon seems to encapsulate the whole of early-’70s Cali country rock (i.e., Fleet Foxes) on “Towers.” He adopts the minor-key art-folk of Simon & Garfunkel on “Michigant” before shape-shifting into the mid-’60s Beach Boys on “Hinnon, TX,” playing up the radical contrast between his airy, Carl Wilson-like falsetto and an earthy lower register that improbably recalls Mike Love. Then, on “Wash.,” Vernon breaks out his Marvin Gaye-style purring soul man as he sings a love song to a woman named Claire—or is the object of his affections his hometown of Eau Claire?

But there’s no obvious precedent save Bon Iver itself for the three peaks of this spellbinding album. Muted at first, “Holocene” almost imperceptibly blossoms into glorious life, intimating the first breath of spring after the long, hard winter. “Calgary” mates a soaring melody that embeds itself in the consciousness with a percolating groove. And the widescreen closer “Beth/Rest” has the satisfying resolution of the end title theme of a classic western film, employing the entire ensemble and interweaving the album’s accumulated thematic and tonal elements in a majestic payoff.

Fully realized in its ambition, Bon Iver possesses all of the austere beauty and understated emotiveness of its predecessor. Nestled within these panoramic soundscapes is the affecting intimacy the first album’s fans fervently hoped Vernon would recapture, as this single-minded artist somehow manages to have it both ways. And so does the listener.

Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope):
Leslie Feist’s career path has been a zigzag. The Nova Scotia-born, Toronto-based artist played guitar with rapper Peaches (who nicknamed her Bitch Lap Lap) and Canadian indie rockers By Divine Right, releasing a DIY debut album, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head), in 1999, before joining the Broken Social Scene collective in 2002. Then came 2004’s Let It Die, which contained witty covers of songs from the Bee Gees and Ron Sexsmith, as well as the wicked-clever original “Mushaboom.” She laid low for three years before making a dramatic return with The Reminder and its insidiously catchy hit single, “1234,” which broke her in the States when Apple picked it up for an iPod nano TV campaign. After an even longer respite, she’s returned with her boldest, most idiosyncratic album yet in Metals.

A location junkie, Feist cut The Reminder in a 19th-century French manor house, and for the follow-up she brought her longtime collaborators Chilly Gonzalez and Dominic “Mocky” Salole, along with a fresh batch of material, to a converted barn sitting between the rocky cliffs and lush forests of Big Sur on the California coast. Working with a handpicked crew that included keyboardist Brian LeBarton (Beck) and co-producer Valgeir Siggurdsson (Björk), she knocked off the album in two and a half weeks in this breathtakingly picturesque locale. The resulting LP, throbbing with rugged beauty and exhilarating natural energy, cinematically evokes the environment in which it was created.

Feist possesses the sensibility of a painter—she has a rarefied sense of composition and detail—and a tart, elastic alto made for sharing confidences and intimacies. She’s the antithesis of the demure female singer/songwriter; throughout Metals, she delights in rubbing together raw and refined elements, making for a friction that keeps the soundscapes energized and ever-changing, as giant pop hooks erupt at unexpected moments in a thrilling marriage of solipsistic risk-taking and in-your-face accessibility. There’s enough shape-shifting within these performances to keep the listener in a hallucinatory state throughout the 50-minute running time, as Feist absorbs and assimilates musical and environmental inspirations like a sponge on steroids. From moment to moment, her singing suggests P.J. Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple and Suzanne Vega, while the quicksilver backdrops recall Sufjan Stephens, Fleet Foxes, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach.

The first three tracks hauntingly set the scene. “The Bad in Each Other” opens with a brutally pounded kick drum, with Feist playing rings around it on scrappy electric guitar, the arrangement expanding with strings and subtle horns that sound almost impromptu in their air-moving, real-time immediacy. The muted “Graveyard,” with its “Bring ’em all back to life” refrain, and “Caught a Long Wind,” as subliminal as wind chimes on a lazy afternoon, are palpably atmospheric, the result of a naturalistic recording approach that drops the listener into the space in which the performances went down. There’s as much air here as sound, and that is the source of the record’s palpable presence.

The tone turns sultry with the sublimely infectious “How Come You Never Go There,” interspersing a wistful wordless chorale, her gnarly Neil Young-style electric guitar and burnished horns. It’s the first of four tracks of stunning inventiveness. The ragingly intense rocker “A Commotion” bristles with an Arcade Fire-like repetitive grandeur. The mutated nocturne “Anti-Pioneer” featuring queasy guitar licks, a masterfully torchy vocal and a shuddering drone occupying the lower register, is Big Sur noir, moving with the primal rhythm of waves crashing against cliffs. And “Undiscovered First” juxtaposes instrumental dissonance and a schoolgirl chorale. Here, she purrs, with dominatrix authority, “You can’t unthink a thought/Either it’s there or it’s not.”

These powerful pieces are interspersed with quieter songs of dreamlike purity, including “Bittersweet Melodies,” in which cello-powered strings pass over the track like fast-moving storm clouds, leaving hazy sunlight in its wake; “Comfort Me,” which turns on the killer couplet, “When you comfort me/It doesn’t bring me comfort, actually”; and the closing “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” which places her hushed voice amid the ghostly chinking of chains and a gong-like cymbal.

Feist’s fiercely uncompromising nature is exemplified by her decision to remove “Woe Be,” which had been singled out by Spin in an album preview as the obvious follow-up to “1,2,3,4,” from the tracklist. It’s this insistence on resolutely following her instincts that makes this record so lustily appealing from top to bottom.

Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm):
Wilco fans are as polarized as the US congress. Some revel in the band’s eardrum-pulverizing forays into the sonic unknown, introduced on 2000’s art-damaged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and refined on 2004’s brutally beautiful A Ghost Is Born. The rest are entranced by what Jeff Tweedy describes as “cinematic-sounding country music…you know, folk music,” represented by 2007’s glorious Sky Blue Sky and ’09’s intermittently captivating Wilco (The Album). There’s little argument that the latest version of Wilco, which contains only two original members in Tweedy and bassist John Stirrat, is the not only the most stable unit Tweedy has assembled in the band’s 17-year history but also the most skillful. The irony of the situation is that the band’s current lineup, completed with the additions of avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone prior to the recording of the 2005 live album Kicking Television, is far more suited to experimentation than any previous iteration. Given the radical extremes in Wilco’s body of work, and the band’s acute awareness of the fans’ conflicting expectations, it’s tempting to view The Whole Love as a dialectical conversation between Wilco and the passionately partisan camps of its constituency; the resulting back-and-forth is tantalizing at first, but Tweedy and company firmly establish the record’s operative mode immediately thereafter.

Throughout Wilco’s eighth studio LP, the versatile, virtuosic current lineup juxtaposes introspective understatement and experimental edginess. They set up the contrast dramatically on the wonderfully titled seven-minute opener “Art of Almost,” powered by a customized motorik groove somewhere between Ghost…’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and Wilco standout “Bull Black Nova.” The groove appears out of the crackle of static and takes on percolating cross-rhythms behind Glenn Kotche’s marvelous drumming, the sonics gradually morphing from Mellotron-washed gorgeousness to a savage intensity, as avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline whips himself into a head-exploding frenzy. After such a beginning, the hard-core have to be hopeful that the wait is finally over. But that’s pretty much it for shrieking over-the-top-ness. What we get instead in the body of The Whole Love is an alternating mix of trademark rockers and ballads, bonded by Tweedy’s central presence, shifting between scarred and elated, and the arrangements, which play off the bandleader’s range of moods. While the album is packed with inventive, envelope-pushing moments, there’s no more lacerating skronk, for a very good reason: the emotions the band is mirroring don’t call for it.

On “I Might,” the first of the upbeat tracks, the band bangs out a clattering, garage-y groove in the spirit of Elvis Costello and the AttractionsGet Happy, with Mikael Jorgensen making like Steve Nieve on the Farfisa. Here, Tweedy rolls with his signature blend of puppy dog earnestness and relatable real-life agitation (sample lyric: “You won’t set the kids on fire/Oh but I might”), but the prevailing emotion is his sheer joy at being part of this killer band in full-on rave-up mode. “Born Alone” chugs along with country-rock amiability, Tweedy’s hayseed vocal set off by Cline’s trumpeting lines as the other players rise up to make ecstatic noise alongside him, a la Sky Blue Sky’s sublime “Impossible Germany.” Half musical snapshot, half long-distance love note, “Capitol City” visits the antique Americana of Randy Newman, Cline impersonating a Dixieland clarinet with his slide lines. “Standing O” picks up where “I Might” left off, sounding like some newly discovered outtake from the Stiff Records catalog. The title song is the album’s warmest, most relaxed and poppiest track, Tweedy going for some falsetto lines amid the band’s merry bounce.

Of the reflective songs, “Sunloathe” settles into a “Strawberry Fields Forever”-like pastoral eeriness, “Black Moon” is as noir-ish as the title suggests, “Open Mind” hints at the psychological devastation of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and “Rising Red Lung” finds Tweedy singing in a near-whisper over a fingerpicked acoustic while the band floats sunset clouds overhead. On the 12-minute-plus closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” the band essentially inverts the buildup of “Art of Almost,” moving with dexterous subtlety from anguish to acceptance, as Tweedy’s describes the emotional wounds inflicted by a father who takes his deep disappointment in his son to his grave, the band tracing the course of the narrator’s struggle and ultimate release with subtle intensity.

Three albums in, Wilco’s latter-day character is now readily apparent. No longer the American Radiohead, as the true believers proclaimed a decade ago, this incarnation of Wilco is closer to a postmillennial Buffalo Springfield—especially when Cline, Tweedy and Sansone’s electric guitars blazing away in tandem. And if Jeff Tweedy is no longer the tortured soul who ripped …Foxtrot and Ghost… out of the recesses of his ravaged psyche, that is something worth celebrating. The Whole Love is what redemption sounds like.