Just like when Christmas decorations begin popping up at your local grocery store, critics know they're on the home stretch when record labels begin sending out reminders of releases to consider in their year-end "best of" lists. Ah, but it's still only the November. We've two months left for records to hit the shelves (digital or otherwise). That said, I think we've probably already heard the best of '11. Below are some of the third quarter releases that have been burning up my earphones. Who knows if any of them will make the "best of" final cut. By the time we find out, the labels will be lauding the first releases of 2012, and the grocery stores will be replacing those Christmas decorations with Valentine's Day candy
A.A. Bondy, Believers (Fat Possum) -- The former Verbena frontman may be best known as an opening act for Bon Iver a few years ago. Since then, Bon Iver has ascended to indie rock sainthood, while Bondy continues to toil in the clubs, waiting for the attention he deserves. With a voice strangely resembling Jackson Browne's, Bondy's music is a moody midnight throb headed to 3 a.m. all alone. There's a simplicity in the music's loneliness -- both in sound and lyrics -- that his fellow loners will find both familiar and comforting. Inspirational lines like "You didn't know there was a killer inside / Won't get to heaven tonight" from the title track are part of the reason why I like this better than Bon Iver's latest (Sacrilege!). Who knows, maybe someday Bon Iver will open for Bondy (though he won't be when A.A. Bondy plays at The Waiting Room this Friday night. You should go.).
Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer (Merge) -- Has the distinction of being the first album I purchased after discovering it on Spotify (Merge doesn't send me promos, the cheap bastards). Those who expect the wonky art rock of her main gig, Fiery Furnaces, are in for a big surprise. Friedberger has left the proggy chord/key changes behind for a collection of songs that are SONGS, complete with melodies and choruses and playful lyrics that bounce atop piano chords, hand claps and the occasional sax riff. I'm reminded (strangely) of smart, laid back Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. My wife thinks she sounds like Carly Simon. She might be right (again). Has the distinction of being one of the best records of 2011.
PUJOL, Nasty, Brutish, And Short EP (Saddle Creek) -- Saddle Creek surprised all of us when it announced it signed this Nashville phenom back in August. Who was PUJOL? The only thing we knew was that Jack White liked him and that Nashville Scene called him "The Socrates of the house show circuit" (whatever that means). Creek's first stab at releasing anything resembling garage, PUJOL embraces a '60s psych aesthetic on this slim 7-song collection that clocks in at just under 18 minutes. Its stripped down, grinding guitar rock owes a lot to early Beatles and is oh so catchy, probably the catchiest thing the Creek has released since... well, ever.
Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, Mirror Traffic (Matador) -- With all the Pavement reunion talk earlier this year, a few of us were worried that Malkmus may be leaving his solo work behind. Silly rabbits. After a couple brilliant out-there releases ('08's Real Emotional Trash, '05's Face the Truth) Malkmus returns to the more straight-forward, less adventurous and more tuneful style that marked his '01 solo debut. In fact, Malkmus always came off (to me, anyway) as a more tuneful version of Lou Reed -- deceptively simple melodies that belie some of the smartest (and this time, strangest) lyrics that cynically capture a life lived in America. Now that he's "40 with a kid / Living on the grid," his lyrics are more obtuse than ever. You may not understand what he's singing about, but you'll sing along anyway.
Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Missing Piece) -- Matthew Sweet returns after... wait a minute, Sweet didn't go anywhere. He's been steadily releasing music on Shout! Factory since '06, though two of the last three releases were covers albums made with Susanna Hoffs. One would think reworking all those classic hits would put the pop back into Sweet's step. Instead, there's a psychedelic tang and guitar-noodling quality that recall the Altered Beast years (the meandering "My Ass is Grass" and "A Little Death," the layered, synth-symphonic title track). Still, Sweet knows his sweet spot lies in pure, sing-along tracks like the pretty "Baltimore," and the Byrds-ish "She Walks the Night," which he could have used more of this time 'round.
M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (Mute) - Sprawling, ambitious to a fault at 74 minutes, Hurry Up takes M83's penchant for dreamy, ghostly pop and blows it up to sonic mountains. Like any great epic, it has its perfect moments, like dance floor chestnut "Claudia Lewis," and triumphant "Steve McQueen." But there's also a lot of tonal fluff designed to build cinematic Tangerine Dream-flavored drama ("Another Wave from You," "When Will You Come Home" "Klaus I Love You") that lie somewhere between aural interlude and filler. It's as if M83 is trying to become a modern generation's version of The Cure, but skipped over the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me era and went straight for Disintegration. Or maybe they're just reversing the order. I'm willing to wait and see.
Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at email@example.com.