Mumford & Sons, "Sigh No More" (Glass Note)
Mumford & Sons released "Sigh No More" last February to little fanfare. By the end of the year, it was hard to escape the London quartet and it's angry little hit, "Little Lion Man."
Who could blame anyone for overlooking "Sigh No More"? The album was released on a small independent label, and the guys dressed in faux 18th-century garb.
Ten months later Mumford & Sons has a Grammy nomination and sold-out American tour behind it and a promising future ahead with its unique blend of folk, rock 'n' roll and country.
It was a case of great music trumping the odds. "Little Lion Man" got all the attention, but the truth is "Sigh No More" is packed with great songs. There's very little percussion here and plenty of high harmony, yet there's nothing soft about "Sigh No More."
Songs like "White Blank Page," "Thistle & Weeds" and "Dust Bowl Dance" rock with malevolent energy and transfixing story lines -- and show there's no overlooking Mumford & Sons next time around.
-- Chris Talbott, AP Entertainment Writer
Sahara Smith, "Myth of the Heart" (Playing in Traffic)
Sahara Smith's crystalline soprano is so commanding that when she sings of driving all night to reach Laredo, Texas, it sounds like a good idea.
"Myth of the Heart" is the debut album by Smith, and it benefits from the backing of T Bone Burnett and the crack studio band that performs on many of his records, including drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Marc Ribot.
Still, this is Smith's album -- and a fine showcase for the kind of voice that fogs up windows. The 22-year-old Texan is Norah Jones with more swing, or Alison Krauss with more thump. When she overdubs a harmony part, that just makes the song twice as good.
Smith's a precocious composer, too, and she wrote all 12 tunes. The lyrics are vivid: Days whistle past, alleyways move in their sleep and crazy ideas howl like a circus, and even a lesser voice could coax beauty from the ballads Smith has written. Highlights include the shimmering love song "Angel," the fatalistic "World's on Fire" and the dreamy "Mermaid," which offers an image of Smith singing her daughter to sleep. What a lucky child.
-- Steven Wine, Associated Press
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, "Grace Potter & the Nocturnals" (Hollywood Records)
If only for superficial reasons, Grace Potter -- a leggy Heidi Klum look-a-like -- should be a bigger star.
But the singer-songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist is so much more than a rock-girl pinup, and there are a multitude of substantial reasons why Potter and her band, the Nocturnals, deserve to be on playlists everywhere with their excellent third album, simply titled, "Grace Potter & the Nocturnals."
The smoldering disc features a near-perfect blend of rock, pop and a bit of country twang as a fiery Potter wails her way through electrifying grooves and emotionally stirring slow-burners.
Potter, who released a solo album before hooking up with her band, wrote or co-wrote all of the album's 13 songs, which range from the sassy, gritty "Paris (Ooh La La)" to the sexy "One Short Night" to the wistful "Goodbye Kiss." On the lyrically and musically rich ballad "Colors," Potter sings of taking a romantic leap of faith and being rewarded by leaving a drab, black-and-white existence with a kaleidoscope of colors. "Grace Potter & the Nocturnals" represents that ray of sunshine in an often dreary music world.
-- Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Music Writer
Gucci Mane, "The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted" (Asylum/Warner Bros.)
Gucci Mane may not have had the best hip-hop album in 2010, but the rapper who often finds himself in trouble certainly produced his most impressive disc with "The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted."
Don't expect a lyrically gifted album from Gucci Mane, who was released from jail early last year but was back behind bars in 2011. He did find a recipe in putting together a solid album after his three previous disc were lackluster with a few street anthems.
"The Appeal" had superb production with not too many collaborations this time around, unlike his past albums. But when he did team up with other artists, Gucci Mane excelled on tracks such as "Haterade" featuring Nicki Minaj and Pharrell, "Remember When" with Ray J and "It's Alive" with Swizz Beatz.
Those are the best songs of his fourth album, which was released in late September. And through most of Gucci Mane's latest 15-track effort, you shouldn't find yourself pressing the skip button much -- unless you are contagious to hearing the word "Buurrr" often.
-- Jonathan Landrum Jr.
Graffiti6, "Colours" (NWFree Music)
Cheers to the girl -- or girls -- who broke the heart of Graffiti6's Jamie Scott.
His torched soul is the main theme behind "Colours," the nicely crafted debut from the London-based duo, which includes producer TommyD.
On the album, Scott beautifully sings about his love lapses: His world is collapsing on the top-notch dance tune "Stare Into the Sun" and he's yearning on the slow groove "This Man." But Scott doesn't just coo about being lonely: On the title track he's ready to move on, and on "Over You," he's both calm and confident.
The album's great sound is mainly due to Scott's voice, which is soft at times, and raspy at others. His tone will remind you of other "blue-eyed soul" performers: He echoes Australian singer Daniel Merriweather throughout the disc, and on "Over You," you'll hear similarities to R&B crooner Robin Thicke.
Scott is also a talented songwriter, penning all 12 tracks on the CD, as well as tunes for Enrique Iglesias and British boy band JLS. But luckily, he's saved his best material for himself.
-- Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press
Mackintosh Braun, "Where We Are" (Chop Shop Records)
Listening to Mackintosh Braun's "Where We Are" is like eating a tasty piece of candy: It's short, sweet and satisfying.
But unlike other pop music songs or artists -- the kind where too much is overbearing, or tummy ache-inducing -- this 10-track set is one you'll listen to and crave more and more.
The base sound for the record is dance, but the songs are also computerized and dreamy.
The Portland, Ore.-based duo of Ian Mackintosh and Ben Braun truly shines on the eerie-sounding "Frozen," the genre-bending "Nothing Else Is Real" and "I Won't Fall," a tune about ambition and not letting anything get in your way. Keep on keeping on.
-- Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press
Dale Watson, "Carryin' On" (E1 Entertainment)
"Carryin' On" includes drinking songs, a cheating song and a song about a country song, with Dale Watson addressing these well-worn subjects in a familiar Merle Haggard croon. Yet there's nothing stale about this retro set; the material's so strong and so expertly delivered that the songs satisfy like a first sip at the neighborhood tavern.
Watson makes clear his fondness for George Jones, Glen Campbell and Marty Robbins, as well as Haggard. His friendly baritone serves as the anchor, and he's surrounded by fine studio musicians, some with resumes dating to Nashville's glory days in the 1960s. Lloyd Green's weepy pedal steel recalls that decade, as do the countrypolitan backing vocals.
The corny quotient is more reminiscent of the Eisenhower era, however, as Watson sings of snuggling and spooning with the sincerity of a kid giddy from his first date. Ah, those were the days.
-- Steven Wine, Associated Press
Into It. Over It./Koji, "IIOI/KOJI" (No Sleep)
Best friends and singer songwriters Evan Thomas Weiss and Andrew Koji Shiraki pulled off a wonderful musical mind-meld on their split release album, "IIOI/KOJI." Each man handled one side of the album that is filled with heartfelt rock songs that proved both cohesive and candid.
Chicago-based Weiss performs under the moniker "Into It. Over It." He kicks off things on the album's first side with five tracks of pathos-tinged rock. The often furious guitar is latticed under smart lyrics and strong vocal work by Weiss.
Weiss goes wild into the night on pell-mell-paced track "Humboldt," as he sings about the recklessness of youth. "It's a drunken soccer punch, it's a fragile fist across the chin/ And I'm laughing at all the trouble this will get you in," Weiss sings with the right amount of subtlety.
His best offering comes on "Pilsen," with its exquisite crash of guitar and finely controlled rage. Here, Weiss' vocals stand out crisply amid the powerful din of the music behind him. The mixing on his tracks is excellent and enables him to blend power and poignancy.
Shiraki, who performs as simply Koji, holds up his end of the split release pact. He kicks it off slowly with the heartfelt "Most of Everything," on which he sings of coming of age and the recognition of his true self. The revelation becomes apparent only once he stops trying to obscure it with the defensive trappings of youth.
On "Shift," Koji picks up the pace. This is a tight knit of guitar that sounds like a John Mellencamp song on the main bars and The Cure on the hook. It all works swell and the energy behind Koji's vocals is nothing less than infectious.
The album's best track is Koji's "Giants Sleeping." A sweet melody plays off Koji's sweeter voice as he sings about the beauty of America's vistas and losing himself while finding his way in the world.
If 2010 needs an heart-tugging indie anthem to be remembered by, "Giants Sleeping" will do just fine. And "IIOI/KOJI" will make you pay attention to these two Midwest artists as they grow together, or individually.
-- Ron Harris, Associated Press
Vijay Iyer, "Solo" (ACT Music)
Indian-American jazz pianist Vijay Iyer follows up his critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated trio CD "Historicity" with his first-ever solo piano recording, "Solo," which offers a mix of a contemporary pop classic, jazz standards and his own risk-taking original tunes.
His surprising opening track transforms "Human Nature" from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" into a jazz ballad -- as Miles Davis did previously -- embellishing the catchy melody with percussive chordal playing that gradually builds in intensity.
Iyer pays homage to some of the pianist-composers who were major influences. He deconstructs Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," gradually unfolding and weaving the familiar melody into his improvised runs. On Duke Ellington's 1927 "Black and Tan Fantasy," his left hand plays old-style stride piano and his right hand adds a more contemporary layer.
The centerpiece of the CD is a four-part mini-suite that covers a range of moods from tender lyricism to turbulent dissonance. "Autoscopy," with its fragmented, rapid-fire runs, evokes the spirit of avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor; while "Patterns" with its repeating raga-like melodic sequences, references Iyer's roots in Indian classical music.
With "Solo," the 39-year-old Iyer displays his command of a variety of styles, further cementing his reputation as one of the most distinctive and adventurous contemporary jazz pianists.
-- Charles J. Gans, Associated Press