Adding a little cinnamon to the coffee grounds every now and then provides just the right amount of spice to liven up the daily cup of joe.  Perhaps consider spicing up your music library with a dash of Beirut.  The combination of indie rock meets eastern European folk is unusual yet remarkably palatable.

A kid from New Mexico took a trip to Europe, became inspired, and decided to start making some indie rock music infused with Balkan horns, French pop and other world music elements.  The band Beirut began with Zach Condon recording an album in his bedroom with help from some talented friends (Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost both from A Hawk and a Hacksaw).  The debut album Gulag Orkestar was released in 2006 and with live shows came the fully realized band.

The music of Beirut is dense with instrumentation and the earnest authenticity of Condon’s vocals.   The valve fluegelhorn, marching band percussion, ukulele and pump organ along with Condon’s voice provide a sound that has tradition and culture wrapped inside beautifully conceived pop melodies.  Lyrics may reference wars, life and death struggle, romantic historical settings and miscellaneous old world nostalgia, but Condon’s heartfelt croon somehow keeps them relatable.

Beirut’s newest release The Rip Tide sees the band returning with arrangements that are leaner, but the signature replete with dramatic flourishes and vintage instruments still remain.

If you like: Sufjan Stevens, Devotchka, The Decemberists
Check out: Beirut (start with The Flying Club Cup, continue with The Rip Tide and graduate to the rest)
Feeling brave: Gogol Bordello, Man Man, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields

AI level: Intermediate

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Laura Marling

If it were revealed that an old soul was somehow trapped in the body of Laura Marling, I would hardly be surprised.  This indie folk songstress has been making music since she was a teen, recording her first album at just 17.  Channeling folk greats such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Marling creates songs that keep reaching for the space just beyond the emotional catalyst.

This English folk musician may have a soft voice, but it manages to carry charming melodies and a poet’s lyrics.  Starting her career as a member of Noah and the Whale and touring with artists like The Moldy Peaches, Laura Marling channeled the raw emotion of teenage romance into her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim.  Her follow up, I Speak Because I Can finds the girlish romanticism dissolving and a darker recognition of love’s realities taking its place.  Some tracks are boldly boisterous while on others Marling’s voice hovers in a whisper, giving the album depth beyond the typical singer/songwriter expectations.  Both of these albums were nominated for the Mercury Prize, cementing her favor among the critics.

A Creature I Don’t Know is the latest offering from the wise, young singer.  It is the most representative of the artist in her present state, using lyrics that express the larger ideas instead of specific events and places.  This allows the music to abandon any references to time, which gives the songs a distant yet still universal appeal.

If you like: Feist, Joni Mitchell, Beth Orton, Regina Spektor
Check out: Laura Marling (start with Alas, I Cannot Swim, continue with I Speak Because I Can and graduate to A Creature I Don’t Know)
Feeling brave: Cat Power, Nick Cave, Keren Ann

AI level: Beginner

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I know what you’re thinking (trust me, I’m very intuitive), “Music inspired by the 80s electronic sound can be so neon, futuristic and loud!”  Trust fair readers that while the music of Gayngs harbors a tribute to the 80s, it is of the soft-rock variety.  Now that you are wary for a completely new reason, let me introduce indie super-group, Gayngs.

Founded by Ryan Olson, the band consists of over 25 musicians including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Rhymesayers, P.O.S., Har Mar Superstar and members of Solid Gold and The Rosebuds.  This melting pot of musicians came together to produce an album that walks the line between parody and earnest tribute and managed to create something genuinely unique.  While the saxophone and slow-jam feel may take you back to St. Elmo’s Fire, the distant vocals of Justin Vernon assert the sincerity of the present.  This thread of modern yet retro runs through the album drawing you in with familiarity only to smack you around with contemporary rhythms.

The songs of Relayted are inspired by 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” and the tribute is fair enough when the vocals fade in and out of the drum machine percussion.  Other tracks take cues from Casio pre-set rhythms, but refrain from falling into the cheesey side of things due to the talents of the vocalists.  Overall Gayngs is a fascinating exercise in the skill of paying homage without becoming a part of the time capsule.

If you like: Bon Iver, Megafaun, Gardens & Villa, Sufjan Stevens
Check out: Gayngs Relayted
Feeling brave: 10cc (“I’m Not In Love”), Portishead, Air

AI level: Intermediate

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The world of electronic music is comprised of its own genres and rules that appear foreign to one not a part of the community.  Artists of this community typically break into the realm of Top 40 with remixes of tracks that have already been accepted by the masses.  UK musician/ producer SBTRKT (pronounced subtract) may have gotten his start remixing, but his individual style is stepping into the world of indie on its own two feet.

SBTRKT began his career as a DJ in a London club, but has quickly risen to notoriety by remixing tracks by MIA, Modeselektor, Basement Jaxx, and Mark Ronson to name a few. His style is a fusion of many electronic genres including dubstep, Chicago house and garage two-step.  Basic translation: throbbing bass lines, crisp hooks, soulful vocalists and occasional World music flourishes.  While the masked DJ refrains from stepping up to the microphone, he employs the talents of Sampha, Jessie Ware, Yukimi Nagano (of Little Dragon) and Roses Gabor to give the music that human touch.

Perhaps the strangest quality is the SBTRKT chooses not to reveal his true identity and bask in his newfound celebrity.  He would rather have fans and critics focus on the music than on the person who makes it.  Regardless of what his driver’s license says, SBTRKT is serving up some contemporary UK dance music with a spoonful of Pop for the wary.

If you like: Little Dragon, Massive Attack, The xx, Hot Chip
Check out: SBTRKT (start with his self-titled debut album, continue with the Step in Shadows ep and graduate to remixes and collaborations)
Feeling brave: Jamie Woon, James Blake, Gold Panda

AI level: Intermediate

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José González

Synthesizers are modern and exciting with the extent of their versatility, however, it can be refreshing to escape all the complexities of modernity to the refuge of a guy and his guitar.  The minimalism of José González’s music is completely deceiving.  Vocals that seem to shy away from the microphone and a classical guitar appear to be the only ingredients necessary to create these understated yet brilliant compositions.

The Swedish-Argentine, lo-fi folk artist recorded his first album while still pursuing a phD in Biochemistry, which may explain lyrical themes that touch on natural imagery, evolution, and redemption along with a unique vision of the struggles of the heart.  A childhood love of pop music presents itself in the stripped down covers of classic songs such as “Born In the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division, “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, and “Hand on Your Heart” by Kylie Minogue.  These covers along with the Knife’s “Heartbeats” launched José González into the spotlight and his individuality has kept him there.

A master of the classical guitar, his intricate finger-picking can easily make one instrument sound like 3 during a live performance.  The only adornment to his voice and guitar are the occasional bongo or backing vocal along with a foot-tap, hand percussion and the subtleties amidst sounds such as a breath drawn between lyrics.  In short, José González is subtlety at its finest.

If you like: John Mayer ballads, Ray LaMontagne, Iron & Wine, Nick Drake
Check out: José González (start with Veneer, continue with In Our Nature, and graduate to EPs and collaborations)
Feeling brave: Junip, Emiliana Torrini, Elliott Smith, M. Ward, Zero 7

AI level: Beginner


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Little Dragon

The beauty of the all-encompassing “indie” genre is the fact that it is so all encompassing.  An avant-garde artist looking to break the mold (if not create an entirely new one) can sit right next to a singer songwriter on a festival’s bill.  Little Dragon is a band that has accomplished the unique task of creating a distinct sound while navigating the space between familiar and inventive.

Formed in 1996, this Swedish quartet consists of Yukimi Nagano on vocals and percussion, Erik Bodin on drums, Fredrik Wallin on bass and Hakan Wirenstrand on keyboards.  It may seem odd that a band with such strong ties to R&B and soul could operate without a guitar, but Little Dragon has created a marriage of these familiar genres with the electronic, synth-pop that has dominated the music world for the past decade.

This melding of neo-soul with electronic flair have given this band a unique identity throughout their 3 albums.  The debut, self-titled release leaned heaviest on R&B influences while their latest, Ritual Union, dives deeper into dubsteb.  Nagano’s rich vocals anchor the songs and give them warmth; ballads such as “Feather” still seem personal and intimate even though strongly driven by electronic beats.

Little Dragon has mastered their blend of sultry with space-age over the course of 3 releases.  The danger of creating such a unique identity lies in how to evolve while remaining true to self.  Hopefully this quartet is up to the task.

If you like: Gorillaz, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Nightmares on Wax
Check out: Little Dragon (start with Ritual Union, continue with Machine Dreams, graduate to Little Dragon)
Feeling brave: Metronomy, James Blake, Glasser, Burial

AI level: Beginner

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Washed Out

Disclaimer: This post contains talk of synthesizers, but rest assured fair readers that these are not the 80s synthesizers of Animotion, A Flock of Seagulls or The Fixx.  I would also discourage you from tying the electronic aspect of synthesizers to any kind of techno music of the rave scene. Now that your mind has been cleared of such cumbersome stereotypes, I present Washed Out.

The stage name of Ernest Greene, Washed Out is a part of the new crop of Chill-wave artists using synthesizers to create a sound more likely to inspire an appreciation for 80s nostalgia.  Instead of being in the middle of a game of laser-tag, the synths envelope you like a fog, creating a cool, hazy environment that can easily operate as background music for your classiest shindig.  However, a close listen will not disappoint either.

At it’s Poppiest the music of Washed Out may compel you have a dance party and at its most somber, it is romantic and introspective.  The vocals are distant and a bit muffled, blending with the synths, ebbing and flowing along with the rhythm.  A cello and a saxophone are just two instruments that make appearances without seeming foreign in this electronic soup of sound.  Although Hip Hop has been cited as an influence, there are no overwhelming bass lines here, just crisply complex percussion.

If you like: Bibio, James Blake, Best Coast, Gardens & Villa
Check out: Washed Out (start with Life of Leisure EP and graduate to Within and Without)
Feeling brave: Neon Indian, Toro y Moi, Real Estate, Gold Panda

AI level: Beginner


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Kings of Convenience

Time to mellow out.  Collapse into the easy chair, grab a fluffy pillow, set Kings of Convenience spinning on the stereo/iPod/turntable and melt into the easy groove of two Nordic voices accompanied by their acoustic guitars.

This alternative folk duo may seem like a figment of the musical world’s imagination seeing as how they release an album, disappear for a few years and then pop up to release another.  Their debut, Quiet is the New Loud was released in 2001 and might as well have been onomatopoeia with respect to the music on the album.  Sometimes categorized as whisper-folk, Kings of Convenience craft delicate melodies with their gently plucked and strummed guitars, soothing voices and the occasionally well-placed piano, string and horn.

In 2004 their follow up Riot on an Empty Street featured an appearance from Feist and a few more up-tempo offerings.  However, there also came an intimacy of the recording that sucks you into the world where only those two guitars seem to exist.  Microphones might as well be placed a centimeter from the guitars and mouths of the Kings, capturing every breath drawn and squeak between chords.  Stifling or comfortable?

Declaration of Dependence was released in 2009, but Kings of Convenience are emerging for a tour this year.  The easy sway of their music is sure to captivate as they make the rare public appearance performing for fans.

If you like: Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake
Check out: Kings of Convenience (start with Riot on an Empty Street, continue with Declaration of Dependence and graduate to Quiet is the New Loud)
Feeling brave: Belle & Sebastian, José González, Junip

AI level: Beginner

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Gardens & Villa

Anyone feel like a trip to the 1980s?  I didn’t think so.  No one wants to go back to the days of blinding neon, Aquanet dominance and leg warmers.  However, if you are craving a taste without wishing to sacrifice the sonic comforts of the new millennium, look no further than Gardens & Villa.

The music emitting from this quintet hailing from Santa Barbara is a convergence of influences that outwardly make for strange bedfellows.  Familiar synthesizers that channel a tongue in cheek head bob will be familiar to children of the 80s, while exacting rhythms and vocals channel a different period.  The vocals of Chris Lynch weave in and out of his lower register and into his higher more resonant tones that can be both severe and soothing.

The lyrics contain both natural images and those of another world.  There are vast, chill-wave, synth pop strains that allow the listener to get lost in the high tides mentioned in the lyrics.  Then all at once the music seems to box you in so that you feel as though you are only seeing it through the porthole of a ship or spacecraft; confined yet aware of the space.  The moody ballads are the most articulate in that respect.

Gardens & Villa are a new band, together just a couple of years, it will be exciting to see what direction they take; more of the beachy chill-wave or something a bit more daring.


If you like: Beach House, Best Coast, Cults, Talking Heads
Check out: Gardens & Villa
Feeling brave: Memory Tapes, Yeasayer, Wild Beasts, Broadcast

AI level: Intermediate


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Wild Beasts

A falsetto voice in a rock song has a unique effect that can be much different than that of a falsetto in a ballad.  In a ballad a falsetto can be soothing, swaying, and gently moving along the current of the music.  In a rock song, a falsetto asserts itself by punching through the music to prove it’s masculinity.  This aggressive incarnation of the falsetto is at the heart of art-rock band, Wild Beasts.

Debut release Limbo, Panto served to establish this UK quartet as a dynamic band not afraid to pile on the pomp and circumstance.  Hayden Thorpe’s voice calls out over the baroque embellishment of the music and comments on considerably less dramatic themes within the lyrics.  The album’s aesthetic is difficult to compare to any other artist past or present, which enabled Wild Beasts to leave a firm impression only a few steps into their career.

Follow up, Two Dancers, saw Thorpe and company drifting into more pop friendly songs.  Bass player, Tom Fleming made more appearances on vocals lending a deep Nick Cave-like undertone to Thorpe’s androgynous wails.  Less flashy than their debut, Two Dancers saw a more controlled approach to their unique musical identity.  Their most recent release continues their thread of unconventional art-funk with ballads such as “Albatross” that finds the band with a darker, more restrained tone.  Quirky and odd, this is the kind of indie rock that rewards an open mind and an artful ear.

If you like: David Bowie, Prince, Jónsi
Check out: Wild Beasts (start with Two Dancers, continue with Smother and graduate to Limbo, Panto)
Feeling brave: Antony & the Jonsons, Tune-Yards, Dirty Projectors

AI level: Advanced


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