Madonna — MDNA (Live Nation/Interscope)
Whatever happened to growing old gracefully? Madonna had made a habit of trying not to grow old at all. MDNA, as its title suggests, is a frantic electronic mess of a record. It sounds a quarter-century younger than Madonna. It doesn’t have the seamless swirl of Confessions on a Dance Floor, but it shares its vapidness. Madonna is an interesting woman with interesting things to say, but aside from attempting to start a turf war with Lady Gaga, there’s very little substance in these lyrics. “Some Girls” apes for the attention of pre-teen girls (are us gays not enough for you?) with a Beyoncé-esque chant. “Girl Gone Wild” is annoying, mindless trash and shouldn’t have opened the album. But “I Don’t Give A-“ is the worst offender. The song has more potential than the rest of the album combined. There’s a glorious ending that could go on forever. Unfortunately, it’s betrayed by idiotic lyrics (“No time for a manicure…”) and a faux-aggro rap that rivals the one in “American Life” for Most Embarrassing Madonna Moment. The album closes on a relatively high note, with a duo of ballads—“Masterpiece” (the real standout here) and “Falling Free”—but when Madonna turns up the BPMs, all maturity goes out the window. The album is generally a party, and a disappointing one at that, but fear not Madonna fans—if you’ve claimed to be happy with her recent output, I’m sure you can pretend to like this one too. —Dominik Rothbard
Alabama Shakes — Boys & Girls (Ato Records)
Rock ‘n’ roll’s dead. Yet, like The Walking Dead zombies, the corpse of rock keeps a-coming. Just in time for the undead resurrection comes Alabama Shakes, an Athens, Ala., foursome who’re the second coming of The White Stripes—only with a 22-year-old black female singer, Brittany Howard, who channels every down-and-dirty diva from Joplin to Winehouse without sounding in thrall to any of them. Boys & Girls, the band’s debut, is 11 slices of be-bop-a-lula, soul, blues, barroom ballads and other retro ephemera from the American rock ‘n’ roll songbook. Though it’s steeped in the past, the pain, suffering and ultimate liberation here’s as fresh as that scab you won’t leave alone. Howard’s not the whole show—drummer Steve Johnson puts the “shakes” in their name, and guitarist Heath Fogg and bassist Zac Cockrell more than hold their own—but she’s the focal point nonetheless. Whether she’s swooping through the ‘love hurts’ manifesto of “You Ain’t Alone,” shimmying over the smoking closer “On Your Way” or just begging her lover to see it through on the sublime “Hold On,” she’s a force of nature the likes of which we haven’t seen since the young Bonnie Raitt or new Queen of Soul Adele (who wishes she were this fast and loose). —Dan Loughry
Baron von Luxxury — The Last Seduction (Manimal)
Baron von Luxxury (AKA Blake Robin) is an L.A.-based producer, remixer and music blogger, and his latest disc is sprinkled with so much glittering electro disco dust, it will get you high off the fumes. With influences ranging from Roxy Music to ELO to Ladytron, he distills all the elements of infectious late-‘70s and early-‘80s synthpop, and perfectly updates it for our 2012 ears and hips. He easily taps into a classic Giorgio Moroder-esque vibe with a modern, electronic bedroom pop feel, evoking equal parts Pet Shop Boys, Sparks, Empire of the Sun and Glass Candy. In fact, he puts on his stomping electroclash boots for a striking track/homage called “Glass Candy.” The other many highlights here include a breathlessly flawless duet with Little Boots entitled “That Disco Beat,” his minimal yet plump cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Y Control,” the neon-lit, effulgent title track and the dark-waved “The Lovely Theresa,” which pulses like an unearthed gem from the vaults of Danceteria, circa 1984. Not only is Baron’s production spot-on and pristine, his vocals are powerful yet restrained. L.A. fans can come catch Baron playing live at The Echoplex on April 13. —Paul V.
Kishi Bashi — 151a (Joyful Noise Records)
Kishi Bashi, né K Ishibashi, is a founding member of Brooklyn indie band Jupiter One, as well as a multi-instrumentalist who’s toured with Regina Spektor, Sondre Lerche and Of Montreal. His band is standard indie; his supporting gigs work-for-hire. But his solo debut 151a—well, it’s something special. These nine tunes in under 35 minutes are an electro-orchestral phantasmagoria, standing tall amongst the best of Owen Pallett, Sufjan Stevens and, more recently, Active Child. Ishibashi’s voice is a conversational tenor—reminiscent of Paul Simon or, when scaling towards falsetto, The Shins’ James Mercer. The opening “Intro / Pathos, Pathos” moves from musique concrete overture into spacey pop funk with sawing violins, fluid circular bass lines and the sweetly sad pining of the titular emotion. “Manchester” takes the literary conceits of Simon’s best works, turns it inside out and refashions itself in the image of pristine chamber rock. He can write his way around an ingratiating pop hook, as on the Yeasayer/Animal Collective nugget “It All Began With A Burst”; he updates Fleet Foxes’ slavish appropriation of CSNY with the harmonically blessed “Atticus, In The Desert”; and he imbues even the most experimental passages (“Bright Whites,” “Wonder Woman, Wonder Me”) with enough melodic imagination to keep you interested. —Dan Loughry
Miike Snow — Happy To You (Sony)
I swear that Sweden is a country with magical, musical superpowers. The sheer volume of stunning music crafted there is mind-blowing, and Miike Snow (a trio, not a person) is no exception. Their much anticipated second disc dabbles in the kind of surreal, electronica-meets-art-pop that whisks you away to a palatial underworld, filled with tinkling keys, orchestral strings, martial beats and languid vocals that inhabit your brain and body. It’s the sound of psychedelia crashing with filtered disco, and various instruments and effects that leap out. This is hugely apparent on the stirring “Devil’s Work,” whose instantly infectious melody and powerful brass-section stabs get right under your skin. The essence of the album is found on “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will),” which marries the whimsical lilt of a piano with playful whistling and distorted synths, while “God Help This Divorce” features an arch-falsetto vocal and a gentle folk lilt. The closing “Paddling Out” rollicks with a ‘90s house/piano euphoria that leaves you wanting much more. While this album doesn’t have quite the same level of club-minded hits as their debut, it showcases their own unique hybrid of celestial indie rock and uncluttered electronic beats that never feels forced or awkward. —Paul V.
The Shins — Port Of Morrow (Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records/Interscope Records)
I, like most white guys with beards in their early 30s, have waited patiently for new Shins music for five solid years, like a good hipster. I, like you, read about the line-up changes on Pitchfork with a furrowed brow and a worried scratch to my faux-hawk. The truth behind the massive change (James Mercer is the sole remaining original member) is that it didn’t affect much at all. Mercer, as we all speculated in the comments section of Brooklyn Vegan, is the Shins. That being said, this isn’t as enjoyable a listen as Wincing The Night Away or Chutes Too Narrow. Port Of Morrow doesn’t really compare, but maybe the Shins’ time was five years ago. They sound a bit tired. The production tricks aren’t as spectacular as they once were. The chord changes seem … familiar. This is a very good album, but it’s the sound of a band growing older. “The Rifle’s Spiral” retains the energy of the band at its peak. “Simple Song” is an easy crowd pleaser but doesn’t amount to much on repeated listens. “Bait And Switch” is fun, albeit a bit light. “No Way Down” has an Amy Grant feel I’m not too comfortable with, perhaps the result of the new band, who have a tendency to err a bit too far on the folksy side. I’m sure Starbucks will sell a ton of these. —Dominik Rothbard