Sam Sparro — Return To Paradise (Virgin)
For many in the gay community, our dance clubs are our churches (and our singers are our preachers), where we forget our woes and celebrate life in the communal grooves. Unfortunately, much of what rules dance music lately features computer-enhanced vocalists on tracks created with laser precision—and very little soul—by overpaid producers. Whatever happened to the days of Paradise Garage? Clearly, Sam Sparro has something to say and sing about this, as his stellar sophomore disc is a faithful tribute to the R&B, funk and hedonistic sounds of mid-’70s/early ‘80s disco. Just one listen to the stirring strings, horny horns and high-hat percolation of “We Could Fly” will transport you to the VIP lounge of Studio 54, while the title track clearly salutes to the aforementioned other pinnacle of NYC nightlife back in the day. “I Wish I Never Met You” is the zenith moment here, perfectly showcasing Sparro’s knack for an earworm melody, a delicious groove and powerhouse vocals. Though a painful kiss-off of a breakup song, it somehow feels joyous. You’ll also dig “Yellow Orange Rays,” with its nod to the quirkier side of early Prince. Sparro scores by effortlessly looking backward and forward. Good on ya, mate. —Paul V.
Friends — Manifest! (Fat Possum)
Sometimes when I hear a band with a dance-heavy vibe and vaguely African musical influences, I just want to blame Vampire Weekend. Which isn’t fair—to dance music, to African polyrhythms or to the delightful Vampire Weekend. Yet this is what I thought when listening to Brooklyn’s Friends on their debut, Manifest! On opener “Friend Crush,” the steady beats of the snare drum double-time over heavy bass runs, while charismatic frontwoman Samantha Urbani lays out her heart to a would-be BFF: “I wanna be your friend / I wanna ask your advice on a weekday / I wanna plan something nice for the weekend.” Nice sentiment, delivered in Urbani’s sleepy sing-speak. It’s a great introduction marred by too many half-baked tunes that follow—sketches, really, like the mbanqua-lite “Ruins” or the cheery “Stay Dreaming.” When they hit on a compelling melody (the dream-pop girl group of “I’m His Girl”) or a beat that just won’t stop (the remix-ready “A Light”), you know this is a group with potential. And Urbani’s a diva in the making—along with her insouciant sprechgesang she’s got a multitude of voices (fluttering falsetto, ‘outer buroughs’ rap attitude, even Michael Jackson whoops and hiccups)—but she’s not there quite yet. —Dan Loughry
Hot Chip — In Our Heads (Domino)
Listening to this fantastic new Hot Chip disc, I can’t help but think they truly are the valedictorians of intelligent dance music, and a hard-working outfit that helps restore some faith in the possibilities of what eclectic pop music can sound like. The beloved London group also showcases how much more expressive and organic club music can sound when it’s played and sung by real live humans. However, this is not to say they don’t deliver when it comes to dance floor beats. Big-room jams like “How Do You Do,” the rubbery “Night & Day” and the Chic-inspired “Don’t Deny Your Heart” stand tall against relatively hushed numbers like “Look At Where We Are” and “Let Me Be Him.” The latter is a lengthy, hypnotic masterstroke that hums with the sounds of birds and children, soaring across big, fluffy clouds headed for some kind of tropical nirvana. This also showcases the beating heart of the group: Alex Taylor’s fragile, savvy falsetto and Joe Goddard’s warm and expressive baritone. Meanwhile, on the slowbuilt, textured “Flutes,” Taylor commands all concerned to “Work that board / Work the floor” for an odyssey of emotive house. Hell, the first seven tracks here alone should vie for your undivided attention. —Paul V.
Maximo Park — The National Health (v2)
Maximo Park’s fourth album, The National Health, opens with something of a misnomer. The beautiful minute-long piano-led “When I Was Wild” betrays everything the band is known for—bombast, crunchy guitars and manic, nervous energy. It’s a great track (extended to three minutes as an iTunes bonus) and the contrast between the opener and the album’s second song (the title track) truly reflect what this album is about. The dichotomy between soft and loud permeates throughout this release. Early single “Hips And Lips” is a standout, with its irrepressible synth line and cavernous chorus that simply explodes into a cacophonic instrumental break. It’s a song that could put them back on the map in the UK after their previous LP, Quicken The Heart, lost them about half their devoted following. This is definitely the most varied Maximo release so far. Where you could easily break a sweat just listening to the band’s intense earlier releases, The National Health allows their audience to breathe. Fans of the band should rejoice—Maximo Park’s renewed energy have allowed them to record their most accomplished LP to date. —Dominik Rothbard
Men Without Hats — Love In the Age of War (Cobraside)
Men Without Hats will never be cool. They’ll never be considered innovators. They’ll never get the respect they deserve. While most people only know them for 1983’s “The Safety Dance” and/or 1987’s “Pop Goes The World,” the band has been all but ignored for a quarter of a century, despite sporadically releasing quality LPs. But the year is now 2012, and the time is right for a resurrection. Rather than try and adapt to the new trends, MWH have opted instead to work with their classic synths—and Dave “Rave” Ogilvie, one-time Skinny Puppy member and super-producer who’s worked with Marilyn Manson. This edge has served them well. Love In the Age of War is a complete triumph. The band sounds as though they’ve been stored in Tupperware, as fresh and authentic as they sounded in 1983. Lead single “Head Above Water” is instantly memorable and fun. “Everybody Knows” is MWH by-the-numbers in a great way. The absolute highlight of the album comes early with the dark, clubby “The Girl with the Silicone Eyes.” It ranks among the band’s best work. In a time where ‘80s reunions are coming fast and furious, it’s nice to see that this band got it so right. A must-have. —Dominik Rothbard
A Place to Bury Strangers — Worship (Dead Oceans)
Lord knows I’ve tried. The New York noise-rock trio (formerly quartet) A Place To Bury Strangers has been duly praised for their dissonance-drenched slabs of shoegaze sound on their previous release Exploding Head and their eponymous debut. And, I’ll admit it, it could be a function of age, but I just couldn’t hear what everyone was raving about. (In my defense, I love My Bloody Valentine, perhaps the noisiest of all bands.) Yet their third CD Worship is a stunner. Self-produced amazing sonic clarity, there are chances the band will be accused of selling out (whatever the hell that means now), because you can actually hear the lyrics and differentiate between the strains of roiling guitars—to which I say: good. Any band with a sound this mammoth—check the transcendent waves of feedback that lead into the surf rock masterpiece “Dissolved”—deserves their share of the commercial pie. Oliver Ackermann’s melodiously deep baritone floats above the morass of noise, most effectively on the rave-ups of “Mind Control” and “Why I Can’t Cry Anymore,” and even when they lay back like a testosterone-fueled Cocteau Twins on the title track or “Fear,” it’s just a momentary rest before the next rush to rock glory. —Dan Loughry