Marshmallow Coast -- aka Andy Gonzales -- has created easily the year's oddest, catchiest, and most irreverent folk set in Antistar. The former Of Montreal member strums acoustic guitars beneath omnipresent flutes, sprightly bongos, and strange underwater noises -- a fantasy mix that is as dry and simple as it is outrageous and ironic. Telling tales of snooty women, underappreciated men, and elusive roadkill, Gonzales speaks for the juvenile, unglamorous Everyman. His unaffected, strained vocals set up his silly-smart lyrics; "I'm gonna find my lover though, it may be hard/ I've looked high and low/ Where'd that Chinese lady go?" sings Gonzales on the soulful barbershop closer "Chinese Lady." And it's precisely these basic but sing-along melodies that ground the songs' crisp, slapstick arrangements. The 11 tunes bubble with pop-subversion and deadpan humor, from the Zanzibar boogies to the acid harmonies to Gonzales' grumpy wit: An anti-star is born.
Heaven/Earth and Kites Are Fun
The Free Design
In the fabulously fecund period known as the 1960s, there was so much going on musically that people are still trying to catch up with stuff that fell through the proverbial cracks. One such group was The Free Design, who released five albums between 1967 and 1972. Comprised of siblings Chris, Bruce, Sandy, and Ellen Dedrick, The Free Design specialized in deceptively cheery, intricately arranged vocal-group pop-rock with subtle jazz undertones -- imagine the Mamas & the Papas or the Fifth Dimension with arrangements by Neal Hefti or Gil Evans, or Stereolab (who are FD fans) during the Summer of Love. But along with the sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows came unexpected dissonances and eerily pensive passages of melancholia, as if they knew how fragile the carefree soap bubbles were. www.lightintheattic.net
Ray Davies said he liked perusing people's record collections as he felt he could gain insight into the character of the owner. Now, the Columbia/Legacy Artist's Choice series -- Starbucks-distributed compilations in which established performers choose their favorite and/or most influential songs by others -- gives us a unique perspective on the late Man in Black. Some selections are hardly surprises -- Hank Williams Sr.'s proto-honky-tonk, the big-as-the-sky gospel of Mahalia Jackson. But there's also the slick L.A. country-rock of Linda Ronstadt's "Desperado," the immaculately orchestrated angst of "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell, and Eddy Arnold's "I'll Hold You in My Heart," the latter exemplifying the Nashville Sound Cash disdained throughout his career. Also: Kris Kristofferson, Dylan, Roberta Flack. Through these, we can hear the America Johnny Cash heard.
No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion
One of the most famous Bogart lines in Casablanca is "Round up the usual suspects," which is what Rhino did, gathering the best-known tunes by the legends -- Ramones, Clash, Jam, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag -- and collecting them into a thoroughly annotated four-CD package. Also swell is attention paid the lesser-knowns, bands who had one amazing single (or maybe one OK album), then disappeared: Penetration, Adverts, Only Ones, Ruts. There's those that transitioned into the mainstream, more or less -- Elvis Costello, Blondie, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Pretenders -- and the stalwarts, still retaining some of that wild creative spark of yore: Pere Ubu, Wire, Suicide, Buzzcocks, Patti Smith. Indispensable as this collection is, one track is worth the purchase: the Pop Group's awesome, never-before never-again "She Is Beyond Good and Evil."
Sonata and Dances
Best known primarily for his piece "Sabre Dance" (beloved by movie and cartoon directors for chase scenes), Russian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) had a lot more goin' on. Despite its historical context, his music had more in common with the Romantic era -- but that didn't stop Soviet government officials from giving him grief for being so un-PC "modern." (His music influenced Miles Davis during his Kind of Blue period, too.) This Koch disc of Sonata and Dances, which spans the years 1925-54 and includes some world-premiere recordings, is a real treasure: It's full of heart-swelling (but never obvious) lyrical beauty infused with delicate dissonances, flawlessly performed by Hideko Udagawa (violin) and Boris Berezovsky (piano).
Jeez, with all the comfort and joy flying around this season, you might require some sounds with teeth as a tonic. To that end, meet Vijay Iyer. Like other local jazz talents (Kenny Wollessen, Rob Burger), pianist Iyer followed the yellow brick road from the Bay Area to the Big Apple, from whence springs Blood Sutra, a set of thorny, economical compositions for piano, tenor sax, acoustic bass, and drums. Iyer's style is a fine balance between brainy abstraction, quirky lyricism, and percussive vigor -- think of the late Don Pullen's Quartet with George Adams or a full-of-piss-and-vinegar Andrew Hill. www.artistshousemusic.com
Under the Moon
Do you want to like contemporary jazz singers, but find many of them either employing too much "technique" or getting stuck in a 1930s-1950s my-man-treats-me-like-crap-but-he's-my-man/standards time warp? Then do we have a singer for you: NYC's Barbara Sfraga. She wraps her voice around and inside a song, interpreting it like an instrumentalist, soaring, but never treating it like a mere "vehicle," never losing respect for the song. About Sfraga's repertoire: She holds songwriters Duke Ellington (an affecting "Mood Indigo," best version you'll hear this year) and Bob Dylan (a luminous "Every Grain of Sand," with just voice and acoustic bass) in equal esteem. If a mad gene-splicer could cross kd lang with Sheila Jordan, the result might be Barbara Sfraga. (And she's nobody's doormat, pal.) www.A440MusicGroup.com