Quarterly Buzz Report

Taking stock of the year's best albums so far

For most people, summer is the season for beaches, bikinis, and cold beers on the porch. But for us list-making music geeks, it's the time for pulling together our midyear Top 10s. Things always start to heat up around now, with several hot spring releases already out. So while you're hanging out on the beach or porch in your bikinis and cutoffs, we've been in the lab compiling a list of the best records of the past three months. Here are five of our favorites.

The Black Keys


WHAT'S THE BUZZ? The Akron duo recorded a huge chunk of its sixth album in the famous Muscle Shoals studio where Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon made some of their best, most soulful records. That spirit rubbed off on the Keys.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Fueled by their strongest set of songs since 2004's Rubber Factory, the Keys scale back after 2008's Danger Mouse-produced opus Attack & Release. Still, the hip-hop producer returns for Brothers' best cut, "Tighten Up."

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 50 percent. The Keys aren't exactly masters of melody, so their albums tend to drift into a fuzzy blur of guitars and drums after a while. By the end of the year, how many people will remember how much they loved this in May?

VV Brown

Travelling Like the Light

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? This 26-year-old British soul-pop singer is all over the place on her debut album, doing girl-group doo-wop one minute, video-game electronica the next. And she seems committed to each and every sound.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Brown's breakthrough single, "Shark in the Water," is one of the year's catchiest. It's also deceptively bubbly. Listen close, and you'll hear a relationship going down for the last time. She's tricky like that throughout the album.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 35 percent. Brown is smart — maybe too smart. Without a real identity, she sorta gets lost on Travelling Like the Light. It's a breezy pop record, perfect for summertime parties ... and shelved right after Labor Day.

The Hold Steady

Heaven Is Whenever

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? After the relatively subdued Stay Positive in 2008, these Brooklyn rockers get back to basics: lots of riff-pulling guitars and sweeping songs about drunken, horny boys and girls in America.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Keyboardist Franz Nicolay is gone, and so is much of the band's Springsteenian sprawl, making Heaven Is Whenever the Hold Steady's heaviest album. Frontman Craig Finn compensates by writing fractured character studies again.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 60 percent. Critics love this band, and not just because most of them look like Finn. In one song, a guy connects with a girl over Hüsker Dü. That pretty much guarantees a place in the Top 10.

LCD Soundsystem

This Is Happening

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? James Murphy's third album is an epic exploration of an aging hipster trying to hold it all together in a time of personal chaos. Bottom line: Love, dancing, and drunk girls are the most awesome things in the world.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? The last LCD Soundsystem album, 2007's Sound of Silver, is great. This Is Happening is even better. Murphy builds the tracks until they're about to explode under pressure (the nine songs clock in at 65 minutes). Opener "Dance Yrself Clean" is one of the year's best songs.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 95 percent. Rock critic + a sense of rhythm = James Murphy. Expect This Is Happening to land at the very top of many, many lists at the end of the year. Murphy is living every music geek's dream.

Sleigh Bells


WHAT'S THE BUZZ? Another group of Brooklyn hipsters. And they're a duo to boot. Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss fill their debut album with speaker-shredding distortion and tuneful noise. M.I.A. loves them, and it's easy to hear why.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Combining noise-pop, hip-hop, dance-punk, and about a half-dozen other musical hyphenates, Sleigh Bells are hard to pin down. Which is one of the reasons Treats holds up after many listens. Solid combo: "Tell 'Em" tears at your heart while ripping at your skin.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 80 percent. Treats is one of the most buzzed-about albums of the year, and it sounds just as good in the car, at home, on the beach, or in the clubs. In other words, we'll be listening to this one until the end of the year.

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