Favorite Songs & Albums of 2017 (So Far!)

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

So listen – I’ve only listened to 29 albums this year. This is embarrassingly small for me, who tries to do 2-4 new releases a week. But what can I say! I spent the first few months of the year working on my thesis and looking for a job (both successful!). But, I still wanted to talk about my favorites. I regret that there are many albums by bands I love (Gorillaz! Pissed Jeans!) that I haven’t had a chance to spin yet. I wrote my annual halfway point critic-y sister post over on The Filtered Lens, but here’s my purely personal post of the songs and albums I’ve loved so far this year. Up first – songs.

Favorite Songs of 2017 (So Far):

#25. “Is This the Life We Really Want?” – Roger Waters

(review)

Waters, both in Pink Floyd and solo, was never interested in subtlety. And any remaining subtlety has withered with age. This track, which sounds like a “Wall” cut, bemoans all of the injustices of the Western world – journalists facing danger, schoolgirls facing danger, the Earth facing danger, and fascist leaders not facing danger, all with savage profanity and an angry whisper. If this isn’t a call to arms, then what is?

#24. “Hard Times” – Paramore

After a few years dabbling in adult rock and a general grown-up alternative sound, the folks in Paramore looked to new wave inspirations for their fifth album, “After Laughter.” The best example came early, in single “Hard Times,” a completely rousing and bouncy joint that sees the group willfully eschew adult alternative for a Devo inspiration.

#23. “Everything Now” – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire’s slow transition from existential indie rock group into bouncy disco band has had many factors, from a shortening in members to an acceptance of fame. And it soldiers onward to “Everything Now,” one of the most outwardly danceable songs the band has ever produced. Although still not an optimistic song, the production from one of the Daft Punk men robots sure heralds their new turn.

#22. “Firing Squad” – Power Trip

The thrash/heavy metal band Power Trip spent a long time recording their sophomore album – five years. And it was worth it – the dudes in the band are riff machines, and it’s prevalent throughout their album. In this track, the lead single, the guitars hit an incendiary rhythm that doesn’t let up past one of the highest, most excruciatingly shrill guitar notes this side of Dave Gilmour’s solo in “Money.” Rock on.

#21. “Ignorecam” – Pissed Jeans

The dudes in Pissed Jeans – only dudes since their ~2012 reformation – are one of the only dude bands that fully recognize their place in music, as a bunch of dudes. They did it just fine on their absolutely stellar 2013 album “Honeys.” They continue on this song, sung from the point of a dude camgirl-watcher who gets off on being ignored. Not sure why exactly they felt the need to give the voice to this group of men, but it’s a killer (and tongue-in-cheek) song either way. Singer Mark Kovette usually sounds like he’s guzzling whiskey mid-song, and his throaty, guttural vocals sound especially so here.

#20. “Pink Up” – Spoon

Admittedly, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Spoon. While I recognize their immediate legacy in the indie-rock movement, they have never really done it for me. But their new album gets permeated by a completely pleasant pseudo-avant-garde track in “Pink Up.” It’s what the avant-leaning indie movement of ~2007 did best. It’s a perfectly enjoyable track that twists and turns but never loses it’s deeply pleasant rhythm.

#19. “Continuum” – At the Drive In

(review)

After 17 album-less years, ATDI finally saw Hell freeze over and blessed us with “in•ter a•li•a,”and while it’s far from perfect (‘perfect’ here meaning “Relationship of Command”), it has plenty of killer, gut-punching tracks. “Continuum” is driven almost entirely by Cedric Bizler-Zavala’s screamy vocals, which have only gotten stronger over time. The climax of the song, which literally jumps from a whisper to a scream, is one of the best bridges of the year.

#18. “Passionfruit” – Drake

And here I thought I was done with Drake. After three straight releases that I absolutely couldn’t listen to (two of which were loooooong, too), Drake came through with the music-heavy ‘playlist’ “More Life.” One of the breakouts is single “Passionfruit,” which starts with a sobering minute-plus synth rhythm (sobering, despite the DJ literally cutting in to tell people to drink more). It’s a pleasant track that sounds a lot like “One Dance,” but smoother, more digestible, and, well, fruity. Keep it up, Drizzy.

#17. “DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar

(review)

Lamar might be the only person in music currently challenging Beyoncé in the combo of mixing ambition, stage presence, and popularity. “DNA.” is a dirty, rapid track that showcases the two things Lamar does best – boasts and vulnerability. He also tackles another target – Geraldo Riviera. Riviera naturally said some pointless, racist stuff about Lamar in the past, so Lamar responds to it directly, even including a soundclip of Riviera’s comments for all of us to hear. Savage? Jury’s out, but it’s great either way.

#16. “Bad and Boujee” – Migos ft. Lil Uzi Vert

Migos aren’t exactly upstanding guys, and it feels bad to support them. But this song has been stuck in my head since January and there’s nothing I can do about it. Migos excel in simplicity; the rhymes here often sound like poetry written by (filthy) kindergartners – but it’s all in the rhythm of the vocals. The easiness of the song isn’t laziness but a calculated exercise in infecting listeners with a rhythm that’s bound to survive past the year and into the ‘classics’ hall. And it was a #1 to boot. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,

#15. “Nightmare Logic” – Power Trip

I’m not up to date on this year’s metal albums, but no song I’ve heard has had a more commanding central riff than this title track. The riff is so simple that it seems criminal how catchy it is, but that seems to be Power Trip’s MO. And although the lyrics seem to invoke a fight against an other-worldly evil being, they can be easily (and probably intentionally) applied to the resistance felt in our own country. This song is the fierce shot in the knee we all need this year.

#14. “Cut to the Feeling” – Carly Rae Jepsen

How good was Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “E•MO•TION?” She released a follow-up EP of cut tracks, and still had some gold leftover. This track, cut from both the album and the EP, is pop powerhouse. Jepsen practically smothers us in her voice, piercing through the music to belt the song’s title. Also, “Cut to the Feeling” feels like a description of the lyrics to every song she’s ever written.

#13. “Shining” – DJ Khaled feat. Beyoncé & JAY-Z

Khaled has a habit of bringing in some of rap & R&B’s best talents and bringing out the best in them, even over his simple beats. “Shining” is no exception, although the features make it worth the while. HOVA’s verse is on par with his verse in last year’s “I Got the Keys,” breathing energy into his limping* career. But Bey owns this tracks, singing at full volume and rapping a verse. It’s just a winning combination.

* – 4:44 is great, I wrote this bit before the album dropped and was kinda predicting it to be less so.

#12. “Run” – Foo Fighters

After a lackluster conceptual album and tour fatigue, Foo Fighters took a well-deserved break. And I, personally, thought that their glimmer was fading fast. But they returned recently with “Run” (no relation to their previous single “Walk”). The song stands as arguably the heaviest in their discography, with a riff boarding on metal and Dave Grohl’s screamed vocals. It’s whiplash in song form, in a way the Fighters haven’t delivered in a while. Also, the video is a masterpiece.

#11. “Governed By Contagions’ – At the Drive In

(review)

Boasting a title that sounds like it came from an ATDI song name generator, the band exploded back into the scene after 17 years with this single, a punk-induced blast that effectively uses both of the band’s singers. It’s as blood-boiling as anything in their back catalog, and appropriately dense. It’s also likely the best track on their new album. Turn the volume all the way up.

#s 10-7. “Talk to Me,” “Legend Has It,” “Call Ticketron,” “Hey Kids (Bumaye) [feat. Danny Brown]” – Run the Jewels

Okay is this fair? Maybe, maybe not. This is my blog, I do what I want. Run the Jewels have made a habit of putting out albums that flow like long suites. Their new album, “Run the Jewels 3,” opens with a surprisingly light track called “Down.” But then they kick it into high gear with “Talk to Me,” loudly announcing the album’s title. Their first two albums saw them justifying their own existence through searing political tracks. But this release sees them recognizing their popularity and rapping more about themselves. It’s less dark (though still dark), and often more fun. My personal favorite from the album, “Call Ticketron,” is just about the experience of seeing Run the Jewels live. Also, props to Killer Mike for some of the year’s best lines: “We are the murderous pair / That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there / Then went to Hell and discovered the devil / Delivered some hurt and despair” (“Legend Has It,” which also has a great video). Here’s a fun parting fact: both El-P and Killer Mike are 42, making the combined age of Run the Jewels 84. Legends.

#6. “call the police” – LCD Soundsystem

I have very mixed feelings about the publicity stunt that was the “break-up” and “reunion” of arguably-one-man band LCD Soundsystem. That said, James Murphy’s first single in seven years is exactly what you want from a Soundsystem song – nearly eight minutes, lacking a palpable central chorus and rhythm, and still inherently danceable. His lyrics are usually either completely targeted, or all over the place – and this song is the latter. Murphy sings like he’s throwing darts at a dartboard filled with “gentrified Brooklyn problems.” It’s a ton of fun stretched out over a long time, and it stops abruptly right as it becomes tedious. The true James Murphy way. Dance yrself clean.

#5. “On Hold” – The xx

The xx have never been the most upfront band. Even in the reformed group’s ‘new’ approach, they’re still very muted and emotionally vulnerable. And this is the exact reason why I, personally, don’t care for them. But for this track (the album’s lead single), Jamie xx takes a sample of a Hall & Oates song and exploits it as one of the song’s central rhythms. It’s an inherently catchy song that transforms a familiar rhythm into something else entirely. It’s a very groovy song, but one that repeatedly catches you in it’s cold, cold subject manner. The lyrics are just sad as all hell.

#4. “Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles

This song was a bold move, and one I deeply respect. At 5:41, the track is longer than every song in the One Direction discography (one remix matches it). It’s a somewhat bold lead single, one that signals an immediate shift away from the group he is permanently entwined with. And what a song – a piano ballad that’s vaguely about war (“Dunkirk” in theaters July 21st!) but also about personal relationships. It’s no secret that Styles was one of the better voices of the group, and it gets put on full display on this lead single. It’d be fun to watch the guy let loose if it wasn’t so emotional.

#3. “HUMBLE.” – Kendrick Lamar

(review)

The biggest jam of Lamar’s “DAMN.” was also its leadoff single. The song, less than three minutes, is a searing indictment of various things wrong with pop culture today. He touches on photoshopping models, billionaires giving talks and, vaguely and perhaps ironically, the luxury of millionaire celebs. And he does so with a ferocious energy, like he’s being paid word-per-second. The track is incendiary, the musical equivalent of a long string on fire, leading up to a bomb. Tense, direct, and catchy, it showcases Kendrick at his peak, truth-spewing form. And since I’ve done it a few times already – it has one of the best videos in years.

#2. “Fragments” – Blondie

(review)

The fun thing about doing pieces like this on my personal blog is being able to talk about any random album tracks I please, and there’s always ones that I love. This time around, it’s the final track on Blondie’s good new album “Pollinator.” The song is a left-field choice for my #2 of the year, for sure. It’s two seconds shy of seven minutes, and is a cover of a song written by a movie blogger. But Deborah Harry and co. just own it. It’s a new-wave song in the fullest – a slow intro that drags the listener long enough that they expect it to stay a sad ballad. And once that expectation is passed, the band locks in and jumps the tempo to practically double. Blondie don’t need to be putting in this much energy in 2017 (Harry just turned 72, for chrissakes), but the fact that they do makes this song so supremely entertaining. And the band stays locked in for most of the song’s runtime, before bringing it back in for a slower finale. I didn’t think we needed new Blondie in 2017, but we did.

#1. “Green Light” – Lorde

(review)

The first thing you should know about this song is that hitmaker Max Martin told Lorde her songwriting on this track was “incorrect.” She respectfully ignored his advice and released the song anyways. And man she dominates this song. The first minute sounds like old Lorde, piano ballad about meeting people in bars and what not. But once that off-beat piano kicks in, her whole history gets thrown out in favor of an excessively danceable tune that matures her teenage ennui in a very natural way. This song is the equivalent of a night where you went out a little too long – where you had a little too much, and got a little too emotional. But it’s also the morning after, when you realized that you don’t really care all that much after all. It’s three simultaneous emotions packed into one, and the pure volume and energy of the song make it difficult to handle. The proper response to this happens near the end of the song, when all instruments but the synth drain out in a supposed bridge, but one that Lorde ignores and keeps singing at high volume. This is a track for the bored teens, the 20-somethings who feel stuck, the 30-somethings who have to accept that life isn’t working out the way they want. It’s restless, fidget-y, and sleepless, but optimistic in a way that only Lorde could pull off. In other words, it’s 2017 in a song.

Favorite Albums of 2017 (So Far):

#10. Feist – “Pleasure”

Sparse, minimalist indie-pop isn’t usually something that barks up my tree, because I personally find it leaning more towards uninspired than emotional. But “Pleasure,” Feist’s first album in six years (and released only weeks before her appearance on the new Broken Social Scene record), feels intentionally lacking, like pieces have removed. It’s sparse to the points of actual silence, and yet the album has an undercurrent of something much bigger and darker. It covers a lot of ground, a lot of emotions and situations that are begrudgingly necessary in our own lives. This is a long way from an iPod commercial.

#9. Drake – “More Life”

Dammit, I like Drake again. His last three albums lost me completely – “Reading This” was frustratingly downtempo, “What a Time” was a cash grab and “VIEWS” was a painfully unlistenable act of showing you the table you’re going to put all of your emotions on, but then not actually doing it (as well as an exercise in the dangers of adopting another culture’s styles). But the common missing link in these albums was any remotely interesting music. Here, Drizzy incorporates music entirely, from the flutes in “Portland” to the sobering synth in “Passionfruit” that sounds like a tamer, better version of his inane and appropriative “One Dance.” Drake himself seems relaxed and in focus, more so than usual. And although this isn’t an album – it’s a ‘playlist’ – it’s still one of the better releases in his catalog.

#8. Foxygen – “Hang”

Foxygen are a pretty weird group. At their core, they’re early Rolling Stones imitators. Their music is very loose and fun, while being artfully destructive. But they do exist in 2017, an age where you can say “let’s spend the night together.” Foxygen exist more as the wet dream that exists in some Rolling Stones & Velvet Underground mix. This album, one of their better releases, is a large orchestral ensemble suite, although the band still officially credits only two members. Tracks like “Follow the Leader” and “America” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a more experimental prog-classic rock album, while maintaining a certain loose energy and heavy production that couldn’t have existed then. It’s a rare balance, and they haven’t always pulled it off in the past, but this album is a real gem.

#7. Slowdive – “Slowdive”

At it’s heaviest and loudest, shoegaze can be one of the most physically draining and ear-ripping experiences (My Bloody Valentine were regularly voted one of the loudest live bands and, well, Deafheaven). But at the other end of the spectrum are bands like Slowdive. They, like MBV and the Jesus + Mary Chain, regrouped for the current shoegaze revival and released their first new album in 22 years. The album retains shoegaze’s wall of sound, but through a dream-pop filter. The tracks on this album (especially “Star Roving”) fill you with a loud but warming sound that somehow reaches down into you like cocoa on a snowy day. It’s a summer-y album for people like me that don’t really like summer albums. Don’t feel like going outside? Let this be your sunshine instead. Note: headphones required.

*Doctors recommend a daily dose of sunlight. “Slowdive” has not been verified by the FDA and should not be considered a long-term replacement for vitamin D. Also don’t yell at me for calling Deafheaven shoegaze. “Sunbather” is.

#6. Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(review)

This album title has a simple answer – no. Waters was never very subtle in his decades in Pink Floyd, and he has been even less so in his solo work. In fact, Waters is more direct in his lyrical attacks than any young punk band you’ll ever see. This album is chock-full of specific ailments the world faces. Waters (and all of Pink Floyd) is deeply anti-fascist, and with the rise of fascist and fascist-adjacent politics, Waters immediately followed suit. Although much of the album is acoustic and subdued (think “Mother”), his anger is broiling over the pot and onto the stove. Sure, at one point he refers to an unnamed world leader as a “nincompoop,” but most of his attacks land hard – he chronicles governments killing journalists, the indifference to women being murdered, climate change and police brutality in one verse. Waters is just as angry as ever. Also, happy 40th, “Animals.” You’re aging well, unfortunately.

#5. Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”

I’d call this the best metal album of the year – to be fair, it’s the only one I’ve listened to so far. But it’ll probably stay that way. Power Trip take the best components of heavy metal and thrash metal and boil them down into songs that are straightforward but punishing. Metal bands can often be a little silly, but Power Trip demand to be taken seriously on this album, with grave political songs and mind-blowing riffs. The songs on this album are often somewhat basic, but they approach simplicity with a renewed energy, something most metal bands avoid (by either rehashing the same ideas, or trying to be overly conceptual). The rhythm in the title track barely stretches across more than one note, but it’s as effective as the best Motorhead classics.

#4. Lorde – “Melodrama”

(review)

From synth to industrial to piano ballad, Lorde’s sophomore album hits practically every point. The beauty of the album lies easily in how much of a sophomore album it feels like. Her first album was about life as a bored New Zealander teenager, minimalist and bleak; this album shares the sentiment, but from the POV of a 20 year old who has deeper experiences. Lorde’s choice to show those advancements through music rather than lyrics is brilliant, as it gives the album a whole depth that was intentionally missing from her debut. It’s a completely separate and distinct record, one that takes the already palpable emotions from her first record and translates them into different terms. This record is plagued with uncertainty about the future – it just switches between worry and carelessness. Lorde seems wise beyond her years, and this album shows.

#3. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(review)

K-Dot’s last full album was, need I say, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The modern masterpiece will almost definitely go down amongst “The Chronic” and “Stankonia” on the list of all-time best rap albums. Lamar presents himself on that album as a deeply flawed person, but does so in an otherworldly manner. On this album, he falls back down to Earth to compete at a fair level. The album is grittier, dirtier, and grounded more in velocity and realism than ambition. But don’t mistake that for a lack of creativity, because Lamar brings the heat. The album is full of intense boasts and rapid-fire rapping, from “DNA.” to “HUMBLE.” As always, the features are sparse, mostly centered around a solid Rihanna duet. And the album climaxes with a track that gives the oral history of the time Lamar’s father met the man who founded Top Dawg, the label Lamar is on – and then reimagines their interaction as a violent one. Lamar’s verses about addiction and personal demons actually feel more suited to this gritty album, and while it’s no “Butterfly,” it’s still a damn delight – sorry, a DAMN. delight.

#2. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked At Me”

The fact that I made it through this album in one pass is amazing. The fact that I did it over a drink is downright impressive. Only in rare circles of indie-folk do you find music this depressing and, when you do, it’s usually unwarranted and/or fictionalized. This isn’t. This album is the chronicles of folk/metal singer Phil Elverum losing his wife to pancreatic cancer shortly after she gave birth to their first child. The album acts as an extended news clip from a small-town station, a prolonged eulogy, and an admission of guilt over feelings Elverum maybe wanted to ignore. The album is entirely acoustic, and was structured chronologically from the immediate aftermath of her passing to acceptance a year later. The album’s songs are largely devoid of rhyme and structure, and are just thoughts thrown onto a page. Elverum describes the simplest of tasks – taking the garbage out, collecting her mail – with an emotional intensity that an average listener cannot relate to. It is extensively brutal, emotional, and honest. The entire album resembles a Mountain Goats song boiled down to it’s core and re-worked to be even more honest and unfiltered. If you think you can handle this album – then go for it. Elverum himself says there isn’t a lesson, that it’s just life. But even that can be overwhelming.

#1. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”

Run the Jewels have nothing left to prove. The two rappers, Killer Mike and El-P, spent the group’s first two records using their respective underground statuses to reach newfound fame. And now, both men (each 42 years of age), have hit that status. So their third album is less political and more vocal flexing. When you have both El-P and Killer Mike onboard, some narrative boasting is exceptionally enjoyable. They spend much more time on this album rapping about their own status as newly-christened throne holders. And they do it with flair – Danny Brown, Tunde Adebimpe, Trina, BOOTS, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington make appearances. RTJ have spent their first few years existing on a kind of fringe – a band more political than most current popular rappers, with a intensity not suited for radio. This album sees them join the ranks of current rappers and outdo nearly all of them immediately. The album follows their previous works, in that often songs blend together in one long suite (as you saw above), resulting in a constant crush of beats, El-P’s otherworldly one-liners and Killer Mike’s energy. Truly, a match made in heaven.

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Highly doubt anyone’s still reading (I didn’t), but if you did, thanks and remember to smash that like and follow button (did I do that right). Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have listened to, you know, a bunch more albums. Also remember to check out The Filtered Lens for occasional reviews from me and great takes on film and TV from others. See you in December!

Lorde – “Melodrama”

Photo Credit: Genius

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Green Light,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Perfect Places”

The first album from New Zealand singer Lorde, 2014’s wonderful instant classic “Pure Heroine,” was a bit of an anomaly. Lorde’s lyrics shadowed the fact that she was literally a teenager – they coupled the life of suburbia with the dreams of luxuries she heard about in Drake and Kanye songs. But musically, the album couldn’t have been further from what a bored teenaged pop singer usually creates. The album was a quiet blast of minimalism, with short, mild songs more in the realm of The xx than anything else. It was a refreshing turn for a young singer. But it also left people wondering whether her follow-up would try to replicate the style, or whether Lorde would grow her music.

Unsurprisingly, Lorde grew. The album’s opening track and lead single, “Green Light,” is a tongue-in-cheek look at this. The opening line, “I do my make-up in somebody else’s car,” could easily come out of a Lorde parody song, and is sung over faint piano. But within a minute the song does literally grow into a big, extremely danceable pop song. This album, in certain ways, could not sound more different than “Heroine.” While Lorde sounded comfortable in that album’s small sound, here she often sounds like she’s trying to free herself from a restraint (often successfully). “Green Light” lacks a breakdown because Lorde sings over it at the same volume she was already going at. On this album she has both more range and more bite. On “Writer in the Dark” she coolly sings “I love you till my breathing stops / I love you till you call the cops on me” over two menacingly out-of-tune piano notes. On “The Louvre,” she surrounds herself with the most orchestral music she’s made, which makes the painful quietness of immediate follow-up “Liability” all the more real.

But the best example of this newfound, punching-up attitude is found on the first half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless.” The “Hard Feelings” portion of the song expands into industrial territory – yes, industrial territory. Lorde’s vocals completely disappear for a noisy interlude that wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Pretty Hate Machine.” It’s a real punch in the gut to hear it halfway into a pop album. It’s worth noting that Lorde worked with Jack Antonoff on this album, a man who isn’t new to elevating female singers and pushing them in new directions. The album, as a whole, is far more musical than before. There are multiple songs with instrumental fade-outs and moments where Lorde gives way to the music behind her. She’s not hidden, though – she still dominates every song in her own ways.

“Melodrama” might be the most appropriately-titled album of the year. While it is taken from a song, the whole album has an umbrella of melodrama to it. Lorde, now 20, seems stuck in the same lyrical ennui that birthed her first album. But here she is more direct while also more unhinged. Gone are the references to diamonds and luxury, the metaphors and vocal inspirations taken from other genres (except the way Lorde sings the chorus in the excellent “The Louvre”) She’s bored in relationships, counting the days until it ends. She’s alone in clubs, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. “Melodrama,” even more than “Heroine,” shows the personal troubles and misunderstood complexity of being a young woman. And although she may be native to New Zealand, the general ‘stuck’ feeling throughout wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a Midwestern act. Many of the album’s songs could easily be translated into the music of a young but learned country singer.

Lorde’s growth as a singer is completely natural on this album, and it isn’t even necessarily a growth that would usually be called “maturity.” Her image was so well solidified on “Heroine” and it came off so earnestly that this album feels more like a reaction, rather than a separate entity. And on a bigger and simpler note, it also proves that Lorde isn’t going to be a one-off (not that we were particularly worried). “Melodrama” is a surprisingly well-rounded package, one that highlights and intensifies the emotions she had already conquered, while also pushing her volume and ambition levels far past what listeners were used to. A week removed from Katy Perry’s disastrous push into new ground, we get the album we might deserve – a pop singer pushing herself to the edge of her capabilities without intentionally going overboard.

-By Andrew McNally

Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(Photo Credit: JamBase)Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Picture That” “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

It feels dishonest to talk about the solo works of Pink Floyd members and compare them to “The Wall,” but in this case, Roger Waters might want us to do that. This album is reminiscent of that behemoth in many ways, most obviously in a political sense. Waters hasn’t released an album in nearly a quarter of a century, and for a while he seemed more than content doing tours of both his own work and Pink Floyd’s. But in the age where fascism has seen a sudden, scarily impressive rebound, Waters followed closely behind.

People talk about Pink Floyd’s politics, but it’s still often obscured by (clouds) talk about the more avant-garde, experimental music that dominated their discography. Still, their tenth and eleventh albums, “Animals” and “The Wall,” feel eerily relevant in 2017 (“Animals,” as it happens, turns 40 this year). “Animals” is easily the bleakest album the band put out, a deeply anti-fascist album with a famously grayscale cover and extremely long, grinding songs. “The Wall,” as we know, is a much more cinematic album (and literally a movie), but hardly less political. Both albums were rooted in anti-authoritarianism, something Pink Floyd did even more than other classic rock bands.

Waters exploits the albums’ best qualities for his new work, wonderfully titled “Is This the Life We Really Want?.” Waters, even more than most musicians, is not shy about his personal politics, and they are on full, angry display across the album’s twelve tracks. Even the opener, “When We Were Young,” is miserable in its worldview. “I’m still ugly, you’re still fat,” a man says flatly to an unknown listener. “Was it our parents who made us this way, or was it God? Fuck it.”

Waters goes past the point of being blunt and gets downright confrontational on the album. The best example to go back to is “Mother,” from “The Wall.” That song includes direct lines like “Mother, should I trust the government?” Musically, much of this album resembles that song – airy guitar, strings, a lot of acoustic elements. The music is not nearly as urgent and frantic as the lyrics, which turns out to be effective, because it comes off as more honest and less theatrical. Waters’ voice also sounds similar to that era, almost like he’s been frozen in time. His sort of powerful-whisper thing is still front and center, only sometimes allowing itself to grow huge.

Again, to drive this home, this is the fiercest political work we’ve seen since the Trump campaign started, and I’m not forgetting YG’s song “Fuck Donald Trump.” This album is absolutely littered with profanity and extremely specific references to all of the world’s current ailments. Nowhere is this as direct as on the title track, which has a set of lyrics that go: “Fear keeps us all in line / fear of all those foreigners, fear of all their crimes / is this the life we really want?” Soon after, he sings, “every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale / every time a journalist is left to rot in jail / every time a young girl’s life is casually spent / and every time a nincompoop becomes the president / every time someone dies reaching for their keys / and every time Greenland falls into the fucking sea.” The whole song is a direct message to those who are blind or ignorant to the problems in the world. The song also opens with a brief Trump audioclip. Sure, calling Trump a “nincompoop” ranks down with Kendrick Lamar’s “Trump is a chump” as a pretty low-level insult, but it still gets the job done. And it’s okay, because on the equally great “Picture That,” he sings “picture a shithouse with no fucking drains / picture a leader with no fucking brains.” While not directly about Trump, he’s absolutely one of the potential ‘leader’s mentioned.

The album ends on a beautiful three-song suite that comes kind of out of left field, but works as an effective finale nonetheless. “Wait For Her” is an emotional pseudo-ballad centered around a heavy guitar crunch. The song transitions into “Oceans Apart,” a minute-long interlude that changes pitch and sheds most of the instruments, before bringing them all back in and returning to the central rhythm for closer “Part of Me Died.” Although Waters all but sheds the politics that infiltrate every other track, it’s still a beautiful addition. Otherwise, the album is all about the bleak state of the world today. “Smell the Roses” starts off sounding optimistic, before diverging into lyrics about terrorism ruining the world’s beauty.

I mentioned stylistic similarities to “The Wall,” and there’s definitely some easter eggs throughout that will please Floyd fans (like myself). “The Most Beautiful Girl” is one of the album’s lesser tracks, but it does feature Waters painfully sing “I’m coming home,” just as he did on “Hey You.” “Bird In A Gale,” one of the album’s most urgent tracks, has Waters repeat the word “floor” just like how David Gilmour repeated the word “stone” on “Dogs” back on the “Animals” album. “Déjà vu,” a brutally confrontational song, has the sound of a wall crashing in the middle. And, lastly, “Smell the Roses” has references to money and a rhythm similar to “Money.” Some or all of these may be unintentional, but when multiple major powers have descended into the world Floyd sang so strongly against on “Animals” and “The Wall,” it makes sense for Waters to pat himself on the back for the 40-years-early predictions. A lot of this album is “I told you so, now here’s what happened.” The album isn’t so much an emotional roller coaster as much as it is an abrupt freefall. The album is immediate, outright, furious, and downright necessary. It has more urgency and necessity than many of Pink Floyd’s albums, and even outranks some of them. Necessary times call for necessary measures, and sometimes, just like with A Tribe Called Quest last year, we have to call on the veterans to fully ground us. Waters is about as anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-everything bad as they come, and this album is a lyrical ground-pounder that we need to level us in 2017.

-By Andrew McNally

MisterWives – “Connect the Dots”

(Photo Credit: Has It Leaked?)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Drummer Boy,” “Oh Love”

43 minutes, Photo Finish Records

MisterWives’ sophomore album is blunt in its mission statement – color. The album’s title is “Connect the Dots,” along with the bright cover of partially colored-in animals. One of the album’s better tracks is titled “Coloring Outside the Lines.” This is all important to note for two reasons – indie and alternative bands always have to conquer the notorious sophomore slump, where they must prove themselves more than a one-trick pony; and the indie scene which birthed the group has almost completely faded away. Mumford and Sons got electric and boring, and stalwarts like Grouplove, Three Door Cinema Club, and countless others have mostly failed at adapting to the recent trend of darker, more political music. So by setting up this identity of color – something the band has always had plenty of anyways – it gives them that personal tick to succeed in 2017.

Of course, it takes more than color – it takes the music, too. I wrote about this band’s first album and my experience finding them playing an opening gig in some carved out Manhattan bar. That album, as you can tell, is also colorful (with our animal friends making an earlier appearance). “Connect the Dots” doesn’t exactly stand up to “Our Own House” in an immediate way, although it certainly doesn’t make this a bad album. The difference lies in the diversity of the tracks. “Our Own House” had a freeing sense of ambition, in that the band easily blended sounds and emotions into a relative whole. “Connect the Dots” is, as the title maybe unintentionally implies, a simpler album. It is more straightforward indie-pop, with few digressions.

One of the album’s more interesting tracks is the opener, “Machine.” New fans who may have heard “Reflections” on the radio may be surprised by the song’s seeming appropriation of latin music. Singer Mandy Lee even sounds like Shakira at points. (It’s maybe not the most appropriate thing, but we’re all just letting Drake get away with way worse). After that track, though, comes “Chasing This” and “Only Human,” two perfectly enjoyable but largely interchangeable indie songs that half-halt any momentum built by “Machine.”

One of the great things about “Our Own House” was the ways in which varying members got featured. Lee’s amazing voice obviously carried “Reflections,” but other tracks got to shine instrumentally. The band feels more collective here, which in many alleys is a plus. But it also means the songs sound less individual than before, and it shows through much of the album. MisterWives have crafted the perfect kind of innocent, often optimistic brand of indie-pop that is never corny, always enjoyable, yet mostly just passing. And that’s what most of this album is – very pleasant, perfect for warm days and small gatherings, and not a whole lot more.

“Out of Tune Piano” is one of the album’s better songs because of, well, the out of tune piano. It lumbers up and down during the verses in a bouncy tune. The last two tracks are also effective. “Oh Love” is a hectic blast of ‘everything we couldn’t turn into a full song,’ that winds through a pace that’s pretty breakneck for indie music. The closer “Let the Light In” might spend too long building, but the big payoff is worth it regardless.

Lee’s voice, the domineering force of the band, is both centered in the middle and also placed at the same volume as everything else in a way that lets her physical voice shine through but muddles the actual lyrics in the music. Still, there’s some beautiful lines throughout. The one that stuck out to me was in “Coloring Outside the Lines,” where Lee sings “They say that time slips away when you’re having fun / That’s why you said ‘let’s change our lives to a dull one.'”

So, “Connect the Dots” is ultimately a standard indie album. The band has the advantage of Lee’s powerful vocals, and their use of color in and out of music. If you’ve ever seen a picture of this band, they look like a very specific type of subgroup, of the people who go to Coachella, take some molly, rap along with black rappers but also are genuinely good people. I cannot say how accurate this is, but it’s the real vibe the album gives off. MisterWives sound like they’re having a lot of fun in the studio, and even if that fun doesn’t always translate to the listener, it can still be enjoyable. The indie rebirth phase has almost completely checked out, and it leaves bands like MisterWives out in the cold. But it shouldn’t take away from the fact that they’re a solid, fun group making some effortlessly joyous music.

-By Andrew McNally

At The Drive In – “in•ter a•li•a”

Photo Credit: StereogumGrade: B+

Key Tracks: “Continuum,” “Governed by Contagions”

It would be more than safe to say that At The Drive In were given the highest of expectations for this album. This past decade or so has seen plenty of alternative and hard rock reunions that produced new material (Dinosaur Jr., the Avalanches, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Hole, allegedly even Temple of the Dog, and many others). And as with any reunion, fans hold with baited breath when a new album is announced. Often, like in the cases of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the productions are fair and fan-serving, but not memorable against the rest of the band’s albums. Sometimes you get Pixies, who stained their own legacy with one mediocre and one painfully bad album. And sometimes, you get Dinosaur, Jr., who worked out the (few) faults of their early albums and improved on (most) of them. But ATDI aren’t like those bands. ATDI didn’t sustain a period of fame and radio familiarity. They broke up in 2001 right as they started to become a name, and it wasn’t through the radio. When my local rock station WBCN folded in 2009, the DJ’s spent the last week going freeform. One DJ played “One Armed Scissor,” the band’s most well-known song, because he’d never been allowed to before. ATDI have never and will never be a radio-friendly band. The music jumps from abrasive to dissonant to chaotic, and is rarely ever beneath those points. But their last album, “Relationship of Command,” is almost inarguably the best post-hardcore album of all-time. In fact, it remains one of the best rock albums of the century so far. It is a brutal hailstorm of riffs, lightning drumming, crushing energy and performatively energetic vocals.

My point here is, there are high hopes for this. Not only are they following a behemoth, they’re following a behemoth that has had plenty of time to age, and it has aged very well. Luckily, the band knew this, and they have let their age show purely in good ways. “in•ter a•li•a” shows hints of containment. Certain tracks like “Ghost-Tape No. 9” and “Call Broken Arrow” lean closer to traditional rock than anything the band’s done before. Their slight leaning might not be a reflection of age, but a response to their work in the interim. When ATDI first split, they broke into two distinctly different bands – the more alternative approaching (and mostly forgettable) Sparta, and the wildly ambitious prog-rock band The Mars Volta. Two of ATDI’s three key members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, let all their wildest ideas fly in the Mars Volta. So after years of incomprehensibly difficult guitar riffs and half an hour long songs, it makes sense why ATDI might want to settle for something more basic. (The other key member, Jim Ward, chose not to rejoin the group and is not present on this album. He was replaced with fellow Sparta member Keeley Davis. The band also dropped the hyphen in their name).

Simpler does not mean less effective. ATDI were often at their most effective when they simply went unhinged. The band’s shotgun opener to their last album, “Arcarsenal,” remains one of the most thrilling rock tracks just because of sheer energy. And for quite a while on this album, it seems like the energy might hit a pummeling point. “No Wolf Like The Present” opens the album with a contained blast, like the moment when you realize a storm is getting really bad. And that storm hits even harder on follow-up “Continuum,” arguably the album’s most intense track. This song shows how Bixler-Zavala’s vocals have grown into a more classic rock sound, less manic but stronger. It also pairs well against the wallpaper-tearing music around it. The song ends with a whispered, a capella bridge from Bixler-Zavala that feels like an antithesis to his screaming past, but is somehow equally effective. Lead single “Governed by Contagions” keeps it going with a pummeling tempo, and with the album’s best use of duel vocalists. Davis gets his best opportunity at vocals here, filling in most of the song’s chorus.

The band doesn’t always pull slower moments off well. While “Call Broken Arrow” uses its conventionality to a good use, “Ghost-Tape No. 9” feels like a lackluster penultimate track. Thankfully, there aren’t many slower moments. This album is a continuous cannon-blast, and even in 2017, they’ve proven themselves exhausting. This is a new and different At the Drive In, but the fundamentals feel the same. The energy is there, the occasionally-difficult music is there, and the lyrics that jump from incomprehensible to political are there. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics remain deeply impenetrable,a byproduct of both years spent in a prog-rock band, and his decision to write about some touchy subjects. As expected, they’re dense and borderline nonsensical, sometimes poetic and sometimes poetry-adjacent.

“in•ter a•li•a” is certainly no “Relationship of Command,” but it is still a force to reckon with. Their last album came out at an awkward time for rock. Boy bands and slightly-underage girls were dominating the charts, and rock was mostly delegated to Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, and regrettable Rage Against the Machine ripoffs. The fact that the band dropped “Relationship of Command” and bailed seemed like a purposeful shake-up. “in•ter a•li•a” doesn’t necessarily feel that way, but given the 2017 state of music, it does feel a little similar. While “rock” music isn’t really a big thing anymore, delegated to specific radio stations that play mostly the bands that were already coming into fruition in 2000, it does come at a time when indie and EDM are both getting stale. Is this album going to change music? No, of course not. But does it remind the listener that anything is possible? Yes. And At The Drive In have proved that on an album that will never be legendary, but is certainly timely and unforgettable.

-By Andrew McNally

Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(Photo Credit: TDE/Interscope/Aftermath)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “DNA.” “HUMBLE.”

One of the hottest debates of the past two years has been, ‘how will Kendrick Lamar follow up To Pimp A Butterfly?’ Last year’s mini-offering “untitled unmastered.” was an extension of that album, with verses and tracks that were cut from that behemoth. Of course, since it’s Kendrick, it wasn’t minute-long outtakes, it was fully formed songs, and even the mini-release had serious flow to it. But now we have a proper answer to the question, in “DAMN.”

“DAMN.” is an interesting album in that it almost feels forgettable on the first listen. In a lot of ways, it feels like a regular old hip-hop album, and if it were released by a different artist, it might sound more like a mission statement. But you have to factor in the approach – Kendrick couldn’t follow up “TPAB” with an equal masterpiece; masterpieces are almost never followed up with things of equal brilliance. And he, like many musicians before him, understood this. “DAMN.” is much more simplistic than “To Pimp A Butterfly” is, because it aims to fight an entirely different opponent than its predecessor. Look at the covers alone – “TPAB”‘s cover was a group of people, standing in front of the White House, in a B&W photo. “DAMN.”‘s cover is the opposite – just Kendrick by a brick wall, in harsh lighting with harsh colors.

“DAMN.” is a deeply religious album. Biblical lines pop up on nearly every track. Some of the seven deadly sins come up as track titles: “LUST.” and “PRIDE.” It is worth noting, though, that both tracks are followed up by (respectively), “LOVE.” and “HUMBLE.” The biggest difference between “DAMN.” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” is restraint. Both in flow, and in production, this album feels caged. This isn’t a critique – “To Pimp A Butterfly” was such an unhinged album that it practically demanded an antithesis. There was no saying what each track on that album would hold. But “DAMN.” feels more secure, in some ways. While the insecurity and illness factors are still present, they’re more subdued by religion and family.

You might want to see this as a more “down to earth” hip-hop album. And if so, you might be looking for hip-hop beef. It’s here. The most obvious example is a beef with Jay-Z. On “GOD.,” Kendrick raps, “I’m sellin’ verses, Jay-Z, watch me work it, JT.” I’m not sure where this feud started, and it seems to be one-sided on Kendrick’s part, but taking on a king is still impressive. He threw an equally palpable dig at Jay-Z on “The Heart Part IV,” released prior to the album. He also digs at Big Sean, his former collaborator. “ELEMENT.” opens with Kendrick repeating the line “I dont give a fuck,” the title of one of Big Sean’s biggest hits. Throwing the phrase away in the intro could be a diss. And as always, his most interesting and subliminal disses remain with Drake. There are no surface-level beefs with Drake on this album, but there are hints. Booking Rihanna for “LOYALTY.,” a song in which a first-person narrator beats another man up, seems like a Drizzy dig. Also, his flow on “YAH.” sounds almost distinctly like Drake’s. It can’t be coincidence. The best digs, though, come early – Kendrick takes a track to directly respond to incomprehensible criticisms leveled at him from incomprehensible human Geraldo Riviera. On his FOX News (ugh) show last year, Riviera responded to Kendrick’s incendiary Grammy’s performance (of an optimistic song) by blaming him (specifically) for violence in the black youth community. It didn’t make sense.

This album might be polarizing to some fans. Much of the jazzier elements of “TPAB” are thrown by the wayside, in favor of more concrete and standard beats. That doesn’t make Lamar any less powerful, Lamar can turn just about any song into a spiraling nightmare (save that collaboration with Maroon 5 that was clearly a paycheck job).

So, to answer the bigger looming question, is Kendrick dropping another album? He might be. The conspiracy theories run Alex Jones deep, but because this is Kendrick, there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have something up his sleeve. I can’t work anyone up, for fear that it isn’t even an idea on K-Dot’s part. But a new album three days later would be revolutionary. “DAMN.” is religious through-and-through, and releasing it on Good Friday might fit into Kendrick’s religious stance. But whether we get another release or not, we’ll be talking about “DAMN.” for a long time. I don’t think it’ll go down in the history books quite like “TPAB” probably will, but it’s still a powerful, volatile and demanding album.

-By Andrew McNally

Blondie – “Pollinator”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Already Naked,” “Fragments”

Certain bands hit a legendary status where they can have others write music for them. We saw it last with the proto-new Monkees album that had contributions from both Harry Nilsson and Rivers Cuomo. Well, Blondie have hit that status. Although they don’t have the amount of material or the longevity (remember their 15 year break), Blondie shook music so much that they’re able to have outside help.

But before we discuss the non-Blondie elements, we should discuss the band itself. This album has a renewed energy and a consistent groove to it, and it’s safe to say it rivals that of their original late ’70’s run. The band is locked in on every song. And, as with any great Blondie album, there’s a respectable mix of new wave, ballads, disco and punk. The album is bookended with two great rock songs, “Doom or Destiny” and “Fragments,” the latter sporting an unexpected and effective tempo change. “Long Time” balances out a pleasantly bouncy beat with a delicate bridge. “When I Gave Up On You” is a great ballad, and one that brings the album’s momentum down a bit. And although “My Monster” might not be the best track, the blending of guitar and synth over unexpectedly monotone vocals makes it arguably the most interesting. Debbie Harry hasn’t missed a beat – her voice dominates the album. It hasn’t changed in the slightest – modest, but dominating. Only in “Already Naked” does it feel like the band relies on her, though, which is good. In the album’s other ten tracks, her voice patiently but strongly leads the band.

After a fairly mediocre outing where the band took on a more electronic approach, Blondie decided to tag in to some other writers for this album. This isn’t to say they’ve given up – merely that they felt fans would rather appreciate great songs written by other people to decent songs written by them. And the person who shows up the most in the songwriting credits is indeed Debbie Harry. The classic duo of Harry and guitarist Chris Stein penned two tracks on this album: opener “Doom or Destiny” and “Love Level.” Harry also has a credit alongside Blood Orange on “Long Time.” Keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife Laurel are credited on two songs as well. Other songwriters that aided include Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Charli XCX, The Gregory Brothers, and Adam Johnston, a writer for YourMovieSucks.org. Almost ironically, the album’s weakest track “Best Day Ever,” was written by Sia and Nick Valensi of the Strokes.

Despite the credits, the album is somewhat sparse on actual guest appearances. Joan Jett (who is not credited as a songwriter) appears on opener “Doom or Destiny.” Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, the Gregory Brothers and Adam Johnston appear on the songs that they co-wrote. The sole other appearance is that of John Roberts. Readers may know Roberts as the voice of Linda Belcher on the unbelievably great FOX animated show “Bob’s Burgers.” I do not know the circumstances that led him to appearing on a Blondie record. The track he shows up on, “Love Level,” is the only one that approaches hip-hop in any way. Admittedly, it’s pretty jarring, because it’s not only the only pseudo-rap heard on the album, it’s also the only prominent male voice. As a song, it works, but in the context of the album, it’s a little much of a curveball.

At the end of the day, this is just a very good Blondie album. For a band that spent their heyday trying everything, they sound comfortable going back to some basics. They nail both the jams and the ballads, and they sound great as a collective. The energy is there, the diversity is there, and Debbie Harry’s vocals are there, so there is reason to rejoice. Forty-three years and eleven albums in, Blondie still sound young and fresh. And really, isn’t that what Blondie is supposed to be?

-By Andrew McNally