Susanne Sundfør – “Songs For People In Trouble”

(Photo credit: last.fm)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “The Sound of War,” “Undercover”

Susanne Sundfør, more than most people in music, understands the concept of a human voice as an instrument. She also clearly understands that she possesses one of the most operatic and resounding singing voices around, which she uses on full display on her sixth album. Her previous two works, 2012’s “The Silicone Veil” and 2015’s “Ten Love Songs” used heavy doses of strings and synth to create rich, dichotomous harmonies that played equally off her beautiful and sometimes pained vocals. On this album, though, she lets her voice create part of the harmony rather than acting as the knife that splits those harmonies apart. The album is much, much softer, often consisting of just Sundfør’s vocals and acoustic guitar, with an occasional wind instrument.

Although the album does have some prominent features, many tracks are just Sundfør, accompanying herself on guitar or piano (often acoustic guitar). Acoustic guitar is an instrument that has felt intentionally left out of her music on prior albums, so the immediacy of it on “Trouble” signals the shift in sound, as well as working as an ode to her natural talent.

As expected, the lyrics are often dark and planted in the concepts of personal issues, relationships and conflicts dying unresolved. More so on “Trouble” than on past albums, it’s easy to let Sundfør’s voice wash over as a separate instrument, to disregard the words for the emotion they’re reflecting. The album’s softer tone also brings out the true qualities in her vocals – she doesn’t have to overpower any instruments, she’s just belting because she feels the song requires. The only track where this doesn’t necessarily apply is lead single “Undercover,” a track that has the instrumentation and vocals build together rather than separate, and where Sundfør sounds even bigger than she does elsewhere. It’s the album’s best example of a ‘put your headphones on and get lost in it’ type song, akin to “Accelerate.”

In many respects, “Songs For People In Trouble” is the polar opposite (and answer to) “Ten Love Songs” (a personal favorite album of mine). “Trouble” only allows itself to go off the rails twice, on “The Sound of War” and it’s immediate follow-up, the title track. “War” starts as innocently as many of the album’s other tracks, gorgeous and soft, before giving way to a more drone finale. The title track cements the album at the halfway point, and it’s first half is spoken-word poetry performed by Andres Roberts and avant-garde.

The album does twist its way into the final song (and second single), “Mountaineers,” which has the only actual official feature, a bold duet with John Grant. It’s a song that is as inquisitive as it is engaging, and doesn’t feature Sundfør until a ways in. But, in keeping with traditions of ending her albums on big, bold notes (check “Your Prelude” and “Insects,” songs with enormous sound to them), the song feels like driftwood caught in the rest of the album’s waves. Even for the album, it’s a complicated and risky song, one that pays off more with each listen.

“Trouble” is standout, tempered pop, accentuated by touches of music that only occasionally become heavy touches. Sundfør again uses her voice as an instrument, dominating songs like “Reincarnation” while stepping aside for things like an extended flute solo in “No One Believes in Love Anymore.” Although the sound is almost jarringly different from her more recent works, it recaptures the leveled sound of her earlier career without losing any of the ambition and emotional haunting of her more synth-based songs. “Trouble” is quiet and daring, another ten song collection that leaves the listener cold, a little shaken but still asking for so much more.

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Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

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