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

75 Favorite Albums of 2016

Well, kids, it’s that time of the year. This year has been brutal on all of us, but at least we got great music out of it, in every genre. 2016 was honestly so great that I had trouble cutting things out of my top 75 – and it’s not like I listened to that many albums this year. So, without further adieu, is my top albums of the year. I don’t think I’m able to form a proper order, even for the top handful. Therefore, I have formed two tiers, for 75-31, and 30-1. If your favorite didn’t make the cut, I possibly didn’t like it, but probably didn’t get to it. But here, 75 great releases for you to bask in:

Tier II: (75-31)

Anderson .Paak Malibu”

A man who had a breakthrough year, Anderson .Paak effortlessly and energetically fuses many different genres on an extremely fun release. “Malibu” is one of the only albums to give pure joy in 2016.

ANOHNI “HOPELESSNESS”

Easily the most political album to grace the mainstream this year, ANOHNI touches on subjects not universally recognized in other political works. “4 Degrees” addresses climate change, where “Drone Bomb Me” and “Obama” criticize our beloved but faulty president.

BABYMETAL “Metal Resistance”

The concept is a tough sell – three teenage Japanese girls singing heavy metal. But it works. The girls clearly have the energy, focus and ambition, and their backing band is surely talented enough to hold against more “traditional” metal bands. Rob Zombie-approved.

Bleached “Welcome to the Worms”

Bleached took the opposite approach of many punk bands – they ditched their only male member and strengthened their sound. Their previous, sun-drenched 60’s sound was eschewed for a sturdier 70’s punk throwback, with a shoegaze style production. One of the highlights in a year of great feminist punk records.

Blood Orange“Freetown Sound”

One of the best R&B albums of the year hits many different targets. It’s often as political as it is lovely. And with a wide array of guests from Debbie Harry to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Carly Rae Jepsen (see below), it’s a full force. While this type of music usually isn’t my forte, I was still engrossed for every second of it.

Seth Bogart“Seth Bogart”

The first proper solo album from the Hunx & His Punx singer strays far from the band – an indie-pop art/music odyssey centered around the fake lifestyles celebrities must adapt, complemented by a cheap keyboard and auto-tune. Think a better Ariel Pink.

clipping. “Splendor & Misery”

Hamilton, this ain’t. The main project of Daveed Diggs, now-Broadway star, released their second album, a hip-hop odyssey about a slave traveling through outer space. It’s inconsistent to say the least, but when Diggs lets go, and when the band rallies with music that borders on pure harsh noise, it sounds like nothing else that came out this year.

CryingBeyond the Fleeting Gales”

Crying bypassed their chiptune upbringing and instead released an album of 80’s glorification – the emotion of 80’s alternative, mixed with the energy and confidence of hair metal. Pretty interesting for a band whose previous album featured a Game Boy as a main instrument.

Death Grips“Bottomless Pit”

One of my favorite groups of the past few years, Death Grips always shock and surprise with their new albums. Although this one doesn’t hold up to many of their previous releases, the sheer volume pushes and constant flow still make for one of the more interesting rap albums of the year.

Deftones“Gore”

Sixteen years after their excellent album “White Pony,” Deftones have finally delivered another great release. In typical Deftones fashion, it came from in-fighting that nearly dissolved the band. But singer Chino Moreno’s push for more experimental music against guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s push for heavier music resulted in the disconnect that permeates this, their eighth album.

Dillinger Escape Plan“Dissociation”

The mathcore legends went out on a high note, with a brutally loud final album that cements their legacy. The album is jampacked with tonal left turns, ruined hushed moments, incomprehensible guitar riffs and dense layers of musicianship. It’s everything you want from a Dillinger Escape Plan album.

DJ Khaled“Holy Key”

Put DJ Khaled down for having the album with the best guest spots of the year; Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, Future, Jay-Z, and Nas are just a handful that show up to work with the influential producer. Songs aren’t so much framed around Khaled’s beats as they are the strengths of the guests, which leads to many diverse, enthralling songs.

Future of the Left“The Peace & Truce of Future of the Left” and “To Failed States and Forest Clearings”

One of my favorite bands dropped a good album and a great E.P. The album, “Peace & Truce,” saw the band taking a more math-rock, trust-testing approach, with guitar riffs that edge closer to incomprehension than convention. The E.P., meanwhile, was a more familiar approach to the band’s viciously loud post-punk songs.

Gojira“Magma”

One of the best bands in all of metal had been striking closer to rock radio. Once the mother of two of the band’s four members fell ill and passed away, they took an even more subtler approach. The album is typically well-written (there’s only a handful of dull songs in the band’s discography), but is atypically conventional, to the point where it picked up Grammy noms in rock categories.

Gucci Mane“Everybody Looking”

Gucci wasted *no* time after getting out of prison – he recorded and released a song within 24 hours of its release. His follow-up album was his first great release in years, after many tread-water mixtapes from prison. Happier, sober and free, Gucci introduces a new version of himself – but in a typical southern style.

Hinds“Leave Me Alone”

One of the first notable releases of 2016, and unfortunately washed under everything else since, was the debut from the Spanish indie-pop group. It’s a slight album, one that focuses on individual notes in a way similar to The xx. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a fun debut, and it’s clear the band put effort into every song.

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (Side B)”

Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “E*MO*TION” proved such a hit that she released an EP of songs that didn’t make the cut. Even these songs – especially “Cry” – would be a standout for other singers. Truly a great pop icon of our time (buy her album!!).

Kvelertak“Nattesferd”

One of the year’s best metal albums comes, unsurprisingly, from Norway. Kvelertak forego recent trends in metal and instead put out fiercely driving garage rock, updated for an age where Deep Purple aren’t revolutionary, just great. If the Vikings existed today, they’d eat up this album.

Kendrick Lamar“untitled unmastered.”

Much like Carly Rae Jepsen, K-Dot’s 2016 release was a continuation of his wild 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Only he took ideas cut from the album and turned them into a small-serving E.P. that flows. It’s minor, but often incendiary, and proof that Kendrick can take even fragments of songs and make something extraordinary out of them.

Metallica“Hardwired…to Self Destruct”

Though far overlong, repetitive, and burdened with a terrible title, Metallica’s first album in nearly a decade is also their best album in nearly three decades. At its best, the band matches their 80’s highs of frantic energy, huge guitar solos and destructive lyrics. It’s the first time that Metallica sound like they’re enjoying themselves in…too long.

Mitski“Puberty 2”

Mitski’s breakthrough is a diverse and brutally honest indie album, one that balances restraint with heavy lyrical topics. Even more contradictory, Mitski forces herself into complete control, through the use of subtlety and occasionally awkward themes.

Marissa Nadler“Strangers”

A beautifully dark, ambient and absent indie/folk record from someone who has proven herself at those kinds of things. It makes sense that Nadler is signed to a label that prioritizes heavy, brooding rock – her’s just takes away the volume.

Oathbreaker – “Rheia”

A brutally heavy metal album brings fury in unpredictable doses. Various tracks feature regular vocals and even acoustic guitar, but the doses of volume get longer and longer as the album goes on, so a black metal hangover emerges by the end. Oathbreaker grab the torch in a recent, necessary trend of black metal bands breaking formulas and providing emotional and shocking records.

Frank Ocean“Blonde”

Admittedly, I just don’t have the same attraction to Ocean’s music that most people do; echoing my note on Blood Orange, it’s just not really my thing. But after a long absence, Ocean’s album still delivers in a very diverse, dark and minimalist set that immediately makes you forget how long you waited for it.

Angel Olsen – “My Woman”

Angel Olsen continued her trend of creating folksy indie rock songs that border on The Flaming Lips as much as they do Florence & the Machine; as in, they jump from being humorous to emotional, short to lengthy. She also continued her trend of getting better with each album.

Panic! at the Disco“Death of a Bachelor”

My head grew and shrunk three sizes when I realized I was enjoying a Panic! at the Disco album, something I’ve never done before. But this album is a circus affair; grandiose and attractive, like a Vaudevillian set without seeming too forceful about it. It is flamboyant, in a non-flamboyant way.

Pinegrove“Cardinal”

One of the only noteworthy breakthrough rock albums of the year barely qualifies as such; the band’s lowkey mix of lo-fi and emo makes for an honest and subdued record, that’s still filled with excellent musicianship. It takes a bit to get into, but it’s more than worth it.

Rae Sremmurd“Sremmlife 2”

Although it loses steam towards the end, the first half of the Brown brothers’ second album is filled with some of the year’s best party tunes, with enough diversity to make each one different. Some of the only musical joy of 2016 came from “Sremmlufe 2”

Red Hot Chili Peppers“The Getaway”

The weakness of every RHCP album prior to this one (10 of them) was an inability to make the less funky songs interesting. This, more than almost any other RHCP release, feels like a cohesive album with actual effort put into every song, not just the potential radio hits. It’s a very chill album, too, with little action in a high volume.

ROMP“Departure From Venus”

Around a year ago, I caught this band at a small gig in Boston and they blew me away. They followed suit with an excellent little pop-punk record that strays closer to the latter than the former. Keep this name in your heads, and find it on Bandcamp.

Paul Simon“Stranger to Stranger”

Using world music has always been a crutch for Simon – and not always with a good result. But this album is littered with South African rhythms and South American drums, and even uses a clock as an instrument in one song. With quick songs, hushed music and upbeat rhythms, it’s one of Simon’s better albums.

Sum 41“13 Voices”

It’s been a long time since Sum 41 released a decent record, but the band has gone through some changes – frontman Deryck Whibley was hospitalized with liver and kidney failure (as a result of excessive drinking), and founding member Dave Baksh re-joined. The result is an album far heavier than any in the band’s heyday, a punk-metal trip that’s corny, but effective.

Tacocat “Lost Time”

Another great feminist punk album this year came from Tacocat, whose rhythmic and deceivingly-joyful album included excellent track titles like “Men Explain Things to Me” and “Dana Katherine Scully.”

Tove Lo“Ladywood”

While I wasn’t too into Tove Lo’s debut album, her sophomore release was a more well-crafted pop record, with an inexplicable appeal to it like a smell in an old cartoon that makes someone float into the kitchen. It isn’t the most memorable album, but as a whole, it really draws you in as the world around you disintegrates.

Vektor“Terminal Redux”

A thrash metal concept album about an astronaut finding, and then canceling immortality is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. But if it’s yours, this is one head-bashing record. It’s a mammoth of pained vocals and guitar shredding, all in a palpable sci-fi setting.

Weezer“Weezer”

Weezer’s fourth self-titled record (this one, white), isn’t as memorable as their first two albums – but it’s the best one since then. Weezer’s best songs are usually feelgood fuzz-pop for a summery day, and this album is full of them.

White Lung“Paradise”

White Lung’s 2014 album “Deep Fantasy” is one of my most-spun and favorite records; it uses sheer volume and ferocity to impress. This album, though, only strategically deploys those ferocious moments, against slower songs (even a few ballads!) The lyrics, meanwhile, approach even darker (and memorable) territories, even with the recent marriage of Mish Barber-Way, using that event to craft murderous timelines.

Young Thug“JEFFERY”

Thugger’s third mixtape of the year didn’t reinvent the wheel, just turned it very, very well. It is packed full of great lines, youthful energy and well-placed guest spots. Every track is named after one of Thug’s idols (and, uh, Harambe). And the mixtape’s cover is easily my winner for Album Cover of the Year.

Tier I: (30-1)

AJJ“The Bible 2”

AJJ made a long-overdue rebranding by shortening their name and flattening out their sound. Their albums had seen the band move more progressively towards actual songwriting, instead of just furious and ceaseless acoustic guitar strumming, and the transition feels complete here. There are throwbacks to earlier albums; “Terrifyer” could have been 2006-2011, and “Cody’s Theme” and “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” could’ve been 2011-2015. But there’s more drawn out songs, with slow pieces and delayed themes. It’s a good mix of old and new for a band that – love them as I do – took a little too long to grow up.

Beyoncé“Lemonade”

What is there to say about the best album of the year? Bey’s concept album sees a narrator, presumed as herself, going through stages of grief after being cheated on. There’s sadness, anger, regret and acceptance. The eventual acceptance zooms way out, with Beyoncé putting her own issues aside to call black women to arms against more widespread injustice. Conceptual, convulsive and controversial, “Lemonade” showcases Beyoncé at her prime. It even zips through different genres, racking up bizarre guest spots and songwriting credits – Jack White and James Blake pop up, and everyone from Led Zeppelin to Ezra Koenig to Burt Bacharach get credited. Fans nitpicked lyrics trying to figure out specific details about Bey and Jay-Z’s relationship – because Beyoncé sells her material so well that everyone just assumed it was autobiographical. It could all be true, it could all be fiction, it could be inspired by something that happened. All we have to go on is Becky with the good hair.

The Body“No One Deserves Happiness”

Easily the most unsettling album I listened to this year was this behemoth. The metal duo’s full-length nightmare is often punishingly heavy, but can stop and start on a dime. With pitch-black lyrics (look at the album’s title again), hammering drums and guitar overload, it can be a lot to take in. And that’s before I mention the vocalists – Chrissy Wolpert, longtime collaborator, shows up on multiple songs, adding cold beauty to the noise around her. This complements vocals by Chip King, who shrieks like a rooster at full volume in a way that does not ever get comfortable. I only discovered this band this year and haven’t yet heard their previous albums, so let me just say – I’ve never heard anything like this before.

David Bowie“Blackstar”

Oh, boy. About a year later and it still hurts to listen to this album. But what an album it is – Bowie’s last album (intentional or not – designed as a goodbye, but Bowie allegedly worked on some demos about a week before his death) is his best since “Let’s Dance” and his most artistic since “Low.” With references to biblical figures and 17th century literature, it’s really just Bowie letting himself go. The album skirts on being conventional, but often opts instead for jazz infusions and experimentation, which demands many listens. This isn’t only one of the best albums of the year, it’s one of Bowie’s best albums, and an album we’re going to remember for decades.

Danny Brown“Atrocity Exhibition”

When you’re a deeply respected rapper with some ties to the mainstream, you’re really sending a message when you name an album after a Joy Division song. But “Atrocity Exhibition,” like the work of Joy Division, is an astonishing and uncomfortable roller coaster that jumps wildly between ecstasy (both emotion and drug), terror, apprehension, and a mix of all. Brown usually details his nightmares, but on “Exhibition,” he lets us live them, in an up-and-down, jarring ride. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s always great. Brown is one of the best rappers in the world right now – and certainly one of the most unpredictable.

Car Seat Headrest “Teens of Denial”

One of the year’s two best indie albums, and the only one from a relative newcomer, is a 70 minute guitar epic that jumps between tightly-wound fuzz jaunts and extremely longwinded, Dylanesque tracks. The result is not really knowing what to expect next. The album’s longest track is just over 10 minutes longer than the shortest. And there isn’t a moment to lose – the longer songs (in general my favorites) are often slowburning and tantric, spending minutes building to a big chorus or musical peak. Will Toledo, frontman and former-sole-member, is a master lyricist. The album is filled with hyper-specific lyrics that would border on being worrisome, if they weren’t so often tongue-in-cheek.

Chance the Rapper“Coloring Book”

One of the only joys of 2016 was watching Chance’s meteoric rise to stardom. He used a spot on Kanye’s album to mention his forthcoming mixtape, and built it up so much that it had to deliver to keep his career going. Thankfully, it does, and more so. Although the album does see Chance slip into brief moments of contemplation or reflection on the evils of the world around him (especially in Chicago), it is largely a time for rejoicing and celebrating. Fun beats and funky rhythms bolster lyrics that hit a wide range of lyrics and emotions, but ones that are usually delivered in Chance’s infectiously gleeful attitude. Life can be a party sometimes, and Chance is here to remind us of that. So pure. We don’t deserve him.

Leonard Cohen“You Want It Darker”

Cohen didn’t necessarily predict this album to be his last. Although in an interview he said he was ready for death, he later clarified that he meant he had lived a full life, and wasn’t ready – only to die a few weeks later. Whatever his intentions may have been, the album sees Cohen removing himself from social situations and prepping himself for death. The title track and “Treaty,” which comes up later as a reprise, seem like a demand to be taken by God. “Leaving the Table,” meanwhile, is the ode of someone reluctantly leaving. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this record. You do you, Cohen.

Crystal Castles“Amnesty (I)”

A little bit before this album was released, I made a comment to someone about how I thought it was wrong for Ethan Kath to continue the band without Alice Glass. I was wrong – the replacement he found in Edith Frances is not only great, but provides a foil for what Glass’s strengths were. Frances is more than content to let her voice slip into the music, complementing Kath’s manic beats instead of fighting for attention. Not to say Glass holding her own was bad – it was just as good. But Kath & Frances did well to introduce a new singer by flipping the switch on the formula. The album’s most manic synth tracks are among my most-played of the year, and this album sits comfortably at my third most-played new album of the year. If you liked the old Crystal Castles, the new image is nothing to scoff at.

Dinosaur, Jr. “Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not”

Dinosaur, Jr. are at their very best when they’re doing just punchy rock songs. Their 90’s albums set aside time for J. Mascis to experiment with other ideas, and it was never bad. But when the band is locked and loaded, they’re at their prime. “Give a Glimpse” is just that – eleven great rock songs. The band’s biggest problem in the past was overlong songs, even in some singles. But there isn’t a wasted moment on this album, which cuts downtime. It’s just great guitar riff after great guitar solo. As usual, Lou Barlow sings two songs, very well-placed on the album. And the lyrics, with some patience, are among the band’s better outputs, too. Mascis sings about loneliness as a constant theme, with Barlow’s two contributions fitting in. It’s one of the band’s best records yet, and a strong contender for my personal favorite of the year.

DJ Shadow“The Mountain Will Fall”

Through 12 songs, DJ Shadow puts on just about 12 different masks. This album’s strength is diversity, and every song on this album is distinctly different from the next. The opener, titled the same as the album, is a somewhat soothing, slowly moving and wavy electronic song. The follow-up track features Run the Jewels. The album continues like this, with a serious unpredictability. Some have well-sought-out features, and some are just DJ Shadow. But the whole album is ear candy for anyone who respect Shadow’s deep record collection and love of music. The multitude of influences and ideas is on full display here.

Head Wound City“A New Wave of Violence”

In 2005, two members of the Locust, two members of the Blood Brothers and a member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed a noisegrind supergroup. In one week, they wrote and recorded an EP, and disbanded. In 2016, they reformed and put out a proper album. But with a decade of inactivity under their belt, the members had grown weary of noisegrind, and set their sights on traditional hardcore. Despite the name, and the lyrical content of some songs, it isn’t necessarily a dark record. There are love songs here. But there’s also volume, and violence. It is a deafening record, just one that has songs that take their time to get to that point. More than anything, the strength of this album is Jordan Blilie’s double-recorded vocals and their ability to pierce any setting. (My second most played album of the year)

Jenny Hval“Blood Bitch”

Jenny Hval is a musician who escapes genre – even in writing about her, I struggle to call her avant-garde, noise, art-pop or ambient. She fits uncomfortably within all. It’s a space she has occupied for a while, but her new album further accentuates her standing as a conceptual artist. “Blood Bitch” is a concept album, one that equates vampirism (and cult exploitation and cinematic depictions) with menstrual blood. Every track on the album is about blood, and it never lets you get comfortable. But it’s important – especially for a male reviewer, like me – to face truths about what we do or don’t experience. This album does so in every way.

Iggy Pop“Post Pop Depression”

If David Bowie’s final album took a tone of uncertainty towards his own legacy, his protege’s sure doesn’t. Pop’s probable final album straight up bemoans an Iggy Pop-less world in its title. Throughout the album, Pop hits every note from creepy love song, to introspective moodiness to poo jokes – his entire wheelhouse. It’s nothing more than a collection of songs, but each one is great. He’s joined by Josh Homme and Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age and Matt Helders from the Arctic Monkeys, and the album is recorded in such a way that it sounds like each man is vying for attention. In reality, it’s four musicians clocked in and creating a raucous good time.

Alicia Keys“Here”

Alicia Keys put her hair up and let her guard down on a totally rebranded album suitable for 2016. Keys has made many statements about women in her music, but never as direct as she does on “Here.” The songs are more diverse in tone, influence and even length than on a usual Keys album. Like other albums this year, especially Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” the album is framed around a narrative that emphasizes themes through spoken word skits and interludes. But more than anything, there’s a bunch of great jams here.

Lady Gaga“Joanne”

When Gaga first arose, there was a need for a real change in pop music. Pop music demanded someone new and different. So Gaga donned a meatsuit and made music headlines. But now that time has passed, she can just be a performer now. A fool might forget that Gaga got to where she is based on the fact that she can sing; she has a voice of gold. “Joanne” showcases that – it’s not so much a Top 40 album as it is an album for both parents and teenagers to enjoy. There’s ballads and energetic tracks, in a more throwback lounge singer style. But it’s all Gaga, so it’s all worth it.

Nails“You Will Never Be One Of Us”

Ten songs, twenty-one minutes. That sounds like a daunting record, especially before you take something else into consideration: the last track is over eight minutes long. The songs that come before it prove Nails to be one of the best crossover metal bands around right now. Their songs mix the rapidity of grindcore with the ferocity of powerviolence, into a mix of metal and punk that’s been done a million times – but never quite with the touch that Nails gives it. My vote for the loudest band in the world right now.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds“Skeleton Tree”

“Skeleton Tree” is an album permeated with bad situations and unfortunate circumstances. Although Nick Cave had a personal tragedy after much of the album had been recorded, his grief still comes across like he walked into the studio moments after it happened. The prince of darkness spreads the idea of grief and forgiveness across a minimalist, difficult set of songs. It might just be the saddest album of 2016.

Phantogram“Three

Phantogram’s third album is a much more eclectic work than their previous album, a pleasing mix of the duo’s strengths – interesting guitar riffs, trip-hop and memorable lyrics – as well as some detours into newer territory. It doesn’t always work, but they take a more experimental approach, and hearing them leave their comfort zone is a pleasure. Each track is unique and most are some of the best they’ve done.

Radiohead“A Moon Shaped Pool”

Based on recent output and general malaise from the band, it seemed like Radiohead might not have another classic album in them (or another album at all). But this album – which features multiple songs the band has played live for years, some decades – is the best the band has done since “OK Computer,” which is one of the best alternative albums ever made. Thom Yorke unfortunately split from his longtime partner, Dr. Rachel Owen (R.I.P., as she passed away very recently), and it inspired this incredibly somber, painful and dissonant work. Yorke shares his feelings with us, a departure from a band that usually works behind closed doors. Despite a disappointing title, it’s another Radiohead masterpiece.

Jeff Rosenstock“WORRY.”

Easily the year’s best punk record belongs to Jeff Rosenstock, and not just because he’s listed as my religion on Facebook. His new album is primal – the A side is standard Jeff songs, bemoaning the changing of seasons, landlords, the closing of a legendary punk venue. And it’s all great. But the B-side, inspired by “Abbey Road,” is a collection of frantic, changing tracks that rarely last over two minutes. It’s as inspired as the best Bomb the Music Industry! records, and the most ambitious thing he’s ever attempted. And it should be noted – and has been – that it is entirely effective. It’s a punk album for people who love more than just punk.

Savages“Adore Life”

Another strong contender for my favorite of 2016 is the sophomore album from the British post-punk band responsible for some of the most raucous shows of the year. The women in Savages took a step back from their riotous debut and leveled the playing field; this album is more thematically linked, mixing slower songs with huge climaxes with heavy, chugging guitar songs. The result is a cohesive, whirling record about love and loving life – even the bad moments, because there are many. The concept is a tricky tightrope but they pull it off throughout. (My most played album of the year! To be fair, it was released in January.)

School of Seven Bells“SVIIB”

It’s fair to say that School of Seven Bells didn’t have a great run. Originally a trio, the band consisted of just one member when their fourth and final album came out. But Benjamin Curtis appears posthumously on the album, so the group is at least a duo. And what an album it is. Easily my favorite dream-pop release of the year, the album struck me in a way that other dream-pop albums – or bands – haven’t. This album is completely immersive, creating a dream-like state that makes it feel like you’re in the studio with the musicians. But, just as you really feel it, it gets taken away by a short runtime, and the dream is dashed. And it’s a great way for this group to bow out.

ScHoolboy Q“Blank Face LP”

I’ll admit that I was surprised by this album. I didn’t know much about ScHoolboy Q, and while my limited knowledge of him being a profane rapper was correct, this album threw me a lot of curveballs. It’s a tonally and lyrically diverse effort, with honest and forward odes coupled with dirty rhythms and dirty lyrics. More than anything, it’s psychedelic, which isn’t a word thrown around in hip-hop too often. It’s a long LP, but there aren’t many wasted moments. C’mon TDE, where’s the ScHoolboy/Kendrick collab?

Solange“A Seat at the Table”

One of the only people to upstage Beyonce this year was her sister, Solange. Unlike many of the year’s lengthy albums, “A Seat at the Table” is a flowing, consistently changing narrative that is as concerning as it is groovy. The album centers a handful of excellent R&B songs around spoken word interludes and short tracks, so no one idea sticks around long enough to feel comfortable. It flows like one long epic, centered around the struggles of black America today. It has memorable tracks, but it constantly disorients the listener. As I said in a different post: it’s an album meant to be enjoyed by many, but understood by some.

Vince Staples“Prima Donna”

One of my favorite rap releases of the year is a brief, disturbing look into the psyche of Staples, one of the best young voices in the genre. The EP is unflinching, a few moments of unfiltered, uncomfortable moments like rapping about having “Kurt Cobain dreams” in a hotel. A full album of this material might be unsustainable, but in a brief dose, it feels like a bad trip down through our worst insecurities.

Swet Shop Boys“Cashmere”

Heems and MC Riz joined together to create a quick, rapid-fire rap album that somehow flew way under the radars. Both men are at peak form, tackling racism conventions and the idea of being Indian in America. By signaling out Indian pop culture that’s big in America, like Zayn Malik, and Life of Pi, they highlight what life is really like. But it’s also fun, the duo wrote a bunch of quick bangers chock full of incredible lines and quips. Heems remains one of my favorite rappers, and he is as high-energy and funny-sad as ever here. A delight missed by most – pick this album out.

A Tribe Called Quest“We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”

Another of the year’s best rap albums went to the only group who could truly save 2016, a group that hadn’t released an album this millennium. But they picked up where they left off – with an eclectic, jazzy, bluesy and pertinent rap record that throws away any masks and directly tells Americans what Trump’s America will be like. It only deepens the album’s impact when you learn that Phife Dawg passed away months before the album’s release. An upfront and necessary farewell from one of the country’s most important groups – we’re on our own now.

Kanye West“The Life of Pablo”

I personally found Kanye’s seventh studio album to be like every one before it – hit-and-miss. But this time around, I have to admire his artistic ability. Kanye established himself as a true artist on this album, by ‘releasing’ the album, and then making frequent and consistent changes and additions to it on a streaming website. As a whole, it stands as art in a way no other album has. And also as a whole, it’s wildly inconsistent. Kanye’s best and worst desires are given in to. But the best tracks and the best moments outweigh the missteps, and even provide a few of the best songs to come out of West’s whole career, even if one of them is just a Chance the Rapper feature in disguise.

YG“Still Brazy”

Another contender for my favorite rap release of the year is YG’s subtle nightmare, “Still Brazy.” The best tracks on the album are ones like “Who Shot Me?” where YG lets his insecurities filter through his usual tough demeanor. Unlike his debut, YG is imperfect here – not scared, but unsure of who his enemies are, and threatening to unload on anyone. But the album’s coda takes a serious and important left turn. The third-to-last track is the now famous “FDT,” which gets followed by two songs about police brutality. It’s a call-to-arms for the black community, to put down petty fights and turn to the bigger enemies.

The only albums I discredited from this list were Run The Jewels’ “RTJIII,” as the official release date lies in 2017, and Jack White’s “Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016,” as it featured some previously-released songs. There were also many albums I didn’t get to.

Check back in next year! If we make it that far.

-Andrew McNally

Metallica – “Hardwired…To Self Destruct”

(Photo Credit: Metal Injection)Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Atlas, Rise!” “Moth Into Flame” “Spit Out the Bone”

Do you ever just stop and marvel at Metallica? I sure as hell do. They not only helped bring metal into the mainstream, they’re the faces of the genre. Metallica are considered one of the “big 4” thrash-metal bands of the 80’s that helped popularize metal as a whole. But, unlike Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, they’ve stuck. All four bands are still active, and have been since the early 80’s. But the other three, in their own distinctive styles, have stuck to their bases in order to not lose credibility. Metallica have done anything but that. They’ve always taken risks, knowing full well they could jettison their core fans. Their first four albums thrust thrash metal into the spotlight, but their 1991 self-titled album was a divisive affair of radio-friendly hard rock that proves to still be radio-friendly 25 years later. It was significantly lighter than previous work, putting focus much more on production and and the lumbering elements of the songs; it is beloved by music fans, and hated by many thrash metal fans. (This reviewer personally finds it very boring, but sees its value.) 2003’s disaster “St. Anger” ditched guitar solos for a garage-rock sound (and the crappiest production in the land), and failed on incomprehensible levels. And 2008’s “Death Magnetic” brought the group back around to their thrash roots.

Their highs and lows are higher and lower than most bands can claim, so in the rare days when Metallica actually releases new music now, there’s the see-saw teetering worry if it will actually be any good or not. Well much like their last album, “Death Magnetic,” there isn’t much reason to worry, but not much excitement either. All of the elements are present: hard-hitting riffs, James Hetfield’s sometimes-dopey-sometimes-effective lyrics, Kirk Hammett’s bulging guitar solos, Rob Trujillo’s thundering bass and Lars Ulrich’s no-frills, rapid drumming. The production is, thankfully, excellent – the first time since ’91, an issue that most big bands never face. It’s just that the music itself is lackluster. Despite the band’s claims, it’s easy to think they’re losing steam.

This album was billed as a double-album. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why, exactly, other than to be different and maybe provide a fabricated moment of relief. It does indeed clock in at 77 minutes – but their previous album clocks in at 74. Splitting the album into two doses of 6 songs does seem to send a message though – a message that fans, and the band, might not want to be pummeled with sound anymore. These dudes are aging, whether they like it or not, and an inconsistent energy throughout shows.

The album’s first half is absolutely stronger than the back half. The album opens with what is actually their second shortest song – “Hardwired,” an absolute bruiser with the energy of anything from “Master of Puppets.” The lyrics are among some of the dopiest that James Hetfield has ever written – but spin the song a few times and you won’t really care anymore. “Atlas, Rise!” follows, with significantly better lyrics (best of the album), and the second of two already punching Kirk Hammett solos. Follow-up “Now That We’re Dead” suffers from Metallica’s biggest problem – the long intro. They made needlessly long intros work in the 80’s, but ever since then they’ve made long intros by just…playing the same thing over and over again. And that’s how this track starts. The track itself is enough of a puncher, but loses faith in taking too long to get to a point. Second single “Moth Into Flame” is probably the best work on the album, a truly ripping song that showcases everything the band does best. Hopefully, it will go down in the Metallica canon as an all-time great. Watch them rip apart Jimmy Fallon’s set to see how great the song is. The first disc closes out with “Dream No More,” a song that would seem fairly bland if not for Hetfield’s excellent vocals, and “Halo On Fire,” the album’s longest song, and a very effective pseudo-ballad that harkens back to their best tracks from the self-titled album.

The second disc falters, though, with nearly every track sounding like one that just made the cut. “Confusion” isn’t a particular winner, with dumb, overused lyrics complementing some less-than-engaging music. “ManUNkind,” bad title and all, is just boring through and through. “Here Comes Revenge” overstays its welcome, but has more of an energy to it that is lacking in the previous two songs. It’s a fun track, one of the album’s many that might sound better live. In a very similar vain is “Am I Savage?,” a bruiser that ultimately isn’t interesting enough to make the first disc, but still plenty enjoyable. Penultimate track “Murder One” is aided by being the only track on Disc 2 that’s under 6 minutes; it feels comparatively brisk, and the beat, although not inherently interesting, feels stronger because of it. Finally, though, comes the closer, “Spit Out the Bone.” Oh man. The song reinterpolates the opening track, “Hardwired,” taking a song that’s already very quick and playing it even faster. Much more than any other song on the album, “Spit Out the Bone” is pure thrash. It ultimately goes on far longer than necessary, but it’s the first time in many, many years that Metallica have proven they can cause whiplash in listeners.

Metallica don’t have anything to prove in 2016. They haven’t had anything to prove in a long, long time. They’re the only one of the “big 4” that’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’ll likely stay that way. They’ve outsold the other three, combined. They’re still one of the best live bands, ever, and yeah – they can make every track on this monster sound great. So when you listen to this album, keep in mind everything Metallica has been able to accomplish, everything that has led them to be able to make an album like this so far into their careers. No, it’s not perfect, and it’s not even great. But damn, when these dudes want to, they still go hard, and they’re still great guys. This won’t win over any new fans, and it’s by no means a classic. In fact, they should have cut multiple songs and/or twenty minutes of runtime. No Metallica album needs to be as long as it is. But, by default, it’s the best Metallica album in a long, long time. It’s a mixed album, for sure, but one that will likely improve with the band’s incredible live show. And for now, best to just sit back and strap in.

-By Andrew McNally

Alicia Keys – “Here”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “The Gospel” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”

It’s safe to say that usually, when you hear an Alicia Keys song, you know it’s an Alicia Keys song. She hasn’t changed her format much since 2001 – because she hasn’t had to. Be it 2001 or 2013, put Alicia behind a piano and let her sing and it’s worth a listen. Alicia Keys could sing the Articles of Confederation and it would sound incredible. Over five albums, Keys proved again and again that she is a vocal and musical powerhouse, and has dominated R&B and pop-crossover since the dawn of the century. But, as any casual fan has probably noticed, it was time for a change.

2016 has seen an absurd amount of black artists put out works that focus on the state of black America today, albeit loosely or directly; Keys joins ScHoolboy Q, Beyonce, YG, Kanye, Vince Staples, Young Thug, De La Soul, and even just today, Common, in releasing an album that focuses on what black America is going through right now. With Keys, it is obviously not as upfront as, say, ScHoolboy Q, but it hits harder than you would ever expect Alicia Keys to. The album’s front half is one long piece, with songs transitioning into skits and back, weaving through life as a black American.

Keys starts strong, after an intro, with “The Gospel,” an ode to growing up in New York. It’s a tough song. It starts off innocently enough, with just Keys and piano, before she starts rapping over rapid-fire drums. By all accounts, it never strays from being a Keys song, but couples that ‘sound’ with staccato drums and honest lyrics about a poor life. The follow-up, “Pawn It All,” complements the ‘universal’ of “The Gospel” with a personal story that still feels universal. In it, she sings “I would give you everything / Just to start my life over again,” which feels far more introspective, but still touches on a moment that most people have either experienced or at least felt. After “The Gospel,” it’s tough not to hear in terms of black Americans feeling despair at the current state.

The next two non-interludes are two very differing tracks, “Kill Your Mama,” easily the most abrasive song title in the Keys canon, and “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv.” The former is a short track of just Keys and acoustic guitar, with some powerfully violent lyrics. The latter is a lengthy, winding song that makes a constant, casual reference to the Fugees amidst its loose feel. The track registers at over 6 minutes, and goes through rhythmic changes not necessarily common to the Alicia Keys songbook.

From this point on, it is safer to say we get some Keys standards, although she does spend the entire album coming out of her comfort zone. This album’s “Girl On Fire” is called “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” and is anchored by the excellent line, “When a girl can’t be herself no more, I just want to cry for the world.” Another highlight is “Work On It,” which uses the idea of background vocals in an energetic and catchy way.

Even with the album’s more “traditional” songs, there is a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling of change. It is painfully apparent that this is a different Alicia Keys – one ready to tackle social issues. I listened to this album on Spotify, where I had this album’s cover – of her, seemingly shirtless, an afro stretching past the frame, standing to the side, in the same shot as the cover of her last album, 2012’s “Girl On Fire,” where she stares straight, in a dress and straight hair, staring forwards. Both are black & white. It seems like Keys is making a reference to who she was in 2012, to note that that’s not who she is in 2016. This album really takes on a tremendous amount of weight, a weight not expected or asked of Keys, but a weight that so many black musicians are bearing in America right now. “Here” is a frank, diverse-yet-direct piece of political art from someone who has usually had the luxury of staying away. If Alicia Keys can’t help, who can?

-By Andrew McNally