Jeff Lynne’s ELO – “Alone in the Universe”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “I’m Leaving You” “Alone in the Universe”

There’s always a risk when a classic rock artist comes back out of the woodworks and releases “their first album in [x] years.” There’s even more risk when you have to change your name because of legal troubles. So on paper, Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s new album, “Alone in the Universe,” shouldn’t have a purpose. And maybe it doesn’t. But it’s better than it deserves to be.

The name ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ serves a dual meaning. As part of a court deal, it lets audiences know that it’s the Jeff Lynne version, the only constant member in the band’s run (and not ELO II, a different off-shoot). But it’s also billed as such because between songwriting and instrumentation, Jeff Lynne is credited with “everything except the shaker and the tambourine.” He plays all instruments here, and it’s really not ELO. There’s no O and hardly any E or L. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Jeff Lynne solo album.

That said, it’s also a victory lap for Lynne. Lynne, and ELO, had a substantially longer and more packed career than people expected them to. Their Greatest Hits discs are loaded start to finish with rock radio perennials. And after everything, ELO ended up marred by legal battles, so Lynne deserves something like this.

There’s a discord on this release, and it’s what makes the record better than expected. ELO always had a self-competing sound: they had the space-y ambition and imagery of Boston and Pink Floyd, but coupled it with brilliant, simple pop songwriting. It hardly makes sense on any song, nonetheless many excellent albums. This record embraces that discord – two competing song titles, “When The Night Comes” and “The Sun Will Shine On You” sit back to back. And the second track, “Love and Rain,” sits on the line, “Love and rain keep coming back again.” Likewise, this album is one that sounds nothing like any other ELO album and is a major outlier in their catalog, yet is Lynne’s victory lap for such a successful run. Just like their other music – it doesn’t make sense only because it does make sense.

The fact that this album, pleasant and reflective (if not largely immemorable), works at all is a testament to Lynne’s songwriting. Each track is a simple, often quite optimistic rock song. Lynne’s experience with the Traveling Wilburys is strong on the album, especially on “I’m Leaving You,” where Lynne’s vocal rhythm mirrors Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” The songs are much more grounded than anything in regular-ELO, and there’s really no song that is better or worse than any other one. The title track (and finale) is a great piece of meta-commentary, with Lynne now the sole member in a band whose numbers have fluctuated past six. Lynne proves to us that no matter what happens, he’ll always be able to write a damn good pop song. None of the songs on this album are particularly great, and none of them will stand the test of time with “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Rockaria!,” but they don’t need to. Lynne feels comfortable in this new form. This album sounds like it was recorded as much for him as it was for us – to prove to himself that he can do just fine by himself. “Alone in the Universe” isn’t going to shatter anyone’s foundations, but it’s a nice addition to the ELO catalog, and a late-stage classic rock album superior to most of what has been done by Lynne’s peers. Lynne has announced that he’s still here, and Jeff, as long as you are, we are too.

-By Andrew McNally

The Dead Weather – “Dodge and Burn”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Rough Detective” “Open Up”

Whenever I bring up the Dead Weather, I find myself constantly defending them. I always ask myself ‘why? I think they’re a great band.’ But I get that that their brooding, scuzzy alt-pop is kind of a turn-off to some, and an unnecessary throwback to others. Plus, there’s the whole “Jack White is a dumpster human” thing. But “Dodge and Burn,” their third album, tries to right those wrongs.

Off the bat, there’s a problem with this album – the energy isn’t really kicked in until the halfway point. Their last album, 2010’s “Sea of Cowards,” starts off with a deafening rhythm on “Blue Blood Blues.” No rhythm matches that until “Rough Detective,” the sixth track of twelve. But the Dead Weather are trying to show that they don’t need to up the volume to be weird, to be engaging. It doesn’t always work from the get-go, “Buzzkill(er)” lives up to it’s title. But early tracks like “Three Dollar Hat” show that the band is adapt to minimalism as much as the opposite.

Still, the volume-heavy tracks like “Rough Detective” and immediate follow-up “Open Up” are the strongest – there’s just nothing like them. The Dead Weather show a wider range on “Dodge and Burn,” and although it leaves more room for mistakes, it shows them uniting as a band too. The Dead Weather work best when the listener remembers they’re a band – in paradoxical ways. Sometimes, they’re in unison, and sometimes they’re competing for the spotlight. The Mosshart/White vocal tracks have always been the band’s best, and we get too few, but it’s what makes “Rough Detective” so strong. Unlike White’s other projects, the Dead Weather feels the most like four people, expressing their emotions related to the project. This is reflective in the songwriting credits – each member is credited to at least five songs, with four songs credited to all four members. The Dead Weather are a band, and they reflect it.

The only song with a single credit is the piano finale, “Impossible Winner,” credited solely to Alison Mosshart. It is weirdly toned-down song, too pretty for a Dead Weather. It isn’t a red herring, necessarily, but it isn’t a showcase of talent, either, because we already knew these musicians were capable of it from their other projects. Though a great song on it’s own merit, it sticks out as a mistake on “Dodge and Burn.”

The album does have its inconsistencies, but it does balance restraint and, well, the opposite. It isn’t the strongest Dead Weather album, but it’s a good listen, and nice just to have them back in the first place. We can look forward to their next album, in either eight months of five years.

FIDLAR – “Too”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “40oz. on Repeat” “Overdose”

With track titles like “Punks,” “Overdose,” and “Bad Habits,” it might seem like “Too” is more of the same from FIDLAR. Their first album, mind you, had “Blackout Stout,” “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine.” It might feel like there’s a gambit in song titles that FIDLAR is quickly running through. But, their sophomore album is an album that some people, myself included, didn’t anticipate coming so soon – the conflicting, adult album. Most punk bands grow up sometime – Rancid’s “Life Won’t Wait,” Dads’ “I’ll Be the Tornado.” FIDLAR’s maturity is a very reluctant one – some tracks on “Too” feel like holdovers from still-recent partying years. But as the guys grow up, they’re begrudgingly accepting a more sober life.

One of the best qualities of FIDLAR’s debut album, a personal favorite of mine, was an underlying, barely visible sense of angst. It only came out in certain songs, when the guys were sober enough to see that there were far too many problems in the world. Through the more youthful and the more adult songs on “Too,” the unifying sense is still the slight angst. This time, it’s on a more personal level, as “Too” is heavy on self-reflection. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for me to talk to someone I don’t know,” is sung on “40oz. on Repeat.” “One week sober / and I’m still hungover,” from closer “Bad Habits.” “FIDLAR” was a humorously self-deprecating album, but “Too” ditches the humor. Take the lyrics from “Bad Habits,” set them in an entirely different musical context, and they could fit nicely on an Alice in Chains album.

But they’re still at a crossroads, because there’s still party tracks. “Sober,” despite the title, is almost inarguably the strangest song in the band’s catalog, with the opening third of the song done almost in spoken word (think the beginning of “The Sweater Song”* but with the vocal melody of “Baby Got Back”). And the album’s penultimate track, “Bad Medicine,” is a >3 minute song that feels like one last punk blast, for old time’s sake, the inverse of Renton taking one last injection in Trainspotting.

As with their debut album, the band has an innate and unexpected ability to eschew any one sub-genre of music. The downside is that it leaves FIDLAR without a distinct sound, something important in punk. But the upside is that each song is going to sound distinct. “Punks,” originally (or perhaps erroneously) titled “The Punks Are Finally Taking Acid,” is a heavy song, centered on a guitar riff akin to a quickened “She’s So Heavy,” with pained, screamed vocals. But follow-up “West Coast” is the kind of bouncy sing-along you more expect from the band. It goes back and forth, often reflective of the lyrics, and it adds a cohesiveness to the album. The lyrics are well-rounded, so the music should be too.

“Too” does ask one question that it does not answer – who should FIDLAR’s audience be, now? Their first album was able to answer that question very, very easily – partying punks and skaters. It’s practically a Ten Commandments for SoCal late teens who are gradually becoming less aware of Mat Hoffman. But their second album was made more for themselves, and that’s a dangerous line to cross. Just because we’re being let on on FIDLAR’s internal struggles doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we want to see. I’m genuinely not sure who the intended audience is for this record, as the partyers generally aren’t going to warm up to the sobering songs as much. There’s a mixed audience for the album, and it’s going to be divisive among fans. Still, there’s enough going on that it stands as a solid, and different sophomore release. I’m just worried about what the band is going to have to go through for the next album.

* – I saw FIDLAR a couple months ago in Boston and they covered “the Sweater Song,” replacing most of the verses with the word “meow” repeated over and over again. Inspiration? Probably.

If you like this, try: Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” another album where a punk band suddenly tightened up, but not without a total maturity.

Titus Andronicus – “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy” “Dimed Out” “More Perfect Union”

One of the things that made Seinfeld so great was a general lack of continuity – you can flip on any episode on TBS at 3pm or am and jump in. Sure, there’s recurring jokes – the person getting washed behind the sheet at the hospital George’s mom is in is my favorite. But each episode is pretty standalone, even for a sitcom. So it’s weird that Titus Andronicus stands by their Seinfeld references, in a way. Their fourth album, “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” is an album that links all three of their previous albums up. It continues the “No Future” trend from “Titus Andronicus” and “The Monitor,” but left off of “Local Business.” One of this album’s best songs, “More Perfect Union,” is a reference to “A More Perfect Union,” from “The Monitor.” And “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him)” is a lyrical cover of their own “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from “Local Business.” There’s even the Seinfeld reference, a “Hello, Newman” shout on “Lonely Boy.”

Look, I love Titus Andronicus. I’ve long called them “America’s best rock band.” A picture I took of them at the Brooklyn Bowl has been the background on my phone for a few years. I didn’t ‘stand by them’ when they released “Local Business” – it’s one of my very favorite albums, I listen to it in full nearly once a week. So when they announced a 29 song, 93+ minute rock opera, I went into cardiac arrest. And as I was staring at it after it came out, before I listened, I thought – “there’s few bands that could really pull this off, and I’m not sure +@ even can.” “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” isn’t their strongest album, but in terms of ambition and effort, it is indeed unmatched.

The album is separated into five acts, much like Foxygen’s “…And Star Power” last year. The opera follows Our Hero, as he meets his doppelganger and struggles with manic depression, a reflection of Patrick Stickles’ own struggles. Stickles has reflected before – “The Monitor” reflected his depression, where my favorite +@ song “My Eating Disorder” details his selective eating.

There’s a lot to take in on the album, at 29 songs and over an hour and a half long. Given that the band has always centered itself equally on music and lyrics, there’s rarely one more worthy of attention – and that comes through the most on songs that feel like they could’ve been cut. It runs too long, even as an art project, and the average-lengthed songs start to bleed together a bit. There’s also a surprising number of them – although two of the songs are over nine minutes, and thirteen are under two minutes, most of the other tracks are between 3:00 and 4:30, unexpected for a band comfortable in the 5:00-6:30 range. Some songs, like “Dimed Out” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” feel zipped-up and perfectly sliced because of it, but some songs feel underdeveloped in that range.

The album keeps things interesting by engulfing all of Patrick Stickles’ influences, rather than focusing on one. Early on, especially on “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “Lonely Boy,” the band directly channels their inner Springsteen. As the album gets more indulging, the band expands influences, from hardcore (“Look Alive”) to the Pogues (“A Pair of Brown Eyes”) to the traditional (an unexpected “Auld Lang Syne”). There’s a lot going on here, and it gets switched up so consistently that it feels like where in the manic itself.

“The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a flawed but strong album. Just when it starts to lag, it winds up again and hits you with another punk blast. And it’s needlessly but joyously self-indulgent, keeping all of the band’s linked narratives going. It’s punk, it’s indie, it’s gospel, it’s anything you’d imagine Titus Andronicus to be. It succeeds just because it has the sheer audacity to demand it so. “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a beast, and with another dense, lengthy concept album under their belt, it’s safe to say we have no idea where +@ are going next. Their next album might equate struggles with body identity to stories of ancient gods, or it might be a Bon Jovi covers album. It’s tough to say, and that’s what makes +@ America’s best rock band.

If you like this, try: self-immolation

-By Andrew McNally

Fade In Playlist: Wilco

With the surprise release of their ninth album, the lawsuit-nudgingly titled “Star Wars,” Wilco have entered another new chapter in their career. Most bands won’t have as many phases as this over only nine albums, but most bands aren’t Wilco. From Texas blend alt-country, to Chicago migraine-imitating noise rock, to a restless feeling of “dad” music, Wilco have managed to separate and reflect on their influences individually, based on the times. And with no bad albums under their belt, there’s a lot of ground to cover if you’re just getting into them. So I’m here to help – below is a Spotify playlist of 10 Wilco songs to get you started. Because picking 10 good Wilco songs could basically be done by just throwing 10 darts at a list of their music, I’ve limited my personal picks and leaned heavily on what I feel are their objective best works.

Since I jump around in their discography, here is a list of their albums chronologically:

“A.M.” – 1995
“Being There” – 1996
“Summerteeth” – 1999
“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” – 2002
“A Ghost is Born” – 2004
“Sky Blue Sky” – 2007
“Wilco (the Album)” – 2009
“The Whole Love” – 2011
“Star Wars” – 2015

1) “Misunderstood”

One of the earliest great Wilco songs, “Misunderstood” shows the band already tempting their audience with an avant-garde sound. 1996’s “Being There” was the band’s second album, and one that established them as an alt-country group worth watching. But the leadoff track has a heavy, restless guitar line amidst its piano and country rhythms. It was a sign of what was to come, and is still a live staple to this day.

2) “Wilco (the Song)”

2008’s “Wilco (the Album)” saw the band poking fun at their diverse discography by embracing all of it at once. A weaker release in their discography, but still a fun insight into a band looking back at themselves. Another leadoff track, “Wilco (the Song)” is a quick, catchy guitar ditty reminiscent of their “Summerteeth” era transitional period. Though simplistic, it’s both indicitave of the band’s power on the indie front, and a song that never gets old.

3) “Impossible Germany”

Definitely one of Wilco’s best songs is a showcase for Nels Cline. In between “A Ghost is Born” and 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco drafted legendary jazz and noise rock guitarist Nels Cline and let him show off here. The song follows a “Marquee Moon” trajectory – a song they’ve covered live – by starting as a standard rock song, with cryptic lyrics, before devolving into a very lengthy guitar solo. And just like the Television song, the best part of the solo is when the rhythm guitar line develops on it’s own. And despite it all, “Impossible Germany” manages to have a relaxed, calming tone to it. A modern guitar odyssey.

4) “I’m the Man Who Loves You”

The legend of Wilco’s utter struggle and total redemption recording 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has been extremely well-documented, so here’s just a quick rundown – band members came to blows over the album’s significantly more noisy, abrasive and unpredictable sound, and from the time recording started to the album’s release, two members were replaced. Meanwhile, Reprise Records rejected the album, as even Wilco’s more radio-friendly work wasn’t selling. They asked for the rights to their music back, which Reprise gave for free. Wilco then sold the album to Nonesuch Records – another Warner Bros. subsidiary, who released it. The album, which was originally slated for release on 9/11, eventually came out on 4/23/2002, with the band touring with a different line-up than on the album. But it has gone on to become Wilco’s most successful album, and a certifiable indie classic. Picking just two songs from the album for this list is nearly impossible, but this song is both the album’s most abrasive and catchiest song, an example of how well they’ve become at blending the two.

5) “Where Do I Begin”

Over a decade after “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” we’ve got Wilco feeling restless again. Their new album “Star Wars” is their first fun album in a long, long time, and shows the band refusing to mature and settle into a “dad-rock” sound that they’ve been on the fringe of. While the album is filled with guitar-heavy ditties, the best songs are ones like “Where Do I Begin,” which start like previous midtempo Wilco songs that give the aura of “Okay, they got that out of their system,” before suddenly switching gears. “Where Do I Begin” stops suddenly and lets a jazzy drum line come in and wrap up the song, all in under three minutes.

6) “Via Chicago” (Live Version)

Look, no band is perfect. No band knows this better than Wilco. Back before they had nine albums, Wilco once did a multi-show run in their now-hometown Chicago where they played every song in their discography over a few nights. There were some that Tweedy apologized for and complained about them being too boring. To me, “Via Chicago” is one of those – a centerpiece of “Summerteeth” that’s a dull ballad. But this live version from “Kicking Television” again highlights the way Wilco have an eye for warping and changing their music, by incorporating three sudden, sweaty noise build-ups amidst the original version. It’s a shock. Bonus: watch the video, where Tweedy calmly plays his acoustic guitar, totally ignoring the insanity around him.

7) “Walken”

“Walken” is a live staple for Wilco, even though audiences usually seem lukewarm to the band playing it. I don’t get it – it’s one of the most fun songs in the band’s discography. With semi-meta lyrics surrounding a country guitar line and jazzy drums, it’s an amalgum of Wilco’s interests. And, as a part of “Sky Blue Sky,” it’s Nels Cline-heavy. “Walken,” with no actual relation to the actor, is an upbeat track with a number of different things going on at once, and shows how well the band works together, especially with their current long-running line-up.

8) “Can’t Stand It”

The tribulations of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” really started back with 1999’s “Summerteeth.” Warner Bros. had joined with Time and were in debt – the labels were pressured to find hit acts. Howard Klein – the man who kept convincing Reprise to stick with Wilco – made it his swan song to convince Reprise to do it yet again (something he couldn’t do with “Yankee,” as he was soon fired). Reprise told Wilco they needed a radio hit single, so the band agreed “once and only once” to rework one song, “Can’t Stand It,” into a poppy single. The reworked version, done in one day, leads off the album, but unfortunately still wasn’t enough – it failed to make airwaves and the album sold less copies than it’s predecessor, “Being There.”

9) “Company In My Back”

I’ll be upfront on this one – I’m not really a fan of Wilco’s fifth album, “A Ghost is Born.” Tweedy adapted even more of a lead role on the album, playing lead guitar for the first time in the band’s run. The album, the follow-up to “Yankee,” follows the unpredictable tone but is significantly darker, with Tweedy taking inspirations from his lifelong migraine problem, which had been getting even worse. Wilco’s most infamous song, “Less Than You Think,” is a 15-minute electro-drone song that is supposed to mimic a migraine (an interesting piece that’s extremely out of place on a Wilco album). Still, the album has some great tracks, like this surprisingly catchy low-key one. It’s a rare Wilco song that would fit on any album.

10) “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

One of Wilco’s most well-known songs, the opener to “Yankee” is an avant-garde opus, nearly seven minutes of nonsensical lyrics, drones, clock chimes and piano. Naturally, the meat of the song is still very catchy, but everything going on around it was nothing that Wilco fans had ever heard before. Any noise influence before “Yankee” – and most after – was crafted just with studio instruments. But this song pummels itself into outside noises. And tempo changes, and a reference to an upcoming song (“I’m the Man Who Loves You,” again). “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” must have been the underground version of Dylan going electric – an alt-country band going freak-out. The song may have been written from the depths of Tweedy’s opiate addiction, and while 75% of me is glad he kicked it years ago, 25% of me wants another “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”

There’s really no saying where Wilco will go next, but given their track record, it’s likely to be something they haven’t done before – and it’s probably going to be great.

Previous playlists: Beck, Death Grips

By Andrew McNally, who has loved Wilco for many years but has sadly only seen them once.

Wilco – “Star Wars”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “You Satellite” “Where Do I Belong”

Wilco are at an important point in their career. Like many artists before them – namely David Bowie, who they channel heavily here on their ninth album – they’re at a point where they’re growing restless again. Wilco established their original sound, as an alt-country band. And then, out of nowhere came “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” their creative reawakening albums (although in most band trajectories, this period comes from creative woes, not accidental painkiller addictions). After Jeff Tweedy recovered, the band’s sound settled into a more mature, introspective look with the still-excellent “Sky Blue Sky.” And the two albums since then have seen the band embrace their catalog as a whole, both poking fun and honoring their creativity of the past.

But, like Bowie did on “The Next Day,” they’re again growing restless with maturity. “Star Wars” is unlike any other Wilco album, in many ways. For on thing, it’s called “Star Wars.” Also, the cover has an adorable cat on it. It looks more like the cover for a Dusty Springfield record, not a Wilco one. And the songs are shortened, tightened and energized. There’s certainly other Wilco songs that would feel comfortable on this album – “Shot in the Arm,” “Wilco (the Song)” come to mind. But the band has created songs that don’t give themselves room to breathe. At 2:30, “Pickled Ginger” sounds just like a cut Deep Purple song with it’s fuzzed-out, grinding guitar line. Although “Star Wars” is distinctively Wilco, the songs here have traveled a long way from “Impossible Germany.” And it’s not a criticism – it’s a familiar sound, in an unfamiliar package. At 33:47, it’s the band’s shortest album by nearly ten minutes (ten minutes being two-thirds the length of their longest song). And as a band that’s stayed reliant to the album format, their decision to drop this release suddenly and for free online is growth as well.

Although the band has been playfully looking back at their earlier works in recent years, “Star Wars” marks the first time in years that they’ve actually incorporated any elements with an avant garde feel. They come mainly in the opener, “EKG,” a 1:15 chippy, dissonant intro that doesn’t serve as a standalong song, instead as a declaration of what’s to come.

Also, Jeff Tweedy as a frontman and songwriter seems to be less of a focus on this album. Something noticeable about one the album’s best songs, “You Satellite,” is that the volume of his vocals is closer to the rest of the instruments, instead of being at the forefront. And eventually, he gives way to the music entirely. Tweedy’s lyrics on this album aren’t his best (they’re a lot vaguer than past Wilco albums), but the focus is on the music and the vibe anyways. The longer they’ve been around, and especially since they’ve developed a more steady line-up, Wilco has seemed more like a full band and less like a collective.

Wilco haven’t released a mediocre album since 1999’s “Summerteeth,” but it’s been a long time since they’ve released a great one, too, and that’s just what “Star Wars” is. This is their best album since “Sky Blue Sky” in 2007 and, if you like just fun and lively Wilco, then before that. There are moments of beauty and grace on “Star Wars,” especially in affectionate closer “Magnetized.” But more often than not, those moments are often followed up by a sudden drum line, feedback or guitar melting. Just as you would expect from a band growing restless yet again.

If you like this, try: This one’s probably obvious since I mentioned it, but it’s stylistically and tonally resembling of Bowie’s “The Next Day,” if not actually all that similar.

Muse – “Drones”

Grade: D+

Key Track: “Reapers”

When you’re a band that’s been making the same album over and over again for 15 years, you should know better than to call it “Drones.” I won’t even touch the easy joke, nor will I say anything about the art-rocity on the cover. Let’s just not even spend time there.

Muse makes music for teenagers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but they do. I was 14 when “Absolution” came out, and it rocked my world for a while. “Drones” takes a predictable anti-war stance, and man, if this had come out a decade ago, I would’ve fallen in love with it like it was any girl I talked to. Certain songs from “Drones” have Hot Topic-primed lyrics, down to a concept that’s confusing and inconsistent.

“Drones” supposedly follows someone as they join a military and become a human drone, or something Muse-y like that. It’s not always coherent, and it leads to very Muse-y songs like “Defector,” that has a chorus of “I’m free from society / You can’t control me,” or “Revolt,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The album’s second track is an interlude, of a drill sergeant prepping a soldier to be a “killing machine,” which is pretty much the equivalent to Kevin James starring in “Apocalypse Now.”

Musically, Muse looked to get back to basics on “Drones.” It doesn’t always work, but they have stripped themselves down a bit compared to the past few albums. Given that “The 2nd Law” had a literal dubstep song, hearing just the guitar-bass-piano-drums combo of the “Origin of Symmetry” days is a relief. It’s not enough – the strength of Muse’s early albums lies in their restlessness, as they clearly had ambitions that they couldn’t yet meet. But it is still an improvement. “Reapers” is the closest to classic Muse (note: to me classic Muse is “Newborn”). 10+ minute penultimate track “The Globalist” also hits old Muse for a while, before falling into terrible ballad territory (and giving way to the closer, “Drones,” which is Matt Bellamy a capella layered over himself – yikes).

Compared to the slough they’ve been slinging at us for a few years, “Drones” isn’t so bad. But there’s a second interlude on the album that’s part of a speech from JFK and it’s just like, come on guys. You’re British. This album is about drones. None of it makes any sense. Muse revel in their corniness, and it affects their songwriting. There’s some generally good Muse songs on this album, but they’re too few and far between to make you think they’re a band worth paying attention to again. 15 year-olds are probably going to pick this album up, and it might inspire them – that’s good. “Absolution” inspired me. It made me more political, and more musical. But it also advanced me past self-serving bands like Muse. Ten years from now, when Muse hits 31 years as a band, the kids that picked up “Drones” are going to smirk at themselves, at how far they’ve come since those teenage days.

-By Andrew McNally

The Sonics – “This is the Sonics”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “I Don’t Need No Doctor” “Save the Planet”

Does history repeat itself, or do things never change?

Fans of My Bloody Valentine, Guns N’ Roses and the Stooges are breathing a sigh of relief. “At least I’m not a Sonics fan.” “This is the Sonics” now takes the cake as the longest time in between albums. It’s the first album from the band’s original line-up in 49 years, and they play like nothing’s changed. Although the members are now in their 70’s, they’re still playing incendiary pre-punk garage rock.

This album plays like a movie in a series that ignores the films that came before it. The Fast and Furious series ignores Toyko Drift, like the film never happened. Except that in the world of the Sonics, what hasn’t happened is punk, disco, new wave, hip-hop, metal, boy bands, and everything else since “Sgt. Pepper”. The Sonics play like they’re still the forefront of music, something that would be vain if it mattered. In reality, it’s an incredibly refreshing listen. The band blow through 12 garage instant-classics in 32 minutes, each as good as the last.

All of the instruments work off each other on the album – there’s no competition for value. This is partly garage-rock mentality, and partially due to the record being recorded in mono. The producer, the legendary Jim Diamond, does little more than hit the start and stop buttons, just recording the band live. To add any flourishes, or to clean the sound up, would do the band injustice. Instead, the band is recorded as they should be – geared up, roaring with a possibly vampiric energy that some bands can’t match when they’re young.

There’s only really two nods to the fact that the Sonics aren’t still in 1966. The first is the inclusion of horns, something that wasn’t in the band until entirely different iterations of the Sonics played into the 70’s. The other is the late-album “Save the Planet,” which addresses global warming in the most Sonics way possible, by letting us know Earth is the only planet with booze. “Reality’s for people who don’t know how to drink,” Jerry Roslie sings, daring us to ignore his age.

The Sonics still have a cynical edge to their lyrics, a cynicism that separated them from the more party-hardy garage acts of the 60’s. There’s a relatively harmless causal sexism to the lyrics, much like the 60’s, as well as songs like “I Got Your Number,” with “I’ve Got Your Number, and it’s 666” sung in an offhand way. By convincing themselves that 60’s garage rock still wants to be heard, they’ve convinced us that lyrics like this are still surprising. “This is the Sonics” boasts a very 60’s throwaway album title (like “The Who Sings My Generation”), but it’s also very literal – this is them, all these years later. And to anyone that wasn’t around then, this is what they were. And it’s what they still are. 2015 hasn’t stopped throwing surprises at us, and a wholly rocking new Sonics album is something none of us expected.

If you like this, try: early garage rock like this has a big influence on the Burger Records type surf-punk bands, try Japanther at their more direct (“Surfin’ Coffin”).

-By Andrew McNally

METZ – “II”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Acetate” “Kicking a Can of Worms”

METZ named this album “II” because they knew it would serve as a sequel. They came out swinging on their self-titled debut album, and fell into the rarity of an instant classic punk release. Even in a crowded genre, the album defied genre. “METZ” was like a butcher, taking a typical post-punk album and rolling it into one long strand, making incisions every few inches. Their music is extremely metrical, in a way that punk and post-punk usually prides itself on going against. “II,” unfortunately, doesn’t quite keep the energy. But it is a proper sequel.

Sequels are difficult – how much do you acknowledge the original? On the spectrum of “Godfather Part II” to “Hangover Part II,” METZ here fall somewhere around “22 Jump Street,” or “Led Zeppelin 2,” in the acknowledgement that yes, it’s more of the same, but you liked it the first time. METZ have a formula to their music that’s distinctly their own, but they’re already deviating from it.

The worst moments of “II” are the ones where METZ sound like they’re retreading themselves. The band, surprisingly, suffers from the “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” struggle of recapturing a debut album’s sheer energy. The songs presented here are sometimes more forceful than others, and sometimes more well-mixed than others. “Acetate” and “Landfill” have energy to them, while “Spit You Out” and “Nervous System” could use a little boost. And while the balance between heavy instrumentation and vocals is usually balanced, on “Wait in Line” it is too heavily in favor of the music. The lyrics throughout edge on intelligible, but “Wait in Line” is the only track where they’re too muted.

Still, the band recognizes that they can’t completely recreate their first album, and they allow themselves some flourishes. There’s something close to a solo on “Spit You Out,” and there’s a tremolo bit on “Eyes Peeled” that could be mistaken for a solo. They break out of their own system a bit, more than they allowed themselves to do on “METZ.” The vocals on “The Swimmer” are more frantic than they were before. There’s signs that the band knows this is a brand that can’t keep going forever. And at the end of it, “II” still rocks pretty hard. They might not be able to keep this formula up for long, but it’s still working in their favor.

If you like this, try: There’s a hundred different ways I can go with this one, but I’ll keep it basic. One of the best of the year – Sleater-Kinney’s “No Cities to Love

-By Andrew McNally

Mumford & Sons – “Wilder Mind”

Grade: D

Default Key Track: “Tompkins Square Park”

There was a time when vagueness was a part of rock music. It was big in classic rock – Springsteen and AC/DC alike told stories of everymen that resonated, even though they’re details were ripped out of entry level creative writing classes. Think about Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” – it describes a very specific girl, but an everygirl. Mumford & Sons harken back to the days of classic rock storytellers on their first electric album, “Wilder Mind.” But then isn’t now. Mumford & Sons going electric doesn’t resonate like when Dylan did it – hell, they’re probably quieter here. And in an incredibly overpopulated music scene, with artists like FKA twigs, Grimes, Viet Cong and TWIABPAIANLATD melting and reforming hybrid genres, and artists crafting increasingly more specific lyrics – see “Groin Twerk,” “Sometimes,” “King Kunta” – vagueness isn’t going to get you anywhere.

“Monster.” That was my choice for the first ballad of the album, when I first looked at the tracklist. Not because of the title, far from it – just because it was the sixth track. I was right. The album was predictable from the get-go; what you expect is presented almost exactly. The band sounds like any myriad of guitar-driven indie bands that’s existed from ’91 – present. There’s almost nothing memorable here. “Wilder Mind” stands equal with any of the non-“Hot Fuss” Killers albums, and any Coldplay album, as that album that most dads hold on to as a last grasp at trying to bond with their kids over music.

The album’s worst quality is that it isn’t worse than it is. If this album were actually worse, it could be fun-bad, like an ironic listen that you listen to for a laugh. But it’s just bland. It’s tepid, totally drained of life. There’s almost nothing enjoyable, and it’s forgotten before it’s even over. There are highlights, at least – the band sounds engaged on the opener “Tompkins Square Park,” a song that could stand as a Death Cab ripoff. And they do bring an energy to the table late on the album, on “Ditmas.” But the two Brooklyn-named songs notwithstanding, nothing else works here.

Mumford & Sons came out of the gates swinging a few years ago, armed with banjos, a new sound that rivaled acoustic dubstep, and a ridiculous personae that couldn’t be ignored. It got old fast, as they played themselves out, but they rode the world for a few years. Why they’d follow up a Grammy-pummeling album with this light-hearted, dull mess is beyond comprehension. Credit to a band trying to reinvent themselves, but “Wilder Mind” is just an old grenade, hissing with it’s pin pulled, and a crowd standing, slowly moving their fingers from their ears.

There aren’t even any songs about Gene Wilder. Should’ve been called “Whiter Mind.”

If you like this, try: catching up with the times