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THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM album review

THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM

Nonesuch, 2021

Blues, Garage blues, rock

If I had to guess at the dialogue that happened between the members of The Black Keys over the past decade, based entirely on the albums that were released in that time, I think it would go something like this.

2011 – “Hey, these last two albums that we released (Brothers and El Camino) are totally different from all the work we did before, but people are really eating it up! Let’s stay on this path and keep experimenting and see what happens. I wonder if our fans dig psychedelic stuff?”

2014 – “Hmmm… the fans didn’t seem to like that psychedelic stuff too much (Turn Blue). Let’s finish out this tour and take a little break and focus on other things. Maybe when we come back together, we’ll have some good ideas.”

2019 – “Okay, we tried to recreate the magic of El Camino, but that clearly didn’t work (Let’s Rock). I think we need to reassess what this band was and is supposed to be. What if we just did what we used to do back in the beginning and just jam on some old Mississippi blues songs?”

Clearly, this is all speculation and fictional. I don’t know Dan Auerbach or Patrick Carney personally, nor do I have any connections to offer me any insight to the decisions that led to the creation of their newest album, Delta Kream. But, I don’t believe this is an entirely farfetched assumption when you look at the band’s release history. They have effectively come back around to the sounds and inspirations of their earlier material after a couple significant changes in sound and a couple disappointing albums.

Sorry for being “that guy,” but I was into The Black Keys before they were cool. My first introduction to them was their 2006 EP Chulahoma, a collection of songs originally recorded by Junior Kimbrough. It’s a very similar formula to Delta Kream, only now we’re getting more tracks from more artists like John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside. I will admit that when the band made its first major stylistic change on the album Brothers, I was a little disappointed that they moved away from their bluesier sound. But the album was so damn good that I didn’t care that much, and the same applies to El Camino. But with every album, I always wondered if they’d ever get back to their blues roots. Delta Kream is exactly that return. It’s the Chulahoma formula, but with some key differences.

Chulahoma was released while the band was still recording in basements and abandoned factories in Akron, Ohio. In the time since, Dan Auerbach has opened his own recording studio in Nashville, recreating vintage recording techniques and recording and producing for legendary blues musicians, bluegrass and country bands, and R&B singers. The recordings on Delta Kream still have some dusty vintage vibes to them, but layers of dirt and grime from their garage rock days are gone. This is evident on the album’s opener, John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake.” There are times in the chorus where Auerbach slurs the lyrics, but you feel like it might have been more effective if things were more lo-fi.

If you want to draw another comparison with their previous releases, the whole vibe of Delta Kream is pretty laid back. The old albums were pretty raucous affairs. Carney would pummel his drums, but that was probably necessary to give them any resemblance of definition and to keep from being swallowed by Auerbach’s fuzzy guitars. Now things feel far more restrained. It’s a similar story with the guitars; there are more solos and extended jams, but there’s just not as much energy behind it as there was back in the early ’00s. And you don’t have to wonder what an old Keys song would sound like with this new sound. They include an updated cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Do the Romp,” previously recorded as “Do the Rump” on their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. If you want a clear demonstration of the difference between old blues Black Keys and new blues Black Keys, just listen to those back-to-back.

I know it seems like I’m complaining a lot with these comparisons to their early albums, but it’s hard not to make them when the band is making such an obvious attempt to go back to their original inspirations. But at the end of the day, this is still a pretty good album. They very faithfully capture the vibe of the songs they’re covering and the jam sections are the slinkiest they’ve been since that Chulahoma EP I mentioned above. You can tell the guys are having a good time in the studio banter that’s included in some tracks, and if this album introduces a new generation to Mississippi blues music, I don’t see how that couldn’t be a good thing.

The album does have its issues, though. Some jams can feel a little drawn out and others end abruptly. Their cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” has some falsetto work from Auerbach that threatens to get annoying before the instrumental gets good. Other songs on the back half of the album don’t have real sticky hooks and can blend into the background. But the good still significantly outweighs the bad.

Delta Kream marks a welcome return to form for The Black Keys, not only in terms of style and genre, but in quality as well. I don’t know if this album represents a reset in the band’s career, but I hope that Auerbach and Carney have found the inspiration they went looking for. And I also hope that this means we’ll start consistently getting Black Keys albums of this quality or better again.

7/10

DINOSAUR JR. – SWEEP IT INTO SPACE album review

DINOSAUR JR. – SWEEP IT INTO SPACE

Jagjaguwar, 2021

Alternative rock, indie rock

In general, the long career of Dinosaur Jr. is considered to be separated into three distinct eras. There are the early years where the band was a key figure in the beginnings of American alternative rock. Then came the major label years in the ’90s where the band saw the most commercial success on 1994’s Without a Sound. However, by the end of this run, singer and guitarist J Mascis would be the only remaining founding member and he would soon retire the Dinosaur Jr. name. But in 2005, Mascis would reunite with original bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph and Dinosaur Jr. would be reborn. This third era of the band would last longer than either of the two previous eras and, with the release of Sweep It Into Space, produce more material as well. And this 21st century version of Dinosaur Jr. is my Dinosaur Jr.

That’s not to say that I ignore or see no value in the band’s previous releases. The first albums are brilliant and Without a Sound was successful for a reason. But the third era was contemporary with my own growth and developing musical tastes. I was introduced to them through 2009’s Farm, a fantastic album which led me back to Beyond, and kept my ears open for I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. This latest release fits nicely among them, and a big part of that is because the majority of the album is business as usual for the band.

That’s not a problem because Dinosaur Jr. is a band where business as usual is a good thing. Business as usual means fuzzy guitars, catchy hooks, tight rhythms, and ripping guitar solos. These elements are all present from the very beginning of album opener “I Ain’t” which also has lyrics about loneliness and alienation, another trademark of the band. Similar sounds and themes can be found throughout the album on tracks like “And Me” and “Hide Another Round.” There are some flirtations with other instruments and styles like the piano in “Take It Back” and the hard rock riffs of “I Met The Stones.” There’s also some additional production and instrumentation from Kurt Vile throughout the album, most notably the 12-string guitar on “I Ran Away.”

Sweep It Into Space isn’t without its faults, however. The track “Garden,” written by bassist Lou Barlow, who performs lead vocals, just doesn’t feel quite like it fits in with the rest of the album. That’s not a knock on Barlow, because the song isn’t bad on its own. And his other contribution to the album, closing track “You Wonder,” fits in just fine. “Garden” just sticks out. There’s also the track “I Expect It Always” which has riffs that repeat a little too often and flat melodies that do the same. Again, not a terrible song, but not quite to the same standard as everything else.

In terms of quality, pretty much everything that Dinosaur Jr. has released in its “third era” has been at least good, if not a little forgettable in the cases of I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. If had to place Sweep It Into Space among the albums of this era, I’d say it fits right in the middle. It’s not quite the challenging masterpiece that Farm was, and while it has the same spirit as Beyond, it doesn’t quite reach the same level. However, there are moments that are far more memorable than what Sky and Glimpse had to offer. It’s a good album that exemplifies what Dinosaur Jr. are all about at this point in their career. It’s business as usual, but that’s exactly what we want from them.

7/10

A DAY TO REMEMBER – YOU’RE WELCOME album review

A DAY TO REMEMBER – YOU’RE WELCOME

Fueled by Ramen, 2021

Pop rock, pop punk, easycore

Easycore was a weird moment, wasn’t it? Somewhere in pop-punk’s resurgence in the late ’00s to early ’10s, someone dared to ask what would happen if they made pop-punk with breakdowns, and the rest is history… literally. Now, about a decade on, the scene has all but died save for a couple of the bigger bands. Which is honestly a shame as I happen to really enjoy easycore. Four Year Strong’s self-titled album is full of bangers and A Day to Remember’s Homesick was a hallmark album of my early college years. If anyone knows about any bands that are keeping easycore alive, please let me know. Because, from the perspective of a (mostly) outside observer, it seems like the genre is barely hanging on anymore. And I think A Day to Remember recognizes this. You’re Welcome, their latest album, contains a lot of experimentation with various brands of pop rock in what feels like an attempt to figure out how they can stay relevant at this stage in their career. I can understand why they’d want to do this, and it’s a mostly noble effort, but I feel like the results are mixed at best.

The biggest problem, to me, is that there’s not a lot here that really feels like A Day to Remember. This album feels like a band who doesn’t know who they are trying to find what sticks to get airplay. Which is more disappointing when the band in question has an established identity. I’m not opposed to bands experimenting and branching out in to new things, but the attempts on this album ultimately feel weak. I mean, “Bloodsucker” sounds like Imagine Dragons, “F.Y.M.” sounds like WALK THE MOON, and “High Diving” sounds like fun. with heavy guitars. And it doesn’t stop there. Some songs just give off a vibe that feels familiar, but in an unoriginal way. “Resentment” and “Looks Like Hell” almost sound like Christian hard rock, a genre notorious for chasing trends (and I swear the latter sounds like a Switchfoot song). Other songs like “Only Money,” “Everything We Need,” and certain parts of “Degenerates” sound painfully generic. Some songs even have moments that feel like they could have been co-written by Jack Antonoff, which makes sense when you consider the fun. comparison from earlier.

But similarity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Viva La Mexico” sounds like it might have been inspired by one of the goofier pop rock bands from the mid-’00s like Fountains of Wayne or Bowling For Soup. But the band brings their easycore edge to the track and it ends up being one of the better tracks on the album, and one of the very few where I can tolerate listening to the whole thing. Similarly, “Re-Entry” feels like a classic blink-182 song with an ADTR flair, and it, coupled with “Permanent” feel like the most like ADTR on the whole album, and we don’t get them until the final quarter. But these are really the only bright spots among all the issues mentioned above and others like “Last Chance To Dance (Bad Friend)” being a borderline nu-metal song, as if to prove that they’re still heavy, and the rest of the songs on the album being largely forgettable.

While You’re Welcome is a disappointing album, it’s not a complete failure. Despite their familiarity, songs like “F.Y.M.” and “Everything We Need” are undeniably catchy, and A Day to Remember does manage to put an imprint on certain tracks that is undeniably theirs. “Degenerates” is, literally, half a good song. And once again, I don’t fault bands for trying new things. When you come from a sub-genre that’s such a flash in the pan like easycore, you don’t really have a choice if you want to survive. The problem is when the attempts feel so mediocre and half-assed, especially when you know that a band is capable of doing better.

4/10

YASMIN WILLIAMS – URBAN DRIFTWOOD album review

YASMIN WILLIAMS – URBAN DRIFTWOOD

SPINSTER, 2021

Fingerstyle acoustic guitar

Fingerstyle acoustic guitar has always been a bit of a niche genre. It did have a brief moment of semi-mainstream attention back in 2005 when Candyrat Records uploaded a video of Andy McKee performing his song “Drifting” to YouTube and people on the internet lost their collective minds. For many viewers, it was their introduction to this style of playing (you can do that with a guitar?). “Drifting” going viral also coincided with a bit of a creative high point for the genre. There are songs from that era that still live among the wrinkles of my brain. But, as the hype has died down, so has the quality of the material released, to an extent. Many artists are still releasing new music, but very little of it sticks with me. However, when I listened to this new album from Yasmin Williams, I instantly recognized that it was special.

Pick any track from Urban Driftwood and you’ll soon be made aware of Williams’ ability to use the guitar to say what she wants it to say. She often layers different techniques (and sometimes other instruments) on top of each other to create lush arrangements. The feelings conjured by her playing ranges from thoughtful in the beautiful “I Wonder (Song for Michael)” to youthful joy in “Juvenescence” to seeing beauty in the dizzying anxiety of the city in the title track. Another thing that I find very impressive with Williams’ work is that she is not beholden to a single style or gimmick. She uses whatever technique best suits the song, whether it be fingerpicking while holding the guitar traditionally, two-handed tapping on the fretboard, or laying the guitar on her lap to play. Sometimes she might even do all of these in a single song, like in “Juvenescence.”

Unfortunately, as is the case with some instrumental music, Urban Driftwood has a certain je ne sais quoi that sets it apart from other instrumental guitar music that is very difficult to describe in words. You really have to hear it to recognize it, but I’ll do my best. One of the most influential pioneers of this specific style of playing guitar was Michael Hedges. It’s been recorded that Hedges did not view himself as a guitarist, but rather a composer who used the guitar. I believe it was this attitude that allowed him to make the music that he did. He didn’t tap the fretboard with two hands because it looked cool, he did it because it was what he had to do to get the sounds he wanted out of the guitar. He made the guitar do what he wanted it to do, and I believe that symbiotic relationship comes through in his music. Very few guitarists approach this feel with their compositions, but Yasmin Williams gets closer than anyone I’ve heard in a long time.

On Williams’ own website, it says that she switched to acoustic guitar while she was learning because of its versatility. That alone tells me that there is at least some of that more composer-like approach. Other aspects that I think make her music special are the various different perspectives she brings to the genre. Along with being a woman and a person of color, Williams is young. The same bio on her website says she didn’t start learning guitar until 2009, four years after “Drifting” went viral. She grew up and picked up the guitar in a very different musical landscape than many of the guitarists who benefitted from the aftershocks of that video. Her music won’t be drastically different to people familiar with the genre, but there is a noticeably distinct quality to it, and you have to wonder if some of that comes from her age and background. And honestly, the scene could use a little more diversity. (Seriously, Candyrat’s artist page is 95% male and very nearly 100% white.)

If you can’t tell, Urban Driftwood impressed me in a big way. Yasmin Williams brings some much-needed diversity to and breathes new life into a genre that has felt stagnant in the years since its viral peak. Rather than being limited by the acoustic guitar, she bends it to her will and makes it tell the musical stories that she wants to share with the world. I look forward to what the future holds for her and I hope that this album marks the beginning of a new generation of fingerstyle guitarists. If nothing else, consider the fact that I haven’t published any reviews since last August and no single album reviews since last May. The fact that Urban Driftwood broke my silence should give you a hint that it’s something special.

8/10

Blog Plans for 2021

Throughout the last quarter of 2020, one of the things I kept telling myself was that we just need to get to the next year. And I know I wasn’t the only person who was thinking this way. There’s something about the symbolic change from one year to the next that encourages us to look forward to better things and motivates us to do better in several areas of our lives. Hell, I created a massive list of things I want to do this year, big and small, to improve myself and the way I manage my life. It’s nice and easy and convenient to blame bad luck and the state of the world on an arbitrary grouping of 12 months, but the real causes of all these problems don’t follow a calendar. I mean, we’re not even a whole month into 2021 and it’s already given me a healthy dose of crazy, not just in the current events but in my personal life as well. But, I’m not ready to give up on Continuous Thunder just yet. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like this year, but I will do my best in this post to outline my current plans and intentions for the blog in 2021 as well as take care of some housekeeping from last year.

First off, I want to wrap up a big loose end from 2020. I was trying to go through the decade of the 2010s and go over some of my favorite releases from each year. I believe the last one that I published was for the year 2014. As of right now, I have no intentions of finishing that series. It was already taking far longer than it should have and most people probably stopped caring about “best of the decade” lists by March or April anyway. It just doesn’t make sense to me to extend it into the next year or to have an unfinished series hanging over my head while I’m trying to listen to new music and write new content. I might revisit it if there’s some kind of outcry in the comments begging me to complete the retrospective, but for now it’s ending at 2014.

Somewhat related since I started this back in 2020 is the Monthly Thunder playlists on Spotify. The first update to the playlists in 2021 will not be happening until February at the earliest, and quite possibly not until March. I’m still trying to get back into the swing of listening to the new music that comes out, and my personal life has thrown some unique curveballs that have been affecting that. I have started listening to some new stuff, slowly but surely, but I don’t know if I’ll have gotten through enough to update the playlists by February. There’s also a chance that the structure of the playlists may have to change because of how much I listen to, but we’ll get to that later in the post. The bottom line is, don’t look for playlist updates until February at the earliest.

Moving on to the actual plans for 2021, I should cover my plans for the most important bit of behind-the-scenes work for this blog: listening to new releases. In 2020, I listened to over 1100 new releases. No, that’s not a typo. And I think anyone would agree that that’s an insane amount of music to listen to, whether it’s your job or not, and especially when this is just a hobby and you already have a day job. There’s no doubt in my mind that this was one of the biggest contributing factors to my constant burnout on this project. Every week just brought a pile of new music that would hang over my head for the next month. It wasn’t really possible to enjoy the music or give it the time it needed to write a decent review. Plus, I didn’t have any time to revisit old favorites from my teenage years or even the past few years.

This year, I am going to make a conscious effort to listen to less music. Now, I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to do that as I have a bit of FOMO when it comes to new music. That album that you pass on might end up being your new favorite. But that’s a risk I’m going to have to learn to take. Even if I can reduce my listening by a few hundred albums, it will make a significant impact on my workload for this blog and give me a chance to actually listen to the music. Hopefully this will allow me to enjoy this project as the hobby that it was originally intended to be.

As far as a timeline or schedule for publishing new reviews, well… I don’t know. I wish I could tell you, but last year and the past couple months in particular, have just sucked a lot out of me and the blog just wasn’t a priority for the limited resources I had. Unfortunately, that’s still pretty much the case. Things need to even out a bit more before I can think of committing to any sort of publishing schedule. That doesn’t mean I’ll be completely silent. I’ll still be active on social media and I hope to toss you a few scraps here and there, whether they be reviews of some classic albums or a few pieces for Sleeping Village. So keep an eye out for that.

One last piece of housekeeping for this post regards a relatively minor change to how things will work from now on. If you look at the score guide (either in the sidebar or at the bottom of this post, depending on where you’re reading this) you’ll notice that I have changed my scoring system to be out of 10 rather than out of 5. When I started writing scored reviews, I chose to score out of 5 based on starred reviews as I thought they did a better job of conveying the score. However, that only really works if you’re actually using stars, and I wasn’t. Scoring out of 10 is more universal, people will understand more readily if I refer to a score by a single number, and I won’t have to transpose my scores or qualify that they’re out of 5 anymore. It’s a minor thing that I’ve wanted to do for awhile, and a new year seemed like an appropriate time to make the change.

But that should cover everything that I wanted to. Again, I’m sorry that I can’t give you a more solid timeline of when regular publishing will start up again. But I hope the promise of at least some new content is enough to keep you coming back. 2020 was a wild ride, here’s hoping 2021 goes a little more smoothly.

Favorite Albums of 2020

Well, 2020 was a year, wasn’t it? I know, I haven’t been very active at all on here, but a lot of stuff came up that demanded my attention. And, I just plain burned out on the music stuff. That, coupled with all the weirdness and added general stress that the year brought just meant that I didn’t really feel like working on a blog that felt like a second job. All that may still have an effect on when things can get back to something resembling normal on this site, but I do have a plan to make things easier. And that will all be covered in another post.

Anyway, while I wasn’t writing, I was still listening, and I feel like I owe my readers something to wrap up 2020. Normally, my year-end stuff would be spread out over multiple lists and far more polished, but I think the best thing for this year is to just put it all out there in one big list. Below you will find my top 50 albums of the year in alphabetical order with a genre description for each. After that will be a list of 25 honorable mentions. No pictures, no blurbs, just the list. If you would like me to elaborate about any of my picks or argue about them, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. And now, to the lists!

FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2020

  • ADRIANNE LENKER – SONGS/INSTRUMENTALS – (folk)
  • AFTERBIRTH – FOUR DIMENSIONAL FLESH – (technical death metal)
  • ALESTORM – CURSE OF THE CRYSTAL COCONUT – (pirate metal)
  • BACKXWASH – GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS LEAVE HIM OUT OF IT – (horrorcore, industrial rap)
  • BEACH BUNNY – HONEYMOON – (indie rock)
  • BLACKLAB – ABYSS – (sludge, doom metal)
  • BLU & EXILE – MILES: FROM AN INTERLUDE CALLED LIFE – (hip-hop, jazz rap)
  • BORIS – NO – (sludge, hardcore)
  • BRANDY CLARK – YOUR LIFE IS A RECORD – (country)
  • CHRIS CORNELL – NO ONE SINGS LIKE YOU ANYMORE – (rock, covers)
  • CHRIS STAPLETON – STARTING OVER – (country)
  • CLIPPING. – VISIONS OF BODIES BEING BURNED – (horrorcore, industrial rap)
  • CODE ORANGE – UNDERNEATH – (metalcore, industrial)
  • DENZEL CURRY/KENNY BEATS – UNLOCKED – (hip-hop, rap)
  • DUA LIPA – FUTURE NOSTALGIA – (pop, nu-disco)
  • FÉLETH – DEPRAVITY – (death metal)
  • FIONA APPLE – FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS – (art pop, singer-songwriter)
  • FIRE-TOOLZ – RAINBOW BRIDGE – (avant-garde metal, vaporwave)
  • FREDDIE GIBBS/ALCHEMIST – ALFREDO – (hip-hop, rap)
  • FREEWAYS – TRUE BEARINGS – (hard rock, heavy metal)
  • GHOSTEMANE – ANTI-ICON – (industrial rap, rap metal)
  • GORILLAZ – SONG MACHINE, SEASON ONE: STRANGE TIMEZ – (alternative, indie pop)
  • HAIM – WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III – (indie rock)
  • HAKEN – VIRUS – (progressive metal)
  • HAUNT – FLASHBACK – (heavy metal)
  • HELLRIPPER – THE AFFAIR OF THE POISONS – (black metal, speed metal)
  • HYBORIAN – VOLUME II – (stoner metal)
  • HYMN – BREACH US – (sludge, doom metal)
  • IGORRR – SPIRITUALITY AND DISTORTION – (avant-garde metal, industrial)
  • INFANT ISLAND – BENEATH – (screamo, post-hardcore)
  • JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS – (alt country)
  • JOHN REUBEN – self-titled – (hip-hop, rap)
  • KILL LINCOLN – CAN’T COMPLAIN – (ska punk)
  • LAURA MARLING – SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER – (folk)
  • LOWRIDER – REFRACTIONS – (stoner metal)
  • THE MIDNIGHT – MONSTERS – (synthwave, synthpop)
  • MIDNIGHT DANGER – CHAPTER 2: ENDLESS NIGHTMARE – (synthwave, darksynth)
  • PHOEBE BRIDGERS – PUNISHER – (indie rock, indie folk)
  • PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST – (progressive metal)
  • RADIANT KNIFE – THE BODY/THE GHOST – (sludge, progressive metal)
  • REVERED AND REVILED ABOVE ALL OTHERS – TOPPLING THE ROTTEN PILLAR – (“doomviolence”)
  • RINA SAWAYAMA – SAWAYAMA – (pop)
  • RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4 – (hip-hop, hardcore rap)
  • SHIRLEY COLLINS – HEART’S EASE – (folk)
  • SPECIAL INTEREST – THE PASSION OF – (industrial, noise, post punk)
  • THOU/EMMA RUTH RUNDLE – MAY OUR CHAMBERS BE FULL – (sludge, doom metal)
  • TKAY MAIDZA – LAST YEAR WAS WEIRD, VOL. 2 – (hip-hop, rap, electronic)
  • TOUCHÉ AMORÉ – LAMENT – (screamo, post-hardcore)
  • WOBBLER – DWELLERS OF THE DEEP – (progressive rock)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • BELL WITCH/AERIAL RUIN – STYGIAN BOUGH VOLUME I – (funeral doom metal)
  • BRING ME THE HORIZON – POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR – (alternative metal, nu metal, industrial)
  • CHARLI XCX – HOW I’M FEELING NOW – (electropop, hyperpop)
  • DEAFKIDS/PETBRICK – DEAFBRICK – (noise rock, industrial)
  • THE FEARLESS FLYERS – TAILWINDS – (funk)
  • FLEET FOXES – SHORE – (indie folk)
  • HEALTH – DISCO 4 :: PART I – (noise rock, industrial)
  • JUICE WRLD – LEGENDS NEVER DIE – (hip-hop, emo rap)
  • KOTA THE FRIEND – EVERYTHING – (hip-hop, rap)
  • LO TOM – LP2 – (indie rock)
  • LOGIC – NO PRESSURE – (hip-hop, rap)
  • MAC MILLER – CIRCLES – (hip-hop, R&B)
  • MOONS – GO OUT SWINGING – (sludge, doom metal)
  • NEW FOUND GLORY – FOREVER + EVER x INFINITY – (pop punk)
  • ORGÖNE – MOS/FET – (stoner rock, heavy psych)
  • SLICK SHOES – ROTATION & FREQUENCY – (pop punk)
  • SÖLICITÖR – SPECTRAL DEVASTATION – (heavy metal, speed metal)
  • SONGHOY BLUES – OPTIMISME – (blues rock)
  • STATIC-X – PROJECT REGENERATION, VOL. 1 – (industrial metal)
  • STONE MACHINE ELECTRIC – THE INEXPLICABLE VIBRATIONS OF FREQUENCIES WITHIN THE COSMIC NETHERWORLD – (stoner metal, “doom jazz”)
  • SUFJAN STEVENS – THE ASCENSION – (electropop, experimental)
  • TAME IMPALA – THE SLOW RUSH – (psychedelic pop)
  • TAYLOR SWIFT – FOLKLORE/EVERMORE – (indie pop)
  • TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY – (heavy metal, metalcore)
  • X – ALPHABETLAND – (punk)

And there you have it. My picks for the best of 2020 and some Honorable Mentions. Like I said above, if you’d like me to go into more detail on any of my picks, ask why an album is in one list and not the other, or point out a glaring omission, feel free to leave a comment.

June Quick Takes, Part 3: My Picks

And we’ve made it to the third installment of my June Quick Takes. Here we have the releases that aren’t necessarily the biggest name artists that I wanted to make sure I shared my thoughts on them. This will wrap up my scored coverage of the month of June. This will be followed by another round of quick takes for the month of July to get us all caught up to the current month, and I will hopefully be back to full album reviews in a couple weeks. But for now, check out my picks below from the month of June.

LuckyMe

BAAUER – PLANET’S MAD–Yes, this is the “Harlem Shake” guy, and while that song came out all the way back in 2013, this is only the EDM producer’s second full length album. And I would encourage you to not let “Harlem Shake” sour your opinion towards his music. I’m not really sure how to categorize the music that’s on this album. While he has moved on from the trap EDM of his earlier singles, there is still elements of it present. Specifically, some of the production here is beat-centric with minimal sounds outside of the percussion and bass, to the point of some songs having drops that are basically drums only. And these are mixed in such a way that they hit incredibly hard. There’s also a lot of world influence on some of these beats, giving them rhythms that almost compel the body to move. There’s even a track that dabbles in drum ‘n’ bass and the mandatory synthpop song. They’re not all winners, but it’s a very good album nonetheless. 4.0/5.0

Columbia

HAIM – WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III–For their third album, the Haim sisters enlist the songwriting and production assistance of former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. This isn’t all that surprising because he worked on a few songs on their second album. But on Women in Music, he worked on the vast majority of the tracks. And his fingerprints are everywhere, to the point that several tracks sound like they could be Modern Vampires of the City era Vampire Weekend songs. But that’s not a bad thing! If you look back at my favorites from 2013, I hold up that VW album as one of the best of the decade, and the Haims obviously bring enough of their own influence to make this clearly one of their albums. In the end, this is a great pop rock album that is loaded with memorable hooks and enough left-of-center production to help it really stand out. 4.0/5.0

Earth Analog

HUM – INLET–I’ll admit that this is the first time I had heard anything from Hum. This album was surprise released back in June and I noticed a lot of people were really hyped on it. I gave it a try and I honestly liked what I heard. Their brand of alternative rock with thick, metallic guitar riffs was pretty cool. I was inspired to go back and listen to their ’90s albums and come back to view Inlet through a more contextual lens. And… my opinion of it decreased a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty good, but when you compare it to the albums from Hum’s peak, it comes across a little one-note and not quite as dynamic, even when compared to Downward Is Heavenward, the album closest to it stylistically. Again, this is still pretty good, but it could be better. Maybe, if this reunion lasts, a really great Hum album is in the future. 3.0/5.0

Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories

KHRUANGBIN – MORDECHAI–This is the third album from psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin. And as might be expected, the band does a good job of pulling off the sound of vintage soul and funk production with their songs. There are a couple tracks that have some really solid grooves and they even dabble in one or two world genres, like on the Latin influenced “Pelota.” But, the bottom line is that the majority of the album is just boring. Save for a few tracks, most of the songs are pretty slow burning tracks that don’t go much of anywhere over the course of four minutes or more. They just end up fading into the background and, before you know it, you’re one or two songs further down the track list. 2.0/5.0

Hospital

METRIK – EX MACHINA–I’m generally not much of a drum ‘n’ bass guy, but I do like a good EDM banger from time to time. And boy, does this new album from Metrik have some bangers. Metrik is an English producer who has been active for over 10 years. What impresses me about this album is that this is DnB music filtered through more modern EDM genres like dubstep and even synthwave. But there’s also an influence of rock music, like the driving verses on “Parallel” that recall down-stroked guitar rhythms, and the literal electric guitar on “Closer” and “Thunderblade.” The best tracks sound like a modern refresh of the kind of songs you’d find on the soundtrack of a ’90s Need For Speed video game. Unfortunately, the album is a little front-loaded with all the best tracks taking up the first half. That’s not to say the back half isn’t good, it’s just not as exciting as the first. 3.5/5.0

Dead Oceans

PHOEBE BRIDGERS – PUNISHER–In 2017, Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. Almost immediately, other people wanted to work with her in some regard. Between then and now, she has collaborated in some way with Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Conor Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and The 1975. It’s like all these people recognized her potential and wanted to get on the Bridgers train before anyone else realized it. The thing is, it also appears that Bridgers realized the value of surrounding yourself with supportive and talented people. Nearly all of the people I mentioned contribute to this album in some way, and it’s that much better for it. Everything that made her debut great is improved and all the flaws have been fixed. The songs are personal and emotional and hit you just the right way, and they’re backed up with fantastic instrumentals. This is a real highlight of the year so far. 4.5/5.0

Night School/Thrilling Living

SPECIAL INTEREST – THE PASSION OF–Fair warning, this isn’t going to be for everybody, but if you’re into noisy industrial post-punk that leans more on the punk than the post, then you’re going to love this. I often say that some artists have a punk energy, but this band absolutely has one. They are always loud with lyrics that aren’t sung so much as shouted. Pulsing, unsettling electronic beats drive just about every song on the album, and they’re not afraid to let their drum machines distort or to throw in a little static to accompany their dissonant guitars. And the loudness and anger isn’t just an act. They come from the New Orleans DIY scene, and you sense that this is the product of a genuine, righteous anger. 4.0/5.0

Velvet Blue

STARFLYER 59 – MIAMI EP–Starflyer 59 is the indie rock project of songwriter Jason Martin, has been consistently active for over 25 years, and was one of the original bands on Tooth and Nail records. That translates to 15 albums and 9 EPs. Miami is the latest EP and the first in over 10 years, coming only a year after his last full-length album, Young in My Head. The track list has 3 new songs and 2 reworked tracks from the last album. Sonically, this is pretty much your standard Starflyer fare: guitar driven indie rock with influences from ’80s post-punk and alternative with the tiniest hint of Martin’s shoegaze roots. The only real deviation is a little flirtation with ’60s rock and roll on “Once More” filtered through the Starflyer sound. Martin’s consistency can end up being a bit of a curse rather than a blessing on longer albums, so this EP’s 19 minute run time keeps things from getting stale. If you’re not familiar with Starflyer 59, this is a good way to get introduced to their current style. 3.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2014

Yeah, we’re on a roll now! In 2014 I was right smack in the middle of full time engineering school, so keeping up with things like music took even more of a back seat. As such, this is going to be the shortest list of albums in my retrospective series. Yes, I know a lot of really good, and even important albums were released this year. But I’ll just remind you that these lists have to do with albums that were important to me at the time and have stayed relevant through the years. Engineering school must have been brutal this year, because I can’t remember much of anything else that happened in the world. And when I tried looking stuff up, it was all depressing. So we’ll just focus on the music this time.

Downtown

CHET FAKER – BUILT ON GLASS–Like everyone else, I was introduced to Chet Faker with his cover of “No Diggity.” I immediately bought his EP with that track. I loved his blend of trip hop, downtempo electronic, and soul vocals. He was one of the few artists I kept tabs on in this time of my life, so when his full-lenght, Built On Glass came out, I snapped it up. Nick Murphy (Faker’s real name) was already getting tired of being limited to his more soul-oriented sound, so Glass is split into two sides. The first is more like his EP and Blackstreet cover, and the second is more experimental electronic pop. I was surprised with the change, but I ended up liking some of the tracks on the second half more than ones on the first. “1998” in particular is still one of my favorites. Murphy makes music under his own name now instead of Chet Faker, and nothing has quite appealed to me the same, but I still check in once in awhile.

Last Gang

DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 – THE PHYSICAL WORLD–Dance punk and dance rock are a couple genres that are weirdly specific but they sure do something for me when they’re done right. I also have a thing for rock duos, especially when the duo is drums and bass guitar. Death From Above 1979 happen to check all those boxes. The Physical World is the band’s second album, released a decade after their first due to a hiatus. Apparently the break was a good thing because they came back firing on all cylinders. The riffs and grooves hit just right with fuzzy bass lines and punk energy. I don’t think there’s a single skip on the album for me. They did come out with another album in 2017 but it didn’t quite capture the same magic. Let’s hope a future release can.

Big Machine

TAYLOR SWIFT – 1989–Yes, I’m publicly admitting that I like a Taylor Swift album, but I have my reasons! I personally believe that this album is monumental in Swift’s career because it’s the moment that she stopped kidding herself about being a country artist and fully embraced the role of pop star. Even Red, the album that came right before this was marketed as a country album when there was hardly anything to classify it as such. Swift also made the transition with a relatively simple synth-pop sound that contrasted with her typical over-produced country pop. Some songs even flirt with synthwave. The tracks might not hit as hard as say, a CHVRCHES song, but it’s the first album of hers that I can honestly say that I enjoyed. And there’s even a track that features and was co-written with Imogen Heap!

Vulf

VULFPECK – FUGUE STATE–Ever since their first release in 2011, Vulfpeck have faithfully released new material every year. There were a couple EPs before Fugue State, but this was the first one since their debut where every track is a winner and there are no skips. The title track shows the group flexing their classical music muscles (they are music college students, after all) and “1612” is their second collaboration with vocalist Antwaun Stanley. The rest of the tracks find the band playing even more with studio and production tricks to develop the signature Vulf sound. 2014 would also be the year that Vulfpeck would release the silent Sleepify album to exploit Spotify’s payment model. Seriously, if you’re not on the Vulf train, you really should go digging through their catalog.

June Quick Takes, Part 2: Heavy Stuff

Okay, just like last time, round 2 of quick takes will focus on heavy releases from the month. I’ve said it before, but heavy stuff makes up a hefty chunk of the music I listen to over the course of the year, and it feels unfair to limit myself to only general posts and try to squeeze as much heavy stuff as I can in while still giving the other genres their fair shake. Way too much stuff wouldn’t get the time it deserves. So, below are my thoughts, good and bad, on some metal releases from the month of June.

Profound Lore

BELL WITCH/AERIAL RUIN – STYGIAN BOUGH: VOLUME I–Fantastic funeral doomers (and so far, the only funeral doom band I really dig) Bell Witch have returned with a collaboration with dark acoustic artist Erik Moggridge, also known as Aerial Ruin. I’m starting to notice a bit of a trend towards more collaborative songs and albums in the metal world, and I’m here for it, personally. Especially if the pairings make as much sense as this one here. Bell Witch are masters of dark and moody atmospheres, and sometimes you wish you could get a break from all the oppressiveness. Stygian Bough provides just that with Aerial Ruin’s passages and clean vocals, giving you welcome respite before Bell Witch come back and plunge your head into the dark depths again. My only wish is that the mix was better and a little more dynamic. Things got a bit muddy here and the drums especially feel way too far away to make any meaningful impact. I hope the “Volume I” in the title hints at more from this collaboration in the future, and that they solve the production problems on any subsequent releases. 3.5/5.0

Mission Two Entertainment

CRO-MAGS – IN THE BEGINNING–Cro-Mags teased this release with a couple EPs last year, and now we have the first new full-length from them in 20 years! And… it sounds like Cro-Mags. They were one of the earliest crossover thrash bands, and there’s no real reason to reinvent the wheel (haha, early human joke). Much like the prehistoric men whose name they bear, this album stands tall and strong with blistering riffs and thundering drums. The band even recruited Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell to play lead on “From the Grave” to give them even more thrash cred. The real weakness of the album, however, is that there isn’t much variation, and when it does show up, it’s in the form of the overlong and not very impressive instrumental, “Between Wars.” Fortunately, the album isn’t terribly long, coming in just under 40 minutes. But with the current state of crossover thrash with bands like Power Trip and High Command, I’m not sure this is going to make a huge splash beyond name recognition. 3.0/5.0

BC Music

EMERY – WHITE LINE FEVER–I like to keep tabs on bands from my teenage years because they were so important to my development as a music fan. Emery is especially important to me as their second album was the first I ever purchased with harsh vocals. Their brand of post-hardcore and screamo that emphasized emotional storytelling and melody was a great gateway into heavier music. They’ve continued to consistently release new music, but their recent output hasn’t really measured up to albums from their early, or even middle career. White Line Fever is probably their best album in nearly a decade, but it still falls short. There are moments that are reminiscent of their earlier work, but it quickly loses momentum. I don’t dislike it when Emery makes lighter music, but these particular tracks don’t do much to excite me. The mix feels iffy to me as well, a lot of this album feels muddy and like it lacks definition. 2.5/5.0

Solid State

LIGHTWORKER – FURY BY FAILURE–Along with bands from my youth, I also like to keep tabs on some record labels. One in particular is Tooth and Nail records and its imprint, Solid State. The artists on these labels made up the majority of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Output from both of these labels has slowed down (though, they both appear to be picking back up this year) and their output hasn’t really done much for me with the occasional exception. Lightworker are one of the newest additions to the Solid State roster, and Fury by Failure is their debut album. And… it’s okay. Lightworker play a blend of alternative metal and metalcore with a pinch of djent sprinkled in the breakdowns. And yeah, it’s competent, some of the riffs hit pretty hard, and the choruses are catchy, but it ultimately comes across as pretty generic. Some of the riffs sound like they could have come from an As I Lay Dying album or some other band contemporary to them. I feel like there’s potential here, but Lightworker will have to work harder to stand out. 2.5/5.0

Napalm

MUSHROOMHEAD – A WONDERFUL LIFE–Yes, I know it’s the cool thing to hate on Mushroomhead, but I’m coming from a perspective of actually, kind of liking them. However, even to my more forgiving ears, this albums isn’t very good. A Wonderful Life is the band’s 8th studio album and the first without founding vocalist Jeffrey Nothing. This leaves only two founding members and one other long-time member in the band. Nothing’s vocals were such a key part of Mushroomhead’s sound, that they had to replace him with two new clean vocalists, male and female. The guy sounds like a rough facsimile of Nothing, and the mix usually has him somewhat buried, hoping you don’t notice. The female vocals are a nice change of pace, but the album overall just sounds like generic alternative metal. They also made the odd choice of including nearly 15 minutes of bonus tracks on the standard edition that have their own separate intro and outro tracks. They really play more like an EP that should have been released separately. And weirdly, they’re some of the most dynamic tracks on the album. 1.5/5.0

Heavy Psych Sounds

ORGÖNE – MOS/FET–When an album boasts an 80-minute run time, I go in cautiously, and usually come out the other side with my expectations of drawn-out and boring prog wankery met. ORGÖNE, on the other hand, have brought forth a rare album that is long and interesting. ORGÖNE are a French band that combine elements of proto-punk, krautrock, psych-rock, arabic folk music, and more. It sounds like a messy combination, but these avant-garde jammers find a way to mix it all in a way that keeps things compelling, even over the course of not one, but two 20-minute tracks. Their tracks also cover themes from the Soviet space program, to conspiracy theories about ancient Egypt, to ancient aliens. And their sound is sufficiently spacey to accompany such lyrics. There are a couple passages where things get a little boring, but they are minor in the scope of the whole album. 4.0/5.0

Protest The Hero

PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST–Yes, Protest The Hero. You either love it or you hate it. I, for one, happen to like them, and Palimpsest is a fine addition to their catalog. It’s also a very timely release given our current political climate and the lyrical content of this album. The band wanted to make an album about American history, but they wanted to present the stories truthfully, rather than through the distorted lens of American exceptionalism. This includes subject that range from the migrant mother in the iconic dust bowl photo to the Hindenburg disaster, Amelia Earhart to the Great Molasses Flood in Boston, and the creation of Mount Rushmore to the suicide of Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle. These stories are all delivered in Rody Walker’s signature soaring vocals, backed by proggy, yet undeniably catchy riffs. The instrumentals aren’t as frantic as previous Protest The Hero albums, but it’s still them through and through. 4.0/5.0

Willowtip

PYRRHON – ABSCESS TIME–So, this was the first time that I had ever listened to anything that Pyrrhon has released, and I didn’t really know what to expect going in. Tech death can take so many forms. What I didn’t expect was something more along the lines of noise-core with elements of death metal. And honestly, it was pretty refreshing. I often find brutal and tech death to be on the oppressive and claustrophobic side, and this noisier, more hardcore approach seemed to give the music (and the listener) a little room to breathe. I also felt like I was listening to something like The Chariot, but death metal. The chaotic, yet intricate collision of sounds is very reminiscent of that band, and if you’re familiar with The Chariot, you realize that that is high praise. The only real weakness is the album’s length. Even with a little breathing room, noise-core can be a bit exhausting. The Chariot knew to keep their albums in the neighborhood of half an hour. Abscess Time is nearly double that, and you feel it by the end. 3.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2013

Okay, getting to this one relatively quick compared to the last few. So let’s see… In 2013 I was in my second year at my third college, still pursuing my engineering degree. As I was deep into it, keeping up with music and such understandably took a bit of a back seat. As such, this list is much shorter than the previous ones, and the next few will be as well. It’s actually a little strange. I like to highlight key historical events in these intros and it’s like the whole world took a little break in 2013. Yes, stuff still happened, but the biggest universal thing I could come up with was the resignation of Pope Benedict and subsequent election of Pope Francis. Movies were a little dry too. The biggest things there were Frozen and Man of Steel. One took pop culture by storm and the other was a feeble attempt at recreating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anyway, below are a handful of albums from the year that have stuck with me.

Daft Life/Columbia

DAFT PUNK – RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES–Anyone who knows me knew that this album was going to be on this list. Everyone’s favorite French robots took their sweet time releasing their 4th studio album. 8 years, to be exact (if you don’t count their soundtrack for Tron: Legacy). And after flirting with disco back on Discovery, they delivered pretty much a straight-up disco album with Random Access Memories. Never ones to do anything halfway, they recruit disco heavyweights Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers, as well as modern heavyweights like Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas, and Panda Bear. This album has everything from massive electro-disco bangers that are over 9 minutes long (“Giorgio by Moroder”) to perhaps one of the catchiest and best composed minimal pop songs ever (“Doin’ It Right”). I also feel like this album either predicted or kicked off the recent re-emerging of disco in pop music.

Mercury Nashville

KACEY MUSGRAVES – SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK–I listened to this album on the recommendation of an acquaintance who was a big fan of country music. I had expressed my dissatisfaction with a lot of modern country and he pushed this one on me, assuring me that I would like it. And dammit, he was right. Musgraves’ more folk-leaning brand of country pop and her honest lyrics immediately endeared themselves to me. One could even argue that this album qualifies as outlaw country with it’s musical portraits of middle America. I often credit this album as the one that got me into modern country music and assured me that good stuff can be found in the genre. And Kacey Musgraves has continued to make great music and prove herself to be a formidable force in the world of modern country.

Universal/Lava/Republic

LORDE – PURE HEROINE–Yeah, it’s another one that had a single that blew up and maybe got a little overplayed. But it’s also another one where that overplayed single kind of deserved all the attention and the album is full of other songs that are just as good or better. Lorde released this album when she was only 17 years old, which makes the quality of it all the more impressive. The world of pop music needed something to shake it up, and Pure Heroine‘s dreamy and minimal synthpop with lyrics that critique celebrity culture was exactly the thing. This was further emphasized by the way Lorde delivered here lyrics in a dreary and apathetic way, paving the way for future stars like Billie Eilish. This was an album that I listened to repeatedly, to the point of making myself sick of it.

Century Media

TESSERACT – ALTERED STATE–This album was part of my introduction to the djent side of progressive metal. A roommate let me borrow it when I expressed some interest (a year or two after it came out) and I was impressed. This was the English band’s second album and the only one with vocalist Ashe O’Hara. The album’s 10 tracks are packaged in 4 suites, each named in a way that completes a phrase started by the albums title (Altered State… Of Matter, Of Mind, etc.). What really left an impression from this album was the band’s use of odd time signatures, but still maintaining a groove. There are passages where you want to move your head with the chugging guitars, but you find yourself missing the beat as they take an unexpected turn. I believe this still stands as one of the better albums that came out of the djent boom.

Fueled By Ramen

TWENTY ONE PILOTS – VESSEL–I’d like to say that I knew about Twenty One Pilots before they were cool, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. A more appropriate statement is that I knew about them before they were on a major label but they already had a massive hometown following. I loved their blending of indie pop with hip-hop and dark lyrics with upbeat music. I was thrilled when I heard that they were signed to Fueled By Ramen and given a larger platform. The re-done tracks from their indie release were only made better and the new tracks fit with them well. And they took the world by storm like everyone knew they would. Admittedly, this album in particular has not aged all that well, but it’s still listenable. And the band only went up from here.

XL

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY–I feel like I’ve been talking about this album a lot recently, but I don’t really mind because it’s a fantastic album and one of my top favorites from the past decade. Vampire Weekend impressed me with Contra and then blew me away with Modern Vampires. I like to describe this album as taking the band’s sound to its logical, and sometimes absurd conclusion, bringing the trilogy of albums to a nice close. Songs on this album like “Diane Young” and “Everlasting Arms” inspire repeat listens even today, 7 years later. This would be the last album with Rostam Batmanglij as a member of the band, and the band would go on a bit of a hiatus, waiting 6 years before delivering the follow-up. Needless to say, they ended this period of their career on a high note.