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.

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS album review

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS

Southeastern, 2020

Americana/Alternative country

Today we’re looking at the new album from Jason Isbell. And it’s good, because it’s by Jason Isbell. That’s it. That’s the review… Okay, okay, I’ll give you a little more now that I’ve so clearly telegraphed my biases towards this particular artist. Alternative country was a major player in the redemption of country music in my mind. The way the genre balances elements of heartland rock, Americana, and folk to create its own brand of country that’s undeniably authentic showed me that the genre was not doomed to a future of tropes and cliches. One of the best purveyors of alternative country in recent years has been Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

Reunions is Isbell’s seventh album, and the fourth with The 400 Unit. The songs do feature quite a few reunions, but not the kind you might expect. In an interview on Austin City Limits Live, Isbell said that, “there are a lot of ghosts on this album.” These are literally the ghosts of people who have passed and figuratively the ghosts of life in the past. These show up in a big way within the first few tracks. “Dreamsicle” tells the story of a troubled childhood marked by arguing parents and constant moves to new places, and all the narrator could do was do his best to enjoy his childhood while he was still too naive to understand how bad things were.

A more literal ghost appears on “Only Children,” a song that recounts a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, but also struggled with addictions that ended up killing him. Death returns later in the album on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, Amanda Shires, after a dear friend of hers died by suicide. In it he expresses how he understands how she loved him and that he’s there to console her while she grieves. The complicated nature of love is covered on songs “Overseas” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed.” The first describing feelings for someone the narrator just cannot be with and the latter describing the way lovers dive in blindly.

The lyrics on this album are just so good. They’re always one of the greatest strengths of a Jason Isbell record. There are more songs that tell stories of desperate men, doing what’s right when it’s the hard thing to do, and being a father. I could go on gushing track by track, but there is more to this album. Great lyrics can only get you so far if the instrumentals don’t serve them well.

Fortunately, The 400 Unit deliver on this front. Reunions stays pretty firmly within the bounds of Americana and alt country even when the songs get a little louder and more rock oriented. But they also know when to pull back for quieter moments. Every track sounds as sad, hopeful, scared, or angry as the stories the lyrics tell. My only real complaint is that not every track is incredibly memorable in a way where it sticks with you, though several are. That, and the fact that the album opener, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a little repetitive and long.

Overall, this is a strong offering from Jason Isbell and company, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. He’s proven himself to be an incredible songwriter over and over, and The 400 Unit provide the perfect backing for his stories. It’s not without it’s faults, and I wish more songs had stronger staying power. I don’t know if Reunions will give us another “If We Were Vampires,” but it’s a great album nonetheless.

4.0/5.0

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in April 2020

You know the drill! Another month has come and gone and that means that I’ve listened to a lot of good music that I couldn’t dedicate an entire review to. I really don’t want good things to go unnoticed, so here are some albums I thoroughly enjoyed from the month of April. As always, these albums would have received a score of 3.5 or higher if given a full review.

Warner Music Nashville

ASHLEY MCBRYDE – NEVER WILL–I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it. A lot of the best country music these days is being made by women. This new album from Ashley McBryde is the latest bit of evidence helping to prove my case. Not every song on it might be a winner, but the good songs on it more than make up for the weak ones. Sounds range from old-time bluegrass to modern, rock-tinged outlaw country and everything in between. Just another album proving to me that modern country isn’t a lost cause.

Freeways

FREEWAYS – TRUE BEARINGS–These guys are almost occupying the same realm as the Gygax album from last year. This is some old-school, Thin Lizzy-esque hard rock with riffs and dual guitar leads aplenty. The songwriting is really solid here and there’s really no filler on the album. If ’70s hard rock does it for you, you don’t want to miss this album. Maybe add it to your list for the next Bandcamp day.

Chrysalis/Partisan

LAURA MARLING – SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER–Laura Marling’s music in recent years hasn’t done much to grab or hold my attention. This new album has changed that. Song For Our Daughter is some of Marling’s best work in years. The arrangements are more stripped back like her earlier albums, and her songwriting is incredibly strong and compelling. I wasn’t bored once in any of my listens through this one.

Horror Pain Gore Death

MOONS – GO OUT SWINGING–Okay, I’m more than a little biased with this one because I happen to personally know this band. But I wouldn’t be sharing it if I didn’t really think it was good. This is their first full-length album and they bring some truly heavy sludge metal riffs to the party. It’s not very long, but they make their time count. They’re also the type of band to use feedback as its own instrument. If you’re in the Philly area and you see these guys on a show bill, go check them out. Good time will be had.

4AD

PURITY RING – WOMB–Five years after their last album, Purity Ring have finally delivered their third full-length. I was beginning to get worried that we wouldn’t hear from one of the most unique synth-pop groups ever again. Womb doesn’t quite have the same hard-hitting trap EDM sound that their first albums had, but the ethereal atmosphere and creepy lyrics are still there. It’s nice to have new music from them, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for more.

Dirty Hit

RINA SAWAYAMA – SAWAYAMA–This is one of the more interesting pop albums I’ve heard this year. Rina brings so many various styles together like dance pop, J-pop, and even nu-metal. She also pulls inspiration from some of the best pop acts of the ’90s and early ’00s. But none of these styles and influences clash with each other. Rina manages to mix and meld it all together in an ultimately impressive album.

Gates of Hell

SÖLICITÖR – SPECTRAL DEVASTATION–This is some old-school speed metal with badass female vocals, and it’s some of the best traditional metal I’ve heard this year. They manage to sound classic without sounding derivative and their songwriting is so good that they never sound samey over the course of their 40 minute album. This is definitely another one to keep in mind for the next Bandcamp day.

Brainfeeder

THUNDERCAT – IT IS WHAT IT IS–Funk fusion bassist extraordinaire Thundercat returns with a project that’s a bit leaner than 2017’s Drunk, but still packed with sub-2-minute jams. And that’s really one of the album’s weaknesses. A decent chunk of it feels like it was built around sketches and jams that weren’t fully realized. But when a fully formed track comes along, it’s great. The shorter tracks are still fun, just not as good as they could be.

Fat Possum

X – ALPHABETLAND–The legendary west-coast punks have come together and delivered their first studio album in 27 years and the first with the original line-up in 35! The formula really hasn’t changed for the band either. Along with classic punk, this album has their raw takes on classic rock and roll and rockabilly, much like their albums from the ’80s. The album ends with an observant spoken word piece recited by Exene Cervenka, giving a perspective of a punk who was there from the beginning.

Top Favorite Albums of 2019

Alright, we made it. The final list of the year, my ten favorite albums from 2019. Unlike other sites, I do not rank my top ten. These are just the ten albums that stood out to me for one reason or another and have endured through the year as my favorites. Since half of these were not officially scored by me, score isn’t really the most important factor, but you can safely assume that everything on this list would be scored a 4.0/5.0 or higher. I also try to represent as many genres as I can. But enough explaining, on to the musics!

AM Taxi

AM TAXI – SHIVER BY ME–I came across this album because another band I listen to were being good bros and gave it a shout out. I did not expect to find one of the best albums I’d hear all year. I previously described this album as punk attitude with a bit of heartland rock and that combination just really works for me. There is zero filler, and when you think you can predict the direction a song is going to go, they take a left turn and make you believe that’s the way you should have expected it to go all along. I wish I could go into more detail, but the bottom line is that this is just some great rock music done very well.

Zappo Productions/Thirty Tigers

BRUCE HORNSBY – ABSOLUTE ZERO–After over 30 years and ten albums, veteran soft rock and Americana singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby takes a surprisingly experimental turn on his latest album. You might expect an artist like Hornsby to just release a collection of piano ballads that old fans will buy but otherwise won’t make too many waves. Instead, he’s teamed up with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, yMusic, and others to actually challenge himself and put out something really unique in his catalog. Even though this leans experimental, Hornsby’s strong skills in songwriting and melody still come through, making this album still very listenable. This was a surprising release, and easily one of my favorites. Watch my full review here.

Triple B

FUMING MOUTH – THE GRAND DESCENT–Now for one of my favorite extreme metal releases of the year. Fuming Mouth play a combination of death metal and hardcore, but like Venom Prison, they never go full deathcore. It’s more like death metal with the raw energy and breakdown riffs of hardcore. This album just comes right out of the gate with the brutality and lets up only a few times over its 33 minute run time. Some say the band is a little one-note, but I personally think they manage to vary the dynamics from song to song enough to keep it interesting. But if we’re honest, sometimes we just want to listen to metal for some intense brutality. And Fuming Mouth brought it this year.

Elektra

THE HIGHWOMEN – self-titled–I’m not entirely sure why, but I often find that in the world of modern country music, a lot of the best albums are made by women. That trend continues this year with The Highwomen. This is a collaboration between Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby and is a loose tribute to the Highwaymen collaborations of the ’80s and ’90s. The songs on here are inspired by folk and the sounds of previous generations of country music, but have lyrics with very modern sentiments, including what I imagine is one of very few lesbian country love songs. The songs are great, the harmonies are sweet, and every member brings something to the table that makes this album rise above other country releases this year.

Dirty Hit

THE JAPANESE HOUSE – GOOD AT FALLING–First off, shout out to Josh Scott of JHS Pedals for turning me on to this artist on his YouTube channel. Second, if I picked an album of the year, this would easily be a front-runner. Good at Falling is The Japanese House’s debut album following a quartet of fantastic EPs and it is indie pop brilliance. At times the sound reminds me of “Hide And Seek” era Imogen Heap, but it doesn’t sound dated. The songs sound fun but the lyrics cover dark, personal, and emotional topics at times. The production is spot on for every track and even when it doesn’t sound fantastic, you know that it was intentional. You don’t want to miss this one. Watch my full review here.

AGE 101

LITTLE SIMZ – GREY AREA–This is not only the best British rap album of the year, but the best rap album of the year in general. The first thing that grabbed my attention was Inflo’s production, pulling obvious influence from jazz rap of the ’90s but with enough forward thinking to keep it from just being a throwback sound. Then there are the lyrics. Simz delivers smart and conscious lyrics in fantastic flows. The features are all great too. Every guest delivers something that adds to the song instead of feeling tacked on. This is the rap album where everything fell into place; the beats, the flows, and the features all work together and every gamble payed off.

Ghosteen Ltd

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN–Nick Cave and company continue the themes of 2016’s Skeleton Tree and conclude the trilogy started by 2013’s Push the Sky Away. This album finds Cave still processing the grief of losing his son, and while the lyrics are still dark and poetic, the music has taken on a more hopeful feel. Vintage synths and strings and the occasional piano dominate the soundscapes created by long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis. This album isn’t exactly easy to listen to, and it takes a few spins to really dig in. But once you do, the beauty of the work as a whole becomes apparent. Read my full review here.

Century Media

THE OFFERING – HOME–Here is a band whose sound is so hard to nail down that they misleadingly get categorized as power metal on some websites. A more accurate description, and I’m not joking, is a combination of death metal, deathcore, groove metal, hard rock, heavy metal, metalcore, nu-metal, power metal, prog, and thrash. I know that sounds like a metal version of that game kids play where they mix every kind of soda at the fountain, but believe me when I say that the end result tastes way way way better. I don’t know how these guys do it, but they make it work. The songs are the right amount of catchy and brutal, and, oh yeah, they pull it off in a fucking epic 14 minute album closer! My words will never do it justice. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself.

Prosthetic

PALADIN – ASCENSION–Rounding out my metal picks for the year, and speaking of clever blending of sub-genres, we have this album by Paladin. Now, they don’t go quite as crazy as The Offering, but what they accomplish is almost as impressive. Ascension flawlessly blends the styles of power and thrash metal. Within each song, they jump from thrash to power metal bits multiple times, vocally and instrumentally. But the transitions are never jarring in an awkward way. If it’s jarring at all, it’s more in a pleasantly surprising way. And the jumps change from track to track. One will have thrash verses and power choruses, where another will have thrash choruses and power solos. It continues to impress me every time I listen to it. Watch my full review here.

Wilsun

SHEER MAG – A DISTANT CALL–Sheer Mag is a band that is rather unapologetically inspired by ’80s power pop. But they’re more than just an ’80s cover band or an uninspired throwback. They take the things that make you love ’80s music and turn them into solid rock songs. You get hints of glam, Cheap Trick, a dash of punk, and a pinch of Judas Priest. Top it of with Christina Halladay’s awesome voice, and you’ve got one fun rock album. The songs are catchy and they remind you of the best tracks from the past without sounding like cheap ripoffs. It’s like the first time you heard The Darkness back in 2003.

KING CALAWAY is a Country Boy Band

Photo: Alex Ferrari

Last week when I went to the New Releases page on Spotify to find the new albums and potential review candidates, I saw this release from a band called King Calaway. The album was called Rivers and the cover didn’t tell me much about the genre. At the bottom of the album’s page, I saw that the group appears on curated country playlists. Okay, they’re country. I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, how bad can a country “band” be?

I didn’t get around to listening to the new album until after I had already written the review for that week (which was Nick Cave’s excellent Ghosteen). When I did, confusion is probably the best way to describe how I felt about what I was hearing. So I did a little digging and what I found was interesting to say the least. As it turns out, King Calaway is essentially a boy band in the classic NSYNC or Backstreet Boys sense with a country twist.

There’s surprisingly little information about the band, but what’s available essentially confirms that the band was put together by an industry executive and Nashville producer Robert Deaton. They say their goal was to focus on musicianship rather than vocal harmony like boy bands of the past. And on paper, the idea makes sense with Nashville being full of talented musicians. But you have to question what they’re really focusing on when you learn that Deaton’s son is in the group.

Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Things don’t get much better when you listen to the music itself. The whole album is full of songs that sound like some California producer’s idea of country music when he’s never been east of the Mississippi. It’s all pretty soulless, squeaky clean, and boring, and their cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” doesn’t help. It’s all pretty clearly the product of some musical industrial complex.

Now, discovering that Nashville has manufactured a boy band really isn’t all that surprising. I have no doubt that “The Industry” has had it’s fingers in the development of more than one country music sensation in the past. But usually those groups or individuals have some history of schlepping in the bar scene, songwriting, or even internet spheres like Soundcloud or YouTube. What’s really surprising is, as far as I can tell, King Calaway is the first time that they’ve tried to build a group from scratch. When you consider the rise and fall of boy bands in the ’90s and ’00s, and especially the rise of pop country, you have to wonder why it took them so long.

Personally, I don’t think this experiment is going to go very well unless King Calaway is given better songs to record. But considering the things that do get famous in the world of country music, I could be wrong. Only time will tell.

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY album review

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY

Elektra, 2019

Blues rock/Psychedelic rock

Sturgill Simpson is a country and Americana singer and songwriter who refuses to be put in a box and takes pride in being a rebel. At least that’s what one would think based on his releases and actions, like busking outside the CMA awards in Nashville with his Grammy award for Best Country Album by his side.

SOUND & FURY is Simpson’s fourth album, following up the album that won him the aforementioned Grammy, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. While that album bucked country music traditions in its own way with strings and horns pushing songs into the territory of soul and funk, SOUND & FURY pushes boundaries even further with a sound that’s more balls-out boogie rock and roll than outlaw country. In fact, the only thing tying the sound of this album to anything released before it is Simpson’s distinctive drawl.

Simpson has described this album as a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll album” and it certainly delivers on that front. The guitars constantly have fuzz or filtering effects on them, with occasional synths and organs fighting for elbow room in the mix. The result is a sound that conjures a lot of descriptions, but “clean” is never one of them. Simpson’s vocals are often doubled with other effects, adding another layer of grease. It’s as if they took the concept of the rough recordings of The Black Keys early work and cranked up the sonic qualities and change a dusty recording to a grimy, post-apocalyptic one.

While songs like “Sing Along” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars” are some of the finest examples of the sleazy rock and roll–the former having a super steady drumbeat and synth bass pushing things towards late ’80s ZZ Top–other influences appear as well. “A Good Look” (co-written with John Prine) leans heavily towards disco and, for some reason, I imagine “Mercury In Retrograde” wouldn’t feel out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Lyrically the album delivers on the “sleazy, steamy” side with innuendos in the lyrics of “Remember To Breathe” and “Last Man Standing.” Other lyrical themes range from more typical blues rock fare like snide remarks at a former lover on “Sing Along,” but the most prevalent is the loneliness and alienation that accompanies fame on the tracks “Make Art Not Friends,” “Mercury In Retrograde,” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars.” The latter of the three might even be a reference to Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen.

A few lyrics add to the post-apocalyptic feel of the album, and likely provide the inspiration for the visuals of the anime film that accompanies the album. The film was made in collaboration with artist Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai, Batman Ninja) and Junpei Mizusaki (Batman Ninja). The film is more or less in the same vein as Daft Punk and Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555, in that there is no dialogue. The film only serves as a long-form music video for the entire album. Unlike Interstella, SOUND & FURY is non-linear, and in some ways more artistic, with some segments integrating live actors and having little to do with the central narrative. The film is worth watching at least once to get the full experience.

My only criticism of the album is that it can be sonically exhausting at times. I mentioned before that the instruments are often fighting for space. It’s a stylistic choice that gives a sense of a massive rock sound, and further drives the dirty, post-apocalyptic image that Simpson and his band are trying to conjure. However, there is very little breathing room on the album, and you are bombarded with a wall of sound for the better part of 41 minutes. There are a few welcome respites at the beginning of “Make Art Not Friends” and the entire track “All Said and Done,” but it’s not quite enough. The former is also a little too busy and loud for the sentiment it’s trying to convey.

Overall, I think SOUND & FURY is a great album, and easily the best raw, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll album I’ve heard all year. My followers on Instagram know that I praised the single “Sing Along” when it came out, saying that Simpson made a better Black Keys song than the Black Keys have in years. And I doubled down on that stance when I heard the whole album. It’s a style of rock music that I feel has been lacking in recent years and I’m happy to have Simpson’s offering to show me that it’s not dead.

4.0/5.0