June Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

And we’re back! I’ve finally decided to break my hiatus, and to get back into things I figured I’d do something similar to the Quarantine Quick Takes I did for March. I’ll probably end up doing a set of these for July as well to get fully caught up. But these will follow the same format as the ones before, there will be 3 installments and the first will cover releases from big name artists. These will be longer than my typical monthly review lists and they will actually have a score attached to them as well. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on some major releases from the month of June.

Columbia

BOB DYLAN – ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS–After 3 consecutive albums of cover songs, one of which was a triple album of American standards, Bob Dylan has given us his first album of original material in 8 years. It’s been met with a lot of critical acclaim, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just because he’s Bob Dylan and you’re supposed to like his stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan and his songwriting, but I’m not so sure this album deserves all the glowing reviews it’s getting. First off, the album’s title is only really indicative of two tracks in terms of sound. Second, Dylan has become a bit indulgent in his later years. This album is 70 minutes long and no song is less than 4 minutes, and more than half of them are over 6, including the 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” Of course, there are lyrical highlights because it’s Dylan, but sometimes I feel like I need a Master’s in music history to understand what’s going on. Overall, the album is still good, it’s likely his best work since 2006’s Modern Times, but this isn’t going to appeal to many people who aren’t already fans. 3.5/5.0

will.i.am/Epic

BLACK EYED PEAS – TRANSLATION–2 years after their comeback album, the now Fergie-less Black Eyed Peas have decided to hop on the reggaeton train and release an album with a very heavy Latin influence. It goes about as well as you’d expect an American group trying to capitalize on a foreign genre would go. Though it’s not like they didn’t try their darndest to do it well. The Peas recruit big names in Latin music like J Balvin, Maluma, and Shakira to feature on this album, and there are a couple tracks that pull off some pretty serviceable reggaeton. But the majority of the tracks here just play like generic Latin beats with nothing to make them stand out apart from the Latin artists who built their careers in the genre. The lyrics can be pretty bad too. I don’t know if that’s a product of translating typical Spanish reggaeton lyrics to English or what, but some of them are just laughable. There’s also a pretty corny interpolation of “Super Freak” on one track, and the album’s closer is just an awful attempt at being relevant to current events. I’m not going to say that American artists can’t adapt Latin music, but if we’re going to, we’ll have to do better than this. 1.5/5.0

Easy Eye Sound

CEELO GREEN – CEELO GREEN IS THOMAS CALLAWAY–On his 6th album, CeeLo Green has gone for a bit of a stylistic shift from the super slick, modern pop and R&B with hints of funk and soul to straight-up, old school soul. Honestly, this change is pretty welcome considering Green’s last really good and successful album was 2010’s The Lady Killer, and album whose popularity was undoubtedly bolstered by its smash hit single, “Fuck You.” Since then, Green has released a Christmas album and one other studio album, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing that because I didn’t either. Both were critical disappointments, so Green was in a position for a little reinvention. To do that, he enlisted the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label. If you want to record an old-school record, Dan’s the man, but his devotion to vintage sound and recording techniques can be a blessing and a curse. There are definitely highlights here, and Green’s voice is great for the old-school sound. But the album is sometimes vintage to a fault, which is becoming a calling card for Easy Eye Sound. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come as CeeLo works on this new direction. 2.5/5.0

Interrabang

JASON MRAZ – LOOK FOR THE GOOD–If you follow me on Instagram, I already wrote a pretty scathing mini-review of this in the midst of my hiatus. And no, my opinion of it hasn’t improved over time. I know most people haven’t paid too close attention to Jason Mraz for 12 years or so, but this really has to be the lowest he’s gone. This is a reggae album. Not his typical reggae inspired, ukulele bitch blue eyed soul, but actual reggae. Or at least some ultra polished, major label version of reggae. Not only does this music have no soul, but the lyrics are among Mraz’s worst. There are empty, feel-good platitudes (seriously, there’s a song with the lyrics “make love, not war”), awkward mentions of puberty and masturbation, and even a track where every word is repeated one after another. Add to all that the optics of a white guy from Virginia releasing an album in an inseparably black genre at this particular point in our country’s history. And no, having an older black reggae artist feature on a song doesn’t make it okay. We can hope that things can only get better from here, and maybe this is what will inspire Mraz to make more music like his first two albums again. 0.0/5.0

Epic/Nuclear Blast

LAMB OF GOD – self titled–After the longest break between albums in their entire career (5 years), Lamb of God have returned with their 8th album, and the first without founding drummer Chris Adler. And after over 20 years and 7 albums, they’ve finally decided to put out a self-titled album. (Either that, or they finally ran out of ideas for titles.) Anyway, despite the long break and the new drummer, Lamb of God have picked things right back up as if nothing has changed. They deliver their brand of groovy thrash and metalcore without sounding stale or repetitive. Basically, it sounds like Lamb of God. That might be disappointing to some people, but these guys have a style that works really well for them. Sometimes you’re hungry for a specific type of heavy music, and that happens to be Lamb of God, and they’re good at consistently serving it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even the album cover just screams Lamb of God. An added bonus are the features of Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy who bring some nice variety. This album isn’t anything new, but it’s really good at being what it is. 4.0/5.0

Reprise

NEIL YOUNG – HOMEGROWN–This is the latest release from Neil Young’s Archives series. Homegrown is made up of songs that were recorded between 1974 and 1975, between the albums On the Beach and Zuma. It was intended to be released in 1975, but Tonight’s the Night was put out instead, despite being recorded almost 2 years prior. Homegrown sat unreleased that entire time until now. The sound of this album leans a bit more towards the folk and country influence of Harvest rather than the psychedelic tone of Beach or the leanings toward hard rock found on Zuma. Some of the songs almost sound like they could have been recorded in the same sessions as the Harvest record. And that should give you a sense of which version of Neil Young you’re getting. These are earthy tracks with personal lyrics inspired by Young’s relationship at the time. These are the sessions where the original version of “Love Is a Rose” was recorded. It’s nice to have these songs from one of the best eras of Young’s career see the light of day and fill in some of the gaps. 4.0/5.0

Hopeless

NEW FOUND GLORY – FOREVER + EVER x INFINITY–New Found Glory have officially hit double digits with their studio albums, an impressive feat for any band. But what’s especially impressive for this one is that not only is this the 10th album of a pop-punk band from the early 2000s, but it’s good! Usually bands of this genre and vintage are broken up, doing reunion shows, or making bland pop rock that only the most die hard fans will hear. That’s not to say NFG haven’t flirted with the more mature pop rock that these bands tend to evolve towards. They have on a few previous albums with mixed results. However, this album is bona-fide early 2000s pop-punk, right down to the lyrics. And the lyrics are written in a way that they don’t sound corny, which is important when you have a band of guys pushing 40 singing songs about feelings and girls. They also reap the benefits of modern production. I know super clean production isn’t exactly in vogue in the pop-punk world these days, but there’s nothing quite like those polished hooks when they hit. In short, this is exactly the album that old pop-punk heads have been waiting for. A legacy band making music like they did 20 years ago but a little more mature. 3.5/5.0

Jewel Runners/BMG

RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4–El-P and Killer Mike, Yankee and the Brave, not the heroes we need, but the heroes we deserve, have returned when their country needed them most. This dynamic duo of hardcore hip-hop have given us another collection of incredibly solid tracks. They even released the album a few days early in the midst of the protests happening across the country. The beats hit hard and the lyrics hit even harder with their social consciousness, political commentary, and humor. Tracks like “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” hit especially hard, with Killer Mike delivering a harrowing verse on the former where he outlines plight of African Americans and almost prophetically quotes Eric Garner and retroactively, George Floyd. The feature list on the album is impressive too, with contributions from DJ Premier, Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, Mavis Staples, and Josh Homme. All serving their respective tracks well. Run The Jewels are among the best in the hip-hop game right now, and RTJ4 further proves it. 4.5/5.0

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in May 2020

It’s that time again! Another month has come and gone. As always, I can’t get to everything, so there’s quite a bit of good music that I don’t get to review, especially this month since there were 5 Fridays. You’ll probably notice something a little different about this month’s list. In light of recent and ongoing events, I’ve decided to highlight artists of color. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to fill up the list as May was also an excellent month for black artists. So, collected below are releases I think you should check out.

Grimalkin

BACKXWASH – GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS LEAVE HIM OUT OF IT–Backxwash is a Canadian hip-hop artist who’s style contains elements of industrial hip-hop and horrorcore. These styles pair very well with her lyrics that often deal with evil, magic, and the occult. A lot of the darkness in her lyrics come from her personal experiences, not only as a person of color, but also as a black trans woman. If you like your hip-hop dark, heavy, and noisy, check this out.

ByStorm/RCA

DEANTE’ HITCHCOCK – BETTER–This album is actually the first I’ve heard of Deante’ Hitchcock, but apparently this has been a long time coming. Better was preceded by several mixtapes and EPs since 2012. In that time he’s attracted the attention of other big rappers like Wale and J. Cole, even being invited to appear on the latest Revenge of the Dreamers project from J. Cole’s Dreamville. This album very good, showcasing Hitchcock’s skill as a rapper, lyricist, and even a singer, and it has features from JID, 6LACK, and more.

ESGN/ALC/EMPIRE

FREDDIE GIBBS/THE ALCHEMIST – ALFREDO–May was just a fantastic month for hip hop. I’ve heard some of the best rap albums so far this year since maybe February. Alfredo is probably the best yet. I’m more familiar with Freddie Gibbs’ work with Madlib, and while Madlib is one of my favorite producers in general, The Alchemist is probably a better match for Gibbs. Something about these beats just brings out the best in Freddie’s flows and attitude. They play off each other so well, matching tones and moods perfectly. Even the features are good with guest verses from rappers like Rick Ross and Tyler, The Creator. It’s really just a total package album, good front to back.

Iron Works

KA – DESCENDANTS OF CAIN–Ka is a Brooklyn based rapper who has a unique style all his own. His raps come across almost conversational, like a poet reciting in a coffee shop rather than a rapper. His lyrics use Biblical imagery and the metaphor of the cursed lineage of Cain, the first murderer, to tell stories of his life growing up on the city blocks of New York. Ka produces the majority of the tracks on this album and the instrumentals have an almost stark feel to them, but they’re not minimalist. You really have to hear it for yourself to understand it.

Fltbys

KOTA THE FRIEND – EVERYTHING–I don’t really know how to categorize this one because there’s clear trap influence on this album, but instead hard hitting beats, the instrumentals feel bright and airy with jazz guitar samples. This is almost… summer rap. Like a trap version of something like Shwayze. These are songs for driving along the beach in a convertible or riding your bike in the middle of the day when school’s out or you’re on vacation. It’s a nice, feel-good kind of album.

TBHG

MEDHANE – COLD WATER–Something interesting is happening in Brooklyn. Medhane is another rapper from that area that is doing something different in a good way. His raps are abstract and thoughtful, but still somehow direct and forward thinking. He looks forward without forgetting the scars of his past. And the instrumentals on this album use jazz and soul samples in ways I’ve never heard before. Like the Ka album above, you really have to experience this one for yourself.

Jagjaguwar

MOSES SUMNEY – GRÆ–This one isn’t hip hop, and I really don’t know how to categorize it. Sumney is often called a singer-songwriter, but that doesn’t really narrow things down. There are clear soul influences on this album, but this is not a traditional soul album by any stretch. Sumney’s emotional lyrics are only made more powerful by his impassioned vocals, featuring a frequent and distinctive falsetto. The album also features bass playing from Thundercat on a few tracks and production from James Blake on another. It’s a little uneven, but when it’s good, it’s really good.

Columbia

POLO G – THE GOAT–There’s still a lot I don’t understand about trap rap. I’m trying my darndest, but there’s still some stuff about it that just escapes me. That being said, Polo G is one of the few artists that helps me somewhat understand the appeal, and the praise from other reviewers and critics tells me I’m barking up the right tree. His flows have variety, he doesn’t rely on auto-tune, and his lyrics have considerably more substance than some other artists in the scene.

M.A Music/3D

YOUNG M.A – RED FLU–Yet another rapper from Brooklyn! Seriously, what’s going on over there? Young M.A is another talented rapper from the borough who raps from a particularly unique perspective. Not only is she a woman, but she’s a lesbian. She’s clear in interviews that she doesn’t want her orientation to define her, and it doesn’t have to. Her rapping could easily stand on its own, but her experience still comes through in her lyrics. Female empowerment is a big theme in hip hop these days coming from artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty. Young M.A adds yet another female perspective to the expanding landscape of rap music.

Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

I have been a bad blogger and I haven’t published anything for a few weeks. Even when I was told to work from home, I didn’t take advantage of the time to keep up with new releases. Instead I didn’t listen to anything for an entire week. Now I have a huge backlog and I’m working hard to get through it and to get some more content out. To make up for the lack of posts, I thought I’d put together some quick reviews of stuff that’s come out in March, similar to my monthly reviews but a tiny bit more in-depth and with actual scores. To kick things off, here are my thoughts on some of the releases by big-name artists that dropped this month.

RCA

CHILDISH GAMBINO – 3.15.20–I promise there’s album art there, it just happens to be a white square. Anyway, on March 15th, Donald Glover started streaming his latest Childish Gambino album in a continuous loop on a website, hence the title of the album. It was only up for a short time and then properly released to streaming services on March 22nd. People were wondering if a new album was coming after the singles “This Is America” and “Feels Like Summer” (the latter being on this album, as “42.26”). While most people seem to be into this thing, there are some who have expressed some disappointed, or at least mixed feelings about it. And I’m one of them. I’m sorry, but this just feels directionless and forgettable at times. I do like some of the beats and the occasional industrial feel, but overall this is pretty disappointing. 2.5/5.0

Warner

DUA LIPA – FUTURE NOSTALGIA–Here we have another pleasantly surprising album for this year. I went into this with no previous knowledge of who Dua Lipa is or her music up to this point. All I knew is that her name is freaking everywhere right now. What I didn’t expect was to be hit with nu disco banger after banger. Falling right in line with the title, most of the tracks draw heavy influence from the disco revival of the past decade, and they’re pretty damn good. The instrumentals are the real stars here with at least one instance of all of your favorite disco throwbacks, including talkbox, strings, and a properly French disco vocoder! With only a couple exceptions, the lyrics aren’t anything special. Most are about dancing, sex, or both. But then again, so was a lot of old school disco. You can tell that Dua Lipa had fun with this one. And you know what, so did I. 4.0/5.0

1501 Certified/300

MEGAN THEE STALLION – SUGA–Megan Thee Stallion came up with a surprisingly strong debut mixtape with last year’s Fever. She quickly took her place beside Nicki Minaj and Cardi B as one of the top female rappers and gained some viral traction with her “Hot Girl Summer” last year. This year started with reports that Megan was having trouble with her record label. The result of these troubles is a restraining order and this EP to hold us over until she can release a proper debut album. Like Minaj and Cardi, Megan isn’t shy about her sexuality, and honestly I’m still getting used to that being a subject in hip-hop, but the fact that it makes me uncomfortable means it’s working. Megan’s skills as a rapper are on full display on this EP, but it does suffer a bit when she dips her toes in the realm of pop R&B in a couple later tracks. These attempts come across pretty generic and forgettable. Hopefully her eventual debut album can make up for it. 3.0/5.0

Neon Haze/Capitol

NIALL HORAN – HEARTBREAK WEATHER–With his debut solo album Flicker, this former member of One Direction proved himself to be one of the more capable performers without the support of the group. Which has been a challenge for most of the members. With his second album, Horan continues to prove that he has more to offer than his association with the group. A handful of songs have nice nods to ’80s pop and solid hooks. The album opener and title track is particularly fun, as is the dance pop “Nice To Meet Ya.” Other tracks fit comfortably in the realm of modern pop but they’re mostly tolerable. Nothing particularly special, but nothing outright awful either. Lyrically, it’s pretty safe. A common theme seems to be small talk with a romantic interest. It’s not amazing, but it could be a lot worse. 3.0/5.0

The Null Corporation
The Null Corporation

NINE INCH NAILS – GHOSTS V: TOGETHER/GHOSTS VI: LOCUSTS–On March 26, Trent Reznor and company surprise released two sequels to the dark ambient Ghosts I-IV released back in 2008. Full disclosure, my familiarity with the previous Ghosts is limited to the sample used in “Old Town Road” and any instance of it being used in the real world and I heard it unknowingly. I’m also not a very active fan of ambient music. However I am familiar with Reznor’s soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. Starting with Together, I found it to be ultimately disappointing. The first half of the album has aimless synth and string drones with piano bits that are just kind of there and not really generating any interest. Things pick up a good bit on the second half with more interesting uses of the space and more intriguing synths. Reznor said that Together was meant for when you feel hopeful, but there’s still an atmosphere of tension and uneasiness. I guess it’s about as hopeful as a NIN release can get, though.

Locusts, on the other hand, I found to be far more interesting and successful at creating atmosphere and mood as ambient music. Reznor and Ross make much better use of the space to induce anxiety and create tension. It plays like the unsettling ambient soundtrack to a psychological thriller or atmospheric survival horror game. While it’s longer than Together, it’s packaged better over shorter tracks. However, it’s not really a game changer when it comes to ambient music or NIN in general. And they both are quite long, each one clocking in over 70 minutes. 2.5/5.0 (Together), 3.5/5.0 (Locusts)

Monkeywrench/Republic

PEARL JAM – GIGATON–Full disclosure, I’m not too familiar with Pearl Jam’s work post-Vitalogy except maybe the odd single here and there from the early 2000s. That being said, this album is pretty disappointing. When I think of Pearl Jam, I think of memorable guitar riffs and catchy chorus hooks. A few of their songs had some of the most impressive guitar work coming out of the biggest Seattle bands of the early ’90s. Gigaton just feels like it has no idea what it wants to be. Most of the tracks just feel like generic guitar rock, others go on longer than they need to, and “Dance of the Clairvoyants” sounds like they’re trying to be the Talking Heads. This is another one getting a lot of praise I just don’t understand. It’s average at best and nothing special at all really. 2.0/5.0

XO/Republic

THE WEEKND – AFTER HOURS–The Weeknd has come a long way from his trilogy of mixtapes in 2011. I never really listened or got into R&B music, but I always kept one eye on The Weeknd because I felt like, of all the alternative R&B artists getting big, he had the potential to really impress me. There have been a few bright spots, but overall he hasn’t really accomplished that. When I saw the promotional material for After Hours, I got a little excited about the new vintage aesthetic. Maybe this could be the one. Well, it’s still not quite there. After a weak start, the album picks up a little, but there’s still a bit of bland, generic sounding R&B here that just fails to excite me. Later we get the more new wave and even synthwave inspired tracks like “Blinding Lights,” and that’s where the album really shines. The Weeknd still hasn’t quite blown me away, but this is the closest he’s gotten yet. 3.0/5.0

JOHN REUBEN – self titled album review

JOHN REUBEN – self titled

self released, 2020

Hip-hop

In the very first lines of his 2017 comeback album Reubonic, John Reuben says “They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place/So this will be the last record that I’ll ever make.” Given that it’s 2020 and I’m reviewing a new John Reuben album, this prediction clearly didn’t come true and it might be because he’s still in an unhealthy place. Now I certainly hope that isn’t the case, but either way, I’m happy that there is more John Reuben music in the world.

I’m just going to be up front and admit from the start that I am pretty biased in favor of Reuben’s music. I’ve been a fan of his since the mid 2000s and I could honestly write an entire separate post about why (and maybe I will). I’ll try to keep my fanboying to a minimum and focus on the review. This new self titled album is Reuben’s eighth and it finds him back in what you might call his “traditional” form, especially when compared to the darker and almost industrial tone of Reubonic. Reuben has always operated from a strong position of self-awareness. He’s never really tried to be something that he’s not, and that honesty has permeated into his beats and lyrics. These attributes are on full display on John Reuben, and I personally believe it’s his best album in many years.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the first track on this album for an example of what I’m talking about. On “Secular Music,” Reuben raps humorously about the culture of youth group concerts and about how he was what the kids were allowed to listen to instead of “secular” music. This track is funny to anyone who grew up in this culture, but it’s especially funny to me because I actually saw Reuben perform at a youth group concert. The self awareness continues into the second track, “Cheer Up” where Reuben acknowledges his own corniness but uses it to encourage people to lighten up and enjoy themselves.

But another notable thing about John Reuben is he’s not afraid to get heavier. He doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects, and it only takes three tracks to get there on this album. “Other People” covers the complicated relationships that people can have with their heritage and identities, both from the black and white perspective with guest rapper Alon offering the unique point of view of a black man with Haitian heritage. Other heavy topics include religious practices that turn people away in bitterness and how God is often invoked in destructive political actions (“Still Something” and “God’s Politics”).

Reuben offers lighter criticism of the rapid-fire way we live our lives and consume media in the modern age (“Highlight Reel”), people who use and obsess over personality profiling tests like the enneagram to define themselves (“You’ll Get Your Wings”), and how evangelicals are too eager for the end of the world rather than trying to create more of a heaven on earth (“Here on Earth”). Finally, throughout the album there are more instances of lightheartedness and positivity like a petition for unity, a track about his friendship with Alon, and an ode to nostalgia (“Off Key,” “Call and Responsey,” and “Looking at Now”). Alon provides guest verses on six of the eleven tracks on this album, and he has clear chemistry with Reuben. He has no trouble matching the tone and mood of the track, complementing Reuben like “brie and salami” as they say on “Call and Responsey.”

Another signature of John Reuben’s is his unique instrumentals. Especially in the second half of his career, he pulls a lot of inspiration from pop rock and indie, with his beats using samples of live instruments like guitars and even the occasional banjo. Seth Earnest returns as the producer on this self titled record and he occasionally brings some of the more electronic influence that defined Reubonic. And Reuben isn’t immune to the influence of modern hip hop with a couple tracks employing cicada hi-hats and beat switches, though one of those beat switches is to a more subdued acoustic guitar instrumental only a third into the track on “Still Something.” The bottom line is this album sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a modern John Reuben album.

Overall I think this is a very strong release from John Reuben. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, I’ve always kind of felt that Reuben isn’t the artist that Christian hip hop needs, but the one that they deserve. After figuring out who he was and creating a unique brand for himself, he used his platform to say things that he believed needed to be said. Some of his lyrics might bring up topics that would make more conservative evangelicals bristle, but in the end all he’s doing is encouraging us to be more like Christ. This record gives us that John Reuben brand for the modern era. My only real criticism is that some songs are presented in such a way that the humor might be lost on some people and give them the wrong impression. But apart from that, this easily ranks among some of his best releases like The Boy vs. The Cynic and Word of Mouth. I’m entirely biased, but I don’t care. It’s a great album.

4.0/5.0

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in January 2020

One month into 2020 already. It’s almost hard to believe. Anyway, since I waited until the month was practically over to start writing reviews, I tried to make up for it by publishing two this week. Thank goodness there were a couple easy ones to write about. Since I was silent for most of the month, there were obviously several good releases that I didn’t review. As you clearly don’t deserve to be deprived of my recommendations and opinions, here are a few releases from January that I think might be worth your time. As always, these albums would likely have a score of 3.5 or higher if I gave them a full review.

Triple Crown

CASPIAN – ON CIRCLES–Post-rock isn’t a genre I really keep tabs on, but I do enjoy an album here and there. It can sometimes be tricky to make a good post-rock record. There has to be a balance between crafting vast soundscapes and enough variation to keep it from getting boring. Caspian are not boring on this album. Instead of being just guitar-based, they incorporate keyboards and synths and some of their songs are busier than other post-rock fare. It’s not particularly special, but it’s a good listen.

Prolifica

CIRCA WAVES – HAPPY–Circa Waves are releasing a double album this year, and their releasing the two halves digitally a couple months apart. This is obviously the first half, and I find it far more engaging than their album from last year. I don’t know if that’s because it’s in a smaller 20 minute package or if they’re leaning a little harder into the dance rock sound and their hooks are stronger. Either way, this is a pretty solid offering as far as modern indie rock goes.

Pretty Good

DRAGGED UNDER – THE WORLD IS IN YOUR WAY–This band is on my radar because a YouTuber I watch is their guitarist (Ryan “Fluff” Bruce). They’re a heavy band clearly influenced by the mid-2000s. Their sound has elements of metalcore, nu-metal, and hardcore. But their riffs come off with a welcoming familiarity, rather than cheap imitation. Fluff’s day job is mixing, so it’s no surprise that the mix on this is pretty good as far as self-releases go.

Merge

DESTROYER – HAVE WE MET–Daniel Bejar return once again and as usual, this one is pretty hard to nail down exactly what it is. I mean, it’s clearly a rock album, but there’s nods to synth-pop and new wave all over this thing. And Bejar’s stream of consciousness lyrics just add to the eclectic experience. Much like other Destroyer albums, despite all this weirdness, it draws you in and holds your attention. They know how to take their inspirations and write compelling songs around them.

ATO

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS – THE UNRAVELING–On their 12th album, the veteran alt country rockers offer their perspective on Trump’s America. With song titles like “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Babies in Cages,” you can be sure they don’t pull any punches. All of it is sung with the conviction of a band that has to deal with this on a daily basis as they’re based in the deep south. If you’re not part of that world and wonder what it looks like from the inside, this album will give you a glimpse.

Napalm

KONVENT – PURITAN MASOCHISM–After last year, I’m hoping that slow metal has a better time in 2020. If this release from Konvent is any indication, I don’t think I have to worry. Konvent is an all-woman death/doom band from Denmark, and boy do they bring the heavy. What they don’t have in riffs, they make up in doomy vibes. This thing is dark, it’s heavy, it’s slow… It just ticks a lot of boxes for me, okay? And doom metal is always good when women are making it. I don’t know why, but it just is.

Warner

MAC MILLER – CIRCLES–Chalk this one up as one of the first pleasant surprises of the year. On this first posthumous release, producer Jon Brion pieces together what was left when Miller passed. Originally intended to be a companion to his previous album, Circles goes even further into the realm of pop and R&B and ends up being a better realization of the direction he started going on Swimming. It makes his passing all the more unfortunate, because it seems like he was on a promising path.

Iron Bonehead

REAPER – UNHOLY NORDIC NOISE–You have to respect a band that describes their sound right on the album cover. Unholy Nordic Noise is a very fitting title for this Swedish black metal outfit. They play really old school black metal. As in hardcore punk and D-beat black metal rather than tremolo picking and blast beat black metal. The recording is old school too, but not so lo-fi that it sounds like it was recorded on a potato. The vocals take some getting used to, but it’s a lot of fun. You won’t find them on Spotify, but they’re on Bandcamp, and you can download the album for €6.66 (the commitment!).

Warp

SQUAREPUSHER – BE UP A HELLO–I don’t know near enough about IDM or Squarepusher in general to give this a full review. I thought I had a rough grasp on IDM, but I wasn’t expecting what I got with this. Most of the tracks on here are frantic collections of sounds with no clear rhythm, but somehow still coherent? And even when the typical drum ‘n’ bass breakbeat shows up, the rest of the track just kind of floats around it. I don’t know how this measures up to the rest of Squarepusher’s catalog, but it certainly was an experience.

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.

Great Albums Made by Women in 2019

Last year, in an attempt to make myself a little more woke, I challenged myself to create a list of albums that highlighted great music made by women in addition to my normal list of favorite albums from the year. My decision to do it again was reinforced by the fact that I listened to over 1000 albums this year and less than 15% were by women or groups fronted by women. That number might be different for you, but on average I believe women make up a severe minority of the music that gets consumed. There’s a lot of great music being made by women that deserves to be highlighted, so take a look at what I’ve put together here and maybe add one or two into your rotation.

Republic

ARIANA GRANDE – THANK U, NEXT–This album was released only about 6 months after Grande’s previous album, Sweetener. And it was a pretty tumultuous 6 months. Ex-boyfriend Mac Miller had passed away and her engagement to Pete Davidson was called off. Much of thank u, next appears to be inspired by these events with direct references to her exes, ending relationships, and the ways that she coped with them, both healthy and unhealthy. Lyrically this is Grande’s most personal and vulnerable album, an aspect that is reinforced by the fact that there are no featured artists. This is easily the best album that she’s released so far.

Dead Oceans

BETTER OBLIVION COMMUNITY CENTER – self-titled–This group is a collaboration between singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst. The former being one of the most promising and exciting songwriters to come up in the past few years and the latter being indie folk and emo royalty. The album claims to follow a concept, but it must follow it very loosely. The important thing is this is one of the best collections of folk rock tunes released this year. Bridgers has yet to really disappoint me in anything she’s involved in, and Oberst sounds like he’s genuinely having fun. It’s certainly one of the most interesting things he’s been involved in for awhile.

Scofflaw

DIALITH – EXTINCTION SIX–Symphonic metal is a difficult genre to pull off. There’s a balance you have to strike between the orchestration and the badass metal riffs. Dialith strikes the balance right where I like it with a bit more emphasis on the metal. Their orchestration doesn’t sound like it’s played on a cheap keyboard (an especially impressive accomplishment when you remember that this is an unsigned band). Finally, but certainly not least, vocalist Krista Sion has a beautiful, near-operatic voice that complements the music without over-singing. The songs are never overblown or over-done. No one element tries to steal the spotlight from the others. Overall it’s a very impressive debut.

Polydor/Interscope

LANA DEL REY – NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL–I used to be a pretty outspoken critic of Lana Del Rey when she first came onto the scene and accusations of her being inauthentic flowed freely. Over the years though, my opinion has softened as she’s turned herself into something of a real deal. Her songwriting and stylistic choices have only gotten better over time and Norman Fucking Rockwell is where they really go to the next level. Cries of insincerity go right out the window track after track, bolstered by the quieter instrumentals on this album. There are a couple missteps, but it does have just about the best Sublime cover I’ve ever heard.

Nice Life/Atlantic

LIZZO – CUZ I LOVE YOU–I know it’s kind of “the thing” to like Lizzo right now but truth be told, if you’re going to do pop rap, this is the way to do it. Lizzo is an incredibly solid songwriter and you can quickly tell that there’s some decent substance here. Her lyrics are full of feminist and positive messages delivered without a patronizing tone. The instrumentals are inspired by funk, soul, and disco of the ’70s and ’80s with a couple clear nods to Prince. These aren’t songs that exist to just be hits, deliberate care was put into them. Like I said, this is pop rap done right.

Compass

MOLLY TUTTLE – WHEN YOU’RE READY–I mentioned Molly Tuttle’s album earlier this year, and it’s managed to remain one of the most impressive country and Americana albums of the year. Like I mentioned in that video, Tuttle is a very talented guitarist and songwriter. She’s not only the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, but she’s one it two years in a row. Her playing is on display on a couple tracks, but it’s also there in many others for those who listen for it. Her songwriting is impressive as well, so even casual listeners will enjoy this.

Rhyme & Reason

PRONOUN – I’LL SHOW YOU STRONGER–Pronoun is a bit of a one-woman indie-pop band project by singer and songwriter Alyse Vellturo, and it’s some of the best damn guitar pop I’ve heard this year. I’m not quite sure exactly what genres and decades intersect on this album or where, but I think I hear some ’80s thrown in there with some early 2000s indie pop and a couple others. The real draw on this album for me though are the hooks. Some of the guitar hooks on here are just so strong that I have to stop what I’m doing to listen, and sometimes I’ll even play the song again. I’ll definitely be looking for Vellturo’s future releases.

Kanine

TALLIES – self-titled–Speaking of solid indie pop, we have Tallies with their self-titled debut. This is like a modern take on new wave with some surf tendencies. Reverb and jangly guitars abound with single-note leads played throughout the tracks. I’d compare them with Real Estate or maybe DIIV with some more modern surf like Best Coast thrown in. The new wave influences come in with some clear nods to bands like The Cure, especially their more pop leaning tunes. It’s great music for a summer cruise with the top down.

Prosthetic

VENOM PRISON – SAMSARA–I wasn’t going to let you go without mentioning at least one more metal album on this list. Venom Prison mix death metal with elements of hardcore without going full deathcore, and it’s some truly brutal stuff. A true highlight of the band is vocalist Larissa Stupar. The female voice always brings a unique quality to harsh metal vocals, and Stupar’s is especially powerful. Her lyrics take the traditionally dark and disturbing themes of death metal and use them to bring the horrors of misogyny and rape culture to light (that is, when you can understand her). They also tackle subjects of fascism and mental health, making this not only a brutal album, but a socially aware one.

Sub Pop

WEYES BLOOD – TITANIC RISING–I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t get this one at first. This album was getting so much hype and I just wasn’t seeing why. After a few listens it finally hit me what an accomplishment this album is. The production here is just absolutely spot on. Weyes Blood just nails that Carpenters-esque ’70s soft rock and makes it sound timeless rather than retro or dated. Natalie Mering’s sentimental and somehow hopeful lyrics guide you through the struggles of life in the modern world. This is easily one of the prettiest albums of the year, and I can’t believe I almost missed it.

Awful Albums of 2019

A lot of things in this world depend on opposites. Light and dark, comedy and tragedy, war and peace; the existence of one is amplified by the existence of the other. This principle applies to the world of music as well. For all the good albums that come out in a year, there are often more bad ones. I’ve put together a list of some of the worst I heard this year for you to angrily disagree with me about. They are listed below in alphabetical order.

BMG

AVRIL LAVIGNE – HEAD ABOVE WATER–This is the Canadian singer’s first album in 6 years and it follows a bout with Lyme disease that inspired some of the songs on it. The lead single and title track gained some traction on Christian radio, but I’m sure many listeners who were hoping Lavigne had turned over a new leaf were disappointed when they saw the racy album cover. Their disappointment probably got worse when they found that literally all the other tracks on the album were unfit for Christian radio in one way or another. Ironically I liken this album to Contemporary Christian Music in general in terms of quality. It’s full of a lot of weak attempts to sound relevant years after the wave has passed.

Eclipse

BLACKLIST 9 – MENTALLY ILL, LEGALLY SANE–This is a rare example of an album where every piece of the puzzle is bad. The writing is bad, the vocals are bad, the guitar tone is bad, the recording is bad, the mix is bad. The performances leave a lot to be desired. The riffs sound like a high school band in 2003 learned just enough to play basic nu-metal riffs, and the drummer flubs his fills sometimes. There are moments where the band isn’t even completely in sync. In some instances a combination of elements this bad can still come together as something charmingly rough like a punk record. But part of what makes this so awful is the band is taking themselves so seriously. I guess if I could say one good thing it’s that the album is short.

We The Best/Epic

DJ KHALED – FATHER OF ASAHD–DJ Khaled believes he is an authority on good music, a curator of fine hip-hop beats and talent, a hit-maker supreme, and he’s quite humble about it too. I mean, he did name is label We The Best Music after all. Jokes aside, there might have been a time when that was true, but this album feels more like Khaled is co-opting the work of other people and putting his name on it, hoping that it will become a hit and he will get rich and famous by association. Even the best featured vocalists and rappers feel like they’re not giving it their all. All 15 tracks start with shouts of “DJ Khaled!” and “We The Best Music!” as if those are indicators of quality. But it ends up being more like a signal to hit skip.

Big Machine

FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE – CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY–If I was ever asked what exactly I didn’t like about bro country, I would immediately point to this album. You can find an example of just about everything wrong with the genre on it. Toxic masculinity, formulaic country mad-lib lyrics, appropriated elements from hip-hop and R&B, tonal and moral inconsistency; it’s got it all! There’s seriously very little of value here. Watch my full review here.

Bad Dreams/Empire

IGGY AZALEA – IN MY DEFENSE–An artist who welcomes controversy with arms wide open returns with an album full of unapologetic appropriation and lyrics. She’s not sorry about anything that’s happened and she reminds you of that on every single song. She takes a page out of Logic’s book and fixates on her critics and haters, but doesn’t have Logic’s talent to make it at least tolerable. It might not be so bad if the beats were any good, but I really have a hard time remembering anything from this album at all.

Frontiers

JETBOY – BORN TO FLY–Jetboy are a glam band that enjoyed some very, very mild success in the ’80s and very early ’90s. Even though their songs were used in a couple movies, it still only earns them little more than half a dozen paragraphs of bio on their Wikipedia page. This is their first album in nine years and it’s pretty much 45 minutes of forgettable, vaguely ’80s hard rock that isn’t even all that hard. I don’t really know who they’re making this for because I can’t imagine there are a lot of Jetboy fans out there and this certainly isn’t going to win them any new ones.

Mascot/Music Theories

JORDAN RUDESS – WIRED FOR MADNESS–This album is the musical equivalent of that coworker that eavesdrops on all your conversations and then tries to insert themselves into it, offering some vaguely related anecdote to turn the focus onto them. Jordan Rudess (of Dream Theater) is a really good keyboardist, and he won’t let you forget it for a second. This album has become my new definitive example of prog wankery, meaning music that is technically impressive, but ultimately devoid of any personality or soul. It’s just a wall of notes and scales that screams “hey, look how much theory I know and how it makes me better than you!”

Interscope

MADONNA – MADAME X–This album was promoted as containing wide reaching musical influences. Madonna said Madame X is like a secret agent who can become whoever she wants to be. But let’s just say that if Madame X really were a spy, she wouldn’t be fooling anyone. This album is full of weak and watered down Latin pop and that’s about the only exotic flavor you get. Madonna employs weird vocal processing on a lot of tracks, makes unpredictably weird stylistic shifts, and tries to convince the world that she cares with a couple shallow political tracks. This album fails to deliver on its promises and it’s especially disappointing because we all know Madonna can do better. Watch my full review here.

Big Machine

MIDLAND – LET IT ROLL–The internet likes to joke about how country songs are all about the same things like dogs dying, wives cheating, and trucks breaking down. Midland sees these jokes and uses them as the blueprints for their songs. I have never in my life heard a collection of country songs so bland, formulaic, and unoriginal than on this album. It’s like they plotted all of the biggest Nashville hits on a graph, drew a line through the middle and set a goal to never exceed that standard. If I had to say one good thing about this album, it would be that this band is extremely dedicated to the mediocrity of it all.

Pavement Entertainment

SNAKE BITE WHISKY – THIS SIDE OF HELL–This is the self-proclaimed number one sleaze rock band of Australia, a genre I’m not entirely sure they didn’t make up. This is music for people who think rock peaked with Appetite for Destruction. The attitude, the swagger, the clothes, even the hair is all here. And that includes some of the problematic stuff too. It’s called sleaze rock for a reason. Unlike other bands like Steel Panther where you can clearly tell everything is tongue-in-cheek, I can’t tell if these guys are joking or not.

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in November 2019

It’s already been about a month since my last post like this, and yet again there was a lot of good music that I didn’t get to write a full review for. I was hoping to get one more out before this, but life got in the way like it does. So once again, here are some albums that I think might be worth your time. Like I said last time, as these are all “good,” their score would be 3.5 or higher if I gave them a full review. On to the musics.

Nuclear Blast

BLIND GUARDIAN TWILIGHT ORCHESTRA – LEGACY OF THE DARK LANDS–They’ve been hinting at it for years and now Blind Guardian have finally delivered on the promise of an orchestral album. Never ones to half-ass anything, this album is massive, sounds massive, has interludes with dialogue, and a second disc with instrumental versions of everything. It can be a slog and it’s hard to keep up with the story, but the companion novel (The Dark Lands by Markus Heitz) is available in English now, so I’ll probably be revisiting this one.

Dark Descent

BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE–Death metal is a pretty saturated genre right now, and a lot of it is competent but a bit bland as far as death metal goes. Blood Incantation are not bland. They actively push their sound and songs in interesting directions. I do personally wish the last track was broken up into two or more tracks, but this is a great example of what the genre is capable of.

aural music

BOTANIST – ECOSYSTEM–Like I said in my Liturgy review, black metal doesn’t really appeal to me unless there’s something that differentiates it from the “traditions” of the genre. Botanist plays black metal on hammered dulcimers. It doesn’t get much more non-traditional than that. More seriously, as the name implies, Botanist sounds organic and they have the talent to make this more than just a novelty.

Mass Appeal

DJ SHADOW – OUR PATHETIC AGE–This album is split into two halves with instrumentals on the first half and all-star guest rappers on the second. The first half is fine, but the second half is what you really want to hear. It has strong guest verses by people like Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Run The Jewels, and a mini Wu-Tang reunion. Shadow drops some sweet beats and brings out the best in his guests.

Young Turks Recordings

FKA TWIGS – MAGDALENE–I’m not convinced that this album deserves all the hype that it’s getting, but it’s still very good. Twigs is one of the artists on the leading edge of pop music, pushing it further into the future and exciting new places. It’s her first full length in 5 years, the production is great, and she sounds great.

Island

R.LUM.R – SURFACING–I normally don’t go for a lot of modern R&B music, but for some reason I’m just drawn to this guy. I don’t know if it’s his melodies, his falsetto, his unabashed love of indie and prog rock, or the fact that the songs aren’t exclusively about fucking. Either way, if I like an R&B record, there’s something special about it that makes it stand out. And this one does stand out to me.

Omnivore

HARRY NILSSON – LOSST AND FOUNND–Nilsson was working on a new album around the time that he died in 1994. Now, almost 40 years after his last studio album, we finally have a release from those sessions. The result is a time capsule of what singer-songwriter music was like in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s definitely a product of its time, but it shows that Nilsson still had his writing chops towards the end of his life.

I Built The Sky

I BUILT THE SKY – THE ZENITH RISE–One of the biggest challenges with instrumental guitar music is to keep it from sounding like self-indulgent wankery. It happens a lot with the shreddy metal stuff especially. Rohan Stevenson avoids this with his strong melodies. His songs are technically impressive, but they still have melodic soul that keeps you from tuning out.

20 Buck Spin

OBSEQUIAE – THE PALMS OF SORROWED KINGS–A little heavy on the metal this month, aren’t we? Anyway, Obsequiae plays black-ish medieval folk tinged metal and utilizes actual medieval instruments like harps, hammered dulcimers, hurdy gurdies, psalteries, and more. There are even instrumental tracks played exclusively on these instruments. It sounds like it could come across as a little pretentious, and in some ways it does. But overall, the band provides an interesting listening experience.

Warp/LuckyMe

TNGHT – II–Last, but certainly not least, Hudson Mohawke and Lunice finally give us a proper follow-up to the amazing trap EDM EP that was their 2012 debut as TNGHT. This one isn’t strictly trap music, but the relentless energy of the first release is still here. It’s loud, it’s a little strange sometimes, but it gets you moving, which is all I really ask from TNGHT.

Is JESUS IS KING Kanye’s SLOW TRAIN COMING?

This past weekend, Kanye West finally deemed his latest album fit for the ears of the general public. The not-so-subtly titled JESUS IS KING is Kanye’s first album after he professed a radical conversion to Christianity, features heavy gospel music influences, contains no foul language, and is even categorized as a Christian hip-hop album. Kanye isn’t the first musical artist to pivot so suddenly and completely to religious music, but he’s certainly one of the most prominent figures in American music to do so in recent years. And I can’t help but compare it to a similar conversion that happened 40 years ago.

In August of 1979 Bob Dylan released Slow Train Coming, the first album of what would come to be known as Dylan’s “Christian Era.” 17 years and 18 albums into his recording career, Dylan had established and re-established himself as one of the greatest songwriters in American history and indisputably as a key figure in American music. Slow Train Coming came after contact with the Vineyard Movement and a conversion to evangelical Christianity. The lyrics featured strong references to Dylan’s newfound faith and Christian philosophy. Obviously these sudden changes were polarizing and while the reception was mixed, reviews of the album were generally positive, citing Dylan’s conviction on the subject and its cohesiveness. Robert Christgau even said at the time that it was his best release since Blood on the Tracks.

At the start of this era Dylan stopped performing his previous secular material in favor of his new Christian songs. He would evangelize from the stage, especially when heckled, and there are even accounts of Dylan attempting to evangelize to producer Jerry Wexler during the recording of Slow Train Coming. This era brought another Christian album in 1980’s Saved, which was met with less critical acclaim. The final Christian release was 1981’s Shot of Love that contained a mixture of Christian and secular songs. This and the reintroduction of songs from the ’60s in live performances signaled Dylan’s movement away from a strictly religious approach to his music. 1983’s Infidels marked the official end of this period as it contained all secular material. In the years that followed, there have been hints here and there that Dylan hasn’t completely abandoned religion or at least a belief in God, but he hasn’t released any strictly Christian music.

Over the past 15 years Kanye West has proven to be one of the most talented, if not controversial figures in hip-hop music. Not only has he released genre-defining albums, but he’s proven that he’s not content to sit back on a formula that works and is willing to challenge himself and his fans. This has led to a variety of albums with varying quality, but there’s always been a sense that it was the album that Kanye wanted to make at that time. That sense is still present with JESUS IS KING. In fact, Kanye was so convicted about this album, that the previously announced Yandhi album was shelved or scrapped so JESUS IS KING could be made instead. So now I ask the question, is JESUS IS KING Kanye’s Slow Train Coming? Does this album mark the beginning of Kanye’s “Christian Era?”

The similarities between the two actually go beyond just the sudden pivot to more religious content. Kanye has spent the majority of 2019 holding “Sunday Services” where he performs covers of gospel songs and modified, gospel themed versions of his own material. He said in an interview that he almost quit making rap music because it’s “the devil’s music.” And there’s even claims that he requested that people involved in the production of JESUS IS KING who were not married abstain from sex during the course of the production. So here again we have a radical devotion to a newfound faith.

But when you bring the final product into the comparison, similarities begin to come fewer and farther between. The critical reception of JESUS IS KING has been mixed at best. It currently sits at a 48 on Metacritic (at the time of writing), which puts it in the lowest five scores for the year so far. The production is uneven with evidence of Kanye’s constant meddling throughout. And where Dylan was convicted in his new faith and shared the Gospel as he understood it, Kanye is more using his Christianity as a vehicle to call out his naysayers. One can only hope that if we get more albums out of this Christian era, that they increase in quality and content rather than decrease like they did with Dylan.

Kanye also has a history of being incredibly impulsive. That coupled with the uncertainty of the future makes the longevity of this Christian period a big, fat question mark. We have no way of knowing if Kanye is in this for the long haul or if this will just be a short detour like Dylan’s. And if I’m honest, I don’t think Kanye really knows either. What I do know is that, regardless of your opinions of it, religion can be a very helpful thing for some people. Kanye West is clearly a man with a lot of personal demons. I think we can endure some disappointing music if that’s the price we have to pay for someone to become a happier and healthier person. Personally, I’d like to see another attempt at a gospel rap album, one that’s more focused and thought out. I believe that Kanye certainly has the ability to create a great album in that style. But we won’t know until his next album gets announced and then delayed… and delayed again.