In general, the long career of Dinosaur Jr. is considered to be separated into three distinct eras. There are the early years where the band was a key figure in the beginnings of American alternative rock. Then came the major label years in the ’90s where the band saw the most commercial success on 1994’s Without a Sound. However, by the end of this run, singer and guitarist J Mascis would be the only remaining founding member and he would soon retire the Dinosaur Jr. name. But in 2005, Mascis would reunite with original bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph and Dinosaur Jr. would be reborn. This third era of the band would last longer than either of the two previous eras and, with the release of Sweep It Into Space, produce more material as well. And this 21st century version of Dinosaur Jr. is my Dinosaur Jr.
That’s not to say that I ignore or see no value in the band’s previous releases. The first albums are brilliant and Without a Sound was successful for a reason. But the third era was contemporary with my own growth and developing musical tastes. I was introduced to them through 2009’s Farm, a fantastic album which led me back to Beyond, and kept my ears open for I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. This latest release fits nicely among them, and a big part of that is because the majority of the album is business as usual for the band.
That’s not a problem because Dinosaur Jr. is a band where business as usual is a good thing. Business as usual means fuzzy guitars, catchy hooks, tight rhythms, and ripping guitar solos. These elements are all present from the very beginning of album opener “I Ain’t” which also has lyrics about loneliness and alienation, another trademark of the band. Similar sounds and themes can be found throughout the album on tracks like “And Me” and “Hide Another Round.” There are some flirtations with other instruments and styles like the piano in “Take It Back” and the hard rock riffs of “I Met The Stones.” There’s also some additional production and instrumentation from Kurt Vile throughout the album, most notably the 12-string guitar on “I Ran Away.”
Sweep It Into Space isn’t without its faults, however. The track “Garden,” written by bassist Lou Barlow, who performs lead vocals, just doesn’t feel quite like it fits in with the rest of the album. That’s not a knock on Barlow, because the song isn’t bad on its own. And his other contribution to the album, closing track “You Wonder,” fits in just fine. “Garden” just sticks out. There’s also the track “I Expect It Always” which has riffs that repeat a little too often and flat melodies that do the same. Again, not a terrible song, but not quite to the same standard as everything else.
In terms of quality, pretty much everything that Dinosaur Jr. has released in its “third era” has been at least good, if not a little forgettable in the cases of I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. If had to place Sweep It Into Space among the albums of this era, I’d say it fits right in the middle. It’s not quite the challenging masterpiece that Farm was, and while it has the same spirit as Beyond, it doesn’t quite reach the same level. However, there are moments that are far more memorable than what Sky and Glimpse had to offer. It’s a good album that exemplifies what Dinosaur Jr. are all about at this point in their career. It’s business as usual, but that’s exactly what we want from them.
And we’ve made it to the third installment of my June Quick Takes. Here we have the releases that aren’t necessarily the biggest name artists that I wanted to make sure I shared my thoughts on them. This will wrap up my scored coverage of the month of June. This will be followed by another round of quick takes for the month of July to get us all caught up to the current month, and I will hopefully be back to full album reviews in a couple weeks. But for now, check out my picks below from the month of June.
BAAUER – PLANET’S MAD–Yes, this is the “Harlem Shake” guy, and while that song came out all the way back in 2013, this is only the EDM producer’s second full length album. And I would encourage you to not let “Harlem Shake” sour your opinion towards his music. I’m not really sure how to categorize the music that’s on this album. While he has moved on from the trap EDM of his earlier singles, there is still elements of it present. Specifically, some of the production here is beat-centric with minimal sounds outside of the percussion and bass, to the point of some songs having drops that are basically drums only. And these are mixed in such a way that they hit incredibly hard. There’s also a lot of world influence on some of these beats, giving them rhythms that almost compel the body to move. There’s even a track that dabbles in drum ‘n’ bass and the mandatory synthpop song. They’re not all winners, but it’s a very good album nonetheless. 4.0/5.0
HAIM – WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III–For their third album, the Haim sisters enlist the songwriting and production assistance of former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. This isn’t all that surprising because he worked on a few songs on their second album. But on Women in Music, he worked on the vast majority of the tracks. And his fingerprints are everywhere, to the point that several tracks sound like they could be Modern Vampires of the City era Vampire Weekend songs. But that’s not a bad thing! If you look back at my favorites from 2013, I hold up that VW album as one of the best of the decade, and the Haims obviously bring enough of their own influence to make this clearly one of their albums. In the end, this is a great pop rock album that is loaded with memorable hooks and enough left-of-center production to help it really stand out. 4.0/5.0
HUM – INLET–I’ll admit that this is the first time I had heard anything from Hum. This album was surprise released back in June and I noticed a lot of people were really hyped on it. I gave it a try and I honestly liked what I heard. Their brand of alternative rock with thick, metallic guitar riffs was pretty cool. I was inspired to go back and listen to their ’90s albums and come back to view Inlet through a more contextual lens. And… my opinion of it decreased a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty good, but when you compare it to the albums from Hum’s peak, it comes across a little one-note and not quite as dynamic, even when compared to Downward Is Heavenward, the album closest to it stylistically. Again, this is still pretty good, but it could be better. Maybe, if this reunion lasts, a really great Hum album is in the future. 3.0/5.0
KHRUANGBIN – MORDECHAI–This is the third album from psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin. And as might be expected, the band does a good job of pulling off the sound of vintage soul and funk production with their songs. There are a couple tracks that have some really solid grooves and they even dabble in one or two world genres, like on the Latin influenced “Pelota.” But, the bottom line is that the majority of the album is just boring. Save for a few tracks, most of the songs are pretty slow burning tracks that don’t go much of anywhere over the course of four minutes or more. They just end up fading into the background and, before you know it, you’re one or two songs further down the track list. 2.0/5.0
METRIK – EX MACHINA–I’m generally not much of a drum ‘n’ bass guy, but I do like a good EDM banger from time to time. And boy, does this new album from Metrik have some bangers. Metrik is an English producer who has been active for over 10 years. What impresses me about this album is that this is DnB music filtered through more modern EDM genres like dubstep and even synthwave. But there’s also an influence of rock music, like the driving verses on “Parallel” that recall down-stroked guitar rhythms, and the literal electric guitar on “Closer” and “Thunderblade.” The best tracks sound like a modern refresh of the kind of songs you’d find on the soundtrack of a ’90s Need For Speed video game. Unfortunately, the album is a little front-loaded with all the best tracks taking up the first half. That’s not to say the back half isn’t good, it’s just not as exciting as the first. 3.5/5.0
PHOEBE BRIDGERS – PUNISHER–In 2017, Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. Almost immediately, other people wanted to work with her in some regard. Between then and now, she has collaborated in some way with Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Conor Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and The 1975. It’s like all these people recognized her potential and wanted to get on the Bridgers train before anyone else realized it. The thing is, it also appears that Bridgers realized the value of surrounding yourself with supportive and talented people. Nearly all of the people I mentioned contribute to this album in some way, and it’s that much better for it. Everything that made her debut great is improved and all the flaws have been fixed. The songs are personal and emotional and hit you just the right way, and they’re backed up with fantastic instrumentals. This is a real highlight of the year so far. 4.5/5.0
SPECIAL INTEREST – THE PASSION OF–Fair warning, this isn’t going to be for everybody, but if you’re into noisy industrial post-punk that leans more on the punk than the post, then you’re going to love this. I often say that some artists have a punk energy, but this band absolutely has one. They are always loud with lyrics that aren’t sung so much as shouted. Pulsing, unsettling electronic beats drive just about every song on the album, and they’re not afraid to let their drum machines distort or to throw in a little static to accompany their dissonant guitars. And the loudness and anger isn’t just an act. They come from the New Orleans DIY scene, and you sense that this is the product of a genuine, righteous anger. 4.0/5.0
STARFLYER 59 – MIAMI EP–Starflyer 59 is the indie rock project of songwriter Jason Martin, has been consistently active for over 25 years, and was one of the original bands on Tooth and Nail records. That translates to 15 albums and 9 EPs. Miami is the latest EP and the first in over 10 years, coming only a year after his last full-length album, Young in My Head. The track list has 3 new songs and 2 reworked tracks from the last album. Sonically, this is pretty much your standard Starflyer fare: guitar driven indie rock with influences from ’80s post-punk and alternative with the tiniest hint of Martin’s shoegaze roots. The only real deviation is a little flirtation with ’60s rock and roll on “Once More” filtered through the Starflyer sound. Martin’s consistency can end up being a bit of a curse rather than a blessing on longer albums, so this EP’s 19 minute run time keeps things from getting stale. If you’re not familiar with Starflyer 59, this is a good way to get introduced to their current style. 3.5/5.0
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I know, this is out of order in terms of release date. But I needed a little extra time to form my opinions on this one, and I really wanted to get the Fiona Apple review out. (Translation: I was lazy and didn’t put in the work to get this out two weeks ago.) Anyway, we have a new Strokes album! The New Abnormal comes seven years after the band’s last full-length release, 2013’s Comedown Machine, an album so lazy that it barely has any artwork on the cover. After that stinker came at the end of a line of albums of gradually decreasing quality, I think the world was ready for a little break from The Strokes.
Now that they’re back, have they put their time off to good use and returned triumphantly? Maybe not triumphantly, but there’s definitely some good stuff here. The album starts off very strongly with the first three tracks sounding like The Strokes at their best. They feel like the obvious evolution of the sound laid out in their first two albums with hints of new wave and some of Julian Casablancas’ best vocal work (on Strokes songs, anyway). The guitar tones and riffs take you right back to Is This It and Room On Fire without sounding like they’re pandering to fans of that era.
Unfortunately, this strong first leg is not indicative of the quality of the rest of the album. Act two kicks off with “Bad Decisions,” a song that sounds like a Strokes song and an ’80s new wave song crashed into each other. There’s even a songwriting credit for Billy Idol because the chorus interpolates the melody from “Dancing With Myself.” And to me, the verses sound like Modern English’s “I Melt with You.” Personally, these similarities are very distracting, but if you can get past them, the song actually isn’t that bad.
Then we come to the worst (and unfortunately, the longest) song on the album, “Eternal Summer.” It starts off trying to sound like an ’80s new wave pop song, with Julian employing a falsetto on the verses. And that wouldn’t be too bad if it stuck to that theme. But when they get to the chorus and post-chorus, it morphs into this weird, almost Pink Floyd-ish sound and there’s this high pitched note that some people have accurately described as sounding like screeching tires. And then the end just devolves into a mess before turning into something like Tame Impala psychedelia. It’s just too many ideas that didn’t fit together.
Act two ends with “At the Door,” a ballad heavy with ’80s synths and not much more. It’s not a bad song, I just feel like there’s some unrealized potential or a missed opportunity with where the arrangement could have gone. We then move on to act three with “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?” which is another song that feels like it’s made up of a couple different ideas that just don’t really jibe with each other. The remaining tracks are on-brand for The Strokes, but just really aren’t that remarkable. “Not the Same Anymore” in particular goes into this extended instrumental outro and stays almost a minute longer than it has to.
Despite all my complaining, The New Abnormal isn’t an awful album or even really a bad one. And if you compare it to the band’s output immediately prior to it, it’s absolutely a step in the right direction. Some of the songs here represent their best work in 15 years or more. It’s just that they’re unfortunately weighed down by some equally bad songwriting, missed opportunities, and distracting references to other genres. Hopefully The Strokes will continue on this path and deliver another great album to us in the future.
Alright, this should be the last one before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Who am I kidding? This thing has never been regularly scheduled. But you know what I mean, we’ll get back to single album reviews. Anyway, in this last entry, we have some albums that I wanted to make sure I got to share my thoughts on. A lot came out in March, so I have a lot of thoughts.
BRIAN FALLON – LOCAL HONEY–There are a few specific genres of music that I’m just a huge sucker for and heartland rock is definitely one of them. Brian Fallon, lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem, is one of the modern artists scratching that itch. His second album, Sleepwalkers, was one of my favorite albums of 2018. Local Honey is his follow-up and it’s a much quieter, more personal album. Despite this, the spirit of heartland rock is still very much present. With the exception of the murder ballad “Vincent,” all the songs are very personal, with half of them being love songs and one being words of hope and encouragement for Fallon’s daughter. There are a couple moments where I wish the song would go big and loud but that would defeat the purpose of the album. 4.0/5.0
CIRCA WAVES – SAD HAPPY–Earlier this year, I praised the first half of tracks released for this album back in January. The upbeat and catchy dance rock hooks were working a lot better for me than the band’s last album. I was hoping that they would continue the momentum when the full album was released. Now we have the whole thing and it’s a somewhat confusingly packaged double album with only 14 total tracks and a run time of 47 minutes. Unfortunately, as with most double albums, there are tracks that don’t need to be here and it runs out of steam by the end. This is a little concerning when you consider this album isn’t that much longer than your average rock album. It’s still better and more enjoyable than last year’s What’s It Like Over There? but cutting this down to a single album with 10 tracks might have been a better course of action. 3.5/5.0
ERIC JOHNSON – EJ, VOL. II–For 2020, guitar virtuoso and songwriter Eric Johnson has given us a sequel to 2016’s acoustic album, EJ. Much like that album and a lot of Johnson’s recent work, he is showcasing his songwriting and vocal abilities. This isn’t new, even Ah Via Musicom–famous for his signature song, “Cliffs of Dover”–has songs with lyrics. But anyone but his most die-hard fans will find the lack of electric guitar on this album a little disappointing. Is Johnson an accomplished musician across multiple instruments? Absolutely. Are his songwriting skills and vocal performances competent? Sure. Is anything on this album noteworthy? Not really. 2.0/5.0
PHANTOGRAM – CEREMONY–I’ve had an interesting relationship with Phantogram’s music. I fell in love with the trip-hop-meets-indie-rock sound on their debut. But they apparently decided that they did’t want to make that kind of music soon after releasing it. I’ve been unable to connect with the music on the following albums in the same way. Ceremony is the closest I’ve come and I’m sure that’s due to the fact that some of their trip-hop origins are popping back up on a few tracks. I’m sure it’s always been there, but it’s really front and center here. There are still tracks that just don’t grab my interest and some other just general weirdness. But this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed some Phantogram tunes in about 10 years. 3.0/5.0
R.A.P. FERREIRA – PURPLE MOONLIGHT PAGES–Another one of those genres that I’m a sucker for is jazz rap. I am all about groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. Every year, I find at least one album that scratches my jazz rap itch. So far this year, that honor falls to Purple Moonlight Pages from R.A.P. Ferreira (formerly known as milo). As the “Rhythm and Poetry” on the cover implies, there is a bit more of a spoken word element to this than just rapping. But Ferreira delivers dense and conscious lyrics with clever rhyming and structures that call to mind the best lyricists of hip-hop’s golden age. And the jazz instrumentals just make them that much better. The album’s one major weakness is it’s length, clocking in at a stout 52 minutes. When your music is this dense, length is not your friend. Otherwise, this is a very enjoyable album. 3.5/5.0
SILVERSTEIN – A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DROWN–Honestly, I had no idea that Silverstein has been consistently releasing new material this whole time. As such, this is probably the first time I consciously listened to new music from them in over 10 years. Which is a funny coincidence because a lot of the album sounds like music that was coming out 10 or so years ago. Given the gap in my listening history, I don’t know if this comes from a conscious effort to recreate the sound or the fact that their sound has changed so little over the course of 15 years. Either way, A Beautiful Place… brings the bad along with the good from the time. About half of the tracks sound like the more produced emo and pop-punk songs of the late 2000s instrumentally and lyrically. And some of the melodies sound like they came right out of an All-American Rejects song. But the other half is full of the things we fondly remember from post-hardcore and screamo from the same era. It’s not bad, but it could have been better. 3.0/5.0
SUFJAN STEVENS/LOWELL BRAMS – APORIA–This latest release from celebrated songwriter Sufjan Stevens is a collaboration with is step-father, the Lowell from the title of his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell. The track list consists of mostly instrumental electronic compositions that came out of a jam session that occurred when Lowell visited Sufjan in New York. And it mostly sounds like just that: a bunch of electronic improvisations cut down into digestible tracks. It’s not unpleasant and there are a few moments of brilliance, but the overall impression I get is that it’s all just pretty “meh.” I know it’s not really fair to expect an artist as seemingly restless as Sufjan Stevens to stick to a particular sound or formula, but when you compare this to his previous work, it is a little disappointing. 2.5/5.0
WAXAHATCHEE – SAINT CLOUD–On this album, singer and songwriter Katie Crutchfield taps into the worlds and sounds of indie folk and alt-country. For me personally, the result is ultimately only okay. There are bright spots both instrumentally and lyrically, and sometimes it’s even on the same song. But one of the pitfalls of the peak of indie folk was forgettable songs for the sake of a sound or aesthetic. Saint Cloud unfortunately falls into that trap on more than a couple songs. That’s not to say it’s bad, the brightest moments shine especially bright. In the end it’s still a good album, just not a great one. 3.0/5.0
Let’s see, where was I in 2010? I turned 20 years old, I finished my first year of college, and would start my second. I did that thing almost every guy does and stopped getting haircuts and I would continue to grow my hair out for the next couple years. A lot of good movies came out and a couple would become all-time favorites of mine (Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). My interest in music was at an all-time high. I was pretty well-informed on indie and alternative music with a little help from MTVU (or so I thought). I started taking hip-hop music more seriously. And I was pretty humbled when I started reading Pitchfork and for the first week, I didn’t recognize a single artist they reviewed. But I wasn’t deterred, I just went deeper. Below are not only some of my favorite albums from 2010, but some that were important to me and my musical growth.
THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS–This was the album that turned The Black Keys into a sensation. Not to be that guy, but I was into the Keys before they were cool. I was introduced to them in 2006 with the Chulahoma EP, and they quickly became one of my favorites. I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brothers when it first came out. At first I wasn’t thrilled about the band trading their sludgy delta blues sound for a more R&B inspired rock. But at the same time, Brothers was a huge improvement over their previous two records. In true hipster form, I also lamented the attention that the band was getting, fearing this would lead to a more mainstream sound from them. But again, I was also happy that more people knew about one of my favorite bands. It took 8 years of hard work, but The Black Keys finally made it, and it still holds up as one of their best albums.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – ZOMBIE EP–In 2009, The Devil Wears Prada released their third album, With Roots Above and Branches Below, and it was their best work yet. The production finally caught up with their style, and their songwriting was better than ever. Metalcore was at its peak popularity and Prada was among the best. How could they possibly do better? Then in 2010 they released the Zombie EP and completely blew Roots out of the water with five fucking tracks! The band ramped up the speed and brutality, and the theme was based on vocalist Mike Hranica’s interest in zombie books and movies. Weirdly enough, The Walking Dead would premiere two months after this EP released and everyone else in the world would hop on the bandwagon. The band was just firing on all cylinders with this one. It’s a bright spot in Prada’s discography and one of the few metalcore releases I can still listen to today.
GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH–Prior to 2010, I didn’t pay much attention to Gorillaz. All I really knew about them was “Feel Good Inc.” and it wasn’t my style of music when it was popular. I don’t remember what caused me to give the band another look but when I did, I became almost obsessed with them. This newfound appreciation coincided almost exactly with the release of “Stylo,” the first single from Plastic Beach. Their third album would have them moving further from hip-hop and refining their wonky alt-pop. The result would be some of Gorillaz’ best tracks and best collaborations, with contributions from artists like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Little Dragon, and Bobby Womack (who had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to this album). Unfortunately, it would end up being the last great Gorillaz album. But they’re still making music, so there’s always hope.
JANELLE MONÁE – THE ARCHANDROID–The first time I knew anything about Janelle Monáe was when I saw a poster at Best Buy. I was instantly intrigued by this black woman wearing a tuxedo with a massive pompadour hairstyle. What on earth kind of music could this woman make? I don’t know what I expected, but I liked what I found. Her funk infused, alternative R&B and psychedelic soul were so much fun that it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which is weird considering I didn’t give pop and R&B music much attention at this time in my life. The genres were presented through a lens that helped me bridge the gap from my preferred music at the time, with rock and progressive influences coming through. And because I’m a nerd, the overarching sci-fi narrative of the album helped too.
SKRILLEX – SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES–This entry has probably awakened some dark memories for some readers. Memories of hard drops, wobble bass, and questionable fashion choices. But regardless of how immature some of those trends seem now, they were a key milestone on the trajectory of EDM in popular culture. And it all starts right here with this EP. Scary Monsters was the EP and the song that made brostep a phenomenon. Whether you loved him or hated him, you knew about Skrillex. And if you listen to this EP beyond the title track, it proved back then that he wasn’t just a one trick pony. He had some range, and his work since proves that he still does. He hasn’t really matched the quality of this EP since, but the mark it left has given him producer credits throughout the decade and likely well into the future.
SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS–The “Loudness war” is something that has plagued music production for the past 30 years, and it can be the difference between a good album and a bad one. But there’s something to be said for using that digital compression as an aesthetic choice. From the very first seconds of Treats, you are bombarded with guitars, synths, and drums that are bricked out so hard that everything clips. Apart from bass boost memes, this is perhaps the only time that these levels of compression 100% serve the songs. It’s just one piece of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face approach to noise pop (or their self-described “shred pop”). I had never heard anything like it before this album, and nothing has quite captured this level of noise and energy for me since.
THE SWORD – WARP RIDERS–I know that within the spheres of stoner rock and doom metal, this album is not held in very high regard. But, I wouldn’t know that if it wasn’t for this album. I don’t even remember where I first saw the album artwork, but the retro typeface and Roger Dean-esque sci-fi watercolors compelled me to listen to this album. Through it I was introduced to retro styled traditional metal and left hungry for more. Finding other artists like this proved difficult at the time, but I just didn’t know where to look. I finally did learn a few years later, and even though I’ve found “better” examples of what The Sword were trying to do on this album, the riffs on Warp Riders still hold a special place for me a decade later.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND – CONTRA–This album was my introduction to Vampire Weekend and contains perhaps my favorite song of theirs (“Giving Up The Gun” is the song by which all other Vampire Weekend tracks are judged, and it has one of the best music videos). The bright and clean sound was a perfect break in the winter clouds when the album came out. When compared to the band’s debut, Contra took the formula they set for themselves and refined it. Rough edges were polished and influences were mined even deeper, creating a major improvement stylistically and compositionally. This really was a great work of indie rock that was only topped by their third album that took this stylistic trajectory to its logical, almost absurd conclusion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.