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

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY album review

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY

Roadrunner, 2020

Heavy metal/Metalcore

This past week, metal was only a few albums away from being literally half of the new releases I listened to. Given that ratio, it seemed fitting to review a metal album. Choosing what to review was surprisingly difficult as there were more than a couple releases that stood out for different reasons. I finally landed on Trivium for a few reasons, and I’d be lying if I said one of them wasn’t the fact that you’re more likely to click on an article with Trivium in the title than you are one with Sölicitör or Warbringer.

Another thing that I will admit is that I went into this album without the highest expectations. I know that Matt Heafy and the other guys in the band are all solid dudes, but Trivium is a metalcore band that broke out and gained popularity while I was in high school. Most bands that fit that description aren’t making the best music this far along in their career, especially ones that got as big as Trivium. They’re usually making very safe but ultimately bland music that will satisfy longtime fans, but won’t do much beyond that. So that’s pretty much what I expected when I hit play on What the Dead Men Say, and boy was I wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things you notice is that this album just feels tight and lean, not just in size, but in sound and structure. Guitarist Corey Beaulieu told Loudwire that this album came out of “a highly-inspired and fast-paced writing and recording process…” and you can feel that urgency in these songs. There’s no real fluff here, no grand arrangements; just four guys making some badass metal music. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but that’s by design. Matt Heafy said in the same Loudwire article that this album “is everything that is Trivium.” To use an automotive metaphor, Trivium doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel because they’re like a company like Enkei or BBS; they’re just really damn good at making wheels.

This translates to every single song having at least one attention-grabbing moment. This is still metalcore music, but it doesn’t have the tropes and cliches of the genre that other bands fall prey to. They also pull off the very impressive feat of having not one, but two songs that are 6+ minutes long and not boring. “Catastrophist” in particular plays almost like a prog metal track, switching up its riff structures and rhythms to keep things interesting. Even slower songs come and go without overstaying their welcome. The albums is also lyrically relevant with one song coming across as anti-war and a few others being about marginalized people and standing up to those who take advantage of them. And going back to “Catastrophist,” while Heafy doesn’t really give any details, it’s not hard to see similarities between the catastrophist in the song and a certain public figure.

As much as this album surprised me and as much as I enjoyed it, there are things that I think could be better. Despite being very good metalcore, there was never really a “wow” moment for me. There was nothing that stopped me in my tracks while I was listening. Second, while there are songs that touch on heavy and relevant subjects, there are moments where the lyrical content can get a little light. And there’s even a track where the second verse is a repeat of the first. Finally, I have a little nitpick where I wish the guitar tone and mixing was a little beefier. It felt like it just lacked that lower end that gets you hooked into the riffs.

Overall though, this is a very impressive album. To have a metalcore band this far in their career release an album that can hold my attention with no fluff or filler is quite an accomplishment. Trivium have been honing their skills for nearly two decades and What the Dead Men Say is a good example of how that hard work can pay off. Trivium is good at what they do, but they don’t use that as an excuse to get lazy. There are aspects of the album that I think could have used a little more spice or something, but otherwise it’s a very solid release.

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.

Great Heavy Albums of 2019

Much like last year, the majority of all the music I listened to this year fell into what I call heavy genres. These include heavy metal and all of its sub-genres as well as other stuff that might not necessarily be considered “metal” but is still heavy. Examples would be things like hardcore, industrial, the black metal inspired electronic of Gost, and the brutal experimental noise of Lingua Ignota. This year, heavy music accounted for over 40% of everything I listened to, which translates to over 400 albums. It didn’t seem fair to limit this to what managed to make it to my overall favorites list, so here are ten other heavy albums that I believe are worth your time.

Relapse

COFFINS – BEYOND THE CIRCULAR DEMISE–Death/doom metal is a genre I’m pretty new to, so my enjoyment of death/doom albums pretty much comes down to the sound and how well it can keep my interest. This Coffins album does a very good job combining the brutality of death metal and the crushing heaviness of doom. They know when to take it slow and when to speed things up, and they choose their riffs wisely for each case. There’s also this weird sound that I’m not sure if it’s some instrument or some kind of vocal processing, but it works and it’s one of the ways Coffins is setting themselves apart.

Inside Out

DREAM THEATER – DISTANCE OVER TIME–The prog metal pioneers return yet again with their 14th album. It also happens to be one of their shortest with the standard version clocking under an hour of run time. Despite the length, there’s no shortage of impressive musicianship to be found, as can be expected from Petrucci and company. What’s most impressive is that they avoid a lot of excessive self gratification and give us some very tight and focused metal performances instead. And this one gets nice and heavy with some decent riffs and solid grooves on some passages. They’re among the best and this album just continues to prove that. Watch my full review here (yes I know the intro is creepy).

Roadrunner/333 Wreckords Crew

FEVER 333 – STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS–I’m not sure why, but nu-metal is trying to make a comeback. But if it means we get more bands like Fever 333, it might not be such a terrible thing. This is a very angry and visceral brand of rap metal that I can’t help but compare to Rage Against the Machine at times. Not just in sound, but also in message. Instead of shallow, tough-guy bravado, Jason Aalon Butler sings of the injustices and difficulties he’s witnessed and experienced as a person of mixed race. This album will really get your blood pumping in more than one way.

Creator-Destructor

GYGAX – HIGH FANTASY–As this band’s name implies, they are heavily inspired by tabletop RPGs like D&D. While that sounds supremely nerdy, even to me, these guys are just about the best old-school hard rock band I’ve heard this year. They’re so old school that I almost wouldn’t consider them heavy metal, but some of their riffs push it just over that line. For a little more reference, they give off some heavy Thin Lizzy and Blue Oyster Cult vibes at times with their rhythms, guitar tones, and dual guitar leads. So if you’re itching for something new in that wheelhouse, give Gygax a try.

Southern Lord

HIGH COMMAND – BEYOND THE WALL OF DESOLATION–This decade has seen a bit of a renaissance of crossover thrash come bubbling up from the underground. The success of bands like Power Trip has allowed more great bands to come into the spotlight. High Command is one of those bands. Despite the name and album art seeming more appropriate for epic metal or stoner rock, they deliver some wonderfully punishing thrash riffage. The lyrics however have more in common with bands like Iron Maiden or Sabaton, telling stories of medieval fantasy battles. Look no further for good thrashy fun.

I Built The Sky

I BUILT THE SKY – THE ZENITH RISE–I know I literally just talked about this one at the end of November, but as far as instrumental guitar music goes, it really is the best of the year. This is a genre that is really difficult to stand out in, especially now that the internet has been flooded with bedroom musicians and producers. Rohan Stevenson excels because he holds to the guitar philosophy that man cannot survive on shredding alone. Yes, he’s very talented and his shredding is impressive, but what really impresses me are the hooks and melodies between the solos. I Built The Sky is one to watch in the new school of instrumental metal music.

Flightless/ATO

KING GIZZARD & THE LIZARD WIZARD – INFEST THE RATS’ NEST–One of two albums released by King Gizzard in 2019, and the better of the two in my opinion. This album finds the psych rock chameleons trying their hand at thrash metal, and they do a pretty dang good job. Keeping with their psychedelic foundations, this album is produced to sound more like an early thrash album from the late ’70s with heavy Motörhead influences. The lyrics tell an apocalyptic sci-fi story of life after the Earth’s climate collapses and how the same greedy practices exist even after they’ve caused irreparable damage. Not every King Gizzard experiment lands, but this one certainly does.

YLYLCYN

LITURGY – H.A.Q.Q.–Yes, it’s another album I just covered in November, but this thing made a big splash when it landed. With H.A.Q.Q. Liturgy continues to push the boundaries of what black metal can do. Depending on who you ask, that’s a really good or really bad thing. Either way, you can’t deny how brutal and heavy these tracks are, using their musical heft to emphasize the emotional weight of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’ lyrics. The way they incorporate classical instruments like chimes, glockenspiel, and harp is genius, and piano interludes serve as nice little retreats from the insanity before diving back in. Overall it’s just a very satisfying and cathartic experience. Read my full review here.

Silent Pendulum

POUND – ••–This is easily one of the most unique releases that I heard all year. Pound is a guitar and drums duo who play what they call “experimental, instrumental grind, math, dbeat, and sludge.” But hints of prog and djent show up from time to time. Guitarist Ryan Schutte plays a 9-string baritone, so there’s no lack of low end. Riffs zig and zag all over this album, but it’s not all prog weirdness. There’s a bit of melodic structure here too. You won’t find them on Spotify, but if you’re looking for something different, the whole album is on their YouTube channel, or find them on Bandcamp.

Southern Lord

SUNN O))) – LIFE METAL–This wasn’t a particularly fantastic year for slow metal, but we did get not one, but two Sunn O))) albums this year. Of the two, I prefer Life Metal. I know a lot of purists aren’t big fans of it because it’s less experimental than their previous work, but I personally love it for being a more back-to-basics approach. It’s also about as positive or uplifting as a Sunn O))) album can be. The second album, Pyroclasts is also very good, but it’s more meditative and improvisational. If you like your metal slow, it doesn’t get much slower than this.

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.