Lana Del Rey Drops Uninspired Sixth Album

Norman Fucking Rockwell! Has a handful of pleasant elements, but ultimately it is poorly written, poorly performed, and just plain boring.

Lana Del Rey is baroque pop singer/songwriter from New York City. She debuted in 2010 with a self-titled LP which largely flew under the radar, but her 2012 follow up, Born to Die scored a platinum certification thanks to her signing with Interscope Records for the release. Since then, she hasn’t quite recaptured the success of her sophomore record, though her last three releases are certified gold and two have peaked at number one on the Billboard charts. She’s also landed a handful of massive performances like a slot at Coachella in 2014 and the Flow Festival in 2017, not to mention several successful tours. I must admit that I’ve never been a massive fan of Del Ray as I’ve always found her music to be a bit more aesthetic over quality. Unfortunately, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Is yet another example of this.

It’s not all bad! There are a few elements that I enjoy, and a key one is certainly the swelling strings which adorn the majority of the album. Particularly on the front end, tracks like the opening title track and “Mariners Apartment Complex,” feature orchestrated violins which bring a real sense of weight to songs which, otherwise, may fall flat.

In addition, there are a few enjoyable melodies to be found, especially near the end. Cuts like “Happiness is a Butterfly,” and the atrociously titled closer, “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – and I Have It,” have nice, ear-worm choruses that definitely linger in the mind long after the first listen. Without a doubt, the album could do with several more of these catchy choruses.

Easily the highlight of the LP is the genuinely great production from Jack Antonoff. The Bleachers frontman has recently made quite a name for himself in the world of production, and this project is no exception! A quick listen to cuts like “How to Disappear,” and “California,” gives a great taste of Antonoff’s care-free style. While there are a few nitpicks in terms of technical missteps, he makes up for this with a very natural mix which catches a lot of the small imperfections that make the instrumentals sound very natural.

Regrettably, none of this can save the album from the litany of issues which plague nearly every track. Perhaps the first downfall that a casual listener might notice is Lana Del Rey’s positively terrible vocal performance. Some of the worst examples come on “Love Song,” and “The Next Best American Record,” but on track after track, Del Rey acts as nothing but a wet blanket to the genuinely interesting instrumentals beneath her thanks to weak falsettos and a lack of any impressive power or range in her overall low energy vocal.

Beyond this, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired as well. Songs like “Fuck It, I Love You,” and “Cinnamon Girl,” are filled with some of the most cliche and least interesting lyrics I’ve heard in a very long time. Her writing mostly consists of references to other, better songs and appeals to aesthetic which lack any real emotional weight. It’s a kind of faux depth which just doesn’t stand up to any thoughtful listen, but also keeps the record from being just mindless fun.

Worst of all, the album commits the cardinal sin: it’s boring. This is apparent on every single cut as they seem to build without ever reaching any climax or even mildly exciting moment. It’s painfully noticeable on her cover of the Sublime classic, “Doin’ Time,” as the spacey instrumental and Lana’s unenthused performance zap all the energy out of the iconic track. Perhaps the worst offender, however, is “Venice Bitch,” which, for reasons that I cannot fathom, runs for an entire nine minutes with only enough material to fill about three. The rest of the track is just middling, directionless strings and a repetitive chorus.

All in all, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Feels like a disappointment. As I said, I’ve never been a Lana Del Rey fan myself, and so this may be exactly what fans were hoping for. But, for my money, there are several artists working today to execute this sound far better while eschewing the faux-vintage aesthetic which drips from every second of the LP.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! Has a handful of pleasant elements, but ultimately it is poorly written, poorly performed, and just plain boring.

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Whitney’s Sophomore Effort is Packed With Heart and Fun!

Forever Turned Around is a fun listen which overcomes technical and pacing issues with pure heart and and a massive pallet.

Whitney is an indie-folk group from Chicago, Illinois. Formed in the breakup of indie rock outfit, Smith Westerns, guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich joined forces with a handful of friends in 2016 for the band’s debut LP, Light Upon the Lake, which received wide acclaim from critics across the contemporary music landscape. They were particularly praised for their simple style and clear inspiration from early pop groups like The Byrds and early Beatles. The record was a hit for the young indie band and for well known indie label, Secretly Canadian and launched a headlining tour across Europe. With a fairly strong fanbase, anticipations were high for a sophomore release and, three years later, Forever Turned Around has arrived.

From the opening seconds of the LP, Julien Ehrlich’s drums are a standout highlight! Tracks like the opener, “Giving Up,” and “Valleys,” showcase a uniquely simple form of drumming which fits the band’s sound extremely well. There are no flashy fills or difficult time changes, but instead a nice steady rhythm with great cymbal work. The drums are also wonderfully mixed, with a crisp snap on every snare and a full thud to every kick.

Max Kakacek is also hard at work on guitar with a similar approach. Late cuts like “Day & Night,” or my personal favorite, “Friend of Mine,” feature some nice lead licks, but the majority of his best work comes in the rhythmic, acoustic work that makes up the melodic bass of most of the album. Again, he rarely stands out, but it’s that consistent performance which forms the strong backdrop for everything else to shine.

Kakacek does get a chance to take the spotlight a bit more, however, as the band’s lead vocalist. His soft harmonies and ringing falsettos on “Used To Be Lonely,” are able to sell the somewhat cheesy lyrics fantastically while his work on “My Life Alone,” is far less front and center but much more energetic and dynamic. Because of the band’s style, his vocals aren’t always front and center, but they always act as a wonderfully entry point to the band’s unique sound.

Without a doubt, however, the album’s best quality comes not from any one single member, but the group as a whole and their delightfully wide pallet. From the folksy brass sections on “Before I Know It,” to the oh-so-smooth saxophone on the excellent instrumental cut, “Rhododendron,” or even the swelling woodwinds on “Friend of Mine,” there always seems to be something interesting right around the corner and the pallet serves to color in the simple canvas at the base of each song.

Unfortunately, I am left with a handful of criticisms. Perhaps the most consistent issue comes in the production. With such a large array of instruments and a unique style to start with, this is a difficult album to mix, but the majority of it is muddy and lacks any clarity, so much so that a lot of great work is lost on tracks like “Song for Ty,” or the closing title track in a wave of indistinguishable sound.

Beyond this, there are certainly pacing problems which didn’t really exist on the debut. Even for fans of this falsetto heavy, folksy crooning, the lack of diversity in the tracklist starts to weigh on a listener by the end. Each track, on their own, is perfectly enjoyable, but the album, as a whole, definitely drags a handful of times.

Despite these complaints, Forever Turned Around is a solid sophomore effort. The simple, heartfelt shell of solid songwriting and melody is filled to bursting with a wide array of unique instrumentation and quirky harmonies. This album may not find a ton of crossover success, but for fans of this genre and this style, this is yet another solid release from an excellent group.

Forever Turned Around is a fun listen which overcomes technical and pacing issues with pure heart and and a massive pallet.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Tool Lives Up to the 13 Year Hype!

Tool is back, and it was well worth the wait.

Tool is an alt-rock/prog-metal four piece who rose to popularity in the early 1990’s thanks to their unique sound, bizarre live performances, and their fantastic 1992 demo EP  Opiate. At this time, their sound was heavy, often droning, and far more melodic than the majority of the underground metal in the early nineties. As they progressed, there were extended delays between releases as 2006’s 10,000 Days was the last studio project from the metal legends before one of the longest hiatuses in music history. Throughout the 13 year gap, the infamous “new Tool album,” became almost mythic and when Fear Inoculum was finally announced, fans worried that no band could live up to 13 years of hype. Luckily Tool can and did.

The record opens with the title track and lead single. The song’s original drop about a month ago was the final gas on the fire needed to raise the album’s hype to a fever pitch, and for good reason. This song is, undeniably and essentially, Tool. With the long, spacey intro, the track seems to descend onto the listener with Maynards calm, melodic vocal as the cherry on top. But as the cut progresses, new layers of guitar and bass riffs are slowly unraveled, presenting a complex midsection which finally shifts into a brutal finish with all four members bringing their all. From the beginning, it’s clear. Tool is back.

“Pneuma,” follows and seemed to draw some of the most attention from critics with early access to the record. The attention is very much deserved as this is easily one of the most daring efforts in the tracklist. The clean guitars in the intro are a surprising touch, but it doesn’t last long as Adam Jones’ signature, distorted tone rips into the track’s first real groove. Justin Chancellor’s bass really shines here as well with a thumping groove driving large chunks of the early sections. “Pneuma”’s highlight, for me, comes near the end of it’s 12 minute runtime as the band breaks into a punishing breakdown featuring all four members performing as well as we’ve ever heard them and leading toward an awe-inspiring crescendo. This is yet another full throated proclamation of Tool’s return, and it’s a blast to hear.

“Invincible,” falls third on the album and readers of my most recent Tool Concert Review may remember that this song absolutely blew me away at their live show in Saint Louis. It’s no less effective here, I can assure you. This is another instrumental powerhouse with some of the best bass work on the entire album and one of the most brutal breakdowns yet. With every listen, though, I find myself more and more moved by Maynard’s performance and lyricism as the track follows an older warrior coming to terms with his aging body and giving up the chase of youth. This is of course, and analog for the band itself and for any long time fan, it’s a bit of an emotional listen. It reads like Maynard preparing to write and perform one last Tool album, and god am I glad he did!

“Descending,” is another track which had been played live before the official release, but this one seems to have grown quite a bit since it’s appearance on tour. Once again, the band utilizes long, atmospheric builds in its first few minutes and goes through sections of rise and fall, each more complex and creative than the last. Every element really works together here with Maynard’s performance being one of his best on the record, Adam and Justin’s interplay flowing fantastically, and Danny Carey playing drums with a skill and speed that genuinely seems like it shouldn’t be impossible.

The record continues with “Culling Voices,” and a large portion of this track is surprisingly calm. The opening minutes are a fun listen as the clean guitars and simple chords under Maynard’s tight vocal runs feel almost like a calm in the storm, but this doesn’t last forever, of course. When the track finally crescendoes into its big finish, it’s one of the best on the record. Adam’s central guitar riff is simply fantastic and the thunderous drum and bass combo near the close brings the song to yet another overwhelming wave of music.

“Chocolate Chip Trip,” is an interesting inclusion on the record. The track itself is simply a Danny Carey drum solo which seems to have been workshopped across several tours as the first part of the band’s encore and, while we will of course discuss the drum work, it’s worth pointing out that the backing track, composed of a buzzing, sci-fi groove is the perfect backdrop for Carey’s style. The drumming itself is, as expected, remarkable. On first listen, the flashy fills and inconceivably fast rolls will catch the ear of most listeners, but after revisiting, it’s Danny’s creative timings and unconventional beat placement that will have me coming back again and again.

Finally, there is “7empest.” The 15 minute odyssey closes the album and it becomes clear quite early that this is what we’ve waited for. There isn’t a moment of down time here. Maynard’s vocals harken back to the Aenima era as he angrily growls the confrontational lyrics, Justin’s bass is rattles away with intensity, and Danny Carey’s drumming is, once again, jawdropping, but we simply must talk about Adam Jones on this track. “7empest,” is, without a doubt, the masterwork of Adam’s career as his guitar drives every second of the track with biting leads which layer over each other for a cacophonous tidal wave of sound. There isn’t a second of this track which isn’t filled by Jones’ fantastic lead guitar and it makes the perfect finale to a perfect LP.

Is it possible for an album to live up to 13 years of hype? I’m not sure. This album has meant something different to many people and everyone will experience the record differently. That being said, as far as I’m concerned, this is everything I could’ve hoped for. As a dedicated Tool fan for the majority of my life, I couldn’t ask for much better. The long track lengths could easily have been filled with wasted space, but instead, every track is an event in of itself with long builds, breathtaking climaxes, and perfectly paced movements and each of the four members sound as fantastic as we’ve ever heard them.

Tool is back, and it was well worth the wait.

10/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Meth Brings the Pain in Daring Debut

Mother of Red Light is a dark, disorienting experience from an exciting young act.

Meth is a mathcore/noise-rock band from Chicago, Illinois. The six-piece deputed as a three-piece with 2017 with The Children are Watching, an EP which steered headlong into grindcore and black metal without looking back and will flat out blow your skin off in its short runtime. 2018 saw the addition of three new members and a hard turn toward atmosphere and noise rock on the I Love You EP. Now, Meth brings forward their most coherent and ambitious project to date with their debut LP, Mother of Red Light.

From the start of the record, many things become clear, not the least of which that we are in for some fantastic lines from lead guitarist, Zack Farrar! Tracks like the opener, “Failure,” or later cuts like “Inbred,” feature guitar work that is at time melodic and accessible and other times pure chaos. It’s this tonal dexterity which allows the guitar to lead the every instrumental whether through catchy hooks or abrasive swells and everything in between.

When the tone does become abrasive, however, it’s Seb Alvarez’ lead vocals which take a clear front seat. The handful of quieter, poetic moments are nice additions, but the crushing, unbridled screams on songs like “Child of God,” and “Cold Prayers,” drive the band’s full power. The vocals are often layered to fantastic effect with a brutal mixture of growls and screeches backed by the lower, calmer elements.

In addition to the death and black metal influences, this record has a strong math-core element at its core which is felt in the bizarre and unpredictable time changes that characterize even the heaviest moments. “Swallowed Conscience,” and “Her Womb Lays Still,” fall back to back and exemplify this perfectly. From slower passages with complex rhythms to explosive climaxes which layer and alternate time signatures, the entire sound is consistently held together by wonderful drum work from Andrew Smith and an impressive tightness from the rest of the group.

Ultimately, however, Mother of Red Light is set apart from contemporaries by the gloomy, nocturnal atmosphere which hangs over every track. It’s this atmosphere that allows the band to carry longer cuts like the seven minute, “Psalm of Life,” as the constant sense of dread seems to drive even the most minimal moments, and in the monstrous and speedy follow up, “Return Me,” that dread is brought to fruition as the band brings the pain with thrashing guitars brutal screams. The entire record is spent either being knocked out of your chair by hellish climaxes or waiting in anticipation for the next explosive passage.

This all brings us to the 11-minute closer, “The Walls, They Whisper.” This is certainly the most ambitious track on the album as it takes up about a quarter of the runtime and, for the most part, this pays off. The long, dreary poem which opens the song is effective and the anticipation reaches a fever pitch with the droning, clean guitar. When the breakdown finally comes, it’s perfectly doomy and powerful. That being said, this track is a good example of all the issues with this album. The nearly four minute passage of only radio fuzz, while disorienting, loses its effect long before it ends, and when the band finally returns, the momentum is simply dead.

And this is the album’s biggest issue in total. While the atmosphere and progressive elements set the sound apart from nearly everything else in the genre, I’m also left with far too much slack. I wouldn’t want to pull this experimentation out of the project entirely, but reigning it in here and there would allow the record to feel tighter and better paced in a way it desperately needs.

That being said, this is a fantastic debut. Meth is experimenting with one of the darkest, heaviest sounds around and this record leaves me extremely hopeful for future releases. While they do tend to get lost in their own heads a bit, too much risk is always preferable to too little, especially when most of it pans out well.

Mother of Red Light is a dark, disorienting experience from an exciting young act.

7/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Taylor Swift Returns to Form With Her Seventh LP

Ultimately, Lover is everything fans could ask for from a new Taylor Swift album and just a bit more.

Taylor Swift needs very little introduction at this point. The pop singer-songwriter from Reading, Pennsylvania has become something of an icon in the genre and has likely done more than almost any other artist to shape the current landscape of radio pop. Prior to this newest release, the six LP’s to her name thus far have netted about 42 platinum certifications with 2008’s Fearless being one of the few albums to ever reach diamond certification. That being said, the last year has been something of a rough time for Swift. She left her longtime label, Big Machine Records only to have her music bought out from under her by longtime enemy, Scooter Braun and her most recent release, 2017’s Reputation was her least successful to date, both critically and financially. With all this piling up and the pop landscape shifting drastically below her, Taylor needed a win and she got it in Lover.

If anything, this album is a testament to Swifts ability to process criticism and improve because of it. Where her previous release was entirely too dark and lifeless, Lover is a blast! Tracks like the opener, “I Forgot That You Existed,” “Paper Rings,” and the better of the lead singles, “You Need To Calm Down,” will have longtime fans and casual listeners alike dancing immediately. It’s a stark contrast and absolutely the right choice for Swift as its her ability to write feel-good jams which has delivered her lasting status in the industry.

That ability hinges, above all else, on excellent pop songwriting. Songs like “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” and the album’s title track feature tight rhyme schemes that color in nearly every line with exciting moments. It’s the care she puts into every couplet which has garnered Swift such a reputation as a songwriter. Though most of her writing isn’t life-changing or especially moving, it is tight, catchy, and dynamic.

Unfortunately, this talent seems to fall apart on a handful of tracks. “The Man,” and the lesser of the lead singles, “ME!” Were particularly frustrating for me. Here, Taylor tries her hand at a more opinionated style of writing, as apposed to her usual storytelling, and in both cases, the  results feel shallow and uninventive.

On the other hand, much of this record eschews the tendency toward upbeat, danceable music and instead focuses on slow, growing waves of sound which seem only to keep building. Tracks like “The Archer,” and “Cornelia Street,” are bright and enveloping with warm, towering synths coloring the soundscape. The pallet is, admittedly, a bit narrow, but the overall sweetness of the sound makes up for any shortcomings, and when the pallet does expand, as in the addition of the Dixie Chicks on  “Soon You’ll Get Better,” it does so quite well.

This is all made infinitely better by the records’ strongest quality: the bright, shimmering production. The shift to Republic Records is felt in the pristine clarity of tracks like “Cruel Summer,” and “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince.” The tuning on Swift’s vocal is warm, the buzz of the synths is interesting, and overall mix is just perfectly balanced.

The record’s weakest point, on the other hand, is the bizarre percussion that litters several of the albums better cuts. Tracks like “I Think He Knows,” or “London Boy,” would be perfectly respectable if not for the strange and often annoying trap drums which feel entirely out of place. For a record with such well produced instrumentation, this poor percussion robs nearly every track of any organic feel that was possible.

Overall, this album is a success. There are a handful of poor choices in the lyrics and the 60 minute runtime definitely drags as the final few tracks feel totally unnecessary, but these issues can’t outweigh the album’s strengths. The fantastic songwriting, lively production, and carefree tone carry the day and even the worst tracks have a strong moment or two.

Ultimately, Lover is everything fans could ask for from a new Taylor Swift album and just a bit more.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Hear Lover:

Lil Nas X’s Debut EP Is a Fun and Unique Listen

7 is a fun listen which, while it won’t be winning any awards, is certainly a must-listen for fans of the young, genre bending front man.

Lil Nas X is a hip-hop/rap artist from Atlanta, Georgia. He was almost entirely obscure before the release of his debut single, “Old Town Road,” in December of 2018, which catapulted him to the very top of the music world. The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 and was eying the top of the country charts before Billboard chose, in a relatively controversial decision, that the track would no longer be listed as country because of its “musical composition.” Regardless, the single has topped the charts in at least seven countries including the US and is certified as triple platinum at the time of this review. Now, with the world watching, the 20 year old artist is attempting to bring his genre bending style to a longer form with his first studio EP, 7.

The project opens and closes with Lil Nas X’s titular smash hit, “Old Town Road.” The recent remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus opens the album and it’s far better than the original, aided  by its placement on this album. There isn’t much left to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already, but it is worth pointing out that this is one of the most genuinely fun tracks I’ve heard in years. Every element is relatively simple, and combining trap and country is far from a brand new idea, but every attempt thus far has felt like a cynical cash grab. Lil Nas X is the first artist who’s attempt at this sound feels genuine, and I do believe that to be the key factor in this song’s success.

“Panini,” follows and as this EP’s second official single, it’s quite a track in its own right. Once again, Lil Nas X isn’t reinventing the wheel, but he does have a handful of interestingly diverse inspirations which find their way into the finish product. Probably the most obvious example is the chorus hook on this track which is a direct allusion to Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” All told, the track isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as that which proceeds it, but its another feel good cut that will have listeners dancing even after repeated listens.

The next track is “F9mily,” and it’s here where we start to see some of the cracks in Lil Nas X’s abilities. He’s aiming to put his own spin on the kind of bright, garage rock that has been popular for the past several years, but he falls short in almost every way. The instrumental is rather bland and aside from some nice choral background vocals, offers very little of substance. Even worse, though, is Lil Nas X’s vocals which are just sleepy and boring, completely failing to live up to the energy brought by the instrumentation. Ultimately, it’s just a misstep and it’s easily the worst track on the EP.

“Kick It,” is up next, and he starts to bring the project back on the rails fairly quickly. The instrumental is still a bit weak and none of the bars are particularly impressive, but the horns are a nice addition to the instrumental pallet and and it does feature a handful of fairly funny lyrical moments.

“Rodeo,” sees a return to the country rap stylings which brought him to prominence and it’s probably one of the best tracks on the project. It’s lyrically hilarious, the guitar riff at the center of the instrumental is fantastic, and the Cardi B feature near the end works far better than it has any right to. The song is certainly no “Old Town Road,” and I respect X’s decision not to fill the EP with country/rap mashes like this, but I must say that I enjoyed this cut quite a bit.

Unfortunately, “Bring U Down,” derails the record a bit once again. The guitar solo is enjoyable and quite unexpected, and the bass guitar riff that guides the track is fairly catchy. I don’t even mind the simplistic lyrics, but again, X just doesn’t have the energy in his voice that’s needed to carry an upbeat rock tune like this. His lethargic lead holds this album back in a quite a few places.

“C7osure,” is the final track on the EP, ignoring the gratuitous reappearance of “Old Town Road,” and it’s relatively inoffensive. This is definitely the most forgettable track on the project and could have been left off without complaint, but there are a few bright moments, most notably the layered vocals on the chorus and the intriguing piano sample.

All together, I must say the Lil Nas X has been fairly successful in staving off accusations of being a “one hit wonder,” with this EP. There aren’t all that many complex elements to the EP, but he is breaking new ground in the sense that he combines the auto-crooning, trap style with country, rock, and a few other smaller inspirations in a way that feels far more genuine and listenable than other acts who have the same aim.

7 is a fun listen which, while it won’t be winning any awards, is certainly a must-listen for fans of the young, genre bending front man.

4/5

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Top Ten Albums of 2019, So Far…

2019 is halfway over! Let’s take a look back at some of the best music we’ve already heard this year!

10. Little SimzGREY Area

With the endorsement of genre icons like Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar, Little Simz has long been one of the most exciting up and comers in all of rap music. On GREY Area, she finally finds her potential in a very real way. Tracks like “Boss,” and “Selfish,” defy the gender stereotypes inherent in much rap music by bringing explosive attitude and bombastic flow to every bar. Her complex schemes and enthralling storytelling give this album a ton of replay value beyond the initial punch each cut delivers.

Beyond Simz herself, the instrumentals carry on much the jazzy influences of her earlier work, but filtered through elements of trap and East Coast boom-bap. GREY Area fixes nearly every short coming of earlier albums while diving into new, more daring sounds. Perhaps most importantly, this LP will leave listeners with a growing since of excitement for the upcoming career of one of the most the impressive artists in all of rap music.

9. Billie EilishWHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Yet another promising young star who hadn’t quite found her stride yet, Billie Eilish was finally able to merge her dark, unnerving reputation with a genuinely strong sound on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Cuts like “Bad Guy,” and “Bury a Friend,” have been smash hits and catapulted Eilish into the cultural zeitgeist. This newfound attention is entirely deserved too, as this is one of the more unique and groundbreaking releases in modern pop music.

Her vocal performances are quite strong, as are her lyrics, but the true breakthrough here comes in the instrumentation and production. The bass-heavy mixes broke with current trends of bright, upbeat styles. Instead, several tracks are nocturnal and daring to the point of being scary with bizarre vocal layering and effects building on this quite effectively. I do have my complaints, particularly on the technical side of the production, but this album is nearly as groundbreaking as the artist behind it, and for that, it must be mentioned among the best of the year.

8. American FootballLP 3

American Football has one of the strangest histories in all of music. The math rock/shoegaze four piece debuted in 1999 with a self-titled LP that is, to this day, one of the most respected works in all of the midwestern emo scene. They then disappeared for 17 years before returning in 2016. This year saw the release of their third LP, a much more matured version of the swirling, technical style which made their debut such a classic. Tracks like “Uncomfortably Numb,” and “Doom In Full Bloom,” have been regular listens since I first heard them and nearly every cut has something to offer.

With LP 3, American Football revisited much of the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. Spacey guitars are layered five and six times over and they use the simple bones of their songs to build a truly engrossing experience on nearly every song. The album has been criticized as bland by many, and while I understand where that comes from, I would say that it rather gives a listener the opportunity to find the bright points themselves. LP 3 is a gentle storm of complex guitars and vocals and a must hear for fans of the once great midwestern emo scene.

7. DefeaterDefeater

Defeater is a hardcore band from New Jersey who’s every release since 2008 has followed the same storyline of a struggling family in 1940’s America. This self-titled entry is the fifth in the saga and it is just as brutal and heartfelt as ever. The band’s ability to find compelling melody among constant, crushing instrumentation sets them apart from many of their hardcore contemporaries and makes what would normally be a difficult listen quite palatable even to casual fans.

Defeater doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking on this album and, in fact,  retreads the sound that was much more popular about a decade ago, but the charm comes in the tight, thrashing performances from every single member. The drums on a track like “Atheists in Foxholes,” or the vocals on “List & Heel,” are absolutely fantastic but they still stand on overall well written parts from every member. All in all, Defeater is a brutal but perfectly paced entry into a fascinating storyline which continues to deliver excellent moments.

6. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

A long time rap star and founding member of the rap group, Loiter Squad, Tyler has been known as a fowl mouthed, punk rapper since his debut 2011. That all changed with 2017’s Flower Boy in which Tyler came out as bisexual in addition to crafting a genuinely impressive exploration of sexuality, masculinity, and the culture around him. IGOR continues many of these themes, telling the story of Tyler learning to get over a bad relationship and grow as a person.

Sonically, IGOR is bizarre to say the least. In my review, I referred to this style as “industrial Motown,” and to some extent, I think that’s still the best way to describe it. Songs like “EARFQUAKE,” and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” are groovy and danceable, but also feature a bass-heavy, abrasive production style that is just fascinating. This, paired with excellent lyricism and a manic pacing that never lets a listener stop to breath, makes for one of the most interesting projects of the year thus far.

5. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived and it was largely perfect. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.

Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.

4. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.

The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet means that there’s a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.

3. Ariana Grandethank u, next

Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana writes heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other tracks like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly a highlight, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and a nocturnal fog drenched over everything. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today.

2. Todd SniderCash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.

As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
  • ZUU – Denzel Curry
  • Front Porch – Joy Williams
  • Social Cues – Cage the Elephant
  • Dedicated – Carly Rae Jepsen

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. Xiu XiuGirl with Basket of Fruit

At first, I wasn’t sold on placing this album at number one. Admittedly, I haven’t found myself revisiting this record nearly as much as others on this list, but, on the other hand, there isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter.

Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the album itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB