Lil Wayne: The Dedication 6
The sixth instalment in Lil Wayne and DJ Drama’s Dedication series, and the first in four years, came out on Christmas Day, and it had everything you’d expect from a stocking-filler, down to the DatPiff digital wrapping. The beats are familiar, from Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” to 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” to JAY-Z’s “The Story of O.J,” and Nicki Minaj and Gudda Gudda show up early. It’s inevitably spotty and ephemeral, but it’s reassuring to hear Lil Wayne find his flow, even if it only happens briefly. The highlight is “XO Tour Life,” where Wayne sounds comfortable without sounding narcoleptic, rhyming “Just call me the Rapper, I’m Chancin’ it” with “Kaepernick.” Take the highs where you can get them.
Francis and the Lights: Just for Us
Released at a day’s notice in the middle of post-Christmas purgatory, Francis Farewell Starlite’s third album is rich, dreamlike, refreshingly simple, and just charming enough to get away with its occasionally tiring wholesomeness. Its a step forward for Starlite, who is more engaging on his own gentle piano ballads than he is on collaborations with megastars, and he’s honest enough to let his agony mix with wit. “Breaking Up” is a one-sided conversation over a shitty phone line, and there’s plenty of pain in it: “I can’t hear you, we’re breaking up / Did you say it’s over? / I can’t hear you, we’re breaking up / Did you say you were coming over?” The next song is “Never Back,” which opens here: “There is no God.”
Sub Pop are selling LiE as the “first unlimited-edition, non-bootleg” live album in Mudhoney’s 30-year career, which doesn’t seem so important when you remember that Live at El Sol and Live at Third Man are readily available online, the KEXP Space Needle performance is on YouTube, and bootlegs are kicking around the type of places that bootlegs kick around. But, despite all that, LiE is more than worth the time and money. The band have sounded leaner since returning with Vanishing Point in 2013, and this is the first time anyone’s captured that properly, balancing Steve Turner’s fuzz without sacrificing the elastic precision of Dan Peters and Guy Maddison as a rhythm section. And the chances are that Mark Arm will still be howling like this into his dotage.
Barrington Devaughn Hendricks grew up in New York and moved to Alabama as a teenager. He enlisted in the army, which sent him to Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, and finally Japan, where he stayed for a while before moving to Baltimore, just before the city erupted in protest in response to the death, at police hands, of Freddie Gray. He’s a contrarian—projects like Communist Slow Jamz, Black Ben Carson, and the 2nd Amendment EP are a giveaway—and his rhymes are built to confront and confound the inanities and stupid brutalities of the internet’s darker corners. Veteran is wild—seventeen tracks of furious irony that spit and sputter and end up moving through a four-song stretch of “Whole Foods,” “Macauley Culkin,” “Williamsburg,” and “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies.” That last one, with its SoundCloud parody beat, detaches itself when he raps, “4chan on my dick cuz I’m edgy / Sit ya pale ass down, have a Pepsi.” But when he refers to himself as a “left-wing Hades,” he might be telling the truth.
Shopping: The Official Body
Still straight-up post-punks but never just for purists, the London-based four-piece have responded to Brexit, fear, and insularity by focusing on the human body and its place in society. That’s inevitably a more biting critique of a broken culture than any protest album can muster, and certainly more potent than any of the shouty, monoculture indie that’s continued to rise since the country retreated into itself. Everything here is sonically taught, but it’s harder to resist now that they’ve found some danceable rhythms. That helps the anger to land. Like this line, from co-lead vocalist Rachel Aggs, on “My Dad’s a Dancer”: “This is such a simple thing / You don’t like me / I don’t look like you.
Higher Brothers: Journey to the West EP
These four kids from Chengdu, China, who decided to combine their Sichuanese dialect with English after watching Noisey Atlanta, are coming to the US next month, and this four-track EP is supposed to stoke the hype around them in the run-up. Two of these songs feature Ski Mask the Slump God and, of those, only “Rich Bitch” is new. But it serves as a good intro to a group you’re likely to hear more about in 2018. The highlight is “Chanel,” an ominous and bass-heavy song that features the following recognizable words: “Coco,” “Chanel,” “logo.” You get the idea.
No Age: Snares Like a Haircut
The LA-based noise-rock band’s fifth album (and first since leaving Sub Pop) is joyous and anthemic, never more than a couple seconds from Dean Spunt exhaling a weightless vocal hook and Randy Randall striking some exultant power chord. There’s fear beneath the fuzz, because it was written in 2017. On “Stuck in the Changer,” Spunt sings, “Everywhere I face / I toss and turn”; on “Send Me,” he’s more restless still: “Send me, send me / Where should I go?” But it’s all delivered with such abandon that the angst burns away.
Khruangbin: Con Todo El Mundo
A three-piece from Burton, Texas (population 300), Khruangbin build unclassifiable, international instrumental jams. Their debut LP, 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You, drew from Thai cassette tapes, with the band’s roots in hip-hop and house bubbling beneath. But Con Todo El Mundo is, as its name suggests, even more diverse, touching on Compas, Persian pop, and psychedelia. It hangs together beautifully, mostly because the trio itself is so well-balanced—Mark Speer’s fluid guitar is given space to spill over by drummer Donald Johnson’s gentle syncopations, and Laura Lee’s intuitive basslines are always drifting in and out. It’s truly international music at a time when that’s more vital than ever.
Field Music: Open Here
Sixty percent of people in Sunderland, the northern English city that brothers Peter and David Brewis call home, voted to leave the European Union in 2016. And while Field Music’s fourth studio album—with its lush strings and woodwind skipping into jaunty electronic drums and almost kitschy horns—is as direct a response to that cataclysm as you’ll find in art-pop (or anywhere), it is compelling because it doesn’t pretend to know precisely what the hell happened. These are masterfully constructed songs that wrestle with themselves lyrically as much they burrow into the listener melodically. Take the danceable rumination on privilege in “Count It Up” (influenced by the American economist Joseph Stiglitz, for what it’s worth) or the jaunty, filtered funk of “Goodbye to the Country,” in which David Brewis sings from the perspective of a refugee in a northern town, noting—and he needs to—that “there’s a real war on” elsewhere. Or just start at the beginning, with fear and irony on Wearside: “Couldn’t sleep last night? Me too. Do you think that proves we need to stick together? Or is sympathy too serious a thing to take seriously?”
Ezra Feinberg: Pentimento and Others
This is Feinberg’s debut solo album, though he built a formidable back catalog fronting the ambitious, acid-inspired rock band Citay in the Bay Area in the ’00s. That band came to a close in 2012 before Feinberg moved to Brooklyn, started a family, and concentrated on his work as a psychoanalyst. Pentimento and Others is a meditative album in the truest sense, designed to lull the listener into some cosmic relaxation, its looping acoustic guitars and swelling synths always overlapping but never interrupting each other. It could lift you into all the same places that Citay tried to in the first place. If nothing else, it will chill you out.
Charlie Martin and Will Taylor were both drummers when they started playing music together as Hovvdy, and the semi-whispered, mellowed-out acoustic pop that they’ve produced in the past two years has a pretty, percussive simplicity to it. They call it “pillowcore,” which makes sense, and you’ll find plenty of parallels between these Austin-based twenty-somethings and the slowcore kids of the 1990s—think Duster and Bedhead, for starters. On Cranberry, though, the hushed, instinctively simple harmonies set them apart. “Truck,” with its subtle country inflections, is the standout track, suggesting that there’s plenty of space to explore moving forward (though they’d only need to look at Alex Giannascoli for proof that this style can move into strange and exciting new places). In the meantime, Cranberry is a rare treat—a bedroom pop album that demands more than background listening.
American Pleasure Club: A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This
This is Sam Ray’s best album as Teen Suicide or Julia Brown or Ricky Eat Acid or anything else, and it’s the best album of the young year so far by some distance. Fucking LIfetime floats between cerebral clatter, distorted samples, and tape-deck acoustics—different angles from which to articulate love and longing and painful past addictions. “Let’s Move to the Desert,” which samples Frank Ocean’s Endless cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” is blissful, an attempt to freeze a perfect split-second that actually works, for once. It’s further evidence that Ray has a rare gift—present in his ambient work too—for making life’s ugly moments beautiful and its beautiful moments limitless.
Rejjie Snow: Dear Annie
This 24-year-old Dublin-born rapper has been promising a debut album for the better part of five years (under the name Dear Annie the whole time, remarkably). There’s a lot to be written about the way his sound and flow have matured in that time, the way that the American hip-hop establishment has stuck with him (he’s part of 300 Entertainment), and the lessons he picked up from, say, touring with Madonna and signing to Elton John’s management company. But for now, we get to enjoy a real-life full-length from a man who seems terrifyingly close to being the finished article. Only on the inter-song skits will you get a feel for his transatlantic accent, with most of Dear Annie delivered in a soft Californian inflection. He sees love and lust as inseparable forces, and he touches on them with some self-aware, third-grade French: “désolé,” “mon amour,” “She say, ‘bonjour, bonsoir’ / I like eggs / I say, ‘I like FIFA, Like sex.'” In the end, it all melts into soft soul over a 20-track album that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If there’s any justice, he’ll be a star; with the connections he’s got Stateside, I’ll be shocked if he isn’t one by the end of the year.
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
Inspired by LSD, at ease with the world, in awe of the beauty of everything, Kacey Musgraves finally has her country-pop masterpiece. For all of its carefully worked honesty, debut LP Same Trailer, Different Park only hinted at this sort of songcraft; on the follow-up, Pageant Material, Musgraves wasn’t sure where she belonged. Here, on her third LP, she seems to have nothing to prove. There’s plenty more to be written about Musgraves’s talent and worldview but, for now, just listen to “Butterflies,” “Happy & Sad,” and “Golden Hour,” three of the best pop-country-adjacent love songs of this or any other year. And definitely listen to “Rainbow,” a stunner, which makes majesty out of familiar balladry.
Young Thug: Hear No Evil
Young Thug said that he’d take a break from music this year in solidarity with his brother, who can neither hear nor talk. Instead, out of nowhere, the 26-year-old gave us Hear No Evil, a quick-hit EP that features a star on each of its three songs. Alongside Nicki Minaj on “Anybody,” Thugger makes his clearest play for summer dominance, looping back to a moodily catchy hook. (“You gotta picture me rollin'” is the line, and it works.) The Lil Uzi Vert-featuring “Up” relies more on flow than melody, but it fizzes and pops, particularly when (whisper it) Uzi shows up. “Now,” featuring 21 Savage, is the most easily skippable of the three—21’s laconic delivery doesn’t help—but a persistent, choppy piano keeps things rolling well enough. There’s a sign language video for “Anybody” by the way—a more active connection than silence. Hopefully Young Thug never runs out of surprises.
King Tuff: Black Moon Spell
Four years on from Black Moon Spell, his last scuzzy LP as King Tuff , Kyle Thomas has returned with something more pensive, ambitious, and intriguing. The first single was the title track, a quietly spacey, six-minute-plus almost-ballad which serves as the opener here. It’s about hitting “rock bottom,” according to Thomas himself, so we’re set up nicely for an hour of throwback rock that alternates between a strut, a swagger, and a psychedelic day trip. Jenny Lewis, Mikal Cronin, and Ty Segall (duh) are all present. It’s good to have King Tuff back—still searching for something, still funny enough to pull that off, and now less afraid to take a few risks.
Princess Nokia: A Girl Cried Red
Destiny Frasqueri said that this, her fourth proper release as Princess Nokia, would be an “emo mixtape.” She certainly followed through on the promise, though that might not be the best news. Frasqueri is massively talented, and there’s no reason that she shouldn’t bring morose, nihilistic pop-punk into her already self-aware rhymes. But she falls back on lyrical clichés too often—”Smash my heart in pieces / It looks so good on the floor” is one recurring line—and her voice seems stiff, even robotic here. If you’re looking for a standout, “Flowers and Rope” has a dark, summer-midnight bounce to it. If you’re looking into the future, take this as an awkward splurge that could lead a potentially brilliant young artist onto stranger (but hopefully more solid) ground.
Josh T Pearson: The Straight Hits!
The former Lift to Experience frontman has returned to the realm of the living. Where his depressive 2011 solo album, Last of the Country Gentlemen, told anguished tales of love gone awry and life gone to shit, The Straight Hits! bursts through on a rush of power chords and the line: “Fast as a bullet!” He deliberately kept things as bright as possible here, and he wrote down a bunch of rules to make sure nothing got bogged down (“All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge,” “The lyrics must run 16 lines or less,” etc). It’s led him to a genuinely entertaining country-powerpop crossover record—so good that the “gushing” imagery on the uncomfortably sexual “Straight Laced Come Undone” is only a minor blip. Amazing what shaving a two-foot beard can do to a guy.
Sting & Shaggy: 44/876
The news that 66-year-old global megastar Sting and his 48-year-old new pal Shaggy would release this, their collaborative pop-reggae album, on 4/20, was met with a combination of ironic excitement and quiet exhaustion (not least by me). Nothing is truly shocking anymore, and you have to take the easy fun where you can get it. It was easier to burrow into the concept because “Don’t Make Me Wait,” 44/876‘s lead single, was breezy and enjoyable in its own midday-cocktail way. It even suggested that the two artists might have a rapport. It’s a lot harder to back this up after listening to all 15 (fifteen!) of these songs. “Gotta Get Back My Baby” is a straight pop song that could have appeared on a Bruno Mars demo tape a decade ago and I’m fine with that. Elsewhere, things get rough, and it wasn’t Shaggy. Here’s Sting’s first line: “I hear reggae music, it carries me away / And the ghost of Bob Marley, that haunts me to this day / There’s a spiritual truth in the words of his song / And the Caribbean nation to which they belong.” You’re gonna need a bigger blunt.
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Stick with her. “Top of the World,” the second track on this Kiwi singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s third LP, was co-written with and produced by Skrillex. It should be the hit, but instead it’s a limp mass of minimal, supposedly tribal beats, punctuated Kimbra rapping about “being on top of the world.” Ignore that. “Everybody Knows” has some refreshing, peak-era Kylie Minogue melodies; “Like They Do on the TV” is a late-night liberation anthem sung through pulsing synths; “Human” is a rangey thesis statement that showcases her dextrous voice. “Real Life” is the sort of ballad that Justin Vernon might’ve dreamed up in the midst of his Kanye phase. Kimbra is, as always, better when she’s traversing her own strange paths, trying to find a sound that fits, even if it’s only lasts a moment.
Post Animal: When I Think of You in a Castle
This Chicago-based throwback-psych troupe write actual real-life songs, which is more of a relief than it ought to be. Their scuzzy, flannel-wearing, day-drunk aesthetic isn’t there to throw you off the scent—these are weed-addled rock songs reconstructed from dad’s record collection. But Post Animal don’t feel the need to drown every last goddamn guitar in reverb, instead allowing tightly-wound, falsetto-leaning songs like “Ralphie” and “Special Moment” do their own work. And it bodes well that they neither take themselves too seriously nor insist on turning everything into a parody of itself.
Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse
Sadie Dupuis said that she wanted to exorcize her “control-freaky demons” on Slugger, her debut solo album as Sad13. It seems to have worked. The Speedy Ortiz auteur has always been at her best when singing through oppositional clatter, holding true while guitars spit and spark and occasionally catch fire. On Twerp Verse, her band’s third full-length, she’s uncompromising, often cutting down her enemies—internal and external—in fifteen words or fewer. “He drew a bath and floated there / He cares a lot / We’re strictly speaking self-care,” she sings between some jagged edges; “I’m blessed, I am a witch / And I float above everyone who would do harm on me,” she mutters later, making sure that nobody fucks with her. Now that Speedy Ortiz have decided to cram every song with as many hooks as they can, all of this lands—albeit at a strange angle. They’re an increasingly dangerous proposition, and Dupuis probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Various Artists: I’m Not Here to Hunt Rabbits
This collection of songs by Botswanan solo musicians, released by the Berlin-based Pirhana Records, makes for a brilliant introduction to a unique style. The vast majority of these artists play standard guitars, but only usually string up three treble strings and one bass. And, most importantly, they play with their left hands over the neck rather than underneath, allowing for new shapes and rhythms in the open tunings. (Here’s the video that got the project rolling; it’s mesmerizing.) Anyway, enough with form. Even in a vacuum, this is one of the best guitar albums of the year so far. The grating strings of Oteng Peet’s “Ngwana Wa Dichabeng (Lonely Days)” and Motlogelwa Barolong’s “Ke a Tsamaya (I’m Leaving)” are a challenge, and Annafiki Ditau’s “Re Babedi (I Will Never Forget You)” is a strange keyboard-heavy interlude. But Molefe Lekgetho, who contributes “Machikiliani (Security Guard),” has an effortlessly rich voice and Sebongile Kgaila drifts between the bass and treble so smoothly you won’t notice the transition. Go buy it too—there’s a good-looking 36-page booklet that’s worth the read.
Parquet Courts’ sixth album opens with a slurred manifesto from Andrew Savage: “We are conductors of sound, heat, and energy / And I bet that you thought you had us figured out from the start.” The key word there is “us,” and it sets up a song about unionization, white privilege, and “emancipation.” The collectively minded Dutch national soccer team of the 1970s—a response to the reactive, defensive Italians who dominated the sport in the past—lounge in the background, cigarettes likely dangling from their lips. This is a protest record in the most direct sense, and there are fewer convoluted raves than you’d expect after the breathless “Violence” early on. (And, anyway, he’s right, why are there no folk songs about ATMs? Or banks? Or piss tests? I guess the answer depends on whether or not you consider Open Mike Eagle a folk singer.) Savage—who co-wrote the album alongside guitarist Austin Brown—is at his most impactful when he’s taking himself to task, inspecting whether or not it’s good to laugh at white supremacists getting clocked in the face, reckoning with the brutality that he’s willing to witness in a K2-riddled Brooklyn neighborhood that he only has to pass through. Danger Mouse produced the record, and he’s clearly challenged a band who were more than ready to move on sonically. Devo, Parliament, Big Boys, and Minutemen all work their way in here, but it never seems forced. Or, at least, the homages are respectful. I’m also willing to bet that Danger Mouse had plenty to do with the closer, “Tenderness,” easily the best pop song Savage has worked through. Don’t turn up searching for answers—Parquet Courts don’t have any more than any other group of caucasians in New York City, and they know it. But do turn up for a guy desperate not to be “undone by nihilism,” finding a little hope in good basslines.
Wussy: What Heaven Is Like
I’ve never really thought of Wussy as a “psychedelic band” anyway, even if 2015’s Forever Sounds did bubble up and almost bury Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker beneath the buzz. This is the band that wrote “Don’t Leave Just Now” and “Jonah” and “Little Miami,” heart-wrenching country-rooted songs that seem otherworldly only in the sense that Cleaver and Walker are able to articulate love and death and pain in ways that few rock bands from this world can right now.What Heaven Is Like, their seventh LP, leads with astronauts and “Aliens In Our Midst” and a three-song suite for Keith Burns’ mutative graphic novel, Black Hole; Walker’s voice does have a far-out reverb on it over “Skip”; the Kath Bloom cover “Oblivion” is hazy and heady. Psychedelic, though? “Gloria” is a tribute toFargo’s Gloria Bugle, and it’s one of the most engrossingly plaintive rock songs of this year so far. Wussy are on and of this planet. Occasionally they just see it a little clearer than everyone else.
Parliament: Medicaid Fraud Dogg
Parliament, George Clinton’s vessel for soulful, slippery jams, returned earlier this week after 38 years away. The magnificently titled Medicaid Fraud Doggspreads its 23 songs across 108 minutes, plenty of time for a scenic tour through Clinton’s world. That world is something akin to an adult amusement park that sells prescription pills (with all the side-effects), encourages nudity, and keeps Atlantan trap mixtapes on in the background. It’s not all fun and games—Clinton and his team are too turned-on (in every sense) to get through songs called “Psychotropic,” “I’m Gon’ Make U Sick O’me,” and particularly “Insurance Man” without critiquing America’s grotesque and exploitative health system. “Pain Management,” a throwback-through-Auto-Tune that he’s had kicking around for a while, is a particularly difficult listen when you think about one of Clinton’s dear friends and his drug-induced demise—another casualty of an American epidemic. But sex and funk are a protest in their own right, and there’s plenty of both here. Trap, too. When asked about the modern music he’d been enjoying in a recent Reddit AMA, Clinton checked off “Flying Lotus, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z’s new album, Tra’Zae, and all that shit coming out of Atlanta.” They all make their way onto Medicaid Fraud Dogg—some through flow, some through name-drops. So Clinton, whose influence on rap and present-day American music is indelible, finds himself inspired by the youth all over again. That turns out to be a mind-altering pleasure on its own.
Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer
“I know my way around a tune / Won’t be a single dry eye in a room,” Josh Tillman boasts wryly on “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” the first of the half-dozen or so ballads that spread across his fourth studio album as Father John Misty. “But you can take what I know about you / And maybe fill a small balloon.” I don’t care how many layers of apocalypse-rotted irony you peeled back from 2016’s Pure Comedy—this sort of self-awareness was still infuriatingly absent.
Tillman (or Tillman-as-Misty, whatever) isn’t diagnosing society’s follies and humanity’s missteps over seven-minute stretches anymore, because the hotel stays and Adderall abuses and self-destructive impulses piled up too high for him to see out. (“I’m in over my head / I’m in over my head / I’m in way over my head,” he croaks on “The Palace.”) So we get an album more emotionally resonant than anything he’s touched in the past, a record that earns its endpoint, “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).” It’s a note on mortality that sounds painfully like a sign-off in the most finite sense, and comes shot through with empathy and crisis: “You’ve been hurt / And I’ve been hurt / But what do we do now?” I’ll take Tillman the terrified postmodern memoirist over Tillman the whiskey-drunk postgraduate social critic any day.
American Pleasure Club: Tour Tape
Sam Ray creates and releases so much music under so many guises at such a frantic pace that even his most ardent fans might struggle to keep up. Since releasing American Pleasure Club’s static-acoustic pseudo-debut i blew on a dandelion and the whole world disappeared at Christmas, he’s put out a mini-masterpiece in APC’s A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This, beautifully reworked the already-leaked Ricky Eat Acid ambient tape am i happy, singing_, and uploaded a gorgeous duet, “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” with his wife, Kitty. (There’s more out there too, but we don’t have the space.)
Tour Tape, a pay-what-you-can 12-track comprised mostly of songs that come in under the three-minute mark, snaps between black metal, gentle acoustics, trip-hop, screamo, and out-of-body samples; it clatters in the distance one moment and confronts you intimately the next. It coheres partly because it’s sequenced with care—the incomprehensible, brutal “DOPE SICK AND SOBBING AT THE GATES OF HELL” makes a strange sense up next to the delicate tweaks of “I WANT TO FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU ONE MILLION TIMES.” The links between Tour Tape and Lifetime come through after a few listens: “You made it hard to have grace,” Ray sings on “SMOKING ROCK WITH MY ANGEL IN MILWAUKEE” while Kitty’s voice swirls in the background on loop: “Come back to life / Before my telephone rings.” But the real holdover is Ray’s ability to turn small moments into lasting monuments even after the agony, as he does perfectly over laconic guitars on “TOGETHER IN THE BIG BLACK CAR.” As a lyricist, Ray has a remarkable gift for rendering detail; as a musician, he has no interest in sitting still. Just try to absorb it all before he puts something else online.