Lil Wayne: The Dedication 6
The sixth installment 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. It’s 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 most protest albums 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 taut, 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 by 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: Wide Awake
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 to Fargo’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 Dogg spreads 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.
Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine EP
Had this collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner not been released on PEOPLE—a new “non-commercial,” “artist-directed,” ephemera-based streaming service—it might have dominated the music news cycle for a day. As it is, Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut appeared inside a trove of semi-experimental new music from both established and unknown indie musicians on Wednesday, and received almost no attention as a result. The four-song EP itself is an exercise in minimalism, Vernon’s vocal hooks mostly swirling around looping, open guitar riffs. It breathes the same sunny-winter air that Vernon exhaled on much of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, a world apart from Sleep Well Beast’s indoor humidity. “Forest Green” is languid and falsetto-filled, “Lyla” has an irrepressible syncopation, and “Hymnostic” is a piano ballad with the type of rich harmonies that Vernon could only have dreamed of writing in his DeYarmond Edison days. But the almost indecipherable “Gratitude,” with its spiral-shaped structure, is the most interesting. There are moments there—brief ones—in which Vernon slips into an Auto-Tuned trap flow. It’s more by impulse than design, but then it would be—Vernon’s had a hand in hip-hop melodicism since Twisted Fantasy. It’s just fun to hear him loosen up. Apparently that’s what PEOPLE is there for.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs
A lot has been made of this Melbourne quartet’s throwback sound—The Go-Betweens and anyone who released a record on Flying Nun between ’82 and ’99 are the usual reference points. And while that’s excellent company to keep, Hope Downs proves there’s far more to Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever than a desire to borrow from their Antipodean forefathers. The record clocks in at 35 minutes—only a few minutes longer than their first two jangly, hype-making EPs, The French Press and Talk Tight—but it’s a step up from both of those lyrically and melodically. Tom Russo, Fran Keaney, and Joe White have suddenly become masters of the pop chorus—”Mainlaind,” “Sister’s Jeans,” and “How Long” all build to laconic and languid singalongs. And the hazy details of forgotten days they try to reconjure say more about “nostalgia” than any treble-driven guitar hook could. You walk past the wall you first kissed her against / How could you forget?” Keaney asks on opener “Air Conditioned Man.” And then he rethinks: “Or was it over there? / Did it ever matter in the first place?” The answer is no, it didn’t, because the feeling counts for more. They’ve figured that out already, they just expect the rest of us to get there as well.
Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth
On the same day that Teyana Taylor releases the last in a Kanye West-produced pentalogy of seven-song, sub-30-minute albums, Kamasi Washington rolls up with a two-and-a-half-hour-long jazz opus, one side of which deals with the saxophonist/bandleader’s internal world, the other with everything else—including the cosmos. It’s even more sprawling and ambitious than its runtime or its list of special guests lets on, and the space that Washington leaves for new styles to drift in and out allows for some transcendent stretches—one begins with the sputtering drum solo at the end of an elongated cover of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hubtones” and doesn’t end until “The Invincible Youth” finally lies down and exhales. And when Washington explores everything, he has to explore a world in turmoil—Greg Tate called Washington “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter” not because of his hip-hop crossovers, but because of his ability to draw the tragicomic past into the urgent present. So the shades of Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane stand for defiance just as much as the new lyrics to the opening Bruce Lee theme “Fists of Fury” (“Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice”). And in the middle of it all—on the third or fourth listen, while the two albums rise and fall over their own arcs, choirs drop in and out, and solos fly into each other—it’s worth concentrating on the fact that the virtuosic Washington is fun. And funny. And obsessed with Street Fighter II. It would be such a waste to forget that.
Deafheaven: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Black metal expressionists Deafheaven announced their third LP, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, with a 12-minute-long, sepia-toned song called “Honeycomb.” It borrowed more from the twinkly, half-paced musings of emotionally fraught late-90s suburb-dwellers than it did from the morbid and frostbitten Scandinavians who inspire frontman George Clarke’s deathly shrieks. It was, in one sense, a giant fuck you to the crowds of purists who resent the band’s perceived sullying of the genre. Clarke’s lyrics are always difficult to discern, and his voice is usually buried behind towers of noise anyway, but reading through his words didn’t suggest that there was a cold heart behind the sonic uplift: “I’m reluctant to stay sad / Life beyond is a field / A field of flowers.”
If “Honeycomb” annoyed you, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love will make you furious. It’s Deafheaven’s most melodic, most accessible, and occasionally most sentimental album yet. It trades more in post-rock prettiness than it does in primal fury; it’s more sunset than midnight. Even on “Glint,” one of four songs here that top 10 minutes, when Daniel Tracy’s double-kick flicks into action and Clarke’s voice conjures up a storm, things still arc over a major key. The haunting Chelsea Wolfe, who turns up on “Night People,” stays somewhere near the earth here. This is a black metal album that promised “jazz-inspired percussion and intricate piano melodies.” This is an album lifts its title from a Graham Greene novel. But if you want to hear an emotive, considered, occasionally melancholy rock record from a band who seem to have gleefully done away with needless conventions, it’s a treat.
Chief Keef: Mansion Musick
There are those artists who feel the need to act like assholes in the run-up to an album release, believing that all PR is good PR. Then there’s Chief Keef, who’s so prolific that barely even tweets about a new project now. Mansion Musick, released this morning, at least came with ten day’s notice—more than can be said for The GloFiles Pt 1, The GloFiles Pt 2, The Leek Vol. 4, The Leek Vol. 5, and the Ottopsy EP, all of which came out earlier this year with next-to-no fanfare. (The 22-year-old Chicagoan’s even run out of album titles; a Mansion Music mixtape came out back in 2014.)
This one feels a little more like a full album rather than a collection of loosies or a handful of club-ready half-hits, even if the mix seems uneven and the tracks occasionally blur into one. It’s bookended by two anti-naysayer ballads in the Auto-Tuned “Belieber” and the hurriedly pretty “Letter.” Between them there’s “TV On (Big Boss),” a tribute to Keef’s cousin, Fredo Santana, who died in January; a sloppy Playboi Carti collaboration on “Uh Uh”; and a grateful shot of energy on “Tragedies.” Lyrically there’s nothing radical—”Shoot them dice, hit your car / I need duct tape, bitch no Scotch”—and Keef probably could’ve cut this down to size. But he’s never been in the mood for that. So you’ll just have to sift through the 90-odd songs he’s put out already this year and piece together something special yourself.
The Internet: Hive Mind
The most jittery song on The Internet’s fourth LP is “La Di Da,” in which frontwoman Syd, who is usually thinking about sex, decides to flex. “I’m draped in designer, wage with the lineup / Face it, I’m out of your league,” she sings over Christopher Smith’s snycopations. Maybe she just had to break up the easy narrative that we’d have got from the surrounding “Come Over” and “Stay The Night.” Now established masters of muted, sexually-charged R&B, the five-piece seem even more coherent as a group after going away to work on their own projects over the past couple of years. So it’s the little things that come through the sweetly delivered pillow-talk: the synth-trip interlude on “Next Time/Humble Pie,” Patrick Paige II’s stomping bass on “Look What U Started,” the odd stumble that Smith’s boom-bap-bap drums bring to “Bravo.” But it’s usually in service to stoned, entrancing melodies and lyrics that breeze right past innuendo without ever seeming corny. The notable exception is “It Gets Better (With Time),” a hazily heartbreaking ballad about overcoming. Syd could have handled that one Big Rube’s guest spot, but Paige’s rapped verse resonates. You can think about a lot of different things when you’re lying in bed.
GAIKA: Basic Volume
Murkage, the four-piece rap troupe in which Brixton-born GAIKA made a name for himself, were furious and frenetic, a tightly-wound group of revolutionaries standing at the front of a never-ending protest with a megaphone and an unblinking stare. And while he’s still every bit the dagger-eyed civil disobedientBASIC VOLUME, his debut, both the tune of his ire and the way in which he delivers it have changed. His voice is more distinctive, a sludgy Caribbean drawl that can flicker into flames at the click of a snare, as it does startlingly on “Black Empire (Killmonger Riddim).” There’s production from Jam City, Dre Skull, and Dutch E Germ, and—brilliantly—SOPHIE, all of whom nod to distorted, futuristic dancehall beats and trap rhythms in a way that feels truly international. That, like everything, is in service to the Message—”There’s a story underneath every headstone,” he sings on the standout “Immigrant Sons (Pesos & Gas),” and it rings like a mantra. But GAIKA’s real achievement is crafting a record that presents an uprising with pride, personality, and originality, something that could usher in a new era of British rap music on its way to bursting down every megalomaniac’s door.
Denzel Curry: TA13OO
South Florida SoundCloud sensation Denzel Curry’s third LP is split into three sections: Light, Grey, and Dark. The opening song, the introduction to what’s supposed to be the peppier side of things, deals obliquely—and at times awkwardly—with molestation and PTSD. And while “BLACK BALLOONS” and “CASH MANIAC” are both breezy throwback jams, he still seems in a rush to get to the bleak stuff with the aggro “SUMO.” Some of the tracks in the middle-ground are indeed middling until the introspective state of the union track “SIRENS”—”Wise enough, advise the public, pistol bust, screamin’ ‘fuck it’ / Donald Trump, Donald Duck, what the fuck is the difference?”—and the suicidal terror of “CLOUD COBAIN.” The final third is mostly an attempt to settle scores rather than a further descent into solitary madness, but he pulls it off because, unlike a lot of the Soundcloud kids, he’s a versatile rapper and an increasingly impressive technician. On “VENGEANCE,” his brutal comic flow even manages to match JPEGMAFIA’s, which is an achievement in itself. Curry is clearly an ambitious artist, and he hits far more often than he misses. He’s also a 23-year-old kid whose seen too much awful shit already. Hopefully creation allows a little light in for him sometimes.
RL Grime: NOVA
No longer concerned with working trap into his EDM-mix exertions, Henry Steinway’s beats now deal with uncanny effects only in short bursts. Instead, he loads the top half of his second album up with as many guests as he can find: Miguel, Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign, Chief Keef, etc. Each of those first six tracks have their moments, but none of them feel like essential additions to any artist’s catalog. They’re either too swamped by synths (“Take It Away”) or too sugary and unobtrusive (“Light Me Up”). The trouble, as ever, is knowing precisely what RL Grime wants to be—is he summer festival fixture, a rap producer who holidays in Ibiza, or a pop musician with half an ear on the underground? NOVA doesn’t clear that up, and by the end I find myself less interested in finding out. An album of muted beats, like “Shoulda” and “Run for Your LIfe,” would be cool; an album of bombastic, hyped-up R&B party tracks like “UCLA” would make me want to steal a convertible. An album like NOVA just makes me want to skip, rearrange, and cull tracks with abandon.
Nothing: Dance on the Blacktop
This Philadelphia four-piece’s debut album, 2014’s Guilty of Everything, was lead singer Domenic Palermo’s attempt to work through the two-year prison sentence, for aggravated assault, from which he’d just been released. Their follow up, 2016’s Tired of Tomorrow, had him grappling with the fallout from a brutal mugging after a show that left him near death. Both times, the distorted guitars and echoes behind him resonated and uplifted, giving his introspection a dream-like feel. Dance on The Blacktop, however, is one disaster too far. In the space between records, Palermo was diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a direct result of the physical trauma he suffered three years ago. Concerned with decay, his voice is exhausted, occasionally dissonant, disturbingly plain—the sound of an individual who’s staring into the mirror and frankly contemplating a scary future. And this time the band—completed by Brandon Setta, Kyle Kimball, and Aaron Heard—are right there with him, echoing the despair, usually in minor keys. “Emotionless / Emotionless / Empire of rust,” Palermo drones on opener “Zero Day”; “Bracing for more fatigue / I won’t stand on two feet, or fall / I’ve hit the wall” on the strained “Plastic Migrane.” Darkest of all is “I Hate the Flowers”: “Stop all the clocks in my brain / Clog all the veins in the drains / Build a coffin around this house / Dismantle the soil from the couch.” This is a record that will weigh you down to your bedsheets for hours if not days.
Anna Calvi: Hunter
One of Anna Calvi’s greatest weapons is the lone plucked string. “Suzanne and I,” the operatic first single from her Mercury-nominated, self-titled debut, showed that the London-raised artist had a bombastic voice, but the rumble of her guitar stood in for an entire orchestra. Hunter, her third LP, is her most refined effort yet, a sensual and sensuous trip into sexual desire, freedom, and fluidity. (“I’ll be the boy you be the girl I’ll be the girl you be the boy I’ll be the girl,” she sings on “Chain” before backing herself up with a satisfied “wonderful feeling.”) Again, Calvi’s predilection for sweeping drama, and her ability to wring it out of every note and chord and wobble of vibrato, is the glue. If you’ve ever had (or wanted) a sexual awakening in an opera house…
Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine
The debut LP from this collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner glitches into life, daydreams along on falsetto murmurs, flies off into the air with some soulful bursts, and occasionally parachutes back down to the snowy earth with some familiar plucked post-folk. Though it’s more polished than most of the demos on PEOPLE, the ephemera-heavy platform that the two helped to co-found earlier this year, it’s plenty experimental. “Gratitude” and “Forest Green” is loose and airy; “Hymnostic” and “People Lullaby” have the type of rich harmonies that Vernon used to fall back on when there wasn’t a band and a MacBook on hand; “OMDB” could be chopped up a little and used on the next Kanye West record (and very well might be). The closing crescendo on “Melt” is earned, but the tautological refrain—”YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE!”—feels like empty calories. Which is fine, really. When Dessner and Vernon gel, they can bring out brief moments of brilliance. When they don’t—in those moments moments when Vernon seems to be singing over a Sleep Well Beast B-side—it’s easy enough to see Big Red Machine as its own, occasionally fallible, experiment.
Waxahatchee: Great Thunder EP
Pitched as a return-to-roots record after last year’s introspective and crunchy pop-punk LP Out in the Storm, Katie Crutchfield’s Great Thunder comprises seven re-recorded songs originally written for a scrappy side project of the same name five years ago. The arrangements are pretty much the same here too—piano chords, a little acoustic guitar, sweet two-part harmonies—though everything is warmer and smoother than before. But apart from “Slow It Down,” which sounds like an American Weekend outtake, these songs are too intricate, their structures too loose, to be sped up and thrown into the middle of a club set. So, taken as a whole, it’s less a look backwards into Crutchfield’s past and more an intriguing hint at the new forms that might follow.
Joey Purp: Quarterthing
Savemoney stalwart Joey Purp’s last project, the iiiDrops mixtape, came out more than two years ago, just days after Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book (and Kanye’s Pablo) set the mainstream up for a summer of Chicago gospel. But save for a couple of guest spots for friends like Vic Mensa and Knox Fortune, Purp’s been conspicuously quiet ever since. Quarterthing, his true debut album, is thankfully the sort of emphatic statement that makes that silence worthwhile. He bleeds old into new, opening with a church-harmony throwback anthem “24K Gold/Sanctified,” breathlessly holding his own on a collab with RZA, then dipping into minimal dance beats on staccato songs like “Aw Shit!” and “Look At My Wrist.” It’ll take time to pick this thing apart, but it’s sneakily one of the most inventive mainstream rap records of the year so far.
NHK yx Koyxen: Reflexes
Rather than just remixing last year’s pleasantly oddball DFA debut Exit Entrance, Japanese producer Kouhei Matsunaga has reimagined the whole record, pushing half of the songs so far from their source that they’ve got new titles altogether. So even if you’re not familiar with the original, this is worth digging into. Everything sounds a little richer, and the smiley-happy-shiny-glitchy “Meetings” packs a bit more syncopation in. Of the new songs, the minimal “With You” and playful “Pio” stand out. It’s a mutation of an album that mutated as it went the first time, so don’t expect it to settle in one place for more than a moment.
Swearin’: Fall Into The Sun
After three years away, Allison Crutchfield’s much-loved indie-rock project have returned. The basic components are the same: smart, inventive, emotive, crunchy, throwback songs that keep an eye on every group of plaid-wearing, suburban icons you fell in love with as a teenager. Of course, they’re older and wiser now, but they’re still a compellingly exuberant rock band. I consider that to be a public service of sorts.
St. Vincent: MassEducation
A year on from Masseduction, Annie Clark’s glossy art-pop juggernaut, the stripped-down MassEducation reimagines those songs as muted piano ballads. Here, “Slow Disco” is an even more sweeping and graceful thing, “Smoking Section” is a croaking, late-night slice of desperate melancholy, and “New York,” which only had Clark and a piano in the first place, has its few remaining decorations removed. What’s really impressive, though, is the way Clark’s taken less obvious songs and made them fit so seamlessly. “Savior,” “Masseduction,” and “Pills,” all of which came with a pretty thick sheen last year, retain all of their cheek and wit with Thomas Bartlett, who records as Doveman, on the piano. Clark’s voice is, at its best, impossible to resist. But above all this is proof that, despite our collective skepticism when Jack Antonoff was revealed as Masseduction‘s producer, the songs were always strong.
Cloud Nothings: Last Building Burning
Cloud Nothings are heavier, meaner, quicker, punchier, and more vital here, on their fifth LP, than they’ve ever been before. Dylan Baldi has rediscovered the fury that gave Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else their nihilistic power; Jayson Gerycz is once again the most propulsive and energetic drummer in modern rock music; their verses kick and scream; their choruses are immediate. And don’t get me wrong here—I liked 2016 Life Without Sound, the first album on which Baldi actually worked on his lyrics and picked himself apart. I’m just glad that he’s managed to meld that thoughtfulness with some righteous anger and breakneck melodies again. Lines that’ll stick with you forever after just one listen: “They won’t remember my name / I’ll be alone in my shame,” “Don’t give him your / Don’t give him your life if it’s not right,” “I wish I could believe in your dream.”
Julia Holter: Aviary
I should have seen this coming when Julia Holter said she was trying to get at the “cacophony of the mind in a melted world.” There are few if any half-mainstream artists with the range, ambition, and sheer number of instruments under their mastery as Holter, and certainly none as unafraid to use all three when necessary. Aviary is a 15-song, 90-minute-long epic that opens with a warped orchestra and Holter howling to “a high vast and empty distance.” You don’t need to understand each and every literary allusion— Bernart de Ventadorn, Etel Adnan, Sappho, etc.—to be moved by Holter’s dismembered poetry. “Frequent missile talk / Slurping on the words I heard from the wretched zone / Fortune throwing candy slow in a death crawl / Face me gliding like a serpent and smile,” she sings on “Words I Heard,” a truly apocalyptic song with all the sweeping, terrifying grace that the end of the world deserves. Treasure this one.
Nicholas Krgovich: Ouch
The songs started flowing out of Vancouver-based Nicholas Krgovich after a grueling breakup last year, leaving him with a record that’s as painfully lonely as it is wry and self-effacing. As ever, it’s the type of record that you could leave on in the background, Krgovich’s languid vocals, soft bass, slide guitar interludes, and occasional horn solos lapping up like waves on a sparsely populated beach. But you’d be missing out on Krgovich’s wit, the type of lines that come from a guy who, after experiencing heartbreak for the first time, said that “life became hilariously heavy and impossible feeling.” “Whatever this was / Now resembles a joke,” he sings on “Goofy” before trying to get specific: “I hate this room and I hate this coffee and I hate this food.” There’s a weird thrill in hearing a songwriter as restrained and vibrant as Krgovich, 16 years into his career trying to get to grips with emotions that most people process in their teens. He’s genuinely shocked that most people have to do this shit at least once a lifetime.
Matt Ox: OX
Matt OX, like many 13-year-olds past and present, has ditched his toys, straightened out his dyed-black hair, and worked up the courage to pretend that he’s got more important things to do than focus on girls. On OX, his debut proper, he sounds disturbingly self-assured, holding himself together on tracks with Valee and Chief Keef, flexing constantly, bragging about putting “thirteen racks in my motor” as if he’s anywhere near the legal driving age. It’s not the most lyrically original rap release of the year, but Ox has good taste in producers—Oogie Mane and Real McCoy, mostly—and he almost always sounds convincing. Altogether it’s a (rather unexpected) leap forwards. And he’s 13! I’d praise him for being able to tie his own shoelaces, but he probably pays someone to do that for him now.
Sun Kil Moon: This Is My Dinner
At this point, you’re either on-board with Mark Kozelek’s novella-length post-Benjiscreeds, or you’re sick to death of his apparent self-indulgence. I’m in the former camp—I find his narrative style meditative where others find him boring, and witty where others find him abrasive—so an hour-and-a-half-long record built around four ten-plus-minute songs is like catnip to me. I’ll take him dragging the word “lawyer” out for 40 whole second over complete silence on the uncharacteristically breezy “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer,” and I’ll get all misty-eyed when he sings about saying goodbye to his ailing cat. And I’ll probably listen to This Is My Dinner, with all of its sonic variety, more than most of Kozelek’s recent work.
BlocBoy JB: Don’t Think That
BlocBoy, one of 2018’s breakout stars, doesn’t hang around on his second release of the year. This is just the Memphis rapper checking in to stay fresh in your memory, and while nothing on Don’t Think That pushes his sound forward, there aren’t really any duds either. Lil Uzi Vert gets a pretty lively cameo; “Crip Lit” makes for a solid R&B break. No chance you’re playing this instead of Simi though.
Lil Peep: Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2
The first posthumous collection of Gustav Åhr’s music is, inevitably, eerie. The tragedy he embraced on every song before his death at the age of 21 now comes across as foreshadowing—”Break my bones but act as my spine / Wonder who you’ll fuck when I die,” he sings on “16 Lines”—and it makes Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2 a difficult listen that will, paradoxically, comfort his millions of fans. The tacked-on XXXTentacion “collaboration,” “Falling Down,” here as the penultimate song, is an uncomfortable fit on a record that’s otherwise been so meticulously arranged by producer Smokeasac and Peep’s mother, Liza Womack. But “Sunlight On Your Skin,” a real collaboration with Peep’s friend ILoveMakonnen, just about washes it away. More than any other song here, it proves that Åhr was destined for mainstream success—and he’d have done fascinating things with it.
Smooth, fun, and inventive, this Chicago sing-rapper’s second album makes for one of the more rewarding hour-long rap releases of the year. The jazz and soul influences—mostly courtesy of frequent collaborator Monte Booker—give Smino a diverse palette to mess with, and he throws his voice around with abandon. Three days after its release (and, seriously, more artists should release albums midweek—it’s a great way to stand out from the pack), I’m still replaying the Dreezy collaboration, “FENTY SEX,” which somehow sounds romantic despite being horny as hell. Maybe it’s the complete absence of misogyny on Smino’s verse. Or maybe it’s Dreezy hilariously checking herself when she raps: “It’s just that I love the D / I mean, I love you, baby.”
Charles Bradley: Black Velvet
Charles Bradley, the now-departed soul singer and one-time James Brown impersonator who only late in life gained the reputation his charisma deserved, would have turned 70 earlier this week. Black Velvet comprises ten previously unreleased songs recorded with his longtime producer, Tommy Brenneck. It’s a wonder that the bright “Can’t Fight the Feeling” and aching “I Feel a Change” never saw the light of day, but the real revelations come in the form of covers. His version of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” is practically unrecognizable, but it stands on its own two broken feet. His version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” crackles more than enough to skirt sentimentality. All in all, a handsome tribute.
Jeff Goldblum: The Capitol Studios Sessions
Look, we can’t all sit here and pretend that Jeff Goldblum, noted zaddy and seemingly very nice chap, has made one of the best jazz records of the year. Those in search of groundbreaking work in the genre should start with new projects from Makaya McCraven, Javier Santiago, Kandace Springs, Nyeusi, and Kamasi Washington. But The Capitol Studios Sessions, Goldblum’s debut as a pianist at the age of 66, is a charming, hyper-competent, and very enjoyable piece of work. Imelda May and Haley Reinhart blend in nicely, the duet with Sarah Silverman on “Me and My Shadow” is, naturally, hilarious, and there’s a good-heartedness running through the live recording that’s hard to resist. Pretty much everyone you know would be stoked to receive this for Christmas. So buy it for them. Or buy it for me.