As introductions to Aphex Twin albums go, the first track on Syro, “minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix),” is disconcerting in its directness, especially after 2001âs divisive Druqks. Whereas most of that album sounded like a daffy prank on the listener as retribution for ridiculously high expectations, “minipops 67” is warm, inclusive, and surprisingly earnest. With its loping bass, neo-garage drum line, and moody keys, it could pass for a Four Tet remix of a Kid A cut, with nattering robots and Gregorian chants added for good measure. “XMAS_EVET10  (thanaton3 mix),” “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26],” and “Produk 29 ” are similarly subdued, setting their fidgeting snares and burbling rumble against a melancholy collage of bells, echoing piano, warped synths, and melted vocals. If not for their wacky nomenclature, all three tracks could slip into a Burial album without kicking up much dust.
“180db_ ” is the first thing here to show signs of Richard D. Jamesâs anarchic sense of humor. A three-minute skip across the dance floor with a melody thatâs almost primordial in its simplicity, it functions as either a loving homage or a really mean parody of Richie Hawtin. Both “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] (syrobonkus mix)” and “CIRCLONT14 [152.97] (shrymoming mix)” also find James flashing a bit of that signature devilish grin, with chopped funk that sounds like Outkast if they were signed to Digital Hardcore. The latter is a particular marvel, imagining a technophile “Peter Gunn” splintered with buckshot. “syro u473t8+e [141.98] (piezoluminescence mix)” speeds the drilling thump up a bit, but doubles back to the beginning of the album with its beautiful despondency. “PAPAT4  (pineal mix)” and “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97] (earth portal mix)” turn the drum machine loose at a setting somewhere between methed-out jungle and malfunctioning fax machine. On most any other artistâs album, this would signal a noisy war of attrition to follow, but since this is Aphex Twin, the drums are married to delicately exquisite melodies. Both those songs, the palate-cleansing microsuite “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85],” and album closer “aisatsana ” call to mind the gloomy loveliness of Boards of Canada or Ulrich Schnauss.
Describing the work by a newer artist, one would marvel at the diversity (and good taste) of the albumâs sonic palette. But then you consider the length and awesome scope of Jamesâs career, and it becomes clear that a game of “spot the influences” is actually “spot the children.” Heâs been the preeminent funhouse mirror held up to contemporary music for almost three decades now, but even that description isnât entirely adequate. Imagine a mirror which distorts not just the reflection, but reality itself, and you have a fair idea of the stunning legacy to which Syro triumphantly belongs.
Label: Mute Release Date: September 23, 2014 Buy: Amazon
Review: On Jump Rope Gazers, the Beths Cloak Heartbreak in Bright Pop Hooks
Every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs canât help but pop.3.5
Though indie pop seems to be having a particularly dour year, with albums like Soccer Mommyâs Color Theory and Perfume Geniusâs Set My Heart on Fire Immediately focusing on heavier-hearted subjects and exploring denser, more brooding sonic palettes, the Bethsâs sophomore effort, Jump Rope Gazers, relies mostly on upbeat pop-rock. Thatâs not to say that the New Zealand band is anxiety-free, but theyâre so canny at cloaking heartbreak and dread in bright, warm hooks that their music never sounds too dire.
The albumâs opening track, âIâm Not Getting Excited,â is a charged-up rocker thatâs so spirited that itâs easy to miss the songâs passing references to death. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes eagerly bursts into a brilliant falsetto to deliver the songâs caffeinated chorus. Songs like âDying to Believeâ and âOut of Sightâ keep this energy going, with drummer Tristan Deck and bassist Benjamin Sinclair maintaining a brisk rhythm section as Stokes and Jonathan Pearceâs guitars shimmer, groove, and ignite in equal measure.
But the Beths are, perhaps, at their best when theyâre at their breeziest. The languid verses of the albumâs midtempo title track are set against a backdrop of sun-soaked harmonies, as Stokes describes a crumbling relationship: âIf I donât see your face tonight, well, I guess Iâll be fine.â The songâs chorus is more melancholic, with Stokes delivering lines like âI think I love you/And I think I loved you the whole timeâ with a wistful nostalgia.
The albumâs closer, âJust Shy of Sure,â is lush and mellow, tinged with more sadness than its laidback demeanor might suggest. Here, the Beths approach a relationship from a pained angle: âLove in memory is a plague that consumed me,â Stokes sings matter-of-factly. The song finds the singer grateful for the experience even if it didnât end the way she might have hoped: âHey, you canât win without entering/Do you care to lose everything?â These songs display the Bethsâs penchant and skill for making the bittersweet sound so good.
Jump Rope Gazers was written while the Beths toured the world in support of their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, and songs like âYou are a Beam of Light,â a bleary ode to a loved one, reflect the feeling of being far away from the people and the places you know best. Besides the bandâs pitch-perfect songwriting, though, one of the things that makes the album so endlessly infectious is Pearceâs crisp and spacious production. From the acoustic and electric guitars that gently intertwine on âDo You Want Me Nowâ to each layer of the bandâs crystalline harmonies on âAcrid,â every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs canât help but pop.
Label: Carpark Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)
These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.
Itâs been a very long yearâand weâre only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so farâalmost all of them created prior to the crisisâreflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arcaâs kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Appleâs prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewelsâs electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimesâs boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, orâin the case of Dua Lipaâs Future Nostalgia and Jessie Wareâs Whatâs Your Pleasure?âan escape. Sal Cinquemani
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, sheâs made an album not unlike Walkerâs The Driftâthat is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walkerâs late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, itâs a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Appleâs legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson
Arca, Kick I
Where Arcaâs past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arcaâs gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arcaâs beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridgeâstretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when youâve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive âRiquiquĂâ segues into the graceful ballad âCalorâ; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arcaâs career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether thatâs spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral âSafaeraâ is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from todayâs hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunnyâs rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like âChinese Satelliteâ and âI See Youâ evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. âIâve been running in circles trying to be myself,â she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisherâs closing track, âI Know the End,â is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgersâs voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh
Doglegâs Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, âKawasaki Backflip,â bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit groupâs loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. âAny moment now, I will disintegrate,â he frantically yells at the explosive climax of âFox.â Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isnât to say that these songs arenât complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on âCannonballâ splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while âEnderâ closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylanâs Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality thatâs preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. Itâs also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylanâs greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spotsâlike âIâve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to Youâ and âKey West (Pirate Philosopher)ââare well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind âTo Make You Feel My Loveâ as well as âNot Dark Yet,â and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the albumâs most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched âThis is the sound of the end of the worldâ on âBefore the Fever,â seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the worldâs climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucherâs broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nĂŒ-metal guitars on âSo Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.â On âDarkseid,â deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper æœPAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum nâ bass on â4ĂM.â On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucherâs wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond
HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
While thereâs plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. IIIâhip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and danceâHAIM has created an album thatâs defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017âs Something to Tell You, this albumâs scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. Itâs darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sureâa summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIMâs instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. Youâre unlikely to hear these songs on Krogerâs in-store playlistâon which 2017âs âLittle of Your Loveâ seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of âEye of the Tigerâ and âI Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)ââbut these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd
Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Lilly Hiattâs songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when sheâs singing about fucking upâwhich is pretty often. Thereâs an almost parasocial element to Hiattâs songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend whoâs perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiattâs fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015âs Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017âs harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, sheâs emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiattâs past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer âScream,â she claims, âI swear to God Iâm done with him,â itâs convincing this time. Winograd
Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B
A defining feature of last yearâs Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsenâs embrace of her sexualityâa topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime âHeartbeatâ and the anthemic âSoloâ were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. âIâm at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,â Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative âComeback,â demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp
Review: Arcaâs Kick I Is a Kinetic Celebration of Self-Actualization
The album is a statement of exuberance from an artist whoâs known to deal in gloom.4
Pop music, it seems, has finally caught up with Arca, nĂ©e Alejandra Ghersi. The Venezuelan artist has helped shape the sound of hip-hop, indie-pop, and R&B over the last decade, making sizable contributions to projects by Kanye West, BjĂ¶rk, and Kelela, while toiling away at her solo work in a separate, more challenging lane. After three albums of apocalyptic, ambient tone poems, Arcaâs pop and avant-garde interests converge on Kick I. Itâs an anti-pop pop album, a distillation of the producer-singer-arranger extraordinaireâs ambitions and a statement of exuberance from an artist whoâs known to deal in gloom.
Where Arcaâs past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. This mood is reportedly due to newfound romance and reaching a comfort with her hybrid identity as both non-binary and a trans woman, and Kick I feels buoyed and fueled by these personal landmarks. In the past, Arca opined about the discomforts of being who she is, but on the albumâs opening track, âNonbinary,â she practically gloats: âIâm special, you canât tell me otherwiseâŠWhat a treat/Is is to be/non-binary.â This confident swagger abounds across the album, and Arcaâs spirit of self-affirmation is well-earned.
Arcaâs gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout Kick I, Arcaâs beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridgeâstretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when youâve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive âRiquiquĂâ segues into the graceful ballad âCalorâ; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition.
The albumâs lyrics, sung in equal parts Spanish and English, toy with and complicate notions of gender and desire. On âLa Chiquiâ (which roughly translates to âbabydollâ), fellow electro-industrial popsmith Sophie has anarchic fun with pronouns, knowingly upending binaries: âShe is my boyfriend/Flowers of my love/He is my best friend/Roots blowing upâŠthe schism it shifts, it ripsâŠâ âMachoteâ and âMequetrefeâ express Arcaâs yearning for a hyper-masculine man whoâs an accomplished lover and, of course, âknows how to shake it.â The latter songâs title is Venezuelan slang for a type of cocksure man, often used derogatorily, but for whom Arca makes no apologies for wanting, even delightfully asserting that she âdeservesâ him.
Arcaâs always been amusingâafter all, she once titled a song âFront Loadââbut Kick I is a new high water-mark for her leftfield one-liners and absurd metaphors, all tied to her assurance and strength. âRip the Slitâ winds its way through a series of tongue-twisting phrases and fragments that speak frankly of anatomical mutation, delivered in lurching, pitched-up vocals. And on âRiquiquĂ,â she vividly, hilariously invokes both mangos and mayonnaise.
âRiquiquĂâ includes a repeated description of âa white metal rose,â whose paradoxical mix of materials perfectly encapsulates the joining of the natural and the mechanical across Arcaâs music. Her beats move and operate based on collisions of one element crashing into another or the cacophony emitted by many noises firing off at once. And true to her habit of straddling binaries, the sonics on Kick I have a real dimensionality and tangibilityâas in what sounds like wood splintering on âLa Chiquiââeven though they also have a kind of wispy, cyber-weightlessness, as if they could self-destruct at any given moment.
On the off chance that the forces colliding are both bodies, Arca can be tender. She croons about the unity of becoming one with a lover on âNo Queda Nada,â the albumâs beautifully patient closing track. âNothing left in me that you havenât touched,â she lilts, âNot even a corner left/Into which your warmth hasnât seeped.â The âyouâ could be a paramour, but itâs also possible Arca is talking about coming into her own. Thus, Kick I is a sometimes quite bawdy love letter, both to the self and a potential partner. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arcaâs career, the album is a celebration of actualization, whether thatâs spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another.
Label: XL Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Jessie Wareâs Whatâs Your Pleasure? Is a Transportive Disco Trip
An album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure now feels like manna for the soul.4
The art and media released immediately following a crisis or disaster often exist in a strange sort of vacuumâparadoxically oblivious to the bleak realities of the world into which theyâve been dropped and inextricably bound to it. The digital age allows for a more immediate reaction to world eventsâCharli XCXâs How Iâm Feeling Now was created as a real-time response to the COVID-19 shutdownâbut the vast majority of the albums released so far this year were recorded prior to the pandemic. They serve as relics preserved in time, reminders of the simple pleasures we took for granted just a few months ago.
Some, like Lady Gagaâs recent Chromatica and Jessie Wareâs Whatâs Your Pleasure?, were created specifically for clubs, most of which have been temporarily shuttered. To add irony to injury, both albums find their creators returning to their dance roots after years-long sabbaticals from the genre. Ware, in particular, has with each album moved further away from the experimental electronic music of her early collaborations with the likes of SBTRKT and Sampha, and 2017âs Glasshouse eschewed dance music altogether.
More than a dance album, though, the U.K. singerâs beat-driven Whatâs Your Pleasure? is a truly immersive experience, transporting listeners not just to pre-COVID days, but to a time and place much further back. The opening track, âSpotlight,â is a sultry, understated throwback to Four Seasons of Love-era Moroder and Bellotte, with Wareâs recollections of a fleeting romance floating atop a plush arrangement of disco strings, chirpy guitar licks, and wobbly bass. As the song climbs to its blissed-out climax, you can almost feel the polyester on your skin and smell the Paco Rabanne in the air.
Wareâs devotedly crafted escapism isnât limited to one narrowly defined period or genre: The title trackâs rollicking bass and squelchy synths nod to Italo disco, while the cheeky âOoh La Laâ dips into expansive funk-pop, with Ware playing Teena Marie to producer James Fordâs Rick James. And thatâs just the albumâs opening stretch. Ford, one half of British electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco, is at the helm of most of Whatâs Your Pleasure?, striking a deft balance between vintage and modern, between organic and synthetic, on tracks like âSave a Kiss,â whose live orchestral swells wash over sleek programming and driving house beats.
The album doesnât completely abandon the smooth R&B that Ware has honed over the last several years, and thereâs plenty of downstairs music to groove to here. The slow-burning âIn Your Eyesâ glides along an oscillating bassline that allows Wareâs mesmerizing vocal to take center stage: âIt feels like weâve been dancing to this song all of our lives,â she sings, her voice mimicking the trackâs sweeping strings and brass. âThe Killâ is another smoldering slow jam, an undercurrent of orchestral and gospel flourishes bolstering its tenuous hook.
Lyrically, the songs stick to common, if not completely frivolous, tropes like love, lust, and longing. âTell me when Iâll get more than a dream of you,â Ware implores on âSpotlight.â But these themes take on even deeper meaning in a time where physical connection and communal experiences are few and far between. Depending on your level of caution fatigue, the albumâs explicit invitation to indulge might seem sadistic. The thought of bumping up against a stranger on a dance floor these days feels forbidden, even dangerous. But when Ware croons, âLast night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,â on the rapturous âMirage (Donât Stop),â itâs a reminder that music and dancing remain universal forms of salvation. Whatâs Your Pleasure? is an album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure, but now feels like manna for the soul.
Label: Interscope Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Khruangbinâs Mordechai Confronts the Present with Open Arms
An effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the albumâs foundation.4
A live act at heart, Khruangbin performs at the leisurely pace of experienced improvisational musicians, while their songs are judiciously pared down to playlist-friendly lengths ideal for your local Starbucks. But the Houston rock trioâs output can hardly be categorized as âeasy listening.â Khruangbinâs homage to eclectic musical traditions from around the world demands close attention. The bandâs third album, Mordechai, coalesces the balmy Southeast Asian-influenced rock of 2015âs The Universe Smiles Upon You and the baroque Iranian psychedelia of 2018âs Con Todo El Mundo, injecting it all with a generous helping of funk. All the while, the ornamental, unhurried grooves maintain Khruangbinâs signature air of reverence and abundance, ensuring that each song unfolds organically.
The albumâs opening track, âFirst Class,â launches the album into a dreamy stratosphere, as the bandâwhose name means âairplaneâ in Thaiâdetails the opulence of a first-class flight over shimmering guitars. This euphoric yet playful tone permeates much of the rest of the album, which unlike the groupâs past efforts, incorporates vocals into all but one of the tracks. Lead single âTime (You and I)â offers an Edenic proposition, smokily sung by bassist Laura Lee: âWe can play like children play/We can say like children say.â She beckons us to shed the concerns and judgments of adulthood and rediscover the world through the eyes of a child.
Having gained renown primarily as an instrumental band, Khruangbin mastered the dimensions of their sonic blueprint early on. Propelled by drummer Donald âDJâ Johnsonâs tumbling backbeats, Leeâs meandering bass often provided the heartbeat of each of the bandâs songs, while Speerâs guitar, laden with brambly hammer-on passages that evoke Middle Eastern rock, served as a lush accent. This interplay spared little breathing room for vocals; the rare mantra-like chant would be a word or phrase sung by the trio and sustained, as if the vocal were itself another instrument adding to the mix.
By contrast, thereâs only one true instrumental on Mordechai, the pensive âFather Bird, Mother Bird,â and half of the albumâs tracks boast entire verses and choruses. What was once implied is now overtly articulated. Leeâs ruminations on memory surface on âConnaissais de Face,â a Thai surf-rock jam interspersed with a conversation between two old friends. One remarks to the other, âTime changes everything,â a truism that seems hackneyed until itâs put into relief with the friendsâ struggle to reconcile the old and new versions of themselves.
On the tender âDearest Alfred,â Lee gives thanks to a loved one after receiving a letter that transports her to their shared past: âCan you imagine the joy/When I received your wonderful letter?/Your letter is the best gift.â For Khruangbin, the act of recollection entails articulating past emotions. Language, be it a bittersweet heart-to-heart or the scribbled thoughts of a letter, enables us to historicize the pastâthe closest we can ever come to reliving it.
Armed with this special regard for memory, the band confronts the impetus of the present with open eyes and arms. The Spanish-language âPelotaâ is a playful jaunt situated at the intersection of Iranian rock and Afro-Colombian cumbia. Lee compares herself to a ball of soot traversing lifeâs peaks and valleys, at once acknowledging her smallness and the immensity of the chaos surrounding her. Still, she adopts a stance of acceptance: âPero quiero amar el desastre/El desastre que es mĂoâ (âBut I want to love the disaster/The disaster that is mineâ).
This effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the albumâs foundation. While past Khruangbin albums risked coming off merely as studied tributes to the microcosms of Thai and Iranian rock, Mordechai finds Khruangbin coming into their own, thanks to the bandâs lyrical development and the honing of their fusion of intercontinental influences. As the adage goes, thereâs nothing new under the sun, but Mordechai makes a case that maybe there just might be.
Label: Dead Oceans Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: HAIMâs Women in Music Pt. III Is Defined by a Strong Sense of Self
The album strikes a deft balance between experimental and commercial, moody and uplifting.4
HAIMâs third album, Women in Music Pt. III, opens with âLos Angeles,â an off-the-wall mishmash of jazzy horns, light funk guitars, and dub rhythms that attempts to transpose Vampire Weekendâs distinct sound to the West Coast. It is, perhaps, an unsurprising development given that the album was co-produced by VW cohort Ariel Rechtshaid and former member Rostam Batmanglij, and that Rechtshaidâs girlfriend, Danielle Haim, is featured prominently throughout the bandâs 2019 album Father of the Bride.
But while thereâs plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. IIIâhip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and danceâDanielle and sisters Este and Alana have created an album thatâs defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017âs Something to Tell You, on which both Rechtshaid and Batmanglij also served as producers, this albumâs scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. Itâs darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sureâa summer party record for a troubled summer.
The albumâs title is tongue-in-cheek: Danielle, Este, and Alana arenât known for singing about gender politics so much as hook-ups, breakups, and all of the points in between (â3 AM,â for one, finds Danielle contemplating her response to a wee-hours booty call). But the same could be said of a feminist icon like Joni Mitchell, whose influence looms largeâperhaps too largeâover back-to-back cuts âIâve Been Downâ and âMan from the Magazine.â A stripped-down acoustic missive, the latter recounts an experience Este had with a skeevy reporter who asked her if the exaggerated faces she makes on stage are the same ones she makes in bed. âWhat do really want me to say back?â Danielle scoffs. âIs this what you think making a pass is?â
HAIMâs brand of feminism is otherwise less explicit, manifesting in their unapologetically unfiltered, fiercely independent persona. âThe Stepsâ is the albumâs most cathartic moment: âI canât understand why you donât understand me,â sings Danielle, who isnât one to mince words. âAnd every day I wake up and make money for myself/And though we share a bed you know that I donât need your help,â she bellows. With its ecstatic octave-jumping hook and braying guitar licks, âThe Stepsâ is a nearly perfect pop-rock song. So, for that matter, is the sleepily chugging âUp from a Dream,â while the infectious âNow Iâm in Itâ and âDonât Wannaâ blend synths and guitars so deftly that the line between pop and rock remains blurred. (Anyone still skeptical of HAIMâs rock nâ roll bona fides is likely to be won over by Danielle and Alana shredding dueling acid-drenched guitar solos at the end of âFUBTâ).
While only one of its songs exceeds four minutes, Women in Music Pt. III runs a bit long at 16 tracks, including a trio of singles that were released last year and are sequenced unceremoniously at the end of the album. While âNow Iâm In Itâ meshes well with the rest of the material, the folksy âHallelujahâ and the generic groove track âSummer Girlââwhich borrows heavily enough from âWalk on the Wild Sideâ that Lou Reed receives a writing creditâstick out on an album that otherwise flows sublimely. And with such thorough melding of influences to be found elsewhere, the more bald-faced genre exercisesâhip-hop on â3 AM,â reggae on âAnother Tryââcome across as a bit lazy.
Yet, HAIMâs instincts to veer a little more left of the dial on Women in Music Pt. III result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. Youâre unlikely to hear these songs on Krogerâs in-store playlistâon which 2017âs âLittle of Your Loveâ seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of âEye of the Tigerâ and âI Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)ââbut these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding.
Label: Columbia Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Bob Dylanâs Rough and Rowdy Ways Is Powerfully Prescient
The album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster during the most turbulent of ages.4.5
When, in March, Bob Dylan previewed âMurder Most Foul,â the closing track from his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, the timing was eerie. A haunting, 17-minute piano and violin duet that addresses the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the song paints an epic, Bosch-like portrait of a country ripped asunder by violence, confusion, and hatred, the presidentâs death marking the moment when âthe soul of a nation [was] torn away.â Released two weeks after the U.S. governmentâs bumbling proclamation of a national emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not long before mass protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd, âMurder Most Foulâ looks back to the mythical origin point of the era that fostered Dylan as a visionary of social conscience and artistic freedom and depicts Americaâs seemingly perpetual state of chaos and division.
Dylanâs first album of original material since 2012âs Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways operates in the same vein as its larger-than-life finale. Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, the album is also thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality thatâs preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. Itâs also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery.
Only superficially signaling a retreat from contemporary and topical concerns, Dylanâs last three albumsâall composed of material from the Great American Songbookâgradually perfected the stark, elegiac sonic palette that Dylan has been refining since 1997âs Time Out of Mind, and Rough and Rowdy Ways applies that palette to the most poignant songcraft of his late career. This is evident on opening track âI Contain Multitudes,â which features a slowly strummed, drum-less arrangement that would have fit snugly on any of his three previous albums. But instead of comforting traditionalism, the song offers a statement of purpose that dares immodesty and tastelessness (âIâm just like Anne Frank and Indiana Jonesâ) only to somehow arrive at honest self-reflection and self-discipline (âIâll keep the path open, the path in my mind/Iâll see to it that thereâs no love left behindâ).
âI Contain Multitudesâ sets the tone for the rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways, which frequently meditates on mortality and mayhem with bemusement as well as dread, though not always in equal parts. Whereas the albumâs opener posits that an unstable world can be rescued through expansive perspective and creativity, âMy Own Version of Youâ turns this reassurance on its head and in the process becomes one of the most macabre songs of Dylanâs gargantuan catalog.
On the song, he casts himself as a grave robber digging up âlimbs and livers and brains and heartsâ in order to create a patchwork human a la Frankensteinâs monster. The dark, running joke here is that this human is âyouââa former lover Dylan wishes to perfect according to his perverse, insatiable desires, perhaps, but also any listener whose point of view has become fragmented and disoriented by a lyrical kaleidoscope referencing Richard III, Julius Caesar, The Godfather, Scarface, Leon Russell, Liberace, St. John the Baptist, the Crusades, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, and more. âMy Own Version of Youâ suggests that the restoration of sense and meaning, as well as a shot at artistic immortality, through the reimagining of history and culture is yet one more desecration of an ungraspable grand design; the songâs creepy waltz-time shuffle, as pierced through by Donnie Herronâs ghostly steel guitar work, forms an unsettling backdrop for Dylanâs hypnotic, and hypnotized, despair.
Like much of the grittier material that Dylan has penned since turning to electric rock in the mid-â60s, the albumâs no-nonsense blues are also shot through with dire proclamations that at times get downright bloody. The second half of Rough and Rowdy Ways contains two such numbers, âGoodbye Jimmy Reedâ and âCrossing the Rubicon.â The former is a deceptively upbeat tribute to sackcloth-and-ashes religiosity (âFor thine is kingdom, the power, the glory/Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story/Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone/In the mystic hours when a personâs aloneâ), while the latter is a 12-bar slow-burner that speaks of final decisions and lasting regrets during a time of tribulation (âWhat are these dark days I see?/In this world so badly bent/I cannot redeem the time/The time so idly spent/How much longer can it last?/How long can it go on?â).
As others have pointed out, âFalse Prophetâ pilfers (and without giving credit to) Billy âThe Kidâ Emersonâs smoky âIf Lovinâ Is Believing.â Dylan has unabashedly stolen othersâ music since at least âMasters of War,â but in almost every case heâs made other musiciansâ work so uniquely his own in terms of lyrics and sensibility that heâs almost justified the practice. In âFalse Prophet,â he brilliantly replaces Emersonâs straightforward tale of romantic betrayal with a surreal, eschatological narrative that, as spun in Dylanâs gravelly croak, evokes the possible viewpoint of the Angel of Death: âYou donât know me darlinâ/You never would guess/Iâm nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest/I ainât no false prophet/Iâm just said what I said/Iâm here to bring vengeance on somebodyâs head.â
Rough and Rowdy Ways, though, doesnât just hammer away at a few foreboding notes. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylanâs greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spotsâlike âIâve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to Youâ and âKey West (Pirate Philosopher)ââare well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind âTo Make You Feel My Loveâ as well as âNot Dark Yet,â and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, the album keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, Rough and Rowdy Ways encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages.
Review: With Shadow Offering, Braids Embraces a Clear-Eyed Directness
The album demonstrates the bandâs versatility, locating something of a sweet spot.3.5
Raphaelle Standell-Preston boasts one of the more versatile and distinct voices in modern rock. Sheâs able to emote with a breathy whisper or deliver a full-force belt, each imbued with singular intonations, but her sublime contributions to Braidsâs music have often been buried beneath ornate sonic pile-ups. By contrast, Standell-Prestonâs vocals on the Canadian trioâs fourth album, Shadow Offering, are clear, legible, and lead their sound rather than the other way around. Where her voice was once looped with multiple tracks on songs such as âDecember,â extending its dreamy power via reverb, Shadow Offering rarely employs those old psychedelic tricks, giving Standell-Prestonâs voice a bracing directness.
The choice is emblematic of an album that gives forthright expression to its themes. Gone is the opaque poetry of 2013âs Flourish // Perish, replaced with more narrative shape and clear-eyed lyrics that address relationships and selfhood without romanticizing them. On âYoung Buck,â Standell-Preston sings: âMaybe Iâll go get my sex on/Go drinking tonight with a nice-muscled guy/The numbing kind/Everyone needs a little numb once in a while.â
This stylistic shift, which began on 2015âs Deep in the Iris, is aided here by production from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who seemingly prompted Braidsâs new emphasis on guitar and piano arrangements. Like Austin Tuftsâs percussion, thereâs a renewed confidence in Standell-Preston and Taylor Smithâs guitar work; itâs gliding and measured, and deferential to the singerâs introspective lyrics. A staple of their repertoire, Braidsâs synths are downplayed, most notably on the opening track, âHere 4 U,â and the stunningly intense âFear of Men.â
The latter song bravely unpacks paralyzing social and existential anxiety, and Shadow Offering as a whole throws into sharp relief the nagging self-doubt that often accompanies a faltering relationship. Standell-Prestonâs vulnerable, piano-driven confessions at times recall those of Fiona Apple, while her brand of theatricality, as well as her strange, beguiling phrasing on songs like âEclipse (Ashley),â is reminiscent of Kate Bush.
An examination of white privilege, the nine-minute âSnow Angelâ is the kind of sprawling dive into what Standell-Preston once described as âmy lake of a head,â but Shadow Offering comprises mostly more economical rockers like the cymbal-crashing closing track, âNote to Self.â Demonstrating their versatility throughout the album, Braids locate something of a sweet spot, embracing a restrained plainspokenness without completely veering from the outrĂ© flourishes and melancholic, midtempo jams that are their specialty.
Label: Secret City Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Baauerâs Planetâs Mad Relentlessly Evokes a Sense of Doom
The album buries what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass.3
Best known for 2012âs meme-generating âHarlem Shake,â Baauer, nĂ© Harrison Rodrigues, delves deep into the low end on his second album, Planetâs Mad. Essentially finding 10 different ways to pummel the ear, the album is a relentless experience, burying what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass. Itâs a soundtrack fit for a world in such disrepair that thereâs no option but to throw one last raucous dance party.
Baauerâs 2016 debut, Aa, found the producer and DJ fruitfully playing with trap conventionsâsirens, airhorns, 808sâwhile simultaneously showcasing his ease with subtler textures. By layering tracks with frantic rattling and sound effects, he achieved a sonic density so corporeal that one song was titled simply âBody.â That album has a structural simplicity, beginning with a series of interconnected instrumental tracks that segue midway into bona fide club bangers featuring the likes of M.I.A. and Future.
On Planetâs Mad, Baauer largely dispenses with the high-profile guests and mounts a loose sci-fi narrative about environmental destruction, hinted at in the albumâs title. On âMagic,â he adds various elements one by one before removing them, evoking the gradual process of degradation. This motif can also be seen in the albumâs artwork, which pictures the Earth split open, its core and layers drifting outward, but one would be hard-pressed to spot a clear through line in the music, as its concepts are conveyed almost entirely in the abstract.
Musically, Planetâs Mad takes its cues as much from British techno and footwork as it does from trap. Clearly influenced by Jlin and RP Boo, the percussion on tracks like âAetherâ busily mutates and recalibrates itself, continually upping the ante in terms of speed. âHot 44â recalls the bruising bass and ever-escalating pacing of Dog Bloodâs â4 Mindâ and âTurn Off the Lights,â with Baauer sculpting a percussive trajectory that sounds like itâs rippling over hard, staccato ridges. The artistâs range of tones and patterns are certainly a highlight; every time we hear a drum it sounds different than the last.
On âPizzawalaâ and âYehoo,â Baauer assembles a tangle of drums and samples of looped tribal chants. While white artists pilfering African sounds is nothing new in dance music, the way itâs appropriated and exoticized here feels mostly anonymous. This is especially notable when considering Baauerâs entire aesthetic, given his trap origins, is premised on black music. But while itâs culled from a mĂ©lange of styles and influences, Planetâs Mad still stands on its own for its sonic depth and detail. Even if the albumâs themes arenât fully articulated, Baauerâs use of bass, constantly elongating and amplifying, succeeds at evoking a sense of doom.
Label: LuckyMe Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Neil Youngâs Homegrown Provides a Missing Link in the Artistâs Legacy
The album offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadourâs legendary catalog.4
Originally slated for release in 1975, Neil Youngâs Homegrown was shelved at the last minute in favor of the fractured masterpiece Tonightâs the Night, and an alternate history in which the swap never happened is inconceivable. Young describes the album as âthe unheard bridge between [1972âs] Harvest and [1978âs] Comes a Time,â but those two releases donât comport with the haunted, ragged, and much less commercial music that Young was making in the mid-â70s. Friendlier and rootsier than the likes of Tonightâs the Night but more intimate than Harvest, Homegrown offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadourâs legendary â70s catalog.
Itâs unlikely that any song on Homegrown would have become a hit back in 1975; the only probable contender is âTry,â a woozy after-hours honky-tonk come-on. With its barroom chumminess and bright backing vocals courtesy of Emmylou Harris, the song probably could have found a home on the radio, if not an all-day one, as itâs a bit too wry and cavalier to appeal to the masses who lapped up Harvestâs treacly âHeart of Goldâ a few years earlier.
Indeed, rather than recreate the polish that made Harvest such a sensation, Young scaled back the presence of his all-star ensembleâincluding members of the Band, alongside familiar sidemen like bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel stalwart Ben Keithâin favor of minimally arranged meditations. On pensive vignettes like the piano-based âMexicoâ and the wispy âLittle Wingâ (previously released on 1980âs Hawks & Doves), Youngâs patented brand of impressionistic memoir cuts deep.
Like much of his work from this period, the material on Homegrown sees Young intent on stripping away all pretense and ego and exposing the pain that laid beneath. Just as Tonightâs the Night found him preoccupied with the tragic deaths of friends Danny Whitten and Bill Berry, heâs dogged by the dissolution of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass throughout Homegrown. His inner turmoil is felt most keenly on the stunning âKansas,â in which he awakes âfrom a bad dreamâ next to a woman whose name he doesnât know. Sheâs lovely and kind, but he canât take his mind off his difficult reality, surrounded as he is by the walls of âmy bungalow of stucco that the glory and success bought.â
The albumâs comparatively scant electric material is less consistent. The albumâs stoner-anthem title track, a version of which later appeared on 1977âs American Stars âN Bars, is unquestionably one of the dumbest songs Young has ever written, while âWe Donât Smoke It No Moreâ is a jokey white-boy blues vamp that serves only to indicate how profoundly stoned everyone performing it probably was. At the very least, these two songs poke holes in the perception that Young spent this entire period in a depressive, tequila-sodden haze.
Nonetheless, itâs hard to deny the raw emotion of tracks like âVacancy,â a dark, rumbling rock song that could have easily fit on Tonightâs the Night. âAre you my friend/Are you my enemy?â Young sneers, sounding shaky and paranoid. But on Homegrown, itâs more of a passing thundercloud than an endless storm. âAll your dreams and your lovers won’t protect you,â Young laments on âStar of Bethlehem,â deftly sequenced here as the albumâs closer. âAnd yet,â he insists, âstill a light is shining.â The album turns out to be missing link in Youngâs catalog as much for Shakeyâs emotional life as it is for his stylistic choices.
Label: Warner Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon
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