Just in time for the arrival of winter cold, Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow settles in like a dense, icy fog, delivered in a slow, deliberate style that’s far different from the singer’s usual doe-eyed dynamism. Following up on the more leisurely take on old material that characterized Director’s Cut, the album applies Bush’s usual lyrical palette, purple tales of romance characterized by expressive fantasy elements, to long, glacially progressing tracks.
This means that, despite Bush’s long-term reputation as a purveyor of singularly odd pop songs, the material here isn’t as catchy as it is catatonic. Yet her measured new style works well, reaching an apogee on tracks like “Misty,” which runs to an unbelievable 13-and-a-half minutes on little more than words and piano. It’s mesmerizing enough that it’s easy not to notice the bizarre lyrical focus, which boils down to an erotic interpretation of “Frosty the Snowman.”
At other times the wide-open spaces make it all to evident how silly the material is. Bush’s songs have always had an element of the ridiculous, something that was lost in, or easily forgiven by, how dynamically propulsive and weird they were, full of vocal acrobatics and bizarre effects. With those things stripped away, songs like “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” a blustery duet with Elton John chronicling a doomed love affair spanning hundreds of years, only point out how much Bush and Anne Rice have in common.
Nothing else here is nearly as bad, despite a litany of odd choices: on “Lake Tahoe” another 10-minute-plus mammoth, Bush pairs up with choral singer Stefan Roberts; on “Snowflake,” her son sings from the snowflake’s point of view; and Stephen Fry shows up on “50 Words for Snow” to recite the titular words as Bush croons over him. As absurd as it sounds, all of this is somehow perfect and eerily charming. 50 Words for Snow is a success not only because it’s so challengingly bold and peculiar, but because it repackages Bush’s usual idiosyncrasies in an entirely new form. It succeeds as a transitional work, but first and foremost as its own singular world—a hushed, magnificent snow globe full of strange stories and characters.
Label: Fish People Release Date: November 22, 2011 Buy: Amazon
Every Daft Punk Album Ranked
In honor of the electronic duo’s nearly three-decade run, we’ve ranked all five of their albums.
Electro-enfants terribles Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo announced the conclusion of their 28-year musical partnership in true Daft Punk fashion, with an eight-minute video titled “Epilogue,” which depicts the French duo—dressed in their iconic racing suits and robot helmets—parting ways with explosive finality. Daft Punk carved out a unique space for themselves in the electronic music world in the late 1990s with hits like “Da Funk” and “Around the World.” The group’s 2001 album, Discovery, and its accompanying nü-disco hit “One More Time” proved they were more than a French techno curio, while 2013’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories cemented Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s status as EDM legends. In honor of Daft Punk’s nearly three-decade run, we’ve ranked all five of their albums. Sal Cinquemani
5. TRON: Legacy Original Soundtrack (2010)
Instead of the menacing, body-ravaging textures Thomas Bangalter gave the soundtrack to Gaspar Noe’s predatory Irréversible, and instead of the even more brain-meltingly monolithic assault beats Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo perpetrated on his side-project Crydamoure label, Daft Punk’s cues for TRON: Legacy are safe, tamed, and domesticated. Instead of their previously faultless ear for yesterday’s synthetic textures that should’ve plucked the baton right from Carlos’s neo-prog fingertips, we get the same old half-Wagnerian, half-Carmina Buranic pulsations, with heavy, plodding orchestrations, chugging string section riffs, and Hans Zimmeresque tribal drums sweetened only occasionally and very stingily with the cheapjack distortions and squelches you know and love (most notably in “Derezzed” and the end titles). It’s all too clear Disney wanted the cachet, not the daft nor the punk. Eric Henderson
4. Human After All (2005)
With Human After All, Daft Punk demonstrated that they were willing to defend their status as practically the only French pop-house act—no, make that the only pop-house act anywhere—capable of shaping solid, unified dance music albums. And, in some inscrutable act of mercy killing, they were willing to defend it to the point of disregarding every aspect of the process that isn’t album-oriented. Human After All is a capital-A Album that somehow fails to be just about anything else: a) a collection of danceable jams, b) an act of pop artifice that, like 2001’s Discovery, also manages to work spectacularly as pop sincerity, or c) music. But, by God, there’s an LP ethos here, albeit one that seems to depend on having tapped into Discovery, the cheez-whiz blend of early-‘80s trash-rock, MOR nattering, and streamlined post-disco funk of which still proved visionary enough that its own creators apparently deigned to reimagine the brew in a masturbatory act of satire. Henderson
3. Random Access Memories (2013)
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, simultaneously the most narcissistic and selfless gesture of their careers, is a painstaking mission statement. With shades of soul brothers in bemused detachment Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the album hops between genres in a way that threatens to satisfy fans of none of them, dissecting the elements of each and filling the room with the sour odor of formaldehyde. Their music here is as unnervingly stiff and rewardingly labored as Steely Dan’s later albums, and also as rewardingly fussy. No one would dare dispute their bona fides, but their genius seems directed at too-cool-for-school deconstruction, musicianship sublimated to presumptuous but mesmerizing instructiveness. Fagen and Becker were dedicated mixologists obsessing over the flavor profiles of their homemade bitters, but refusing to let the base spirit of any cocktail assert its own innate character. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter are cake bosses sculpting layers of neon fondant into stiff peaks simulating meringue, selectively editing out the cake itself. Henderson
2. Homework (1997)
Daft Punk threw their collective dick down on the dance floor with the thick house jam “Musique,” which basically repeated the same word and filtered sample ad nauseam, almost daring you to counter that it wasn’t what its title claimed it to be. Their first LP, Homework, proved that endurance wasn’t going to be an issue. Their indescribably funky blend of fat house beats, squelching synthetic compression tricks, on-the-cheap veracity, and borrowed Studio-54 sheen would wear you out long before Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were ready to finish roll-calling their teachers. From the loopy disco of “Around the World” and the deep, syncopated rhythms of “Revolution 909” to the roaring momentum of “Rollin’ & Scratchin’,” Homework is pure, distilled club essence. Henderson
1. Discovery (2001)
Disco never really died, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be resurrected. And while it certainly didn’t lack for prominent advocates during the ‘90s and ‘00s, perhaps the earliest and most important champions of disco’s rebirth were the rascally robots in Daft Punk. Discovery was a surprise not just because Daft Punk was using their post-Homework cred to resuscitate a much-reviled genre, but because they also chose to embrace its cheesier sounds: the gossamer harp on “Voyager,” the strings on “One More Time.” “Yes, we love disco,” they said. “We love it big and gaudy, covered in melting makeup and glitter, ecstatic and wistful and magical. So should you.” Dave Hughes
Review: Cloud Nothings’s The Shadow I Remember Offers Covid-Era Catharsis
The album provides a cathartic outlet with which to confront the pains of self-definition in an ever-amorphous world.4
Cloud Nothings frontman Dylan Baldi is an aggressive proponent of self-care. “I need to make time for me,” he shout-sings amid squealing guitars and clanging drums on “Sound of Alarm” from The Shadow I Remember. The word “care,” though, might be generous, given both his rough vocal delivery and the scathing self-criticism scattered throughout the noise band’s ninth studio album. Baldi is certainly concerned with self-analysis, assessing a playback loop of memories and past actions: “Well, it’s hard for me to say/Without doing it all again,” he resolves in response to his own speculations of worth on “Am I Something.” But whether his instinct is recuperation or preservation, Baldi’s lyrics reflect a struggle to escape monotony and repeat past mistakes.
The music on The Shadow I Remember echoes this predicament. The band has sharpened their tight, guitar-driven riffs, which are routinely interrupted by uneasy, wordless bridges or guitar solos. These songs downshift from major-key hooks into more discomfiting tones, from power chords into needling stray notes and abrasive feedback. Such transitions, especially unsettling on tracks like “A Longer Moon,” illustrate the idea of a sense of complacency that’s been shaken to the core. Two of the best songs on the album, the bookends “Oslo” and “The Room It Was,” focus on the need for change, of old ways of living being killed off. Slyly, they apply to both the micro, first-person experience that Baldi is sketching and the world at large, where people, in the wake of a global pandemic, are rethinking their habits and lifestyles.
While The Shadow I Remember feels almost tailor-made for our Covid-19 moment (“The world I know has gone away/An outline of my own decay,” Baldi observes on “Olso”), such grueling self-examinations have always been Cloud Nothings’s stock in trade. On their earliest albums, though, their admittedly stirring music registered as whiny complaints paired with restless grunge-pop. Here, Baldi and company have filled out their narratives of existential dread and ennui, matching thematic threads that intriguingly explore directionless confusion and coming to terms with one’s own limitations.
At first blush, the album’s least compelling moments arise when Baldi positions love as a cure-all to his thorny existential questions. “Nothing Without You” features Ohmme’s Macie Stewart affirming her devotion to her object of desire, served up with a straight-ahead, dutifully brawny instrumental that blends into similar arrangements on the album. Yet, just when you think the band is leaning too heavily on blunt proclamations, a more nuanced wrinkle emerges in the songcraft: The clever “Only Light” doubles as a what-if scenario that ponders a beloved partner never having been born, while the earnest “It’s Love” is sung with the gruffest, most strained vocalizations Baldi can muster.
Like the dribbling piano that shows up in a few places beneath all the post-hardcore ferociousness, such bluntness on The Shadow I Remember comes with undercurrents of doubt. The intensity of Cloud Nothings’s sonics—all of the wailing noises a guitar can produce as well as hard-hitting, double-time drumming—provide a cathartic outlet with which to confront the pains of self-definition and personal growth in an ever-amorphous world.
Label: Carpark Release Date: February 26, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: On Little Oblivions, Julien Baker’s Stark Confessionals Are Given a Hard Edge
The singer-songwriter upgrades her erstwhile folk style to accommodate a harder rock approach.4
Julien Baker’s first two studio albums, Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, found the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pairing her tremulous voice, gossamer instrumentation, and stark lyrical approach with themes of self-loathing, interpersonal dysfunction, and profound loneliness. On her latest, Little Oblivions, she broaches similar topics but with even more confidence, embracing harder-edged indie-rock textures to broaden her brand of “thanatoid pop,” a subgenre characterized by pained vocals, haunting melodies, and lyrics that alternate between auto-criticality and auto-apotheosis.
The album’s opening track, “Hardline,” kicks off with an abrasive organ sound that brings to mind a B-horror flick. Despite this campy flourish, though, the song’s timbre quickly turns darker: “Start asking for forgiveness in advance/For all the future things I will destroy,” Baker sings. Around the two-minute mark, she all but eschews her folk roots, embracing an alt-anthemic instrumental mix à la PJ Harvey, Sharon Van Etten, or Angel Olsen, her voice more tonally defined—and defiant—than on her previous releases.
“Relative Fiction” is one of the album’s melodic high points, reminiscent of “Souvenir” from Boygenius, Baker’s 2018 collaborative EP with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. The track’s ethereally repetitive piano part is used to disorienting effect, as if to induce motion sickness, with Baker offering a grimly predictable and inauspicious mantra: “I don’t need your help/I need you to leave me alone.” On “Faith Healer,” she paints a vivid portrait of someone languishing with somatic symptom disorder (“Snake oil dealer/I’ll believe you if you make me feel something”), her voice paradoxically charged and disembodied.
A shuffling drum part on “Bloodshot” contrasts compellingly with Baker’s languorous vocal. In a striking couplet that references an unnamed trauma (“Five days out from the initial event/It takes two kinds of pills to unclench my fists”), the singer describes the effects of a “trigger,” the “initial event” in all likelihood reactivating an earlier and more psychologically foundational trauma. She then defaults to syndromic fatalism: “There’s no one around who can save me from myself,” echoing the fixation of the tragic romantic.
The textural “Favor” most resembles Baker’s prior work, the singer’s tormented voice compellingly contrasted with the song’s spry instrumentation—in this case, static-y percussion and jangly guitars. Bridgers and Dacus contribute backing vocals on the hook-y chorus, their distinct performances adding sonic range to Little Oblivions. As the album progresses, Baker fleshes out her Opheliac persona, mostly striking an authentic tone, though occasionally flirting with cliché, as with the masochism expressed in “Song in E”: “I wish you’d come over not to stay, just to tell me/That I was your biggest mistake.”
On the album-closing “Ziptie,” Baker achieves a potent confluence of vocal, melodic, verbal, and instrumental virtuosity, ending the track with the proclamation: “Good God, when’re you gonna call it off/Climb down off the cross and change your mind?” With these lines, she offers a transcendent prayer to a higher power or messianic figure, an impatient brush-off to a loyal lover, or gives herself permission to end her own perennial suffering. In the latter interpretation, these oblique lyrics can be regarded as tantamount to an oblique suicide note.
With Little Oblivions, Baker upgrades her erstwhile folk style to accommodate a harder rock approach, though lyrically she’s as vulnerable as ever. Like A.A. Williams, Snail Mail, and Soccer Mommy, she successfully translates her confessional tone and subject matter into melodically and atmospherically engaging songs, resulting in an album that represents a significant step for one of contemporary music’s most eloquent artists.
Label: Matador Release Date: February 26, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Hold Steady’s Open Door Policy Makes the Familiar Feel Fresh Again
The album retains the spirit of the band’s early output while also offering songs that sound fresh and relevant.4
“So now we’re back in touch and we’re up to old tricks,” Craig Finn sings on “Spices,” the second track on the Hold Steady’s eighth studio album, Open Door Policy. Finn’s sentiment captures the band’s ethos for the better part of 20 years, but it takes on a different tone here. The music is dark, even a little sinister, with low, cyclical guitar lines lending a mischievous urgency to the song’s depiction of a night out on the town. When “Spices” reaches its first chorus, accompanied by an eruption of keys and horns, it feels like a brief release of tension. Of course, in true Hold Steady fashion, that release arrives in the form of a drink order: “Vanilla vodka in a diet Dr. Pepper.”
Since the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, Finn’s characters have partied all over the country. They’ve fallen into wild romances at outdoor festivals, and struggled with personal grief, mental health, and inevitably dwindling youth. The band’s songs have always felt particularly special in the way that they seem to occupy a consistent world, the layered storylines multiplying and branching out with each new album.
While the Hold Steady’s world may have remained consistent, though, their music has taken some turns: After 2010’s slicker Heaven Is Whenever and 2014’s bigger, more radio-friendly Teeth Dreams, 2019’s Thrashing Thru the Passion found the band revisiting the essential elements that formed their early sound, thanks in part to the return of Franz Nicolay. But Open Door Policy is the album that really makes good on the Hold Steady’s continuing vitality, retaining the spirit of the band’s initial output while also offering songs that sound fresh and relevant in 2021.
“I no longer see the romance in these ghosts,” Finn sings on “Unpleasant Breakfast.” With its skeletal verses, which ride on a simple, blunt beat, and a rollicking bridge that comes out of nowhere, the track serves as a deconstruction of what the Hold Steady has been doing since the start of their career. The song’s individual pieces—including horns and a repetitive siren—feel like they’ve been torn from the band’s classics and collaged together to form something that’s both familiar and new. Elsewhere, “Heavy Covenant” is awash in a glow of 8-bit organ keys, while “The Feelers” swings from swooning piano ballad to hair-raising rock jam and back again, each new movement proving as jarring and exciting as the last. These tweaks to the Hold Steady formula are elevated by Josh Kaufman’s crisp, spacious production, which finds a sweet spot that’s polished but never overblown.
At the center of Open Door Policy is a world that Finn continues to expand and deepen, with a distinct vocal style somewhere between talking and singing. The festival setting that figured into Boys and Girls in America is replaced with a hospital on “Lanyards,” but the language remains familiar: “Everybody’s trying to get the right kind of wristband.” Most of Finn’s characters are still musing about partying, but they all have different and increasingly complex reasons for doing so. For instance, matters pertaining to religion and family infuse the lovelorn narrative of “Family Farm”: “Before she took her shot, she said a little grace, said ‘Lord grant me the power to stop these hands from shaking.’”
The Hold Steady’s lyrical interest in debauchery has never been free of baggage. But Open Door Policy is especially adept at tracing its characters back to the heavy and complicated stories that brought them to this point. So when Finn asks, “You wanna go get some beers?” on “Spices,” it feels like a new dimension has been added to what might otherwise just be a signature Hold Steady call to go out and have a massive night. The band’s ability to get to the heart of this change and create compelling songs from familiar scenes helps make Open Door Policy the best Hold Steady album in over a decade.
Label: Positive Jams Release Date: February 19, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: With V!bez, Vol. 4, TroyBoi Crafts a Confident, Worldly Array of Sounds
The 21-minute set of songs is both fleet in its dynamics and booming in its impact.3.5
London-based DJ TroyBoi, a.k.a. Troy Henry, manages to offer up a little bit of everything that he does well on the 21-minute V!bez, Vol. 4. The producer’s main forte is trap, pairing hip-hop rhythms with samples from a wide variety of sources to craft a confident, worldly array of sounds. A collaboration with Brazilian duo Tropkillaz, the standout “Corneta” centers around a mariachi-like cornet riff that builds toward a frenzied, heavily percussive breakdown, while “Unstoppable” reprises TroyBoi’s fondness for Eastern-influenced strings, marrying them to his signature drum-machine pyrotechnics.
The latter song showcases TroyBoi’s unique approach to tempo—moving at a leisurely but swaggering clip, boosted by sashaying basslines on tracks like “Bellz.” He peppers in sonic odds and ends but with surprising restraint. He strikes a balance between low and high-end registers on both “Corneta” and “Baby,” leavening his intense, squiggly bass and percussion with flighty keys and strings.
But while TroyBoi is usually a wiz with playful vocal samples, folding in exclamations like “ugh!” or “bounce!” as built-in commentary to the music, the shrill, uncredited sample with which he inundates us throughout “Baby”—it’s mostly just the title repeated ad nauseam—begins to grate. Another instance of heavy-handedness rears its head on the final track, “Clear Waters,” which, with its sloshing water noises and chirping birds, lays on the tropical affectations a bit too thick.
Even in these occasionally overworked moments, though, V!bez, Vol. 4 never feels one-note, seguing from one flavor or groove to the next with elegance and aplomb. It bears the trademark TroyBoi effect: coming off both fleet in its dynamics and booming in its impact.
Label: T Dot Music Release Date: January 29, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: Aaron Lee Tasjan Stakes Out a Distinct Identity on Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
The album is inexorably tied to lessons from the singer’s past—the reward of a long, strange trip.4
Aaron Lee Tasjan has taken a lengthy, crooked road toward the profound musical and personal self-realization that he comes to on his fourth album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! After dropping out of college, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter spent years crisscrossing the country, playing in a few short-lived bands, spending time as a plug-in sideman for big-time veteran acts, and rubbing elbows with rock royalty. The album seems inexorably tied to lessons from his past—the creative reward of a long, strange trip.
This is Tasjan’s third album for venerable Americana label New West, but it’s the first on which he’s staked out a fully distinctive and fleshed-out identity for himself. His prior work was ripe with humor and a strong sense of melody, but it was limited by the kind of retrograde honky-tonk and classic-rock aping that one might expect from someone who played guitar for the latter-day New York Dolls. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is no less indebted to previous eras, with plenty of nods to ‘60s psych-rock and ‘70s power pop. But those influences are passed through a bright, cosmic filter, resulting in a warm and luxurious wall of sound that’s as futurist as it is retro. With acoustic guitars and astral synths humming alongside Tasjan’s silky voice, there’s a timeless quality to the album that elevates its best songs from merely great to sublime.
Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! opens with an invigorating trio of tracks, including “Sunday Women,” which boasts waves of sun-bathed ‘60s-style harmonies and introduces the first of the album’s fantastic, heavily treated guitar solos. Elsewhere, “Computer of Love” is a near-perfect power-pop song, with its playfully undulating piano-and-guitar riff, maddeningly catchy chorus, and lyrics about whiling away time in a video game. And Tasjan reaches an emotional crescendo on “Up All Night,” which recalls the classic anthems on Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever.
Tasjan doesn’t quite sustain that level of hook-filled euphoria across the entirety of the album, but he manages to enhance the comparatively second-tier melodies with endearingly personal writing. At times, his lyrical approach can be summed up by the title of one of the album’s songs, “Don’t Overthink It,” on which he rattles off a series of obvious rhymes like “twice” with “vice” and “done” with “gun,” though on tracks as well-constructed as this one, it’s the cadence more than the content that matters. “Cartoon Music” consists primarily of Tasjan repeating a sophomorically angsty chorus—“Cartoon music for plastic people/They don’t know how to feel”—seemingly ad infinitum, but when he writes about matters closer to the heart, like his own sexuality, his direct style is disarming and relatable. “Broke up with my boyfriend/To go out with my girlfriend/‘Cause love is like/Love is like/Love is like that,” Tasjan sings on “Up All Night,” adding to the song’s sweeping sense of catharsis with a line that casually alludes to something intimate from his past while blithely summarizing how his fellow millennials have helped redefine how the world sees sexual identity.
To that point, the album’s emotional centerpiece is “Feminine Walk,” a strutting psych-country song that amounts to a three-and-a-half-minute memoir about Tasjan’s career and queerness, among other things. The lyrics are endearing in their quirky honesty (he quips of Sean Parker, an ex’s ex: “I think he started Spotify”). But backed by yet another sumptuous sonic tapestry—including finger-picked guitar and spacey sound effects—they sound like nothing less than Tasjan finally figuring out exactly who he is.
Label: New West Release Date: February 5, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: With When You Found Me, Lucero Shoots for the Hills and Misfires
It’s only the fleeting glimpses of the band’s more organic style that provide any lasting rewards.2
Armed with a major-label budget for the first (and, in all likelihood, last) time, country-rock band Lucero went for broke in 2009, adding a three-piece horn section to their sound that allowed them to widen their brand of scraggly Americana to include full-blown Memphis soul crossed with anthemic Springsteen-esque rock n’ roll. The resulting album, 1372 Overton Park, was a revelation, and remains one of the best rock albums of the 21st century. This paradigm shift sustained the road-hound Memphis band for almost a decade, having made a few more soul-inflected albums before largely ditching the horns on 2018’s Among the Ghosts, a semi-throwback to their earlier, more intimate sound.
So if any band has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a left turn like When You Found Me, it’s Lucero. Frontman Ben Nichols has an otherwise unassailable 20-year track record of cribbing from disparate influences—old cowboy songs, post-punk bands like the Replacements and Jawbreaker, Otis Redding and the soul greats—and producing heartfelt, straight-from-the-shoulder songs perfectly suited for his inimitable whiskey-and-heartbreak rasp. This time, though, his influences of choice—which seem to be Neil Young’s Trans and especially the soundtrack to the Miami Vice TV series—are harder to square with his strengths.
The contributions of lead guitarist Brian Venable, who has in the past often favored an aggressive style that evinces a strong classic metal influence, shine throughout When You Found Me. And Roy Berry is a sophisticated drummer who can and does elevate any kind of song, as he does here. Conversely, Rick Steff, organ and honky-tonk piano extraordinaire, is relegated mostly to laying on bland synth pads on tracks like “Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go,” a moribund ballad whose primary texture is a slick studio sheen.
Nichols doesn’t adapt his songwriting well either. Many of the melodies on When You Found Me are inert and monotonal, often pitched, oddly, below Nichols’s natural vocal range. This sands down the distinctiveness of his voice and makes it feel as though the album’s songs are just spinning their wheels. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of them are story songs, which typically need melodic momentum to move the narrative along. The issue is most pronounced on opener “Have You Lost Your Way,” which sounds unfinished, both lyrically and musically. The story, a fantasy yarn about a girl seeking vengeance against an evil entity (not exactly typical Lucero fodder), simply ends before reaching a climax—not unlike the song itself, which teases the epic rock anthem that never materializes.
While best known for personal songs, Nichols has worked successfully in a narrative style before, as demonstrated by the on-the-road odyssey “Smoke” from 1372 Overton Park and his 2007 solo album, The Last Pale Light in the West, a loose retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But most of the stories on When You Found Me simply don’t work, like “The Match,” another fantasy tale that seems mismatched with its jaunty chord sequence, and the unintentionally goofy hi-ho-on-the-high-seas rocker “Back in Ohio.”
It’s only the fleeting glimpses of Lucero’s more organic style that provide any lasting rewards here. “Coffin Nails,” the latest in a line of great songs that Nichols has written about his World War II vet grandfather, sheds the synths and heavy guitars, enabling the singer to regain his gravitas as his weary voice is shadowed by Steff’s haunting piano trills. The acoustic title track boasts a poignant set of lyrics crediting Nichols’s wife and young daughter for pulling him out of his hard-living ways before it was too late—though its impact is blunted somewhat by its melodic similarity to a superior Nichols song, “Toadvine.”
It’s likely that the reason Lucero felt empowered to go out on a limb is that the last time they took such a big chance, it was a triumph. But When You Found Me is what happens when a talented songwriter and a skilled band shoots for the hills and misfires.
Label: Liberty & Lament Release Date: January 29, 2021 Buy: Amazon
Review: Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites Paints a Pop-Friendly Dystopia
While the album’s electro-pop trappings are almost never “happy,” they serve as a slick backdrop to its dystopian landscape.3.5
“Buy for comfort, buy for kicks/Buy and buy until it makes you sick,” Steven Wilson sings on “Personal Shopper,” the lead single from The Future Bites. The former Porcupine Tree frontman is well aware of the hypocrisy in decrying consumerism while also hocking a “deluxe edition box set” of the album that retails for $95.99, as that exact phrase is mentioned by guest Elton John in the spoken-word bridge of the song, among a laundry list of more mundane products like sunglasses, teeth whitener, and anti-aging cream.
Admittedly, it seems more like a face-saving move than a droll commentary on the state of being a contemporary music artist. But even if that sentiment is a little trite, it works in the context of the song— an ambitious, nearly 10-minute track that combines dance beats and lush vocal harmonies with dark soundscapes and sinister industrial undertones.
Wilson built a cult following with 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing and 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. by offering a modern take on classic progressive rock, heavily alluding to the past without sounding too retro. But for all of the diverse sounds and influences that his music has synthesized to date, he possesses a particularly strong pop sensibility. Musically, The Future Bites picks up where 2018’s To the Bone left off, but with the pop elements pushed even further to the forefront. Gone are the lengthy solos, extended instrumental sections, and multi-part suites, and in their place are concise songs (“Personal Shopper” notwithstanding) with standard verse/chorus/verse structures and radio-ready refrains.
On the majority of the album’s tracks, guitars and drums take a backseat to keyboards and propulsive electronic rhythms. This allows Wilson to use his somewhat limited vocal range to great effect; studio-crafted harmonies have always been the musician’s stock in trade, but they’re perhaps even more powerful when they aren’t forced to compete with the backing of a full rock band. The sparse arrangement of “King Ghost,” meanwhile, allows the strength of Wilson’s plainspoken tenor to come through in the verses, before his gentle falsetto, so redolent of Thom Yorke, floats over a crest of beats during the chorus.
Elsewhere, with its readymade funk basslines and generic female backing vocals, “Eminent Sleaze” fails to make much of an impression, and “12 Things I Forgot” is lightweight alt-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place playing over the end credits of a rom-com. Wilson is most at home when trafficking in melancholia, and two of the album’s ballads, “Man of the People” and “Count of Unease,” stand alongside his best work.
The Future Bites is neither a huge stylistic departure nor the betrayal that many Wilson diehards have claimed it to be. Conceptually, the album revolves around a post-apocalyptic vision of an overly materialist society, and while the electro-pop trappings are almost never “happy,” they serve as a slick backdrop to the dystopian landscape Wilson envisions.
Label: Arts & Crafts Release Date: January 29, 2021 Buy: Amazon
The 10 Best Electronic Albums of 2020
If the journey’s half the fun, then these 10 albums are certainly worth the trip.
The year’s best electronic albums drew on influences far and wide, excavating the origins of humanity (Disclosure’s Energy) and looking inward (Arca’s Kick I and Caribou’s Suddenly) or up to the heavens (Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension and the Avalanches’s We Will Always Love You, the latter of which likely would have made our list of the 50 Best Albums of 2020 had it been released just a few weeks earlier). Twenty-twenty taught us that the answers to these quests aren’t always simple or clear, but if the journey’s half the fun, then these 10 albums are certainly worth the trip. Sal Cinquemani
Against All Logic, 2017-2019
Nicolas Jaar’s 2012 – 2017 was as propulsive and joy-inducing as it was dense. Follow-up 2017 – 2019 had a lot to live up to. The album’s tone is more distressed, the songs more minor-key than those on its predecessor, which sometimes featured melancholy moments but whose prevailing spirit was triumphant. 2017 – 2019 finds its creator processing a crisis, while still not leaving the dance floor entirely. Jaar packs as many dissonant, clanging noises—boiling tea kettles, angry guitar feedback, surging alarm signals—as he can into the music without losing the rhythmic threads he’s teasing through each track. The aesthetic is industrial and modernist, with metal-on-metal percussion and a gloomy pall hanging over everything. When the title lyric of “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard” barges in, it sounds like a mantra for Jaar’s harsher but no less cathartic intentions. Charles Lyons-Burt
A.G. Cook, Apple
A.G. Cook is best known as a producer for Charli XCX, the label head of PC Music, and one of the figures most responsible for ushering in the “hyperpop” moment, which took hold in a major way in 2020. Cook released two projects of his own last year: the manifold, two-and-a-half hour colossus 7G, and the more approachable Apple, which is still an oddity in and of itself. The album finds Cook laying his vocals, overcorrected with jarring pitch shifts, on top of adventurous beats full of diabolical rug-pulls and assaultive hailstorms of synthesizer. Your mileage may vary, as Cook is almost caustically sincere, and he’s certainly operating in a zone of dichotomies, cemented by the lyric on closing track “Lifeline”: “Melody with no notes/DNA with no bones/Artificially grown.” It’s the work of someone who might cite both DEVO and Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” as influences. But the album retains a sense of mystery in its polar energies, intentional excesses, and violations that make you want to keep sifting through it. Lyons-Burt
Arca, Kick I
Where Arca’s 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. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve 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 “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Lyons-Burt
The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You
In 1977, NASA launched gold-plated phonograph records, representing a sort of time capsule of life on Earth, on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. The little green men who are fortunate enough to discover the images and sounds contained on each record, including a 90-minute selection of music, can delight in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, whale singing, and a recording of brainwaves of a human being in love. You could reasonably mistake the records’ contents as samples from an Avalanches album, and indeed, the Australian electronic group’s third effort, We Will Always Love You, contemplates the spiritual and cosmic implications presented by these records. Though not as technically jaw-dropping as their 2000 debut, Since I Left You, or its belated follow-up, 2016’s Wildflower, both of which are said to employ upward of 3,500 samples apiece, We Will Always Love You is undoubtedly the Avalanches’s most conceptual effort to date. Sophia Ordaz
The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Suddenly takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters. Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration. Seth Wilson
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2020
These videos represent a cross-section of who we are at a period in history that feels unmoored from time and reality.
Music videos are like little snapshots in time, reflecting the politics, fashions, sexual mores, and latest technologies of a given period. More than any other visual medium, short-form videos can be quickly produced and distributed—at least compared to television and film. So when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded earlier this year, its impact was seen almost immediately in both the form and content of music videos, from HAIM’s remotely produced “I Know Alone” to Charli XCX’s crowd-sourced tribute to her fans, “Forever.” Of course, even the clips made prior to—or which don’t specifically address—the outbreak provide a glimpse into life in 2020: Beyoncé’s self-directed “Already” dovetails with America’s reckoning with the value of black lives and culture, while Rina Sawayama’s “XS” is a bitingly savage, not to mention gut-busting, sendup of society’s collective mainlining of late capitalism. The 20 videos below represent a cross-section of who we are at a period in history that feels unmoored from time and reality. Sal Cinquemani
Beyoncé featuring Shatta Wale and Major Lazer, “Already” (Dir: Beyoncé)
Beyoncé’s self-serious mode may be getting tired, but she strikes an indelible pose throughout “Already,” an exploration—or, rather, affirmation—of black identity. Just one vignette from the singer’s Black Is King visual album, the clip cuts between painterly shots of regal fashions and urban street dancing, presenting a pan-African vision of abundance and celebration. Cinquemani
Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End” (Dir: Alissa Torvinen)
The first half of Phoebe Bridgers’s video for “I Know the End” plays like a thriller: At one point, a girl in a nurse’s uniform blocks the singer’s exit, offering her an apple as she watches cautiously from behind a wall. Every interaction is surreal and inexplicable (especially Bridgers picking up the apple after it’s rolled across and floor, taking a bite out of it, and dropping it again), creating a disorienting and alienating reality in which little makes sense. Suddenly, as the song builds to its climactic ending, she sprints into the Los Angeles Coliseum, picks up her guitar, and screams into the microphone. The screen widens and Bridgers’s world opens up, giving us insight into her liberating relationship with music. Eric Mason
Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP” (Dir: Colin Tilley)
Colin Tilley’s video for “WAP” is an audacious visual interpretation of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s controversial ode to their, uh, “wet and gushy.” The clip is about as subtle as the song itself—tigers and snakes abound—but its cartoonishness belies a powerful feminist message: For those who are counting, there are zero men to be found in this sex-drenched Wonderland. Alexa Camp
Charli XCX, “Forever” (Dir: Dan Streit & Charli XCX)
For “Forever,” Charli XCX collected clips from her fans and compiled them into a wistful collage of hundreds of significant moments. Even as a mostly homemade video produced in isolation, the array of memories on display recreates a feeling of connectedness that was sorely in short supply throughout 2020. A simulacrum of a social life, Charli’s crowdsourced patchwork of friends and adventures, kisses and anniversaries, selfies and home videos expands the scope of the song, originally for Charli’s longtime boyfriend, into a tribute to her fans. Mason
Christine and the Queens, “La Vita Nuova” (Dir: Colin Solal Cardo)
Christine and the Queens’s 14-minute “La Vita Nuova” is an emotional masterwork that maps out the breadth of the singer’s vivid imagination. Every awe-inspiring shot and chills-inducing moment is choreographed with precision, and the video’s magic comes not only from its mythological creatures, but from the unbridled passion of Chris’s performance. Whether she’s dancing with an ensemble, feverishly chasing a boom mic, or licking Caroline Polachek’s neck, Chris’s charisma is timeless and spellbinding. Director Colin Solal Cardo and choreographer Ryan Heffington fill each frame with vigor and enchantment, creating a world unto itself. Mason
FKA twigs, “Sad Day” (Dir. Hiro Murai)
Just as she applied her study of pole dancing in the video for last year’s “Cellophane,” FKA twigs flexes her swordplay abilities in “Sad Day.” Director Hiro Murai slices the song into multiple passages, letting the story of the video drive the progression of the music. Just in the first two minutes, we see twigs transition from moving like a collapsing marionette to entering full action-hero mode, fighting co-star Teake until they crash through a window. And that’s just where the video begins; moments later, the two are flying over city streets until, through some breathtaking visual effects, they defeat each other. This tense, shocking moment would not be out of place in a techno-horror film, capturing the power of the body to create both beauty and revulsion. Mason
HAIM, “I Know Alone” (Dir: Jake Schreier)
Music videos featuring the Haim sisters performing painstakingly synchronized choreography are a dime a dozen at this point, but the clip for “I Know Alone” is a profoundly relatable visual presentation of an especially prescient song. “Been a couple days since I’ve been out/Calling all my friends, but they won’t pick up,” Danielle Haim sings as she, Este, and Alana stand six feet apart on an empty basketball court, swiping on imaginary cellphones. Directed and choreographed remotely, the video is both a sign of the times and a work of understated ingenuity. Cinquemani
Lauv, “Modern Loneliness” (Dir: Jason Lester)
From snapping the perfect selfie, to obsessively monitoring Instagram likes, to commiserating with strangers on Twitter, no other video this year captured the rush, isolation, ennui, and potential for human connection of virtual life in 2020 better than singer-songwriter Lauv’s aptly titled “Modern Loneliness.” Cinquemani
Dua Lipa, “Physical” (Dir: CANADA)
For all her skills as a pop vocalist and songwriter, Dua Lipa exudes an aloofness on stage and on camera that could be mistaken for a lack of charisma. With her Future Nostalgia project, however, the U.K. singer has come into her own, no more so than in the colorful video for the album’s second single, “Physical.” Employing a blend of animation, special effects, and clever editing, Lipa literally floats on air as an army of monochromatic dancers swirl around her in a flurry of kinetic physicality. Camp
Kelly Lee Owens featuring John Cale, “Corner of My Sky” (Dir: Kasper Häggström)
The visual concept for Kelly Lee Owens’s “Corner of My Sky,” in which a man repeatedly places sliced bread in a toaster only for it to mysteriously disappear, is intriguing enough on its own, but it’s Welsh actor Michael Sheen’s performance—all grizzled consternation mixed with calm resolve in the face of the inexplicable—that makes this video so utterly captivating. Cinquemani
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