The Chemical Brothersâs entire discography post-Come with Us seems cursed by bad timing. They were cheerfully lightweight when they most needed to violently bounce off the walls, cheeky and irreverent when dance music was really getting sincere with itself, unapologetically pop when the rock guitars they built their empire on were most in vogue, and now theyâve gone and ditched their standard vocal collaborations the same year that Betty Whiteâs publicists have made her available for everything from Latin hustles on Saturday Night Live to getting paper cuts at the GayVN Awards. Ah, the hotness in Cleveland-upon-Thames that couldâve been.
Alas, Further accomplishes very little other than pushing Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons further into background music obsolescence. In this case, I mean that literally. Further isnât so much a new album as it is the soundtrack for an accompanying audio-visual effort from Adam Smith and Marcus Lyallâor it acts like one, at any rate. (I havenât seen the videos apart from the acid-tinged shadow-puppet-show clip for âSwoon,â but if theyâre anything like that one, I wouldnât hold my breath that anyoneâs reinventing the medium.)
âSwoonâ probably churns the most momentum of the discâs stingy eight tracks, but thatâs in part owed to its sizable musical debt to the chord progressions all but ripped from Basement Jaxxâs âRaindrops.â Itâs also missing what I thought was a mandatory ingredient in any dance track: a bass kick. âEscape Velocityâ wins the prize for endurance, spinning ollies on a quote from the Whoâs âBaba OâRileyâ for nearly 12 minutes, and though it ultimately imposes itself along your lower spine through sheer force of will, its color wheel is so much more limited than that of âThe Private Psychedelic Reelâ and âThe Sunshine Underground.â âK+D+B,â supposedly a tribute to electronicaâs debt to the Teutonic, couldâve used a lot more MC2. The only song that brings it with relentlessness is âHorse Power,â a winningly clumsy gallop that suggests âIt Began in Africaâ taking a pit stop at the dude ranch. (Oh yes, thatâs a funky stallion you hear whinnying to the beat.)
Otherwise, in substance-free exercises in dubby atmospherics like âAnother Worldâ and âWonders of the Deep,â Rowlands and Simons seem to have fallen down the harshly spangled rabbit hole wherein all their glittery synth wobbles spring from the decks in search of a halfway decent hook. The Chems will never again be on the waxing side of âThe Salmon Dance,â and so Further is by definition not the most embarrassing music of their careerâmerely the most boring.
Label: Astralwerks Release Date: June 22, 2010 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Chicksâs Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding
The bandâs first album in 14 years is steeped in personal and political rage.4
Thereâs compelling data, generated largely by the work of Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottowa, that draws a clear correlation between the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks from country radio and the immediate and striking downturn in airplay for all women on that format. The statistics are dire and indefensible. Though program directors and radio consultants will deny, deny, deny, thereâs evidence that the industry made a purposeful choice to punish all female artists for the Dixie Chicksâs perceived crimes.
So, in 2020, country music really and truly needs a comeback from the Dixie Chicks, an album that will allow one of the genreâs all-time greatest acts to stage a triumphant return and redress the industryâs injustices over the last decade. But Gaslighter, the bandâs first album in 14 years, isnât it. Instead, itâs a defiant act of rebranding: The Dixie Chicks are now known simply as the Chicksâa not-insignificant change that speaks to both the social power of language and to the trioâs stated intent to âmeet this momentâ in our nationâs history.
Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer figure even less prominently on Gaslighter than they did on the bandâs last album, 2006âs Taking the Long Way, and thatâs also a not-insignificant development. By teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff, the group has made a decisive transition into a pop act. Itâs easy to mourn the sound that defined the band, but to reject the album out of hand for its pop aesthetics is to deny them their own agency as artists.
Gaslighter emerges as a fascinating, messy album thatâs steeped in personal and political rage. Divorce is hardly unusual subject matter in pop and country music, but artists who record âdivorce albumsâ often struggle with the notion that they should aspire to making their story universally accessible to listeners. Natalie Maines makes no such mistake in her songwriting here. What elevates Gaslighter above thematically similar albums is the specificity of her unflinching detail as she recounts her ongoing legal battles with ex-husband Adrian Pasdar.
On âSleep at Night,â Maines retells the story of how Pasdar brought his mistress backstage at a concert to introduce her as a fan of the band. Maines is fully in control of her narrative voice when she sings on the track: âMy husbandâs girlfriendâs husband just called me/How messed up is that?/Itâs so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/Thereâs nothing funny about that.â Later, on âSet You Free,â the soaring ballad that closes Gaslighter, she pleads, âDecency would be to sign and release me,â referencing the still-festering terms of a contract dispute.
On the tracks that explicitly relate to her divorce, which is a full three-quarters of the album, Maines dispenses with the idea of a narrative remove. She sings in first person, and the details sheâs chosen to share are autobiographical, albeit presenting only her perspective. At times, that makes standout songs like âHope Itâs Something Goodâ and âMy Best Friendâs Weddingâ feel, at the very least, like voyeurism. While itâs always a critical dead-end to assume that first-person narrators are stand-ins for a singer, Maines actually invites that reading: On âGaslighter,â when she sings, âBoy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,â itâs a marvel of bitterness. That the album later includes a song with the title âTights on My Boat,â though, lessens the mystique or possibility for interpretation or engagement.
That would be more of an issue if the songs werenât so well-constructed and engagingly performed. But thatâs exactly what makes Gaslighter superior to its predecessor. As part of my clinical work, Iâve testified as a witness in some truly nasty divorce cases, and Iâve never once thought to set court transcripts to a percussive four-four stomp or some Lorde-style EDM, but damned if it doesnât work for the Chicks here. âGaslighterâ and the extraordinary âMarch Marchâ boast distinctive lyrical hooks, while âFor Herâ and âJulianna Calm Downâ feature real dynamic ranges that give the tracks a sense of movement and depth. Antonoffâs production choices truly draw into sharp relief Rick Rubinâs conservativism at the helm of Taking the Long Way.
While the album sounds current for 2020, there are a handful of moments that suggest how much more strongly Antonoff could have leaned into the Chicksâs previous style. On âFor Her,â Antonoff layers one of Strayerâs finger-plucked banjo figures into an arrangement that explodes into a sing-along gospel chorus, while Maguireâs fiddle adds a jarring, ominous tone to the instrumental outro of âMarch March.â When working with a vocalist as powerful as Maines, the impulse to foreground her performances makes senseâand itâs worth noting that âFor Her,â âJulianna Calm Down,â and âSet Me Freeâ are among the finest performances of her career. But the album gives the impression that Antonoff wasnât sure how to engage fully with Maguire and Strayerâs exemplary skills with traditional acoustic instruments.
By incorporating country signifiers into what is otherwise a terrific, of-the-moment pop album, Antonoff and the Chicks could have come up with a style thatâs even more progressive, akin to the production on Kacey Musgravesâs Golden Hour. If nothing else, that highlights how the Chicks still have room to grow, either with or without Antonoff, as they move into this new phase of their career. Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but itâs clearly the one that the Chicks needed to make.
Label: Columbia Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Lianne La Havasâs Eponymous Third Album Embraces the Catharsis of Loss
On her third album, the British singer-songwriter settles into a sense of immediacy.4
British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is an adept storyteller, capable of both capturing who we are at our most alone and making us feel closer to one another. Her love songs conjure a striking intimacy, even when sheâs backed by the sumptuous BBC Symphony Orchestra in the storied Barbican Hall, and take on a degree of universality, even when sheâs singing directly to a video camera in her living room. But itâs the latter method, when her sound is at its most stripped down, that best conveys the evocative immediacy that caught the attention of Prince, who mentored La Havas in the years before his death.
On her third album, La Havas settles into that immediacy, positioning her guitar as the beating heart of the music. The eponymous album finds her again chronicling the course of a romance, but this time she quite intentionally does away with the glossy fuss of 2015âs blindingly polished Blood, subsisting throughout on her hard-earned wisdom. The album instantly feels more purposeful than its predecessor: Where Blood can feel labored over, perhaps too hungry for hits, Lianne La Havas isnât seemingly beholden to such expectations.
As she recounts the fate of a relationship from its onset to its demise, La Havas often prioritizes the passion of the moment over the logic of hindsight bias. On âRead My Mind,â you can practically hear her smile as she sings, âThe pure joy/When a girl meets a boy/Pure chemistry.â She never loses sight of her needs, however distressing they might be. Sheâs quick to provide counsel to herself and outright plead with her lover on âPaper Thin.â Her vocal floats, at times on the verge of cracking from emotion, atop harp-like fingerpicking: âBaby, you gotta run free/Please donât forget about me.â La Havas leans into the heartrending grief of prematurely losing a relationship.
A cover of Radioheadâs âWeird Fishesâ appears at the climax of Lianne La Havas as a fretful turning point in the albumâs central relationship. La Havasâs version of the In Rainbows track is slower and earthier than Radioheadâs more cerebral original, yet it retains all of its fragility. Radiohead articulates the unspoken fears and doubts that occupy a night spent overthinking, and La Havas is seized by the same impulse to verbalize her grievances, gingerly handling the painful edges of rejection and abandonment, albeit with more self-compassion.
Sonically, the warbly synth of âCourageâ and frantic drumming of âSeven Timesâ donât feel too far removed from In Rainbowsâs sonic palette. But La Havasâs style remains tricky to pin down, existing somewhere in the nexus of the soulful warmth of Corinne Bailey Rae, the confessional lyricism of Amy Winehouse, and the folky melodicism of Joni Mitchell. To call it soul music would be reductive; too many black artists have hastily been assigned the label just for the color of their skin, a restrictive tendency that La Havas herself has railed against. But without a doubt, La Havas makes soul music insofar as it originates from the soul.
The albumâs twinkling denouement, âSour Flower,â depicts the metamorphosis that can occur after overcoming a breakup. La Havasâs voice is rich and robust as she belts, âIâm not crying over you/When I cry/Now Iâm free.â She attains catharsis by providing herself refuge and realizing that she can heal herself. She leaves us with an empowering moral: that we possess the ability to revive our spirits after loss, and that it may well be boundless.
Label: Nonesuch Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Julianna Barwickâs Healing Is a Miracle Is Music as Spiritual Renewal
The album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures.3.5
As a singer, composer, and producer, Julianna Barwick uses her vocals as a foundation, stacking multi-tracks of her voice with strings and piano, and blending it all beneath layers of reverb. Save for the occasional poetic repetitions and formed thoughts, she doesnât sing actual words, fusing emotions and imagined spaces through a collage of vocables and human noise. Upon first listen, her songs can feel monotonous, but tiny modulations give them dynamism. They donât drone so much as pleasantly sustain a pace and mood.
Barwickâs fourth album, Healing Is a Miracle, is a tale of spiritual renewal thatâs both striking and, even at 34 minutes, patience-testing. As its title indicates, the album takes on the abstract subject of systems of regeneration, both natural and otherwise. The opening track, âInspirit,â comes on like a wall of sound, Barwickâs ecstatic vocals giving the impression of finding wonder in the mundane, the vocal parts joined together in a powerful cluster, barely distinguishable as she sings, âOpen your heart/Itâs in your head.â
While Barwickâs style can be wondrous, it isnât fanciful, acknowledging the ebb and flow of life and death. On âFlowers,â a harsh, buzzy synth nearly overwhelms the choral arrangement in a way that grounds Barwickâs breathy vocals, while the percussion on âIn Light,â featuring guest vocals from JĂłnsi, galumphs steadily like a heartbeat before tapering off, evoking the fragility of human life. Healing Is a Miracle is well sequenced, and its songsâ emphasis on direction achieves a circuitousness that plays nicely with albumâs chosen theme of life cycles.
A longing for connection to a higher powerâa notion of singing to the heavensâis a thread that runs throughout Barwickâs work. While her vocals on Healing Is a Miracle are less celestial than those on her 2011 breakout, The Magic Place, these songs similarly show an interest in the directionality of sound. The trajectory of âSafeâ is one of gradual elevation and an ever-approaching proximity, employing distancing techniques for something more terrestrial rather than otherworldly. Likewise, âWishing Wellâ seems to find Barwick pining for earthly connection, the vocals reaching outward as opposed to heavenward.
Considered though it is, though, Healing Is a Miracle can sometimes be so delicate as to be weightless, and the musicâs accumulation of details and small shifts in tone makes it more interesting in theory than practice. Even still, the album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures, from the electronic flourishes featured throughout to the influence of hip-hop beatsmith Nosaj Thing on the closing track, âNod.â Healing Is a Miracle is music as balm, with the human voice a vehicle for rejuvenation.
Label: Ninja Tune Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Pop Smokeâs Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon Is a Half-Baked Epitaph
The album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on the rapper’s death.2
Pop Smoke, born Bashar Jackson, emerged as part of a crop of young rappers who took the morbid bluntness of drill, a subgenre of trap music that originated in Chicagoâs South Side in the early 2010s, and adapted it to the ethos of New York City street life. In the Brooklyn rapperâs case, the translation was shrewd, utilizing the help of East London producer 808Melo, who, along with Rico Beats, oversaw the entirety of Pop Smokeâs 2019 mixtape Meet the Woo, creating a sound that was lively, booming, and faithful to Jacksonâs origins while cloaking his gang-life testimonials in a new stylistic mode.
When Jackson was shot and murdered in Los Angeles in a home invasion earlier this year, heâd just released his second mixtape, Meet the Woo 2, and was in the process of recording his studio debut, now posthumously released under the title Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. Unfortunately, yet all too predictably, the album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on his death. It attempts to expand Pop Smokeâs sound and ambitions, but without him around to shape and hone the work, his collaborators struggle to assemble something more than a pale reflection of what might have been.
Where Pop Smokeâs mixtape raps were notable for their conviction of delivery and tightly wound compression, here he sounds fainter and less engaged. His verses on âAim for the Moonâ and âCreatureâ donât have the same punchy impact. In his best moments, Pop Smoke was able to channel his untamed aggression into repetitive, elemental lyrics that were colored by his force of personality (such as âDior,â which has been tacked on to all three of his releases, including this one). Though not as adept at complex wordplay, his appeal was akin to the tough-talking, chest-puffing brio of DaBaby, whoâs featured on âFor the Night.â
Along with a live-wire masculinity, the album also contains the ill-advised forays into R&B found on DaBabyâs Blame It on Baby. Ladled with plenty of Auto-Tune, neither rapper has a compelling singing voice, and yet multiple songs on this album attempt to position Pop Smoke as a softer-spoken purveyor of love songs. âSomething Specialâ and âWhat You Know Bout Loveâ sample Fabolous and Tamiaâs âInto Youâ and Ginuwineâs âDifferences,â respectively, marking the farthest the rapper has strayed from his patented drill and trap origins, but theyâre dreary and tepid rather than exciting sonic departures. When he ad-libs, âOh, you ainât know I could sing?,â at the beginning of âMood Swings,â it comes across as empty boast.
Even the tracks that stick to Pop Smokeâs established drill mode donât have the inventiveness and coiled energy of his mixtape highlights. Half of what makes a song like âWelcome to the Partyâ so enjoyable is its menacing yet gleeful production, all warped violin loops and careening, demented bass. Comparable tracks on Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, such as âGangstasâ and âWest Coast Shit,â trade these inspired choices for a minimalist piano and snare combination. The production feels mournful rather than charged, which makes sense given the turn of events but doesnât square with the late artistâs strengths.
A handful of moments here make good on Pop Smokeâs promise. âGot It on Meâ and â44 BullDogâ find him doggedly racing against their beats, and there are brief instances where the rapperâs glib sense of humor and confidence invest lines like âI need your number and thatâs thatâ and âI ainât with the talk or the chit chatâ with a hoarse individuality. But on the whole, in broadening his musicâs scope, those responsible for piecing together Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon have lost sight of the local specificity, quirky charisma, and energy that made a name for Pop Smoke in the first place.
Label: Republic Release Date: July 3, 2020 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: Peacockâs The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve
Review: The Chicksâs Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding
Blu-ray Review: Noah Baumbachâs Marriage Story on the Criterion Collection
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Review: Julianna Barwickâs Healing Is a Miracle Is Music as Spiritual Renewal
Review: Amanitaâs Creaks Dazzles by Foregrounding Its Seussian Spirit
Review: RĂ€dical Rabbit Stew Is a Comic Medley of Things That Work
Review: The Painted Bird Is a Viscerally Haunting Evocation of the Toll of War
Review: Blessed Child Only Half-Lifts the Veil on a Familyâs Ties to a Cult
Blu-ray Review: James Whaleâs Show Boat on the Criterion Collection
- TV7 days ago
Review: Peacockâs The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve
- Music4 days ago
Review: The Chicksâs Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding
- Video7 days ago
Blu-ray Review: Noah Baumbachâs Marriage Story on the Criterion Collection
- Features7 days ago
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets