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Adrianne Lenker – songs

10 Jan

A lot of indie rock likes to use gentleness to disarm before it strikes. It’s a way to lull you into a placid mood before it lacerates you with insight. songs has moments as sharp as any of them, but is still delicate and somehow reassuring. One of the major cultural trends to recently emerge is that of wholesomeness, but that brand of wholesomeness feels inextricable from naivety. songs doesn’t hide its intelligence, but tempers it with immense gentleness and so does more to rejuvenate than any amount of shallower media.

It’s with “ingydar” that this is at its best. The song takes transience and distills it. It has a fantastic sense of place and it’s very evocative. It takes the repeated “everything eats and is eaten” and shows you that it is not a cruel statement of Darwinian logic, but instead one of profound beauty.

At its best, this is what the album manages to achieve. It takes the harder truths of life and, as if by magic, reveals the gentleness inside. It does mix that with a number of pieces that fizzle without much to say, but there’s still plenty in here well worth the listen.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Nikhil’s List

28 Dec

Not every year is a 2020 and thankfully so, but some very interesting music came out of it. Afrobeats has taken the next step. Drill broke out, although sadly marred by tragedy. Taylor Swift made music I wanted to listen to. Things got strange. Things got listenable too though and these are my picks for what best to listen to.

Honorable Mention: Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

2020 was the year that Afrobeats really broke into the mainstream. Burna Boy’s excellent album is naturally the headliner, but it’s a movement much bigger than the one man, African Giant though he may be and of everyone it was Amaarae that did the most. She took the base of Afrobeats and evolved it well past where I expected it to be so soon.

At it’s best, it’s impossibly fun. “HELLZ ANGEL” is clever, propulsive and has the still-amazing line of “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.” The SAD pair of songs are infectious. This is an album that makes you move.

Some inconsistency keeps THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW from being higher on this list, but it’s still some of the most exceptional music of the year and a strong promise for what is to come.

Read our full review here.

5. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This album really grew on me as the year went by. I was a little disappointed in it when it came out because of how much I liked BOCC and, to a lesser degree, boygenius, but this is actually a really good album. It’s just indie folk rock at its best.

The lead single of “Kyoto” is naturally the highlight. It’s a quick change of pace and a bright piece of fun. It’s more than a little precious, but smart enough to know that and play on it. It’s in the foundation that it shines though. It just lets Phoebe Bridgers sing and that’s sometimes all a song really needs.

This, writ large, is what makes this album. I like indie folk rock. I like the cinematic nature. I like the sharp, evocative and clever lyrics. I like the wistfulness. Punisher does all of these very well. When an album has a strong selling point, it’s easy to write about, but something like this can be hard to pin to a page because it’s all just excellent execution. It’s in a delicate swirl of strings in “Chinese Satellite” or in the sudden upshift right as the album ends in “I Know The End.” It’s in how Phoebe Bridgers’ singing is just the right kind of gentle. It lets the barbs stay sharp, but also, it can just be gentle and, above all, it’s always human.

Read our full review here.

4. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an absolutely stunning album and the one that we’ve been waiting for Fiona Apple to make for her whole career. Apple’s feminist art pop has always been very likable and any one of her last four albums is well worth the listen, but Bolt Cutters is a whole new level for her.

This is an album of challenging, clever music and one confident enough to let you come to the challenge yourself. She puts space in each song just to play around with the music and expand the sound. She even throws in the unexpected with noise, chimes, even barking dogs.

It’s also an album with strong things to say. “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” in “For Her” is the kind of line that you cannot miss and the metaphor of “Rack of His” is ingenious. There are a couple of moments where the privilege comes through a little too strongly, but it only mildly detracts from the unmistakable intelligence of the album.

When the pieces come together in Fetch The Bolt Cutters, it’s incredible. This is an extraordinary album and the best of Fiona Apple’s career.

Read our full review here.

3. Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

Like the album before this, much of what makes this album so great is in the details. There are lots of fascinating little flourishes through the album. Pick Me Up Off The Floor is impossibly lean though. There’s no fat, no embellishments meant to distract the ear from a middling track, just consistently excellent music.

It’s a smart album backed up by a powerful voice. She can take something like the already very listenable “Hurts To Be Alone” and put so much that’s interesting around the edges. The album is playful and fluid and ever-changing and yet always completely in control. This is both life and purpose.

It’s also astonishingly enervating. I’m used to a little exhaustion after getting through a jazz album. The effort that they need is not negligible. This is the rare one that refreshes instead.

Read our full review here.

2. Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

SOURCE is not quite the kind of work-out of the jazz I just mentioned, but it does pack a lot of action into a single hour. At it’s best, like in “Pace” and “Before Us,” it is fiery jazz of the best sort. It has a burning energy and isn’t afraid to take its challenge all the way to the listener’s limits.

The title track does the same and the performers trade excellent solos across its 12-minute sprawl. It’s skilled, compelling jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s in “La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” that the album is at its most interesting. It threads Latin sounds through top-tier jazz and the result is spectacular. I would never pigeonhole a talent on the level of Nubya Garcia. No matter what she does, I’m gong to be excited to hear it. She is just that good and that versatile. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t hope for more in this vein. This is truly wonderful music.

Read our full review here.

1. Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

The thing here is that Uzi can rap. The high concept of the album didn’t really land with me, but Uzi can just rap. It’s like prime Wayne where you just want to see what he does next. He takes the top spot this year purely off the strength of that flow.

He might be the most important rapper in the world right now. Kendrick is on hiatus, J. Cole has gone full Samson, Future has fallen off, Drake is in a holding pattern but Uzi is at full speed. It’s not a guarantee that he will deliver. The extended album had plenty of bloat and while he rapped circles around an apparently disinterested Future in Pluto x Baby Pluto, the album just isn’t enough to wake up for. With Eternal Atake though, he just flies.

Like with Wayne, Uzi just seems to do what he wants. It feels like there’s nothing he won’t try and nothing that he won’t rap about. There are just no limits to what he will do next. What makes it so unfair is how easily he can do it too. He can go hard or soft, he has more flows than you can shake a stick at, he has things you’ve never seen before and he can do it all in the same track just for the fun of it and be likeable to boot.

In my review, I called this the bebop of the trap world, and that still rings true. He makes rap that challenges and delights, rap that’s free-flowing and improvisational and always able to surprise. It’s textured, intelligent music that’s endlessly impressive and human for all of that. This is the most fun I had listening to an album all year and one that I’m happy to have as album of the year.

Read our full review here.

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

18 Dec

Like with Lupe Fiasco before him, there’s always the worry with a Kid Cudi album that he’s found a new way to sabotage himself, or even just that he will reuse one of his old methods of sabotaging himself. Man on the Moon III doesn’t use any of his old tics of poor beats or weird idiosyncrasies. It’s Kid Cudi in the space where he’s at his best, and that should be a relief. It’s just a shame that it’s still so boring.

This is at its worst in the centerpiece of the album, “Elsie’s Baby Boy.” It’s built up, it’s got a story, it feels like it’s meant to be something and it does nothing. I’ve heard it many, many times and I still can’t tell you a single thing about it. It just doesn’t stick, and sadly too much of the album follows suit. There’s some forgettable trap and some forgettable rock-tinged rap and some other forgettable music and that’s most of the album.

It’s tempting to say that I’ve just outgrown Cudi and to internalize the problem, but that’s not the problem. The issue is that the songs just don’t resonate the way his best stuff did. He came in as an everyman in a time of rap excess, and now he doesn’t feel human at all. His old stuff can still hit hard. They were honest and that still shines through. MotM3 has none of that. Also, where’s the fun of taking something like “Poker Face” and making that into a beat?

There are moments here. I like the “get it, get it” in the middle of the solid “Sad People.” It’s mostly listenable, albeit uninspired. He’s definitely had worse albums than this, and during some of the low points, I would have killed to have even this. His single with Travis Scott had seemed to signal a shift for Cudi, it had seemed to be his breakout moment, but instead it looks like it was a lone bright spot and not a star taking shape.

Immanuel Wilkins – Omega

14 Dec

This is the kind of jazz album that I love to review. You can’t get away from the fact that jazz is forbidding. The more that you give to jazz, the more that jazz gives back to you and so it can be hard to start. That’s why albums like Omega are so great to see, this is the kind of album that can start the virtuous cycle of jazz. It’s approachable, it’s very listenable and yet still smart and able to reward any kind of listener.

Despite simple, accessible foundations, the tracks quickly become clever, intricate pieces. “Warriors” opens the album in a very straightforward way, but then goes into a lovely, thought-provoking piano solo. It’s in the next song though that Immanuel Wilkins really takes flight. “Ferguson – An American Tradition” is fiery and filled with agony. It returns to a simple, but stimulating off-kilter refrain about 6 minutes in that gives a bit of respite from the emotion of the rest of the track, but ends with a heartfelt cry of pain. It’s a magnificent statement and, after “The Dreamer” as a nice bit of softness in between, the album goes into further injustice with “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” This is a more muted track than “Ferguson,” but persistent. About two and a half minutes, there’s a straining horn that’s excellent and then returns to the persistent noodling of before and that journey makes for a very powerful statement. The song suffers a little from my one complaint with this album, I would have liked to see the musicians cut free a little more and really push their ideas as far as they would go, but this is a minor quibble and a choice that brings benefits as well.

This is not an opinion that you should let cut too deeply though. This is a very clever album. “Grace and Mercy” is delicate and soothing, but has a flair for the unexpected. It’s quick to surprise and filled with sharp ideas. “Saudade” is a nice shot of energy and change of pace. “Guarded Heart” both demands and rewards attention. It has aggressive saxophone riffs that are compelling and clever and a wonderful, minimal ending.

If you’re looking to pick up a recent jazz album, this is the one you should look to. If you’re new to jazz, this is a great place to start with. It’s just easy to appreciate that this is very good music. If you can invest in it though, it pays you back in spades. I highly recommend you give this a spin.

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

6 Dec

It’s pretty clear what you’re going to get with Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album. She wears who she is on her sleeve, and as you would expect, this album is good, raunchy fun. Her “Savage Remix” with Beyonce was one of the sounds of the year and deservedly so. “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, you don’t feel my pain.” is one of my favorite lines of the year. Megan Thee Stallion is much more than a one-hit wonder though. She delivers a lot of strong, surprisingly old-school, rap here. “Girls in the Hood” could have been a stand-out track in a classic Beastie Boys album and she puts so much swagger into “I’m a hot girl / I do hot shit.”

Her flow is impeccable throughout. “What’s New” and “Work That” are compulsive. “Sugar Baby” has so much energy and the standout “Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business.” It’s “Outside” though that really lets her stretch herself. She has great flow there and it showcases her ability to switch up tempo. She’s astonishingly versatile. Popcaan comes in for a Caribbean slow jam sound that’s a nice left turn for the album and plays well against her rap. Lil Durk has similarly great chemistry with her, but brings in an impressive menace. Meanwhile “Don’t Rock Me To Sleep” is disco-infused pop that could easily have slid into the last Dua Lipa album.

It’s not surprising that Megan’s debut album is this strong. It was already clear that she has talent to spare, but with “Good News,” she has shown the ability to deliver an absolutely first-class album with it.

Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

25 Nov

I would have thought Afrobeats was too new to support something like THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW, but it’s clear that Amaarae is not the type to wait around for other people to catch up. THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW takes pieces from the rapidly rising Afrobeats, but mixes in influences from all over the place to make something that is impossibly even more catchy than any of its sources.

This is exemplified by the sublime “HELLZ ANGEL.” It has a clever, tripping beat and her art-pop high pitched voice plays against it well. When the song gets going, it’s compulsive and then she switches her tempo before diving into a quick rap with the excellent “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.”

She has a lot of fun in the album. “SAD, U BROKE MY HEART” is the most Afrobeats of the tracks here and it uses the playfulness of the genre to great effect with the gentle singing and the blunt title and on the complete other side of the spectrum, she brings in some emo-rap for the very cute “FANCY.”

For all of that though, the other album highlight is the amazing “JUMPING SHIP.” The tenderness in her voice is exceptional and the song hits all the right notes of regret. It does a lot to ground the album after all of lightness surrounding. it.

In this fusion that Amaarae found, she’s accomplished something extraordinary. This is an infectious, clever album and some of the best music of the year. You should not miss it.

Ty Dolla $ign – Featuring Ty Dolla $ign

20 Nov

I absolutely love the concept behind this album. It’s anything but uncommon to see Ty featuring on someone else’s album. He’s a good person to fill a gap if needed and this can make it hard to take him seriously for who he is. Like 2 Chainz, it feels like he’s making a push for auteurship and I’m glad to see it.

The idea of taking a ton of features himself and not only owning his shapeshifting, but using it to make an album that is uniquely his excited me. I was hoping for something like LEGACY, LEGACY with space for the people mentioned to actually show up. Featuring Ty Dolla $ign falls somewhat short of that in a number of ways, but there’s still plenty in here.

He does well in the harder half of the album. “Expensive” with Nicki is a lot of fun. He has a great flow in “Real Life” and “Double R.” “Freak” uses Quavo very well. Cudi also shows up well in “Temptations.”

It’s in the slow tracks that Ty misses the mark. “Everywhere” is fine technically, but is forgettable and doesn’t fit in particularly well. “Your Turn” is honestly execrable and “Slow It Down” is a similar weak point. His crooning in “By Yourself” has moments though, but it doesn’t have the energy of the Afrobeats musicians in the same space and Jhene Aiko, while fine, is forgettable.

It all comes together in the closer “Ego Death” though. The Kanye / Skrillex beat is top-notch and not only is the rap excellent, but the shift in sound for FKA Twigs is exactly what I was hoping for throughout the album.

Featuring Ty Dolla $ign is not exactly what I was hoping for, but there’s a lot of solid music in here. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a good time and a very clever path for Ty Dolla $ign to take.

Ariana Grande – Positions

12 Nov

Ariana has hit a productive streak of late, and a fairly solid one too. Positions isn’t the revelation that thank u, next was, but it’s still a fun pop album. “34+35” is a cute little sex jam and “my hair” is strong R&B in a Solange vein.

It’s not all what I would hope for though. “just like magic” is a little uninspired and a little grating. “off the table” does nothing by reuniting The Weeknd and Ari, which is a shame given how well their previous collaboration worked. “motive” is effective for most of the song, it’s both suspicious and tender and compelling for it, but sadly the Doja Cat feature detracts from the whole thing.

Still, any flaws are made up for with “positions.” It’s a magnificent song. Her voice is deeply alluring and the song takes an intricate opening and makes it an excellent beat.

Positions is just a good time. Ariana is having fun and being sexy and making frothy pop music that’s a pleasure to listen to.

Ozuna – ENOC

5 Nov

If you haven’t tried modern reggaeton yet, Ozuna has just made the album for you. The Spanish-speaking Carribean mix of dancehall, rap and singing has had plenty of mainstream success already, but this album feels built for crossover appeal.

Ozuma just brings so much energy and so much charisma to this album. It’s irresistibly likable. This is at its best in the admittedly slightly basic “Gistro Amarillo.” It’s just too catchy and upbeat to deny.

He’s very good when he keeps that energy up, as he does on “Del Mar” which does really well for the Doja Cat and Sia features, and through most of the album. However, he misses the mark on his slower songs, like “No Se Da Cuenta,” which is made forgettable in part due to the inclusion of the King of Reggaeton himself, Daddy Yankee.

This is definitely the place to start if you want to jump into the new Puerto Rican hotness and is fun enough to be a good time whatever the case.

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

29 Oct

There are some time-worn traditions when it comes to being a music fan. At some point, you realize that you’re older than the hot new popstars, you begin to appreciate some of the music your parents liked (although ABBA is still garbage) and some clever new musician takes your formative music and remakes it for the modern world. I’ve never seen someone take as much of it as Bartees Strange though.

“Stone Meadows” feels like a more cerebral Foo Fighters or like TV On The Radio at their best and Bartees Strange spends most of his time in this space, but then there’s plenty of art-pop and jolts of rap and house. “Kelly Rowland” is more emo-rap than anything else, but with some very intricate threads running through it.

The variety and the scratchiness give this album the feel of a personal mixtape, something compiled mostly from the sounds of the early 00s, but with snatches from other eras as well. For all of that variety though, Strange keeps the album cohesive. It’s a remarkable achievement.

For someone who came to music then, someone ever closer to their thirties, this album is undeniable. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia though, it doesn’t make me feel like I did back then. It is just very good music that speaks to something fundamental in me.

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