We’ve once again reached the halfway point of another year, and as such it creates a perfect opportunity to reflect on the past six months just to check in and see how things are going so far. You don’t need another recap of pandemic fatigue, vaccine distribution, and the “return to normalcy” while our democratic institutions remain in constant peril. That’s not what this site is about. Everyone is stressed out enough already, so let’s take a moment to remember the good things, like music. Oh hey, remember music? It’s that thing you can play to soundtrack your life and enhance your emotional state. The right song can turn your entire day around, for better or worse. A fond memory can be triggered by a song, or an uptempo beat can somehow make a sunny day that much brighter. Great stuff, right?
After the last 15 or so months that we’ve had, your relationship with music may have changed. Perhaps staying home without constant obligations inspired you to revisit some favorite albums or go digging for something new to expand your horizons. Then again, maybe like some other activities, listening to music just doesn’t ignite the same spark within you it once did. I absolutely get that. Live music in particular has been a constant source of joy in my life, and not attending a single concert in a year and a half left a hole no livestream could ever fill. I’m excited to get back to shows and festivals later this summer, and to share some of those experiences with you here on this site. Part of me also worries it won’t be the same or at least inflame my passions as easily as it used to.
Thankfully, the well of freshly recorded songs and albums has yet to run dry. Things weren’t looking so great for a couple of months this past spring though, as it appears a number of high profile artists chose to hold off on announcing new records until it became clear the world was reopening again and they could go out on tour. Don’t get me wrong there was still plenty of good stuff being released, you just needed to dig a little deeper some weeks to find it. When I began composing this mid-year playlist, my concern was over finding enough quality tracks to make it a worthwhile endeavor. Were there 50-100 songs from the past six months that I truly loved? I wasn’t sure, and it took a few weeks of searching through my library and checking the calendar for release dates before the answer became clear.
Below you’ll find 100 songs (6.5 hours of music) that I genuinely love from the first half of 2021, in both embedded Spotify and linked YouTube formats. They are very much all over the place in terms of genre, mood, tempo, and any other qualifier you may consider. Some great representation from Chicago’s local music scene in the mix too. As always, you’re unlikely to agree with all of my choices. I’d also be extremely surprised (and impressed) if you’ve heard all of these songs before seeing them on this playlist! For every Lorde or Lil Nas X there’s an Alicia Walter or Geese. My hope is that you’ll press play on something completely foreign to you and fall in love with it. Explore a bit! Hit shuffle and see where it takes you! Or find an artist/song you already know and like, then listen to the one in order before and after it. Everything is organized by genre/vibe and purposely not ranked, so please scroll down and give those later tracks some spins too. Enjoy and Happy Summer!
If you’re reading this, I’d like to congratulate you on surviving the first half of 2020. To say the past six months have been challenging would be putting it mildly. Pandemics and protests are only the start of our troubles. And even though most of us have been spending a whole lot of time at home, we could still use a break from everything. While I can’t sit here and tell you that the world will somehow magically get better and there’s light at the end of this extremely dark tunnel, my hope still remains intact that life will improve sooner rather than later.
It’s easy to get the impression that 2019 has been a relatively quiet year for music so far. There haven’t been quite as many high profile album releases, and few things have really captured the cultural zeitgeist beyond Lil Nas X and perhaps Billie Eilish. We’re in a pretty weird place, right? If you were to ask me point blank what five of my favorite albums were this year, it’d take me a few minutes to come up with a clear answer. I haven’t been listening to less music overall, there’s just less things managing to grab and hold my attention. Or so I thought.
In reflecting on the first half of the year, I wanted to assemble and share a playlist of about 50 songs that I genuinely enjoyed and/or frequently returned to over these last six months. The rules for the list were simple: only one song per artist, either released as a standalone single or as part of a 2019 LP/EP. The goal was to spread the love around, but I had to reach 50 songs first. It was tougher than I expected, until it wasn’t. What started out at barely 50 songs quickly ballooned to nearly twice that amount after taking a closer look at some release lists. A 100 song playlist would have been too much, but 50 ultimately felt like too little.
So here’s the final compromise: 75 great songs from the first half of 2019. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by artist, because official rankings are best saved for a year-end wrap-up. Please enjoy this five hours of music! Play it at your BBQ or just in your car while driving around on a hot day. I hope you discover some tracks and artists you missed earlier this year, or rediscover some fun songs you may have forgotten about over the last few months. Listen through the Spotify embed below, or follow this link. You can also listen to every song (minus Julien Baker & Thom Yorke) on the playlist individually via YouTube by clicking on the title.
We’re halfway through 2016, so now’s as good of a time as any to take a moment for reflection before we march onward through the rest of the year. It’s been a wild six months, filled with surprise and high profile releases from some of music’s most prolific artists, not to mention quite a few underground successes as well. There’s probably no way you’ve heard all the great stuff, which is why I wanted to share this Spotify playlist filled with all of my favorites. If it seems like 69 songs is an intentional joke, I can assure you the number is 100% arbitrary. There’s nothing particularly official about this, nor are there rankings, simply a collection of tracks released between January and the end of June that you should probably spend some time with. They’re ordered in a way that I think flows best, in an effort to optimize listenability. It’s worth noting that this also makes a great playlist for your summer BBQ, as it’s packed to the gills with uptempo brilliance. Please enjoy and share!
Site news alert! We’ve now reached the halfway point of 2013, and with that I’d like to use that as a springboard to make some changes to the site moving forwards. Really by “changes” I mean one change, and that’s going to concern album reviews on the site. A little earlier today, I posted my review of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. If you haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, please do, because it gives an in-depth analysis of one of the year’s strongest records. You may also notice that review is quite lengthy. Like the sort of lengthy that maybe makes you not want to read it, or wait until you’ve got plenty of time to read it. It’s also the first album review I’ve written in a few weeks. Why? Mostly time constraints, and when I did have free time, I kept writing that Vampire Weekend review. It went through an editing process and I didn’t put it out there until I felt satisfied with the end product. This sort of perfectionism and relentless need to dive head first into deep analysis of every record I hear has ultimately crippled my ability to write reviews in a timely and easy to read fashion. In a sense those longer reviews do stand out a little from a lot of other music bloggers, who will toss an mp3 at you with a paragraph about the song and call it a post. Alas, I’m just not getting the diversity and lending my opinion to enough records these days. There’s so many great albums out there I want to write raves about, but simply don’t have the time or luxury to do so. Which is why I’m changing the way I write album reviews. From now on, a vast majority of my reviews will be very short and to-the-point. Certainly something will be lost in these quick hit reviews, but I hope to give you a basic idea about the worth of an album in a nice economical package that’s easy to read and reveals whether or not it’s worth your time and money. Look for that new album review format to start later this week or early next week. I’ll begin by playing catch-up with a few notable releases from the first half of the year that I failed to get to, and then quickly jump to current and future releases. The hope is to put together 4-5 of these reviews each week, which is much better than the 1 or 2 every week…or two that my review rate has fallen to. I hope it will increase your overall enjoyment of the site just a little bit more. One of the other things I wanted to point you in the direction of now that we’ve officially hit mid-year is a new Spotify playlist (U.S. only) featuring 80 songs from the first six months of the year that I genuinely loved. There’s tracks from well-known artists like Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, The Joy Formidable, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake paired along side more interesting discoveries such as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Alpine, Daughter, Savages, The Knife and Autre Ne Veut. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing if you have time (take it in chunks), and click the follow button in your Spotify app to keep an eye on things. Of course new music doesn’t stop coming just because we’ve reached July. Here’s your Monday edition of Pick Your Poison as well, featuring tracks from Black City Lights, Flaamingos, Gladiola, Kodacrome, Little Big League, Obits, Sinden, The Static Jacks, Steel Cranes and Walking Bicycles. Wow, lots of good stuff today. In the Soundcloud section after the jump, stream new songs from Chelsea Wolfe, Duke Dumont, Holograms, Janelle Monae, Torche and Chicago’s own Twin Peaks.
Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Disappointing Albums”. If you missed yesterday’s list of “5 Surprising Albums”, you can read that piece by clicking here. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Original Review)
It’s just a tiny bit unfair to say that “The People’s Key” was a disappointing album. For devoted Bright Eyes fans, this was more of a record that wanted to give something back after a pair of mediocre-to-bad solo/Mystic Valley Band long players. Oberst was exploring more of an alt-country angle that devolved into frat boy rock after awhile and just wasn’t working. By contrast, “The People’s Key” sought to bring something good back to the Bright Eyes name, maybe for one last time before it gets retired, and does a relatively good job doing so. Oberst’s lyrical witticisms are strong and viable, and the songs themselves are among the most commercially pleasant that he’s ever written. The record is a full step ahead of even the last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s “Cassadaga”. So what makes this record so damn disappointing then? If this is the best album Oberst has been associated with in years (save for Monsters of Folk), shouldn’t this small victory come as a pleasant surprise? On paper, that’s absolutely what it should be. In context, this is more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. Oberst may still know how to string words together that are jaw-droppingly brilliant, but now they’re colder and more distant than ever. We easily could have and should have given up on the thought that maybe Bright Eyes would return to the days of “Fevers and Mirrors” where he was an emotionally scarred and scared kid, but if that side of the band changed your life, giving up is that much harder to do. Then there’s the concept of “selling out”, which to his credit Oberst hasn’t really done, but the much more rocking and much more easy to digest nature of “The People’s Key” seems to suggest it’s what he wanted. There’s something coldly calculated about this record in how it seems designed to please people. If this truly is the final Bright Eyes record, we definitely know he could have done better, even if it meant torturing his soul for just a little longer. That’s all we really wanted anyways. Buy it from Amazon
Panda Bear – Tomboy (Original Review)
To those that used “Tomboy” as their introduction to Panda Bear, I feel a little sorry for you. It’s by no means a bad record, but to put it more broadly, it’s like first hearing Weezer via “The Green Album”. Your experience with the artist isn’t ruined, but there are far better entry points you could have taken. With Panda Bear, your one and only spot to jump in was via “Person Pitch”. That was a record not just mindblowing in 2007 when it was first released, but it’s one that continues to shake worlds even today. It was a record fiercely ahead of its time, launching a whole other genre unto itself that wouldn’t fully blossom until over a year later. Plus, it shared some of the spotlight with the Animal Collective record that would soon follow it, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, which is very much its own story too. So it was a very good couple years for Noah Lennox. Where “Tomboy” found him earlier this year was in a lot of the same headspace where those two albums were made, but in a world that had vastly changed its musical landscape since then. What was once ahead of its time and brilliant suddenly registered as being a retread of old ideas and at the very most exploitative of current trends. Panda Bear still stands higher than many of his now similar counterparts on “Tomboy”, but the hope was for less of that and more of an admirable attempt towards keeping the expansion of his sound going with even fresher techniques this time. Was he out of ideas, or just trying to bide some time? We’ll know for sure next time. Buy it from Amazon
Radiohead – The King of Limbs (No Original Review)
I have never reviewed a Radiohead album, and by all accounts I probably never will. I bear no hatred or ill will towards the band, and in fact my feelings are closer to the opposite. My primary concern is that once I start writing about the band, I won’t be able to stop myself. I intensely study every single Radiohead album to the point where a day rarely goes by in which I don’t hear one or more in full. I would write a 300 page book on them in 10 days if somebody would commission it. I go from vinyl to CD to mp3 to nitpick little details and discover elements unique to each format. Obsessive is one way to describe it. The point being, I continue to hold the belief that there has never been a legitimately bad Radiohead record (not even “Pablo Honey”), and “The King of Limbs” only affirms such a stance even more. What amuses me is all the anger being heaped upon the band for making an album that’s a completely logical progression from where they’ve been before. Coming off the success that was “In Rainbows” is what essentially screwed them. Say the band had reversed the release order of their last two albums, so “The King of Limbs” came out in 2007 under a “pay what you want” scale and “In Rainbows” was a carefully priced “newspaper album”. My argument is that the reaction to both records would have been noticeably different. In fact, “The King of Limbs” feels like a natural progression out of the “Kid A”/”Amnesiac” days more than anything else, combined with a slice of Thom Yorke’s solo effort “The Eraser”. But the cold hard truth is as follows: after a hugely successful revival and radicalization of the music business that was “In Rainbows”, Radiohead retreated into their own heads and made the record they WANTED to make, fan reaction be damned. They’re really fucking brilliant still, it’s just this doesn’t seem to be the expected or right thing to be doing at this juncture. So people have been bitching and moaning about it, and they’ll continue to bitch and moan about it until Radiohead straightens up and flies right again. The only reason this record should be a disappointment is if you were expecting something truly revelatory or earth-shattering. As for me, that’s what I expect from the band every time. Buy it from Amazon
The Strokes – Angles (Original Review)
After the mess of a record that was “First Impressions of Earth”, The Strokes were on the verge of breaking up. They never officially announced a break up, but given their lengthy hiatus and establishment of other projects, you could easily understand if they pulled a Jack White and woke up one day saying that The Strokes had nothing left to offer the world. What motivated these guys to get back together again was likely more monetary than anything else. The return of The Strokes meant that dollar signs were in their future, as evidenced by a number of sold out shows when they first began to resurface. Shortly after word had gotten around that a new album was on the way, the band put out a new single “Under Cover of Darkness”. Unlike their douchey third album, the song sounded like it belonged in the same sessions as their first two amazing records, and that only pushed hopes and dreams higher that now was the time The Strokes would truly be able to capitalize on their success. Then again, reports were also surfacing of band members calling one another out for things and word that Julian Casablancas came in and recorded his vocals separately from the rest of the band. Not a great sign for personal relationships, but if the album worked then so be it. “Angles” turned out to be a small failure almost entirely because of the band’s inability to fully cooperate with one another. Traverse its 10 songs and you’ll find a handful of different perspectives written into what was supposed to be just one. This disconnection ultimately hurt the album, yet it remains better than “First Impressions of Earth”, which is something of a compliment. Word on the street is that everybody’s friends again and recording for the next Strokes album has been good so far. Start crowwing your fingers now. Buy it from Amazon
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Original Review)
The fellas in TV on the Radio had been on a hot streak the likes of which had not been seen since Radiohead pulled off the perfecta trifecta that was “The Bends”, “OK Computer” and “Kid A”. The TVOTR perfecta trifecta amounted to “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”, “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”. All three of those albums were at or close to being named the best albums of their respective years by a number of publications (including this one). Not only that, but those three records were released in a span of 6 years that coincided perfectly with a tour-record-tour-record pattern. Naturally, they were in need of a break. The hiatus came, band members focused on side projects, and after close to a year off they reconvened to craft their fourth full length. Either they needed to take a longer break or have simply run out of fresh ideas, because “Nine Types of Light” represents a new low from a band whose level of respect was at an all-time high. That’s not calling the album bad, that’s saying a couple small blemishes have appeared on what was once a pristine surface. There are a few distinct album highlights, from “No Future Shock” to “Will Do” and the effervescent closer “Caffeinated Consciousness”, but the weakest turns are made via the slowed down, quieter moments. TVOTR can do sleepy ballads very well, as evidenced by their past ones, but when you string a few of them together it starts to drag the entire album down. Such is the case here, even if each one is frought with substance and meaning. “Nine Types of Light” is a step down for the band, but more like a minor half-step than a taller, cliff-sized one. Buy it from Amazon
Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Surprising Albums” and tomorrow will top it off with “5 Disappointing Albums”. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead (Original Review)
Creating an album that many deem to be “perfect” is more of a curse than it is a blessing. Yes, you’ll achieve something not many others can lay claim to, but the weight of that success will likely crush you and ultimately handicap you for the rest of your career. Such is the case with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a band whose 2002 album “Source Tags and Codes” remains one of the highlights from the last decade yet continues to be relatively underappreciated in this day and age. Perhaps that’s because it was followed by three albums that pushed really hard to recreate or expand upon the sound that won millions over; all of which failed miserably. Eventually dropped from their major label contract, Trail of Dead continued to push onwards via their own record label, and that along with some fiercely negative reviews caused them to step backwards and take stock of where they were at musically. They pared down to a four piece and with that came a much more stable, stripped down sound that still rocked pretty hard. The high concepts remain though, and they crafted their new album “Tao of the Dead” to be heard as two separate suites, each recorded in a different key. There may be dividers between the tracks, but the record is intended to be heard in a single sitting, and if you take it as such it serves as a reminder that this band is able to do great things when they’re not trying so damn hard. It may have taken them almost 10 years to do it, but it’s starting to seem like the ghost of perfection that has haunted the band is beginning to fade away and the boys might finally be able to reclaim some of the spotlight that was once lost. Buy it from Amazon
Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Original Review)
To call Cake “innovative” is to mislabel them. Charming though many of their songs may be, it would appear that longevity is not in their nature. Yet next year they’ll be celebrating their 20th anniversary of being together and allowing John McCrea to constantly sing-speak so many of his lyrics. In that massive amount of time, Cake has only released 6 albums. There was a 7 year gap between their last album “Pressure Chief” and their new one “Showroom of Compassion”, and with the former being such a bland effort on their part, the long wait was probably warranted. They needed the time to remember exactly who they were and why they should continue to make music. Raise your hand if you pretty much forgot that Cake even existed until you heard they had a new record coming out. Spend too much time away, and people will forget about you because there’s so many other musical options available to them. Anyways, “Showroom of Compassion” was like a big welcome back hug from an old friend that you had lost touch with a long time ago. The songs were much stronger than they had been in the last decade, and there were even small signs of sonic progression, with the band incorporating some new instruments and song structures into the fold. On 1996’s “Fashion Nugget”, Cake famously (and ironically) covered Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. With “Showroom of Compassion”, it certainly appears that they will continue to do so for a little while longer. Buy it from Amazon
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (Original Review)
Unlike Cake, Foo Fighers didn’t take a long time away from the spotlight before returning. Still, they did wait four years between their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace” and this new one “Wasting Light”, which was the longest gap in the band’s 16 year history. With all their powerhouse singles though, it was never tough to keep Foo Fighters at the front of your brain, and Dave Grohl’s constant presence in playing with other bands (see: Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age, among others) kept you guessing about where he’d turn up next. But the Foo Fighters themselves had been suffering a serious slump as of the last 10 or so years despite their moderately successful singles output. There was the rather plain “One By One”, the double album electric-acoustic missteps of “In Your Honor”, an attempt to create something as classic as Nirvana’s “Unplugged” session via the live acoustic jaunt “Skin & Bones”, and finally a painful attempt at pandering to the lowest common demoninator courtesy of the pathetic “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”. In other words, it was really easy to assume “Wasting Light” would continue the downward trend the band has been on these last few records. Instead, they pulled out all the stops: Butch Vig produced the record and worked with Grohl for the first time since Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic guested on one track, and Grohl built an old school recording studio in his garage. The plan worked, and the new record marks an amazing comeback for a band that appeared to be all but lost. When Grohl screams “I never wanna die” on the album’s closing track “Walk”, he sounds like he means it: Foo Fighters haven’t sounded this alive in a long time. Buy it from Amazon
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Original Review)
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a tough nut to crack. Her early career played off the “tortured soul” card, and while she was a little more offbeat than her counterparts like Fiona Apple and Courtney Love in the early 90s, the grungy electric guitars and dark lyrics weren’t entirely uncommon. Her evolution since then has been nothing short of fascinating, and perhaps her oddest move came on 2007’s “White Chalk” in which she put down her guitar in favor of an autoharp and piano. The whole thing had a very Victorian Gothic aire to it, only pushed farther courtesy of some increasingly antiquated outfit choices. Her collaboration with John Parish via “A Man A Woman Walked By” was a small return to normalcy for her, though it’s doubtful that the word “normal” has been used much when describing any of her records. The point being that PJ Harvey is often indefinable by nature, consistent only in how she continues to switch things up and challenge herself. “Let England Shake” is another one of those moments, and this time it’s in the form of a concept record detailing the horrors of war. Harvey’s newly expanded instrumental palette serves her well here, and in a way combines some elements from her harsher electric guitar past and her much more delicate and beautiful varied approach of the more present day. In one sense, each new PJ Harvey record is a surprise, because you’re never sure what to expect as she tends to not repeat herself. What wasn’t expected was how carefully and smartly written and composed this album would be, and how after the last few albums of shots that never fully reached the heights of her past glories, here finally is an album that returns her to that force of nature state. She’s come full circle without ever really returning to where she started. Buy it from Amazon
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (Original Review)
Hate is a strong word, but I’m by no means hesitant to use it when referencing the first tUnE-yArDs record “BiRd-BrAiNs”. The project of Merrill Garbus, she recorded that debut album via a crappy built-in laptop microphone and mixed it with some freeware program she downloaded. It sounded exactly like that, and was primarily the reason why I couldn’t stand listening to it. I don’t expect full audio fidelity these days, particularly with the rebirth of lo-fi a couple years back, but there comes a point where the bottom of the barrel gets scraped and that was it for me. Still, for those able to look past the sonic issues with “BiRd-BrAiNs”, it was the introduction of a major new talent, a woman with a powerful voice and smart lyrics who used live shows as her true proving ground. For her second album “w h o k i l l”, Garbus actually made it into a legitimate recording studio and had some backing musicians to help her out. Free and clear of any audio quality issues, I felt that revisiting tUnE-yArDs was the wise thing to do. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far this year. The way the songs on “w h o k i l l” are developed and layered with so many instrumental quirks and matched next to that incredible voice is like a sonic punch to the face. It’s innovative and exciting and catchy and pretty much indescribable genre-wise. Most importantly, it’s everything that debut album was not, or rather, it exposes everything that debut album kept hidden courtesy of a shoddy microphone. Buy it from Amazon
Looking on the opposite side of the penny from yesterday’s Mid-Year Review of 5 Disappointing Albums, today sees an examination of 5 albums released in the first half of this year that have genuinely surprised me. To help clarify, as I also did yesterday, when I use the word “surprising albums”, it’s NOT intended to imply they’re the BEST or my favorites, but simply records that have caught me the most off guard. I was not expecting these records to be as good as they turned out to be, and I hope that if you haven’t heard these albums yet that you make it a point to sometime soon. As it was yesterday, these albums are not ranked, but are listed in alphabetical order to prevent such impressions from occurring. And on that note, what albums have surprised you so far this year? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Download: Conscience Killer)
After the disaster that was 2007’s “Baby 81”, my confidence in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was shot. Despite the relatively poor reviews their first two albums received, their fuzz-fueled Jesus and Mary Chain-baiting rock captivated me like few other bands at the time did. That they have been on a slow and steady drop in quality since then has been unfortunate. The reality is that I gave “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” a listen more as a formality in preparation for another scathing review attacking their inability to commit to a sound and the lack of passion they’ve been putting behind their songs recently. What happened instead was that for the first time in a long time, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club finally sounded like they were back in a big way. Think of them like pro athletes that slowly spiral into the dangerous world of drug addiction. “Baby 81” was them hitting bottom, and now after a rehab program, they’re back in shape and almost in peak form. Let’s just hope they can keep on the straight and narrow from here on out. [Buy]
Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
For her entire life, Charlotte Gainsbourg has been living in the shadow of her father. No matter what she’s done, from her acting to her very sporadic music career, people almost always bring up Serge. In 2006, Charlotte released her first album in 20 years “5:55”, and given that she paired up with French pop duo Air, that record sounded like a tribute to her father rather than a statement of individuality. That wasn’t the intention, and thankfully for “IRM” she joined forces with Beck to make a diverse and fascinating record that’s actually the best thing either of them have done in a long time. We see a new side of Charlotte and though she didn’t write the lyrics or compose the songs, her vocal performance stretches beyond anything she’s done previously, and with more emotion too. [Buy]
The Futureheads – The Chaos (Download: Struck Dumb)
The Futureheads seem to have been slipping ever since their self-titled debut album. Of course a band that tends to specialize in short, 2 minute bursts of pure energy and hooks isn’t exactly built on a strategy for longevity. Still, continuing in their tradition of releasing a new album every two years, “News and Tributes” was a solid sophmore effort, but the band fell off the wagon when they tried to compose longer, more serious songs on their last album “This Is Not the World”. As if they’d gotten the message, “The Chaos” brings back to The Futureheads exactly what the title describes. Some of their poppiest, most addictive music since they first burst onto the music scene several years ago. Combine that with a highly combustible and insanely fun live show, and The Futureheads are more than equipped to surprise you in 2010. [Buy]
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Download: Sun Hands)
There’s been a slow and low build of buzz for Local Natives since their performance impressed so many at SXSW 2009, but I’ll admit to being late to that party. All too many times I’ve heard of bands being called “the next Grizzly Bear” or “the next Fleet Foxes”, only to be disappointed by these supposed next big things. When “Gorilla Manor” was finally released in the U.S. earlier this year, I wasn’t even fully aware of it until the high praise reviews started rolling in. Even then I was hesitant to even give them a try. It took stumbling upon the song “Wide Eyes” by accident one day while randomly surfing the internet to compel me to give Local Natives a try. And boy am I glad I did. The album is nothing short of amazing, and like Fleet Foxes scratched a certain itch for me in 2008, Local Natives satisfy that same part of my brain in 2010. This is an all-too-unheard album from the first half of the year that deserves every shred of recognition it gets, so if you’ve been holding out like I was, buy into these guys. They’re the real deal. [Buy]
MGMT – Congratulations I’ve made it a point in the past to complain about MGMT. Their 2007 “debut” album “Oracular Spectacular” featured a handful of songs recycled from years old EPs, and it’s those songs that gained the band so much attention. That, along with an extremely poor live show from them I witnessed in 2005 drove my dislike of the band to near extremes. Well, their second record “Congratulations” earns them exactly that from me. Not only is it a full album’s worth of material that was completely written and recorded in the past year, but the songs on it give the proverbial middle finger to the rabid fans of their debut. That they didn’t go for the easy sell and made challenging, psychedelic songs while signed to a major label is seriously courageous. On top of that, the songs are pretty damn good too. Well played MGMT, you won me over and that was something I never saw coming. [Buy]
Whether you’re new to the site or have been reading Faronheit in some form or another for a long time now, I feel that it’s worth mentioning today is the site’s official 4th anniversary. Yes, Faronheit has been around since July 1, 2006, and while the first 3.5 years were spent over at Blogspot, at this point I couldn’t be happier with the recent conversion to the dot com status. Granted, those 3.5 years worth of site archives are currently in the wind somewhere and I’m fighting to get them restored and uploaded here so all of you can have access to the complete library of reviews and the like, but for the time being we’re making good with what we have.
Faronheit was originally conceived as an outlet for me to have an open and honest discussion on a global scale with music fans looking to learn about and hear more from up-and-coming artists. Thanks to loyal readers, commenters and the multitudes that email me every day, because all of you contribute in one way or another towards making this site what it is currently. And the artists! They’re first and foremost in all this, so thanks for making music and giving us something to listen to and talk about at endless length.
Now I’ll continue with a tradition that I started with the very first post on Faronheit, which is my Mid-Year Roundup. Today and tomorrow I will highlight a few albums released in the first half of the year that have surprised me and disappointed me. Typically I choose 10 albums apiece in the surprising and disappointing categories, but despite having heard a wealth of very good and very bad music so far in 2010, not a whole lot has caught me off guard in one aspect or the other. So I chose instead to halve both lists to keep things neater, cleaner and more organized.
First up are 5 Disappointing Albums from the first half of 2010. Before we get started, I would like to clarify that the word “disappointing” is NOT intended to indicate BAD. An album can still be good and disappointing at the same time, because for all you knew the listening experience was supposed to be completely mindblowing but was instead only pretty good. Every album that made this list this year also coincidentally is by a band that has released at least two albums prior to their current one. The setup for disappointment in most of these cases is mostly failing to deliver on the promise that previous records had shown them capable of. Hopefully that makes more sense when you examine the list below, which by the way is not ranked and in alphabetical order for that exact reason. I’m also curious to know your opinions on this list, along with what albums disappointed you in the first half of the year. Let me know in the comments.
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It never occurred to me to find out the names of the guys in Band of Horses besides singer Ben Bridwell until I heard “Infinite Arms” for the first time. See, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, Band of Horses was pretty much Bridwell’s solo project for the first two albums and the guys he played shows with were pretty much hired hands. Well, after the last album “Cease to Begin”, Bridwell did hire some guys full time to write, record and tour with him. Band of Horses now being a full-fledged band, all the new guys contributed a bunch of stuff to “Infinite Arms”, and suddenly their mojo disappeared. The new songs are blander and aimed at the arena-sized crowds they’re starting to attract. If they got this far with more introspective and personal material, why stop now? I’m not saying that Bridwell should fire the rest of his band, but maybe for the next album they let him go back to what he does best – writing and composing songs on his own. [Buy]
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Download: Hurricane J)
Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady before they went to record “Heaven Is Whenever”, and though a moustachioed keyboard guy is never the lynchpin that makes any band go from good to great, something does feel like it’s missing from the band’s latest offering. The advancement of The Hold Steady from “Separation Sunday” to “Boys and Girls in America” was remarkable and pushed the band into new territory that saw them make huge strides in terms of attention and popularity. Their last album “Stay Positive” largely continued on the themes that “Girls and Boys in America” had set up, and while it was slightly less effective, the band remained exciting and prolific. Where “Heaven Is Whenever” goes wrong is when the band decides to abandon the Springsteen-esque progress they’d made on their last couple records and return to the much more guitar-based sound of their early days. If only they’d attempted to take another step forwards rather than looking backwards, I think everyone would have given them a little more leeway. Instead, The Hold Steady for the first time sound creatively exhausted, and Craig Finn’s stories are starting to wear a little thin. [Buy]
Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Hot Chip established themselves as this great electro-pop band building songs that sounded amazing on the dance floor. Examining the hits for a moment, songs like “Over and Over” and “Shake A Fist” were so huge and earned them such a following because they were fun, highly creative bursts of energy you could get down to. They seem to have forgotten that on “One Life Stand”, because the number of club banger tracks has decreased significantly. Yes, you could say the approach is far more nuanced and mature, but mid-tempo pop songs and slow ballads just don’t have the same cathartic release. There are a few great things about the album though, first and foremost among them is the incredibly great video for “I Feel Better”. I’m also all kinds of in love with the closing track “Take It In”. If Hot Chip want to show their more serious side, they have every right to do so, but as LCD Soundsystem has proven time and time again, you don’t need to scale back your beats and tempos to put your emotional depth on display. Hopefully they remember that for next time. [Buy]
Spoon – Transference
Spoon has had such a spectacular run of albums in the last few years that as much as we all might like that streak to continue, we knew it couldn’t go on forever. Their last album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” may have placed them at the peak of their creative powers, so unless they could continue with that same vigor and intensity, “Transference” was going to be a let down. And so it was, with Britt Daniel & Co. turning in what felt at times like a half-baked album. As the band might put it though, every song is as complete as they want it to be. A small dash of grimy lo-fi here, a purposely missed or incompletely sung lyric there, and a splash of unfocused energy and things sound a little topsy-turvy in Spoon’s world. Good for them for having the courage and spirit to throw most everybody for some sort of loop, and the majority of the songs still work well even with the added quirks. “Transference” will go down as one of the lesser albums in Spoon’s catalogue, and as disappointing as that might be, the record is still interesting and even a bit surprising…just not always in that great sort of way. [Buy]
Stars – The Five Ghosts (Download: We Don’t Want Your Body)
Blandness and repeating yourself are two big things that many long-standing bands have had to fight against. Stars have reached their fifth album, and while their dark and depressing brand of indie pop has worked more often than it hasn’t, “The Five Ghosts” leaves them sounding like they’re no longer dying but are already dead. Many of the songs on the album are downtempo or devoid of any real expression of life, and the ones that do manage to pick themselves up off the floor can’t seem to do so for long. To be clear though this isn’t an album filled with bad songs, just merely okay ones. The positive is that Amy Millan really shines across the entire album from a vocal perspective, while Torquil Campbell seems pushed into a corner where he’s not allowed to be his normal, expressive self. It’s sad in a way, because while Stars haven’t always been the most prolific of Canadian exports, memories of magic from albums like “Nightsongs” and “Set Yourself On Fire” hurt whatever haunting message the band might be trying to get across here. Between this and “In Our Bedroom After the War”, let’s hope Stars find something a little lighter and less same-y sooner rather than later. [Buy]