A year ago I resolved to listen to one album a week for 52 weeks. Now we’re at the end of that goal and I’m glad to say I met it successfully. Here’s a quick wrap-up for what I listened to this month. I’ll write a retrospective piece on the whole thing in a few days.
The Microphones – The Glow, Pt. 2
I’m surprised how a few small differences in musical choices will decide if I hate something or love it. On paper, I probably shouldn’t have liked The Microphones. An acoustic-focused band with a vocalist who sounds barely inspired to be alive. But the album kicks off with a killer opening track so it got my attention. The mellow tone with an effective use of sound effects created an atmosphere that I liked. They kept it up for the first few tracks but sadly the album becomes irrelevant around track six (out of 20).
Heavily favoring one to two minute sample songs for the majority of the album, it takes a tragic turn when for some reason they decide to get into LOUD MUSIC! Songs like Samurai Sword or I Want TO Be Cold are balls to the wall trashing. The singer’s delicate vocals don’t transform with this change so you get really bizarre sound where an oppressively distorted bass and guitar trash your ear drums while a puny sounding lyric is muddled on top. There aren’t a lot of songs on the album that sound like this, which makes it even more bizarre that there are any at all.
When the album hits, it’s some good stuff. But the portion of good to bad isn’t very favorable.
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
I don’t like Donald Glover. Even if I get over my irrational hatred for him because I constantly confuse him with Danny Glover (including the first draft of this paragraph), I’ve never gotten into his style. I don’t think his stand-up is funny, I don’t think the shows he wrote for were any good (30 Rock, Community), I also did not like his foray into rap with Camp and Because the Internet.
But the praise for Awaken, My Love has been so hyperbolic, including claims that Glover is a modern day genius, I thought surely there must be something that I can enjoy. And there is.
This is a huge departure from Glover’s previous music projects. The sound of this album is closer to soul or funk then rap. As listenable as the whole thing is, it’s not quite there. The first track Me and Your Mama is an intense opener that peaks and valleys through all the exciting emotions you’d want to feel. It’s probably the best first impression I’ve had for an album this year, but it nose dives afterward. Two “spooky” tracks about zombies and the boogieman reset your expectations for what this album is supposed to be. Then other songs like Terrified, Riot and Stand Tall have all the right elements but don’t quite hit it. The last track especially feels like four drafts of the same song placed one after another rather than a cohesive idea.
As much as I’ll admit to listening to Me and Your Mama, Redbone and Baby Boy all day, this album could have easily been much better. Hopefully Glover’s dedication to the musical field means he’ll give it a second crack.
J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only
I’ll make a confession: I’ve never heard a J. Cole song in my life. Apparently I’m not alone in that due to his commitment to avoiding feature tracks. Unless you’re seeking out his music specifically, you’re not going to run into him.
Luckily, Cole’s musical style is approachable and right up my alley. Preferring laidback melodies and literal lyrics, he’s an easy artist to understand. Some rappers focus on clever word play or metaphors to get across their point, but Cole just says what he’s thinking. I ended up having some mixed feelings about the simplicity of his lyrics, sometimes they come across as corny. At the same time, it was easy to tell immediately what he was going for and I appreciated that.
4 Your Eyez Only is a personal album, packaged up as a letter to Cole’s daughter in the event he’s taken by the issues that face black males in America (incarceration or death). The framing of the album differentiates it from other artists who tackle the same subjects but might have a more view they feel compelled to push. Cole is talking about his own concerns with what faces him in his actual life. Whether that’s frustration over his friends and family demanding change without looking at what they can change in themselves or being persecuted as a drug dealer for living in a white neighborhood.
It’s a short album, with two lengthy songs dedicated to the same concept, so I found myself more disappointed that it ended so quickly rather than compelled to nitpick any of the songs. I probably could’ve done without Foldin Clothes or added a bit more to Neighbors, but in general it’s a solid album, if easily digestible.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
Run the Jewels has been a joy to discover and see them explode in popularity over the past three years. I wasn’t a huge fan of RTJ2, but at least they tried some new things. Each of those albums have a distinct sound that differentiate them from each other.
RTJ3 is in an odd place between their second and first attempt. It’s obvious that the Killer Mike and El-P can work together and create some amazingly funny and catchy tracks, but the trend toward quality may finally be wavering.
My favorite tracks from the album touch on El-P’s quality production work mixed with Killer Mike’s lyrical dominance. Legend Has It, Call Tickertron and Oh Mama have the one-two punch of unique melodies and memorable lines. El-P somehow manages to say “Notice me, senpai” in a song without sounding like a total idiot.
I might still need some time to process this album, but for now it’s an average effort.
We’re done! Look for a retrospective on this whole process soon.
October through November was a time of transformation for me. I quit my job at The Malibu Times and got a position at DailyVoice.com in New Jersey. I drove from one coast to the other, which took roughly 40 hours of driving total. That allowed a lot of time to listen to music. Unfortunately the trip occurred from Oct. 27 through Nov. 2 so it took me a while to write this addition of 52 Weeks, 52 Albums. Here’s everything I covered:
Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
I listened to Bottomless Pit quite a bit when it was released earlier this year. At the time I hesitated to say anything about it because my opinion was pretty negative. Of course, that’s how I felt the first time I listened to The Money Store, which has gone on to become one of my favorite albums ever. Sometimes you need to give things time and let them sink in. Especially a band as experimental as Death Grips.
Now time has passed, but despite some appreciation for songs I originally disliked, my opinion is the same. I see the appeal for the barbaric mess of “Hot Head,” the aggressive flow in “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood” and the bizarre shifts in “Ring a Bell” but the fact remains that this album feels unfinished. I don’t hear a lot of novelty in these tracks. Their flaws stick out and it’s harder to find the good stuff. “Eh” is the same chorus repeated four times within three minutes meanwhile “Houdini” seems like a good part of a longer song. “Trash” ironically mirrors the mediocrity the songs it criticizes. Other songs are interesting at first but quickly lose appeal. I liked the loud opener with “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” but I never want to listen to the sound of that song. “Spikes” made an awesome first impression with its killer hook, but oddly shares the fate of pop songs where you’re waiting for the chorus instead of enjoying the whole song.
I think “Warping” and “80808” are probably the best songs on the album. “Warping” captures the feeling of insanity that overcomes you while listen to a Death Grips album. The meandering dinosaur bass is unnerving and syncs very well with the irregular bass drum. “80808” has a nice groove and atmospheric sound which reminds me of “Double Helix.” I regularly revisited those two (along with “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle” and “BB Poison”) but on a whole I kept thinking “why not just listen to The Money Store?” Which I frequently did.
The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
I knew early in October that I would be traveling cross-country, so I tried to tackle some albums that were a mammoth’s length to get them out of the way. The first contender was 69 Love Songs, a two and a half hour album separated by three discs and made up entirely of one to three minute pop love songs.
I’ll cut to the chase: This album sucks. Stephin Merritt, the lead vocalist (and practically “the guy”) in Magnetic Fields said he was in a gay bar and realized he had a knack for music. His way of introducing himself on the scene would be to write 100 love songs, but decided 100 was way too many so he cut it down to 69. As it turns out, 69 is also too many.
The majority of this album is complete junk. On the off chance you find a song that’s kind of ok, it doesn’t last very long with the average song being under 2 and a half minutes. On the other hand, there are literally dozens of songs that overstay by about 90 seconds. One wonders why you’d make a commitment to 69 love songs when tracks like “How Fucking Romantic,” “Two Kinds of People” and “Punk Love,” are so low-effort they might as well not exist.
Don’t make the mistake I did and assume there must be a solid nine-song album hidden away in the cacophony of melodramatic crap. The album peaks early and even the highest high isn’t worth the time it takes to discover it. If your morbid curiosity persist: I personally liked “I Don’t Believe In the Sun,” “Reno Dakota,” and “The Book of Love.” If any of those strikes your fancy than delve deeper into the album, but I doubt it.
Swans – The Great Annihilator
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Swans’ recent reemergence onto the music scene. Their last trio of albums (The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man) were praised for their immensely long operatic epics. I had some interest in that stuff but apparently Swans were already popular before their recent reemergence thanks to albums like The Great Annihilator.
I didn’t dislike the album but I’m truly puzzled by what people see in Swans. This album feels like the muddled down version of several other bands. There’s some metal/industrial influences but in general the album feels like a more satanic Joy Division. Of course Joy Division was novel in the 1970s and The Great Annihilator was released in 1995. So what’s the big deal?
The album has its eclectic moments. “Mother_Father” departs from the dreary tone with a punk-influenced drum beat and different singer. “Warm” is completely different from the rest of the album and practically sounds like the closing moments of a feel-good sports story. Finally “Out” is straight out of a smoky jazz bar. Everything in between commits to a dark gothic tone that may have been more worthwhile if they had committed to it. For example, “Killing For Company” starts off pretty oppressive and dystopian but quickly transitions into this weird organ-droning track that sounds like something a classic rock band would make if they were suicidal. There’s signs of truly great songs in “Telepathy,” “Where Does a Body End?” and “The Great Annihilator,” but the effect is muted. The album doesn’t pack a lot of punch (in fact the mixing is one of the quietest I’ve heard). Perhaps their live shows are different? You get a glimpse of what the Swans experience could be with their bonus live rendition of “I Am the Sun.” So maybe seeing them live is a whole new experience. But as it stands, this album is a disappointment waiting to be found.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
The second of the mammoth albums I wanted to listen to. What better way to kill time then a three hour jazz album released in 2015?
I really can’t say anything significant about a jazz album. I like jazz music, but I don’t know what “bad jazz” sounds like. I lack the musical expertise. I didn’t really pay attention to this listen either. There were a lot of songs I flipped back to for my journey across the United States, but I don’t remember much about them. I used this album as something to play in the background while I thought about other things. For that purpose, it’s perfect.
Brand New – Deja Entendu
As you can see, the previous four albums were pretty big duds in my experience, so I wanted to fall back on something reliable. I really enjoyed the other Brand New album I listened to earlier this year, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, so it seemed like a safe choice. I wanted to go back to feeling something when I heard music, rather than indifferently letting the tracks run through.
Deja Entendu is not as dramatic as Brand New’s other work. This album is more poppy, with catchy hooks and a lighter tone. “I Will Play My Game beneath the Spin Light” is practically made for drunken singalongs and a few other songs fit that description. I ended up liking more songs on this album than Devil and God but in a similar way that I like a Fall Out Boy album– They’re fun to sing to and not much past that.
Into It. Over It. – Proper
I decided if I’m going to listen to post-punk pop music I might as well go hard with a bonafide emo album. Apparently Into It. Over It are part of an “emo resurgence” movement that’s going on right now. These new bands are returning to what made bands like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco so popular (oddly enough Panic! is part of this resurgence as well). Proper’s fast pacing and personal lyrics scratched the itch of emotion + punk influence that I was looking for.
Compared to other albums in the genre, Proper is harder to distinguish. I recall thinking on my first listen that the opening track seemed very long, only to discover I was five songs in and didn’t notice the track change. The songs blur together and it’s difficult to figure out what you’re listening to immediately, but with enough trained listens you can separate the good stuff from the bad. I ended up liking every track other than “Write It Right,” and “An Evening with Ramsey Beyer,” they’re especially generic in an album that’s already difficult to discern. If the rest of the album doesn’t do your fancy, give “The Frames That Used to Greet Me” a listen.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Last year I listened to Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and wasn’t a fan of it. A few months later I found myself listening to it on repeat. So perhaps I’m in that first judgmental stage when I say The Suburbs is largely uninteresting. I gave “Rococo” a few listens but otherwise this entire album is a big snooze.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
This might be one of the few truly great albums I’ve listened to this year. I’ve learned more about my rap tastes through this experiment than anything else and they seem to culminate with A Tribe Called Quest’s brand new album.
The core trio have undeniable chemistry with each other and the guests they bring onto various tracks. “Solid Wall of Sound’s” second verse is a masterpiece. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Busta Rhymes trade lines that interweave lyrically and aesthetically. Q-Tips high pitched clear lines contrasted with Rhymes’ deeper voice register with a Rastafarian flow. I can’t hear what they’re saying as I listen to the track but it’s a beautiful rhythm between these three artists who have a clear understanding of one another.
The whole album has a moment worth highlight every track. I personally liked the villainous laughing track that’s played over the opening verses on “The Space Program.” Q-Tip’s lyrics in “We The People…” are both politically conscious and clever. The piano sampling on “Lost Somebody” is an absolute killer. Anderson Paak’s (nearly solo) guest appearance on “Moving Backwards” is better than any song he made on his own. “Ego’s” creeping trumpet melody injects a playfulness into the second half of the album. Finally, “The Donald,” is not only a terrific tribute to Phife Dawg (who died in March 2016) but simply the best song on the album (also funnily enough has nothing to do with Donald Trump).
It’s a hell of an album that I look forward to binging.
Well there’s only one month and four albums left. What will the concluding choices be? What a mystery.
Can we ban months from ending in the middle of the week? You might say: “Arthur, September ended on a Friday and you were too lazy to put up your article. This is a terrible excuse.” To that I say… nothing. Because I didn’t put it up on Saturday or Sunday either. I waited until Monday evening. Whatever, here’s the music.
Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous
Lamont “Big L” Coleman was an east-coast rapper who made his name on the scene by contributing to what’s now known as “horrorcore.” The genre is defined by hyperbolizing lyrics of violence and brutality. The lines between what lyrics were real and fantasy might not be so clear considering Big L was killed in a drive-by shooting where he was shot nine times in the face and chest.
Many of L’s lyrics describe varying degrees of violence which may have been horrifying to parents during the 1990s, but listening to them today it’s hard to take them seriously. L has a terrific, albeit morbid, sense of humor. His clever wordplay mixed with over-the-top brutality makes it easy to chuckle to a lot of his lines as long as you have a similar demented world view. For example, the track Danger Zone details L killing someone for threatening him:
“I jumped out the Lincoln, left him stinkin
Put his brains in the street
Now you can see what he was just thinkin”
Obviously seeing brain matter on a pavement doesn’t translate to a visual representation of what someone’s last thoughts were, but I’m imaging L killing a man and immediately coming up with that line on the spot. It’s comical to me. L’s songs are filled with these types of jokes. They’re not always morbid but they are mostly mean-spirited. Another song, All Black – which of course refers to forcing family members to dress in black for your funeral – contains the following lyric:
“If you want me to write you some raps G just ask me
Cause on the shelf is where your LP cold stood
Because it was no good, that shit ain’t even go wood”
“Go wood” of course referencing albums that go gold or platinum. In this case, someone offered a set of songs that were so bad they didn’t even make the fictional “wood” status. It’s funny stuff and more importantly ridiculous. All of the lyrics are so absurd that the brutality and violence is impossible to take seriously, even if at some moments it’s clear that some semblance of these stories were true for the real L’s life.
I appreciated my listen of Big L’s Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous because it made me realize just how much I appreciate cleverness and lyricism in rap. There isn’t a lot of technical trickery going on, but I didn’t really need it. He’s a straightforward rapper who focuses on the fundamentals and they’re very strong.
Blur – Parklife
As a huge Gorillaz fan, I thought I would like this album a lot more. For those who don’t know, Gorillaz is a project primarily helmed by Blur’s frontman, Damon Albarn. Parklife was released in 1994, well before the fairly famous Song 2 (aka “Woohoo”) came out which is what most people know Blur for. Other than those two factoids, I didn’t know what to expect from Blur. It could’ve been a heavy alternative rock band, a weird electronic-based rap hybrid, or something completely different.
It turns out Blur is mostly a catchy pop rock band from Britain, which I feel completely describes this album. There are tracks that I find intensely listenable in the moment, but I can’t get past the underlying Britishness. Tracks like London Loves, Bank Holiday, or Magic America make it hard to forget the regionality of the band. In fact, listening to the title track Parklife ought to qualify people for a visa to the Queen’s country. It’s a fine album for the duration that it’s on, but I really can’t stand to hear it ever again.
Boris – Pink
Following-up on the shoegaze interest I took with Have a Nice Life’s Deathconsciousness, I looked up other shoegaze-inspired albums that were popular in the music community and stumbled on Pink. Boris’ sound is a lot more noise-rock and heavy metal than the other shoegaze music I’ve heard so far. They’re a “play at full volume” type of band. It took a while to be in the mood for Pink. Despite its mellower introduction track, the entire album is a balls-to-the-wall rager. Listening to the entire album once through, it’d be easy to say that every song sounds exactly the same. In reality, the first few tracks are simply lackluster compared to the back half where Boris’ sound starts to distinguish itself.
Electric is a short and sweet assault of instruments that I found myself starting my morning commute with. From there it was easy to let the album play until the end. Pseudo Bread does a nice job layering the noise with vocals and is probably the most approachable song. Afterburner is a meandering track which I imagined the band figured out how the song was going to sound as they played it. Six, Three Times is another quality track and you get My Machine as a palette cleanser before the 18 minute Just Abandoned Myself which mostly consists of droning guitars going on for way too long.
I was actually so pleased with how the second half of the album turned out that I looked into the deluxe edition of Pink which was released earlier this year. The second disc available in that version provides some similar tracks, which I’d recommend, but it seems Boris as a band is at no loss of content. They have over two dozen albums and have not slowed down since releasing Pink a decade ago (or one dozen albums ago). It is worth noting that Pink is currently out of print, but they’re offering an MP3 download through bandcamp of all places.
The Internet – Ego Death
There’s three categories I place albums in: Albums you immediately like, albums you immediately dislike and albums you’re not sure about. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that almost all albums I immediately like end up having a short lifespan. This was the case for The Internet’s Ego Death. I’ve long hoped for the day that Tyler the Creator would drop his fake enjoyment of rap and just release the full-on soul/jazz/funk album like he knows he wants too. When I discovered The Internet (which is also under Odd Future) I thought I had discovered my holy relic. I dumped some 30+ listens into this album over a week. I was riding a high and I was convinced it was my new favorite.
Today I can say that the groovy bass lines, Syd’s vocals and the vibe of the album are still something I’d take over 50 percent of the other crap I’ve listened to this year. But the spell has broken. Now I just hear the repetition of each track, the simplicity, how long “Girl is and completely overstays its welcome. I constantly hit the skip button because I burn out on every song in 30 seconds but never find one to settle with. It’s sugary music that’s feel good but much like a bowl of candy, you probably don’t want to eat it for the rest of your life. I’ll throw it in a party mix and show it to my friends, but man did it get old fast.
TV On the Radio – Dear Science
I actually forgot I listened to this album and it was only two weeks ago. I think I heard that “DLZ” track from Breaking Bad and thought “man, the rest of that album must be bomb.” Well, I listened to it a dozen times and can’t tell you a single thing about it. So I guess not. Shout Me Out was ok, I think?
I did a tally of all the albums I’ve covered so far. With only three months left I’ve listened to 40 albums as of today. Which means I’m on track to completing with 54 albums done. Of course, I listened to a great deal many more but didn’t write about them in any way. I’m thinking about those Panda Bear, Modest Mouse and Mollusk albums that were so terrible I couldn’t get through them. Maybe I’ll throw them on at the end of the year just to make my number seem bigger. Every inch counts, right?
My listening habits in August were like playing with a plate of mash potatoes without eating them. I dabbled with what was in front of me but never got enough to warrant a full impression. That might lead to a lot of albums for September or maybe I’ll never cover any of them. Sometimes you have to be in the right mood for a certain sound and I never found that groove for this month. So there’s only three albums this month. Here they are:
Have a Nice Life – Deathconsciousness
“Boney” is the word I settled on to describe this album. Its technical genre definition falls under shoegazing, ambient, post-rock, but I kept coming back to how almost every single sound feels like it’s reverberating off of bone walls. In a previous entry I talked about how The Mars Volta created an interesting album because you could listen to each song and pay attention to a specific instrument and hear what it was doing at different parts of the song. Deathconsciousness seems like the opposite approach, where focusing on individual tracks is not only impossible but antithetical to the concept of the album. Songs are treated like chemistry concoctions that are meant to be taken all at once. A song like The Big Gloom is easy to mark up as “noise,” since the vocals, guitar and even the drums are hard to make out individually, but the track taken as a whole accomplishes a mood that’s unique to the album.
Deathconsciousness is a dual album, the second part starts at “Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail,” which is where the album takes a notable shift toward a harder sound. The tracks on each song are more identifiable as opposed to the ambient pools of noise found in the first half, but the “boney” sound is consistent. The quality of the tracks is mostly consistent from the first half and second half. However like any dual album, it’d probably be better if you selected the best songs from either half and made one really good regular album. In this case: A Quick One Before the Eternal Worm Devour Connecticut, Bloodhail, The Big Gloom, Hunter, Telephony, Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail, Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000, and Earthmover. The final track is interesting because it’s the only track I can remember that has a cinematic moment that’s pulled off so well I thought to myself “this is so good, I hope the song never ends.” Followed by an outro that lasted so god damn long I had to acknowledge the song had gone on for too long. It is tough being an eleven minute song I guess.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
This album came out earlier this year exclusively to either Apple Music or Tidal, either way I didn’t download it because I honestly feel if you’re going to lock your album behind a subscription service you deserve to have your album pirated. I have $10 dollars. I want to buy your product and keep it forever. You won’t let me. This isn’t a legality issue, this is a consumer issue. Anyway, it’s on Spotify now so that’s how I listened to it.
There was a three month period where I listened to Acid Rap on repeat. The sound of that album was something I had never heard before. It made an impression on me and has stuck since. Chance’s hasn’t made an album since and it’s clear that Coloring Book isn’t trying to be Acid Rap. Since 2013, it seemed like Chance was looking at feelings of nostalgia and how to inject them into songs without necessarily having a memory to anchor them to. He touched on this with The Social Experiment where he would perform the Arthur theme song for crowds and get a feel of the vibe of the crowd.
With all that in mind, the sound of Coloring Book makes complete sense. The album has been called “gospel rap,” for its laid back sound, ample jazz instrumentation and credentialed backing vocalists. Chance might not be instilling the psychological effect of nostalgia, but he has all the groundwork. These songs feel immediately familiar, like they’re part of your past. I associated them with relaxing in college townhouse rooms with my friends and listening to music talking about which artists we liked best. After a mere three or four listens the album feels like a classic.
That’s not to say that the album is so good it should be called a new classic, but the type of mood it sets feels like something you’ve been listening to for a while.
That said, there are traditional rap songs that stick out like sore thumbs. They’re dispersed at a rate that suggests Chance wanted to switch up the style every few tracks, which is to the detriment of the overall experience. It’s jarring to go from a personal song like Juke Jam to a loud party track like All Night back to the gospel-inspired song How Great. The majority of the album falls into the vision of a nostalgia-charged sound, which is why the outliers feel so out of place. In fact I got so hung up on those odd sounding songs I thought I didn’t like the album when in reality it’s a pretty solid effort. I need to give it some time before I decide how I can judge it, right now I feel like the tone of the album is great but a little manipulative.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
I’m not going to bury the lead: I think this album is disappointing. I’m a recent Ocean fan, considering I documented my discovery of Channel Orange just a month ago, but I could immediately see the appeal of Ocean’s artistry and why this album was so anticipated. Last month I noted how Channel Orange preferred scaled back production to focus on vocals and lyrics. It gave the album a pure essence. In a music industry that’s heavily criticized for auto-tune and effects that sedate the listening experience, Ocean’s approach was commendable. Blonde might have been trying to stick to that, but I think it goes too far.
Which is my way of saying this album is really boring. A minimalist beat was cool, but a lot of these tracks simply have no beat at all. Ivy, Solo, Skyline To, Self Control, White Ferrari, Seigfried, and Godspeed are beatless. I might sound like some musical conventionalist who’s reviewing an instrumental band and demanding that there’s vocals, but the choice doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The songs that go the more traditional route are noticeably better. Nikes, Pink + White and Nights are the songs that reminded that I actually like Frank Ocean. Andre 3000 has a guest track with “Solo (Reprise),” which might give a window into what Ocean may have been going for. The song stands on its own thanks to a dramatic piano and aggressive performance from Andre, but I can’t imagine it would’ve worked if anyone else had tried to do the same.
The whole album doesn’t feel like four years of deep thinking and collaborating. It feels like a project that was thrown together in the past few months without much thought put into it. Most of all, it seems like fans have waited so long for this album they have a hard time admitting that it isn’t very good.
That’s all I got around to for August, but considering I’ve been ahead schedule for practically every month since I started this, I think I deserve to slow down a bit.
I’ll be doing monthly wrap-ups for now on. Since I missed the end of May, I’ll just pretend I didn’t in the future. Anyway, let’s talk about some stuff:
Chvrches – Every Open Eye
I got introduced to Chvrches after going to The Game Awards in 2015 where they performed Leave A Trace. They’re what I would call electronic pop hooked together by lead vocals from Lauren Mayberry. I say pop because all of the tracks are insanely catchy. I found myself, someone who typically observes stoically, dancing along to a lot of the tunes. Tracks like Clearest Blue, High Enough To Carry You Over, and Empty Threat just asked to be moved along with. Whereas other songs like Never Ending Circles, Keep You On My Side, and Playing Dead are easy to sing along with.
You can see how the album’s variances between karaoke and dance tracks makes it easy to listen to the whole thing without realizing it. I ended up buying Every Open Eye pretty quickly and I still listen to it on occasion. Whenever I start playing it I’ll end up going through the whole thing. It also helps that the final track, Afterglow, is a decent finisher track. 4/5
Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens
I was invited to a Grimes concert in Los Angeles and the opening acts were Christine and the Queens, and Tei Shi. I had never heard of either artist so I decided to check them out before going to the show. Christine and the Queens is practically a solo artist from France. “The Queens,” are the band members, much like “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Christine’s lyrical content touches on LGBT topics, which seems to be the draw for a lot her fans (by the way her legal name is Heloise Letissier, but every fan I met at the concert referred to her as “Christine”). For example the first track on the album is called “iT” and some of the lines include: “she wants to be a man, but she lies, she wants to be born again, but she’ll lose, she draws her own crotch by herself, but she’ll lose because it’s a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake.” Of course she’s not a one-trick pony, with other songs delving into typical topics like love and loss, etc.
Christine’s music is something that would fit at a Grimes concert. I’d characterize it as more low-key than the hyperactive Grimes-style of electronic music, but there’s still a lot of synths. Some of my favorite tracks include Saint Claude, Tilted (which was named Song of the Year by Time), Science Fiction, and Paradis Perdus. Paradis Perdus is unique because it’s actually a mix of an original song by Christine and a cover of Kanye West’s Heartless. It’s an interesting blend, and as a huge Kanye fan, made me like Christine quite a lot. I purchased the album, and I’d say the whole thing is worth listening to but the last few tracks are extremely forgettable. For a first album, it’s a quality debut. 3/5
Tei Shi – Verde
The other opener at the Grimes concert was a lesser known artist named Tei Shi. On her Wikipedia there’s a line from The Fader that says she’s “known for making whispery, slow and sensual bedroom pop,” which sounds somewhat accurate but her best song is the complete opposite. I specifically listened to her “Verde” release because it had the track “Bassically,” which might be the most empowering song I’ve ever heard. An explanation doesn’t do it much justice, so I’d give it a listen. The anchor point of the song is Tei Shi’s vocals that start off timid and build to this visceral yell of emotion. It’s goose-bump inducing. Hearing that song live is an experience. The rest of the songs off of Verde are ok. Go Slow is a stand-out, but otherwise I’d hope that Tei Shi releases more. There’s potential. 2/5
Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism
The friend I saw the concert with is a bit of a music junkie and they suggested a few different albums based on the previous albums I had listened to so far. Since I had The Postal Service, and I mentioned I liked it, they suggested Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. I was skeptical since Death Cab has been synonymous with ridicule but since I’m not in High School anymore I figured why not. I can say with some amount of confidence that I ended up embracing my inner emo and enjoyed the album quite a bit. I think Death Cab gets away with their style of music because the lead singer, Ben Gibbard, doesn’t make excuses for himself. All of the lyrical content on Transatlanticism is equally as hard on himself as it is on “life.”
Gibbard’s lyrics are one of the main attractions to Death Cab, specifically because of his ability to articulate difficult emotions. The track “Title And Registration,” starts off a bit bizarre, declaring that glovebox compartments should change their names because they never have gloves in them, but transitions to be about how he’d open the glovebox (a compartment that is rarely opened) and find old pictures of a past relationship. It’s a very human song, without any of the pretense found in other songs that try to depict love emotions as some grandeur concept. The rest of the album continues these themes. As for Death Cab’s comparison to The Postal Service, I’m personally more of a fan of Death Cab’s sound. The guitar/bass/drum conventional sound is more appealing to me. Especially on the pop tracks like Sound of Settling or Expo 86. 4/5
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot it in People
Let the nostalgia of High School continue. You Forgot it in People is a deceptive album because I began listening to it for the first few tracks, but I really fell in love with the second half of the album. The first few songs are very eclectic. They fall under the loose “indie rock” definition, but with my limited palette I would say some of the songs reminded me of Interpol’s catalog. Then after the track “Looks Just Like the Sun,” which is an acoustic track, the whole album is practically a designed nostalgia trip. Every song’s content, instrument choice, and overall sound, feels like it dropped out of memory in the back of your head.
The tracks themselves are called “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” or “Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for Missionaries,” and songs like “Lover’s Spit,” describe a room full of people making out. Apparently the band Broken Social Scene is made up of upwards of eleven people dedicated to various different instruments, and you can hear that in the songs. With various flutes, violins, trumpets, trombones, and whatever else coming in when it feels right. It’s practically impossible to listen to these songs without reminiscing about your past. It’s a neat little experiment, and I didn’t mind having my emotions manipulated with while listening to the album. Although the first few songs grow tiresome very quickly. 3/5
Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
Hey while we’re reminiscing about High School and listening to emo music, let’s bring out the dark side, yeah? The side that listened to Linkin Park. What happened to that person? Well if they didn’t grow up, they’d probably be listening to Brand New and I mean that in the best way possible. Brand New is basically a credible version of Good Charlotte or some band like that. Their music is legitimately constructed and the content is more mature. This specific album was apparently written when the members of Brand New “had gotten very accustomed to going to funerals,” which explains a lot of the divine questioning in songs like “Jesus Christ.” I liked this album because Brand New is pretty good at crafting quiet moments, but by and large they prefer to go loud and heavy, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. Some songs, like “You Won’t Know,” are pretty obnoxious about it, with a minute and a half of near-silence then loud guitars. This is repeated in “Welcome to Bangkok.” I get that some people live for those massive drops, but I’m really over it. My personal favorites were Millstone, Jesus Christ, Degausser, and Limousine. 3/5
Death Grips – The Money Store
I actually tried listening to The Money Store a lot earlier in the year but it didn’t click. I had listened to Death Grips’ mixtape last year and was a fan of a few songs, but their first album wasn’t coming together in the same way. Then in the middle of May, it dawned on me: I need to listen to Death Grips right now. This album has practically been on repeat since. Part of it might be that there’s simply no other band like Death Grips. Within that qualifier, there’s no other album by Death Grips like The Money Store. Their approach to each album is different and the results are never exactly the same. The Money Store’s raw adrenaline and unique aesthetics are a mood you have to be in. Oddly enough the only song I skip on the whole album is I’ve Seen Footage, specifically because it’s not insane enough. It sounds too normal. Otherwise, I start the album at Get Got, and listen to the whole thing. Sometimes I skip to The Fever, or The Cage, if I’m in a rush. The whole album is a syringe of adrenaline, but one you have to get acquainted to. 5/5
Death From Above 1979 – You’re A Women, I’m A Machine
Death Grips kicked off an aggressive trend for a few albums, continuing with Death From Above1979’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. This duo is made up of a drummer, and a bassist/vocalist which makes for a very identifiable sound, but also one that struggles to mix things up. Most of the songs sound like all the other ones. I found myself preferring the tracks Romantic Rights, Blood On Our Hands, and Little Girl, compared to the rest of it so there’s clearly some difference. I can commend the sense of energy brought to the album from a distance, the truth is I didn’t spend much time listening to it. 2/5
At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command
Feeling the need to fill that hole for quality post-hardcore/punk, I gravitated toward At The Drive-In. Relationship Of Command was released in 2000 as the band’s third and final album, although the guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala would go on to form The Mars Volta. Some similarities can be drawn between the two bands but At The Drive-In’s signature is the kick-your-face in energy. The album starts off big with Arcarsenal, with a build-up leading to Bixler-Zavala’s yelling vocals. Personally I was impressed with Bixler-Zavala’s ability within the first song. He’s very clearly yelling for most of the album, but it still sounds melodic, as opposed to an untrained guttural scream. Even though rowdier frontmen have proven to be a one-trick pony, Bixler-Zavala proves his singing credentials on later tracks such as Quarantined, Non-Zero Possibility or the album’s best track: Invalid Litter Dept. As much as I enjoyed Relationship Of Command for what it was, I felt like it was really close to something even better, which is why I decided to immediately jump into the next album… 3/5
The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium
After Relationship Of Command was released, Omar-Rodriguez and Bixler-Zavala left At The Drive-In and started working on a band called “De-Facto,” they eventually formed a “fluid” lineup and the band formed into The Mars Volta. “Fluid” may be an understatement. Renown bassist Flea, plays bass on 9 of the 10 tracks for Comatorium because they individually asked him to play the track for each of the nine tracks, unable to find anyone else. In their early days, The Mars Volta were heavy into drug use, and not kind that gets humorously represented in Hollywood movies. One of the founding members of The Mars Volta died of a heroin overdose during the tour for Comatorium. Afterwards Bixler-Zavala vowed to stop doing opioids, but there’s a lot of stuff in between sobriety and opioids. Bixler-Zavala and Omar-Rodriguez’s departure from At The Drive-In was partly because of their “creative difference” over drug use in the band.
However the results speak for themselves. Deloused in the Comatorium is one of those albums where you think “you’d have to be out of your mind to make something like this.” The average song length is technically six minutes, but if you take out the two intermission tracks, the average is a little over seven minutes. The songs demand these lengths to encapsulate their epic scale. The words “rock opera” come to mind. Reviews for the album have compared The Mars Volta’s first effort as a combination of influences that lies somewhere between Rush and Tool.
As a huge Tool fan, I can say I certainly found myself falling into similar listening habits. The songs themselves have an obvious hook. Most commonly found in Bixler-Zavala’s vocals, as he sings cryptic lyrics which allude meaning even when you know what he’s saying. After the initial listen I would go back and listen to one instrument: the bass, the guitar, the drums, or the little sounds in between. Each part will go off and do their own thing or come back together in ways that makes dedicating a listen worthwhile. In short—I feel I can keep coming back to this album for a long time. I feel pretty confident saying that, since I got into Frances The Mute sometime late last year and I still turn on Cassandra Gemini and listen to the whole thing without fail. 5/5
Alright, next time I’ll post at the end of July.
Christ does that last article say FEBRUARY? JEEEEEESUS. I had some dramatic life changes. This past week I had another. One that says it’s time to hit it hard. “Hit what hard?” You might be asking. Anything in sight. Hit the desk. Hit the dance floor. Hit your AA chip to the counter of a liquor store and relapse. Hit up your drug dealer and OD on heroin, because you can’t afford the OxyContin you want to get. If you have a spouse who’s been nothing but good to you, time to hit the shit out of them. Because shit is fucked. I’m going to hit the keys on this keyboard and ramble out some views on these albums I listened to in the past two months. CHRIST! Two months.
Frank Sinatra – Watertown
Last we left off we were listening to Panic! At The Disco’s Death of a Bachelor which has a pretty stellar final track “Impossible Year” which is very evocative of Sinatra’s style, or so I’m told. So naturally, I should listen to a Sinatra album right? Well, I don’t know what happened between 1970 and 2016 but high production back then is low signs of life now. Even explaining the album’s contents: Sinatra’s signature baritone vocals, the varied production with string instrumentation, and a tone of sadness, you’d think this sounds like my delight album. Well the underlying secret is it sounds boring as hell. Maybe it has something to do with the tempos or some aspect of the music I’m not thinking of, but as of now I found listening to this a chore. 1/5
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Hey Arthur, don’t beat yourself up, clearly other good stuff came out in that era! Let’s shake it up and listen to Marvin Gaye. He’s funky! Yeah no. Although I found my listening of Gaye’s music more enjoyable compared to Sinatra, it still failed to make an impression beyond “YUP, THIS IS MUSIC ALL RIGHT!” I can remember liking “Right On” from this album, but otherwise this whole album washes over like room-temperature bath water when you’re already sitting in a bath. 2/5
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing
This album got me back on the horse with this whole project because I genuinely enjoyed listening to this album. As someone who got pretty big into Massive Attack, Portishead, and other “trip hop,” musicians, this album brought me back to that time where I would leave heavy sample-based instrumental albums on loop while doing school work for hours and hours. Sure enough, Endtroducing became part of my daily regiment at work for longer than the one-week it had been allocated. Personally, I feel all the songs in this genre have a melancholy vibe to them. I gravitated toward songs like What Does Your Soul Look Like Pt. 1, Stem / Long Stem / Transmission 2, and Changeling / Transmission. I should note that apparently there’s a “second half” to this album that I just didn’t bother with. It looks like there’s some actual additional songs, but the first track of the second half sounds exactly like a song from the first half, so I just skipped over it. Ain’t nobody got time for that. 4/5
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F#a#infinity
This has to be both the worst band name and the worst album name of all time, but yet the album is just decent. Later in this article I’ll mention Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s second album, which I ended up liking more, and I was compelled to listen to more specifically because their first effort sounds like a sample. F#a#infinity has some interesting ideas, especially on the first track with the post-apocalyptic narrator and the brooding mood, but the music itself I thought was lackluster. I’ve never been a huge fan of 25 minute long songs when they have several minutes of silence or bullshit sound effects, and this album had way too much of that going on. Better luck next time! 2/5
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
I’ve tried to listen to this album three times in my life, this being the third, and I make it to the fifth song before turning it off every time. This week was no different. Actually I got to track #6, because I remember Bluish. But yeah, I don’t get it. Maybe I’ll go back to it. 1/5
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
I’m a big Kanye fan. When I was in College, I tried to convince my housemates to have a Kanye party where we passed out stunner-shades, played Kanye music videos on televisions, and played nothing but Kanye music all night. His catalog could support it. You could even dip into associated acts if you had to go for 4-5 hours. It’d be sick. I’m a huge apologist for his weird albums like Yeezus, and for all the weird stuff he does. With that said, The Life of Pablo is a garbage unfinished album. To the extent that he re-released it with different mixing. Sorry Kanye, this has nothing to do with wanting the “old Kanye” back, I just want you to stop being such an idiot. That said, FML and Real Friends are ok. 1/5
Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
This album got high reviews in 2015 and went on to get near universal reception as the best rap album of the year next to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The little research I did found that Staples was closely tied to Odd Future (Tyler the Creator’s group of buds) so I was pretty convinced I would like the album. Sure enough this album is a really great blend of clever lyricism, memorable hooks, and catchy melodies. Specifically Lemme Know, Summertime, 3230, and the killer opening track Lift Me Up have stuck with me, but really the whole album is great. It also works great way to wash out the garbage of Kanye out. 5/5
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
“Hey that ‘Top Artists of 2015’ worked out for Vince Staples, what else is on the list?” That was my thinking for discovering Courtney Barnett. I fell in love with her self-deprecating lyrics and classic-rock sound pretty immediately, but it’s more than just nostalgia for the style of grungey rock and having the attitude to go with it. Her lyricism is genuinely impressive, with some of the structure bumping up and down and single lines sound like self-contained poems. Take for example the song An Illustration of Loneliness, which has the line “There’s oily residue seeping from the kitchen, It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with,” read on it’s own the line seems insignificant, but the rhythm of the words sticks with you. Most of Barnett’s lyrics have that type of structure, while also being personal and humorous. Not every song is an all-star, but the ones that are turned out to be some of my favorites from this venture so far. 4/5
Miguel – Wildheart
The Top Artists of 2015 list continues! Miguel’s Wildheart was considered so good he drew comparisons to Prince in his prime. I thought the first few songs were pretty good, and added them to a playlist I call “mad rep,” which I envision playing in the background when someone comes over and suggests playing music, but otherwise I don’t see the deep appeal of the music. Sure enough all of his YouTube videos are filled with people wondering why he isn’t bigger than they think he should be. It’s not a mystery people, just background music. 3/5
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
My co-worker started recommending me bands based on what I’ve listened to so far. Among them was Wolf Alice. My first listen pegged them as kind of generic but after a second or third run through they actually have some catchy stuff. Overall, they’re probably easy to forget about, which might explain around 75% of artists in existence. So I’ll rate them a solid “Inoffensive,” with the caveat that they play to some of my tastes (female singer, rock genre, bass and drum focus). 4/5
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
I was iffy about listening to two albums by the same band in the same year, but I’m really glad that I did because this turned out to be one of my favorite. Or at the very least, one song turned out to be one of my favorites and since it’s 20 minutes long that’s basically half an album’s worth. “Sleep
” is the song to check out from this album. The first seven minutes build this moment and then it introduces this sound that sounds like what I can only describe as an instrument screaming. Then when it reaches a climax it goes into this fast-paced second section. The words don’t really do justice, just give it a listen. It’s my jam. It’s my peanut butter and jam. 4/5
Oh man. That was actually eleven artists, so I guess that Kanye album put me past the point where I’m supposed to be. Not like anyone is counting. Anyway, consider this shit cataloged and I can move on with my life.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
First let me apologize.I’m sorry I included Death of a Bachelor on this list, which is by every standard an unremarkable album. If you’re someone who is following this list because they want to be exposed to “noteworthy” music, this ain’t one those. So why did I pick it? Panic! At The Disco is a band I quickly fell in love with during my senior year of college in 2013, well after they reached peak popularity in 2005. I’ve kept an eye on their career trajectory because it’s very strange. Most people probably know that one song from ten years ago, but since then they’ve had a bit of a rollercoaster of events and what Panic! is today is completely different than how they started. For that reason, I was interested how their new album would turn out, would it be another weird catalog in the stream of oddities of the Panic! At the Disco discography? Well, not really.
Who is Panic! At The Disco?
This is basically going to be a brief history of Panic! At the Disco. So back in 2004 the original members of Panic! were around 18 years old and just graduating High School. Ryan Ross was the guitarist, and he formed the band with his friend Spencer Smith who was the drummer. Later they found Brent Wilson for their bassist, and Wilson introduced Brendon Urie as a backup guitarist, but Urie quickly became the lead vocalist (over Ross) after the band unanimously voted him into the spot. You can hear some songs on Panic!’s second album Pretty Odd where Ross sings lead vocals and understand why Urie got such unanimous support. At the same time there was a band that was quite popular called Fall Out Boy. Panic! wasn’t very well known but on a whim they sent some tracks to Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy through Live Journal, and wouldn’t you know it, he actually listened to them. One thing led to another and Panic! was signed to Fueled By Ramen, the same label as Fall Out Boy. Panic! released their first album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out in 2005, which is commonly mentioned in the same breath as other pop-punk albums like The Black Parade, or From Under the Cork Tree. When people say “I like Panic! At The Disco” they are 90% of the time referring to this album.
“But Panic! has five albums now, why such dedication to the one that came out a decade ago?” you might be asking. After the first album came out, the band began work on their second album, Pretty Odd. However after a year of work they scrapped the entire thing, with the exception of one song. You see, Panic!’s first album was defined by being different. Even though it’s labeled as “a pop-punk album,” it really doesn’t sound like anything else from the genre. Some of the tracks sounded like they dropped out of a carnival while others had auto-tuning and thumping bass. It was unique. They weren’t happy that their second album sounded so similar to their first, so they trashed it. They wanted it to be different. This time their version of being different was to go super traditional. Pretty Odd sounds like something The Beatles would make. For people who never liked Panic! At the Disco, this was great! For fans of the first album, it was unlistenable.
After Pretty Odd, Ryan Ross and Brent Wilson left the band, leaving only Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith as the remaining members. This left a considerable change on the band since Ross was the lyricist for the band and wrote most of the music. Some fans suggest Ross was also the creative force pushing the need to different and creative. Panic! would go on to release two more albums, Vices & Virtues and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! Personally, I never listened to the former, and although I liked things about the latter, it really doesn’t deserve its own paragraph. Needless to say, the suggestion that Panic!’s lyrics and music have gotten worse since Ross left is evident just by listening to any one of the tracks found of those albums.
What is worth noting is the rumors that Panic! became a pop band for Brendon Urie once Ross and Wilson left the band, and everything about the “band” has supported those theories. Whether it’s album artwork only showing Urie despite two other band members existing, or music videos that amount to promoting Urie’s sex appeal, it seems pretty clear that Urie is running the show. That was confirmed last year when Smith finally left the band (the other temporary member they brought on, Dallon Weekes, has been removed from the permanent roster and is only a touring member now). Which means Panic! At the Disco is officially a solo project, Brendon Urie, and his arsenal of producers.
Except that was never the plan from the start. Urie was the last member to join the band. When Urie shifted from being “just the vocalist” to the creative force of the band, he talked about how odd the transition was, since there was such a huge focus on his ability to play all the instruments, write the music, and lyrics. From from listening to his music, it seems the only things he’s never had to think about much besides being famous, getting laid and hanging out. He doesn’t philosophize how his approach to meaningless relationships will affect his life like other artists I’ve already listened to, he’s basically your run of the mill pop star. So what does a guy like that have to say when he release a solo album? How does that sound?
What did I think?
Pretty frustrating. The grand tragedy of Panic! At The Disco is when it went from being a popular niche to mainstream pop. The reason this is so frustrating is because despite Urie’s attempts to be a popstar he’s not one. He’s at his best when he embraces the weirdness inside of him. Urie has stated that this album was meant to be a “goodbye” to his old self as he turns to the future to see what he can do differently. Hopefully that means gaining some independence from recording labels because eight of the eleven songs on this album sound like disingenuous junk.
Almost all the songs besides a select three seem to be dedicated to “good times and people who have them,” which might be the image that Urie likes to project but it’s just surface layer marketing. As we’ve covered earlier this year, even artists whose lives are filled with nothing but sex and drugs, they’re not exactly thrilled about that and have some complex thoughts about that lifestyle. Unless you’re a complete numbskull with no introspection value whatsoever, you’d probably have equally complicated feelings toward days filled with “champagne, cocaine, [and] gasoline.” I might be giving Urie too much credit here, but I think he’s evolved enough to have some basic empathy.
The result is all of these tracks, like “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” sound less like party tracks and more like anthems for teenagers to sing to while they get dropped off at their friend’s house to play truth or dare. The same goes for other dubious tracks such as “Crazy=Genius,” an attempt to capture the carnival influence from the original Panic! album. Or the truly dreadful “The Good, The Bad and the Dirty,” which might be the absolute low point for Urie’s lyric writing career. You just need to hear the first ten seconds of Urie’s howling to set your expectations to the floor and you’ll still be disappointed in yourself that you’ve wasted your time getting to the ninth song on this album.
So what’s the saving grace? This album might be the first time that Urie shows some sort of regret for his career. The only single for the album so far has been “Hallelujah” (keeping the trend of insanely original titles and lyrics). What’s interesting about this song is that Urie actually went to Genius.com and said “this song is really about a lot of different things: friendships and letting god, not feeling bad about the past. At a certain point I just had to own up to my mistakes, own up to my sins, forgive myself but also take responsibility for the shit I had done.” It’s possible that he was making a vague statement about what the song was about. But for this to be the first solo album by Urie, and for it to be the first song to tackle “friendships” and “not feeling bad about the past,” it seems like a pretty big coincidence if he’s not talking about the past of Panic! at the Disco. It’s also no surprise that this song is genuinely good. There’s a somberness to Urie’s tone. He’s dropped that obnoxious arrogance that usually exudes from other tracks. It feels like Urie’s sharing something personal for once.
On a similar note, the title track “Death of a Bachelor,” deals with Urie’s transition from a lifelong bachelor, to getting married. It’s easy to tell he struggled with it, since the only other topic he ever sang about was the number of women he’s been with. Still, he cites his love for Sinatra and remembering how he grew up as a child as the inspiration for this track and the influence comes out pretty clearly. There’s an array of different instruments used in this bombastic track. Although the image he leaves for his future marriage leaves me pretty worried for his wife, this again is another track that feels like Urie is doing the actual writing rather than a league of faceless producers and marketers. The result is night and day.
Finally the concluding track, “Impossible Year,” leaves hope for the future. It’s easily the most Sinatra-inspired, and the most divergent from Panic!’s past work. Urie sings about the difficulties of working on the album this past years to the tune of a piano melody with the assistance of some horn instrumentation. He even sings in a different style than usual. It’s an impressive last performance that shows he’s willing to do something different. I only wish he had started this album with that mindset, instead of ending on that note.
As it stands, over seventy percent of this album is not recommendable. If you want a proper pop album, there are better ones. If you want some genuine soul-searching music, there are better ones. Panic! continues to be a weird thing that exists. Urie has no reason to stop making money off of it now, so I imagine there will be another album in a few years. What that will be, I don’t know, but I’ll probably listen to that too. Two things are certain: I’ve never been as hopeful for Panic! as I am now, and Death of a Bachelor is Panic!’s worst album.
Next week (barring any life changes) I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, because it transitions really well with “Impossible Year,” and it was recommended by a friend. Check it out on YouTube or Spotify.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (which I’ll be referring to as “Black Star” for now on) is well-known for two reasons. One, it’s well-regarded as one of the best rap albums of all-time. Two, it’s the first debut of well-known artist Mos Def. Last week Mos Def officially retired from music and movies. At the time he was in South Africa where he was trying to unwind after some turbulent times in the industry (which was also famously done by Dave Chappelle) however it didn’t seem to be working. In response to that announcement I wanted to listen to Mos Def’s most acclaimed album and heard Black Star and his single debut Black on Both Sideswere the two to consider. I argued with myself if I should listen to Black on Both Sides or Black Star, and eventually settled on Black Star because reading the coverage on Mos Def’s announcement led many to recall Black Star as opposed to his single debut. Anecdotally, I saw a lot of posters on message boards cite Black Star as the album that “got them into Hip-Hop and Rap,” so this seemed like a good album to focus on, since I plan to feature many more rap albums later this year.
Who are Mos Def and Talib Kweli?
Both individuals entered the scene as unknowns when this album was released in September of 1998. They had planned to release separate solo LPs around the same time, but after meeting up and working together they decided to release an album together instead. Both artists came into the album hoping to bring a “conscious” approach to their lyrics, and many of the songs are about empowerment and topics that “typical rap” did not cover. This shared belief on what their music should be, along with their chemistry and comradery made them a natural pair for a duo album. Although the two never made another album together again, they made guest appearances on each other’s solo albums for the rest of each other’s careers. Mos Def went on to have a technically more successful career than Talib Kweli, but Mos Def’s career contains many highs and lows, including a multi-year period where he seemed kind of nuts.
What did I think?
In my travels of listening to hip-hop and rap, (a distinction, I’m still unsure of, because all my synapses would call this album “rap” but I’ve only seen it referred to as “hip-hop”) I’ve discovered a defining spectrum for the genre. Imagine there’s a line. On the far left side, you have high-production value, genre-blending music like Kendrick Lamar’s These Walls (or Kanye West’s Lost In The World or Tyler’s Find Your Wings, etc.) and on the far right side, you have stuff like Black Star’sDefinition which is basically a beat and two dudes rapping over it. The distinction between this spectrum is whether the songs focus more on production or lyrical content. Definition is the extreme, but they obviously put a lot of work into their lyrics and they make sure that you can hear them, as opposed to production.
Which seems like a smart move since Black Star’s lyrics are easily the most stand-out part of the album. Many commenters have cited this album as the reason they got into Hip Hop and that’s likely because this is the only album that not only provides different content for listeners to chew on, but it actually openly criticizes contemporary rap. Remember this is 1998, just a year after Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac have been shot, and the genre is still mostly filled with artists copying that type of music. The most damning example is Mos Def’s track Children’s Story, which can be directly compared to Slick Rick’s Children’s Story, where Mos tells the story of a rapper who oversamples old songs and profiteers off of hyping conflicts between coasts which leads to real-world violence. These themes continue throughout the rest of the album.
Kweli has his own style of conscious lyricism with the track “Determination,” which largely asks listeners to be more mindful of important issues in the world. This is summarized in the line “At exactly which point do you start to realize, that life without knowledge is death in disguise?” The rest of the song speaks to the virtues of “knowledge of self” versus gaining cash quickly illegitimately since it will ultimately lead to incarceration, a major issue for Black Americans.
While I could go on and on about my admiration for Black Star’s dedication to worthwhile topics, I didn’t find the delivery of these themes to be very engaging. Most of the time I found myself struggling to pay attention and at worse felt like I was being lectured. Their movement to create and alternative type of rap to the glorification of “money and bitches,” is again, admirable, but they’re a little too on the nose with it. My experience with Kendrick Lamar’s work has shown me that it’s possible to bring up controversial and important issues without sounding like a classroom. I don’t believe Black Star achieves that balance on this album.
Unfortunately I think the album gives us two glimpses of what could’ve been, on the very first and very last track on the album. On the last track, Twice Inna Lifetime, Black Star shares the track with three guests: Jane Doe, Punchline, and Wordsworth, in a track that can best be described as a series of punchlines. The lyrics depart from the conscious self-importance found on the rest of the album, which may be why the duo had more material to work with. Kweli’s verse in particular is entirely made up of memorable lines, working with wordplay such as “We be lighting shit up like phosphorus, turning flamboyant niggas anonymous, depressing to optimist, you stopping us is preposterous, like an androgynous misogynist. You picking the wrong time, stepping to me when I’m in my prime like Optimus.”
Personally my favorite track, and what got me hopeful for the album as a whole was the first track of the album, Astronomy. This track is the only song that has Kweli and Mos rhyming back and forth working off of each other’s energy. The song has a prominent bass line, irregularly bumping along, and the MCs’ seem to bounce their flow off of the bass as the song goes on. As you’re focusing on the clever lyrics that focus around the question “What is the Black Star?” additional elements are introduced into the song like a vinyl scratcher or subtle keyboard ambiance, contributing to the “astronomy” title. By the time Mos and Kweli declare “you know who else is a Black Star, who? We.” You’re ready to hear the whole thing.
Unfortunately the Black Star doesn’t shine that bright. At least, for me. The remaining songs couldn’t hold a candle to the impressive first performance. I’d be interested to see how both artists’ careers developed in the future as the whole genre shifted toward more production-focused albums, but for me, this style of rap (or Hip Hop) just isn’t my taste.
For next week: Isn’t all that thinking exhausting? How about some brain dead pop music? Panic! At The Disco released a new album a few weeks ago called Death of a Bachelor. It’s most likely mediocre but that’s one of the few bands I actually follow so I want to listen to it. You can listen to it on Spotify. Here’s a head’s up: If/When Kanye West or Tool release an album later this year, I’m going to listen to those albums as well.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Have you ever found yourself completely at odds with the rest of society that you question your own sanity? You find yourself opposed to an opinion so overwhelming you wonder if you’re truly suffering from an incurable madness. That’s generally how I feel whenever I listen to most music before 1980. Some would call the 1960s-1970s the golden era of music, and if you skim any “best of all-time” list, you’ll usually find a majority of the top spots taken by albums released in that time period. I’ve always found this strange because I think all these albums sounds exactly the same.
Sure, if you put on a Rolling Stones song, then play a Beatles song I can tell you differences, and that’s true with everything I’ve heard this past week with David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but on their own they don’t inspire much beyond indifference. It’s music that someone else plays and I tune out and think about my own life. Which is fine. But I’m always a little startled when someone my age says these albums are the greatest of all time or changed their life significantly. If you’re going to make a claim like that, please explain to me how that is the case.
For bands like The Beatles or The Beach Boys, at the very least they get the argument of “they did it first.” It can be argued that the sound they achieved is so revolutionary and should be appreciated because no one had done it before, and I can certainly buy that argument. From a historical point of view I can understand why I should understand the merit of something like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. These have important places in the halls of music history, but everything else along the way that brought us to today that didn’t necessarily do anything on their own? I say “meh.”
Which is exactly how I feel about Ziggy Stardust. The music is pleasing, but nothing stands out. I might prefer some tracks over others, but not enough to seek them out on their own. I also don’t find anything about the story of the album to be worth returning to. A bisexual alien spreads news of the impending apocalypse with songs on his guitar? He’s also a conceited alien so his bandmates (spiders from mars) threaten to smash his fingers at one point. Whoopee? Compared to the deeply personal confessions found in last week’s album, this leaves a lot to be desired.
I think it’s obvious that music is a lot more diverse today than it’s ever been, and it’s probably moronic to criticize the past for not being as modern as the present, but it’s just as moronic to award the past today by the past’s standards. There’s no point in paying tribute, we’ve done that for decades now. If we can’t get over that, then there’s no point in making a “best of all-time” list, because we can’t get past our favoritism for our elders, and it shafts the artists who are making worthwhile creations today.
Really there’s no one who understood keeping up with the times better than David Bowie. A man who reinvented his life more times than most people have regular lives. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, pop culture looked like David Bowie. Even Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, was inspired by the work of Kendrick Lamar, who Bowie considered so influential to the sphere of music that he felt the need to get in on the action. I feel it’s perfectly fitting to make the point that we should adapt to the times and focus on the future on the week that was meant to reflect on David Bowie’s most well-known work.
It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
Give Up was recommended by one of my Facebook friends when I asked people to suggest albums that “changed their life.” I knew when I asked this question people wouldn’t take the “changed their life” part seriously, and sure enough I got a lot of people recommending a dozen or so different albums which I’m highly skeptical all of them had such an influence on them. However, this particular album I took note of because the person who suggested it had mentioned in the past that they were a big fan of American Football’s American Football, one of my favorites, and after listening to the first track of Give Up it seemed like a deeply personal album. Since it actually fit the description of what I was looking for I decided to jump to it.
Who Are The Postal Service? What is Give Up?
The Postal Service is a duo between vocalist Ben Gibbard and “producer” Jimmy Tamborello. Their name derives from how the music of the band was created. Tamborello, typically known as an electronic musician under the name “Dntel,” would make instrumental tracks in their entirety and send it to Gibbard through the United States Postal Service, who would then add vocals and edit the track as he’d see fit. It’s worth noting that Give Up came out in 2003, and Gibbard is mostly known as the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie but Give Up came out just before Death Cab became immensely popular. Technically there are additional members of The Postal Service, but they only provide backing vocals on some tracks. The minds behind this project are solely Gibbard and Tamborello.
Give Up proved to be widely successful in the indie world. It was released under Sub Pop, and Give Up became their second most successful album in their history, just barely behind Nirvana’s Bleach. Despite the success, The Postal Service would never release another album. They would reunite in 2013 for a reunion tour and the two members are constantly asked about a possible second album, which is sometimes referred to an “indie Chinese Democracy,” but they’ve definitively said there isn’t one and never will be, citing commitments to their current projects. Their other projects may prove more financially successful but neither Death Cab for Cutie nor Dntel have ever received as much critical acclaim. Give Up was listed on Pitchfork Media’s and Rolling Stone’s lists for Top Albums of the Decade for the 2000s.
What Did I Think?
As I mentioned before, Give Up is a personal album, but I said that mostly because I immediately clicked with the tone that Gibbard sets up. The first song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” is about a break-up. Gibbard has a slow realization of how out-of-place he was in his ex’s life compared to where they are now (“A stranger with your door key explaining that I’m just visiting”). After discovering this, it dawns on him that he was worth dumping (“And I am finally seeing, Why I was the one worth leaving”). This type of honest self-loathing is present throughout the rest of the album. As someone who dabbles in self-deprecation and being hard on themselves, I was immediately receptive to this tone, which continues throughout the rest of the album.
From what little I’ve heard of Death Cab for Cutie, it seems Gibbard has made a career out of being an honest insecure introvert, and I know just mentioning his main band’s name can induce moans for a lot of people, but for me, and for Give Up, it’s new. Gibbard doesn’t take the easy way out either. Whereas many people with the “poor me” complex are prone to depicting themselves as saviors of the world, he seems keenly aware of his own bullshit. In “Nothing Better,” another break-up song, Gibbard sings about how there could “nothing better than making you my bridge and slowly growing old together.” Just as that lyric is said, guest vocalist Jen Wood is introduced as the girlfriend character for the song: “I feel I must interject here, you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself,” and it goes on. The best analogy I can draw is to action films and the concept of a “power fantasy.” Some introverts, such as myself, love a good downer-fest. Sometimes you get in a rut and you just want to stay there for a bit, ya know? Give Up seems to be going in the direction of feeding into all of the vices of someone who pities themselves and songs like “Nothing Better,” or “Clark Gable,” don’t let them get away with it. Which is fine, because we know we shouldn’t be so down on ourselves anyway.
There are other tangential topics covered on the album. “Recycled Air” seems to be about an anxiety surrounding traveling by plane, “We Will Become Silhouettes” covers a story about loneliness with a backdrop of nuclear fallout, and “Brand New Colony” dabbles in the idea of starting a new colony without cynics, although arguably Gibbard is one of those cynics for the rest of the album. Loneliness, anxiety, relationships, and failure are the connective thread of the album called Give Up and that shouldn’t surprise you.
What was surprising was how well the music of Give Up matches the themes of the album, even though they were made completely separate from the lyrics. Every melody has a frantic insecurity to it, constantly changing every measure or two. I could say it’s “as if they had no confidence in what they made so they just kept changing to keep it interesting,” but the truth is probably due to Tamborello’s background as an electronic musician which typically has more frequent melody changes as opposed to repeating the same bar over and over. Still, before I went on Wikipedia and read about the band I thought it was an interesting parallel between the music and the lyrics.
The busy nature of the songs stuck with me though on each repeat listening. My initial impression of The Postal Service was they were a “somber” sounding band, which would make sense, given their lyrical content. But even their most low-key track, “This Place is a Prison,” has a constant drum track, and it isn’t long before chimes and an accordion is introduced, because why not? In fact some of the songs are deceptively fast-paced because they begin with slower paced introductions, such as “Such Great Heights,” and “Natural Anthem,” before introducing breakneck drumbeats that carry the whole song. I ended up having mixed feelings toward some of the songs I initially liked and pleasantly found myself appreciating songs I didn’t intend to find on an album that started with something as low-key as “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (“Natural Anthem” ended up being one of my favorites).
I can see how Give Up could influence someone’s life, especially in a “right time, right place” kind of way. It’s certainly turned me onto Gibbard’s work, even if that means I’m officially a dweeb for having “Death Cab for Cutie” in my search history. Whatever man, be your own person. Also that guy was married to Zooey Deschanel for at least a day, so he’s appealing to something.
Next week I decided to check out David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In case you’re wondering, I’ve never heard a David Bowie song. Check it out on Spotify or YouTube.