STILL AROUND – PART ONE BJöRK — ‘Utopia’
THE GOOD: Icelandic singer/songwriter/producer Bjork gives us an epic ninth.
THE BAD: “Utopia” requires time and serious effort. It’s worth the work.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Here the indie legend creates an entire world made of sweeping orchestral arrangements, electronic rhythms, magnificent choirs, nature sounds and lots of flutes. If 2015’s “Vulnicura” was a break-up album, “Utopia” is a record of new beginnings and rediscovering love. Yes, these are love songs, but not in the traditional “simplistic” sense. Bjork prefers to take us on a journey of discovery as opposed to three chords and straight-forward declarations of affection.
There are a few hard-driven moments across the middle, such as the crackling “Courtship” and the thumping, aggressive “Sue Me.” Most of the album, though, is tranquil, down-tempo and atmospheric. Tracks such as the delicate, graceful title cut and the stark, intimate closer “Future Forever” set the overall tone. It leaves us with a multi-dimensional headphones record capable of keeping harsh reality at bay, if only for just over 70 glorious minutes.
BUY IT?: Yes.
EMINEM — ‘Revival’
THE GOOD: Hip-hop artist Eminem releases a huge ninth.
THE BAD: Still stuck in a creative rut?
THE NITTY GRITTY: The man has yet to match the brilliance of his first four groundbreaking releases, all unleashed between 1996 and 2002. Since 2004’s “Encore,” Eminem has been giving us stuff reminiscent of past glories, but never equaling them. 2013’s “Marshall Mathers LP 2” came close, but now “Revival” takes another unfortunate step backward.
He brings in Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Alicia Keys to sing some hooks. Too bad the Cheech and Chong, Joan Jett and “Boogie Nights” samples also found here are all more interesting than those guest appearances. Sure, he goes after Donald Trump and the police, but it all seems so tired at this point. And is it genuine? Slim Shady used to care about nothing or no one. Now he’s middle-aged with a conscience? Guess so.
“Revival” isn’t a total loss, and there are some slick jams here. But are there any verses worth committing to memory?
BUY IT?: Your choice.
MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO — ‘Impossible Star’
THE GOOD: British electronic legend Jack Dangers (he still is MBM) comes back with his 12th full-length and first in eight years.
THE BAD: Not exactly his most innovative record, “Star” is a pulsating throwback to the man’s ’90s heyday. Some of these sounds are vaguely familiar.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Yet, the album still finds inspiration in our current topsy-turvy, semi-gloomy cultural and political landscape. Dangers once again employs an eclectic mix of eerie ambient sounds, heavy beats, atomic age samples, funky bass lines, abrasive melodies and a plethora of electronic blips and noise. Creepy in some spots (the haunting opening ramp-up “One”) and outright banging in others (the relentless pops and grooves carrying “Nereus Rov”), “Star” covers a lot of emotional (and hip-shaking) territory in just over an hour.
This new set proves just how much we missed this guy. There have been many imitators over the years, but few (if any) have been able to surpass Dangers since the late ’80s.
BUY IT?: Yes.
HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR — ‘Omnion’
THE GOOD: DJ/producer Andy Butler jumps to a major label (Atlantic) while conjuring up sparkling rhythms and retro moves.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Omnion” is the man’s fourth outing under the “Hercules” moniker and a typical night out with the guy and his crew. This time, guest vocalists include Sharon Van Etten, past collaborator Rouge Mary and Horrors’ frontman Faris Badwan. You might not recognize that last one at first; Badwan ditches garage punk for a smoother, techno-friendly approach.
Not every track is an outright winner, but there are no losers here either. Butler eases us through changes in mood and tempo; the evening runs smoothly and never sounds stuck on repeat. Whether it’s the slowly building swirl carrying the title track, the pulsating and banging “Rejoice” or the spaced-out squiggles behind “Lies,” Butler and his guests are always in sync. The rare occasions where he completely pulls back the beats also bring balance and give us (and the music) room to breathe.
BUY IT?: Yes.
CUT COPY — ‘Haiku From Zero’
THE GOOD: Australian electronic act Cut Copy does what it does best on its fifth.
THE BAD: No real issues, but no real innovation either. Cut Copy has always been extremely good at reinterpreting grooves from the past — mainly the ’80s and ’90s. It does it over and over again. Thankfully, the end results are always agreeable.
THE NITTY GRITTY: From those very first island rhythms rumbling beneath opening cut “Standing in the Middle of the Field,” you kind of know exactly where “Haiku” is going. We’re in for a steady mix of upbeat bangers that reimagine the beats from classic funk, disco and techno records. Every track grabs you with a dedicated hook. Every jam shakes up the room completely on its own.
Personal favorite bits include the bouncy, late-night reverberations found throughout “Memories We Share” and the multi-layered party wrapped around the slick “Living Upside Down.” It’s all good, highly energetic stuff. We’ve been on this dance floor before, but who cares?
BUY IT?: Why not?
WU-TANG — ‘The Saga Continues’
THE GOOD: Legendary hip-hop collective Wu-Tang releases its seventh. The “Clan” part of the name is on hold because long-time member U-God is NOT present thanks to a legal dispute.
THE BAD: Where to begin?
THE NITTY GRITTY: It hasn’t been a great decade for the Wu. 2014’s “A Better Tomorrow” was mired in R&B. The guys angered their fan base by only releasing ONE COPY of 2015’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” (That’s a fascinating story.) And now this…
“Saga” is the first BORING Wu-Tang album. Producer Mathematics can’t recapture that much-desired murky and haunting Wu vibe. There aren’t enough muddy samples, and the overall sound is too clean.
And why so many outsiders? Redman, Chris Rivers, Sean Price — these guest shots seem unnecessary. Plus, there’s a genuine “going through the motions” vibe throughout this thing.
Later this year, the Wu-Tang Clan will be eligible for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’d love to see it inducted. But maybe the crew should quit while they’re ahead.
BUY IT?: Sadly … skip it.
MORRISSEY — ‘Low in High School’
THE GOOD: British singer-songwriter and indie mainstay Morrissey returns with his 11th proper solo album.
THE BAD: At almost 60, the guy doesn’t care what people think anymore (not that he ever did). His politics are more challenging and polarizing than ever. And as the man moves forward, his views become less subtle as well. You either embrace the anger or find it a complete turn-off.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Thankfully, Morrissey still has the pipes to handle the gorgeous, sweeping melodies that show up time and again throughout “High School.” So even if you get bored with the whole “everything is miserable” diatribe rallying against ALL politicians, the British monarchy (still), the class system, any sort of love life and all facets of life in general (don’t we all know enough insufferable people personally on Facebook?), you still can embrace the music.
But really, would we want a happy, contented Morrissey? Definitely not. So “High School” delivers what we crave.
BUY IT? Sure.
WOLF PARADE — ‘Cry Cry Cry’
THE GOOD: Canadian indie outfit Wolf Parade regroups and come back with its fourth full-length album.
THE BAD: “Cry Cry Cry” gets murky across its middle section but begins and ends very sturdily.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Was the band’s first album in seven years worth the wait? Actually, YES. While “Cry Cry Cry” isn’t a trailblazing collection, it’s still a very enjoyable rock/new wave record, a set of well-crafted, confident songs that aren’t the least bit sloppy.
From the dramatic opener “Lazarus Online” to the sheer, synthesized pop bliss that is “You’re Dreaming,” the album throws us back to prime Interpol, early Arcade Fire and upbeat Peter Murphy with shimmering and slightly jangly gems. “Flies on the Sun” sweeps us up in a heavy sway. “Artificial Life” packs on the relentless energy. The majestic yet forceful “King of Piss and Paper” crash lands the entire affair and leaves us wanting more. Here’s hoping these guys are back for the foreseeable future.
BUY IT?: Yes.
STARSAILOR — ‘All This Life’
THE GOOD: English post-Britpop rockers Starsailor give us their fifth album (and first in eight years).
THE BAD: Starsailor makes smart, enjoyable, guitar-based pop/rock records. But the group doesn’t make great or highly memorable ALBUMS. “All This Life” continues that trend.
THE NITTY GRITTY: That being said, the new album is STILL a … well … smart, enjoyable, guitar-based pop/rock record. Sometimes that’s all you need. Frontman James Walsh and his crew pick up right where they left off almost a decade ago. The guys reformed in 2015 for a tour supporting a U.K. “hits” collection and decided the not-so-old magic still existed. Why not some new music?
Long-time fans will be pleased, as they get the usual mix of upbeat, catchy bits, such as the title track and “Best of Me,” as well as more laid-back and introspective stuff, such as the dramatic “Sunday Best” and charming, intimate closer “No One Else.” There really aren’t any outright duds here, just the rockers being their melodic, swaggering selves. Nothing wrong with that.
BUY IT?: Sure.
ARY NUMAN — ‘Savage: Songs from a Broken World’
THE GOOD: British electronic pioneer Gary Numan gives us an epic 21st album.
THE BAD: “Broken World” is long. Across its second half, and the tempos slow down, moods get heavy, and the record drags.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This is a concept album. The Eastern and Western worlds have blurred together in a post-apocalyptic wasteland brought on by global warming. Imagine “Mad Max” with a beat.
On any GOOD concept album, the songs tell the story, but don’t rely upon it. You can pull the record apart (or even wholly ignore the storyline) and most of the tracks can stand on their own. That’s definitely the case with “Broken World.”
We get the usual buzzing and burning mid-tempo pieces drenched in sinister atmospherics and carried by Numan’s reserved singing. Songs such as “My Name Is Ruin” and “When the World Comes Apart” are fantastic examples of the man’s brand of heavy techno-pop. The guy just turned 60, but he hasn’t lost his touch.
BUY IT?: Yes.
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVERS IN THE DARK — ‘The Punishment of Luxury’
THE GOOD: British synth-pop legends OMD return with their 13th.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ever since founding members Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey reunited about a decade ago, this pioneering band has been on a roll. “The Punishment of Luxury” is their third triumph in a row, following 2010’s “History of Modern” and 2013’s “English Electric.” Regaining relevance is not easy, but OMD have accomplished just that.
They continue to build upon their early, stripped-down, industrial-leaning work, icy albums such as “Architecture & Morality” (1981) and “Dazzle Ships” (1983). All the while, the guys look forward and create something equally retro and futuristic, music that transcends any particular era.
“Luxury” is a comment on our disposable culture, boasting tracks both pulsating and calculated (“Isotype”) and more delicate and introspective (“What Have We Done”). As usual, OMD finds the perfect balance of cold electronics and graceful melodies, bridging a gap between two disparate sensibilities and doing it WITHOUT pretentiousness.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
TRICKY — ‘Ununiform’
THE GOOD: British trip-hop pioneer Tricky churns out his 13th.
THE BAD: Like most post-2000 Tricky records, “Ununiform” is a work of highs and lows. Some of the tracks are stunning; others feel incomplete.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Conceived in Russia and recorded in Germany, the new album uses the usual sounds — the man’s guttural, emotional lead vocals; beats either abrasive or reserved (depending upon the situation); atmospheric, haunting keyboards; and metallic guitars. The set also boasts a bevy of female guest vocalists such as Asia Argento, Terra Lopez and long-time collaborator Martina Topley-Bird.
Most of it works. Tracks such as the sneaky, seamless “New Stole” and the popping, swirly “Armor” immediately click. Yet even when everything falls into place, we’re reminded that Tricky is not the innovator he once was. Though they’re good, these late-career albums aren’t breaking a hell of a lot of new ground. And there are some huge misfires. I recommend skipping over the smoky and wholly unnecessary retooling of Hole’s “Doll Parts.”
BUY IT?: Your choice.
STARS – “There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light”
THE GOOD: Canadian indie pop band Stars shine on its captivating eighth.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: As the band plays on, its sound gets slightly bigger while the formula never grows old. The focus remains the male-female vocal interplay between Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan; their distinct voices and differing singing styles complementing each other perfectly. We never exactly get traditional duets, but rather opposing viewpoints meeting somewhere in the middle. It’s like an appealing update of those classic Beautiful South records from the early 90’s.
Musically, Stars continue to drive its catchy songs with a divine combination of electro-pop and jangly rock ‘n’ roll. The beat is definitely front and center, but so is a genuine helping of human warmth. It’s tough to resist the immediate pull of glistening tracks such as “Hope Avenue” and “Real Thing.” Then again, why would you want to? “Fluorescent Light” is feel-good stuff without the sticky syrup.
BUY IT?: Sure.
DESTROYER — “Ken”
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers Destroyer deliver an 11th album that’s both elegant and dirty.
THE BAD: Destroyer has always been a polarizing force. You either tune into the brilliance or find it all so befuddling. That doesn’t change here.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Cleverly directed by frontman (and occasional New Pornographer) Dan Bejar, a guy who sings like a more reserved Robyn Hitchcock, Destroyer bring on a sophisticated mix comprised of dissimilar parts such as Berlin-era David Bowie, smoky jazz, stark early New Order and singer/songwriter folk.
If it weren’t for Bejar’s deft, guiding hand, “Ken” would be a muddled mess. Yet the man makes the record come off like some black-and-white art-house flick that forces you to think right from the very beginning and leaves you with conflicting emotions long after its conclusion. Whether it’s the steady techno buried beneath “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” or the naked feelings spread over the intimate “Saw You at the Hospital,” “Ken” is guaranteed to captivate.
BUY IT?: Yes.
NOEL GALLAGHER’S HIGH FLYING BIRDS — “Who Built the Moon?”
THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter and ex-Oasis mastermind Noel Gallagher comes back with his third.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: So…who wins the SOLO war: Noel or brother Liam with his “As You Were” album? Noel of course. Liam has the distinct voice, but Noel was the driving songwriting force behind that former band formed over a quarter-century ago. He’ll always churn out the more satisfying and distinct material. And since Oasis’ breakup, Noel’s ability as a proper frontman has grown as well.
“Moon” is his finest post-Oasis hour yet. Produced by 90’s electronic star David Holmes, it’s a record with BIG vibrant sounds and an irresistible swagger. Whether it’s the punchy glam carrying “Holy Mountain,” the Chemical Brothers-like throwback “It’s a Beautiful World” or the sheer pop bliss smothering the divine “If Love Is the Law,” the album is both super confident and fun. Noel is having a great time here. Turn it up, and you’ll have a great time too.
BUY IT?: Yes.
RECOVERY ROOMS ST. VINCENT – “Masseduction”
THE GOOD: St. Vincent (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark) comes back with a slick (but not-TOO-slick) fifth.
THE BAD: Not here.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Co-produced and (at times) co-written with current pop wunderkind Jack Antonoff, “Masseduction” is not exactly a bid for the mainstream. Yet the album finds Clark flirting with the whole pop aesthetic while bending and/or breaking it in a way that only she can.
One falls under the spell of dance beats, industrial noise, whirring synths, blazing guitars — all in the span of about 42 minutes. “Masseduction” is an airtight affair; an emotional rollercoaster that takes us from the ad-jingle satire of “Pills” to the sad intimacy of “Happy Birthday, Johnny” to the pounding apocalypse that is “Fear the Future” and back again.
By the time we reach the tragedies being wished upon throughout dramatic closer “Smoking Section,” you’re emotionally drained. But what a strange and divine trip it has been. And one you immediately want to embark upon again.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
COURTNEY BARNETT & KURT VILE – “Lotta Sea Lice”
THE GOOD: Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett teams up with American singer/songwriter Kurt Vile on an impromptu jam session.
THE BAD: Those clamoring for a proper follow-up to Barnett’s blazing 2015 debut “Sometimes I Sit and Think” may be somewhat disappointed. (That follow-up happens later this spring.)
THE NITTY GRITTY: Barnett and Vile meet somewhere towards the middle on “Sea Lice.” She has to calm down while he needs a shot of energy. Once they find common ground, Barnett comes off as slightly lethargic while Vile’s homespun charm becomes easier to swallow.
In lesser hands, this record would be a total disaster. However, these two click. Their casual raw sensibilities bring forth a loose set of songs both ragged and murky. But that’s how they SHOULD sound. Any attempt at smoothing out the rough edges would feel forced.
Yet “Sea Lice” is best when taken in small doses. Forty-five minutes can be a bit of a slog when you were craving something more focused.
BUY IT?: Your call.
CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG – “Rest”
THE GOOD: French singer/songwriter (and actress) Charlotte Gainsbourg returns after a 6-year recording hiatus with the therapeutic “Rest.”
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Gainsbourg is purging pain throughout the record, having lost her half-sister earlier in the decade and still grappling with her famous father Serge Gainsbourg’s passing in the early ’90s. “Rest” visits dark territories yet the album is NOT a downer. Moody and atmospheric? Completely. Down-tempo and tuneless? Hardly.
Sung half in French and half in English, the songs find their brooding lyrics juxtaposed with graceful melodies and backdrops evoking everything from late night dance tracks (“Deadly Valentine”) to pop bliss (“Dans Vos Airs”). When Gainsbourg whispers in our ear during the bubbly “I’m a Lie,” she even sounds like her mom, Jane Birkin. Guided by French producer/DJ Sebastian Akchote, “Rest” is practically a perfect melding of icy electronics and warm raw human emotions. It’s a strong combination that doesn’t release its grip until the final note fades out.
BUY IT?: Yes.
CHANGES IN ATTITUDES DEERHOOF – “Mountain Moves”
THE GOOD: California indie rockers Deerhoof come back with a varied fourteenth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Written and recorded after our 2016 presidential election, “Mountain Moves” is another case of indie rock challenging the Right. When Deerhoof brings on its mix of bubble gum, noise rock and trashy funk though, any feelings of anger or frustration still sound merry and completely danceable. The record may begin in a dark place, but after 20 minutes, you get swept up in its sunny hopeful vibes.
Guest vocalists include Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. The band even tackles a couple of cover tunes courtesy of Bob Marley and the Staple Singers (lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s joyful chirp throughout “Freedom Highway” will make your day).
So, politics or not, “Mountain Moves” is another Deerhoof triumph; a study in both simple melodies and wild unpredictability. And as the band approaches the 25-year mark, the unique sounds and fresh ideas remain abundant.
BUY IT?: Yep.
THE HORRORS – “V”
THE GOOD: British alt-rockers the Horrors continue to morph and progress on the band’s fifth.
THE BAD: Depends upon what you crave…
THE NITTY GRITTY: If you listened to 2007’s “Strange House” and then jumped straight to this new release, it would take some serious convincing to prove both were products of the same band. The two records hail from completely different planets.
What started as a noisy, trashy, goth-garage outfit has slowly developed into a more refined new wave act. Five albums over the past decade have seen the band exploring styles as disparate as punk, shoegaze, electro and 80s neo-romantic. Now on “V” (that’s “five”), the lads lock into multi-layered grooves and swirling psychedelic backdrops to bring forth melodic guitar/synth hybrids that can be classified as both experimental freak-outs and pop gems.
Combining mid-period Cure, prime Dandy Warhols and splashes of both the Stone Roses and New Order, “V” ends up another happy accident that leaves us clamoring for the band’s next unpredictable chapter.
BUY IT?: Surely.
WOLF ALICE – “Visions of a Life”
THE GOOD: British indie rock outfit Wolf Alice dodges the sophomore slump with a varied second.
THE BAD: “Visions” is so diverse, it practically lacks any cohesive direction. Go with it though, and enjoy the ride.
THE NITTY GRITTY: A few dire missteps aside (I can’t wholly embrace the juvenile stupidity spread across “Yuk Foo” or the prog-rock bombast dominating the title track), “Visions” is actually a decent alt-rock album that kind of doubles as a really cool mixtape.
Fronted by the always tough yet strangely charming Ellie Roswell, the band bounces from the dream pop of “Heavenward” to the cool funk carrying “Beautifully Unconventional” to the harmonious flirtations on “Don’t Delete the Kisses” effortlessly. They make the jagged transitions all sound so easy.
From there, it’s on to the Brit-pop stomp of “Space and Time” and the gentle coo that makes “After the Zero Hour” so damn irresistible. There are so many different flavors to savor. I suggest you get started.
BUY IT?: Surely.
SIR SLY – Don’t You Worry Honey
THE GOOD: Los Angeles indie pop trio Sir Sly comes back with their second.
THE BAD: Did the band dodge the sophomore slump? Perhaps, but they also made a record VERY SIMILAR to 2014’s “You Haunt Me.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: But what could we expect? Sir Sly is yet another generic rock/electronic hybrid churning out “safe” stuff for movie trailers aimed at teens, video game soundtracks, and commercial alternative radio stations too damn complacent to take a chance on anything genuinely innovative.
Joywave. Saint Motel. X Ambassadors. Sir Sly. It’s all the same musical twaddle. A melody grabs you here; a beat pushes you there. But nothing sticks. “Honey” could be a decent jogging record or i-Phone album for those long subway commutes (oh wait — we don’t do that here in NEPA). Other than that though, the set just gets lost in the Spotify shuffle.
BUY IT? Download if you must. But skipping it altogether won’t leave a gaping hole in any collection or playlist.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – The Echo of Pleasure
THE GOOD: New York indie pop outfit PBPH come back with a mature fourth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: PBPH is essentially a Kip Berman solo outing on this record. He’s getting older; his life in transition. Berman is now married with a kid. The songwriting and spirit of the whole affair reflects these changes.
Still, “Pleasure” remains another sparkling ’80s throwback from a guy who knows how to crank out a satisfying bouncy pop song. This time though, the arrangements are more complex; layered keyboards and neon guitars weaving their way in and out of the mix. In strict retro terms, it’s less Depeche Mode and more Psychedelic Furs.
Everything clicks from the swirling “My Only” to the energetic “When I Dance with You.” Female vocalist/keyboardist Jen Goma helps out on harmonies again. When she takes the lead on “So True,” one hears echoes of New Order side project the Other Two. Good stuff all around.
BUY IT?: Yes.
TORO Y MOI – Boo Boo
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer Chaz Bear (stage name Toro Y Moi) offers up his fifth.
THE BAD: “Boo Boo” is another “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” record. The entire affair (especially the first half) flows amazingly well; the individual pieces complementing each other perfectly. Separate the songs though and some can’t stand on their own.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Boo Boo” is less “chill” and more indie pop. Bear continues to gain confidence as a frontman and has further embraced traditional song structures. Tracks like the easy-going melancholy funk jam “Mirage” and the cozy rhythmic sunshine that is “Girl like You” feel effortless; music made for spur-of-the-moment carefree Saturday afternoons. And as the sun sets, we sway to the swirling yearning spread over “You and I.”
“Boo Boo” finds that balance between the ambient and the focused. The music wraps around the listener like a warm blanket yet always maintains that all-important groove.
BUY IT?: Your call.
WASHED OUT – “Mister Mellow”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer/chillwave artist Ernest Greene (professional moniker Washed Out) flips labels (now it’s hip-hop outlet Stones Throw) and comes back with his third, the audio/visual “Mister Mellow.”
THE BAD: A little more music would have been nice. “Mellow” clocks out at about 29 minutes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Buy the physical release, and you get a CD and a DVD. The music on both is identical; the DVD simply complementing the tunes with a bunch of makeshift cut-and-paste videos. It’s a cool addition, but the enhancement isn’t completely necessary.
The tracks end up the usual blend of electronic pop and “chill” aesthetics. Although more pronounced disco beats enter the mix now and again. Half the tracks possess traditional structures, the other half are brief “links” and spoken word bits. The entire album flows seamlessly; its mood shifting in places but never outright changing. Close your eyes and drift (don’t need the DVD if that’s your preference) or move to this steady stuff. Either option works.
BUY IT?: Yes.
PVRIS – “All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell”
THE GOOD: Massachusetts alt-rockers Pvris (pronounced “Paris”) come back with their second.
THE BAD: Not much to embrace here.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by female vocalist/guitarist Lynn Gunn, Pvris began as a metal band, but as they progressed, pop and electronic elements began seeping into the tunes. So we now have a concoction that sort of resembles vintage Evanescence crossed with current Paramore and about 35 other nameless bands that up end on the Vans Warped Tour every summer. This stuff is kind of engaging in spots, but otherwise mostly cloying, forgettable and downright dull.
I was suckered in by the rhythmic bounce of catchy single “What’s Wrong” and soon realized that the rest of the album was a pale imitation of that stand-out track. “All We Know of Heaven” is mostly textbook overly dramatic, heavy alt-rock with some decent beats buried beneath the din. After a while, it’s all just so tedious.
BUY IT?: Oh no.
ZOLA JESUS – “Okovi”
THE GOOD: American singer/songwriter/producer Nicole Hummel (stage name Zola Jesus) comes back with her fifth, and strongest in quite some time.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Okovi” is a case of beauty created out of tragedy. Since 2014’s “Taiga,” Hummel saw some of her closest friends grapple with death (disease and attempted suicide) in addition to the singer herself visiting some gloomy personal places. One could view this new record as a walk toward the light.
For “Okovi” brings together its dark past with a sense of hope for the future. The arrangements are stirring; the singer using a small string orchestra to great dramatic effect. The synthetics often take a back seat to more organic elements. However, when the beats do kick in they are all the more effective. The melodies on top are bolder this time too; Hummel’s singing strong and assured over waves of both delicate splendor and harsh distortion. It’s rare when what is essentially an electronic album feels this “human.”
BUY IT?: Yes.
BULLY – “Losing”
THE GOOD: Nashville alt-grunge rockers Bully obliterate the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Alicia Bognanno is not just the woman in front of this band. She also writes, produces and engineers the entire affair. Make no mistakes — Bully is HER show. After releasing a somewhat polished debut on Columbia, 2015’s “Feels Like,” Bully has jumped over to indie mainstay Sub Pop (probably a better fit for the band’s aesthetic).
“Losing” is a much more harried affair than its predecessor. The mix is raw; the angst factor cranked up. The buzzing guitars sound like vintage Breeders. Bognanno’s ragged vocals resemble Bettie Serveert’s Carol Van Dijk if that singer chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes after pummeling her boyfriend.
The melodies are important and the hooks are certainly present. However this time, it’s more about their delivery and the fits of frustration behind it. “Losing” is both spontaneous and relentless; a record that could explode at any second. Embrace that urgency.
BUY IT?: Yes.
PRIMUS – “The Desaturating Seven”
THE GOOD: California indie rockers Primus get weirder than usual on their ninth.
THE BAD: Primus are going through their “covers and/or concept albums” phase. Be wary.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Last time it was an album reinventing the songs from 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Now, it’s a rock opera of sorts based upon the children’s book “The Rainbow Goblins.”
Their absurd mix of rock, funk, metal and prog remains intact, as does the tight musicianship. Bassist/frontman Les Claypool and original drummer Tim Alexander play off one another flawlessly, thereby re-forming one of the greatest current rhythm sections in rock. Guitarist Larry LaLonde is no slouch either; his playing highly intricate and innovative.
However, the album becomes bogged down by its concept. The arrangements are overly ambitious; the melodies far too complex in spots. Primus ends up in strange half-baked King Crimson territories. Listening with a critical ear proves difficult. Maybe this stuff is better when you’re stoned.
BUY IT?: Unless you’re an absolute Primus/Claypool fanatic, NO.
BATTLEME – “Cult Psychotica”
THE GOOD: American singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Drenik (stage name Battleme) returns with a blazing fourth.
THE BAD: “Cult Psychotica” gets “jammy” in spots. Don’t expect a tightly crafted set. This one goes for volume and spontaneity. Nothing “bad” about that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Recorded in Drenik’s own Portland, Oregon studio during frenzied sessions that took about a week to complete, “Psychotica” possesses a unique urgency that draws us into the party immediately. The fiery “No Truth” hits the ground running, and from there, Drenik barely lets us catch our collective breath.
Whether it’s the crashing “Hot Mess” (which eventually crashes and BURNS) or the steady funk rolling beneath “Misfit Honey Bear,” Drenik maintains a happy medium between classic rock swagger and modern rock bombast. You hear trashy Brownsville Station but one also detects the rhythmic tendencies of the Rapture. The messiness of prime early Alice Cooper echoes underneath while the Black Angels’ brashness rings across the top. It all works.
BUY IT?: Sure … and then CRANK it.
MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA – A Black Mile to the Surface
THE GOOD: Atlanta, Ga. indie rockers Manchester Orchestra give us an epic fifth.
THE BAD: No genuine gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Songwriter/guitarist/frontman Andy Hull is the only original member left standing. On “Black Mile,” a record inspired by the old mining town of Lead, South Dakota, he conjures up widescreen multi-faceted sounds that feel like a cross between Silversun Pickups and more folk-based stuff such as Band of Horses or early Mumford & Sons (minus all the banjos). And when layer upon layer of voices begin chiming in, a smattering of Sigur Ros enters the mix too.
“Lead, SD” booms to a roaring climax. “The Alien” draws us in on gently flowing and ghostly melodies. “The Wolf” brings in tumbling beats and ominous guitars creating a darker more dangerous mood. Every piece is interconnected; “Black Mile” almost crashing beneath its own weight. Thankfully, Hull never lets that happen. The songs themselves are never drowned out by its own complicated settings.
BUY IT?: Yes.
DEATH FROM ABOVE – Outrage Is Now
THE GOOD: After dropping the “1979” from their moniker, Canadian dance/punk duo Death From Above (multi-instrumentalist Jesse Keeler and vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger) come back with their third.
THE BAD: No worries.
THE NITTY GRITTY: I only say “dance” punk because the rhythms under the searing guitars have always been so thick and penetrating. They’re just as important to the whole mess as the din above. Those driving beats blast away once again on “Outrage.”
Only now, the riffs and melodies on top seem sharper. Keeler and Sebastien are getting older; the once angry 20-somethings have hit their 40’s. And while age could be a detriment to some, it’s making music from the DFA universe much more satisfying. Tracks like “Freeze Me” and “Nvr 4Evr” pull you in with their dedicated hooks; the song craft is strong. Other cuts such as “Caught Up” and “Statues” find a heavy almost aggressive FUNK springing up in all the right places; very punchy, very contagious.
BUY IT?: Sure.
BLACK KIDS – Rookie
THE GOOD: It took almost a decade, but Florida indie pop outfit Black Kids finally release their second album.
THE BAD: “Rookie” is good but not exactly the trailblazing comeback after a nine-year hiatus. Commercially, it could be a case of “too little, too late.” How many people in the room actually remember “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You?”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Listen to “Rookie” strictly on its own merits though, and you’ll enjoy it. Black Kids are still flashing back to 80’s college radio. The first half of the record boasts fine examples of retro jangle pop; melancholy tracks like “In a Song” and “V-Card” harken back to long-cherished album cuts from R.E.M.’S IRS days or the Smiths.
“Rookie’s” second half finds more prominent beats sneaking into the songs. From the disco trash slathered all over “Natural Born Kissers” to the naughty party anthem “Obligatory Drugs,” the band stops taking themselves too seriously and shows us a good time.
BUY IT?: Sure.
OFFA REX — ‘The Queen of Hearts’
THE GOOD: Indie folk/rock outfit Offa Rex offers up its sparkling debut (sort of).
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Offa Rex is less a proper band and more a merging of two established acts — Pacific Northwest indie rock mainstays the Decemberists and English folk singer Olivia Chaney. “Queen of Hearts” is a covers album, drawing most of its material from traditional British+ folk songs. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy handles vocals on two tracks, Jenny Conlee’s accordion takes us through a brief medley of rockin’ jigs, and Chaney is out front for the remainder.
“Hearts” ends up a precious combination of divine storytelling, rustic folk rock and charming baroque pop. Highlights include the romantic longing of the title track, the graceful sway carrying “Bonny May” and the heavy-metal buzz coloring “Sheepcrook and Black Dog” (Uriah Heep would approve). Yet EVERY moment here is emotionally charged and memorable, making a timeless songbook that rings just as true today as it did a couple of centuries ago.
BUY IT?: You must.
IRON & WINE — ‘Beast Epic’
THE GOOD: South Carolina singer-songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) gets back to basics (and sub pop) on his sixth.
THE BAD: Depends…
THE NITTY GRITTY: On the one hand, it’s great to hear Beam ditching most of the gloss, those sweeping orchestrations and subtle electronics that dominated his work while he was on the Warner Bros. roster. On the other hand, without all the bells and whistles, “Epic” can be quite a slog at times.
Here’s the problem. Beam’s music has always been authentic, but it’s never been quite as compelling as that of a lot of his modern folk/rock peers (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Tallest Man on Earth, Band of Horses, etc.) And in its stripped-down form, that drawback only intensifies.
There’s a certain “sameness” running throughout “Epic.” Pay close attention or the songs blur together. Put forth an honest effort though, and you’ll bump into some lovely and fragile melodies and the occasional fascinating character.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
FRANKIE ROSE — ‘Cage Tropical’
THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter (and ex-member of Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls) Frankie Rose comes back with her fourth solo outing.
THE BAD: “Cage Tropical” is more about mood and less about great individual songs. However, the vibe draws you in immediately.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rose continues to flaunt her love of all things new wave — shimmering keyboards; seamless drum beats; stark, precise guitars, etc. And as usual, she tosses those elements in a brew alongside classic ’60s pop sensibilities; girl group harmonies and the right amount of echo add body and boldness to all the flavors. What’s different this time is the “tropical” part.
Now, this is NOT a record brimming with island rhythms, steel guitars or reggae grooves. However, there is a sunny, beach-like quality to the whole affair, like a breezy, carefree afternoon and evening including the most gorgeous sunset. Tracks like the title cut and “Red Museum” are upbeat, somewhat mysterious and take you to a better place.
BUY IT?: Yes.
ORDINARY AVERAGE GUYS BECK — ‘Colors’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Beck releases his 10th official full-length album.
THE BAD: Usually a trailblazer (or at least very unpredictable), Beck gives us nothing but a decent pop/rock collection this time. But is it too normal?
THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with one of his ex-touring guitarists who just happens to be super-producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Bird and the Bee), Beck painstakingly crafted 10 tracks that blur the line between retro and modern pop. All of it is very tight, rhythmic and catchy. One hears echoes of everyone from the Beatles to Bruno Mars.
“Colors” ends up sunny and satisfying. The burning question though is whether the album be as effective 10 or 15 years from now. We’re talking about the man who made “Odelay” (1996) and “Sea Change” (2002), both highly influential works whose reach is still being felt today. Even 2014’s “Morning Phase” was an unexpected triumph. “Colors” is simply a “lesser effort” from (this time) a follower, not a leader. Yet it still cooks.
BUY IT?: Sure.
WEEZER — ‘Pacific Daydream’
THE GOOD: Alt-rock mainstays Weezer come back with a sunny 11th.
THE BAD: I personally love Weezer, so it’s painful when I HATE one of their albums. Read on…
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rivers Cuomo and company have made some clunkers. 2008’s “Weezer (the Red Album)” saw Cuomo let OTHER members of the band write songs as well. Bad idea. 2009’s “Raditude” was a blatant play for mainstream success. Boring idea.
Thankfully, after those two dreadful misfires, the band recovered over its next three releases. None touched the glory days of “The Blue Album” (1994) or “Pinkerton” (1996), but at least the guys were getting back on track.
Now, regrettably, “Pacific Daydream” feels like another glossy attempt at courting the pop market. Those glorious Cuomo hooks remain intact (for the most part). However, the guitars are too tame, the backbeats too calculated. That grand emotional pull also is muted. You might somewhat enjoy this music, but you’ll never truly RELATE to it. Weezer usually isn’t this “average.”
BUY IT?: Your choice.
U2 — ‘Songs of Experience’
THE GOOD: Irish rock legends U2 give up their 14th.
THE BAD: Not “bad,” just “meh.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ask anybody what U2’s “golden age” was ,and you’ll get one of two answers: the rock-based, socially conscious ’80s or the more experimental and rhythmic ’90s. NOBODY ever says the 2000s. The last U2 album that could be considered an event was 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Since then, it’s been a ho-hum fight for relevancy.
“Songs of Experience” is now the fourth album in a row that has some genuinely good moments but lacks staying power. You can groove to “You’re the Best Thing about Me,” and “13 (There Is a Light)” is low-key and very emotional. The Syrian refugee song “Red Flag Day” comes complete with a catchy melody and cloying lyrics.
The politically charged “American Soul,” however, is laughably bad. Bono decided to delay the album’s release so the band could comment on the world at large. Too bad they’re not angry young men anymore.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Welcome back to the countdown. As the holiday season becomes a warm and cozy memory, we revisit last year’s absolute finest albums.
10. ZOLA JESUS — ‘Okovi’ (September)
Singer/songwriter/producer Zola Jesus turns personal turmoil into something sounding more hopeful for the future. A primarily electronic album with genuine human warmth, “Okovi” is her best collection of songs in quite some time.
9. ROGER WATERS — ‘Is This the Life We Really Want?’ (June)
Pink Floyd meets Radiohead as the legendary songwriter teams up with brilliant producer Nigel Godrich. Waters gets angry at the world and proves he will not fade away quietly like so many rock dinosaurs that were once his contemporaries.
8. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG — ‘Rest’ (November)
Combining personal tragedy with dance grooves and bright pop melodies is no easy task. Gainsbourg pulls it off flawlessly, with the songs never sounding contrived or hollow. We share her pain, and we love it.
7. THE NATIONAL — ‘Sleep Well Beast’ (September)
Expansion and experimentation can go one of two ways — the music sounds confident and inspired or self-indulgent and hackneyed. “Beast” is the former, an album featuring an accomplished band unafraid to take chances. Timely now, timeless later.
6. ARCADE FIRE — ‘Everything Now’ (July)
One of the more “polarizing” albums on the list, “Now” sees the Canadian indie rockers continuing their quest for the ultimate groove. Flipping LCD Soundsystem for Daft Punk, the band builds upon “Reflektor’s” (2013) beats while alienating a few fans. Open your mind and body to it, though, and “Now” is divine.
5. TEMPLES — ‘Volcano’ (March)
Majestic pop sparkling beneath bright, unending rays of sunshine, trippy psychedelic overtones coloring Baroque rock in shades of red and blue, ear candy sweet enough to plunge you into a deep, dreamy haze — it’s heavy, man. It’s Temples’ “Volcano.”
4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM — ‘American Dream’ (September)
Don’t call it a comeback. Yes, LCD Soundsystem broke up, but James Murphy was always here in spirit. His influence never diminished; his collaborations with others always were worthwhile. It’s nice to have the real deal back together, though. Our dull nights will be lively again. Now dance, you fools!
3. THE XX — ‘I See You’ (January)
Low-key British indie rockers the XX put their producer Jamie XX to more prominent use, and now their melancholy songs pack an even greater emotional punch. “I See You” never seeps into the background. These subtle sounds command your attention at every turn.
2. ST. VINCENT — ‘Masseduction’ (October)
Annie Clark (St. Vincent) teams up with writer/producer Jack Antonoff and flirts with more blatant pop sensibilities. Despite that shift, she’s still just as weird as ever. Smashing together bits of glam, synthpop, heavy rock, new wave and whatever else sticks, Clark keeps us guessing and enthralled.
1. OFFA REX — ‘The Queen of Hearts’ (July)
Two distinct artists manage to complement each other harmoniously without overshadowing one another. Indie rock storytellers the Decemberists and British folk singer Olivia Chaney give us a night of traditional songs with a modern twist, and keep the entire affair wholly authentic.
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2017 – PART ONE – THE BOTTOM TEN
We do this every year ’round this time—looking back at the 20 albums that mattered most over the past 12 months. So before the big ball drops this weekend, let the countdown begin.
20. BLACK LIPS—‘Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art’ (May)
The Georgia psyche-rockers forgo high-profile producers this time in favor of working with Sean Lennon and end up creating a noisy, freaky pile of swamp rock. It’s ugly and enticing at the same time.
19. SAINT ETIENNE—‘Home Counties’ (June)
The British synth-rock/Britpop legends take us on a trip through suburban London. A concept focusing on the mundane, “Home Counties” is anything but. Retro dance grooves and charming melodies rule the neighborhood.
18. DAN AUERBACH—‘Waiting on a Song’ (June)
Singer/songwriter/Black Key Dan Auerbach gets together with a bunch of legendary friends while ditching the blues in favor of direct and polished pop/rock. The end results make us smile.
17. THE SHINS—‘Heartworms’ (March)
Are the Shins still a proper band, or is that name now simply a front for singer/songwriter/producer James Mercer? Does it matter? “Heartworms” proves the compelling songs remain intact regardless of lineup. Glad they’re (he’s?) back after a half-decade of distractions.
16. OLD 97’S—‘Graveyard Whistling’ (February)
You have to respect experience and authenticity. Even after a quarter-century together, Old 97’s remain the best damn southern bar band in the country. Toss some sawdust on the floor and embrace these alt-country anthems brimming with blood, sweat and beers.
15. TENNIS—‘Yours Conditionally’ (March)
Colorado husband-and-wife indie rock duo Tennis goes back to its breezy beginnings, creating something simple yet exquisite. Not since 2010’s “Cape Dory” have the couple felt this relaxed while still delivering divine melodies and caustic wit.
14. JAY-Z—‘4:44’ (June)
When he keeps things close to home, Jay-Z shines. After the glossy misfire “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the rapper proves he can hold his own within an ever-changing hip-hop landscape by delivering music that stays true to the genre. “4:44” is lean and mean, as it should be.
13. NEW PORNOGRAPHERS—‘White Out Conditions’ (April)
The Canadian indie rock supergroup never fails to deliver BIG guitar-pop hooks. Add the one-two punch of A.C. Newman and Neko Case out front, and the tracks pack vocal charisma too. One could accuse “Conditions” of
being predictable, but why tamper with a formula that works so well?
12. FUTURE ISLANDS— ‘The Far Field’ (April)
The Baltimore outfit gains momentum on its fifth, a tight study in post-punk and new wave that rivals the modern
masters of both genres. “Far Field” contains more well-executed gems than most albums. Not an ounce of energy or second of time is wasted.
11. SYLVAN ESSO—‘What Now’ (April)
Artists within the modern folk world aren’t supposed to make underground dance records that are actually GOOD. Sylvan Esso didn’t get that memo. “What Now” smashes all boundaries and expectations.
Next week, we cover this past year’s best ten.