1. Ariana Grande - Yours Truly
When this was released a few weeks ago, I joked on Twitter that she had gone and dropped the best R&B album on a release date that also included John Legend, Tamar Braxton, Raheem DeVaughn and Jaheim, but I was only half-joking. This is generally being categorized as a pop album, partly because Ariana Grande is a little white girl from the Disney Channel and "The Way" was a hit on pop radio, but also because it's deliberately harkening back to the era when R&B was
pop: the era of early Mariah (her admitted idol, although I think comparisons between them have become overstated and reductive), Babyface (who co-wrote 5 songs on Yours Truly), and the '90s hits by Mary J. Blige, Big Pun and Lil Kim sampled and referenced throughout the album. Either way, it scans as R&B to me (my local urban station, 92Q, recently started playing "The Way" with Mac Miller's verse taken out, which is hilarious because they never take MCs off R&B songs otherwise, and I could easy see them playing the hell out of "Right There" with Big Sean if it becomes a single). And it has this really light, relaxed tone to it that just makes the whole thing a pleasure to listen to. The songs without familiar samples like "You'll Never Know" and "Baby I" are kinda the ones that I think show her real potential. All this stuff is in my 2013 albums Spotify playlist
, by the way.
2. 2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME
The whole 2 Chainz enterprise seems so inherently scattershot, even the run of guest verses that precipitated his impressively fast rise last year was pretty inconsistent, and the first B.O.A.T.S.
was a spotty album that, by the time its hit parade had run its course, started to feel like a straight-up singles-and-filler affair. Now he's made an album as consistently enjoyable as he should've the first time, but the buzz has died down and, though "Feds Watching" turned out to be a nice little sleeper hit, it generally doesn't have the same supply of singles. But there are just so many entertaining moments on here, from Rich Homie Quan's verse on "Extra" to a pregnant Fergie talking shit on "Netflix," and 2 Chainz actually doesn't shit the bed with total nonsense verses too often. "Used 2" and "Fork" are the kind of songs 2 Chainz should always do, but even the R&B tracks like "Beautiful Pain" and "So We Can Live," which is 7 minutes long and has a great beat switch coda, work way better than their counterparts on the first album.
3. Elvis Costello and The Roots - Wise Up Ghost
I'm a pretty big fan of both Costello and The Roots who's become accustomed to admiring the effort more often than outright enjoying the results when they release a new album, but I'd been cautiously optimistic about this project ever since it was announced, and even after "Walk Us Uptown," a weak teaser single (but decent opening track) was released, I had my hopes. But yeah, this is pretty solid, and what I like about it is that when you get down to it, neither Costello nor The Roots is as chameleonic as they think they are, and this album is good largely because they make basically the same sounds they've been making forever. Elvis Costello can only sing or write lyrics that sound like Elvis Costello, and ?uestlove's snare drum is unmistakable. I like how The Roots work largely with relaxed R&B grooves here, but the textures are dark and murky and fuzzed out like the best of their records since Game Theory
. Despite the fact that I'm pretty well versed in Costello's back catalog, which I recently did my little box set
overview of, I didn't catch a lot of the lyrical references to his other records that other writers picked up on throughout this album. "Sugar Won't Work" and "Come The Meantimes" are the big standouts to me so far (not typing out the titles with all that wacky capitalization). Also, I worked an event last week where La Marisoul, the singer featured on "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," performed, which was pretty cool.
4. J Roddy Walston & The Business - Essential Tremors
Haven't seen these guys in probably at least a couple years, but they're a great live band and, as they continue to make consistently killer albums, pretty much an all-around great band. Already reviewed
this one so I don't have much to say about it, but I really do hope it is the one that makes them legitimately famous, it's been fun hearing "Heavy Bells" on HFS a little bit.
5. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
I've always loved Trent Reznor's incredibly rich and versatile production aesthetic and ear for texture more than the monochromatic emotional palette of his songwriting. So I thought the last few years of his output were really refreshing -- The Slip
is easily my favorite of the 'traditional' later Nine Inch Nails albums, and Ghosts I-IV
, the Social Network
score and the How To Destroy Angels album all gave him a chance to make some beautifully moody music outside the format of NIN angst anthems. In that sense, going back to the main band with something that doesn't seem all that transformed by those experiences is a little disappointing, especially since it most reminds me of Year Zero
, my least favorite album. But there are some great sounds and moments throughout this, and I think the polarizing "Everything" is pretty great, really sounds more like Reznor embracing his '80s new wave past more than anything else when those chiming guitars come in after the first chorus. I hope that song is all over rock radio soon.
6. Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 3
I always feel like a lot invested in Meek Mill's career, just because he's closer to what my tastes run to than pretty much any new mainstream rap star in the last few years, and if he fades from prominence it'll probably be a while before anyone else remotely like him will be at his level. Plus he's just straight out made a few of my favorite rap songs of the last few years. But while I don't think there's a huge variation in quality between the Dreams & Nightmares
album and the three Dreamchasers
mixtapes, you can kinda feel the narrative shifting to him having already peaked, between the album underperforming a little and this tape not breaking DatPiff records like Dreamchasers 2
. This one has some great songs, including "Lil Ni**a Snupe," which is one of his best over, but it's also kinda loaded down with empty calorie guest spots, including 3 French Montana features, and 2 each by Fabolous and Nicki Minaj, which is just kind of ridiculous. Also shout out to J. Oliver from Baltimore, he produced one of the best tracks on here, "Ain't Me."
7. John Legend - Love In The Future
It's kind of a shame this album hasn't stirred up much attention, even among the people to whom John Legend is only as interesting as his proximity to Kanye, because it's a pretty good and interesting record, and Kanye actually worked on it way more than any of Legend's previous records (co-production credits on 11 tracks, as opposed to just 1-4 tracks on the earlier ones). It also has recent Kanye's kitchen sink approach to collaborations, with writing credits from Kimbra, Joe Jonas, Sara Bareilles, 2/3rds of A Tribe Called Quest, Dan Wilson, and Ingrid Michaelson, plus a guest appearance by Seal on one of the bonus tracks. Not that you'd necessarily guess that from listening to it, it just sounds like a moody, textural John Legend record with a few little production curveballs, not up there with his best, Once Again
, but still pretty solid.
8. Butch Walker - Peachtree Battle EP
Walker's last two albums are a couple of my favorite rock records of the last few years, and I'm not sure if this is a prelude to a new full-length or just a one-off thing, but it's nice to get 5 new songs from him kinda out of nowhere. One of them, "Coming Home," was written about the impending death of his father, who ended up passing right before it was released, and the whole thing feels a little more personal and homespun than the albums.
9. HAIM - Days Are Gone
I'm still not entirely sold on this band, although generally I like where they're coming from aesthetically and think it's funny to watch old indie bros get upset that critics have praised the record. The lead singer's voice is very mannered in a way I find off-putting, she sounds like Paula Cole doing an imitation of Toni Braxton or something, but some of the songs are good, I like "Honey & I."
10. Elton John - The Diving Board
I listened to a lot of old Elton John this summer, really more than I ever had before, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that he was about to release a new album, particularly one with a pared down piano trio sound (with Jack Ashford from the Funk Brothers on drums and Raphael Saadiq on bass, no less!). I won't get into the 'return to form' discussion because I haven't heard most of Elton's post-'70s records, and anyway he'll just never approach those days again, but this is really quite nice, some songs make the most of his more limited vocal range and he still just has an absolutely unique way of singing and of putting together melodies.
Worst Album of the Month: Mike Doughty - Circles Super Bon Bon
Soul Coughing was one of those 'more than the sum of its parts' bands where each of the 4 members brought something crucial to the mix that made them one of the more unique and exciting bands of the '90s. So that's why it's been heinous and sad that in the years since their breakup, frontman Mike Doughty (who used to glowingly compliment his bandmates), has not only made a lot of bland solo records, but has increasingly trashed the other members of Soul Coughing as people and as musicians for what terrible things they did to 'his' songs. Last year he wrote a memoir mainly dedicated to talking about how much he hated the band, and this year he launched a crowdfunding project for re-recording the band's songs, bringing the entire ridiculous saga full circle. It also seems a bit odd, to me, especially having read things like Doughty's upbeat original journal of the recording of El Oso
, the album that he remakes the most songs from here. These are not bold reimaginings of Soul Coughing's songs -- these are more or less identical vocal performances and guitar lines over amateurish, anonymous GarageBand loops, most of which sound more like dated '90s techno beats than anything the band ever did at the time. Some tracks, like "Mr. Bitterness," flail around horrifyingly in search of a totally different sound. Meanwhile other tracks more subtly betray his lack of understanding of the entire appeal of the original songs, like "Super Bon Bon," which tries and fails to recreate the song's distinctive bassline, or "True Dreams of Wichita," which puts the whole song, including gentle early verses and climactic bridge, all over the same static beat. Just an absolutely loathsome, pathetic record, in both intent and execution.