Monthly Report: September 2014 Albums

1. Rich Gang - The Tour, Part 1
There's something absurd and miraculous about this mixtape dropping out of the sky while "Lifestyle" (which isn't even on this) is dominating radio and Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan are having this incredible run. A year ago, I would've still dismissed Thug as a Lil Wayne disciple and Quan as someone who could make a hot single but would probably never step out of Future's shadow. Now both these guys are getting bigger and better seemingly every month with a new hit or feature, and totally inhabit their own musical space and can do things that the people they're most often compared to can't. And it's just kind of beautiful that out of all the chaos of Thugger's contractual situation, Birdman stepped in and oversaw a project that he presumably couldn't actual legally release on Cash Money and just gave it away as this beautiful gift for everybody, better than almost any album with a barcode in recent memory and a hundred times better than the first Rich Gang album released last year. London On Da Track is the real reason this thing cooks so consistently, though -- I love hearing stuff like "Keep It Goin'" that offers variations on previous hits like "About The Money," but then there's tracks like "Flava" that sound like nothing else and just stand out even in such a consistently excellent tape. This is on Live Mixtapes, but all these other albums are on my running Spotify playlist of 2014 albums.

2. Gerard Way - Hesitant Alien
It's kind of funny to me that My Chemical Romance carried so much stigma among 'serious' rock fans, dismissed as an eyeliner emo band for tweens and girls, because it was always so clear that Gerard Way was just curating a bunch of cool old influences in much the same way as Jack White or whoever. That aspect of what Way does is amped up on his debut solo album, which is a full-on dive into glam and new wave, but I really wouldn't want to boil down his talent to the ability to pay homage to his record collection -- the guy is just a great rock singer who has a unique way of biting into every syllable, and letting minor changes in inflection dramatically change the tone and intensity of the track. And he's always known how to build a whole album around a particular aesthetic. It's more impressive here because the other MCR guys are gone but the riffs and hooks are still there, although it remains to be seen whether I'll grow to love this as much as their best albums. I think "Get The Gang Together" is my favorite song right now, the back half of the album is really strong considering that all the advance singles were from the first half.

3. Sloan - Commonwealth
Sloan are another example of a band who shamelessly wear their influences on their sleeves, but don't let it stop them from writing songs that are uniquely their own. I recently made a 'box set' of Sloan playlists to pay tribute to the fact that each of the four members of the band has written dozens of good-to-great songs, and this is the first album where they've actually separated each member's tracks into its own block, four sides of a double album. Their other double album, 2006's Never Hear The End Of It, was one of Sloan's best albums and kicked off a late career renaissance, but this one is more of a slow burner -- it opens with a few light pop tracks by the wispy-voiced Jay Ferguson, and you don't get a block of strutting Patrick Pentland anthems until track 11. But what really makes the album click and realize its potential is the Andrew Scott's section, which is one 17-minute track called "Forty-Eight Portraits." It's easily the most experimental and ambitious thing Sloan has ever done, and those aren't qualities I would name as Sloan's virtues ordinarily, but it works.

4. Jeezy - Seen It All: The Autobiography
On his 3rd and 4th albums, I respected Jeezy for having such a strong command of his aesthetic at a time when all his peers were kind of flailing around and jumping on bandwagons. But since then, he was so early on the Mustard wave, and it suited him surprisingly well, that I'm almost a little disappointed that this album doesn't have trendier production. It's solid, though, some huge-sounding anthems as usual.

Last time Prince put out new music, three albums packaged together in 2009, I felt like the only person who thought the best music of the set was on the Bria Valente album and not the two Prince solo albums. Similarly, he just released the solo album Art Official Age simultaneously with this album with his band 3RDEYEGIRL, and everyone's trashing the band album in favor of the solo record, and I feel the opposite. The other album has "Breakfast Can Wait," which is still amazing, but everything else pales in comparison, while this one feels more cohesive and energetic and I really just kinda dig the sound of the band. There are some bad ideas, because it isn't late period Prince without bad ideas, but it's all good. I only really dislike the pitched up vocal on "FUNKNROLL," which is on both albums, and sounds more like Cartman than Camille.

6. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
My little review of Counting Crows deep cuts last week was spurred by this surprisingly good new album, "Dislocation" is a pretty awesome song. It's a pretty frontloaded album, though, and I wish the production was fuller and sharper.

7. Snootie Wild - Go Mode EP
"Yayo" is still one of my favorite rap singles of the year, but it and "Made Me" were only kind of minor hits, so dude only got a EP, and I'm kind of annoyed at the uselessness of major label EPs as a tester product for new artists, especially rappers. But the 4 new songs on here are really solid, give a sense that he could have more hits in him.

8. My Brightest Diamond - This Is My Hand
Shara Worden's catalog has had some real diminishing returns for me -- the first album was great, and I still enjoy it on the rare occasions that I remember to listen to it, but the second was good but inessential, and I don't think I've listened to the third at all since its initial release three years ago. This one might be better than the last, or at least more lively and percussive, but I don't expect I'll be returning to this one much.

9. Luke James - Luke James
This guy seemed to kind of come out of nowhere and get a Grammy nomination and an opening slot on a Beyonce tour without being remotely famous, and listening to his music, I still don't really get it. His voice is good, but the songs don't grab me at all and the production is vaguely forward thinking in the blandest way possible. I'm gonna keep coming back to this for a minute and try and hear what other people are hearing, though.

10. U2 - Songs Of Innocence
I'm basically addicted to streaming music now and haven't regularly used the computer that my iTunes library is on in a couple years. So while everyone was complaining about having the new U2 album forced on them, I actually had to go out of my way to hear it compared to how I usually check out new music. It's an OK record, I think it's a shame that they had to go with trendy guys like Danger Mouse and Paul Epworth and try to make a current-sounding record when radio is completely ignoring them anyway and they should just double down on what makes U2 what they are and maybe take some risks. Like, this has probably the smallest amount of signature The Edge guitar sounds of any U2 album. But I don't hate it, it's pleasant.

Worst Album of the Month: Yung Lean - Unknown Memory
There have been a lot of reviews of this leaning very positive or very negative, and I won't get into linking or talking about those, but really what this album is to me is aggressively middling and useless. And it's not just that it's a white Swedish kid running through a bunch of southern rap tropes, anybody could've made this album and it would've been garbage. I've heard people in Baltimore make this kind of derivative AutoTuned-out mush and it isn't magically good just because they're from the hood. It speaks volumes that when Travi$ Scott, my last Worst Album of the Month honoree, shows up, the whole thing comes to life a little more and you don't feel quite as much like you're being awkwardly talked at by someone with no musical presence. Mostly I just hate the whole thousand-yard-stare blankness of someone with no personality or perspective being spun as an interesting aesthetic choice.
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