Monthly Report: February 2015 Albums

1. Butch Walker - Afraid Of Ghosts
Last time Butch Walker put out a record, 2011's Peachtree Battle EP, the centerpiece, "Coming Home," was written about the impending death of his father, who ended up passing right before the EP was released. And Afraid Of Ghosts is a continuation of that, with an even more heartbreaking song, "Father's Day," and a much more somber and restrained mood than his last few full-lengths. Butch Walker has made some of my favorite rock records of the past decade (particularly I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart), largely for the hooks and humor of the uptempo tracks. But Afraid Of Ghosts is an impressive and moving album and clearly one he had to get off of his chest, so it's cool to see him reach some new levels of success with this record (I actually had an amusing Twitter exchange with Walker recently about this).

2. War On Women - War On Women
Baltimore hardcore band War On Women's Improvised Weapons EP was a really astounding debut, one that established the band's sound and mission so completely that I almost wondered what more they could do with future releases. So it's exciting that they were able to take the same energy of the 17-minute EP and apply it to a 30-minute album and not lose any force. The confrontational way they write about feminism and rape culture and reproductive rights is just inspiring and feels really necessary these days, and the band rocks so hard that it never feels like the music takes a backseat to the message. There's a good acoustic version of the opening track "Servilia" here that really shows how solid the songwriting is. Of course, I'm a little biased -- I was a big fan of Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan's previous band Avec, and Potter recorded an amazing vocal for the record I'm releasing this year.

3. Estelle - True Romance
I don't really have any frame of reference for Estelle's music beyond her two Hot 100 hits -- I thought "American Boy" was kind of annoying and that "Thank You" was a nice little fake Sade song. And I'm vaguely aware that she rapped before that. But I checked this album out on a whim and was really impressed by it. Just a really gorgeous, relaxed, subtly adventurous mix of R&B and dance music. Even the snap music sound of "Make Her Say (Beat It Up)" works well in the context of the album. Some nice expensive sounding production from DJ Camper and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. It's a shame this album has kinda flown under the radar, hopefully her appearance on "Empire" this week raised its profile a little. Weird of her to use an album title that a fellow Brit, Charli XCX, used less than 2 years ago, though.

4. TT The Artist - Art Royalty EP
The first time I saw TT The Artist was about 7 years ago, when I was at the judging table for a rap battle at Fletcher's (R.I.P.). Most of the competitors were male solo MCs, and then this woman comes out with a huge colorfully dressed army of backup dancers and put on a real show. I didn't get a great sense of what she was about musically or lyrically from that, but it made a big impression nonetheless. And in the last few years it feels like she's really found her sound by diving into Baltimore club music and fusing it with her style, collaborating with guys like Mighty Mark and Blaqstarr, and it's cool to hear a bunch of her tracks collected into a nice half hour package like this.

5. Dan Deacon - Gliss Riffer
It's been almost decade since I first saw Dan Deacon after he moved to Baltimore, and I have to admit I wasn't hugely impressed with the guy when I first saw him live, and had to warm up to his records. But by this point he's really an indisputable genius and really deserves all the success he's had. And this might be my favorite one he's done since Spiderman Of The Rings, more of that mutant pop vibe I dig than the kind of epic neo classical thing that happened a bit on the last couple records. I also love that the closing track is called "Steely Blues," which probably makes it impossible to search for on YouTube without getting Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" instead.

6. Juicy J - Blue Dream & Lean 2
Juicy J was one half of one of southern rap's greatest production teams, and I've always had mixed feelings about his solo career, which has been largely fueled by much younger producers and makes me wonder if DJ Paul was the driving force behind most of Three 6's classic beats. That said, Juicy J is in great command of his sound and aesthetic, and manages to get the best out of overexposed producers like Mike WiLL Made It and Jahlil Beats. At the moment, Juicy is more interesting as an unlikely crossover star with all his Dr. Luke-assisted features on Katy Perry and Usher hits, but the solo shit is solid. There's a political track that opens with a sample of Common's Golden Globes acceptance speech, which is pretty weird, but the song is good.

7. Kate Pierson - Guitars And Microphones
I love The B-52's, and have enjoyed Fred Schneider's solo albums and side projects, but nobody else from the band had ever gone solo, which is surprising given how Kate Pierson anchored hits by R.E.M. and Iggy Pop. But I'm glad she finally did. The album opener "Throw Down The Roses" kind of gives off the same vibe as Kim Gordon's recent memoir Girl In A Band, of a badass lady who's been a rock star for 30 odd years really owning it and being kind of frank and blunt about it. "Crush Me With Your Love" and "Time Wave Zero" have a little of that B-52's retro sci-fi vibe to them, but for the most part she just stakes out her own territory on here and it's all got that great familiar voice but its own homespun charm.

8. Fifth Harmony - Reflection
This album is like an extreme outpost of the post-Fergie era of swagged out girl pop, but instead of going all-out Miley obnoxious it managed to circle around and be kind of charming. In the first 90 seconds of the album, they quote Plies. The lyrics are like a musical translation of Karen Gillan's character on "Selfie," a constant goofy soup of Twitter memes and Beyonce references. 'Better than Little Mix' is not a high bar to clear, but for an album that threatens to be too bland to be memorable, it ends up being pretty entertaining.

9. Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late
I respect the level to which this project is just stunting and exploiting Drake's popularity -- he dropped a surprised 'mixtape' and outsold pretty much every rap album released last year, including labelmates like Nicki. He could've done a greatest hits collection of his loose hit singles like "0-100" and "How About Now," but instead went with pretty much all new music (the only previously released songs are the legendarily terrible "6 God" and "Used To," hilariously with the AutoTune taken off of Wayne's vocals from the version on his mixtape). There's some joints here but mostly it's pretty goofy. I know that we're living in the post-street cred Rick Ross era, but hearing Drake say shit like "cooking with the wrist motion" and "I pull the knife out they back and cut they throat with it" and "brand new Beretta, can't wait to let it go," even with some vague metaphorical distance implied, is just funny. He's making such a big deal of contrasting today with his early years of stardom, but "Miss Me" and "Money To Blow" were hard records that didn't try this hard to sound 'hard.' The PartyNextDoor and Travi$ Scott cameos do at least serve as harsh reminders that Drake is relatively talented at rap-singing, though.

10. Kid Ink - Full Speed
Kid Ink's career is, obviously, a ridiculous farce, and so many artists who can actually write hit songs on their own are roped into this album to donate hooks that it's practically a DJ Khaled record. But it works to some extent, "Be Real" and "Every City We Go" are some of my favorite songs out right now, even if mainly for Dej Loaf and Migos, respectively, instead of Kid Ink. And unlike that boring-ass Big Sean album, it doesn't have an unearned air of respectability with critics. It was pointed out to me the other day that Kid Ink produced an amazing song, Diddy-Dirty Money's "Sade," 4 years ago, well before he was a big major label rapper, and that kind of gives him some points in my book.

Worst Album of the Month: TeeFlii - Starr
Most of the Cali guys who were down with DJ Mustard early on got to catch the wave and ride it to some real mainstream visibility, but TeeFlii kinda arrived late with "24 Hours" sounding like a pathetic "Don't Tell Em" retread. And I can't even feel bad for him, because where Ty Dolla $ign is at least a moderately talented scumbag with something approaching a unique persona, TeeFlii is just this The-Dream wannabe who constantly says "Annie are you otay?" like he's Buckwheat covering Michael Jackson. I was even willing to chalk up his vocal similarity to The-Dream to coincidence until I heard "Change Your World," which features a Terius-style "Imma fuck up your hair, Tasha gon' have to do it over" lyric, and "Action," which is full of Dream-y ad libs and backing vocals. And since The-Dream has his biggest hit in years right now, the timing of this album makes it seem even more unnecessary. Nice DJ Quik guest verse, though.
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