Monthly Report: November 2015 Albums

1. One Direction  - Made In The A.M.
After I argued a case for my favorite current group in pop music in my One Direction vs. Bieber debate on Noisey, the Directioners let me down and lost the sales war (don't blame me! I bought a copy!). The album is good, though -- not up to the high standard of Four, an album that I've only grown to love more and more over the past year, but the Zayn-damaged quartet version of One Direction continues to zero in on the specific aesthetic they're best at. Even songs I didn't think I liked at first like "Infinity" keep getting stuck in my head, and "End of the Day" does some cool stuff with tempo changes, and as usual the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are better than a lot of the proper album.

2. Sara Bareilles - What's Inside: Songs From Waitress
Waitress was a wonderful movie, and I've always had a soft spot for Sara Bareilles, so her writing the songs for a Broadway musical adaptation feels like such a perfect combination to me. And this honestly might be her best album to date, it really just taps into all of the wit and sadness and pop smarts of her best work and gives her a story to wind it all around and turn into something bigger and more ambitious. I wish the couple of duets towards the end were with someone besides Jason Mraz, but he does a well enough job with it.

3. Sun Club - The Dongo Durango
A couple years ago ATO Records signed a great Baltimore band, J Roddy And The Business, and kinda broke them through to the mainstream to the point that I hear them on commercial rock stations and in beer commercials. And ATO recently signed another Baltimore band that I really dig, Sun Club, which is cool to see whether or not they reach that kind of level of success. They're kind of odd and flighty and always seem like they're laughing at an inside joke, but then just write and play these beautiful energetic songs that come out of nowhere. This is their debut full-length, but it repeats 3 songs from last year's Dad Claps At The Mom Prom EP and at 27 minutes it retains that light, freewheeling vibe instead of getting them ready for primetime, which is nice.

4. Among Wolves - Separation And Other Loves EP
Since last year I've been sharing a practice space with one of my favorite Baltimore bands, Among Wolves, and it's fun to occasionally stop by and catch them jamming or hear an update about their new record. So it was great to see the other day that it's finally here. Just a 5-song EP and I haven't really digested it too much yet, but so far it seems up to the high standard of their previous records.

5. Jeff Lynne's ELO - Alone In The Universe
When guys Jeff Lynne's age make new albums, I don't necessarily want to hear them try anything new, but sometimes it can just be depressing to hear someone in their 60s struggle to imitate what they did decades ago. This album, though, is really impressive in part because it just sounds like a Jeff Lynne record, all the production hallmarks of old ELO records with a little of the Full Moon Fever/Wilburys sound he's had since the '80s, and his voice has aged remarkably well. And this album is just really well put together, short and catchy with a bittersweet air to the songs.

6. Puff Daddy - MMM
Puffy doesn't have anything to prove at this point but I'm glad he keeps making music. When he started to 'return to rap' with songs like "Big Homie" a couple years ago, I didn't care for that direction at all and it seemed to hold little of what I liked about the Diddy-Dirty Money album. But MMM retains a surprising amount of Last Train To Paris vibes, especially the Sevyn Streeter song, and there's stuff like "Auction," which features King Los trading rhymes with Styles P. and Lil Kim, that have their own unique sound. I am annoyed about the new version of "Workin'," though, the song was much better before Big Sean and Travi$ Scott were added to it.

7. Jadakiss - Top 5 Dead Or Alive
The original line that inspired this album's title was "top 5 dead or alive, and that's just off one LP," and in a way I think it doesn't do Jadakiss any favors to remind people of that line on his 4th album, when his legacy hasn't really improved or been added to all that much in the last decade. But he remains an incredibly consistent punchline rapper with an ear for surprising, evocative turns of phrase, and this album showcases that a little better than The Last Kiss did. The production is still hit-or-miss, though, Jada and Puffy both being on each other's new records makes me think about how they probably could've made a better record together, like if this album had MMM's beats.

8. Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood
The top-selling country album of 2014 was Eric Church's The Outsiders, and it amused me that someone who'd been so fully embraced by radio, the Nashville establishment, and record buyers was still clinging to his 'outsider' status. And a few weeks ago he doubled down on his popular outcast status, opening a network broadcast of an awards show with a new song called "Mr. Misunderstood," from a just-released surprise album of the same name, namechecking Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy in the first minute of the song to set himself apart from all the other people who'd be performing that night (of course, this year's AMAs will be remembered as the coronation of Chris Stapleton, who's basically replacing Church as mainstream country's real music rebel of choice). There's some kinda stupid songs on here but also some great ones and it ends strong with "Record Year" and "Three Year Old."

9. Ellie Goulding - Delirium
Over the last few years, Ellie Goulding has become a pretty reliable presence for pop-EDM radio jams, even her weird elfin voice has grown on me. And though this album has more big name Top 40 producers (Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder) than her previous records, she's kinda maintained a strong sense of what her sound is. The album's way too long but it's one of those records where it'd be hard to say which tracks to cut down, it's pretty consistent.

10. Grimes - Art Angels
Grimes is like some kind of living embodiment of Pitchfork's ambivalent embrace of pop music on its own quirky art kid terms. And I respect the fact that she has a healthier, more open minded attitude towards pop music than the critics who are using her as a middleman to it. But ultimately, I dunno, I don't really feel like I need a record like this as a bridge between those worlds the way some people might, I can actually just enjoy those worlds on their own terms. In fact, though this record is really enjoyable in spots, it kinda feels like she was aspiring to make something and didn't quite succeed. And then Ellie Goulding released the album she was trying to make, on the same day in fact.

Worst Album of the Month: WatchTheDuck - The Trojan Horse EP
This is the second EP I've heard by WatchTheDuck and I'm still not sure what their deal is. They're a trio from Alabama and put bluesy old man vocals over big clubby EDM beats, but the result kind of sounds like A3 (Alabama 3), the terrible British techno blues group from the late '90s that did the theme song to "The Sopranos." Pharrell and T.I. are all over this record giving them their co-sign but I think they're both just so bored of what they're doing that they're like "these guys? sure, why not!"
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