Monthly Report: February 2016 Albums
1. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
The 1975 exists somewhere between HAIM and 5 Seconds Of Summer on the spectrum of bands that are not entirely pop but aren't very tied to any underground rock subculture, which means their existence vexes and infuriates a lot of people and the entire discourse around them is kind of poisoned and tiresome. I was on the fence about the first album, at least until "Girls" won me over, and the lead single to their new album "Love Me" was obnoxious enough that I wasn't sure what to expect here. This record is amazing, though, it's exhilarating to hear a young band just going all in on a self-produced 70-minute album, throwing in all the weird semi-ambient experiments alongside the big brash pop songs instead of splitting up their divergent ideas into side projects or concept albums, adding it all up into one big Tangering Teenage Dream whole.
2. KING - We Are King
Over the last few years KING released a handful of songs that some people flipped their lids for, but they never totally grabbed me and I'd been kinda waiting to hear their stuff all lined up together on an album and get the cumulative effect. And We Are King does that pretty wonderfully. I can't even tell if "Native Land" is my favorite song or if it benefits from being the closer that sticks with me after the rest of the album has gotten me into the groove. A couple of the albums this month aren't on Spotify right now, but KING and most of the others are on the playlist of 2016 albums I'm listening to.
3. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
I've kinda mentally divided Kanye's previous albums into the crowd-pleasing guest-filled maximalist albums (most of them) and the committed aesthetic statements that don't care whether you like them or not (808s and Yeezus). And if there's something I find confounding but also intriguing about The Life Of Pablo, is that it manages to be both and neither of those. I did my first quickie review of this album after one listen, and since then I've been impressed by how much this album has managed to grow on me, considering that he yells some eye-rolling punchline about other celebrities or bleached assholes that drags down almost every good song besides "Real Friends" or the one where you barely hear Kanye, "Ultralight Beam." As much as I dislike "Famous," Kanye's defense of the Taylor Swift line, about wanting to recapture the unpredictability of the DMX era, made a lot of sense -- '90s rappers leaned on shock value way more than they do now, and in some ways Kanye is right there with Eminem, trying harder and harder to shock with worse and worse results. I'm of the opinion that Kanye hasn't been in his prime as a rapper for almost a decade (and I'm not talking about the nice guy Kanye nostalgia he addresses in "I Love Kanye," I'm talking about the quality of his bars), so it's at least nice that he populates the album with rappers that are in their prime like Chance, Kendrick and Young Thug,
4. BJ The Chicago Kid - In My Mind
I've loved a lot of BJ The Chicago Kid's singles and features over the last couple years, so I was really interested in this album. In My Mind doesn't really hang together as well as I wanted it to, something about the sequencing and some of the more experimental productions that kinda holds it back from being a great R&B debut. But there's a few great songs and really creative moments, and it kinda feels like a good companion to The Life Of Pablo, in terms of having a lot of elements in common (Chicago, gospel, Chance, Kendrick).
5. Boosie Badazz - Out My Feelings (In My Past)
In January, Boosie released In My Feelings (Goin' Thru It), a dark and bracing 33-minute album that seemed to be a direct reaction to his recent cancer diagnosis. And a month later, he released a companion album, and I think the biggest surprise is that it's twice as long. I have no idea what's going on with Boosie's cancer, but Out My Feelings is kind of back to the defiant survivor attitude of his other post-prison records, which kinda gives me hope that he's doing better. Being much longer and less emotionally harrowing than its predecessor means it packs less of a punch overall, but the production is great and "Takem Back" and "New School / Old School" are great songs.
6. Young Thug - I'm Up
There doesn't seem to be any particular logic or strategy to how Young Thug releases music these days, other than that he just wants to keep throwing out records until he gets his buzz up enough to release Hy!£UN35 as the 'real album.' And this one only got the title I'm Up at the last minute after originally being Slime Season 3, which is apparently now still on the way, and the cover art even changed a few hours after it hit iTunes, somewhat like the weird last minute title shenanigans of The Life Of Pablo. But I'm Up ended up being a pretty hot record, partly because it's only 9 tracks and is bookended by great songs that make it feel much more like an album than most of his overlong mixtapes. I am a little irritated that "Fuck Cancer (Boosie)" has gotten so much more attention than Boosie's own recent music, though.
7. Repelican - Half Spasms
Jon Ehrens has long been one of my favorite Baltimore-based musicians and I've written a lot about Repelican and his other bands (White Life, The Art Department, Dungeonesse, etc.). He's actually based in Philadelphia now, though, but I'm always glad to hear a new record from him, and some of it was recorded at Baltimore's Beat Babies studio. Repelican has typically been one of his more lo-fi projects, but Half Spasms is the most polished Repelican album to date, guitar-driven with some nice new wave synth lines, and by far the best drumming I've ever heard from Ehrens. Check it out on Bandcamp.
8. Willie Nelson - Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin
I'm always interested in albums that are basically "(iconic artist) sings (legendary songwriter)," and this one looks kind of surprising on paper but sounds lovely in practice. Willie's weathered voice and unpredictable phrasing translate to jazz standards really well, and he's always had an ear for interpreting songs and making them his own, the way you don't even think about how most of The Red-Headed Stranger is covers. I especially like "It Ain't Necessarily So," although the duets with Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow are kind of campy and spoil the mood. Yesterday I worked with a woman who has a cat named Willie Nelson, which got me thinking about this record, and also how Paul Rudd has a dog named Willie Nelson in Our Idiot Brother.
9. Future - EVOL
Way back in 2014, right after Future and Ciara broke up, it was reported that he was working on a mixtape called EVOL, and obviously his next mixtape ended up being Monster instead. So I was intrigued that he finally used that title, and was kinda hoping it would be something more expressive than the kind of emotionally numb vibe he's been on since Monster. It's not bad, it's just a bit more of the same, and only "Fly Shit Only" really grabs me as a definite keeper so far. As for my obligatory hacky Sonic Youth reference, I'll say this: EVOL was a landmark Sonic Youth album because it introduced Steve Shelley as their new drummer and revamped their sound. EVOL is an unremarkable Future record because it's his 5th project in a row dominated by Metro Boomin and 808 Mafia beats, and he could really use a new drummer right now.
10. Foxes - All I Need
Glorious was a really good, underrated album that for whatever reason didn't really take off and make Foxes into the star I thought she might become after Zedd's "Clarity." So I'm glad she's back with another album less than 2 years later, I thought she might be one of those people who gets stuck in label limbo for years and comes back with a rebooted sound. Your mileage may vary on the weepy EDM power ballad thing she does, but she really has the perfect voice for it.
The Worst Album of the Month: Say Anything - I Don't Think It Is
It gives me absolutely no pleasure to diss this record, because ...Is A Real Boy is an amazing album and I've found a lot to love in Say Anything's albums since then, they were really the best rock band in America at one point. But this defiantly lo-fi surprise album that popped up a few weeks ago is just a huge bummer, sounding like an overcorrection to the polished orchestral sound of 2014's Hebrews. Max Bemis can write great rock songs with gnarly, surprising riffs and huge melodic hooks, but he also writes spleen-venting monologues like "Admit It!!!" that I'm a lot less interested in, and this album is mostly about focusing on that side of things.