Monthly Report: June 2016 Albums

1. Maren Morris - Hero
I've been listening to Maren Morris's self-titled 2015 EP since I was first heard "My Church" on the radio at the beginning of the year, and about a third of Hero's brief 37-minute running time reprises songs from the EP. (plus the song she wrote on Kelly Clarkson's last album appears here). That is to say, I adored a chunk of this album already and I'm quickly getting to know the rest. Morris stands out as a writerly traditionalist in the context of modern country radio -- to crassly oversimplify things, she's kind of this year's Kacey Musgraves -- but to just say that would, I think, do a disservice to the actual appeal of this album. Tracks like "Sugar" and "80s Mercedes" are strutting, witty, groove-driven anthems, and "How It's Done" has this spacey R&B thump to it. There are a few pretty old school country moments that justify the old-fashioned cover art, but mostly it's fun, summery album made by someone with a strong command of a lot of different sounds.

2. YG - Still Brazy
My Krazy Life was a great album that felt like it was just the right people at the right time, one of DJ Mustard's closest associates dropping an album full of his beats at the peak of Mustard running radio, and capturing the spirit of '90s west coast gangsta rap with a new sound. But that narrative could do a disservice to how great YG was on that album, and the fact that he's stepped up his rapping ability for a harder-sounding album without Mustard beats the second time around. The whole record sounds great and is funny and disrespectful as fuck. But it's not until the trio that closes the album ("FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)," "Blacks & Browns," and "Police Get Away With Murder") that Still Brazy really feels like it has purpose and meaning that puts YG more in the lineage of Ice Cube than I ever thought he was before.

3. Wye Oak - Tween
Wye Oak has been one of my favorite Baltimore bands since I first saw them play an amazing set in a tiny room under a different name 9 years ago, and at this point I pretty much feel they're one of the best bands in the world. Two years ago, I got to interview Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack about their 4th album, Shriek, and talked a lot with them about how Wasner wound up not playing guitar on that record and focusing on bass and synth. But it surprised me to learn that they basically had a whole album's worth of more guitar-driven material recorded between 2011's Civilian and Shriek, which they surprise released in June. Like the My Neighbor / My Creator EP, I think this stands tall with the band's official albums, and "If You Should See" and "Better (For Esther)" are among the best songs they've ever made.

4. So Nice Yesterday - Best Party Ever
The Baltimore duo Thom Castles and Berko Lover intrigued me with the So Nice Yesterday songs they released last year, I don't know if they consider themselves dance music or R&B or hip hop or what, but there's a really charmingly relaxed, unpolished vibe combined with a lot of intelligence and personality and humor ("Curieux" is the first time I've heard the word "libations" in a song lyric since Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues"). I pitched this group to several publications and nobody got back to me, which is frustrating, but at least I can recommend the album here.

5. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger
As our music legends of the '60s and '70s and '80s begin to perish with an inevitable but alarming frequency, I've been pretty interested to see who's still making unusually good music in their twilight years. And the fact that Paul Simon made a pretty vital and inspired album 50 years after Sounds of Silence is pretty remarkable (along with the fact that "The Sound Of Silence" charted just this year because of an internet meme and a terrible hit cover by The Disturbed). The mix of acoustic and looped percussion is really textured and beautiful, and he remains an idiosyncratic and funny lyricist who leaves odd little phrases rattling around in your head.

6. Kino Kimino - Bait Is For Sissies
This band is a young frontwoman, Kim Talon, backed by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, and it's always great to hear what those guys are up to, especially since this is some of the most uptempo stuff they've done in a long time. If anything it reminds me more of Brownstein-sung Sleater-Kinney than Sonic Youth, it's all nervy and hard charging for the most of the record.

7. Future & DJ Esco - Project E.T.
DJ Esco's name is bigger than Future's on the cover of this mixtape, but that was the case with 56 Nights as well, that just happened to a tape of all Future tracks, whereas Project E.T. is 12 Future songs padded out with Esco productions by other artists. In any event, Future remains a mixtape rapper who churns out music at an astonishing rate, and now that his career has reached a new plateau, people have started to act weird about that and treat every new tape like an important statement on whether he still has 'it.' But I really dig some of the songs on here, I've been bemoaning that his last 5 projects (everything since Beast Mode) have been dominated by Metro Boomin' and 808 Mafia beats, and they only account for half of Future's tracks here. "My Blower" is the first Future beat by Tarentino since "March Madness," and "Champagne Shower" is an overdue collaboration between Future and Rich Homie Quan, who people used to dismiss as a Future soundalike before we learned what that really is with Desiigner. But my favorite song on here is "Married To The Game," there's just a lot of gems here and I feel like people are hating on them because of how they were packaged as old outtakes for Future's DJ to pull out of the vault.

8. Kodak Black - Lil B.I.G. Pac
A lot of people who I often share taste in rap with have been talking up Kodak Black and saying he's the best of this year's XXL Freshmen (which he might be, although it's a pretty weak lineup this year). So I've been trying to catch up on his stuff, listening to this new mixtape and some of his biggest older songs. I'm not totally sold on dude, he still sounds really young and rough around the edges to me, especially next to Gucci and Boosie on songs on here, he's not quite ready to carry on that lineage, but maybe he could a little further down the line.

9. Mozzy - Mandatory Check
Here's another regional street rap dude that my cool friends like and I'm still catching up on. I like his voice, the production's good, but not many of the songs here are very memorable, might need to check out some of his other records.

10. Little Big Town - Wanderlust
I raised my eyebrow a few months ago at the news that Pharrell Williams had been in the studio with The Band Perry, but before anything he'd done with them came out, another country group announced that they'd made an entire album with him. The album was only announced 2 weeks ahead of time, with the terrible single "One Of These Days," and it would've been a short album even in the vinyl era, 8 songs over 25 minutes -- I guess they realize an album like this is a gamble, and really I can't picture country or pop radio embracing this record. But honestly, I expected the worst from this album based on the single, and I actually dig it. It's a huge step down from their last album, but they've already said they're working on another album with Pain Killer producer Jay Joyce, so it's all good. And Pharrell's goofy disco grooves work better with Little Big Town's voices than I thought they would, "Skinny Dippin'" and "Willpower" really get the equation right with a little slide guitar on top.

Worst Album Of The Month: Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
The music press loves Dev Hynes and writes lots of fawning profiles that make him seem like a really fascinating, important cultural figure. But my lord, he makes boring music. It all has this soft focus '80s synth pop gauze over it, the rhythms and melodies always sound as slow and rudimentary as possible, syllables whispered as whole notes over rigid quarter note grooves, it's just incredibly bland, like he's never had an interesting musical idea his entire life. "E.V.P." is the closest the album comes to an original sound, but it's kind of clunky and poorly executed. It's possible that the lyrics lend some dimension to this record, to be fair I couldn't make out the words a lot of the time, because of all the whispering and wooshy production. I've heard a lot of the '80s records he's emulating, and practically all of them are way more enjoyable than this.
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