Monthly Report: August 2016 Albums

1. Nels Cline - Lovers
Nels Cline, perhaps my favorite living guitarist, has made dozens of albums as a composer or bandleader, but every now and again he releases something that you can tell was a special project for him. And Lovers is an album that he says he'd been thinking about and conceptualizing for "well over twenty-five years," an attempt to update the concept of romantic jazz 'mood music' through the lens of his own playing and unusual taste, with gorgeous horn and string arrangements by Michael Leonhart. The result is over 20 musicians contributing to a 90-minute double album covering a canon that has room for both Rodgers & Hammerstein (a sublime "I Have Dreamed") and Sonic Youth (a lullaby rendition of one of their loveliest melodies, "Snare, Girl"). Nels Cline's albums have often been more placid and beautiful than his reputation as an avant garde noise rocker would suggest, but Lovers manages to be pleasant on the surface but still as complex and ambitious as anything he's ever done. Most of these records are in my 2016 albums Spotify playlist.

2. 2 Chainz - Daniel Son; Necklace Don
2012 may always be the year that 2 Chainz had all the buzz and a few of his most enduring records, but his actual output that year was kind of erratically hot and cold, and he's been a lot more consistent recently, with 2016 in particular being a really quality run. And on songs like "Blessing" and "Ghetto" you really start to get his perspective beyond the punchlines, which makes the outlandish shit he says on other songs hit harder. "Chirp" might be my favorite songs on here but he has a pretty incredible verse on "Kilo" too. YFN Lucci has become one of my favorite newer Atlanta guys lately so I like that he's the only feature on this besides Drake, and the dirty bassline on "You In Luv Wit Her" sounds amazing.

3. Young Thug - JEFFERY
The strategy 300 has been going with this year to release several short 8-10 song Young Thug retail projects is interesting, I'm still waiting for him to have a solo project that hits half as hard as Rich Gang's Tha Tour Part 1, this might come about as close as I'm Up or Slime Season 2 did or closer, but I dunno if I could ever have a favorite Young Thug project without any London On Da Track beats. It's nice but a little hit and miss, you can tell he took mostly songs he already had and named them after people to fit the vague 'concept.' The song with Wyclef is amazing, although I have no idea whether to call it "Kanye West" or "Pop Man" or "Elton," much like I'm not totally sure whether to call him Young Thug or No, My Name Is Jeffery.

4. Rae Sremmurd - SremmLife 2
I don't think it's quite right to simply say that hip hop fans are fickle, at a time when there are more artists staying in the spotlight for 5+ or 10+ years than there have ever been before. But it's definitely true that a "sophomore slump" is still a very real albatross for rappers to get over after a successful major label debut, especially with southern rappers. And in the recent history of low-selling 2nd rap albums, this is somewhere below B.O.A.T.S. II by 2 Chainz and above Triple F Life by Waka Flocka Flame. So far nothing on this album has come even close to being as big as any of the 5 singles from the first SremmLife album, and I doubt at this point that anything will, as great as Gucci Mane's verse on "Black Beatles" is. But it's a pretty damn good album, with songs like "Came A Long Way" that find them going 'serious' to better effect than their detractors might expect, and Slim Jxmmi really comes into his own, although it will still justifiably be the Swae Lee solo project that everyone focuses on as this album quickly fades from view.

5. Justin Moore - Kinda Don't Care
At the end of last year, I included Justin Moore's single "You Look Like I Needed A Drink" on my list of favorite 2015 country singles, and 8 months later the song had finally climbed the radio charts enough for Moore's 4th album to get released. I'm not one for griping about pop country not resembling old country enough, but Moore is really one of my favorite contemporary country vocalists, a guy with a serious Arkansas twang and a deep, resonant growl that really underlines how dopey a lot of other young country singers sound. He's not a songwriter but he's gotten some pretty good material from Nashville despite not being an A-lister, and my favorite songs on here are "Hell On A Highway" (which he rescued from the always dopey-sounding Luke Bryan) and the bawdy bonus track "When I Get Home."

6. Frank Ocean - Blonde
channel ORANGE and good kid, m.A.A.d. city were the big acclaimed albums with pretentiously capitalized titles that kind of left me cold in 2012. And after To Pimp A Butterfly turned out to be much more my speed, I think I just expected the symmetry of Frank Ocean's next album winning me over as well. But after the newness and boldness of Blonde and Endless wore off, my impression of both albums has begun to quickly fade. I thought I might prefer Endless initially, just because the percussion-heavy production style appealed to me more, but the listless sketchbook quality of the song fragments and the awful "At Your Best" cover ruled that out. Blonde starts strong -- "Nikes" is such an oddly perfect opener and I adore "Pink + White,." But there's a big stretch of the record starting with "Skyline To" with these dense, writerly lyrics that would be a lot more dazzling if they were sung more than spoken or worked into more songful structures. I mean, I respect how little the album cares to meet you halfway, but that doesn't actually make me enjoy it. I think of Ocean as a very smart, very talented guy who isn't really half the songwriter or a quarter of the singer he's been made out to be.

7. De La Soul - and the Anonymous Nobody...
De La Soul have been around so long, and absent for so long now, that you really never know whether even one of rap's most resourceful and resilient groups could possibly come back with. But this is really a pretty fascinating record where they can bring voices as big and familiar as 2 Chainz and Usher in and it's still a De La album with their unique sensibility. It's a little depressing to hear the guys who wrangled samples in some of the most original ways ever give up on clearance and just record a live band for most of the beats. But they do it well, and the somewhat less colorful production helps to foreground the density of Posdnous and Dave's lyrics a little more effectively than previous records, which would often distract me from how interesting they are as rappers. There are some times when David Byrne or the guy from The Darkness shows up and it just feels like one of those corny eclectic guest-filled Handsome Boy Gorillaz School type albums though.

8. Vince Staples - Prima Donna EP
As much as I enjoy this turn towards shorter 30 or 40-minute rap records like those 2 Chainz and Young Thug projects, a 20-minute EP still feels just a little on the slight side. Vince's Hell Can Wait EP blew me away because it was the first thing I'd heard by him, but after he topped it with a 60-minute album, it feels a little anticlimactic to go back to an EP. The concept also doesn't totally gel, but there's some incredible lyrics on there and I love the "Kilo" beat. It's funny that Frank and Vince and Syd are making better records than the dogshit that Tyler and the other Odd Future proper rappers ever have.

9. Dinosaur Jr. - Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not
Dinosaur Jr. only made 3 albums in the '80s before Lou Barlow first left the band, but this now their 4th since he and Murph returned to the band a decade ago, and it's been a really fruitful run. In fact, I don't think Dino Jr. has ever made a bad album, and have been more consistent recently than they even were in the early days. But this one really hasn't hit me as quickly as I Bet On Sky did, I'm still waiting for it to grow on me. "Knocked Around" is my favorite, starts off really gently and then takes off unexpectedly.

10. Butch Walker - Stay Gold
It is possible narcissism of small differences to make too much of the fact that I like Butch Walker way more than sentient jean jacket Ryan Adams -- they have such similar aesthetics that it makes sense for them to become frequent collaborators. And Walker's Adams-produced last album Afraid Of Ghosts was a nice downtempo change of pace. But this album kind of blands out the quirks of Walker's uptempo songs a bit too much -- there are some points when it just feels like you're picking through their shared Springsteen-via-Westerberg bag of influences and waiting to spot the Pretenders pastiche. But the second half of the album picks up and really gets into some memorable songs that salvage the project for me.

Worst Album of the Month: PartyNextDoor - PartyNextDoor 3
I've always thought this guy's whole voice and aesthetic were deeply unpleasant. But the lyrics on the two Rihanna hits he wrote this year, "Work" and "Sex With Me," were so sharp and well written that I really started to wanna give his music another chance. And listening to this record, it definitely seems pretty clear how much of Drake's recent records have been crafted by him. But nah, he still makes garbage music, outside of "Come And See Me" most of this album is just a laughable parody of Tumblr R&B. The Tory Lanez album was kind of softly disappointing but this is just plain unpleasant.
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