Monthly Report: September 2017 Albums

1. Ted Leo - The Hanged Man
2001's The Tyranny Of Distance was my favorite album of the 2000s, and Ted Leo was thrilling to follow throughout that whole decade live and on record, just an incredibly thoughtful songwriter and an equally energetic performer (a rarer combination than you might think). But he's kept a relatively low profile for most of this decade, and a recent Stereogum feature that preceded his first solo album in 7 years detailed some of the hard times he'd been through. The Hanged Man is a little longer, darker, and less spirited than my favorite Ted Leo albums, so it's taken longer than usual to grow on me. But it's obviously also a record he needed to make, and songs in the second half like "Make Me Feel Loved" and "Lonsdale Avenue" draw me into its mood and its headspace. Here's the 2017 albums Spotify playlist I add records to as I listen to them.

2. Midland - On The Rocks
Midland is a trio of nudie suit-wearing country traditionalists that includes an underwear model and soap opera actor on lead vocals and a seasoned video director and pal of Bruno Mars on bass. But there's no contradiction between old-fashioned country and the flash and polish of show business professionals, and there's something about how well put together and considered Midland is, from the great lead single "Drinkin' Problem" on down. But I think "Check Cashin' Country" and "Electric Rodeo" are the songs that really sum up their aesthetic and their subject matter most perfectly.

3. Rapsody - Laila's Wisdom
Roc Nation is such a weird label with a relatively amorphous identity relative to Jay-Z's other business interests, and it's always been heard to tell even how much their occasional success stories like J. Cole can be credited to the label's work. So I'm irritated that this Rapsody album has had such a low profile compared to even the modest push Vic Mensa got. This album is so relaxed and melodic that sometimes I forget to pay attention to how good Rapsody is but I really like her flow and her personality.

4. The Effects - Eyes To The Light
Dischord Records has slowed down its output over the last couple decades, mostly issuing new music from people that have been associated with the label since the '80s or '90s. On the upside, that has meant a steady trickle of records featuring Devin Ocampo, a brilliant drummer for Smart Went Crazy, Beauty Pill and Deathfix, and an equally brilliant singer/guitarist for Faraquet, Medications and now The Effects. Eyes To The Light is very much of a piece with the Faraquet and Medications albums, pretty much the same aesthetic with a new rhythm section (which includes Matt Dowling, bassist from the great D.C. band Deleted Scenes that broke up a couple years ago). Ocampo still pulls his songs into tight, complicated shapes, but his lyrics and his melodies have perhaps gotten stronger and more memorable, "Set It Off" is one of his catchiest tunes to date.

5. J. Roddy Walston & The Business - Destroyers Of The Soft Life
It's been about a decade since the first time I saw J. Roddy Walston & The Business at the Ottobar and was just taken aback by how insanely good this band and their songs are, and it's been very gratifying to see them become a pretty famous national touring act. Walston is based out of Richmond now but some of the band is still around Baltimore, until recently I shared a practice space with Business drummer Steve Colmus and he's a nice guy. Destroyers Of The Soft Life is that kind of restless overhaul of their sound that bands tend to do eventually when they've been going at it this long, and while I miss a little of the piano-driven sound, they're mostly still playing to their strengths.

6. Outcalls - No King EP
Outcalls is another Baltimore act that blew me away the first time I saw them at the Ottobar, just a few weeks ago, two singers harmonizing over a tight 4-piece band. After the show I was raving about them to a friend, who told me the whole backstory about how their friend Evan Kornblum formed Outcalls and wrote and produced their first album, and then split with the band, who carried on without him. Their first album was really good and so is this new EP, and I guess they're similar enough that it makes sense to keep the name, it's just an interesting story.

7. Lee Ranaldo - Electric Trim
As someone who's been collecting Lee Ranaldo solo records and making mixes of the songs he wrote and sang on Sonic Youth albums for decades, it's gratifying to me that he's had pretty fruitful output as a songwriter since SY dissolved. I don't like this one as much as 2013's Last Night On Earth, but the introduction of some subtle programmed and looped drums works better than I would've expected. And there's some great instrumental moments throughout, particularly the guitar freakout with Nels Cline over a horn section at the end of "Purloined."

8. Demi Lovato - Tell Me You Love Me
On her first couple albums as a teen Disney Channel star, Demi Lovato was a guitar-strumming acolyte of the Kelly Clarkson/Pink wave of pop/rock, and in the years since then I feel like she's been a little adrift aesthetically even as she's had a better batting average than most of her contemporaries. Tell Me You Love Me finally feels a little closer to finding a consistent sound for her, with less clubby experimentation (although in light of Cheat Codes' "Promises" I wouldn't mind if she leaned a little more EDM). She's been addressing her complicated private life and public image in music for a while, but it feels like the sneering sense of humor of "Sorry Not Sorry" and the oddly funny "Daddy Issues" suit her more than earnest empowerment anthems like "Skyscraper." And "Ruin The Friendship" and "Concentrate" are up there as some of the best songs she's ever made.

9. Gregg Allman - Southern Blood
It's hard not to tie the recent deaths of various baby boomer classic rock icons to losing my dad this year. I had just come back from my dad's memorial the day I glanced at a TV and saw that Gregg Allman had passed away. A few weeks ago my brother sent me a bunch of dad's CDs that included an Allman Brothers Band compilation that I've been listening to in the car. And Allman's final album was recently released that includes covers of songs by some of dad's favorite acts like Jackson Browne and Little Feat (I mentioned Allman's cover of "Willin'" in this piece). So Southern Blood is a heavy album for me, but a beautiful record, a worthy addition to the depressing canon of farewell albums that artists made while they knew they were dying.

10. Fergie - Double Dutchess
The Dutchess was such an improbably great pop blockbuster that I found it disappointing that instead of capitalizing on the momentum of that album, or even the momentum of the huge album Black Eyed Peas album that followed it, Fergie just kinda waited until nobody was waiting for her to follow it up. So Double Dutchess arrives after 3 years of good but unsuccessful singles, a week after her divorce was announced, and probably wouldn't have come out at all if the album hadn't been unceremoniously leaked in unfinished form recently. But this album is actually really solid and continues to make the case for Fergie as a pretty talented singer and songwriter and vessel of forward-thinking production regardless of the decade of obnoxious white girl swag that she helped kick the door open for. The section of the album with the interlude after "You Already Know" leading into "Just Like You" is really sublime. And I still think "M.I.L.F. $" should have been a massive hit.

Worst Album of the Month: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie - The Bigger Artist
There's probably no sound on the radio this year that I react to like nails on a chalkboard more than A Boogie's voice on "Drowning." But I think the worst thing about his major label debut is not just that he sounds like a total twerp but that he seems to take himself way more seriously than Kid Ink or the other anonymous radio rappers he reminds me of. The moment on "Get To You" where he starts interpolating Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" is just staggeringly awful. On the bright side, the Chris Brown feature is so awful it probably won't get played on the radio.
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