Monthly Report: March 2012 Albums

1. Melanie Fiona - The MF Life
Every song Melanie Fiona has had on the radio in the past year has been total catnip for me, so I've been eagerly awaiting this long-delayed album finally coming out, and am happy to say it lived up to my expectations. Just a ridiculous wrecking crew of great and/or underrated R&B producers (Salaam Remi, Jack Splash, Rico Love, Los Da Mystro, No I.D.) and Fiona's surprisingly adaptable voice taking on new shades and qualities to suit each track. Like any major label album by committee it's far from perfect, but that has to do more with people like J. Cole and B.o.B showing up than the songs or the singer. Fiona came off a little too self-consciously retro to me on her earlier stuff, so I like when she stays away from that style, but "Wrong Side Of A Love Song" just kills anyway. Worthwhile bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, too.

2. Lee Ranaldo - Between The Tides And Times
Since Sonic Youth is my favorite band of all time and I've always been a big booster of the songs sung by Lee Ranaldo, I've been trying very hard not to have astronomically high expectations for his first big 'song-driven' solo album coming so soon after SY's apparent indefinite hiatus. The fact that his backing band includes Nels Cline and Steve Shelley just makes it more obviously catnip for me. But I've always kind of suspected than Lee's songs thrive in the context of their rarity on SY albums, and the kind of uniformity of this album can easily make the whole thing sag under the weight of expectations. Still, this is very close to what I've always wanted to hear Lee to outside of the context of the band and it sounds really great, love that his classic rock influences shine through so clearly.

3. Dawn Richard - Armor On EP
I enjoyed reviewing this along with the other Diddy-Dirty Money solo effort from Kalenna, but I'm really still digesting Armor On, it's a really dense, slow-burning record. I think "Automatic" is maybe my favorite song. I'm still kind of thinking of it as just one component of the ever-expanding Last Train To Paris universe as opposed to a self-contained work, though.

4. Among Wolves - This Is A Wave Goodbye
I also wrote a rave review of this album, and have written glowingly of their live show a couple times, but it bears repeating that Among Wolves are really fucking good, easily one of my favorite bands in Baltimore the last few years. Bands that balance multiple singer/songwriters are kind of a lost art.

5. E-40 - The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1, 2 & 3
It's very difficult to talk about a project like this without focusing on the quantity rather than the quality, but of course the remarkable thing about E-40's recent late career rennaissance is that he's been able to release albums two at a time and now three at a time without there being any notable valleys in the quality, and a pretty wide variety of highs covering pretty much every nook and cranny of his aesthetic (at the moment my favorites are "Sidewalk Memorial" and "Let's Fuck"). Of course, it'd probably be easier to digest this stuff if he trickled it out in mixtapes over the course of the year instead of doing a massive data dump every March, but I respect that the whole point of 40 doing things this way is that he's as always out of step with everybody else, following his own muse. I should point out, by the way, that March 2012 has been a fucking amazing month for albums and probably the best since I started doing these monthly report things, if this month's top 10 had to be my top 10 for the whole year I'd be fine with that. I mean, one of these entries is technically three albums!

6. Say Anything - Anarchy, My Dear
Say Anything are on my shortlist for maybe the best rock band of the last 10 years, and I genuinely love all three of their previous albums (not counting the out-of-print Baseball, which I haven't heard). Sadly, this album is the quality dropoff that many others mistakenly took In Defense and/or the self-titled album to be, and there are some real missteps, like "Admit It Again," an inferior sequel to what was already one of their most problematic songs. Brad Nelson's recent Voice piece kinda hits the nail on the head ("Album two is the classic. Album three is the sprawling double album. Album four is the realmic shift into pop. Album five misunderstands the function of the previous two, attempts to reverse-engineer the band back to album two, pick up their roots and replant them. But there is a degrading"). But it's still a pretty good album that justifies my continued stanning for this band. After the advance interviews in which Max Bemis said they were "going for a Stones/Stooges/Clash feel" I was surprised that this is easily their least rocking album to date -- a lot of the guitars are acoustic or 'clean' electric, and the best songs are the most brazenly pop ones like "Overbiter" and "So Good."

7. Gunplay - Bogata Rich: The Sequel
A lot of my rap critic homies have been raving about Gunplay for a while but I was never really in a rush to check out any Rick Ross protege until I became a fan of Meek Mill. This guy is definitely in Ross's lane both musically and vocally but puts together words a lot more impressively than his boss, and sounds at home in the MMG aesthetic instead of just going with the flow like Wale or whatever. Not an amazing tape but pretty solid.

8. Lands & Peoples - Pop Guilt
My friend Mat at Mobtown Studios mixed this record and he was the one that originally told me about Lands & Peoples a couple years ago and was really excited about them. It took me a while to kind of get on their wavelength and appreciate what they're doing, as often happens with young Baltimore bands, but it's pretty dope, strong singing and melodies and some pretty original instrumental arrangements. Of course, them naming the album Pop Guilt and talking about mixing in pop among influences "such as Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and St. Vincent" just makes me feel like these are really young guys with a very different musical background than me, but all that ultimately matters is that I enjoy what they're making.

9. Skeleton Key - Gravity Is The Enemy
I'm a huge fan of Skeleton Key's 1997 debut, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, and recently had the urge to listen to it and checked to see if it was on Spotify. It wasn't, but there was an album credited to 'Skeleton Key' that I automatically assumed was some other band with the same name, until I gave it a listen and realized that yes, in fact, the Erik Sanko-fronted Skeleton Key had just released their first album in years two days earlier, which was a pretty eerie thing to stumble upon. I'm not a huge fan of what Sanko has done with the band since Fantastic with later lineups -- the original quartet had a really great chemistry and it kind of feels like he's trying to copy that with different people, right down to other drummers mimicking Rick Lee's 'junk' percussion sound. Still, any Skeleton Key is better than no Skeleton Key, and this album has its moments.

10. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Over the last few years Springsteen's '70s and '80s songs about financial hardship in America have taken on a lot of new personal resonance for me and helped me through some really hard times, and I've often thought about the fact that nobody has come even close to writing as well about our current economic realities. Bruce evidently had the same thought and decided to take up the cause, which I appreciate in spirit while not really feeling much about the results. It's nice to hear Clarence's final recordings with the band, and a few songs, particularly the title track, are nice, but in general this is only mildly less banal than the last couple E Street albums. And I'm kind of pissed that Bruce finally released a studio recording of "Land Of Hope And Dreams," probably my favorite song he's written in the last 15 years, and they totally fucked it up and changed the drums too much.
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