2019 Music Reviews
American Football, American Football (2019) C+
They still haven't lost that air of woeful resignation - which, let's be fair, gets a little old - although the presence of three prominent female singers (Hayley Williams of Paramore, Rachel Goswell of Slowdive and Liz Powell of Land of Talk) adds that 'counterbalance' they've so desperately needed. And is that a kids' choir on "Heir Apparent?" I like that move, too - it changes up the dynamic a bit.
Automatic, Signal (2019) B-
I haven't seen perform in concert, but in my mind these post-Slits punk ladies just does a lot of staring (mostly with contempt) ... and maybe some spitting if they could summon the energy.
Band of Skulls, Love Is All You Love (2019) C-
Traditional rock from England that feels reminiscent of 80's music most of the time ("That's My Trouble") only without any additional flourishes or ways to separate themselves from the other imitators. They're also fond of repeating themselves, much to my dismay.
Beck, Hyperspace (2019) C
As much as I hate to drag up the past, I just want to say that Beck's career has lasted over twenty five years now ... and I just find that the playfulness of "Mellow Gold" and "Odelay" or even the deep feelings of "Mutations" and "Sea Change" are mostly absent: what remains is too-easy pop (with a "digital" theme, as if no one else has ever talked about the Internet in song before) with non-ironically dumb lyrics ("I feel so ugly when you see through me"). Since he's breaking out the Japanese so will I: 敗者のふりをやめる.
Beirut, Gallipoli (2019) B-
There's something soothing about Condon's delivery and eclectic use of instruments - the lyrics are merely functional, but it's the 'We'll Make It After All' tone that truly resonates. It trails off a bit in terms of quality in the last third, but the first half is noteworthy. (And am I alone in hearing a little Grizzly Bear in this?)
Belle and Sebastian, "Days of the Bagnold Summer" Soundtrack (2019) B
It's been a while since I heard anything from these Scots - I missed their last two albums - and it's refreshing to hear some of their oldies again ("Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying"): they're masters at making melancholy sound beautiful. I have yet to see the film, so I'm not sure if it fits, but that's a review for a different site of mine.
Big Brave, A Gaze Among Them (2019) D+
It's great to see ladies in metal bands (I liked Lita Ford way back when), but this is more or less Dolores O'Riordan belting out syllables over a machine shop running at full blast ("Sibling" feels like it's never going to end).
The Black Keys, Let's Rock (2019) D+
What is this? Rock-by-numbers? If you get sick of it around half-way through - which was precisely when it started to wear on me - start counting the cliches or jotting down the lyrics that anyone could come up with ("In the summertime / when it's hot outside") ... then pick up your own guitar and make a better record.
James Blake, Assume Form (2019) C
Did James hire Alvin & the Chipmunks to do background vocals on the title track? It's a little more chipper than past releases, but there's also a mish-mosh of genres (trap, R&B, hip-hop, classical ... flamenco?) and he's not sure where to dig in - he has Metro Boomin', Travis Scott and Andre 3000 to help - although he does confirm one thing: he's his own biggest fan.
Blanck Mass, Animated Violence Mild (2019) C-
If previous releases by Ben Power could be considered catchy 'glitch' - re-listen to the insidious "Loam" or the cosmic "Hive Mind" - now he's moved more to an 'industrial' style, like the worst of KMFDM or Skinny Puppy or Ministry. It's blaring and busy and needed to be stripped down so it didn't sound so mashed together discordant. Now might be the time to ask: where's the new Fuck Buttons album?
Blarf, Cease & Desist (2019) B-
So what happens when you have a degree from one of the most prestigious schools in the States for music and ended up becoming one of the most successful - and hilarious - alternative comedians? Why, you dress up like Ronald McDonald and make a mixtape showing off your DJ skills, of course: mash up Jimi Hendrix, wild drum beats, the theme to "Reading Rainbow" and a seemingly endless stretch of what sounds like carnage! We don't deserve Eric Andre.
Bon Iver, I, I (2019) C-
Vernon sure has milked a ton of mileage out of one excellent album and some noteworthy guest appearances. This record is another attempt to mask his lack of creative ideas by taking unremarkable songs and chopping them up and adding dissonant sounds (clicks, horns, static, a saxophone, etc.) on top, usually at unorthodox times. Let's face it: he really wants to be Thom Yorke.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Brian Jonestown Massacre (2019) D+
You've probably heard the cliche about "being born in the wrong generation" but I do think it fits Mr. Newcombe, who was still in grade school when the psych rock bands were making their mark - he's now in his 50's and living in Berlin, but this LP is admittedly a little stale and generic, especially when past records - and live performances - have been close to hallucinatory in their power. Now it's a lot of strumming and not a lot of vocals and not a lot of snarl.
Brockhampton, Ginger (2019) C-
There's a difference between working out your issues and traumas and making a huge production out of it: hearing somewhere close to a dozen people all whining together about "their woes" (selling out concerts is hard, right?) wears itself out. The "boy band" met on Kanye To The, but they don't have to mimic everything their hero does. They're going on tour with Slowthai, which should work: he's the upbeat to their misery.
Danny Brown, U Know What I'm Sayin? (2019) B+
Quick, smart, to the point: he may have gotten his front teeth fixed and 'cleaned up' (a little bit) but the same old wise-ass is still there, and when he's not sermonizing he's bringing out some of his wildest lyrics to date (like on the diss track "Theme Song"). He's better than most at putting a team together: FlyLo, Q-Tip, Hynes, JPEGMafia ... that's a group to go to war with.
The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (Stage 4) (2018) D
The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (Stage 5) (2018) D
The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (Stage 6) (2019) D+
I understood this was originally supposed to be a six-part series, but I feel like he accomplished what he wanted to do with the first three stages - I never once felt it was 'disrespectful' (my Grandmother had dementia so I'm particularly sensitive when it comes to that subject) but while 1-3 at least tried to adhere to some kind of sound-structure - and were eerie as hell - these last three are all over the place, consisting of random static and fuzz. I don't think suffering sounds anything like this, bud.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen (2019) D+
Based on the initial critical response to this I thought it would be the greatest album Cave, Ellis and Co. ever composed: it isn't, not by a long shot, and it comes out like the Boogeyman doing spoken word at a vegan cafe. It's overwrought and draggy, but long-time Cave fans should still take a chance on it. You can't ever fault him for not changing his sound over time, but my favorite version of him is the one raving about "junk in honey's bunk."
Chance the Rapper, The Big Day (2019) D+
His past mixtapes - "Acid Rap" and "Coloring Book" (the latter won him a Grammy) - were uneven but at least they had their strong points, but for this, his first "studio release," it's a grossly-overlong mad scramble of styles (Ben Gibbard, CocoRosie, En Vogue, Randy Newman, etc.) and laughably bad wordplay and dorky "skits." It's also so self-consciously "wholesome" and Chance is a little too impressed with himself ... and it shows.
Charli XCX, Charli (2019) C-
A critic I respect a tremendous amount, Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop, named this his favorite album of the year, and so I had to take a listen to see if Charli can dethrone Lana. The two can't even be mentioned in the same sentence. Most of the album is highly processed and almost machine-like: I'm not detecting a beating heart in the tin armor. "Official" is a solid song ... and one that Swift wished she'd written (do people even take Facebook seriously anymore?).
The Chemical Brothers, No Geography (2019) D
Rowlands and Simons were doing marvelous things in the late 90's - "Dig Your Own Hole" and "Surrender" were essential techno albums from that time - but except for "We've Got to Try" so many of these songs contain lame samples and unimaginative beats (not the block rockin'-kind). They've done some soundtrack work since then, so maybe they're better at playing in the background.
Clairo, Diary 001 [EP] (2018) C+
Pretty standard bubblegum pop - "B.O.M.D." is just begging for radio play - and sometimes I think she's trying to be Hope Sandoval ("Pretty Girl," "How"), and that's not the worst thing.
Clairo, Immunity (2019) C
"You wanna feel something / but I don't feel nothin'" basically sums up my feelings about this debut from Ms. Cottrill: eleven tracks of her delivering banalities in the same drowsy voice. It's almost as if she recorded most of it after chasing Ambien with two cans of White Claw.
Coldplay, Everyday Life (2019) F
Martin & Company haven't made a truly fantastic album in over a decade ("Viva la Vida"), and this double release isn't helping that trend. Whoever thought of doing a Negro Spiritual-type song ("Broken") followed by a song complaining about some father figure ("Daddy") and, later on, trying for Gospel ("When I Need a Friend") needed his noggin checked for bugs. Thoroughly embarrassing, but financially speaking they're all set for life.
Crows, Silver Tongues (2019) C
Above average rock throwback - it's nice that those amps got turned up, but why does it take until they get to "First Light//False Face" to do something truly impassioned about it?
Daddy Long Legs, Lowdown Ways (2019) D+
I guess there's always a deep need for honky-tonk and hillbilly music regardless of the current year (!?), but this is just an underwhelming simulation of the 'classics' - it might make you want to put your glass of Wild Turkey down, get out of your torn lawn chair and start a fight with your neighbors over something trivial or it might want you to turn it off and say "that ain't authentic like" before spitting your chaw on the grass.
Deerhunter, Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? (2019) B
Easily the most impressive thing I've heard from Bradford et al. in years - at least since "Halcyon Digest" ("Monomania" is all right) - and it's a steady blend of Cox's slow utterances and Lockett's plucky guitar. "What Happens to People?" is what they do best: contemplative songs with a touch of poignancy (but nowhere near as uncomfortable as "Bite Marks").
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) A
Ms. Grant has gone full torch-song with this exceptional take down of the American Ideal - the opener is a dig at ... somebody (Josh Tillman?) - that moves away from standard pop to beautifully stripped-down piano ballads. It's an elegy to what could-have-been, and settling for what is: even the cover of Sublime's "Doin' Time" has an air of melancholy about it. It's also her at her most confident: it earns its 100+ minute length, and putting a song called "The Next Best American Record" on it takes a lot of moxie. She knew damn well it was a masterpiece.
Mac DeMarco, Here Comes the Cowboy (2019) F
Most of the songs on here had to have been "written" in under three minutes - or maybe just made up on the fly. There's being a 'cool slacker' and then there's a level of laziness that totally disregards the audience's intelligence. You'll feel dumber listening to it, if you can get through it. Is Mac, in his late 20's, already completely burned out?
DIIV, Deceiver (2019) D-
They really, really didn't work on this that hard ... either that or they just thought they'd get away with whatever dull tremolo-abusing "melodies" they could come up with at the last minute. Maybe they should let Devin back in?
DJ Shadow, Our Pathetic Age (2019) C-
It's been a while since Davis made a good record and this double LP, while there are some sublime transitions and smart samples being used, doesn't match his early and most vital work: I'm not sure why he'd divide into one record of instrumentals and one of features, because it doesn't mesh (the title track with Samuel Herring is excellent, but it owes more to his delivery than the beats). Would Shadow of the late 90's have used the squirrely voice on "If I Died Today" or allowed "My Lonely Room" to sound so ... flat? I think he would have melted the vinyl.
The Drums, Brutalism (2019) D+
A little feyness I can deal with, but Pierce goes well past the threshold of what's tolerable ... and if you're going to be this cutesy, at least make it catchy. (Extra points are arbitrarily knocked off for not being aware that Idles used the same title on their debut ... which fit the term way better.)
Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding (1967) A
People throw the word "genius" around rather willy-nilly, but there should be no question that Mr. Dylan is one: his songs will last as long as we can still hear (or wish to hear). This is just one of his masterworks - I'd heard it in pieces (the title track, "All Along the Watchtower") but never listened to it in its entirety. When you have an oeuvre that massive, it's easy to miss a piece here and there....
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019) C-
I guess the 'allure' of a 17-year-old who dresses like Eminem in the late nineties and talks like she's from Brooklyn (yo) is strong for the P.R. departments pushing her out there, but this is basically ASMR: The Album. Can she do anything besides breathily mutter over heavy beats?
FKA Twigs, Magdalene (2019) C+
Sometimes ethereal, sometimes irritating: the production gets carried away in parts, and in an effort to be more "experimental" it can go a little overboard. I like Future on "Holy Terrain" - it adds an element of gruffness to the preciousness.
The Flaming Lips, King's Mouth (2019) D-
At one point in time these guys were among the best in alternative rock - sure, they've done some experimental works, but you could kind of see what they were trying for (if not necessarily 'making it'). Now, I'm not sure what's happening: it sounds like a giant recorded burnout with random voice clips and a choir and Coyne groaning away. It's not even marginally interesting, which is truly disturbing - Yoshimi would not approve.
Fleeting Joys, Speeding Away to Someday (2019) D
There's a big difference between being 'inspired by' a band (in this case, My Bloody Valentine) and outright 'stealing,' and this gets dangerously close to the latter. I love the whole shoegaze genre, but you have to do your own thing, and this husband-wife team needed to spend more time on songwriting than shopping for pedals. Before Kevin Shields gets on the phone with his attorney, he should listen to "You Want To" which is the most brilliant MBV song MBV never recorded.
Flying Lotus, Flamagra (2019) C+
"Inspired by David Lynch" sounds promising, but then one realizes how idiosyncratic and wildly unique Lynch actually is - this LP is better than his previous release (it almost had to be) and there are certainly segments where it sounds like he's in a groove, but then it drifts off to Ellison goofing around with glitches and effects: half the tracks are under two minutes, and just as it starts to take hold, he's moved on. It's a vibrant mess.
Foxygen, Seeing Other People (2019) D
I'm not sure what their interest is with the weird sound effects and altered vocals and dumbass lyrics (listening to "Flag at Half-Mast" shouldn't be painful), but I am more certain they have no more material left in them for this particular project. All that's left is the resin and other gunk clogging up the bong.
(Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar (2019) C
Gutsy move for Alex to start with "Walk Away" - with its repetitive chanting - but then he veers into the worst impulses of Animal Collective ("Taking," "Near"), running it through some irritating looping process. For "Bad Man," he adopts some yokel-like delivery. It has some good songs ("Cow"), but it's much too uneven.
Liam Gallagher, Why Me? Why Not. (2019) C
Oasis' belief that they were bigger than the Beatles never came to be, and Liam, on his own, isn't about to "save" rock 'n roll. It's an average record: nothing fancy, nothing new, and you might forget about it in a day or two. The best advice Liam gives is "sometimes you got to hold your head up high" ... thanks for the Hallmark Greeting Card sentiment.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana (2019) B
I've heard Gibbs and Madlib's past work, but this is just so smooth and wonderfully mixed - no down moments, some good collaborators (Anderson.Paak's voice is unmistakable), the kind of wisdom that comes with age and experience, a reluctance to give up bad habits. I might be wrong but I don't think either man is a fan of the current Emperor of the U.S.
Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next (2019) D+
She has such a glowing voice - there are some things that nature just hands to people - but her head is full of rocks and the whole album is one carefully manufactured product for Maximum Appeal and Listenability: it can be safely played in a dental office while someone's molars are getting drilled. It's been said that the title track is about Pete Davidson, but I still think it was constructed using algorithms.
Have a Nice Life, Sea of Worry (2019) B+
It's been a while since Dan released an LP with Tim ... and this one is a glimmering star of total despair (in a good way!): he can make his songs memorable with a simple "wooooo-hoo" (the title track) or by blasting you through the windows with shaped noise ("Lords of Tresserhorn"). The first six songs are terrific, but I could have done without the preacher-speak on "Destinos."
Health, Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear (2019) D-
As someone familiar with industrial music - Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, KMFDM, Ministry, etc. - this doesn't do the genre justice: near-monotone female singer drones over what sounds like over-worked foundry workers clankin' the ol' pipes. If they made it to be part of a movie soundtrack in which everyone's on hallucinogens and the film is in slow-motion while bullets fly ... now that I could see.
Tim Hecker, Anoyo (2019) D
Is the title Japanese for "Annoying?" When Tim isn't done plugging in long, purposely dragged-out synths and using his elbows to get a drum beat or two in there, silverware gets dropped. Elsewhere, a flute plays. Sometimes, there's a drum. Mercifully, it's only a little over a half-hour long, and before the last note finished ringing out you'll have probably forgotten about it.
The Hold Steady, Thrashing Thru the Passion (2019) C+
They're never gonna redefine rock music - a tough task, that - and they function mostly as a way for Craig Finn to detail every single aspect of his personal life - and he can hardly wait to start talking - but this is more fun ("You Did Good Kid," "Star 18") than their previous record, "Teeth Dreams," so that's something to hold onto, I guess.
Brittany Howard, Jaime (2019) C+
Ms. Howard, on break from performing with the Alabama Shakes, tries to use her solo debut to 'explore different sounds' ... and she means it, since the album is a sonic sampler: a different style for every new track ... which naturally makes it a very uneven record. She's got a great voice, however, and lead single "Stay High" - which sounds like an Edward Sharpe song - is very, very addicting (as is the music video with Terry Crews coming home from work).
Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love (2019) C-
I'm not a big fan of spoken word anything and Hval isn't about to change my mind with this album: all that chirping and bad poetry just takes its toll. However I do like it better than her last release - "Ashes to Ashes" is good and the whispery closer "Ordinary" - with those subtle horns - is chillwave done right.
Interpol, A Fine Mess [EP] (2019) C-
More of the 'same old' from the Dolce & Gabbana models out of NYC - "No Big Deal" is an okay single, but let's be truthful here: none of these would have been included in either "Turn on the Bright Lights" or even "Antics."
Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated (2019) C
Pop music is strongly dependent on the quality of the beats and the catchiness of the songs and while there's nothing particularly 'wrong' with this album, there's a lack of addictive singles: it takes until spunky closer "Real Love" - those horns! - to take the 'next step' that it needed to go. Call some other producers, definitely.
JPEGMafia, All My Heroes Are Cornballs (2019) B-
Too scatterbrained to be totally effective - he changes how the songs sound every thirty seconds (or less!) - but how wonderful would it be if more of our soldiers came back from serving overseas and decided to make experimental hip-hop? Or, let me restate that: how great is it that we have soldiers dreaming up songs like this?
Kevin Abstract, Arizona Baby (2019) C
I had a sense that Simpson was going to use Brockhampton to push his own solo career, but he could have done worse than going with Antonoff as his collaborator. It's an okay record: he goes through his own troubled background, talks extensively (this is putting it lightly) about his sexuality, even gets nostalgic ... but it lacks the bombastic nature of his work with his collective and the songs lack distinction from each other. It will be worth noting how he evolves as an artist over time....
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka (2019) B
American R&B - combined with psych rock - is the inspiration for Kiwanuka's sound, but he takes it in his own personal direction, which makes for a soothing listening experience. Opener "You Ain't the Problem" starts it off beautifully (am I hearing a little Afrobeat in there?), "Hero" would make Curtis Mayfield smile and "Light" ends it on a melancholy note. He's been compared to Otis Redding and Bill Withers ... but I'm hearing a lot of Shuggie Otis in there.
Ladytron, Ladytron (2019) D-
Oh wow, I did not miss listening to this illegitimate offspring of Kraftwerk - the music still sounds like a stiletto to the eardrum (and I like noise) while Helen and Mira work on breaking down words to their syllables. Bay-bee / hold / me / tight / it's / going / to / be / a / pain-ful / night.
Jenny Lewis, On the Line (2019) B-
Rilo Kiley may be no more (they'll come back at some point), but Ms. Lewis does just fine on her one: I prefer her when she's not leaning towards alt-country (that's for Ms. Case to do) or letting her voice get away from her, though her assuredness comes through. Maybe it has something to do with being in her mid-40's, or maybe it's because she doesn't have to carry anyone else on her back. (She met the Devil down in Austin? Be careful Scott!)
Lingua Ignota, Caligula (2019) D
Here's the description that should have been included with the release: "Psych patient escapes from her cell, puts an ad on Craigslist for an orchestra and then screams at the top of her lungs for an hour. Order now for an e-coupon for a free branding tattoo."
Liturgy, H.A.Q.Q. (2019) D
If howling over technical metal is your cup ... no, chalice of sacrificial blood and just what drives and motivates you, go all in, but if you're not a werewolf or the second coming of the Dark Lord you can probably safely skip this.
The Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons (2019) C+
Not bad, of course, but not much new from the Goats: John's nasally delivery, sarcastic lyrics, some oddball concept to revolve a record around (here, it's the board game Dungeons and Dragons, which should make Stephen Colbert happy). It's clean-sounding, at least, although hearing Darnielle do alt-country isn't recommended. At all.
The National, I Am Easy to Find (2019) B+
I've always had a lot of respect for Berlinger & His Boys, but it's as if he tried to outdo himself with this record (slower and with more sadness!): it's an act of self-criticism, bringing in a bunch of ladies (Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables), as well as a choir, to act as a counterpoint to his growling depressive-masculine P.O.V. As critics have noted, accurately I think, while most bands tend to fizzle out the longer they play together, this band is only getting better. Who knew aging could have such a positive effect?
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors (2019) B+
She's more breathy than ever, and now she has a sizable string section. On first listen, I thought she was overpowered by the orchestration - perhaps as a deliberate attempt to cover her weaknesses - but on repeat listens it more or less opened up to me: the title track could have emerged from the 80's synth scene and "Endgame" sounds like a Bond Theme that got away. It's a lush record ... and whoever hurt her needs to apologize right now.
Anderson .Paak, Ventura (2019) B-
It took me three listens to process this new record - hot off the heels of last year's Oxnard - because I, at first, thought was just a collection of B-sides ... but no, it's a fully realized record and his sense of playfulness is still there. It's a bit of a wonky (and corny) listen - and the guests don't always sound like they mesh with what .Paak is doing - but tracks like "King James" ("If they build a wall, let's jump the fence") are a reminder he's a distinctive presence when it comes to social progress.
Pixies, Beneath the Eyrie (2019) C+
There are bits and pieces that remind me of the old Pixies (the beginning to "This Is My Fate" and all of "Los Surfers Muertos") but the reckless abandon and ingenuity they were known for has mostly evaporated. But the big question: is Kim ever coming back?
Caroline Polachek, Pang (2019) C
Her voice is fantastic, but it brings to mind the Bad Side of the 80's, like Sheena Easton strutting the stage with a puffy mullet. She's on a major label - you mean to tell me this is the best production team they could afford for her?
Pedro the Lion, Phoenix (2019) C-
It's always nice to hear when they're "putting the band together" except the decade-plus gulf didn't change much, and Bazan never found a word he couldn't drag out. I'll leave it up to others to decide whether or not his 'statements' pass as even slightly compelling - saying trite things slowly doesn't make them better. Is the French band Phoenix now going to have to do a record called "Pedro la Lion?"
Rex Orange County, Pony (2019) C
DIY-ish bedroom pop - with the occasional string section - that might have been recorded when O'Connor just woke up and didn't wash his face and didn't have the first of three morning cuppas. Sometimes it feels like he's singing someone else's material, and he's only half-interested in it.
Maggie Rogers, Heard It in a Past Life (2019) C-
There's nothing particularly 'new' about this collection of songs by Rogers, which are about as formulaic as pop can get. The one exception is the radio-ready "On + Off" ... but I feel that's due to her production team adding a nice electro-dance beat.
Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won't Hold (2019) B-
It's inspiring that a group of ladies in their 40's keep making rock music (same said for Joan Jett, who's even older): if Mick & Keith and Brian Wilson can keep dragging themselves out on stage, so can they. You could argue they've never made a 'terrible' record, with that consistency carrying over here: Corin's never lost her voice ("The Future Is Here") and Annie's production (kind of) cleans up their (much beloved) messier aspects. What the hell is with the piano ballad that concludes it, though? And with Janet leaving, will the band keep going?
Slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain (2019) B
The comparison to Dizzee Rascal is so glaringly obvious I had to double check that it wasn't him using an alias - this is aggressive and often incomprehensible but his ability to string thoughts together playfully can't be taught: he's got flow, his interviews are funny, and he talks a lot about growing up poor and not being a fan of his country's political situation (but really ... who is?). Did Clams Casino ghost-produce "Toaster"? Because that's a wonderful wistful number ("Knock, knock here / Knock, knock there / I think the Feds there / Fuck the Feds I don't care").
Solange, When I Get Home (2019) D-
It's baffling that she's received so many critical accolades for this sub-par R&B shtick: she repeats herself a lot (as if what she has to say is remotely significant) - "Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days" ... ugh - and there are too many pointless 'interludes' in between the choppy songs. Were some of these (like "Sound of Rain") written using Mario Paint Composer?
Son Lux, Remnants (2019) D
Largely irksome album from the "Easy" guys: there's a grandiosity to it that isn't earned, and it almost feels like they want to do opera, which is a thought they need to erase from their minds as soon as possible ("Speak" will make you skip forward). "Throw (AWWWM Outtake)" shows them at their most elegant - the rest, not a chance.
Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars (2019) B-
The Boss decided that, instead of the whole rock or even folk thing he's so good at, he should try to go (nearly) full country. Some of it has the worst tendencies of that genre ("Chasin' Wild Horses," "Hello Sunshine") but he's experienced enough to bring in a string section to 'elevate' it. It doesn't have the intense moodiness of his best solo work, but we already have "Nebraska" and "Devils & Dust." Opener "Hitch Hikin'" should go on that Summer Road-Trip Playlist immediately.
Harry Styles, Fine Line (2019) B-
It would be too easy to blast super-popular Styles for spreading himself thin - he's an actor, too - but in truth he's not a bad solo artist, and there are some decent pop songs on here (just don't read the lyrics): "Watermelon Sugar" is a bubbly lead single and "She" has some nice guitars tucked in there. Naturally, I refuse to believe he's lonely ... just like I refuse to believe any of these are actually about Camille Rowe or Kendall Jenner.
Swans, Leaving Meaning (2019) D
Gira's never lacked in confidence - his record label is called Young God after all - but this is bloated and frequently irritating: four of the 'songs' clear the ten minute mark and I'd be alarmed if he bothered doing any editing of the material. It's also a little too self-referential: I thought he was making progress with "To Be Kind" and "The Glowing Man" (the latter has moments of total brilliance), but this pushes to the forefront his worst tendencies.
Taylor Swift, Lover (2019) D+
I recognize that pop stars are "manufactured" by advertising/PR firms, but how long are we supposed to continue "believing" she's actually pining for some (presumably) male knight to sweep her off her feet? That may have worked two albums ago, but now that narrative is stale ... and the glossy production only makes it seem more plastic. Music's new "golden girl" is Billie Eilish, who is - in many ways - the direct opposite of Swift. Funny how they pull that off....
Tegan and Sara, Hey, I'm Just Like You (2019) D
You'd have to struggle to write lyrics this juvenile - by possibly going through teenage girls' Tumblrs - which is disappointing considering both ladies are close to 40-years-old. The strain to be a slightly more indie-fied Taylor Swift isn't helping them either.
Titus Andronicus, An Obelisk (2019) B-
Maybe not as 'memorable' as previous LPs - and yes, my T.A. Rule was in place (I listened to it four times) - but they still have the verve if not the hooks. I can fully picture Strummer listening to "(I Blame) Society" and grinning from ear to ear.
Toro y Moi, Outer Peace (2019) D
Not sure what the deal is with Chaz Bear (aside from the stupid name change): his albums start gloriously (in this case, with a fun woooo hook on "Fading") but then regress considerably with his "take" on "funk" (sorry, "chillwave") ... and some voice-altering nonsense. Fun Fact: You don't need to release an album or two every year. Sometimes it's recommended to take time off and actually think about the music you're making.
Tyler, the Creator, Igor (2019) C
One of the most astounding things about Tyler has been his crawling-up-the-walls manic personality (that's not afraid to be controversial and say things most other image-conscious rappers wouldn't), and based on the cover of this record I figured it would be another off-kilter collection of rants ... but for whatever reason he's gone in the opposite direction: he's "forcing himself" to be "more serious than usual." A restrained Tyler negates his strengths: maybe there's some happy space in the middle?
Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride (2019) A-
Ezra has a very respectable work ethic: he and his bandmates don't just toss albums together at random to cash in on popularity. And this latest LP from them shows that dedication and focus - it's an ad-mixture of styles (alt-country mixed with the band's usual Caribbean-by-way-of-Columbia-University sound and the faintest hint of a string section) but it gels with breezy confidence (with the occasional splash of regret and disillusionment). Is it their best record to date? It might be - it's certainly the most consistent of all of them.
Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow (2019) B
She's silky and salty ... and then she gets to a song like "Seventeen" and I'm picturing her as Joan Jett 2.0, which is a high compliment. Maybe the lyrics aren't quite as smart as she'd have liked, but it's more about general attitude than pin-pointing a feeling.
Weezer, Weezer (Black Album) (2019) D+
With Cuomo and company dressed in all black, I foolishly thought this would be the "dark side" of Weezer - a "Pinkerton" revisit ... or even, dare I suggest, a death-metal type record - but no, it's more hokey ditties ("High As a Kite," "Piece of Cake") or what could pass for a Bruno Mars-Justin Timberlake team-up ("Living in L.A."). And there's a song about zombies? Good grief.
Kanye West, Jesus Is King (2019) C-
I'd heard that Ye started his own Sunday Service at his home and if it's his way of getting back in touch with his own faith, so be it. If it's his way of making himself a Messianic figure and a wacky stunt, I'm not having it. As for this brief 11-track Christian rap release: it's half-cocked. Just like its maker.
Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising (2019) C-
Holy embellishment ... if I can knock the lads for going over-the-top I can do the same here: Ms. Blood, with her misspelling of Flan's novel as her moniker, thinks she's in an angelic choir. It's too much. Then she brings out the strings. Then I think she's Sarah Brightman for the indie crowd.
White Lies, Five (2019) D+
80's synth-pop is the influence here ... and while some may find that era of music endearing, I'm not too fond of McVeigh's crooning (or the band's inability to shape many of their tracks). It's not like they can't make a great song - "Death" is exceptional (thanks Lily) and would have fit in a Molly Ringwald movie - but some tweaks on those hooks would have been beneficial....
Wilco, Ode to Joy (2019) B+
Mr. Tweedy and gang are back to doing lower-than-low-key alt. country-inspired melodies, and it's simply a delight. I consider Jeff one of the most underrated and under-appreciated of American songwriters, and you can hear the wisdom from all that weariness. He does it so effortlessly: the talented ones don't have to convince you of anything.
Chelsea Wolfe, Birth of Violence (2019) C
Goth Princess Ms. Wolfe returns to her 'roots' as it were - her father was a country musician - with this acoustic release, and while it's clear she feels comfortable working in this genre, a lot of what made her reputation is absent: it's still 'dark,' but the punishing heaviness and intensity has given way to a soft whimper and sigh. There's more filler than usual, although "Deranged for Rock & Roll," despite being written on a single Post-It, at least coaxes her to crank the amps up.
Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit (2019) B
A recorded nervous breakdown ... I'm not sure how he can actually tour this material and perform it night after night: it must be exhausting. Jamie are you okay? Are you okay Jamie?
Thom Yorke, Anima (2019) B+
Mr. Yorke's solo work has been criticized for just being pared-down Radiohead - when you're missing the Greenwoods, Phil and Ed you're certainly cutting down on top-notch talent - but I like all of them regardless: it's Thom in a more cloistered setting, where he can intimately discuss his thoughts on anxiety and alienation and isolation ("Dawn Chorus" is as lovely as anything he's done alone or with others). It's also cool to see how he's influenced by club music and experimental techno and glitch - the man's been known to twiddle knobs at the Boiler Room.
Young Thug, So Much Fun (2019) C
Mr. Williams is no longer playing 'meditative and thoughtful' and now back to doing what he does best: babbling about degrading women over a pretty smooth production. It's a mixed-bag of styles with a steady stream of contributors (MGK is notably bad), and at an hour in length, might make you want to rip out your own fingernails with plyers.
Singles of the Year: American Football: "Heir Apparent," James Blake: "Can't Believe the Way We Flow," Charli XCX: "Official," Lana Del Rey: "Norman Fucking Rockwell," Sky Ferreira: "Downhill Lullaby," Fleeting Joys: "You Want To," Brittany Howard: "Stay High," Carly Rae Jepsen: "Real Love," Kevin Abstract: "Baby Boy," Michael Kiwanuka: "You Ain't the Problem," Shawn Mendes: "If I Can't Have You," The Mountain Goats: "Younger," The National: "Where Is Her Head," Angel Olsen: "Endgame," Maggie Rogers: "On + Off," Slowthai: "Toaster," Bruce Springsteen: "Hitch Hikin'," Toro y Moi: "Fading," Vampire Weekend: "Unbearably White," "Sharon Van Etten: "Seventeen," Wilco: "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)," Winter: "Borboletas," Thom Yorke: "Dawn Chorus"