Barenaked Ladies – Detour de Force: Am I coming off like my hits don’t stink?

Artist: Barenaked Ladies
Album: Detour de Force
Year: 2021
Grade: C

In Brief: Another mediocre release from this long-running band that reveals their idea tank to be almost completely empty. I say “almost” because there is some occasional wit and insight for those willing to dig through the deep cuts and listen for more than just the occasional bouncy call-back to their 90s heyday. They’ve given all three of their songwriters something to do, and the diversity is appreciated, even if a lot of the ideas don’t really stick. Let’s just say that I appreciate the “detours” on this album a lot more than the “force”.

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Switchfoot – Interrobang: Are we doomed to disagree‽

Artist: Switchfoot
Album: Interrobang
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: This might be the first Switchfoot album that I remember more for the lyrics than the music. Not to say that the music is unmemorable, or that they didn’t write good songs in the past… It’s more that Interrobang is an introverted record where Switchfoot often goes small in places where they might otherwise be tempted to go big. The result is a more personal record about navigating conflict and ideological division in our society, that resists the temptation to come up with big, sweeping, feel-good answers to the urgent questions that inspired it.

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Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress: Cued to sway forever by the forces of the Lord’s choreography.

Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Year: 2003
Grade: B+

In Brief: An indie pop classic that I’m still in the process of slowly falling in love with, a good six years since I first heard it (and three times that long since it was released). This was the moment where Belle & Sebastian made the jump to full-color production values and got a little braver with the stylistic experimentation, with a few of these tracks even being a little funky and danceable, while still maintaining the quirky attention to detail that their songwriting has always been notable for. I’d never heard anything from the band until the record after this one, but Waitress really should have been my jumping-on point.

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Chvrches – Screen Violence: No one ever tells you there’s freedom in the failure.

Artist: Chvrches
Album: Screen Violence
Year: 2021
Grade: B+

In Brief: By know you should know that Chvrches isn’t the kind of band you expect to radically reinvent itself on each new album. The trio knows what works for them, which is high-octane synthpop with generally dark and brooding lyrics, and they’re consistent about it almost to a fault on album #4. It’s hard to complain when they piece together beats, vocal hooks, and synth melodies with lightning precision almost every time, and when they know how to go for the lyrical gut-punch in terms of confronting what scares them. For now I’m going with a rating on this one that says “Pretty darn good, but your first three albums set an almost impossibly high bar for you to clear, so keep trying!”

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Lord Huron – Long Lost: If you never wanna see my face again, I’ll understand.

Artist: Lord Huron
Album: Long Lost
Year: 2021
Grade: C+

In Brief: I really want to get swept up in this record’s stroll down a blurry Memory Lane, set in an ambiguous place and time. But despite it having the same sort of indie folk/country trappings and high-concept storytelling as the band’s early work, Long Lost is a huge step down in terms of both the energy level and the imagination that went into the arrangements. They spent a lot of time here geeking out over specific guitar tones and the sonic minutiae of how a unique studio space makes a record sound, all of which are technically intriguing but which will be lost on the casual listener. What that leaves is a rather languid story of lost/forbidden love that often calls back to, but ends up being dwarfed by, earlier songs they’ve written that are very much in the same vein, with only the framing story of a bootlegged radio broadcast making it in any way distinctive.

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Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever: Try to use a little more of your power.

Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: Happier Than Ever
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: When listener expectations are this ridiculously high for the follow-up to a landmark debut, it can be hard to separate out your desire to see the artist do well, both professionally and personally, from your actual enjoyment of the music. Billie’s great at subverting audience expectations, and at performing quiet but impactful songs that touch upon surprising influences both past and present, so I knew not to expect a lot of instant gratification here. But I’m liking her sophomore release a teeny bit less with every listen, which is kind of alarming.

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Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs: You’ve gotta spend some time with me.

Artist: Death Cab for Cutie
Album: Narrow Stairs
Year: 2008
Grade: B+

In Brief: Death Cab rode an existential crisis as far down into the abyss as they were willing to go on Narrow Stairs. Though it may present itself as a challenging record, even an ornery one at times, it’s got some of the group’s best melodies, most riveting performances, and most intriguing lyrics. Some might say it’s a dark horse pick, and Ben Gibbard himself has said he doesn’t want to get this dreary ever again. But despite all the fear and angst expressed here, I’m still convinced this is the best record Death Cab for Cutie has ever put out.

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Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness: Let’s get lost, baby, and take a wrong turn.

Artist: Sleater-Kinney
Album: Path of Wellness
Year: 2021
Grade: C+

In Brief: On their first album as a duo, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein exchange a lot of their usual passion, rage, and affinity for making rambunctious noise for more of an introspective curiosity, which is still noisy in places but much more subdued in others. I appreciate the exploratory nature of this project, and I think it has some worthwhile things to say, but given the iconic sound Sleater-Kinney had cultivated as a power trio over the years, it’s hard not to miss that now that they’re apparently forging a new identity.

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