The Temper Trap – Thick as Thieves: We just want you to feel safe and sound.

2016_TheTemperTrap_ThickasThievesArtist: The Temper Trap
Album: Thick as Thieves
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: The Temper Trap’s third album reprises pretty much everything they did well on Conditions, minus that album’s hodgepodge feel. Distancing themselves from the more electronic sound of their self-titled second album doesn’t strike me as a huge positive or negative, but I’m mildly disappointed that the band isn’t really adding anything new to their signature style this time around.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2016

2016_glassanimals_howtobeahumanbeingGlass Animals – How to Be a Human Being
I’m not sure how to best describe Glass Animals; their style is kind of all over the place, but it incorporates elements of psychedelic rock and electropop with a strong undercurrent of hip-hop and R&B. Old-school Incubus isn’t a bad place to start as stylistic comparisons go, though vocally and lyrically they’re quite different. They lay down some pretty thick grooves on several of these tracks that pull in interesting little bits of percussion and instrumentation from far-away places, adding to the intrigue. Their lyrics read like a mishmash of Gen-Y urban life, which is sometimes charming, but sometimes a bit off-putting when it gets buried in more explicit language and drug references. Still, I think these guys are trying to tell some sort of a story and not just do it for shock value, so I’m willing to listen deeper and see if I can make heads or tails of it.

2016_wilco_schmilcoWilco – Schmilco
I certainly admire Wilco’s tendency to say “F the system” and turn out albums on a totally independent basis whenever they please, with as much or as little promotion they please. This was most striking on last year’s surprise release of Star Wars, a rather brief – and sadly, mostly forgettable – album which I didn’t necessarily expect a follow-up to so soon. Schmilco, as you might not expect from its electrifying cover art, seems to pull together a lot of the more acoustic and muted song ideas from those sessions, occasionally getting a little more electric or noisy or experimental, but mostly turning out to be even more hushed and laid-back than Sky Blue Sky. This puts a lot more emphasis on Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, and his curious phrasings and tendency to look at things ironically are in fine form here, but for the most part the songs just don’t have the melodic heft or instrumental brilliance to make them measure up to what we know Wilco’s mellower material is capable of. The result is an album that certainly doesn’t mean to throw us for a loop as much as their most experimental stuff did, but that still ends up being their most tedious one to listen to all the way through since A Ghost Is Born. Maybe take a little more time on the next one, guys?

2016_kttunstall_kinKT Tunstall – KIN
Tunstall almost gave up the whole singer/songwriter thing for good during the three years between her fourth and fifth albums. I wasn’t a huge fan of the much mellower sound of Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, but it seemed like a positive sign that she was refusing to be pigeonholed as an artist, so I’m admittedly surprised to see her returning to more rhythmic pop music with electronic overtones (as heard on Tiger Suit) for this new album, which was apparently crowd-funded. I’m not quite as fascinated with the nuts and bolts of the production as I was on Tiger Suit, but I think she does sassy, rhythmic pop/rock best, and the organic instrumentation does get to shine through on several tracks, so it’s probably best seen as an amalgamation of the styles explored in her first three albums. I’m not wowed by most of it, but there are some fun songs here and it’s an enjoyable listen overall.

2016_paperroute_realemotionPaper Route – Real Emotion
I want to say that this was my most anticipated release of 2016, but honestly, earlier this year I wasn’t even sure if they’d manage to pull another album together, given their habit of releasing the odd single here and there over the long four years since The Peace of Wild Things dropped back in 2012, without much of any news in between. Getting a preview of the singles that would wind up on this album when the band opened for MuteMath back in March was nice, though the structure of those songs seemed to emphasize the pop hooks more and the exploratory/ambient stuff heard on Absence a lot less, akin to the singles released from Peace. So I was pleasantly surprised at this album’s ambitious scope – 16 tracks provides plenty of time for rhythmically dense electro-rockers and catchy pop singles and cathartic ambiance and little bits of foreshadowing and song reprises over nearly an hour of music. Both of their past albums were so strong that my expectations here were almost unfairly high, and while this record is definitely more ambitious than their last two, it’ll take some time for me to figure out if I like it enough to top either of them. I already know after 4 or 5 listens that I like it a lot and will probably continue to spin it repetitively for the rest of the year, so that’s a very good sign.

2016_crowder_americanprodigalCrowder – American Prodigal
Total surprise. I had no idea Crowder was working on a follow-up to Neon Steeple, though I don’t tend to follow the CCM genre nearly as closely as I once did, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Crowder continues to pull together every musical style under the sun that he personally enjoys making, the styles don’t clash as egregiously as they did on Neon Steeple, possibly because there’s a bit more rock to bridge the gap between the swampy, rootsy stuff and the ravey, dance-pop stuff. In general the electronic aspect of Crowder’s sound seems to have been scaled back, though now there are some bits of Gospel and even a few guest rappers in the mix, so musically this one’s still all over the place. It’s also got quite a few tracks to take in, with over an hour of music on the special edition, but my reaction on first listen was largely positive, and that certainly beats the strong distaste I felt when first listening to Neon Steeple (which nevertheless managed grow on me quite a bit over time).

Band of Skulls – By Default: I like my competition clean.

2016_BandofSkulls_ByDefaultArtist: Band of Skulls
Album: By Default
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: This is easily the band’s leanest & meanest record, in terms of just jamming out a bunch of fun songs and not overthinking it. But the garage-y bluesiness and stylistic variance heard on past albums isn’t as prominent here. So the surface-level enjoyment I get just from listening to them play is often undercut by a nagging feeling that there’s no real substance here.

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Mumford & Sons – Johannesburg EP: I wish there had been time for a full album.

2016_MumfordSons_JohannesburgEPArtist: Mumford & Sons
Album: Johannesburg EP
Year: 2016
Grade: B+

In Brief: Surprisingly strong, given the unlikely collaboration between an English “folk” band and three stylistically divergent African artists. I still think Mumford & Sons are poseurs of a sort, wandering the world in search of a sound they can actually master, but this EP at least proves that they’re excellent collaborators.

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Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through: Turn it up so I can feel it!

2016_Switchfoot_WheretheLightShinesThroughArtist: Switchfoot
Album: Where the Light Shines Through
Year: 2016
Grade: B+

In Brief: A strong comeback from Switchfoot after a trilogy of mediocre to mildly good albums. It doesn’t radically revamp their sound, but the new things that they do try here do a lot to revitalize it. It just feels like they tried a lot harder with this one, and that’s all I need from a band that could easily just keep repeating itself at this stage in its career.

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Relient K – Air For Free: There’s nothing better than knowing where you come from.

2016_RelientK_AirforFreeArtist: Relient K
Album: Air For Free
Year: 2016
Grade: A

In Brief: Relient K dodges the expectations created by both their pop/punk heyday and their abysmal attempt at pop crossover on Collapsible Lung, and comes up with their best album yet in the process. It’s less guitar-oriented and more piano and arrangement-heavy than classic RK, at times feeling like a spiritual successor to Forget and Not Slow Down. But the hints that RK had an album like this inside them somewhere have really been there since the beginning.

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What Am I Listening To? – August 2016

2016_JohnPaulWhite_BeulahJohn Paul White – Beulah
Joy Williams’ first post-Civil Wars record last year was more of a mellow pop album with hints of folk around the edges, so purists who liked the often stark acoustic sound that the duo found so much success with will probably find more to relate to in White’s solo work than in Williams’. Personally, while I appreciate White’s voice and songcraft, something feels missing when he’s all by his lonesome, with no one to harmonize. That’s probably why the guest appearance of fellow Alabama musicians The Secret Sisters makes their collaboration on “I’ve Been Over This Before” an instant standout. The inclusion of electric guitar on a few tracks brings to mind the grittier approach of “The One that Got Away” and “I Had Me a Girl”, but White’s more sensitive side is effective on tracks like “I Hate the Way You Love Me” and “I’ll Get Even” that don’t sound from their titles like they’d be so darn tender.

2015_OutoftheGrey_ALittleLightLeftOut of the Grey – A Little Light Left
Out of the Grey remains a nostalgic favorite of mine for their early 90’s CCM albums, the first of which I’m still quite comfortable labeling as an example of “the perfect pop album”. But unless you count 2009’s Voyage, which was really more of a Christine Denté solo album, they hadn’t put out anything as duo in almost a decade and a half, up until this new crowd-funded effort was quietly released last year. Since under-the-radar indie-funded releases often don’t make it into Spotify’s database, I had no chance to hear this one without actually buying it, but not having a whole lot else new to listen to this month, I finally took the chance and got it from iTunes. Like Voyage, it’s a very mellow effort centered mostly around Christine’s piano and Scott’s acoustic guitar, but unlike the devotional focus of that record, these songs are very relational, and unlike the bulk of Out of the Grey’s work, Scott’s vocals are much more prominent in the mix this time, making them feel like a true vocal duo and not just “she sings, he does his guitar magic”. I still miss the old glossy 90s pop sound, though I would never expect such a thing to come back into style or want an artist to feel stuck in the genre they started out with. I am pleasantly surprised by the country overtones and the interesting lyrical turns a few of these songs possess. Despite how different they sound now versus how they sounded in 1991, it still feels like a welcome visit from old friends whenever I hear them perform, so I’m happy that they’re still at it after all these years.