Artist: Geographer Album: New Jersey EP Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: This 7-track EP may only feature 4 full-length songs, with the rest being intros and outros that help glue everything together, but those 4 songs are phenomenal. This was the perfect gateway for me to get into Mike Deni’s “sort of a band, sort of a solo project” blend of indie rock and synthpop, and it leaves me incredibly eager to hear what’s next on his upcoming full-length release due out this December.
Here are my first impressions of the latest from Flock of Dimes, Phoebe Bridgers, My Morning Jacket, Starflyer 59, Jason Mraz, Mike Shinoda, The Chicks, Father John Misty, Animal Collective, Bombay Bicycle Club, Alanis Morissette, and Wye Oak feat. The Brooklyn Youth Choir.
In Brief: Paramore’s self-titled record did what self-titled records are meant to do. It reintroduced listeners to a band that had experienced success in the pop-punk/emo scene, and was now eager to break out of it. What’s most surprising about this album is how urgent and in-your-face the drums are despite the then-recent departure of the band’s founding drummer, how the big pop hooks never seem to sacrifice the raw energy of a song, and how many different things the band is willing to try over the course of a seventeen-track, hour-long playlist. This was a transitional record for the band – and sure, not everything worked. But by and large, Paramore’s reinvention of themselves was a rousing success, giving us one of the best alt-rock albums of the 2010s in the process.
Artist: Hayley Williams Album: Petals for Armor Year: 2020 Grade: B
In Brief: The Paramore frontwoman’s solo debut might suffer slightly from having one too many ideas thrown at it, but it’s interesting from the standpoint of hearing a singer/songwriter experiment outside of her comfort zone without caring whose “rules” she might be breaking. Some of the dance/pop oriented stuff feels like a natural progression from Paramore’s last album, but with even more emphasis on the bass, drums, and keyboards. And the downtempo stuff tends to be more minimalist, even sometimes downright eerie in its use of weirdly syncopated loops and distorted vocal effects. Sadly, I fear that her method of releasing this record, with it slowly trickling out as a series of EPs, has wound up becoming more of a talking point than the actual music has.
Artist: Pearl Jam Album: Gigaton Year: 2020 Grade: C+
In Brief: I feel like I have a healthy respect for the different sides of Pearl Jam’s personality. Their grungy, hard rocking side is easy to love. And they have some strong rockers on Gigaton, with some great guitar solos. I’ve grown to appreciate their subversive, experimental side over the years. They have some marginally intriguing experiments here. And a few of my favorite Pearl Jam songs fall on the softer, more acoustic side. There are… some soft songs here too, I guess, but they’re generally not very good. The sum total is an album that I can’t help but feel rather ambivalent toward, despite how excited I was to finally hear new music from these guys after a nearly seven-year wait.
Artist: Lovebites Album: Electric Pentagram Year: 2020 Grade: B
In Brief: 70 minutes of non-stop Japanese power metal might seem like a daunting prospect… and honestly, it would be if I wasn’t already enamored with this band from a previous album. But listen beyond the consistently fast tempos, the insanely technical solos that seem to be a requirement in every single song, and the predictably anthemic choruses, and there’s actually quite a bit more variety here than meets the eye. This is one of those records where I’d actually be hard pressed to point out weak links – the songs all range from good to great in quality. But perhaps a breather or two is advisable, rather than trying to take it all in at once (unless of course you’re a die-hard metalhead who just can’t get enough of that sort of thing).
Artist: The Decemberists Album: The King Is Dead Year: 2011 Grade: A-
In Brief: The Decemberists took a hard turn toward twangy Americana at the start of the last decade. I can’t imagine the move toward more conventional and accessible song structures, and away from high concept albums, sitting well with fans of the increasingly complex and long-winded magnum opuses they made toward the end of the 2000s. But for me, this is the record that manages to hit the sweet spot. The crisp production puts the rustic instrumentation upfront, making the record evocative of the wide open American West, and it songs work together thematically while also being enjoyable individually, without the surrounding context being required listening. This might be a dark horse pick, but it’s easily my favorite Decemberists album thus far.
In Brief: Rina’s blend of nostalgic turn-of-the-century sounds ranging from teenybopper pop to nu-metal might seem gaudy and superficial at first. But there’s some really smart stuff here for those willing to look beneath the surface. And I think that’s kind of her point – people look at her, see one thing, and make their ignorant assumptions. But as she explores her family history, her turbulent bi-cultural upbringing, her growing realization that she wasn’t like a lot of her peers, and her drive to continue going against the grain of accepted societal norms as an adult, her debut album weaves a rich tapestry that reveals a young artist fully in command of her many musical domains.
In Brief: The electronic rock/trip-hop duo’s fourth album is a bit of a potpourri, to the point where it doesn’t quite radiate the strong sense of musical identity heard on previous albums Voices and Three. There’s always been more to Phantogram than big, booty-shaking hooks, of course – and we still get a few choice bangers here. But Ceremony seems more concerned with the quirkier, trippier, and dreamier side of the Phantogram sound. I’m on board for most of it, even if there are stretches where my attention wanders.