The Killers – Pressure Machine: Splits a family in two, puts people on streets, um ba ba bey.

Artist: The Killers
Album: Pressure Machine
Year: 2021
Grade: B-

In Brief: We get a surprisingly subdued version of The Killers on album #7, which sees the band downshifting into sensitive folk/rock mode and away from their usual synth-heavy glammy indie rock. It suits the story Brandon Flowers is trying to tell, of the mundane struggles and headline-making tragedies of everyday people in the small Utah town he grew up in. Musically speaking, it’s not their most exciting record, but it’s got some powerful storytelling that often transcends the more simplistic style.

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Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind: You Give Schlocky Movies a Good Name.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Album: A Beginner’s Mind
Year: 2021
Grade: B+

In Brief: This is quite an unexpected return to the hushed, lovely, and sometimes haunting indie folk style that made a lot of folks fall in love with Sufjan in the first place. It’s a surprising outcome for a collaborative project where the inspiration came from the two men being holed up in a cabin watching scary, sappy, and/or vintage movies.

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Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed: Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.

Artist: Kacey Musgraves
Album: Star-Crossed
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: Let’s just call Star-Crossed what it is – a pretty darn good pop record about heartbreak, and the painstaking process of rebuilding one’s confidence and sense of identity after a marriage crashes and burns. I’m pretty sure this is not country music. And despite my general disdain for country-pop, I’m surprisingly OK with that.

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The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost.

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The Hazards of Love
Year: 2009
Grade: B+

In Brief: The Decemberists’ fifth album is basically the indie folk equivalent of a musical – and a well-cast one at that. It’s also hopelessly convoluted, in the way that a lot of prog-rock concept albums attempting a continuous narrative tend to be. But it covers an impressive amount of musical ground, and Colin Meloy’s ability to make listeners swoon one minute and recoil with absolute horror the next is unparalleled. For those who are brave and attentive enough to take a deep dive into its undercurrent of madness, listening to The Hazards of Love is certainly a fascinating way to spend an hour.

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Maxïmo Park – Nature Always Wins: How am I supposed to feel, denied the luxury of time?

Artist: Maxïmo Park
Album: Nature Always Wins
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s a little hard to unpack why I like Maxïmo Park, but don’t quite love them. Their style is pretty much right up the alley of all the indie and alternative rock I typically listen to, and they keep things pretty upbeat and intelligently introspective throughout this album. But I have a hard time describing what makes their sort-of-electronic, sort-of-retro rock sound distinctive enough to get me excited in a way that other bands couldn’t. They’ve been at this for a while, so it’s possible that they’ve done more unique work in the past, and I just happened to catch them on a more typical day at the office.

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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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