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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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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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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Myles Kennedy – The Ides of March: Cool heads prevail in times of change.

Artist: Myles Kennedy
Album: The Ides of March
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: The alt-metal singer’s solo foray into a rootsier, bluesier style of rock music continues to be far more interesting than his dayjob as the frontman of Alter Bridge. While this record doesn’t have as much of the personal pathos that made Year of the Tiger so impactful, it’s still interesting to hear him try new things as a vocalist and a musician. As a songwriter, he falters a bit here as he tries to tackle contemporary social issues on a few tracks, but I figure his heart’s in the right place, at least.

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R.E.M. – Reveal: How (Else) to Disappear Completely

Artist: R.E.M.
Album: Reveal
Year: 2001
Grade: B+

In Brief: While Reveal is not destined to be remembered by most people as one of R.E.M.’s great albums, I’ve had a soft spot for it since it was only a few years old. The sometimes murky mix of R.E.M.’s experimental electronic and acoustic reflective modes, with almost nothing reminiscent of the more urgent sound of their alt-rock heyday, means that most of these songs are growers and a first listen isn’t likely to blow you away. But there are plenty of beautiful moments and intriguing turns of phrase here that feel like a snapshot of R.E.M. at a relatively healthy and upbeat moment in their lives. It’s an ideal record to put on while reading, journaling, meditating, or just plain lying back and relaxing on a long, languid summer evening.

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Foo Fighters – Medicine at Midnight: Is there more to this than that?

Artist: Foo Fighters
Album: Medicine at Midnight
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: The Foos set out to make a “dance-rock” record, and in their own weird way, they sort of succeeded at it. Aside from a few outliers, you shouldn’t expect a ton of depth here – and you definitely shouldn’t expect a ton of content. But the shift from Foo Fighters’ usual shtick that puts the spotlight more on their rhythm section actually shows us a band that secretly wants to have fun, underneath all the aggressive angst that has been their calling card since the 90s. And you know what? I can roll with that.

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Everything in Slow Motion – Influence: Let me lay my burden down at the end of my rope.

Artist: Everything in Slow Motion
Album: Influence
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s been seven years since EISM’s debut album, during which Shane Ochsner apparently had a lot of time to rethink his band’s sound. While fans of their older, more scream-heavy material will probably scoff at the shift toward more of a mainstream rock sound, I’ll point out that the melodic stuff wasn’t entirely absent from album #1, and they haven’t completely abandoned the old sound, either. The biggest issue with Influence isn’t how light or heavy it is, but the uneasy balance between the two extremes.

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Doves – The Universal Want: Back to the Old Fairgrounds

Artist: Doves
Album: The Universal Want
Year: 2020
Grade: A-

In Brief: A rock solid comeback from a British rock trio that I’ve sincerely come to miss in the ten years they’ve been gone. Unlike a lot of reunion or post-hiatus albums I’ve heard recently, this is more of a streamlining and less of a reinvention. The grooves are more percussive, the hooks are more immediate, and what Doves may lack in experimentation this time around, they more than make up for with consistent, compelling performances. This is an excellent rock record in an era where they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find.

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Paramore: Remember when we wanted the future NOW?

Artist: Paramore
Album: Paramore
Year: 2013
Grade: B+

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.

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Pearl Jam – Gigaton: Expecting perfection leaves a lot to ignore.

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.

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