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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The Postal Service – Give Up: They Have Become Silhouettes

Artist: The Postal Service
Album: Give Up
Year: 2003
Grade: A-

In Brief: What was once just a fun little collaborative side project that its members probably didn’t expect most of the world to notice, became a monolithic influence in the world of indie electronic music that infamously never got a proper follow-up. If you’re into modern day indie bands that show off their bleeps, bloops, and glitches alongside ironic songwriting, and you somehow missed out on The Postal Service like I did, then you owe it to yourself to go back and discover their debut (and sadly, final) album.

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Seeming – The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity: Finally it’s here, your excuse to go permanently mad.

Artist: Seeming
Album: The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: An inventive and sometimes challenging electronic project that is also generous enough to deliver its fair share of solid melodic hooks. There are a few moments here that aren’t for the faint of heart, as this record expresses a rather grim view of humanity against the backdrop of one of the bleakest years in recent history. But it’s a cathartic listen, and in its own weird way, it might even suggest that there’s a faint glimmer of hope for us yet.

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Sylvan Esso – Free Love: You didn’t have to make it THAT easy.

Artist: Sylvan Esso
Album: Free Love
Year: 2020
Grade: C+

In Brief: While there are a handful of brilliant and immediately engaging tracks here, and the duo is always inventive in the beat-making and sampling department, it’s a bit distressing to me Sylvan Esso’s third album seems kind of like it was thrown together as an afterthought. Several tracks feel like mere fragments of songs, and despite the album’s brisk 29-minute runtime, some of the sparser moments can really drag. This is fine as lightweight electropop albums go, but I don’t feel anywhere near as challenged by it as I did by a lot of the material on their first two records.

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Lights – Skin&Earth: Freefall with Me.

Artist: Lights
Album: Skin&Earth
Year: 2017
Grade: B+

In Brief: It took me a few years to realize it, but this is Lights’ best album thus far. While she had experimented a bit on past albums, this one seems to know how to bring in sounds ranging from micro-beats to real-live rock instrumentation when the occasion calls for it, in a way that feels cohesive and helps the listener to feel the rush of different emotions that the songs describe. Sure, some of it is still innocuous pop fluff, but even that stuff keeps the quality level up more consistently than her previous albums. Skin&Earth is a record that I’ve belatedly come to recognize as a highlight from an exciting, scary, and transformative year of my life.

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Jónsi – Shiver: My Scandinavian Pain (and Pleasure)

Artist: Jónsi
Album: Shiver
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: The Sigur Rós frontman takes some bold steps forward on his second solo album… and some deliberate steps back into the shadows as well. A lot of electronic sounds come to the forefront this time around, and the mood is definitely darker and moodier than Go was ten years ago, but it’s interesting how this record can switch unpredictably from calming, to exuberant, to downright harsh and terrifying. Combine that with Jónsi’s angelic, otherworldly voice and you’ve got a surprisingly engaging album for one so experimental. But if you’re not in the right mood for it, it could just as easily give you a massive headache.

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Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor: How to draw the line between band and solo.

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.

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Phantogram – Ceremony: Fall into happiness (then soul-crushing sadness, then happiness again for some reason.)

Artist: Phantogram
Album: Ceremony
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

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.

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Tame Impala – The Slow Rush: It might be time to face it – this album’s not as fun as I wanted it to be.

Artist: Tame Impala
Album: The Slow Rush
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: I don’t necessarily mind that album #4 from Tame Impala trends more toward the chill, retro, vibey stuff than the more edgy, in-your-face, psychedelic weird stuff. What bugs me is that, outside of a few strong singles, a lot of these new tracks are guilty of starting off with interesting ideas that never seem to get further developed, or else collapsing into a maze of false starts and disjointed outros. It makes a record with an otherwise enjoyable sound feel bloated and tedious. (And the exclusion of a strong early single from the album proper only serves to exacerbate the problem.)

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Miike Snow: These are NOT songs for no one.

Artist: Miike Snow
Album: Miike Snow
Year: 2009
Grade: A-

In Brief: With a sharp mix of club beats, idiosyncratic synths, and live drums and piano, Miike Snow had an intoxicating blend of sounds on their remarkably consistent debut record. I’m bummed that it took until this album was a decade old for me to fully realize that.

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