Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever: Try to use a little more of your power.

Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: Happier Than Ever
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: When listener expectations are this ridiculously high for the follow-up to a landmark debut, it can be hard to separate out your desire to see the artist do well, both professionally and personally, from your actual enjoyment of the music. Billie’s great at subverting audience expectations, and at performing quiet but impactful songs that touch upon surprising influences both past and present, so I knew not to expect a lot of instant gratification here. But I’m liking her sophomore release a teeny bit less with every listen, which is kind of alarming.

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Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: Our Insincerity Is Our Sincerity.

Artist: Sparks
Album: A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s nice when a band that’s been around for over 50 years can put out a witty and engaging record that immediately gets me over the nagging question, “Why the heck should I start listening to these guys NOW?” Their manic, keyboard-heavy brand of art rock isn’t gonna be for everyone, and they’re certainly more interested in lampooning pop culture than they are in falling in line with it, but there’s something about the cheeky wordplay and the occasional bit of biting social commentary that keeps me engaged throughout most of these 14 tracks. If Steady Drip is in any way indicative of the quality of Sparks’ past work, then I have a LOT of catching up to do.

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Anchor & Braille – TENSION: Who are we really when no one is watching and no one’s around?

Artist: Anchor & Braille
Album: TENSION
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: This isn’t the most lyrically profound or artistically bold statement that Stephen Christian has ever made… but if an album of melancholy “dark pop” songs from Anberlin’s lead singer sounds like the sort of thing that might be up your alley, then you should definitely give Tension a try.

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Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension: There’s too much music on that!

Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: The Ascension
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: The Ascension largely trades in Sufjan’s highly detailed style of storytelling for much broader themes, but it’s still a meticulously crafted and incredibly vulnerable record that once again pulls off an unexpected genre shift from his past work, this time to a glitchy electropop sound that is quite distinct from his past electronic projects. The problem – as with most Sufjan records – is that it’s way too damn long, and the repetition/rumination gets overbearing, to the point where listener fatigue detracts from the quality of tracks that might otherwise stand out as thought-provoking highlights.

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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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Billie Eilish – Don’t Smile at Me: You’re italic, I’m in bold.

Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: Don’t Smile at Me EP
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: I sure would love to have been in the know when Billie’s debut EP first started making waves a few years ahead of the bombshell that was When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Her musical style and lyrical narratives were ridiculously all over the place at this early stage, but considering that this stuff all came from the minds of two teenage siblings, it definitely shows imagination and ingenuity beyond either of their years. (And also a few moments that I can only imagine must have made their parents worry a little bit.)

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Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go: Not as bad as she wants to be. (In fact, she’s quite good.)

Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Year: 2019
Grade: B+

In Brief: Billie’s full-length debut rather boldly defies my expectations of what a pop album, whether indie or mainstream, should sound like in 2019. She also busts some of my stereotypes about teenage singer/songwriters in general, and how they can communicate both lyrically and sonically in a way that comes across as authentic while still drawing in a huge and diverse audience. I didn’t expect to like this album nearly as much as I did, and now I can’t stop listening to it.

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Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride: Why’s your heart grown heavy when things were feeling light?

Artist: Vampire Weekend
Album: Father of the Bride
Year: 2019
Grade: B+

In Brief: It’s been six years, and Vampire Weekend has made their long-anticipated fourth album worth the wait. In many ways the music is sunnier and folksier than their past stuff, yet their love of electronic sampling and worldbeat influences still strongly influences their sound, which has taken a notable stylistic leap forward. Not all of these 18 songs are winners, and there are a few sections of the album that drag as a result of its long-windedness, but that gives the band room to try a lot of different things and see what sticks, and I’m happy to report that the vast majority of it does.

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Sucré – In Pieces: In which a side project gets shoved suspiciously into the spotlight

Artist: Sucré
Album: In Pieces EP
Year: 2018
Grade: A-

In Brief: These three new songs hint at an exciting “next level” for a side project of former Eisley and MuteMath members Stacy DuPree-King and Darren King that is now apparently the main musical gig for each. I’m really hoping this exciting little morsel is just an appetizer for a full album to come, because I’d hate to think they left their other respective bands only to put out stuff like this on rare occasions.

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Kimbra – Primal Heart: I’m a foreigner everywhere I roam.

Artist: Kimbra
Album: Primal Heart
Year: 2018
Grade: B-

In Brief: Kimbra’s third record doesn’t lay on the nostalgia and experimentation quite as thick as her last two, but it’s still a unique and worthwhile modern pop/R&B record, in its own low-key way.

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