Haim – Something to Tell You: Baby, it’s about time!

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouArtist: Haim
Album: Something to Tell You
Year: 2017
Grade: B

In Brief: No shocking changes here – the Haim sisters stick largely to what worked on their first album. There might be a few more slick R&B grooves and guitar solos that sneak up on you, and that helps to keep this from feeling like a total retread of Days Are Gone. Still, that album is slightly better song-for-song than this one.

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What Am I Listening To? – July 2017

2017_JenniferKnapp_LoveComesBackAroundJennifer Knapp – Love Comes Back Around
Knapp’s sixth album is a bit more “rock” than Set Me Free was, but in that workmanlike, “heartland” sort of way where the pace of it is more relaxed and the guitars are there to get the job done without too much showing off. There’s the occasional musical bright spot – an earthy guitar solo, a few horns to accent a track or two, a winsome acoustic melody on one of the gentler songs. Unfortunately I’m still rather “meh” about the music overall. I’m excited about the lyrical content, which finds Jennifer digging more into the specifics of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship with another woman. It’s been strongly hinted at on her past two albums, but never made explicit, and that opens up some new possibilities for her songwriting-wise, while other songs about forgiveness and rebuilding burnt bridges help to ensure it doesn’t ever become the one thing that consumes her identity as a songwriter.

2017_Haim_SomethingtoTellYouHaim – Something to Tell You
I’ve been waiting eagerly for this one ever since I became obsessed with Haim’s debut album in 2014. Some follow-ups take way too long to deliver, but thankfully this one doesn’t disappoint. I can hear a little bit more sampling and interesting use of syncopation as they explore their R&B side a little more, while their rock side emerges in the form of a few surprisingly raw moments of guitar solo glory. Still, this is a pop record at its heart – one which shows some growth in places, but falls back on repetitive choruses and melodies that don’t push themselves quite as much as they could in others. I’m still slightly partial to Days Are Gone, but I’m glad they tried a few things here that they hadn’t thought to the first time around.

2017_Coldplay_KaleidoscopeEPColdplay – Kaleidoscope EP
I don’t think the release of an EP deserves nearly as much hype as Coldplay built up for this one, by releasing nearly all five of its songs in some form ahead of time, and by pushing back the release date a few times. I think there’s been more buzz about this than a band’s usual between-album leftovers project simply because Chris Martin has talked about A Head Full of Dreams, to which this EP is a companion piece, as though it might be their final full-length album. There are some interesting ideas here that both recall Coldplay’s old days as well as suggesting some possible routes forward, both for good (see the off-kilter syncopation of “A L I E N S”) and for bad (see their unfortunate Chainsmokers collaboration “Something Just Like This”, which sounds even stupider presented as a live version here). But I’m a bit worried about the prospect of Coldplay becoming a “singles band” that releases material in a piecemeal fashion. When they pull a collection of songs together in a way where the sum means more than the individual pieces, as they did on Viva la Vida, they can be truly transcendent, but lately they seem a bit too preoccupied with having these massive stand-alone songs that capture the cultural zeitgeist, and considering themselves failures if a single falls short of that.

2017_Radiohead_OKComputer_OKNOTOK19972017Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
For the 20th anniversary of OK Computer, Radiohead re-released it with a second disc full of lost songs from the era, a few of which had been played live and made their way into fandom folklore, but had never seen official release on a studio recording for now. (There’s also a box set with some other goodies for the diehards. I’m just listening to the standard edition on Spotify.) OKC is my absolute favorite Radiohead album, which feels like one of the few things I have in common with a lot of Radiohead fans, and I didn’t even think it needed a remaster to be honest, because I don’t think there were any technical limitations at the time holding it back from achieving its full potential. But in listening to this version, I do hear occasional bits of instrumentation pop out that I hadn’t noticed as much in the bazillion times I’ve listened to the original release since I first got into the band circa 2001. The new songs and lost B-sides aren’t really doing as much for me – I would say it’s because I don’t have the personal history with any of those songs that some fans do, but also there isn’t as much thematic connection between any of them, which was the big draw for me on OKC (even though Radiohead swears up and down it wasn’t meant to be a concept album). You’ll probably like a lot of these tracks more if The Bends was your favorite era of Radiohead, since several sound like the direction they could have taken that sound before they decided to take the more introverted and progressive turn that make OKC such a landmark album.

2015_POD_TheAwakeningP.O.D. – The Awakening
I’m a bit out of the loop where P.O.D. is concerned. They put out a new album in 2015 that I didn’t even know about until just recently; back then I was actually really enjoying the acoustic SoCal Sessions album they’d put out the year before, which emphasized the actual musicality of the band over pure bravado and heaviness, and gave me hope that there might be some creative juice left in the band. Turns out they funneled that creative energy into a hilariously bad concept album, during which the spaces between every single song are filled with sound bytes and painfully stilted voice acting meant to portray some sort of a redemptive story arc. The music mostly follows this story, but occasionally veers from it to give us the typical “P.O.D. pumps up their hardcore fans” type anthem that makes me wonder if they’re still mentally trapped in the year 2002. (Skillet’s Rise isn’t a bad comparison in terms of the album’s structure, though from what little I remember of that subpar album, it was more tolerable than this.) A few tracks show signs of artistic growth, but for the most part this album is a cringe-inducing trainwreck – easily the worst thing I’ve heard from them since the pre-Satellite days.

2017_JohnReuben_ReubonicJohn Reuben – Reubonic
John Reuben was always a bit of an oddity in my music library, since I don’t normally listen to rap. My reason for liking him had nothing to do with him being a white rapper – I just found that, as goofy and self-deprecating as his music could be, he actually had some solid commentary on the commercial aspects and skewed political priorities of the Christian music industry in which he came to realize he was a square peg in a round hole as the years went on. He pretty much fell off the map after the lackluster Sex, Drugs & Self-Control in 2009, but now he’s back with an edgier album that was surprisingly likeable for me right out of the gate. Usually I think Reuben’s songs are weird and awkward at first, and then some of them grow on me over time. But I think he hit just the right balance of accessibility and experimentation with this one – and some of his more challenging lyrics are bound to shock and confuse the old CCM fans who still expect some sort of a Toby Mac protege, which gives him some real bonus points in my book. This might just outdo his previous career high point, Word of Mouth, but it’ll take a few more listens for me to be sure of that.

2017_ArcadeFire_EverythingNowArcade Fire – Everything Now
While Arcade Fire’s fifth album isn’t as much of a startling change-up as Reflektor, the mish-mash of disco, reggae, and electropop influences is still a large part of their music as it was on that album, which will leave some fans of their older work wanting due to the lack of “old-timey instruments”. But commenting on the excesses of pop culture, the more streamlined, danceable, instant-gratification sort of sound makes sense. Consider it their equivalent of U2’s Pop, I guess. I really enjoy most of what I’m hearing here, and I actually don’t mind Win Butler’s fervent, kinda-preachy vocals now that I’ve had all these years to get used to the band’s shtick. I relate to a lot of what they’re trying to communicate here. Still, they kind of went off the deep end in terms of repetition, with a few songs full-on repeating themselves in different musical contexts on almost identically-named tracks. And perhaps one too many choruses that get a bit redundant and make otherwise digestible-length songs feel like they go on for a bit longer than they really need to. Still, this album is an emotional gut-punch where it really counts, and usually they’ve had to accomplish that by way of songs that take several listens to grow on me. So either I’m used to the learning curve by this point, or Arcade Fire’s finally found that sweet spot in between challenging and accessible.

Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2014: Favorite Albums and Honorable Mentions

As always, I’m closing the year out with a summary of my favorite records from the year gone by. The only qualifying factors to make this list are that they must be full-length albums consisting of new material (I have a separate section for EPs and collections of previously released material), with a release date in 2014. Everything I really enjoyed this year that falls outside of those boundaries still gets a mention, just not a ranking.

It was really hard to pick a clear #1 this year. I love the top four albums on this list just about equally. Two are more “baroque” pop records that lean toward the electronic and experimental, and two are more in-your-face rock records. They’re the only “A grades” that I gave out this year. Which one is my favorite among them changes based on my mood, so I basically gave the #1 slot to the one I’ve enjoyed for the largest chunk of the year. I can’t imagine very many other people who would ever actually listen to all four of them, let alone like them all, but they all come with my highest recommendations for anyone into the types of music these individual artists are making.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2014: Favorite Songs

It’s that time of year again, when I arbitrarily sort through the list of songs I’ve been obsessed with over the past 12 months, and try to whittle it down to a semi-reasonable list of 100 favorites. A lot of these were released in 2013, and a few even in 2012, but as usual, I was late to the party.

Music videos and some live performances are embedded for most of the Top 30. I didn’t want to go too far beyond that, for fear of crashing your browser. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that explores a number of these favorites, more or less chronologically in the order that I discovered them.

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What Am I Listening To? – January 2014

2013_ArcticMonkeys_AMArctic Monkeys – AM
Started the new year off with a pair of suggestions on the topic of more “mainstream” rock albums that I had missed out on. Arctic Monkeys have never really been my style because they seem to put cocky swagger above all else and not think too deeply about their lyrics… but I will admit there are a few fun songs here.

2013_QueensoftheStoneAge_LikeClockworkQueens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
A little more dark and cynical than I’m usually willing to go, but I like the heavy “stoner rock” sound that these guys have honed over the years, and the group’s willingness to experiment. “Smooth Sailing” is incredibly addictive in much the same way as Elbow’s “Grounds for Divorce”, and normally, there’d be no reason whatsoever to compare those two bands.

2013_DerekWebb_IWasWrongImSorryILoveYouDerek Webb – I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
Derek Webb has an annoying habit of exciting me with a few songs that seem to hint at a new direction, and then playing it too safe for most of the rest of an album. Stockholm Syndrome remains the only album of his where this hasn’t been true. But I appreciate this one as a sort of career retrospective, and it’s a stronger album overall than Ctrl. The title track and “Eye of the Hurricane” are easily a few of his best songs.

2013_Chvrches_TheBonesofWhatYouBelieveChvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
With a haunting undercurrent beneath their deceptively chirpy exterior, the debut from this Scottish synthpop trio makes a solid case for the validity of laptop-driven music.

2013_Haim_DaysAreGoneHaim – Days Are Gone
Sort of the DIY version of the ideal early 90s R&B/pop album. The Haim sisters’ songs may be a bit on the fluffy side, but their attitude is infectious and their work ethic is admirable.

2013_Owel_OwelOwel – Owel
It’s probably unintentional, but in the course of creating an album full of epic, meandering progressive rock tunes with a few peppy pop tunes in between to break the tension, Owel seems to bring back the specters of several indie rock bands I used to love who have since vanished into the woodwork. They could use a band name that doesn’t result in their immediately being confused with a dorky synthpop outfit, but that would be a stupid thing for me to hold against them.

2014_RosanneCash_TheRiverandtheThreadRosanne Cash – The River and the Thread
I respect Cash as a songwriter, and she paints some lovely word pictures on this mostly mellow ode to the American South, but musically, she played it a bit too safe here. Then again, I only got on board relatively recently with 2006’s Black Cadillac, which was definitely geared toward more of a pop/rock audience, so what do I know?

2014_Switchfoot_FadingWestSwitchfoot – Fading West
Disappointingly predictable, for an album that’s supposed to be the soundtrack to its accompanying film and that evidently changed up Switchfoot’s usual recording process. They’re playing cultural catch-up here, and at times it’s enjoyable, but more often than not it’s generic, if not downright embarrassing.