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.
Artist: San Fermin Album: The Cormorant I & II Year: 2020 Grade: B+
In Brief: Is it a rock band? A chamber pop ensemble? A composer using whatever instrumentalists and vocalists he has on hand to execute his creative vision? Whatever you want to call San Fermin, they’re quite generous with the orchestral adornments, the natural and mythical imagery, and the diversity of vocal perspectives throughout the 16 tracks on this 2-part record. While much of The Cormorant is a down-tempo exercise in pastoral beauty, there are several moments that will genuinely surprise you.
Artist: Tall Tall Trees Album: A Wave of Golden Things Year: 2020 Grade: B+
In Brief: Don’t judge this album by its meager eight-song tracklisting. These songs are jam-packed with delicious folk and indie rock instrumentation, mostly centered around the banjo, but clearly benefiting from Mike Savino’s talent on various instruments and his tendency to stack up a lot of layers in the studio. He’s trimmed the fat in a way that allows him to put his best foot forward with most of these songs, and the result is a delightful record that I’m likely to remember for being a welcome source of joy during a grim time in human history.
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.
Artist: Liam Singer Album: Finish Him Year: 2019 Grade: A
In Brief: Singer’s expressive, percussive, and incredibly intricate style of piano-based indie pop music, with occasional choral and electronic accents, is truly a magnificent thing to behold. Equal parts playful and confident, uncertain and exploratory, this hour-long album makes me feel a level of excitement over discovering a brilliant new artist that I experience maybe two or three times a decade. (And this is his fifth album, which means I’ve been missing out for quite some time now.)
Artist: My Brightest Diamond Album: A Million and One Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: This album further revises the MBD sound, taking Shara Nova’s already rhythm-heavy approach in even more of an electronic direction while dropping some of the more ornate instrumentation. It’s a bit all over the place, musically speaking, but I do appreciate it as a bold expression of her independence and artistic ambition.
If I could write songs like anyone in the world, I’d want to write like Vienna Teng does.
I’m sure I’ve echoed this sentiment many times in all of the reviews I’ve written of Vienna’s music over the years. And while there quite a lot of songwriters I’ve admired enough to consider them influential over the years, she seems to be the one I come back to the most consistently and remain in awe of, somehow still finding interesting little nuances I hadn’t considered before in songs of hers that I’ve loved for nearly two decades now. I knew pretty early on that I had stumbled across something special when I first heard her music – all it took was two songs performed on solo piano at an intimate live show way back in the spring of 2003 for me to first feel that tug deep within me, telling me I wanted to write something that communicated such powerful imagery wrapped in curious metaphor, and yet she was so intimidatingly good at it that I was pretty sure I’d never be able to come anywhere near it. But perhaps that’s the point. Vienna is such a restlessly creative individual who constantly challenges her own status quo. So maybe the best way to be inspired by her is to not try to mimic her at all. And therein lies the paradox.
In Brief: Whether it’s electrified country-rock, twangy folk, or a down-tempo piano ballad, Cash’s voice is as warm and reassuring as ever throughout this album, and her songwriting remains as intriguing as ever. This is more of a subdued record than a flashy, genre-bending one, but it’s a smartly crafted one with some deeply felt joys and pains behind its songs.
Artist: Kindo Album: Happy However After Year: 2018 Grade: B+
In Brief: With the name change comes an even stronger commitment to jazzy complexity, Latin rhythms, elaborate torch songs, and apparently a newfound love of electronic keyboards. It’s not my favorite variant on the Kindo sound, but it’s certainly a unique way for them to go against the flow in the current rock music climate, and they’re clearly still at the top of their game performance-wise.
Artist: Grizzly Bear Album: Painted Ruins Year: 2017 Grade: B
In Brief: While Grizzly Bear’s sound generally doesn’t excite me on first listen, I’ve grown to really appreciate how the colors and moods in their songs slowly reveal themselves as I listen for the details beyond just a song’s tempo, melody or riff. I’m coming back to this album a lot more than I would have expected based on my history with the band.