Artist: The Decemberists Album: The Hazards of Love Year: 2009 Grade: B+
In Brief: The Decemberists’ fifth album is basically the indie folk equivalent of a musical – and a well-cast one at that. It’s also hopelessly convoluted, in the way that a lot of prog-rock concept albums attempting a continuous narrative tend to be. But it covers an impressive amount of musical ground, and Colin Meloy’s ability to make listeners swoon one minute and recoil with absolute horror the next is unparalleled. For those who are brave and attentive enough to take a deep dive into its undercurrent of madness, listening to The Hazards of Love is certainly a fascinating way to spend an hour.
Artist: Sleater-Kinney Album: Path of Wellness Year: 2021 Grade: C+
In Brief: On their first album as a duo, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein exchange a lot of their usual passion, rage, and affinity for making rambunctious noise for more of an introspective curiosity, which is still noisy in places but much more subdued in others. I appreciate the exploratory nature of this project, and I think it has some worthwhile things to say, but given the iconic sound Sleater-Kinney had cultivated as a power trio over the years, it’s hard not to miss that now that they’re apparently forging a new identity.
Artist: Japanese Breakfast Album: Jubilee Year: 2021 Grade: B+
In Brief: Third time’s the charm for Japanese Breakfast, who has hit it big with a charming little indie pop record that is sure to brighten your summer. I’m taken aback in the best possible way by how effectively she’s emphasized the poppier aspects of her sound without losing the hazy, dreamy, and slightly psychedelic aspects of it from the old days. She wanted to write a happier record after two gloomier ones, and a superficial listen would tell you she succeeded.. right up until you start paying closer attention to the lyrics, at least.
Artist: Sleater-Kinney Album: One Beat Year: 2002 Grade: B+
In Brief: Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s deeply personal, and sometimes it’s just plain fun. The band was clearly at the top of their game in the early 2000s, finding fresh and intriguing ways to build on the scrappy outspokenness they’d been known for since the mid-90s, with the interplay between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker becoming more sophisticated, but without losing the immediacy of the riffs and vocal hooks, bolstered by Janet Weiss’s killer drumming. Exploring the band’s pre-hiatus discography has been entertaining and educational, and One Beat has easily become my favorite stop along that journey.
Artist: The Decemberists Album: The Crane Wife Year: 2006 Grade: A-
In Brief:The Crane Wife is The Decemberists’ masterpiece. Pretty much everything they did well in the old days is on display here – the complex multi-part suites, the lilting folk anthems, the foreboding rockers, and even some of their finest pop songs. It’s not the farthest they’ve ever gone down the conceptual rabbit hole (that was their next album!), but it hits the sweet spot in terms of having a wealth of songs you can enjoy individually or as part of the larger tapestry being woven from start to finish.
Artist: Liam Singer Album: The Ocean Year: 2021 Grade: C+
In Brief: It might not be fair to judge The Ocean as though it were a full-length album, since it began life as an EP of loosely related compositions that were conceived in quarantine. You’ll only get three or four “songs” in the traditional sense here, with the other eight being instrumental or spoken word tracks. I could see this working well for a peaceful, meditative walk or drive along the coastline, and I admire the intent behind it, but coming off of the masterpiece that was Finish Him, it’s hard not to feel more than a little let down.
Artist: Wye Oak Album: Shriek Year: 2014 Grade: B+
In Brief: Setting the guitar aside for an album when it was previously the most important element of your band’s sound is a risky proposition. But Shriek, which found Jenn Wasner trading her electric riffs for addictive bass lines, turned out to be a real game-changer for Wye Oak in the best way possible. This is exactly the sort of idiosyncratic indie-tronica that I had a thirst for throughout much of the 2010s.
Artist: The Decemberists Album: The King Is Dead Year: 2011 Grade: A-
In Brief: The Decemberists took a hard turn toward twangy Americana at the start of the last decade. I can’t imagine the move toward more conventional and accessible song structures, and away from high concept albums, sitting well with fans of the increasingly complex and long-winded magnum opuses they made toward the end of the 2000s. But for me, this is the record that manages to hit the sweet spot. The crisp production puts the rustic instrumentation upfront, making the record evocative of the wide open American West, and it songs work together thematically while also being enjoyable individually, without the surrounding context being required listening. This might be a dark horse pick, but it’s easily my favorite Decemberists album thus far.
Here’s an absolutely awful pitch for a band you’re trying to get someone into: “Hey, these guys were childhood friends of another band that you hate with every fiber of your being!” It’s no small miracle that I became a fan of Falling Up in the first place, given how much that little fun fact was bandied about in their promotional details and by Christian radio deejays when the band first debuted. Even for a Christian rock band that was trying to do something more creative and conceptual than their own marketing gave them credit for at the time, I definitely couldn’t have predicted that these guys would have gone on to become one of my favorite bands. Or that they would break up not once, but twice, both times right after delivering one of their weirdest and most wonderful records. Strange as it may seem, the more niche this band’s audience became, the better off they were.
Artist: Sleater-Kinney Album: The Center Won’t Hold Year: 2019 Grade: C+
In Brief: While I’m all for hearing Sleater-Kinney attempt to reinvent the sound they’ve had for 20+ years, the pop and electronic influences on this record don’t really mesh well with the righteous anger and irreverent commentary of their old punk rock sound. This leads to some unfortunate side effects as the group’s lyrics and hooks have been simplified, the vocal interplay between the two singers has been scaled way back, and the percussion has become so well-mannered that it was apparently a rather joyless record for their now-former drummer to participate in. This isn’t a career-destroying record, but it could turn out to be a legacy-damaging one.