The Decemberists – The King Is Dead: You must bear your neighbor’s burdens within reason.

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.

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And then I will be something perfect in your eyes: My Top 20 Falling Up Songs

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.

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Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold: I need something muddy to cover up the stain.

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.

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Liam Singer – Finish Him: You won’t hear this album in Nordic cathedrals. But it’s still quite divine.

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.)

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The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl: What a Terrible Album.

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: I’ll Be Your Girl
Year: 2018
Grade: C-

In Brief: A distressingly unfocused and non-committal album full of weird genre-hopping experiments that rarely work, and grating repetition that sucks any potential humor or narrative value out of most of the songs. I applaud the willingness to take risks with their sound, but I honestly get the impression from this album that The Decemberists are just plain exhausted from all the epic-length records that they used to make, and only half trying at this point. Not everything on this record is awful, but enough of it ranges from mildly disappointing to downright irritating that I end up in a bad mood pretty much every time I listen to it.

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Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution: Watch this pretty girl flow

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Artist: Esperanza Spalding
Album: Emily’s D+Evolution
Year: 2016
Grade: B+

In Brief: Is it jazz? Funk? Rock? R&B? Prog rock? Folk? YES! (Sort of.) However you label this bizarre mishmash of styles, it’s a jubilant celebration of a woman letting her mischievous alter ego come out to play. For me as a listener, it’s horizon-stretching in all the right ways.

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Falling Up: These tears, they build me up a house, then they pour on down and wash the house away.

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Artist: Falling Up
Album: Falling Up
Year: 2015
Grade: A

In Brief: As immediate as it is ornate and downright inscrutable. Falling Up took their time to get their farewell album right, and while Hours remains my personal favorite entry in their discography, one could easily make the case for this being their magnum opus.

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Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell: The Oregon Vortex

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Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Carrie & Lowell
Year: 2015
Grade: B+

In Brief: Though the music remains mellow and reserved throughout, Sufjan’s attempts to make sense of his troubled childhood in the wake of his mother’s death can at times be visceral, even shocking. It’s a departure from the days of classic Sufjan when geography and history played the starring roles, but these elements are still there, serving as the backdrop for an album that, under different circumstances, could have simply been called “Oregon”.

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The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World: It Made Me Better.

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Artist: The Decemberists
Album: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Year: 2015
Grade: B+

In Brief: Abandoning the heavy-duty concept album premises of their previous efforts and throwing a lot of different musical ideas at the wall over the course of a sprawling, diverse record seems to have worked well for The Decemberists. I honestly can’t recall what I disliked about them before, but their latest record has seriously brightened my spring, and I probably owe it to them to revisit some of their older stuff as well.

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Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love: It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.

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Artist: Sleater-Kinney
Album: No Cities to Love
Year: 2015
Grade: B

In Brief: Sometimes you just need a fun, noisy, in-your-face, no-nonsense blast of rock & roll. Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record passes that test easily. I may not know much else about their history, but hey, I had to start somewhere.

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