The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost.

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.

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Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness: Let’s get lost, baby, and take a wrong turn.

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.

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Sleater-Kinney – One Beat: Since when is skepticism un-American?

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.

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The Decemberists – The Crane Wife: We’ll make our homes on the water.

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.

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Wye Oak – Shriek: I can’t remember what came before.

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.

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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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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

2016_EsperanzaSpalding_EmilysDevolution

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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