Artist: Death Cab for Cutie Album: Narrow Stairs Year: 2008 Grade: B+
In Brief: Death Cab rode an existential crisis as far down into the abyss as they were willing to go on Narrow Stairs. Though it may present itself as a challenging record, even an ornery one at times, it’s got some of the group’s best melodies, most riveting performances, and most intriguing lyrics. Some might say it’s a dark horse pick, and Ben Gibbard himself has said he doesn’t want to get this dreary ever again. But despite all the fear and angst expressed here, I’m still convinced this is the best record Death Cab for Cutie has ever put out.
Artist: The Postal Service Album: Give Up Year: 2003 Grade: A-
In Brief: What was once just a fun little collaborative side project that its members probably didn’t expect most of the world to notice, became a monolithic influence in the world of indie electronic music that infamously never got a proper follow-up. If you’re into modern day indie bands that show off their bleeps, bloops, and glitches alongside ironic songwriting, and you somehow missed out on The Postal Service like I did, then you owe it to yourself to go back and discover their debut (and sadly, final) album.
Artist: Foo Fighters Album: Medicine at Midnight Year: 2021 Grade: B
In Brief: The Foos set out to make a “dance-rock” record, and in their own weird way, they sort of succeeded at it. Aside from a few outliers, you shouldn’t expect a ton of depth here – and you definitely shouldn’t expect a ton of content. But the shift from Foo Fighters’ usual shtick that puts the spotlight more on their rhythm section actually shows us a band that secretly wants to have fun, underneath all the aggressive angst that has been their calling card since the 90s. And you know what? I can roll with that.
In Brief: Robin Pecknold, working mostly as a one-man show by necessity, has delivered us a soothing autumn soundtrack that probably would have gone down much more smoothly any other year. I’ll try not to hold the events of 2020 against it.
Artist: Pearl Jam Album: Gigaton Year: 2020 Grade: C+
In Brief: I feel like I have a healthy respect for the different sides of Pearl Jam’s personality. Their grungy, hard rocking side is easy to love. And they have some strong rockers on Gigaton, with some great guitar solos. I’ve grown to appreciate their subversive, experimental side over the years. They have some marginally intriguing experiments here. And a few of my favorite Pearl Jam songs fall on the softer, more acoustic side. There are… some soft songs here too, I guess, but they’re generally not very good. The sum total is an album that I can’t help but feel rather ambivalent toward, despite how excited I was to finally hear new music from these guys after a nearly seven-year wait.
In Brief: Kings Kaleidoscope is pretty unique among “worship bands” in that they appear to be doing it for the art. While the sampling and heavy layering of disparate sounds can be distracting and overbearing at times, and the vocal melodies can be a bit clunky, occasionally being more shouted than sung, there’s an authenticity to their songwriting progress that draws me back to this record despite its glaring flaws. There’s a progression from doubt and disinterest, through deconstruction, and finally back to devotion on this record that I find refreshing in comparison to other worship bands whose songs make lofty, unattainable promises of constant piety.
Artist: Death Cab for Cutie Album: Thank You for Today Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: There’s a delicious irony in the standout tracks on an album that decries gentrification and the cruel passage of time being the ones that are the most slickly produced and sample-heavy. But Death Cab doesn’t need to fight it. At this point I think they’re better off as a pop band than they are as legendary heroes of indie rock or whatever.
In Brief: Content-wise, it’s nice to have more to work with than on Sonic Highways, but a strong front half sets up far too lofty expectations for an anemic back half. Foo Fighters can still rock my face off with the best of them, but their softer/more experimental side doesn’t quite hold my attention like I wished it did.
Artist: Fleet Foxes Album: Crack-Up Year: 2017 Grade: B
In Brief: A strangely fractured, and yet strangely beautiful, third album from a band that was clearly restless to expand upon their old sound without completely abandoning it. My opinion of it seems to change with every listen, but it’s slowly inching in a more positive direction. I think this band is challenging its fanbase in mostly good ways.
Artist: Foo Fighters Album: Sonic Highways Year: 2014 Grade: B+
In Brief: With this aural tribute to eight of our country’s great cities, featuring artists as diverse as Ben Gibbard, Joe Walsh, and Zac Brown (and that’s just on my three favorite tracks), Foo Fighters have finally gotten me hooked after nearly two decades of me thinking they weren’t my style. Not every experiment works, but the band is wise to let the various genre influences from each city be a flavor rather than the entire dish, which makes the record overall more cohesive and engaging than the sum of its parts.