Hope everybody’s having a good Thanksgiving. Mine’s average.
4 Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid (2010)
Genre: Pop, Soul, etc.
Apparently this is some concept album or something but I just can’t really care about the lyrics that much, which is a shame because Monáe is a phenomenal singer and her prescence really dominates this album. I guess that they tell some story about a bridge robot or something but most of the songs just play as stories about love and war and good and evil. They’re dense with symbolism but I don’t know if they’re meaningful per se. This is fine though - I mean there’s a lot of music I listen to that doesn’t have really meaningful lyrics - I just think that the lyrical side of this album is really overstated.
If there’s one great thing I can say about this album, it’s that the song transitions are on point and this really does feel like a complete experience, rather than a collection of unrelated songs. This is hard to find in pop, which is mostly about how much radio play you can get. Production is also really great - there are no stupid, overblown, loud synths obscuring the melody here, and the instrumentation is pretty diverse, from 70’s-esque guitar solos to orchestral strings. It’s a unique atmosphere for the album, and I appreciate that.
Despite all this I just can’t really get into The ArchAndroid. There are a couple of really nice songs here (“Cold War, “Mushrooms and Roses”) but as a whole it doesn’t do anything except be nice songs. I think that it’s mainly that the songs aren’t all that different in mood from each other (with a few exceptions), so despite flowing like an album it doesn’t really feel like it’s going anywhere. It also doesn’t really do anything emotionally for me (possibly because of the previous point), which is pretty important to my enjoyment of the music.
Rather awkwardly I have to say that I highly recommend this album and that I really appreciate what it does from a production viewpoint, despite my lukewarm score. This stuff absolutely blows your Lady Gagas and Ke$has out of the water- it’s smart, it’s artsy, it’s ambitious, and it’s almost never overblown or cliche. It’s just not entirely my cup of tea.
3 M83 Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)
Genre: Dream Pop, Electronica
The sole reason I really listened to this album is because I was curious about M83’s new album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but felt like I should find a better entry point for their material. Well, here we are.
So! M83 is this pretty popular indie outfit from our WACKY European friends, the French! You may know France for some of their popular exports, including: French Fries, French Onion Soup, French Toast, and French Guiana. I hear they also don’t use deodorant. That makes me want to avoid French people!
If I had to describe this album in one word, it would be “long.” The album itself clocks in at just under an hour; longer than average, but by no means unreasonable. It just seems like the songs themselves drag on a lot; there’s a lot of repetition of uninspired melodies or chords, and even some of the shorter tracks (“Fields, Shorelines, and Hunters”) feel like they stretch on for much longer than they should.
The aesthetic for this album is pretty diverse though; some of the early songs - “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” especially - are very synthy and energetic, and remind me somewhat of The Killers’ early work. Songs like “Can’t Stop” almost seem like a modern interpretation of 80’s power pop… albeit repetitive and aimless, like a lot of the other stuff here. There are also some really slow-moving tunes here, like the piano ballad-turns electronic “Safe” (which sounds eerily similar to some material on Deerhunter’s Microcastle; M83 definitely has some influence on that band); and snyth-scape “Farewell/Goodbye.” This is nice, but again the songwriting is a a bit weak and the album seems like it’s dragging continuously.
That being said there are some stand-out songs; “*” is a really great, chaotic noise piece that sounds like it doesn’t even belong on this album. It’s definitely my favorite here, despite its short length and almost interlude-like presentation - seriously, the only song I like is the one that isn’t long enough. On the other side of the spectrum, “Car Chase Terror!” is a standout song because of its status as my least favorite song. I think that it’s too good; the vocal samples (depicting a mother and daughter fleeing from a presumably abusive husband) legitimately unsettle me. Despite a soundscape that I actually rather enjoy, I can’t get past the uneasy state that the samples put me in.
I’m torn between a 2 and a 3 here, but “Car Chase Terror!” notwithstanding I don’t really dislike any of the tracks here - they just aren’t that good. I’m definitely less interested than before in checking out the rest of this band’s discography, though.
6 Battles Mirrored (2007)
Genre: Math Rock
Since Gloss Drop is one of my favorite albums this year, I was worried that the vocals on this album would sound really out of place with Battles’ chaotic, staccato-driven instrumentation. I was pleasantly surprised to see it work incredibly well here; lyrics exist, but for the most part all I was able to pick up without Google was “ooh-WAH-yah-WAH-hah-WHA” or some variation, and that totally congeals with the euphoric guitar twinklings and schizophrenic rhythm shifts. Every element is in its right place for this record.
I was also surprised to find that Mirrored was every bit as good as its successor, albeit in some different ways. It’s not quite as fun as Gloss Drop… which is kind of like saying something’s not as sweet as pure sugar (I’m not exaggerating when I say that literally every album I’ve ever heard can be described as “less fun than Gloss Drop”). This is still a fun album, but there’s more tension and conflict on the songs here; there’s something a little bit sinister floating beneath the surface on “Tonto” and “Tij” that doesn’t really make it to Gloss Drop. I also detect a greater sense of intensity here; Mirrored is less about ROCKING OUT \m/ and more concerned with itself and the structure of the songs; as a result there aren’t any tracks like “Ice Cream” or “My Machines” that settle into a nice pop groove. Weirdly, the tracks here are less structured yet more controlled, giving both of the Battles LP’s a unique flavor.
Hope everybody’s having a good Thanksgiving. Mine’s average.
5 Gary Numan The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Genre: Synthpop, New Wave
um this is an album by gray newman. its got electric instruments and some good singing. some of the songs are kind of sad. i like listening to this album. it’s a good album in my opinion. i don’t really have anything else to say.
~mitch, age 8
3 Polvo Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)
Genre: Math Rock, Post-Hardcore
I wonder how many great ideas you can pack into an album without it ever really paying off. I think Polvo may have pushed the limit with this album, which makes it a really frustrating listen for me because there’s so much that I want to like, but just can’t or don’t.
Today’s Active Lifestyles blends elements of post-hardcore, math rock, and noise rock with some sparse lo-fi vocals, which honestly sounds pretty great to me. The actual content is pretty dull though, and it feels really restrained and a bit meticulous; for math rock (which is supposed to be a bit unpredictable and erratic) this really kills the album for me. I will say that I think the first track, “Thermal Treasure” is really nice though and there are a few other moments on the album that are great. It’s just not enough for me to really return to this album.
5 BABADNOTGOOD BBNG (2011)
Genre: Hip-Hop, Jazz
First of all, I’d like to point out that BADBADNOTGOOD (which must always be typed in all caps) has offered this album/mixtape for free on their Bandcamp website, so you’ve basically got no reason not to listen to this if you think you’d enjoy it. I think the decision to release this for free worked out really well for this band; Tyler, The Creator endorsements/jam sessions notwithstanding, BABANOTGOOD has built up a considerable amount of popularity by doing this and have generated a decent amount of anticipation for their next effort.
This was a really pleasant surprise; I hardly listen to any jazz or hip-hop at all (but should), but this seems like a really interesting and well-executed fusion of the two. I can really hear the care and sincerity of the musicians in the tracks on this album, especially on “Fall in Love” and “Title Theme / Saria’s Song / Song of Storms.” The piano is soft, delicate, and evocative; I really get the mental image of BABADNOTGOOD performing in a smoky, dimly-lit bar with lonesome patrons sipping on alcohol. It’s a real pleasure to listen to.
So what prevents this from scoring higher? First, there’s an unnatural amount of covers here; these are mostly from hip-hop and rap (J Dilla, Gang Starr, Nas, Ol’ Dirty Bastard), but there’s also Flying Lotus, Joy Division (which works surprisingly well), and a great Ocarina of Time medley/suite. These are executed really well, but they often overshadow the original content here, and that’s a bit unfortunate. There are also some rough transitions on the dual tracks here, which makes me wonder why BABANOTGOOD didn’t just split them up and develop the intro/outros better.
BADBANOTGOOD are a band to watch; I’ll be waiting for a follow-up eagerly.