Sloan – 12

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While Sloan have never really reached the level of popularity like their power pop contemporaries, they have done what Rivers Cuomo and company never could – they’ve been pretty consistent throughout their career. While it’s hard to call any of their album masterpieces, they’ve always kept a steady level of songwriting and performance. And it doesn’t change here. Their 12th album contains twelve songs that probably won’t change your life, but definitely could make it more enjoyable.

The opening sequence sets the tone pretty early: both Spin Our Wheels and All of the Voices contain great, infectious feel-good melodies, as well as some great guitar licks. There are plenty of masterfully written songs later in the tracklist, too – with the highlights being Gone for Good and Essential Services. However, sometimes the melodies are too sweet in result come as a little corny (Right to Roam or the repetitive Wish Upon a Satellite).

Musically, the band doesn’t really stray far away from their usual sound. There are however some surprising subtle blues undertones in Year Zero and Have Faith, and the closing tracks 44 Teenagers takes an unexpected turn into more moody direction. These are just small details – the entire album is basically 40 minutes of power pop goodness, energetic and sweet like a sugar trip.

While not really ambitious and groundbreaking, it certainly is a fun little record. I doubt I’ll remember 12 as one of the definitive records of 2018 in a few years’ time, but right now I’m enjoying every minute of it.

7/10

 

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Pusha T – Daytona

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One of the most annoying things about modern rap for me is the fact that too often an artist releases an album that’s full of great tracks, but unnecessary prolonged, bloated and full of filler (lookin’ at you A$AP). Well, Daytona is quite the opposite of that. At just a little over 20 minutes (does that even qualify as a proper album?) Pusha T delivers a sharp and focused record, delivering cold rhymes, memorable lines and brutal takedowns.

In the mumble rap era, Pusha’s delivery is even more impressive and hard-hitting (I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair he says on Hard Piano, and it’s hard to disagree). And he takes no prisoners, whether tackling drugs or violence issues (The Games We Play) or commenting on the state of today’s rap and dissing Drake on Infrared, his uncompromising attitude is brilliantly raw throughout. It’s all very in-your-face, but the agressive rhymes are contrasted by some really stylish production.

And speaking of production – Kanye’s contribution to this record is undeniable. Apart from lending his vocals on What Would Meek Do? he also produced the whole thing. And he did a great job indeed. From his trademark chopped style on If You Know You Know, through the spiritual suspense of Santeria all the way to the brillantly soulful sampled chorus on Come Back Baby, Daytona is a shining example of top-class production skills.

And yeah, it’s a bit too short for my taste, but maybe it’s a good thing that it leaves you with a hunger for more? It definitely makes it more cohesive and focused, but I can’t give a perfect score to a record that is little more than an EP. Even though, Daytona is a must-listen, and will undoubtetly feature on many end-of-the-year lists – including mine!

9/10

Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!

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D’you know what “Total Football” is? In case you didn’t: it’s a football tactic, developed in the Netherlands way back in the 70s, characterised by the fact that the players positions’ were interchangeble. But nevermind the details, here’s what matters: it was clever, fascinating and effective. This Brooklyn-based band were so influenced by it that they named the opening track Total Football. And the record lives up to those inspirations: it’s one of the finest pieces of punk I’ve heard all year.

I don’t really know if the term “punk” really fits here. “Art punk” seems more fitting, but it’s hard to really pinpoint one genre to describe this record. There is a certain indie aesthetic to the whole thing, but there are traces of psychedelia all over the place (Violence reminds me of The Doors A LOT), a ton of dance-punk (the title track!) and whatever the hell the closing Tenderness is. The record is all over the place, but its also very cohesive and well-balanced.

The production is brilliantly crisp (Danger Mouse did a great job – as he usually does), the basslines are catchy as hell, and the songs vary between fierce and agressive (Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience) to dreamy and spaced out (Death Will Bring Change featuring a creepy children choir). But the key here is songwriting. The songs are sharp and witty, the melodies are here, both the calm and composed (Before the Water Gets Too High) or the energetic sing-a-longs (Total Football).

It’s a very refreshing record, full of amazing ideas (that are well executed, too). It’s also one of the most addictive I’ve heard in a while.

9/10

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Sparkle Hard

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It’s been almost two decades now since Pavement has disbanded – the band has left behind what is probably the most solid and monolithic discographies is rock history, with five absolutely flawless albums. Their frontman’s solo career has not been so remarkable – along with The Jicks he released four records so far, and they all felt a bit underwhelming. But on their fifth, things change drastically. Sparkle Hard is the best thing Malkmus has done in the 21st century.

Stephen knows his strenghts very well: he’s the undisputed king of being effortlessly cool – he combines his intentionally messy and distorted guitar playing with an unique melodic sense (Shiggy) or weird, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour (Bike Lane). It has worked out very well for him for decades, and it works out brilliantly here. But Sparkle Hard isn’t just about rehashing the Pavement sound. In fact, the record is full of surprises.

Take the piano introduction of Cast Off for example. Or the beautiful string arrangements on Solid Silk. Or the odd, autotuned vocals (!) on Rattler – it’s experimental in a way, but works out really great. Then we have some calmer, more folksy tunes like Middle America (great, great chorus) or Refute, a vocal duet with Kim Gordon that is borderline country – and it sounds amazing! There are also two tracks that come close to the 7 minute mark: Kite and Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels. Both are complex and multi-layered, both are a lot of fun.

And that’s the case for this entire record – 11 tracks, not a single weak one among them. It’s playful, colorful, and it indeed sparkles hard. Brilliant stuff.

9/10

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

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On her second solo record, the Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett goes into more deeply personal teritory – Tell Me How You Really Feel describes struggles with melancholy and anxiety, tackles social issues such as sexism, but in the end still ends up kind of… uplifting.

The opening track Hopefulesness is a moody slow burner, shaped mostly by the slowly creeping in guitar. The way this song progresses is a thing of beauty, and a promise of great things to come. And great things really do come later in the album. City Looks Pretty and Charity are classic garage/indie rock songs with some really nice choruses – lots of hit potential here. Then we reach Need A Little Time, probably the most thrilling and impressive tracks here. Sad and moving, it hits all the right places. Following that, there’s a fierce Nameless, Faceless, where Courtney tackles sexist Internet trolls.

I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch is the most wild and agressive song here – shame it’s so short, at just barely under 2 minutes. Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence feels like the centerpiece of the album, as well as one of its most personal songs. The mood on the second half of the record is certainly more melancholic, but not in a depression-inducing way. These songs have so much grace and charm, that it’s the kind of melancholia that reminds you more of lazy summer days, rather than gloomy rainy afternoons. The closer Sunday Roast is a beautiful finish, and the way it describes friendship is really uplifting, too.

Musically, the most impressive thing about this album is that all the song are on the same, high songwriting level, and absoloutely nothing here feels like filler. Lyrically, it’s kind of a rollercoaster of emotions, but Courtney’s unique way of storytelling and her natural charm creates an unusual mood: seemingly melancholic, but overally kinda cheering.

8/10

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino

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Five years is a long, long time. Five years ago, Arctic Monkeys elevated themselves to the very top of the charts with AM, a record full of amazing singles, with an instantly recognizable sound and top-class songwrtiting. The media buzz surrounding this TBH&C  was understandably huge, and the band could easily take the easy step and cash it in just by replicating the sound of their previous record. But Arctic Monkeys are not your average band. They take risks, and constantly look for new musical ideas. That’s what made Tranquility Base so divisive. And that’s what made it so great.

Gone is the post-punk grit of their first two albums, gone is the sunshine pop of Suck It And See, and gone is the blues-meets-R&B approach of AM. There are some traces of the desert psychedelia that dominated Humbug, but Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino feels like something entirely different, almost out of this planet. To be more precise, like something from the Moon. This is basically a concept album, revolving around the titular hotel, located at the site of the first Moon landing. And from this luxurious lunar establishment Alex Turner looks down on Earth and reflects on technology, politics, lifestyle and the price of fame. Of course we all knew that Turner is one of the finest wordsmiths in music today, but this record really sees him at the pinnacle of his lyrical prowess. Clever metaphores and wordplay, popculture references (both obvious and obscure) – it’s all here, and it’s better than ever. It’s a surprisingly personal album, with Alex sometimes being very honest and self-critical (I’m so full of shite/I need to spend less time stood around in bars/waffling on to strangers all about martial arts). But that doesn’t mean it’s all that serious – there’s plenty of his trademark tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, and even a hillarious jab at Trump in Golden Trunks.

And here we reach the main talking point with this album: its main focus is on Turner: his lyrics and vocals. The rest of the band had a very difficult  role: to provide great instrumentals without stealing the spotlight or being reduced to the role of a backing band. Luckily, they are more than capable of that (even though I still think that Matt Helders’ extraordinary drumming skills are criminally underused here). The music here is spaced out, full of little details that may not be obvious on the first listen, but make you appreciate the album even more with each and every listen.

But to be fair, I kinda understand the people complainig, cause it’s not an easy album, and the 180 volta they pulled off here might be tough to swallow for some fans: very little of their trademark hard-hitting riffs here, no galloping drums, and a lack of evident hit singles (maybe with the exception of Four Out of Five, which has a beautiful chorus that leads to a pretty chaotic crescendo). But to be fair, that is the strenght of this album. While AM was a collection of potential hit singles, Tranquility Base is one, cohesive album, that sounds best when you listen to it in its entirety, completely focused. The space-lounge feel of the opener Star Treatment may be weird, but it also promises great things. And great things follow, indeed. There are a lot of glam-era David Bowie influences (the title track!), as well as some Sgt. Pepper’s (The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip) and of course The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, in terms of the intricate production. But the record feels thoroughly modern, or even futuristic, and it’s not just because of the concept. Tracks like Golden Trunks or She Looks Like Fun are unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

After first listen, I felt really dissapointed. After three, I was beginning to see great potential. Now, after 10+ listens I know that it’s a special record. One of those record that are almost perfect from the beginning to the end (alright, I’m not quite sold on Batphone yet). It’s a complex and challenging record that rewards a patient listener. Arctic Monkeys have matured. And now there’s no doubt they’re the most important band of the decade.

9/10

Gaz Coombes – World’s Strongest Man

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Sometimes you just stumble across an album that you weren’t expecting at all and it ends up being oh so good. So when I saw this record in my New Releases section I thought: “Hey, it’s the guy from Supergrass! This may be pretty good!”. Turns out, it’s more than good.

The main quality of the songs on World’ Strongest Man is how carefully crafted they are. The arrangements here really shine bright, and allow the tracks to really showcase their full potential. Take the title track for expample: The instrumentation is pretty subtle, but it perfectly amplifies the beautiful melodies. And those synths in the background make it even more compelling. Deep Pockets is an even better track, with a motoric rhythm, great background vocals and a lovely chorus that is among the best Gaz has ever written (and he’s written a lot of good ones!). Those background vocals appear quite frequently on this record, most notably in Walk the Walk, another standout track.

The latter part of the album is more toned-down, with acoustic tracks like Oxygen Mask or Slow Motion Life that brilliantly builds up to an epic crescendo. There’s quite a few memorable moments here, with the highlights being Wounded Egos and The Oaks. Overall, this album has set a very high level right from the beginning, and it doesn’t go below that level all the way through.

Well-written, expertly arranged and performed, catchy and clever. It’s a record that certainly deserves everybody’s attention.

8/10

Iceage – Beyondless

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Look at the cover. What word would you use to describe it? Personally, I’d go for “intense”. And that’s precisely how this album sounds like. On their fourth record, the Danish band succesfully fuse together the ferociousness of punk with a dark and depressive blues aura.

The inspirations here are pretty obvious: lots of Nick Cave (especially Under the Sun, when the strings kick in), a bit of The Horrors (Take it All would fit perfectly on Primary Colours) and maybe a touch of Primal Scream, with the unconventional use of the horn section. But from the start it’s pretty clear that it’s a band that has a clear vision of what it wants to do, and they certainly have worked out their own, distinct style by now.

The opening Hurrah sets up the mood perfectly – it’s dark and gloomy but also devilishly catchy (‘Cause we can’t stop killing/And we’ll never stop killing/And we shouldn’t stop killing – probably the most morbid sing-a-long of the year). And it only gets better from here. Pain Killer is stunningly beautiful (Sky Ferreira does a great job with the backing vocals) and the whole song feels like some sinister combination of punk and soul. The center of the album (The Day The Music Dies, Plead the Fifth and Catch It) are probably the catchiest of them all, but it doesn’t mean it lacks anything in terms of intensity – quite the opposite, actually. Thieves Like Us and Showtime have some sort of a weird and creepy circus flair to it, while the closer features a massive wall of sound with heavy guitars and horns.

At just 40 minutes, Beyondless is the most captivating and stunning releases of the year. The production, the instrumentation, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt vocals and charisma – it all adds up to form a nearly flawless album.

9/10

Peace – Kindness Is the New Rock and Roll

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In case you have missed them so far: Peace are a British band that started out as a somewhat psychedelic band, then went into a more pop-oriented teritory with their second album Happy People, which was one of my favourite releases of 2015. Now they’re back, but it’s hard to call it a satisfying return.

Between the weird title and the tacky artwork, it’s not hard to see that it’s a very… egotistic record. The hippie “love everybody” theme mixes with a some sort of a Messiah complex here making songs like the title track or the opening Power insufferably pompous. And it’s evident not only in the lyrics, but in huge, stadium-ready choruses that usually end up more pretensious than triumphant. It’s a shame really, because the band is not really playing to their strenghts – Koisser androgynous vocals work out best with a more psychedelic mood, but you won’t find anything like that here. Gone are the tasty basslines and spaced-out vocals, the new-look Peace is much more straightforward.

The songwrting also is much worse than on their previous record, with some songs being obnoxiously annoying (Power, Silverlined) and some just plain boring (Angel, Just a Ride). However, the funky You Don’t Walk Away From Love is a rare flash of brilliance. So is the powerfully sad From Under The Liquid Glass, tackling the problem of depression. Apart from these tracks though, the record is pretty bland and forgettable. The only thing that’s great troughout the entire album are the guitar parts – extremely well constructed and performed – and it shows just how good this album could be if it went into a different direction.

I’ve been watching these guys career for a few years, and I must say I’m really dissapointed. It’s not like they’ve lost their talent, there are some great moments here and there, but this new direction they took is a huge mistake. Let’s hope they’ll realise that, take their heads off their asses and return with a much improved fourth album. Until then, I’ll keep blasting 1998 to remind myself that Peace are still one of indie music most talented bands.

5/10