Ever since frontman Ryan Key took the reins with 2001’s One For The Kids, Yellowcard has been an example of what is right with pop-punk – the sunny vibe, the catchy choruses, the heartfelt lyrics, and the ever-so-rare element of consistency. An entire generation has been afforded the opportunity to follow YC’s career like a book, and Southern Air manages to keep stride with an audience that is not only aging, but is also maturing. Here, the energy flows freely and lyrics are chosen carefully. The result is an album that is equally as meaningful as it is infectious, lacing the subtle contributions of Tay Jardine (We Are The In Crowd) and Cassadee Pope (Hey Monday) with off-the-wall drumming and half-minute violin solos to make the most complete sounding album of the band’s career. With Southern Air, Yellowcard has finally managed to merge all of their best qualities into one disc. Bon appetit, pop-punk enthusiasts! -SowingSeason
Breakups are hard, but you wouldn’t know it from Menomena, who followed up a split with founding member Brent Knopf and another in a long line of critically acclaimed albums with Moms, which just might happen to be their best yet. Little of Knopf’s (amicable) split surfaces on Moms—instead, the breakups involve those of family, more specifically both Danny Seim and Justin Harris dealing with the loss of a parent and the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s pretty heavy, heady stuff, examined under a searing lamp that renders everything in unflinching detail, from the ugly (“Pique”) to the reluctant (“Capsule”) to the implacably hostile (“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”). It’s a purging of old stories and older feelings that fit nicely in with some of the most aggressive music of Menomena’s careers, like the sweltering solo that roars in right after Harris finishes off a particularly virulent, self-loathing sermon on “Pique.” The production fits the lyrics, loud and clear and almost desperately urgent. It leads to some of their catchiest melodies, not so much thrown together as in records past but deliberately and forcefully constructed, even when, as on “Plumage,” the band seems to exhaust all of their energies, leaving them weary and resigned and petering out in amplifier feedback. By turning inward, Menomena have released an emotionally cathartic, venomous album that hits as hard as a punch to the gut and leaves its wounds open for all to see (and, perversely enough, to dance along to). It is also the most deeply satisfying record of their career. -Rudy K.
While doing my research for this piece, I unearthed one piece of information which absolutely floored me: that 36 tracks had originally been prepared for Kill For Love. Now, I’m well aware that artists typically do produce a good deal more songs than they actually release, and that most of those unpublished tracks are probably only rough sketches at best anyway, but dammit, the album is already 91 goddamn minutes long. That’s not a criticism on the album’s length by the way, because, if anything, it’s that very breadth that has taught me several valuable lessons about the art of listening – lessons which would otherwise probably have taken me the rest of my life to glean.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: there’s a good deal of literature to be found online on how this album is that rare thing – a proper auditory cinematic experience in which the songs ebb and flow from one another with all the precise cadence and sophistication of a finely-directed movie. I don’t dispute that in the slightest, because I can totally see where the argument is coming from, but I do find that Kill For Love is equally as magnetic in well-rationed portions. For you see, Johnny Jewel and co have done so well in their quest to make their fourth studio record a masterpiece of internal consistency (“Everything has to be a cog in the wheel, serving the ultimate purpose of the record – that’s what takes so long” explained the songwriter in an interview with self-titled) that one can literally turn it off and then choose to bring it back on a good few hours later and still find oneself in the record’s signature ambiance. And I think that’s the real beauty of Kill For Love: that those mental images of hazy sunset drives, the sparkling disco balls winking at you from the edges of your eyes, and the effervescent afterparty atmosphere don’t ever go away – even if you try and make them to. -Irving Tan
There are things that are constant in life. Of these, perhaps time is the most steady, never wavering or faltering. Through war and peace, death and life, sunrise and sunset, it just is. Think of Neurosis as time, and Honor Found in Decay as a ripple on its surface, following in the same pattern and taking the same course as those that preceded it, unchanging and unwilling to change, whether by sheer contentment or by some other force keeping things rolling along as they have been. The truth is that Honor Found in Decay is little changed from Neurosis’ past several albums, and that is where both fans and critics can find comfort. It takes a bit of nerve and more than a bit of resolve to delve so deep into a sound as Neurosis have with this thing called “post-metal”, but in doing so they have explored the depths of what the genre can accomplish. The sludgy riffing of “Casting of the Ages” and the progressive foray that is “My Heart For Deliverance” show how comfortable Neurosis are in their own skin, one whose breadth is vast but seemingly close and comfortable. It really is amazing how Neurosis are capable of doing so much in a song without the listener fully realizing the scope of their songwriting abilities, and if Honor Found in Decay does anything different at all it sheds a bit of light on the truly monumental soundscapes that Neurosis create. Things are often chaotic, sometimes serene, typically complex, and always masterful, and the shocking thing is that this has become the norm for Neurosis. They write, we listen, and like time the pattern reverberates itself in a blissful state of unawareness. And to be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing. -Kyle Ward
To be quite honest, three years is not that long of a wait for a new record. Hell, Godspeed You! Black Emperor made us wait a decade. But when a debut is as promising as Red in Tooth and Claw, any amount of time seems too long. Luckily, post-hardcore act BATS have finally graced us with a follow up to their fascinating first album. And even more lucky is the fact that it not only meets, but exceeds expectations. The same intense energy BATS displayed on said album has been ported over to their sophomore effort, The Sleep of Reason, perfectly. What is even better is how the band has tightened up their craft. On their second album everything has seen a maturation; the hooks are catchier, the instrumentation is more impressive, and the production is positively perfect. In keeping with the band’s science-centric lyrics, The Sleep of Reason is an evolution of sorts, and one that impresses even more than its predecessor. -Eli Kleman
If Ernest Hemingway was alive today and making punk music, it would probably sound something like The Menzinger’s On the Impossible Past. The sound of the album is distinctly American, but more than that, the lyrics are comprised mostly of simple language that is capable, at times, of absolutely flooring you. Mundane moments transform into profound ones. A lovestruck couple carving their names into a cliffside becomes a springboard for the realization that “happiness is just a moment.” Being bored and drunk becomes a desperate avoidance of responsibility. And, most memorably, riding in an American-made car somehow encapsulates, briefly, everything that it means to be a part of this country. This album is monumental. It is the epitome of what every working-class, small-town band has been trying to do since pop music began. “All good things fall apart,” they shout. But heartbreak ends eventually, and good things still remain. -Channing Freeman
In his “utterly brilliant” review of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’, SputnikMusic’s own Nick Butler stated “If Lana Del Rey is the manufactured puppet her naysayers are so keen to tell everybody she is (and I really could not give less of a shit whether she is), then it just makes me wish everybody else was this manufactured too”. I really couldn’t have put it any better myself, because for as much as we crave an emotional release from the music we listen to, it is ultimately a form of entertainment. Not every enjoyable movie can also be an Academy Award winning masterpiece, nor should every album have to be innovative and influential. For as Nick also stated, ‘Born to Die’ contains “the best run of pop singles in living memory”. Owning an alluring lower register, the dramatic 25 year old New York singer-songwriter – real name Elizabeth Grant – finds a captivating middle ground between modern & retro. The production here is fantastic, as samples add a hip-hop flavor, while string arrangements give off a lush and cinematic baroque vibe. Both accessible & unique, the album may be front-loaded & contain some dubious lyrics, but it’s best just to ignore the flaws & hype, and allow yourself to be drawn in by this magnetically sensual New Yorker. Recommended Tracks: Off To The Races, Born To Die, Video Games, National Anthem & Radio. -DaveyBoy
I have always been partial to Phil Elverum at his noisiest – walls of stacked reverbs, clipping guitars and jagged feedback. It’s all so fundamentally not folk, yet the end results leave us with one of the best folk records in recent years. This isn’t your traditional Bobby D shit. This is Red House Painters channeled through the spirit of electronic pioneers like Brian Eno and Merzbow. The sprawling expanse of thundering synthesizers and cascading drums on the album’s opener “Pale Light”, pulls you in if you let it, like some sort of cacophonous auditory Poltergeist, stripping you of self and environment, leaving you lost and confused, before spitting you out in the shimmering simplicity of the title track. It’s a monstrous head trip. Elverum is at his absolute best on “Waves”. The track is gargantuan, a stunning masterpiece of noise, with its underlying guitar work awash in static and black metal hiss, building to a crescendo that would put Godspeed You! Black Emperor to shame. It is incredible how such contrasting art can coalesce into such tormented beauty. Ocean Roar is Phil Elverum’s tome to isolationism – a hanging light in a dark sky of long since dead stars, only growing more distant and more alone. -Adam Thomas
If music can still change the world the way it did in 1971, circa John Lennon’s classic rock hit ‘Imagine’, then Aaron Weiss may very well wield that torch for our generation. MewithoutYou is a band often viewed as hippies that accidentally stumbled into a studio one day, but despite their unkempt beards and sometimes cacophonous delivery, they have penned some of the best and most-thought provoking lyrics of all time and placed them right under our noses. If Brother, Sister didn’t already convince you that Weiss is a lyrical genius, then Ten Stories ought to complete that assignment with lines like “I don’t know anything about truth but I know falsehood when I see it, and it looks like this whole world.” As the elephant speaks the truth, he must hang according to ‘Elephant in the Dock’, a metaphorical analysis of our decreasingly democratic global society. The band has also been known to have strong religious viewpoints, which is evident when Weiss ironically points out, “By now I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no God, so there’s definitely a God!” Even if everything he says isn’t directly applicable to our lives, there’s meaning behind it that should provoke an internal debate – such as the existence of a God, and whether or not we can trust ourselves to make a judgment of that caliber. The closing track, ‘All Circles’, might be the best example of this yet: “All circles presuppose they’ll end where they begin, but only in their leaving can they ever come back around; all circle presuppose.” As this line loops repeatedly for the duration of the song, the listener is forced to face issues of change, the directions our choices take us, and the cyclical nature of life itself. “All circles begin with an end.” It’s simple – obvious, in fact – but brilliant because of its context and who is saying it. In a way, that’s how one could describe both mewithoutYou as a band and Ten Stories as an album. This album is urgent in its delivery of lyrics that range from obvious to profoundly prophetic, and either way, they are messages that we all need to hear. -SowingSeason
ƒIN was always destined to be a success; Talabot’s knack for blending the wide-eyed earnestness of world travelers like Caribou and Four Tet with his own white-sanded and sweltering flavours was a delight when he took up this new alias back in 2009. But it’s a testament to his abilities and ethics as a producer that saw his 2012 long player reach destinations that those previously mentioned troubadours had only dreamed of; a mighty task in theory but simple enough in execution, and ƒIN’s triumph lies in its almost lack of excess and stadium-sized bafoonery. It’s anthemic to a point, though the payoff remains wholly in the build-up; the release, that endorphin-kicking sunshine-seizuring full-throttling turn of the valves, is admirable to a point, timely and always splendidly announced. But like the creed of any traveler who counts a new sunrise as his home, it’s the journey that remains the most glorious. And like well-spent mileage, Talabot arrives at these destinations from the unlikeliest of sources; ‘Last Land’ counts among its many wares a running motif lifted wholesale from Faith No More’s ‘Kindergarten’. It’s an ominous point of entry, but gifted with new life in the transfer, let loose to spiral and dance over a bedrock of handmade percussion. It’s a song, and an album, served with a summer’s eve, a jewel in the crown for an artist recently released from the shackles of an uncompromising brand of techno who has since found a new love and life in this particular brand of woozy and disco-infused house music. But most of all it’s a stellar release for 2012, a sun-tinged crescendo of immediate beauty. -Deviant
True story: I saw Japandroids save a life. A buddy of mine had been in an extended funk and our relationship was suffering. But after we saw Japandroids tear through every song you could ask them to play, after we screamed “Crazy/Forever” together with a hundred other sweaty white kids and stage dove/crowd surfed during “House That Heaven Built” and “Heart Sweats,” he looked at me, beaming, and said three words that convinced me I’d gotten my friend back: “We’re good, dude.”
Japandroids have that kind of power. Some folks laugh at Japandroids’ “HAVE FUN RIGHT NOW ARE YOU HAVING FUN START HAVING FUN” attitude, which I guess is understandable. They peddle an obvious, entirely transparent form of kitsch that becomes pretty goofy when you transcribe it (“Hearts from hell collide! On Fire’s Highway TONIIIIIIIIIGHT! We dreamed it, now we know! WHOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOHAAAAAAAA”). But, really, is the desire to share pure adrenaline, pure fun, pure in-the-moment ecstasy with an audience who desperately needs it worth laughing at? There’s nothing sinister about what Japandroids want to do, nothing as sickeningly, cloyingly sentimental as, say, fun. Just rock riffs and rock choruses conspiring to make two regular dudes rock gods. And that’s what Celebration Rock is: eight songs, each a hypercharged fist-pump, sprung from the surefire-est of electric guitar licks and sold on the most passionate of choruses. And that’s enough. To a target demographic usually too jaded to trust anything so unabashedly positive,Celebration Rock is a momentary escape from itself, 45 minutes of believing everyone else in the audience isn’t a total shitbag. Honestly, how many bands can make you believe that? -Adam Downer
This semester, I TA’d for a class on The Wire. Its final project was to pick a representation of inner city life and write about the image it pushes to the world about what it’s like to live in that environment. Naturally, one of the more bro kids in the class chose to write on NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” I’d only just started spinning good kid, m.A.A.d city when I met with the guy, but because I’m a dork, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Isn’t it interesting!” I wanted to shout at him, “That 20 some-odd years later, the key representation of Compton in hip-hop has only a tangential relationship to the image it came to be known for in the late eighties? That the place that birthed the dominant hyper-masculine, hyper-violent narrative of hip hop has fallen to the hands of one Kendrick Lamar, introvert, stylistic appropriator and storyteller extraordinaire!?!”
good kid, m.A.A.d city is an amazing record. Much has been made of its compelling narrative–Channing compared listening to it to reading a great novel– and with good reason. We meet Kendrick at 17, nothing but pussy on his mind, and watch him grow through near-arrests, alcohol, and religion into the talented beast who gave us this debut. And he nails each turn, rocking goofball adolescent (“I pray my dick grow big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for 72 hours goddamn”) and alcoholic junkie (the way he says “DiiiIIIiiive,” aughhh) and, finally, good kid. Moving between laid back coolness akin to Weezy and thrilling, auto-tuned double-time, Kendrick officially established himself as the most captivating rapper going right now with a record that went everywhere yet stayed firmly in Compton, spoke to everyone yet remained intensely Kendrick. Instant classic or not– ah, fuck it, it is one. We might as well admit it. Ya bish. -Adam Downer
Much like Jenny Hval did with last year’s Viscera, Fiona Apple accomplishes with her wonderful fourth outing. Sure, both exist as contemplative female fronted indie, but it’s all much deeper than that–both efforts are stunningly intimate in their approach. The Idler Wheel… feels like Apple’s most intensely personal album to date; a stripped down affair that features the artist at her most bare. Plucky strings and the subtle tapping of various percussion instruments are all we hear, as it’s truly Fiona herself that is the overwhelming presence. Her voice isn’t perfect, as it cracks and strains when she wails and croons, but it is in these little imperfections that we feel closest to her as listeners. It is one thing to put part of oneself into the work, but Apple puts everything she has, and the album is an absolute marvel because of it. -Eli Kleman
Regina Spektor’s musical output has undergone considerable transformation over the past ten years – 2012’s reimagining of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is the obvious example of this – but what hasn’t changed is her propensity for storytelling. As much as her expanded pallet has allowed her to craft more diverse sounds, the most endearing aspect of her music has always been the imagery she conjures up in her lyrical work. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is no different in this regard. Spektor’s vignettes cover a wide variety of themes; “The Party” is your token quirky track with lines like “you taste like birthday / you look like New Year,” but most interesting are darker cuts, “Ballad of a Politician” and “Open.” In the former, the sinister-sounding vocal effects make a sarcastic tale of a manipulative politician all the more haunting, while her performance in “Open” matches the ever increasing intensity of her lyrics until the song breaks free in the climax. Likewise, the slickly produced “All the Rowboats” perfectly characterizes the night-time art heist the track’s character aspires to undertake. Given this, although What We Saw From the Cheap Seats lacks the same pop flair as its immediate predecessor, there is no shortage of memorable moments. In this way, the album reaffirms Regina’s position as a top tier singer-songwriter. -Mike Stagno
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I think that the main point to take from Ghost Mice’s All We Got is Each Other – and from folk punk in general – is that there’s no greater love than when you find somebody with which you want to fuck shit up. Punk has somehow always been about togetherness even while eschewing the majority of the population, and Ghost Mice have made one of the most representative albums of that aspect. The most impressive part of the album is how delicately the band deals with the subject of mental illness in particular, and in general how callous we tend to be toward people who are different from us. And after eight songs of bare pain and emotion, it all comes to a head with simple, sublime shouts of, “All we got is each other; all punks got is each other,” repeated over and over in an attempt to combat all of our worse tendencies. Almost impossibly, they make you believe it could work. -Channing Freeman
I don’t really consider myself qualified to discuss all the influences that Visions chews up and digests and Claire Boucher as an artist even less so. Frankly, the term “post-Internet” makes me want to blow my brains out, while her story of sailing down the Mississippi on a rickety, soon-to-fail houseboat with a bounty of chickens and potatoes is so bluntly DIY as to be unbearably contrived. Yet Visions is so delightfully weird without going too far off the rails that it’s hard for me to ignore the strong pop fundamentals underlining all the outsider art clichés. Grimes still builds off a foundation of stygian synth soundscapes and those hellishly addictive ghost-in-the-machine meets manic-pixie-dream-girl vocals that have been her calling card since 2010’s Geidi Primes and Halifaxa. Simply put, though, Visions is a much more catchier, accessible and focused album than her previous efforts, while nevertheless retaining all those unique edges that has befuddled bloggers to increasingly silly terms like “Tumblr aesthetic.” Where previous albums offered the occasional, scattered glimpse of where Grimes could go, Visions assembles the final puzzle seamlessly, whether it’s in the ambitious and twisty pop of “Genesis” or the experimental, sublime echoing threads of “Skin.” Call it whatever you want, butVisions’ fascinating combination of skittish loops, industrial beats and Martian synths married to vocals just as alien in their articulations is best looked at as an effective synthesis of the past, and possible future, of pure pop music. -Rudy K.
From the ashes of Slumber come AtomA, whose debut Skylight is a multifarious and thoroughly engaging metal/electronic/post-rock record. Immensely epic without being hilariously overblown, the album’s unique sound and frequent genre-bending appeals to even the less metal-savvy listener (such as yours truly), despite it rarely sacrificing brutality for beauty. The beautiful synths and keyboards, along with bombastic percussion, heavily distorted guitars, and a wide array of clean and harsh vocals, offer a diverse and compelling listening experience. Skylight, like any superb record, necessitates multiple listens to absorb everything. For fans of Anathema, When Nothing Remains, and Tiamat. Recommended tracks: “Skylight”, “Hole in the Sky”, “Highway”. -Jom
El-Producto has shaped the very foundation of my music tastes throughout nearly every genre. A true innovator, he constantly redefines the cutting edge of not only hip-hop production techniques but music as a whole. El’s work emphasizes that genre labels truly mean nothing; to be a successful songwriter one must accept influence from nearly anywhere. In the case of Cancer 4 Cure, his inspiration stems from the personal loss of close friend and collaborator Camu Tao, coming off as an ode to the futility of life, death, love, hate, materialism, and excess. But ultimately, C4C may not be about any particular inclusive set of topics so much as the greater process of living life in general. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not – but it’s still something we control directly, which is less than can be said of most things. -Sobhi Youssef
The video for Gossamer’s lead single “Take a Walk” bears all the hallmarks of a band on the verge of proper establishment but simply isn’t quite there yet: occasionally clunky CGI work charts the progress of what is ostensibly a rubber ball as it ricochets around a middle-income suburb, having just left the throwing arm of Michael Angelakos. There’s no apparent thematic connection or lyrical link between the music playing in the background and the actual on-screen action whatsoever, thus placing the video firmly in screensaver/airport advertisement territory. In that regard, it contrasts directly with its parent album, for Gossamer is nothing short of the real deal, operating as it does with a complete, wholesome, and sonically consistent air. While openly a record about facing life with your head held high, and making the most out of every situation, Passion Pit’s true message is ultimately revealed on the brief interlude “Two Veils To Hide My Face”, in where they sum up the fundamental sentiment of their record in unison: “Don’t answer any prayers they have, just lift our callous hearts.” In other words – live free. -Irving Tan
A small, superficial part of me totally approximates the value of artists by the length of their respective Wikipedia pages, and boy – for a dude who’s only been in the limelight for the past year or so, Frank Ocean’s sure is HUGE. There are many conclusions that one might draw from this (including the one that goes “yeah Irving’s just about lost all of his credibility”), but I think the one hits the mark the most is also the one that’s probably the most painfully obvious: that Ocean has simply given us a lot to think about.
Indeed, so much feeds into the back-story of Channel Orange that it’s impossible to tell where Frank Ocean, the person, ends and where the album, his product, begins. I suppose the right answer to that would be “a circle has no beginning”, yet it feels completely disarming and – for someone who feels that context is absolutely crucial when dissecting any form of art – downright disrespectful to begin any sort of discussion on Channel Orange without at least some mention of that raw, open letter that Ocean published on his Tumblr, or say, the turn of events in his early life that probably led to the production of a song like “Crack Rock” or “Pink Matter”. But to do all that, when you’re typically given only 500 words to say your piece, would be to lose out on talking about the music itself, and so, belatedly, let us begin: Channel Orange feels utterly complete – and not just because it has a clearly defined “Start” and “End” in its tracklist – but also for the reason that I find consuming it to be an utterly exhausting endeavor, much in the way that, say, a particularly spellbinding film or an expansive chamber piece might be. I can’t get to “Super Rich Kids” without feeling like I’ve trekked through the entire dreamscape that is its sun-baked California setting, for instance, or jam out to “Pyramids” and hope to escape the mild sense of disorientation that hits every time the song slinks out of the ruins of ancient Egypt and into the sleazy surroundings of a Las Vegas strip club. And, strangest of all, it actually feels empowering to be so completely overwhelmed.
Elsewhere, our very own Sobhi Youssef cites “Thinkin Bout You” as the “framework for most of the record”, and I couldn’t agree more. Let me say this about the song though: after I discovered the music video version of it, I settled on that as the definitive version of the track – simply because I couldn’t get enough of all the little bits it was adding into the mix: all those extra backing vocals; the slew of peripheral atmospheric turns in the background; heck, even the ominous zombie visuals. In that sense, the track was starting to operate like a microcosm of Channel Orange itself – in that no listen to it ever feels complete without going through the minute, although crucial, interludes of “Fertilizer”, “White” or “Not Just Money”. And that’s the real beauty of the cinematic experience that is Frank Ocean’s debut LP – for you see, even though it has a Wikipedia article that’s about the size of the ‘Henge, it’s still the little things that always end up mattering the most. -Irving Tan