The last time this kind of quick intake of new content happened before this past September was a two-and-a-half month span from March 31 to June 16, 2015, when there were new albums from Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Dustin Kensrue, Mumford and Sons, Florence + the Machine, Muse, mewithoutYou, Of Monsters and Men - and that list does not include the Alabama Shakes album that I have since discovered and loved. All but two of those nine albums have permanently entered my listening rotation to some degree at some point, and one or two have emerged as true favourites.
In this past September alone, there were nine albums that piqued my interest to varying degrees, as well as some new material from some Irish band I kind of like; some of these were albums I knew I had to purchase or at least listen to intensively right away, whereas others intrigued me more as a way to check in as to where that artist was at. I decided to give some of my initial thoughts on each of these collections of songs, so consider this a group of knee-jerk mini-reviews. I have ranked the albums not in terms of my opinion of the final quality of the album, as that may take a few months to determine, but in how much interest I had in listening to it and exploring it and contextualizing it over the past month and a half.
Mild to Moderate Interest
10. Jack Johnson - All the Light Above It Too - The laid-back folk-pop troubadour released his first album in four years to little fanfare, but it holds up in comparison to his previous efforts. I did not notice any tracks that really stood out on the first few listens, but it does provide a nice mellow accompaniment to life. There's not much else to say here; if you like Johnson's particular brand of mellow surf pop, this would be a valuable addition to your collection. As for me, I'll probably keep it on my mellow Spotify mix for awhile and see if it seeps further into my musical subconscious.
9. Macklemore - Gemini - Macklemore might be one of my favourite musical guilty pleasures, so I was definitely curious about his new album. Gemini is definitely more relaxed than his previous efforts, but there are a few standout tracks once the album gets going after a bit of a slow start. By track four ("Willy Wonka"), Macklemore eases into his natural rapid-fire delivery, and the pace picks up significantly for about five tracks - starting with "Marmalade" - before levelling off over the final few songs at the end of the album.
Unlike its predecessor, This Unruly Mess I've Made, Gemini feels more personal than political, and I would say it seems more joyful than his last album. It's a shift a tone that not only seems to be more in keeping with his general outlook on life and music but that I think helps him make better music. This album feels more free and fun than the last one did, and I think that's part of what makes his music enjoyable. I'm not saying he shouldn't be political, but I think that he can be both menial and meaningful, and this album seems to strike a better balance.
I also found it fascinating that the album was bookended by almost explicitly religious songs, and that Macklemore name-checks his faith in God in a positive way several times. I'm not sure where he is at in regard to his beliefs, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a wave of positive spirituality in hip-hop. I would be really interested to learn more of his faith journey and what it means for him to live out his faith, as he considers it to be, much as I would love to hear a similar conversation with Kendrick Lamar.
8. The National - Sleep Well Beast - I had first encountered The National a decade ago when their album Boxer was named one of the best albums of 2007 by pretty much everyone, as well as a couple of songs appearing on Chuck. I listened to Boxer a lot in those first couple of years, but my interest was only intermittently piqued by the band's subsequent two efforts, so when I heard that the band had a new album that continued the story of all of their albums, I figured it would be worth it to at least check in to see how far they had come. I enjoyed Sleep Well Beast well enough, but not enough to keep listening to it if it doesn't really grab me in the next couple of listens.
7. Derek Webb - Fingers Crossed - Webb has long been considered one of the lone "prophetic" voices who emerged from the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry in which he initially cut his teeth. Over the past fifteen years, he has moved increasingly away from the cliches and trite truisms of CCM, and this new album arguably cements his transition into a David Bazan-like figure in regard to the way he expresses his perspectives (if he had not already established that trajectory). It's a compelling album and one worth listening to if you, like me, are questioning some of the ways in which people (especially Evangelicals) interact with the rest of the world. This is definitely an album I want to spend some more time with.
6. The Lone Bellow - Walk Into A Storm - Brooklyn-based folk-country minstrels The Lone Bellow were one of my favourite discoveries a few years back, as their debut album helped fill the gap left by the premature end of The Civil Wars. Their new album provides more of their established formula of intertwined three-part harmonies that are melancholy yet hopeful. I really enjoyed my first few listens, and I'm looking forward to spending more time with this album in the future.
5. The Killers - Wonderful Wonderful - The Killers also fall into that aforementioned category of "guilty pleasure" for me, though it really only applies to about a third of their work. I would say that each Killers album features a few (pardon the pun) killer tracks, a few listenable songs, and then a few curiosities that leave me mildly perplexed as to the reasons for their inclusion. It's a mix that means that they are a perfect "Greatest Hits" and arena rock band, rather than one known for their deep cuts.
So I was not surprised at all by Wonderful Wonderful and the fact that the songs on the album fell into those three general categories. "The Man" is one of the band's best bangers, and there are a few other standout tracks ("Tyson vs. Douglas", "Run for Cover", and "Rut"), but there are also a number of fairly mediocre tracks and a couple of songs that have melodies that I honestly cannot remember even after several listens. But honestly, "The Man" is so great that I don't even really care that the rest of the album is mostly passable, and The Killers remain near the top of my bucket list for arena shows to see.
Very High Interest
4. Stavesacre - MCMXCV - Back in the late 1990s, Christian music label Tooth and Nail was releasing anything and everything they could: pop punk, shoegazer, ambient poptronica, death metal, and what I think might have been their best artist, Stavesacre, a before-their-time post-grunge pre-post-hardcore band headed by Mark Salomon, one of the most enigmatic singers and lyricists of his generation.
Stavesacre was one of my favourite bands in those early years of exploring music, but I don't know that I really got as much as I could out of their music; after all, there was an aspect of the life experience expressed in their lyrics and even in the gravitas of Salomon's distinctive delivery that I don't think I could actually understand as a teenager. Still, "Gold and Silver" from their 1999 album Speakeasy remains one of my favourite songs of all time, and I constantly find myself coming back to their early music, since it still holds up almost two decades later.
So, with that praise in mind, you can imagine my sheer joy at adding new songs to that well-tested existing catalog. The only way this album could have gone wrong is if it didn't sound like Stavesacre anymore, but that is certainly not the case. More than any other album I can recall in recent memory, this album sounds like it belongs to a different time. MCMXCV ("1995" to match the band's starting date, natch) is a throwback to their early days, and it's like the band never stopped recording. There are some great songs here, and I am really excited to hear how these songs grow and change over the next few years.
3. Foo Fighters - Concrete and Gold - I wrote about my history with the Foos at length last November after watching Sonic Highways - the HBO documentary series about the recording of their last album which revitalized my interest in the band - so I am not going to rehash it here, except to say that Concrete and Gold is another typical Foo Fighters album, which is mostly a good thing. They continue to be the torch-holders for the ever-fading rock 'n roll scene, and they are trying harder than anyone else to keep dads everywhere rocking out.
The album as a whole is more political than many of their previous albums, but I think the best tracks on this album are the ones that have more direct application to current world conditions. There are a few relatively forgettable tracks peppered throughout the album - none of which are "bad", per se, and any of which are still far better than those by many other rock bands - but there are also a couple of absolutely killer tracks on this album that immediately stand out as Foo classics: "The Sky is a Neighbourhood"; "Run"; and "Dirty Water" among them.
As I was considering which previous Foo albums this album most resembled, I at first considered their 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace, as it has a similarly mellow feel throughout most of the album. But as I have listened to it more and more, I have recognized the DNA of their 1997 album The Colour and the Shape (which is still arguably their best album to date) spliced throughout this album. I think the best way to describe Concrete and Gold, actually, is that it has the emotional youthful angst of Colour as filtered through the experience of Echoes. And like those releases, I will be really interested to see how these songs age both on their own and as a package, and I am inclined to guess that Concrete and Gold is actually one of those albums that will get better with time.
2. MuteMath - Play Dead - MuteMath has long been my standard answer to the question (particularly from other music fans) as to which of my favourite artists is continually underrated and takes the titles of "the band that you probably do not know but to whom you should be listening". I have been a fan of MuteMath since before their beginning (back in the days when some of their members were part of the electronica-funk-rap hybrid artist Earthsuit in the year 2000), and their live show remains one of the best I have ever seen.
The band has changed all of its members except for lead singer Paul Meany over the years, so it's arguable that the MuteMath who exists now is not really even the same band any more, but the continued leadership of Meany has resulted in a clear trajectory that has resulted in Play Dead, which is easily the band's most synth-heavy and yet its most mellow album since their eponymous debut over a decade ago.
I have to admit that it's taking some getting used to this new album, perhaps because MuteMath has consistently ranked among my favourite artists for a long time. I tend to prefer the band's up-tempo work, and this album does not seem to include the kinds of frenetic pulsating pushers that were featured on previous albums. There are a couple of points ("Break the Fever", in particular) when it seems like the album will pick up the pace, but it doesn't quite get there.
But I think it's important to value the albums that artists release, rather than ruminating on what I might have wanted to hear, so I am spending more time really listening to this album to try to understand and appreciate it - and I am. This is one of those albums that is really making more of an impression on me each time I listen to it, and I think it might actually emerge as one of my favourites of the year and possibly of the band, which is saying something. This is a very mature and accomplished record, and I am really enjoying spending time listening to it.
1. U2 - "The Blackout" and "You're The Best Thing About Me" (from the upcoming album Songs of Experience) - Perhaps this is cheating, since U2's album will not drop until December 1, but it should come as no surprise that my September was dominated by the new songs released by my favourite band. I already extemporized extensively about U2's new songs in a recent post, but what has really struck me in the weeks since - other than the fact that the media blitz has started three months before the release of the new album, possibly to rehabilitate their image after the bad taste left by the iTunes debacle of Songs of Innocence - is that I really love having a new U2 single getting airplay on the radio.
And even though I know that the band and their visuals have become a bit cliché over the past four (!) decades, I could not help but be moved by their latest video, which is essentially a love letter to New York (a city in which Bono keeps an apartment), but also to the idea of America, as demonstrated in the shots of the Statue of Liberty and the closing recitation of the famous inscription on Liberty Island. The band still seems as creatively vital as ever, and I can't wait to hear the rest of the album.