“Play it loud/Play it fast/Play me something that will always last,” growls lead singer James Alex on “Future Mixtape For The Art Kids,” the first track on Beach Slang’s A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings. The song lays out the manifesto for his band and the album. It’s been a long time since Alex was a teenager, but he’s able to capture the rush of intoxicating optimism and overwhelming hopelessness that make those years of young adulthood resonate with most of us for the rest of our lives. The band plays the tunes with a blazing energy that makes the often over-the-top angst that fuels them take on a compelling reality. Most are muscular, stripped-down rockers, but even when Alex and the band slow the tempo down on numbers like “Young Hearts” and “Warpaint,” the lyrics bristle with the bewildering confusion of youth. Alex steps out of the shadows near the end of the record to deliver “The Perfect High,” a song that celebrates the fearless exuberance of first love. When he sings, “I’m not dead, and you are why/You’re the perfect high,” it’s a transcendent moment.
Consider, if you will, two bands from Massachusetts that formed in the mid-’80s, broke up for more than a decade, reunited and began releasing new music in the aughts. One of these groups has grown more vital, even louder with time, while the other has shown steady, middle-aged decline. What accounts for this? Perhaps it’s the fact that the best Pixies music was so tied to Black Francis’ youthful, unhinged shriek, now significantly diminished with age. Meanwhile, J Mascis’ creaky Dylan-meets-Young affect has been immune to the ravages of time. Perhaps you can point to the Pixies losing Kim Deal, while Dinosaur Jr’s original rhythm section of Murph and Barlow remains a formidable, tightly coupled force. Of course, having an idiot-savant guitar god in your band doesn’t hurt either. One is reminded that former guitar deity Eric Clapton descended into milquetoast-y irrelevance in his 50s, while Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not still hears Mascis as a purveyor of fireworks displays that would put the Zambellis to shame. In short, on its 11th LP, Dinosaur Jr does what it has done best for the past 30-plus years, which is to remind us of the life-giving force of guitar, bass, drums and scary-big stack of Marshall amps.
It’s been an annus horribilis of Nasty Women and Bad Hombres, aggressive groping and building a wall and making them pay for it, birthers, election rigging and Rosie O’Donnell nightmares. And look at the mess we’re in. In this spring, summer and fall of our collective discontent, the Drive-By Truckers have created the perfectly postmodern soundtrack for our election-year anger and regret, a ringing, distorted, guitar-dominated album brimming with frustration, wounded pride and stories pulled from across this great, pained land of ours. In a year marked by protest music from artists as commercially prominent as Kendrick and Beyoncé, the Truckers have somehow managed to pull the best record of their two decades together from out of the cloudy clusterfuck that is the USA circa now: a country divided by suspicion, fear and existential dread, with its camps given a voice as loud as the slogans in which they’ve been trading for the past 24 months. “Made it back from hell’s attack in some distant bloody war/Only to stare down hell back home,” sings Mike Cooley, his red-eyed and true-blue colors shining through the darkness. A modern American masterpiece.
For Mitski Miyawaki, happiness is neither a self-evident truth nor an unalienable right, instead a boorish lout who eats her cookies, drinks her tea, grabs her by the pussy (Trump paraphrasing) and leaves. Twenty years after Rivers Cuomo invaded our collective privacy, turning his own misery into others’ delight, this half-Japanese woman finally gets her cold-dished reply, and it’s both harmonious and harmful, a graphic artist filleting the most violent connotations of a crush: Its flickering drone footage of her failed relationships pitched as a selfie snuff film, its love-shivved antiheroine bleeding out to a beat. As with puberty one, there are moments on this album that hit like C-4 in your chest and an elevator to the head. Following “Fireworks” with “Your Best American Girl” is an emo pile-on of Cap’n Jazz proportions, but Mitski’s just getting warm. “I wanna see the whole world!” she rages on “My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars”—betraying a redlining, Neutral Milk Hotel-squatting arsonist at heart—and yet her range, from airy arias to Pixies-dusted punk, suggests that at age 26, she’s already been there and done that.
—Noah Bonaparte Pais
Mangy Love is a slippery album, by turns didactic and Dada-esque, sensitive and pissed-off, somber and humorous. Cass McCombs has made a career of being unpredictable, with collections of acoustic folk rock, churning psychedelia, twangy alt-country and lo-fi home recordings. While it seems like he may just be casually following his muse, his albums are thoughtful and full of subtle, lasting riches. And Mangy Love is his best yet, a meditation on gender politics, love and healing that’s full of unexpected twists, word games and inside jokes. “It is not wealth to have more than others/It is not peace when others are in pain,” he sings, sounding like a Marxist preacher. He plays a mopey pessimist (“Mine is an opposite house, rain on the inside when it’s sunny out”) and a persuasive optimist (“Laughter is the best medicine”; perhaps a mantra for the album). The music is also slippery. Although anchored in an easygoing groove—McCombs grew up in Grateful Dead-centric Northern California—songs can include a reggae interlude or can veer into Shuggie Otis-style psychedelic soul. It’s hard to get a bead on Mangy Love, and that’s its power and its joy.
Even after a five-year wait between albums, it’s weirdly easy to take Radiohead for granted. Maybe it’s a slight tempering of expectations following 2011’s worthy but rather prickly King Of Limbs; maybe it’s the inevitable byproduct of maintaining such absurdly high consistency and commitment to innovation even now, well into its third decade. As with In Rainbows, its closest cousin in the band’s discography, A Moon Shaped Pool suffered somewhat from the attention-grabbing circumstances of its release; a splashy event incongruous with a work of art of such tender nuance and intimacy. But months removed from the initial hoopla and so many rushed post-drop thinkpiece assessments, it’s clear that the album meets (or exceeds) any level of anticipation. At first, LP9 seems to offer, essentially, no surprises: merely the most Radiohead-ish Radiohead since Hail To The Thief. But there are deep currents beneath that lustrous surface. In its myriad enticing avenues for close-read interpretation and, especially, in its decisive, revelatory reworkings of long-unfinished material, there’s ample catnip for the diehards and the nostalgiacs.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Angel Olsen has one of those voices. She can belt her songs out, but her control is excellent. This is someone who knows just when to make that voice whisper secrets or tear a hole through the sky. Her third album, My Woman, proved to be one of those perfectly timed I-have-arrived moments. The LP spins through several genres, from ’80s balladry (“Intern”) to David Lynch-ian retro pop (“Never Be Mine” and “Shut Up Kiss Me”) to indie-rock epics (“Sister” and “Woman”), but it never feels disjointed or overstuffed. Part of that is a credit to Olsen’s vocal prowess, but it’s also due to her songwriting and how it conveys desire and fear in a way that is both very specific and utterly universal. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done,” she sings on “Intern.” “Still got to wake up and be someone.” It’s a little hard to imagine anyone not deriving something out of a lyric like that. And the last line of My Woman lingers long after it ends and handily sums up the album’s dark allure: “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.”
If Happy Mondays were Antipodean rather than Mancunian and plied their wares using turntables and samplers rather than spaced-out guitars, Bez and buckets of ecstasy, they’d be the Avalanches. After a gestation period of nearly 16 years, Wildflower comes on like a hip-hop, time-machine-traveling 24 Hour Party People, a psychedelic casserole disguising its utterly mutinous agenda beneath layers of deceptively pleasant dance beats, samples pulled from a million different eras of vinyl and guest spots ranging from Danny Brown to Mercury Rev to Royal Trux. For fans convinced that the group was incapable of creating something as transcendent as “Frontier Psychiatrist” ever again, cuts like “Subways,” “If I Was a Folkstar” and “Colours” put to rest the notion that the Avalanches had evolved into little more than an internet-based fictional endeavor. A triumph of will, patience and sheer bloody-minded creativity, Wildflower is almost enough to make you bust out your flares and Hacienda T-shirt again. Call the cops.
Justin Vernon is widely beloved for constructing heartfelt pastorals, but on 22, A Million, the artist radically altered the blueprint. Many of the songs aren’t so much musical recordings as fever dreams, lyrical themes and song structures just beyond grasp. In fact, if you haven’t read about the painstaking care that went into creating these tracks, you’d think they were damn near stream-of-consciousness. Not only that, the third LP from the Wisconsin artist is in turns vintage and futuristic. Vocals and instruments of indistinct make and model can sound as if piped through staticky, 1940s radio. Other times, bleeps, blurps and chipmunk soul suggest a Kanye recording session on an alien planet. There are spells of free jazz that would make Ornette Coleman appear the model of rules and restraint, wheezy, old-timey nightclub blues and even a straightforward, singalong lullaby. It’s a confounding, fascinating record. Some have declared it an overindulgence, a vanity exercise, or accuse 22, A Million of sounding unfinished. Others will proclaim its unorthodox brilliance, call it a groundbreaking recording, or say it doesn’t so much break the mold as toss it into an industrial furnace. Truth is, every one of these assessments would be right on the nose.
Parquet Courts are the nation’s finest indie-rock band by a very old-guard measure. They churn out quality releases at the pace of Hüsker Dü and further a classic dichotomy better than anyone in the 2010s. That is, they’ve grown noisier and more tuneful simultaneously. 2015’s inscrutable Monastic Living EP was a clearinghouse of preemptive anguish over the inevitable sellout cries its beautiful follow-up would endure. Except it didn’t: Human Performance was greeted with the hosannas it deserves, and not one person’s complained about the flute solo on the title track. What the Austinites-turned-Brooklynites achieve here is a sheaf of tunes as great as the wistful “Berlin Got Blurry” and the Velvet Underground-besotted “Steady On My Mind,” interspersed with booby traps like the Beefheart-juiced “I Was Just Here.” But the stylistic breadth on their finest album is unprecedented. Who knew even these great lyricists and droners had power-pop (“Outside”), Rage Against The Machine-style rapping (“Captive Of The Sun”) and country (“Pathos Prairie”) all in them—much less on the same album? Who knew they could perform the humanity of not just the heartbroken title track but the America-broken “Two Dead Cops”?