I will be returning to January-April in due time, but for now, here is the first ever “album of the month” recipient.
Album of the Month
The National- High Violet (4/4)
It's only recently that The National have been put under the mainstream spotlight, but the Brookyln indie rock band has quietly released some of the finest music of the pest decade. Starting with their self-titled debut in 2001, The National have grown with each album, continuing to polish and perfect their dark blend of chamber pop, High Violet is no exception. In a way, it’s is more of the same for The National, but this the most polished, consistent, and even memorable album to come from the band thus far.
High Violet starts with the gut-wrenching lo-fi tune “Terrible Love.” From the moment Matt Berninger’s vocals enter, it becomes apparent the group’s signature baritone voice has only gotten better. Berninger has a voice with the rare ability to shake its listener to the core, creating the dark ambiance that sets the tone for the barrage of distortion and melodic undertones to follow. However, while the vocals may be the most noticeable aspect of The National on first listen, High Violet is far more than a one-man show. Part of what makes listening to The National such an experience is the aforementioned melodic undertones. They may be subtle, but they work.
“Terrible Love” is only the first of many great tracks on High Violet. “Anyone’s Ghost” is a kind of dark pop rock tune that works far better than it has any right to, and the single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is simply breathtaking. However, the album’s biggest highlights come in its second half. Tracks like “Runaway,” “Conversation 16,” and “England” takes The National’s chilling ambience to a new level, all without loosing the rock ‘n roll sound at the band’s core.
The music is excellent, the lyrics are excellent, and High Violet is just an incredible album all around. Fans of the band won’t be disappointed, and new listeners are in for a treat. The National have established themselves as one of the best bands in modern rock, and High Violet might very well be the group’s best effort yet.
Nas & Damian Marley- Distant Relatives (3.5/4)
The long awaited collaboration between rap legend Nas and genre-bending reggae artist Damian Marley (son of the legendary Bob Marley) more than lives up to its potential. Both musicians are artists in every sense of the word and it shows on Distant Relatives. The theme of the album is Africa, both in terms of its music and lyrics. The music is as African as hip-hop can be, combining tribal singing with traditional African drums. Everything comes across cleanly, and the beats paint an interesting canvas for the artists to go to work. The lyrics aim to not only educate listeners about the struggles of the continent, but also celebrate the rich culture of Africa. This creates a deep lyrical offering, but never one that is overly preachy. There is fun to be had, and the two are never at odds. Even the guests focus on the concept at hand, albeit some better than others. Lil Wayne provides what is easily his best verse in some time on “My Generation,” but both he and that track are the weak link of the album. Thankfully, Wayne’s prescence is more than made up for by Somalian emcee K’naan, who delivers what may be the verse of the year on “Tribes at War.” However, the real strength of Distant Relatives lies in its two main attractions, and both Nas and Damian Marley deliver some of their best material to date. Considering the legacy both men have created for themselves, that is high praise indeed.
Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma (3.5/4)
Cosmogramma is not only the best album so far from experimental producer Flying Lotus, it’s his first album of actual art. While Flying Lotus has always shown a great deal of talent, his overly experimental approach has never really amounted to anything more than and just that- an experiment. With two full length albums under his belt, Flying Lotus has learned from his mistakes and created an album up to his potential. Cosmogramma is as cohesive as an experimental electronic album can be, and the songs have a great deal of tension and build up. Be warned that this album still isn’t all that accessible, but anyone willing to embrace their avant-garde side will be rewarded with an ambitious and creative record that simply cannot be brushed aside.
Shad- TSOL (3.5/4)
Shad’s third studio album is a refreshing return to the jazz rap roots of conscious hip-hop. The music is lively and filled with subtle nuisances rarely found in modern hip-hop, but Shad’s all around skill as an emcee is what truly makes TSOL shine. His lyrics are honest and mostly uplifting, complementing the jazzy tunes with a positive message, and his wordplay is every bit as deep as the classic afrocentric emcees he’s influenced by. TSOL is a very strong hip-hop album, both musically and lyrically, and any fan of hip-hip should give it a listen.
Other Notable Releases
Anathema- We’re Here Because We’re Here (2.5/4)
As I Lay Dying- The Powerless Rise (2.5/4)
Band of Horses- Infinite Arms (2.5/4)
Much like the first two albums from the Seattle indie rock group, Band of Horses’ Infinite Arms is an album filled with highly original and atmospheric takes on the genre, as well as an unfortunate amount of filler. Thing is, Band of Horses are truly great when they at the best, which they are for about half of the album. They have an original sound that takes elements from multiple subgenres of indie music, creating a sound that is as rock-ish as it is ambient. When it doesn’t work, Band of Horses come off and a typical indie rock band, incorporating elements of folk, hard rock, and alt-country, but failing at putting the pieces together. Again, Infinite Arms works about half of the time, and it makes one wonder what this band could do if they could stay consistent throughout an entire album. Despite some legitimately great moments, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Infinite Arms, but I do encourage all fans of alternative music to listen to “Compliments,” “Blue Beard,” and the title track.
The Black Keys- Brothers (3/4)
Crystal Castles- Crystal Castles (3/4)
Damien Jurado- Saint Bartlett (3/4)
Deftones- Diamond Eyes (3/4)
God is an Astronaut- Age of the Fifth Sun (2/4)
Coming off their incredible self-titled third album (which earned a 4 star rating), God is an Astronaut take a huge step back with Age of the Fifth Sun, a surprisingly generic take on post-rock. The epic soundscapes of albums past are nowhere to be found, and the constant tension that helped God is an Astronaut stand out is mysteriously absent as well. In its place is mundane post-rock filler, rarely playing with tension and building up only in the most predictable ways. If you listen to post-rock, chances are you’ve heard this done before, and if you don’t there are better places to start- such as God is an Astronaut’s previous albums.
Godsmack- The Oracle (2/4)
Harvey Milk- A Small Turn of Human Kindness (3/4)
The Hold Steady- Heaven is Whenever (3.5/4)
LCD Soundsystem- This is Happening (3/4)
Minus the Bear- Omni (3/4)
Necro- DIE! (2/4)
It’s a shame that Necro the producer wastes his beats on Necro the emcee. DIE! is an album of dark, chilling, and often morbid beats, but it’s also an album of poor flow and laughable lyrics that try way too hard to shock its listener. There are no guest spots to be found, making Necro even more unbearable than usual, as his brother Ill Bill as made a welcome appearance on all of his previous albums. Regardless of Necro’s awful rapping and even worse lyricism, DIE! still deserves some praise. Few producers can create such heavy and twisted beats, and Necro proves that again on this release. Just please, please, please let someone else do the rapping next time.
Nevermore- The Obsidian Conspiracy (3/4)
The New Pornographers- Together (3/4)
Pain of Salvation- Road Salt One (2.5/4)
Reflection Eternal- Revolutions Per Minute (2.5/4)
Sage Francis- Li(f)e- (2/4)
On Sage Francis’ fourth studio album, the gifted emcee embraces his rock side. That’s not to say Sage has moved away from hip-hop, but much of the music is based in alternative rock, giving Li(f)e a rap-rock feel reminiscent of the Depart From Me LP Cage released last year. While Sage’s rock influences have never been a secret, it sounds a bit forced this time around. There’s just too much of it, and with a lot of the beats sounding the same it gets repetitive far too quickly. It doesn’t help that Sage’s usually tight lyrics come off as even more forced than the beats. Just about every line attempts some sort of clever wordplay, and far too many fail miserably. Conscious lyricism can’t be forced, just as intentionally setting out to write a deep song will usually end up with the opposite result. Sage Francis, talented as he may, has unfortunately fallen victim to that.
Tame Impala- Inner Speaker (2/4)
Tame Impala are an indie rock band that has been getting a lot of hype recently. The reason is pretty simple. These guys sound like The Beatles, and well, that’s enough for many rock fans to go crazy (just like at the critical and commercial success of Oasis). It goes without saying that Tame Impala aren’t the most original band in the world, and it may be unfair to criticize them in that regard. With that being said, it’s hard to image anyone going back to Inner Speaker after the initial rush of nostalgia wears off, and for that reason it’s impossible to recommend.