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february 2017

There were a few other records I bought early in the year that weren't part of any Amazon deal, and one of those was The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die's second album Harmlessness. This album actually came out in 2015, but somehow I missed its release despite being a fan of their 2013 debut, Whenever, If Ever.

The production on this record is more polished, and the songs are tighter and more compact, but I miss the looser, more downtrodden feel of the first record. There are still lots of sonic elements that carry over from their first record, but all of them have a sharper edge, and the blurriness was a big part of the appeal for me.

I have a feeling this album would be one that I enjoy better performed live, where the sounds might be a little more muddled——this one sounds like they're performing in a near vacuum in a laboratory instead of a humid spring day——and hopefully I'll get a chance to find out. They're supposed to be releasing another album this year, and presumably a tour will follow.

Another record that I bought last month was Tennis' debut album, Cape Dory. I've liked this band for a while, but I didn't discover them until their sophomore record, Young & Old, and for some reason I never went back to Cape Dory. But I remembered I didn't have this one when I was listening to a preview single from their upcoming new record and impulsively pulled the trigger.

It's not as fully formed as Young & Old, but all the elements that make them sound like Tennis are there, even if some of them are in a bit more of an embryonic form. The influence the innocent girl pop of the 60s is even more on the surface; part of their growth was burying that a little deeper without truly moving away from it.

There are a few keeper songs on here, and the completionist part of me is glad that I have this in my collection so I know exactly what it is and how it fits into their overall body of work. But if this had been the first record of theirs I had bought, I don't know if would have convinced me to get the second one the chance that it deserved.

The first new release I bought in 2017 was an EP from long-running obsession of Montreal called Rune Husk that was taken from the same sessions that brought last year's Innocence Reaches.

of Montreal used to be one of those bands where even the EPs were compelling, must-own documents for fans (Icons, Abstract Thee remains one of their seminal works), but when their full-lengths don't live up to those expectations even for loyal fans, it's hardly surprsing that the EPs and compilations of leftovers aren't that noteworthy either.

That's the case with this one as well——there's nothing bad on here per se, at least in the context of the of Montreal story, but there's nothing that you have to hear, either. And you've likely already figured out for yourself whether you are someone is going to never listen to this band again, maybe stream the new releases but not buy them even though you'll show up for a concert any day of the week, or someone who, like me, will give the band an infinite amount of rope because of your love for a few of their releases and continue to buy whatever they put out just because of your affection for those key records.

Vince Staples supposedly has a new album coming out soon, and he has shared a new track that will presumably be included on that release called "BagBak":

Staples has released two EPs and a double album as official releases in just over two years, and so far he hasn't had a miss among them. If "BagBak" is representative of what we'll get on the new record, he's going to continue his winning streak.

It's got the minimal, sinister beats that are part of his signature vibe, but the synths are a little more prominent and goofy than they have been on some of his past songs. But his rapping is on point as always, and the track has enough hooks that lesser artists might have parceled them out among three or four songs to get the most mileage out of them. I'm not a huge rap/hip hop fan, but I love this guy——he knows exactly who he is and what he wants to say, and he delivers every time.

Another record that I bought because it showed up on so many year-end best-of lists was Jeff Rosenstock's Worry, and man, I wish I had found out about this one back when it was released. I've becomed as obsessed with it as I have Pinegrove's Cardinal——both of these are likely to make my 2016 top ten (and maybe even top five) despite me not really discovering them until 2017.

Rosenstock trades in tuneful, melodic power punk that could have been released anytime in the past 20 years——clearly beyond the first couple of generations of punk, but solidly in that tradition. Beyond that, he just writes really solid rock songs——if he had hit the culture at the right time, there's no reason to think that he couldn't have had some huge mainstream hits (and he's still got time to make that happen).

Some first-listen standouts are rave ups like "Festival Song" and "Wave Goodbye to Me", but the more you listen, the more you appreciate how seemlessly all 17 songs flow together, and how much more vital they all become in the context of each other.

This is especially true of the last half of the album (starting with "Blast Damage Days"), where the songs really do flow (or occasionally slam) into one another——there are no real pauses, and cumulative effect of all these ideas welded so elegantly to another is a rare feat, especially in the single-drive world we live in now. I really can't listen to anything on the second half in isolation——all those songs exist as fragments of a larger whole that add up to so much more than the sums of the individual tracks.

This is a truly great record, especially if you are someone who likes hummable punk or just good old rock songs. I'm going to be pushing this album on people for years to come——it's got such a classic feel and stands in its own temporal music bubble that I can't ever imagine sounding dated or tethered to its actual moment of birth.

The first new full-length I bought in 2017 was Allison Crutchfield's debut album, Tourist in This Town. Allison is the twin sister of Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield, and although they started out playing together in a band called P.S. Eliot, they went their separate ways around 2011, with Katie starting Waxahatchee and Allison joining a Philadelphia band, Swearin'.

Allison left Swearin' in 2014 and released a solo EP that was heavy on keyboards and drum machines but which still had a very warm, earthy quality to it. I didn't discover that EP until last year, but it quickly worked its way into my regular rotation, so I was excited to see what a full-length album would hold.

It's more of the same, in a good way——maybe a little more reliance on traditional rock instruments, but still with a strong presence of keyboards and a vaguely 80s sound. "I Don't Ever Wanna Leve California" is the standout single, but there are lots of other great tracks on here: "Expatriate" contains the album title and gives a shambling indie twist to a Bo Diddley backbeat; "Miles Away" is the most keyboard heavy (and bombastic) track on the record; and closing track "Chopsticks on Pots and Pans" takes a complex, shuffling drum rhythm and slowly layers guitar and keyboard lines on top of it, building to a mesmerizing crescendo.

I imagine it must be hard to carve out your own unique identity from your twin sister no matter what the circumstances, but especially when you are each trying to create a distinct musical styel despite having grown up learning to play together (and still playing alongside one another in concert and on albums——Allison has been part of Katie's live band for the past couple of years, and has also sung backup vocals for Waxahatchee in the studio).

But Allison has found a nice space here——you can still hear the similarities in their voices, and on Waxahatchee's most recent record, Ivy Tripp, you can hear how Allison's style influenced her sister, but this is her own sound, very distinct from her sister's but without betraying the raw honesty and grappling with biographical emotional complexities that are common to both their lyrics.

Jens Lekman recently shared a track from his forthcoming new album, Life Will See You Now, titled "Evening Prayer":

I'm a huge supporter of Jens Lekman——those who follow this site with any regularity will remember that I covered each one of the 52 tracks from his 2015 experiment where he released a new song each week for an entire year. I was hoping that would yield enough material that could quickly be worked into a new album for 2016 (from my point of view, about 20 of the songs were good enough to be considered full studio treatment and inclusion on an official release), but that wasn't to be.

I still don't know how many of the Postcards songs will make it onto this album, but "Evening Prayer" doesn't appear to be one of them. I could do without the "doo-doo-doos" that start the track and repeat throughout, but otherwise this is what I love about Jens: an upbeat musical idea accompanied by his plaintive voice singing lyrics like "It's been a long, hard year" and "How I prayed that I could stop the pain" while telling the story of a friend who suffered through a cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery.

Jens is a storyteller at heart, and while the stories that provide the narrative for his songs can sometimes be gut-wrenching and painful, they are always interspersed with moments of beauty and humor and joy. Just like life.

I've done my best to try and love Cloud Nothings through all their changes and permutations, but I keep hoping they'll return to a version of the sound that I fell in love with on their eponymous debut album. The first couple of singles from their new record, Life Without Sound, gave me some hope that this might finally be that record, but after spending a few weeks doing my best to be open to it, it's turning out to be another disappointment.

Their second album, Attack on Memory, was a brooding, dark, and just plain glum record that was no fun to listen to——it was like frontman Dylan Baldi was more interested in proving a point about his musicianship than he was in making songs that people, particularly his existing fan base, would actually want to listen to. And although there are always a couple of songs that hark back to his debut, the overall tone on subsequent albums gets more DNA from Memory than it does from the first record.

That's unfortunately true on Life Without Sound as well. Despite strong early release tracks like "Internal World" and "Modern Act", the majority of the rest of the tracks are not the complex sing-alongs that I love, but rather abrasive minor chord indulgences that seem to be more for the players than the audience. It also doesn't help that the record closes out with two of the weakest, least accessible tracks which are more of an exercise in patience than anything else.

The band still show flashes every record of what I want them to be (and, tellingly, these songs are invariably the ones released as singles ahead of the album), and I keep getting tricked into buying them. But at this point, three albums removed from the one release of theirs that I truly love, I'd have to say that's my fault: the debut is not officially the aberration, and the approach they introduced on Memory is actually their signature sound.

So: I knew I had tickets for the Jesus and Mary Chain, but I thought the shows were in March after their new album came out. But I started organizing my tickets for upcoming shows (Regina Spektor, the Decemberists, Waxahatchee/New Pornographers, and, I thought, Mary Chain) and I realize that the date on the tickets was back in December.

I have no clue how I missed that, but I'm going to blame my mild synesthesia, which sees both March and December in ths same dark green color——I think I associate their new record with March, and even though I at some point must have known the tickets were for December (I bought them way back in early fall), I conflated the two months and filed away the show as one that wouldn't be happening until this year.

That's a pretty big missed opportunity——I've never seen them live, and they don't seem to be big on touring the States, so that might have been my only chance.

Passion Pit have shared two new songs in the past couple of days: "Inner Dialogue" and "Somewhere Up There". A new album has not been officially announced, but both tracks feature a #seaoflove hashtag, which may point to a new album title.

"Inner Dialogue" is for all intents and purposes an instrumental——the vocal is distorted and abstract and used as just another sonic element and not for narrative purposes. The song is pleasant for what it is, but I just don't have much interest in instrumentals, so it didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

I really like the first half of "Somewhere Up There" before it veers off into a ocmpletely different song with a long spoken word break in the music——it's very minimal and understated compared to the dance floor bombast that the group's best-known songs are famous for. The second half is soothing in its way, but for shuffle purposes, I would have preferred if this had been broken up into two distinct songs.

Animal Collective are releasing a companion EP for their most recent album, Painting With, called The Painters, and they recently shared the lead track, "Kinda Bonkers":

Kinda bonkers is an apt description of Animal Collective's music, especially since they went synth heavy with 2012's Centipede Hz, and this track, while still stuffed with snythesizers and complex drum patterns, actually feels quite spacious and leisurely compared to some of the more hyperkinetic tracks on Painting With. But I will give them this: for a lyric video, this one is definitely weird and trippy in a way that is very reminiscent of their current live shows.

At this point in their career, Animal Collective aren't likely to win over people who have heard their music and not felt it, despite their stylistic shifts over the years, but for the faithful converted, they can do very little wrong. "Kinda Bonkers" is an easily contextualized addition to their recent body of work, and I expect that The Painters will be as worthy an addition to their body of work as all their previous companion EPs have been.

The Shins have shared another song from their upcoming album Heartworms, this one called "Mildenhall":

This one has an unusual (for the Shins) and rambling hop-the-next-train-out-of-town feel to it, but they somehow make it work. Mildenhall is a small town in Suffolk, England, that is also home to an air base where the narrator's father was stationed when he was a teenager. In that context, the country and western influences of the song help to reinforce the sense of impernance and isolation that must ha`ve come with being a newly arrived American in a British town just as you were entering those critical years of high school.

Not my favorite Shins song——I've liked the other previews from the new album better——but it grows on you, and the more you listen the more the links between it and other songs in the Shins discography become apparent.

Little Dragon have a new album coming out called Season High, and have shared a new track from the record called "High":

I have always loved frontwoman Yukimi Nagano's voice, and they get bonus points for being from Goethenberg, the same Swedish town that Jens Lekman hails from, but I think I'm always going to appreciate them more when they collaborate with others than I am on their own work.

Nagano's backing vocals on Big Boi's "Descending" adds tremendous depth and pathos to the song, and her slightly processed voice that takes over at the end of Gorillaz' "Empire Ants" helps lead that song to its conclusion, emphasizing the tension between human beings and the highly mechanized world that we have created for ourselves to live in.

But when it comes to actual Little Dragon albums, they're just a little too dreamy and unfocused for mWe——I like their influence on other artists, but beyond that, I struggle with their original output. That's certainly the case with this song, but I'm still going to give the full album a shot just because there's so much potential here.

My favorite band whose name I hate, PWR BTTM, have shared a new track from their upcoming sophomore album. The record is called Pageant, and the song is "Big Beautiful Day":

PWR BTTM's songs have always been empowering, but in a much more casual way, incoporated references to gay and queer relationships in the same way a straight artist would reference a hetero relationship, normalizing love across the whole spectrum of human sexuality by not calling out those on the LGBTQ wavelengths as unique or different. So while they've written anthemic songs, they've never written anthems per se.

Until "Big Beautiful Day", that is. Not only is this their most sing-along-friendly and bombastically rocking track to date, it also contains lyrics like "Curse every one of you who tells me that I cannot be who I want/Ain't no fucking way you'll fuck up my big beautiful day". It's their loudest and proudest musical moment yet, but even in the context of this strident declaration, they still feel empathy for the haters——which makes the message all the more powerful.

Spoon have shared a second track from their upcoming new record, Hot Thoughts, this one called "Can I Sit Next to You":

This track also has Spoon's classic stripped down sound——it's like they're constantly experimenting to see just how few sounds you can use to construct something that can reasonably be called a rock song——but it's slinkier and funkier than their usual fare. There are some synth flourishes and punctuating keyboards that get added in as the song grows in intensity, culminating in a passage where it feels like the electronics are melting before starting to scale back on instruments as the song winds to a close.

There's enough of a variation from their basic sound to make this interesting, and between this and the title track, I'm really curious to hear this record. You'd think a band that's been around this long and has consistently relied on such a pure, refined vision for their sound would be out of ideas at this point, but the two tracks they've shared so far show that they've still got some miles left on the tread.

Shoegaze standard-bearers Ride are releasing their first album in 20 years later this summer, and they have shared a track from the record called "Charm Assault":

Like most people who at some point called themselves Ride fans, I loved Nowhere and Going Blank Again, was less comfortable with the more acoustic, 60s influenced Carnival of Light, and completely missed whatever the point of Tarantula might have been. So while I'm curious to see what the band does with their new record, my expectations are pretty low.

Based on "Charm Assault", my expectations might be at the right level. If you hadn't told me this was Ride, I never would have guessed it. The track alternates between a dreamier, echo-y sound for the verses to a choppy set of chords for the chorus, and if I had to pick something similar in their previous catalog, it would be a weird amalgamation of some of the slower tracks on Carnival with some of the punchier tracks on Tarantula. But again, I never would have guessed this was Ride.

Last year I actually got my best-of lists posted in January, but it looks like it will be March or beyond for this year. That's not a bad thing, though——there are some 2016 records that I didn't discover until January of this year that will be making the cut.