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january 2017

The best Christmas surprise from the world of music this year was the early release of the third Run the Jewels album, RTJ3. It was originally scheduled for release in mid-January, but on Christmas Eve the duo announced that they were releasing it digitally for free, which was just about the best present their fans could ask for.

I've listened to it several times now, and it's as strong as both of their other records——this might be the most consistent string of debuts by a rap artist since Kanye West's The College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation sequence that started his career (granted, Killer Mike and El-P have a long string of solo albums prior to their collaboration as Run the Jewels, but still).

There's not really a weak track on here, but the clear standout for me is "Legend Has It", which has already become a staple of my running shuffle mix. "Hey Kids" and "Stay Gold" are also strong entries that are more or less textbook examples of the Run the Jewels sound, and closer "A Report to the Shareholders: Kill Your Masters" (which features the return of Zach de la Rocha, who guested on the Run the Jewels 2 track "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)") is a rallying cry that's turned into a more potent political statement since it was recorded.

The early release of this record was a good end to what turned out to be a pretty bad year. 2017 looks to be worse, but it's the kind of year where we all need to find a way to get active and make a difference, and RTJ3 could be the soundtrack to the resistance that many of us are going to need.

The other Christmas release that was actually Christmas-related was Chance the Rapper's mixtape with Jeremih called Merry Christmas Lil' Mama. It's a goofy, slightly holiday-themed companion to Coloring Book that won't contain sny real surprises for someone familiar with Chance's recent trend towards gospel and soul music.

It's hard to complain about a free release that's meant to be a gift to fans, but there's not a lot that's remarkable on here, and the drive to connect everything to Christmas in some way leads to some truly wince-worthy moments, lyrically and musically.

It's important as a document of where one of our most talented artists may be headed with his sound, but I'm not even sure that, on a track by track basis, there's even anything on here that would make it onto the shuffle mix for a hipster holiday party.

Just before Christmas, I bought two releases from artists I hadn't heard too much from before: Frankie Cosmos' Next Thing and Allison Crutchfield's debut solo EP, Lean In To It. These are two quirky, fairly unknown female artists, and both records were quirky and pretty good listens.

I'm familiar with some of Allison Crutchfield's other work—she's the sister of Waxahatchee frontwoman Katie Crutchfield, and not only does she often sing and play on her sister's records, but she also played in a Philadelphia band called Swearin'. This EP was actually released in 2014, and at the time it didn't seem like she had broken from her band, but wasn instead just doing a fun little solo experiement.

In the years since, however, the band has formally split up and Allison is on the verge of releasing her first solo full-length, but while waiting for that, I decided to listen to the EP to get a sense of what her sound might be. It turns out, it hits a lot of my sweet spots: the songs are pretty short, filled with pop hooks, and rely on a lo-fi sound that is heavily influenced by 80s synths.

In fact, the more I listened to it, the more I understood some of the new sounds on Waxahatchee's 2015 album Ivy Tripp: whether Katie was borrowing her sister's sounds or whether they just spend so much time collaborating that the work of one naturally influences the work of the other, songs like "La Loose" and "Breathless" are definitely kindred spirits of the songs on Lean In To It.

The first song from the upcoming album sounds like more of the same, so I'm more excited about it now that I've fallen in love with this EP. It's due out in early February, and although I'm dying for a new Waxahatchee record this year, Allison's record might well be a decent substitute if Katie hasn't got anything ready for us in the near term.

The Frankie Cosmos record is also very lo-fi and charming in that way——bedroom pop is a good intuitive description. The songs are also pretty short, but it's more reliant on guitars than keyboards, and it's also a lot more hit and miss than the Allison Crutchfield EP.

Even though there are some songs that probably could have stayed off the record, the good news is that every song blows by so quickly that even the mediocre ones don't prevent this from being a pretty good record overall, one that you can listen to from start to finish and not get bored with. There are also moments in every song that are keepers, and although there are times where I wish Cosmos had taken those great moments and continuted to develop the song instead of leaving it more or less an unfinished sketch, I still found myself listening to the record over and over.

My favorite track is "Embody", which I think I would have liked no matter what, but which has a special resonance for me. One of the lyrical sections of the song is:

Sarah is a light beam
From the picture Jonah sent me
It makes me so happy
She embodies all the grace and lightness

I had a friend named Sarah who passed away about a year ago, and I still think about her every day. She was one of those rare people who made every single person she talked to feel like the most important person in the world, and she made you feel like you could do anything. She made everyone feel like they mattered.

She had cancer and battled it for two years before succumbing, and one of her final messages to her friends was that, no matter how dark things get, there is always light, and it is up to each one of us to find our light. I thought of her instantly when I heard those words, and now that's how I think of her: as a light beam that can always find us when we need her.

Dirty Projectors have shared a new song from their upcoming album called "Little Bubble"

This one took a couple of listens to grow on me, but the chorus (or what amounts to the chorus, I guess) where David Longstreth sings "We had our own little bubble/For a while" just kills me. This record is looking to be devastatingly sad based on the songs they've shared so far, but even though I typically can't handle a full album full of raw depression these days——life is just so sad already that it doesn't take much to send me over the tipping point——but it's hard for me to imagine not buying and loving this record.

My next several non-new-music-sharing entries are going to be assessing the $5 purchases I made on Amazon right before the holidays, starting with my least favorites and working up to my favorites.

I'm actually going to start with Brian Eno's Another Green World, which I can't say is a bad record, but which is one that doesn't have enough of the stuff of his that I like for me to ever listen to it reguarly (unlike Here Come the Warm Jets and Before and After Science, both of which I love).

I'm also not going to formally review Level 42's World Machine, which was a pure nostalgia purchase and which didn't contain any undiscovered gems that shone brighter in the light of my affection for 80s new wave and its offshoots.

Instead, I'll start with a record that is pleasant enough, but one which I'd had much greater hopes for: the I Don't Cares' Wild Stab. You've never heard of this band, but if you liked 80s or 90s college rock, you've certainly heard of its songwriters: Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Juliana Hatfield of the Blake Babies (and eventually a pretty substantial set of solo records).

It comes off as more of a Westerberg solo record with Hatfield providing backing vocals, but I'm glad he chose not to release this under the Replacements monikor or even under his own name as a solo artist. There are lots of fun little moments, and it's a curiosity piece for anyone who has devotedly followed Westerberg's odd output this century, but it's just not substantial enough to by worthy of repeated listens.

T here's really only one quality song on here ("Outta My System"), mixed with a few that could have been developed into stronger tracks, and more than a couple that are so winceworthy that they shouldn't even have been put on here as jokes (and they were not put on here as jokes, but that's really the best way to think about them——"Kissing Break" is top of the pile for the ones that should never even have been recorded, much less put on a formal release).

$5 was certainly the right price for this one, and even that might have been too steep by a couple of bucks for what I got out of it. But I'm sure glad I didn't pay anywhere near full price for it.

The Shins have shared another song from their upcoming new album Heartwoms, this one called "Name for You":

Holy cow is this song crazy catchy. There are definitely Beatles influences on this one, but filtered through the one of the most Beatles-oriented bands from the Elephant Six era, Apples in Stereo. It's possible that this song could have been brought into existence without a direct knowledge of Apples in Stereo, but the slavish adherence of the Beatles' sound and approach springs from the same impulse that birthed the Apples, so there's a kinship here, direct or indirect.

It's nice to hear the Shins sound genuinely happy and like they're having fun, something that doesn't happen too often for this band. Their smiles are mostly sardonic and their winks are often knowing acknowledgements of impending doom. But this is just pure, unadulterated pop sugar, which they've always been capable of but rarely indulged in.

My next-least-favorite pre-holidays purchase for $5 was Whitney's Light Upon the Lake. I picked it up mostly because it showed up on several of the year-end best-of lists, and although I've listened to it three times at this point, it's made absolutely no impression on me at all, which, if I'm going to be mean about it, sort of seems to be what the band is going for.

I don't know. Maybe the right mood will strike me, and I'll be able to lock onto something here that I connect with emotionally, but since I don't know whether I'm ever going to seek it out once it's out of my playlist of recent purchases, the chances seem vanishingly small that this will become a record that I'm capable of enjoying.

We're now starting to get into the realm of albums I liked a little bit or more, so the next two were kind of a toss up between Ben Folds' Way To Normal and Ra Ra Riot's Need Your Light. But I'll start with the Ra Ra Riot disc.

This band has always seemed like a weaker facsimile of Vampire Weekend, and although I liked their debut album, I haven't been interested enough in their subsequent releases to buy them. On this one they double down on what I thought were there worst impulses: the move to a more electronic sound and the Vampire Weekend references. They did this by partnering with ex-Weekender Rostam (who also released a collaborative album with former Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser last year) and going full-force on the machine-like beats and an overload of synths.

It doesn't achieve the hyperkinetic speeds of, say, Passion Pit, but this is definitely a dance-oriented record, and somehow it mostly works if you allow it to. The first two tracks, "Water" and "Absolutely", are two of the best, and they also give you a good sampling of the sound of the whole album——if you don't like at least one of these, you should just quit and move on to something else.

I don't know how I'll feel about this album a few months from now, but now I'm trying to enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of genuinely enjoying a Ra Ra Riot record again. It's not the kind of record I'm going to go out evangelizing to others, but if someone ever says to me, "Gee, I wish there were more records out there from Vampire Weekend", I don't think I'll be above recommending this as a reasonably decent substitute.

Whatever and Ever Amen was one of my favorite albums of the 90s——it was the closest thing to punk I'd heard in a long time even though the group consisted solely of a snarky singer/piano player, a bassist, and a drummer. I loved pretty much every song on it, but especially the more raucous ones like "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and "Song for the Dumped".

But Ben Folds, like most piano players, is in his heart a balladeer, and as his career progressed after that album, he got more tame and mainstream, and his music just didn't interest me as much (although I was unexpectedly and thoroughly taken with the album he did with William Shatner, Has Been). I half heartedly bought his first solo album, the appallingly titled Rockin' the Suburbs (whose jokey tone wasn't helped by being coincidentally released on September 11, 2001), but it was clear that most of what attracted me to Whatever was not going to be a part of his music going forward.

But I decided to take a flyer on his 2008 solo album, Way to Normal when it was listed on Amazon for $5, and I've been pleasantly surprised. There are still a lot of ballads (some good, especially the collaboration with another pianist, Regina Spektor), and overall the album is very listenable despite the absence of obvious singles.

I don't know if it's going to inspire me to go back and revisit Folds' earlier material that I didn't respond to or to buy any of his other records, but at the very least, if I see another record on Amazon for $5, I'm much more likely to pick it up.

Spoon recently announced a new album called Hot Thoughts, and now they have shared the title track:

This has the practiced cool and the minimalist aesthetic that is Spoon's hallmark, but along that very particular spectrum, this track is practically exuberant——Britt Daniel even lets out a "woo!" at one point.

Spoon are so consistent that you can pick pretty much any song and tell from your reaction whether you're going to like or dislike their entire body of work, and it doesn't sound like they're planning any radical departures with Hot Thoughts. I happen to be a Spoon devotee, so I'm pretty psyched about this.

Another album I picked up for $5 from Amazon because it showed up on a lot of best-of-2016 lists was Mitski's Puberty 2. This record is an interesting cross between St. Vincent's self-titled record from 2014 and Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time.

It is a bit on the ponderous side, which means I have to be in the right mood to listen to it properly, and opening track "Happy" is the only killer single, but it's a complex, nuanced album from an emerging female guitarist whose career will be worth watching.

Dirty Projectors have shared a third track from their upcoming album, this one titled "Up In Hudson":

This is the strangest (and therefore the most-Dirty-Projectors-like) of the three tracks we've heard so far, and it's practically crying for the female voice that the now-solo-artist Amber Coffman would have provided were she still with the band. But it's a pretty good song even without that touch——we've just gotten so used to Amber's voice that its absence is even more glaring on tracks where she traditionally would have had a major role.

This is going to be a complicated record that I'm probably going to have to be in the right mood to absorb properly, but there's a good chance that, if I can find that mood, I'm going to fall hard for it——it seems likely to be one of my favorite records of the year or one that I listen to a few times but never warm up to. The more I listen to these first three tracks, however, the more I'm convinced that it's going to be the former.

Finally we come to the real gem of the $5 Amazon purchases from last month: Pinegrove's Cardinal. This was another one that I saw show up on multiple best-of lists, but I really had no idea what to expect other than that it was country-influenced rock by a band from New Jersey.

And it is that, I guess, but it's so much more——this is a record that, in an alternate universe where Ryan Adams was a better lyricist (the imagery and wordplay here is dense and complex, but puntuated by memorable one-liners) and not such a dbag, could have been made by Whiskeytown in their heyday.

There's definitely a country influence here (this would have been absolutely labeled No Depression/alt country in the early 90s), but classic rock is still the foundation. It's one of those rare records that sounds so instantly familiar because of its reliance on traditional elements of rock, but one that also sounds utterly fresh and new thanks to the new interpretation of those standards.

I couln't stop listening to this record for days after the first time I heard it, and I still return to it regularly. Almost every song is a keeper, but the opening/closing pair of "Old Friends" and "New Friends" are my two favorites. This album is easily going to make my top 10 this year; it's highly likely to be in the top 5. And despite some earlier EPs and compilations on Bandcamp, this is the proper debut record from Pinegrove; I cannot wait to hear their sophomore album and hopefully many more releases after that.

The ageless, eternal Wire have a new album coming out called Silver/Lead, and they recently shared a track from the record called "Short Elevated Period":

The last time these guys put out a record that I didn't really want to listen to was during the transition from their second to third incarnation——the Manscape/The Drill/The First Letter period in the early 90s when founding member Robert Gotobed left the band and they dropped the "e" off their name, becoming Wir for a single album that presaged a decade-plus hiatus.

But they've been consistently active since reforming in the early 2000s, honing their sound until it has blended into a battle-tested amalgam of their earliest records and their more electronic-influenced records from their second phase in the late 80s. There hasn't been a great album coming from this phase of their existence, but there also hasn't been a bad release, and every record has at least a couple of songs that are worthy of whatever best-of collection will happen decades from now when there is no new material to market.

"Short Elevated Period" is solidly in this vein, and it looks to be one of the standout tracks from Silver/Lead. It's hard for me to know whether this band is even capable of winning new fans, because I don't understand why they aren't more popular and better-loved in the first place, but a track like this is as good a place to start as any for someone whose looking for a more friendly entry point into this band's sound.

Guided By Voices have announced a new record, August By Cake, which is notable for two reasons: first, it is the first time they are releasing a double album (33 tracks total if you count the opening 00 track "Bob Intro"), and second it is the 100th album released by Bob Pollard since the GBV debut in 1986. Do the math on that, and we're talking about an average of 3 1/3 albums per year for THIRTY YEARS STRAIGHT. I mean, anyone who follows Pollard through his various side projects and solo efforts knew that his overall catalogue of albums numbered in the many dozens, but triple digits is pretty hard to comprehend even in that context.

Anyway, he also shared a song from August called "Hiking Skin":

The truly shocking thing about Pollard's body of work isn't that it's got more than its fair share of throwaways or half-baked ideas (it does), but rather how much of it is actually good. If you took his 15 very best songs across a given two year period (which would feature on average around 80 songs) and released them as coherent records that came out with enough space between them for audiences to absorb them before the next offering, his status as a god of lo-fi influenced classic rock would be unparalleled. Every single record would be a classic, and there's no doubt that he'd have legions more fans than his dedicated current fanbase.

You have to admire his work ethic and the consistency of his approach as he's gotten older, where the grind of life on the road and the constant creative pressure to come up with something new would have destroyed a weaker man. But approaching age 60 with 100 albums under his belt, he's still going strong. Maybe he really is a god.

The New Pornographers have a new albume coming out called Whiteout Conditions, and they shared a new track from the record called "High Ticket Attractions":

I always enjoy releases from the Canadian indie-rock supergroup, but if I'm being honest, I've only loved one of their releases in the last decade (2010's Together), and while there are always some strong individual tracks, with a collective of songwriters as strong as they've got, every record should be packed with amazing songs from start to finish (as their early releases actually were).

There's nothing bad about this song, but afer a couple of listens it feels very middle of the road for this group——the kind of song they would stick at track 4 or track 7 that wouldn't completely kill whatever momentum they've built up by then, but one that will serve as a settling palette cleanser in preparation for another shot of pop genius to follow. And if that's what they're leading with, I'm not sure how strong the rest of the record is capable of being.