It’s completely bonkers when you consider how many high-quality records have come out this year, and 2016 isn’t even over yet. Last Friday, things got even crazier as seven—yes, seven—huge new albums officially dropped.
To save everyone a little time, I spent all weekend listening to these albums (well, I had some of them a few days early) and I’m ready to review them all, one at a time. Are you ready? Me too!
Let’s do this …
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
I’ve been looking forward to Danny Brown’s new album since back in June, when he first released the song “When it Rain.” Now that Atrocity Exhibition is here, we can safely say the Detroit emcee has made yet another incredible rap record.
If you’ve never heard Brown’s rapping … well, make sure you’re seated when you give him your first listen. His flow is loud and unpredictable, and he seems to thrive on dropping the most over-the-line bars he can think of. Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown at his best, tearing each beat apart verse by verse and standing tall with his stoic, confident swagger.
Every single song on this record is worth hearing. The record is pure chaos, sure, but it’s controlled chaos. Brown knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s going to go all out while he does it. As consistent as the album is, though, one song does stand out among the rest: the euphoric “Really Doe.” Featuring guest verses from Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, the track leaps out the speakers like a hungry lion. It’s the best posse cut I’ve heard since A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train,” and Earl actually steals the show with his final verse.
Brown seems like he’s on a whole other planet right now. His verses always land, the beats he spits over are never weak, and his albums are always sequenced perfectly. It reminds me of the run MF Doom was on for much of the early 2000s.
I loved Brown’s last two full-lengths, 2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old, but this new one might just be his best yet.
And for the record: I think it might just be the best album that was released last Friday.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Well, friends: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is finally here! I wrote at length about this album a few weeks back, wondering out loud if it would be another huge success for Justin Vernon or a significant blunder, and it turns out I never should have doubted the guy.
I’ve been listening to this album a ton over the last several days—I actually had a copy a few days early—and I finally feel like I’m starting to come to terms with what Vernon and his band have created. 22, A Million is a gorgeous blend of heavily distorted vocals, abstract lyrics, insane song titles, pounding percussion, scene-setting horns, and haunting samples, with just enough piano and acoustic guitar thrown in that you’re occasionally reminded of the previous two Bon Iver efforts.
At its core are two songs that, in my mind, are outright masterpieces: “29 #Strafford APTS” and “8 (circle).” They happen to be two of the album’s more traditional tracks, though they’re still far from what a casual listener might mistake as “normal.” And the fact that they are less obscure is not what I like so much about them—I dig the experimentation as much as anyone. Vernon just seems incapable of leaving the stunning melodies behind, and “29 #Strafford APTS” and “8 (circle)” are when he lets that side of his music soar to the highest heights.
One of my favorite things about 22, A Million is how the band patiently builds the album’s atmosphere one song at a time. “8 (circle),” for instance, wouldn’t be nearly as good if the previous two songs, “666 ʇ” and “21 M◊◊N WATER,” weren’t right there before it. “666 ʇ” leads into “21 M◊◊N WATER,” which then transitions perfectly into “8 (circle).”
After repeated listens, I’ve even come to love the two tracks I was unsure about at first, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and “715 – CR∑∑KS.” My original fears were that James Blake’s influence had grown too heavy on Vernon’s shoulders and he had possibly stumbled a bit trying to replicate that sound … but my original fears were wrong. They both certainly work, and they’re short enough that, if you happen to hate either one, you don’t have too much to sit through before things move along to the next song.
This probably isn’t going to go down as my favorite Bon Iver album, but it’s still an impressive listen that makes me even more excited to hear what Vernon and his team come up with next. We went from heartbroken folk music to soft rock ecstasy to a purposefully distant combination of the two. What will album No. 4 look like? Your guess is as good as mine.
John Prine – For Better, Or Worse
For Better, Or Worse is a sequel to In Spite of Ourselves, John Prine’s terrific collection of duets with female country and folk singers from 1999. And just like In Spite of Ourselves, this new one is full of undeniable charm and great performances.
Prine seems to have strong chemistry with every women he sings with, though the songs with Iris Dement, “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” and “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be,” are once again the best of the bunch. Other highlights include “Color of the Blues” with Susan Tedeschi and “Look at Us” with Morgane Stapleton. He even sings one track with Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams and daughter of Hank Williams, Jr.
By the way, Prine appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast recently and gave a rare interview. If you’re a fan of the man’s music at all, I highly recommend you seek that out!
Pixies – Head Carrier
I never need to listen to a new Pixies album again. The band has hit that AC/DC/ZZ Top point in its career where new albums offer no surprises, no progression, and no risks. They are what they are. They sound like what they sound like. This is life.
And you know what? That’s alright! Heck, AC/DC and ZZ Top are two of my all-time favorite bands, and I love them despite the lack of wonder that surrounds the new music they’ve made these last few decades.
But I’m enjoying Head Carrier much less than anything AC/DC or ZZ Top were putting when they were the same age as Frank, Joey, and the gang. Waaaaaay less, actually.
The Pixies are clearly bored, and the excitement of their initial reunion has completely melted away. Seeing them live in Austin when they first got back together was one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had, and I’m sure they’re still put on a fun show, but Head Carrier is not enjoyable. It’s not even necessarily bad—it’s just, you know, not good.
Early single “Um Chagga Lagga” had me a little hopeful, but it’s far and away the most memorable song Head Carrier has to offer. The rest is just there … well except “All I Think About Now,” which stand out for being such a clear ripoff of the band’s past glories.
I wonder what Kim is up to.
Solange – A Seat at the Table
Yes, her older sister is Beyoncé, who dropped one of the year’s very best albums back in April. Yes, she was in the news a few years ago for attacking Jay-Z in an elevator. But Solange is also one hell of a musician, and her brand new album, A Seat at the Table, is absolutely fantastic.
I love that A Seat at the Table isn’t just a random collection of songs; it’s a fully focused album, with each song building on the last one to deliver an emphatic statement about pride, courage, and self-confidence. Solange went all in with A Seat at the Table, and her hard work has clearly paid off.
There are a lot of highlights here, but those standing out to me the most so far include “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and “F.U.B.U.” “Mad,” featuring Lil Wayne, is another winner; between this and his appearance on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, I’ve enjoyed Wayne more in 2016 than in any year since The Carter III dropped back in 2008.
One of the most surprising things about this album is that Master P plays a key role, speaking candidly about his own career over the course of several impactful interludes. All of the interludes are strong, actually, including one from Solange’s father and another from her mother. I’m honestly not really a fan of interludes, and they seem to be the most forgettable on R&B and hip-hop records, but A Seat at the Table shows that they can be used to the benefit of the artist and his or her vision.
Bob Weir – Blue Mountain
I’ve written about my love for Bob Weir in the past, and was excited to see this album was finally coming out. Working with songwriter Josh Ritter and the National’s Josh Kaufman, Weir has made a record that sounds less like the Grateful Dead, Kingfish, or any of Weir’s prior solo albums. Blue Mountain is slower than any of those and much more reliant on traditional folk and country song structures. It actually reminds me a bit of Will Oldham, though obviously the two have completely different singing styles.
Highlights include “Only a River,” “Ghost Towns,” and “Ki-Yi Bossie,” a sort of campfire singalong that sounds as carefree and relaxed as anything you’ll hear all year. And then there’s the beautiful “One More River to Cross,” which closes the album.
I honestly haven’t listened to Blue Mountain as much as some of these albums, but I’ll be giving it a lot more attention this week. It’s a strong album by a legendary musician. Rejoice, Deadheads: your hero lives on!
Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
I wrote a bit about Sirens last week, so I’ll keep it brief now: Sirens is a great record from start to
finish. It’s a smart, interesting combination of electronic soundscapes and indie rock sensibilities that will keep you coming back again and again to discover new layers or search for a higher meaning.
Just make sure you give it a chance, OK? Even if you read that it’s “electronic music” and get scared; just get over it and press “play” already. You’ll be glad you did.