Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Following a short hiatus after touring for their previous album, AM, Arctic Monkeys take a sharp left turn. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino may as well be created by a completely different band from a completely different time (hint: its Alex Turner with a piano). This project doesn't have the usual garage rock chart-topper like "Do I Wanna Know?" (maybe "Four out of Five"?). Despite this Alex Turner creates vivid Lounge pop and psychedelic rock soundscapes with his apparent infatuation with the piano and other non-Arctic Monkeys instruments. Nothing exemplifies this sound more than the intro song "Star Treatment." The arrangement has a sort of improvisational jazz feeling feels very authentic as Turner talks about the perils of fame. Jazz and Lounge pop are really perfect words to describe this album as it seems the band is playing a dark smoky room during the prohibition era. And In spite of the piano love, the only true ballad that Turner creates is the amazingly sincere "The Ultracheese" that still has some semblance of improvisation and fits well as the outro. The lyrics and themes definitely seem like Turner was musing about fame and just barfed up and a bunch of words. While Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino may seem like a jumbled mess of various sounds and ideas, the unique musical ideas that the band is exploring is worth the price of admission.
Standouts: Star Treatment, She Looks Like Fun, The Ultracheese
Beach House, 7
Beach House, the masters of dream pop, continue their streak of excellence with their latest album, 7. Compared with their latest work, (2015's Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars) 7 has a more subdued tone. The instrumentation is more strung out and lavish (shining brightly in places) while the vocals are really very quiet and seem to coalesce with the background ensemble. This creates an eerie tone that oozes dream pop and Beach House in the late 2000's. Beach House creates such an atmosphere with the instrumentation, feeling like a fabric of sound (opposed to a wall) at some points. This is punctured with little tidbits of sound that stands out at moments. The weird siren sounds in the middle of "L'Inconnue" and the drums in the outro of "Dive" are some examples of this. Usually, the sound is the focus of Beach House, but "Drunk In LA" shows the songwriting chops and vocal performance of Victoria Legrand. Beach House continues to be a fixture in the dream pop and indie rock genre and look to be so well into the future.
Standouts: L'Inconnue, Drunk In LA, Dive
Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!
Parquet Courts have quietly been creating a stellar discography in the 2010s with great album after great album (Light Up Gold, Sunbathing Animal, and Human Performance are all amazing and underrated). Their albums usually explore a variety of sounds but overall stick to an indie rock vibe, but on Wide Awake! the band truly creates a variety of sounds that seldom fit into one genre. While it may not be as experimental as the rock in Jack White's Boarding House Reach, Wide Awake! explores almost every form of rock there is. From the hard rock of "Total Football" and "Violence" to the psychedelic rock of "Back to Earth" and the funk rock of "Wide Awake," the album is all-encompassing. It is hard to find even a mediocre song on this album as every song seems to slightly (or drastically) change the pace and keep you interested. Parquet Courts lyrics also stand out among their discography. From the somewhat upfront "Stoned and Starving" off Light Up Gold to the loving "Dear Ramona" off Sunbathing Animal, the lyrics are satirical and comedic. This holds true on Wide Awake! but the lyrics are a bit more on the political side. The hard rock tracks seem to have the more political lyrics like the intensely political "Violence" and "Total Football" where Savage, the lead vocalist, sings that "violence is daily life" and "collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive."
"Normalization" is also intensely political questioning what is normal in Trump's America. The song also has the best line on the whole album: "Lately I've been curious, wondering/do I pass the Turing test? Do I think?" The satirical style of songwriting is most prevalent on the title track, "Wide Awake." A song about the trend of using "woke" in modern society as a term used to show awareness of social issues. There is a lot to unpack in this album and while the songs are on the shorter sight, they are definitely not to the point. The more you listen the more you discover and that is what makes a great rock record.
Standouts: Total Football, Normalization, Wide Awake, Tenderness
Pusha T, Daytona
The summer of Kanye started strong as the first album he produced, Pusha T's Daytona, has become one of the best rap albums of the year. The 7-track format is ambitious in an age of watch-time and stream numbers, but the format makes the five Kanye produced album lean in content and large in sound. There is no room for filler and Daytona is no exception. The album starts with the explosive "If You Know You Know" which establishes the themes of the album as Pusha's past in the drug trade. This is further supported by the 85,000$ picture of Whitney Houston's drugged up bathroom that Kanye put as the album cover. While Kanye's production is impeccable, Pusha T's bars and tenacity elevate these songs even further. An example of the themes of the album, Kanye's production, and Pusha T's lyrics and delivery all coming together is "Hard Piano (feat. Rick Ross)." The "hard piano" may refer to the instrument but also may refer to how hard of a time Pusha T has had in the music industry. Pusha T talks about his distrust in general and his eventual rise to success in the first verse. The song overall seems to be a plea for understanding of him being so involved in the drug trade (the chorus mentions Santo Domingo a city notorious for the drug trade). Pusha T no only addresses his past selling drugs as clout in his songs but also talks about the nuances that seem to make his stint in the drug trade inevitable.
Standouts: If You Know You Know, Hard Piano (feat. Rick Ross), Come Back Baby
Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer
Father John Misty's latest album, God's Favorite Customer, is a far cry from the ambitious, political masterpiece that is Pure Comedy. Though his scope has shrunk on this latest record, it feels all the more personal. The album was primarily written while Josh Tillman (Father John Misty) was living in a hotel for six weeks presumably because of marital issues. This is reflected in the songwriting in a literal sense like on the whimsical "Mr. Tillman." A song about the happenings of Tillman living at a hotel but told through an almost literally lense. Staying secluded at a hotel for weeks also comes out in the vulnerability many tracks. "Please Don't Die" and "Just Dumb Enough to Try" are gut-wrenching in their realism and ability to grab sympathy from us as we can imagine a broken man deep in these rough thoughts. "The Palace" combines these lyrical styles by talking about the hotel he is staying at as a palace but going into his loss and drug abuse. Father John Misty's songwriting and production have been unmatched in the past few years and he continues to impress with his latest.
Standouts: Please Don't Die, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All, God's Favorite Customer
Kanye West, ye
Kanye West's returned to Twitter with a bombshell of manic tweets ranging from his support of Trump to his mental health to his plan to produce five albums over the course of a couple of weeks. To many who have followed Kanye throughout his career, his Twitter explosion is no surprise as he often seems to support his albums by getting blasted in the spotlight with controversy. But this time it seemed like Kanye went too far as many of his fans felt estranged or betrayed by his actions. People were eager to see what Kanye had in store for the batch of albums he was producing. His format was unorthodox as each album is only seven tracks and short in runtime. They are not quite EPs as the sound and ideas are a little more developed and fleshed out, but they are not quite full-fledged albums. The format is a sight for sore eyes as Drake and Co. have me sick of 20+ track albums. The second of the aforementioned five albums was Kanye's follow up to 2016's thick The Life of Pablo, simply called ye. It is odd to say that ye is Kanye's most personal album because his personality and openness often is what makes his albums so good. The usual layer of ego that separates Kanye and his listeners has been stripped away on ye. This is apparent on the album opener, "I Thought About Killing You." A bold statement that (along with the album artwork) seems to lay down the themes of the album. Kanye's struggle with mental health is part of what breaks down his ego and the person he is talking about on "I Thought About Killing You" may be himself. The spoken word builds up to a crescendo of sound and lyrics that are uneasy at best. The album continues with track after track of raw emotions and anxieties that Kanye has. The album ends with "Violent Crimes," a song where Kanye laments his daughters growing up and becoming objects of desire. He seems to come to a different perspective and conclusion on his treatment of women and his anxieties about his daughter are pure and relatable. This little sting proves that no matter what Kanye will continue to be a fixture in the music industry and continue to be a creative force.
Standouts: I Though About Killing You, Wouldn't Leave, Ghost Town
KIDS SEE GHOST, KIDS SEE GHOST
The third installment in the summer of Kanye is an interesting one. The collaboration with Kid Cudi seemed odd as it was public knowledge that Cudi and West had a falling out in recent months. Apparently, things mended between the two as KIDS SEE GHOST (Kanye and Cudi) released an album (slated as the third of Kanye's five projects) and there mending is discussed on the song "Reborn." Compared to ye, KIDS SEE GHOST feels a lot more developed sonically. The production is immaculate as the samples range from Cobain to Christmas and the production is by far the best of the five albums. The height of the production can be heard on the track "4th Dimension" where Kanye takes a sample from a 1936 Christmas track and turns in into an absolute banger. The transition at the beginning of the song from garbled 30's sounding vocals to Kanye's first verse is insane. You can also feel the personality in Kanye's lyrics through a myriad of odd sexual lyrics. The interplay between the first three albums is apparent. Pusha T appears on the album opener "Feel the Love," Shirly Ann Lee's song, which was sampled for "Ghost Town," also appears at the end of "4th Dimension," and "Freee" is a spiritual successor to "Ghost Town" focusing on the outro by 070 Shake. The result is that it feels like Kanye is creating an anthology that spans many of his recent albums and puts him square in the directorial role. His summer projects are ambitious and from left field (and sorta feel manic) but they provide a lot of insight into one of the most interesting individuals in pop-culture.
Standouts: Feel the Love, 4th Dimension (feat. Louis Prima), Freeee
Death Grips, Year of the Snitch
Death Grips may be the internet's favorite band to argue about and stir up controversy. One side believes that what they do is pure genius and groundbreaking, while another side sees them as just internet clout for kids trying to seem like they like good music. The experimental rap group's true merit is probably somewhere in the middle but they made their case for the former point of view with their latest album, Year of the Snitch. This project is a sharp turn even for Death Grips as they have changed their style to a more rock-centric instrumentation that puts their usual rapping to bed. This doesn't mean that the album is any less experimental it just makes it seem that they got a lot of ideas while playing guitar hero 3. Songs like "Black Paint" and "Shitshow" sound like they are meant for large stadiums and much of the instrumentation is used to mimic this echoing sound. Most of the time the vocals are so muddled in instrumentation that it is difficult to parse what they are saying but this naturally leads your ear closer to the amazing melodies and wall of sounds they are creating. The opening track, "Death Grips Is Online," is a perfect example of this as I have no idea what they are saying but the progression throughout the song is entrancing. The song has such a velocity to it that it ceases to be about the lyrics. While this release might alienate some of Death Grips hardcore fans, the sound is so catchy that it will surely win over new fans and keep Death Grips in the music conversation on the internet.
Standouts: Death Grips Is Online, Hahaha, Shitshow