One of the ways I offset some of my podcasting overhead is by freelance reviewing music for a small publication. Since I’ve had this job for over a year now I have a hearty backlog of reviews from my listening to at least four new albums per month. Let’s dive into the backlog and look at the best of the best! Presented in no particular order.
To put the oddity of Diablo Swing Orchestra into context: Pacifisticuffs is the first commercially-released album I have ever seen have zero annotations on Genius. Thousands upon thousands of units sold and not a single super-fan can assign meaning or context to the lyrics of this album. One song can start as an angry metal assault before giving the listener whiplash transitioning into a Latin-inspired pseudo-tango bridge. So many elements are blended by this Swedish avant-garde metal band it boggles the mind.
Jazz, bluegrass, gospel, metal, swing, classical, rock, metal, these things can be found in Pacifisticuffs. In the hand of a less talented musician this recipe has far too many ingredients to make anything coherent. Therein lies the beauty: This album isn’t trying to be coherent, its one goal is to be enjoyable. My recurring gripe with big-name albums is this fanatical devotion to the school of thought that a coherent album must be a homogeneous blob of 10 samey songs with two or three stand-out singles. Diablo Swing Orchestra somehow has made an album that is coherent because none of the songs sound the same.
This is the kind of debut album that leaves one shocked the singer hasn’t done four or five albums already. So much so I double-checked the claim on Wikipedia that this is her debut studio effort. Love Monster comes out of the gate swinging and never backs down, Shark’s brutally real lyrics touching on love, loss, relationships (bad and good) scratch an alt-pop musical itch that I’ve not had scratched in a while. If you’ve been looking for someone who’s capable of dealing with the topics thousands of people make fun of Taylor Swift for not really achieving, Amy Shark’s the person to pay attention to.
Middle of the Night is a rare instance of a breakup song that openly acknowledges the feelings the singer is expressing aren’ t necessarily healthy. It addresses how bad the breakup was, how it needed to happen, yet the chorus touches on an all-too-familiar pang of regret. One could be reductive and say “it‘s a song about drunk texting your ex.” It’s about hurt, it’s about the human need to feel like everything is alright, about wanting to know things are going smoothly. This may not be the best single of the year but it shows its receipts. Shark’s been through a hell of a lot more blood and tears into her work than dating a celebrity for two months then writing country-pop diss tracks.
It’s impossible to listen to a Louie Zong album and not find oneself smiling by the end. dawgz has a tall order to fill after Levels, Zong’s delightfully authentic-sounding soundtrack to a fictional Gameboy Color game.
Not to disappoint, the first track of dawgz – Here Comes a Good Boy – feels like the theme song to an animated series about dogs. Bouncy horns backed by a funky bass line and piano with a sprinkling of sampled dog barks for good measure. The rest of the songs feature some sort of dog-themed title (Always Curious, Cone of Shame, Happy You’re Home) that all work both as songs on their own and in my headcanon that, like Levels, dawgz is constructed to be the soundtrack for a non-existent sitcom starring dogs.
Regardless of my fan theories, dawgz brings out a good mood and fun times purely as an instrumental album. It’s hard to make something inherently bouncy, cute, and fun as these sounds work without veering dangerously close to being too twee. It’s possible these same songs would do just that if they had sitcom-quality lyrics attached to them, but in this reality I can safely say Zong knocked this one out of the dog park.
One More Night Live is difficult to review. Live albums usually exist in this nebulous void with their crap audio quality and not-great vocal performances, marketed primarily to completionists of the band who wants every second of their content ever recorded. Then, even moreso challenging, this album is the final recording of Linkin Park before Chester Bennington committed suicide. Linkin Park hasn’t ever been the cheeriest act in the world but adding this new layer of melancholy shifts one’s interpretation of the music. It truly is a live recording, for better or worse. Notes fly off into the night air, never to be recorded because someone turned their head away from the mic for a split second, Bennington is trying to conserve his voice so certain choruses that should contain his iconic gravelly scream-singing feel empty. Some synth-heavy songs feel like the band that’s physically on stage are looking at their watches waiting for their cue to start performing again.
Linkin Park was a band that hit its stride just as the internet became truly popular. To some their music was an outlet, a way to express pent-up emotions. To others the band became shorthand for swaths of internet jokes about “edgy” people, mocking the rising trends of dumb teens doing dumb teen stuff but funneling it onto the web instead of real life. To this day a cadre of YouTubers who make a living talking shit about decades-old video games or mocking “cringe-worthy” videos they find use clips if Crawling as a shorthand for “isn’t this stupid, how emotional this person is being?” And, of course, a metric ton of self-harm and suicide jokes.
Linkin Park was never a perfect band, and as one of the millions who grew up with their music being omnipresent I don’t think many of people in the US ages 25 – 35 who listened to top 40 music could honestly review their big albums from an outsider perspective. That said, mulling this album over after everything that’s changed in the world… I’m glad it got released. One More Night Live is an accidental swan song , blemishes and all, that shows use Linkin Park wasn’t just a walking meme, it was a collection of real people doing their best to entertain their fans.
In a world where there are thousands of memes making fun of people using airhorns to seem cool, it takes a hell of a rapper to use an airhorn unironically in a beat. Cardi B not only pulls this off, said airhorn is in the first song. One fair point of warning for anyone coming into Invasion of Privacy blind, this isn’t safe-for-work mainstream Eminem rap. This is the kind of rap that terrified the stuffy conservatives I was hearing on talk radio as a kid, the kind of people claiming “there will never be rap oldies stations.” I dare anyone to make a radio-safe edit of GetUp 10.
The song list for this album on Wikipedia is ridiculously long due to each song has as few as four and as many as 17 credited writers. Every line feels intentional, perfectly slotted in with everything else. The fact that this managed to dodge feeling like an album-by-committee is a musical miracle and, I assume, a testament to Cardi B’s creative control over its direction. Overall it’s a great album but there are some choice moments where the flow hits a perfect string of syllables that flow so perfectly I have to rewind to hear it again. Few albums I review actually stay downloaded to my phone, Invasion of Privacy will stay for quite some time.
It’s not often one finds a comedy band built from genuinely good musicians. Ninja Sex Party is one of those diamonds in the rough of the insufferable glut of YouTubers re-writing existing songs to be about an in-joke or creating whole personas to flood Spotify with shitty raps about video games and memes. NSP’s dynamic duo of undersexed bumbling superhero Danny Sexbang and his murderous silent keyboardist Ninja Brian are back and delivering some of the best work NSP has ever published, all backed with amazing instrument work from opening-act-turned-backup-band TWRP. With this extra dose of real instruments supplementing Brian Wecht’s talents on synth keyboard Cool Patrol is a hell of a solid album even divorced from the usual lenience I usually give comedy music acts.
From into to outro the listener is treated to a wonderful collection of songs, some spotlighting Sexbang’s predilection to missing important details or straight up just talking out of his ass half the time (same hat, Danny, same hat), some telling self-contained stories that will earworm their way into your skull and refuse to pay rent. Oh, did I mention their excellent 80s hair metal aesthetic has done nothing but improve over the years?
Danny Don’t You Know is a strong contender for my favorite individual song of 2018. Both in the music video (co-starring fan of the band and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) and song itself Danny sings to a younger version of himself about how growing up is hard as fuck, but things can get better.
There is only one real failing point of Cool Patrol that stands out after multiple re-listens and it’s the inclusion of two older songs in an already sizeable album. Without even a remaster they stand out among polished new songs like Release the Kraken and First Date. It feels like if They Might Be Giants dropped an album titled Ana Ng with a not-remastered version of Ana Ng as the star single. Slipping two old songs in unchanged feels dangerously close to fan service AND padding.
Of course the title and inclusion of two old songs doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the fantastic new content NSP has put out, I just hope the next full album has the confidence to stand on its own legs and not hedge it bets with a previous viral hit.
I’m late to the Janelle Monáe party, as Dirty Computer serves as the bookend to a three-album project with multimedia components including a 40 minute short film for one single. Usually there’s a certain level of pretentious air to albums that are part of overall multi-media experiences, like a rabid Doctor Who fan who doesn’t consider anyone a “real fan” unless they’ve seen every single episode (and read the novels made of scripts that were never actually produced). Dirty Computer throws all of that pretension out the door by being a damn good album that can stand on its own two legs.
Theact of listening to Dirty Computer is fun if only for how fresh it stays throughout. There’s some pop, there’s some funk, R&B, hip-hop, even a little soul, all sung by Monáe’s fantastic voice. This is exactly the kind of album one wants in their car for trips around town with friends. If Screwed or Dirty Computer come on I am willing to bet good money no friend with good taste will complain. It’s bright, it’s well-made, I’m blown away.
As someone whose experience with Paul Simon as a solo artist equates to “wow You Can Call Me Al sure does pop up on 80s playlists a lot” this album was a slap to the face. I’ve been sleeping on Paul Simon and it’s time to change that. In the Blue Light is Simon’s final solo album and is built entirely of lesser-known songs from throughout his career that have been tweaked and re-recorded. This is to say, Blue Light is nothing but creative songs that are damned good but in that creativity doomed themselves to never be hit singles.
What’s truly shocking about Blue Light is, although the ten songs span nine albums and 39 years, my complete lack of Simon knowledge meant I spent a week listening to it without realizing they weren’t all written to be on this album. If anything it feels like these songs have been in a old, worn notebook that he finally decided to finalize into songs. If you want a slow pop album that rewards your paying attention, In the Blue Light is the best technically modern example I can point to.
Pray forthe Wicked is neither sin, nor tragedy.
Panic! At the Disco returns with a bang after frontman Brendon Urie’s stint on Broadway acting in Kinky Boots. While there aren’t any specific songs I can point to and definitively say Urie wrote it while in a Broadway musical frame of mind, there is still an air of big production musical to Pray. It’s a bigger, brighter album. If there was in existence a musical play with score provided entirely by Panic! At the Disco, Pray for the Wicked leans distinctly more towards the hypothetical than to their usual works.
Not to say there’s much wrong with their usual works, but this time around it forms a wonderfully cohesive piece that grabs the listener by the lapels and demands they continue listening. Unlike certain other albums I’ve reviewed, I never found myself asking if I’d accidentally kept listening into a loop. The music is distinctive of what I’ve come to expect from the band while also pushing boundaries and trying new things enough that each song on the album feels like its own individual piece.