Happiness Hours should go down as one of the great pop artifacts of 2018. It may not be suited for Top 40, but it checks all the boxes of a great pop album. Frontman Steve Ciolek has mastered the art of turning highly personalized lyrics into something absorbing and universal; like a DIY Matt Berninger, he possesses the songwriting ability to make anyone nostalgic for a specific time in their life while distinctly singing about his own. An exercise in duality, the album’s guitars are sunny and clean, except for when they go down a darker, more distorted path. Happiness Hours presents pop music in two different lights, equally as weird and ambitious as it is bright and polished, often within the same four minute song.
It’s almost difficult to dislike an album as inherently positive as Be More Kind. In today’s draining political and cultural climates, Frank Turner not only believes that change is possible, but that it begins within each of us. In fact, if there’s an overarching criticism to be made about the album, it’s that these songs tend to veer into the brand of vague optimism that’s better employed lining the inside of Hallmark cards. But sometimes, even those messages can be refreshing to hear, and considering the relatively low energy on display, Turner’s heart, technical ability, and good intentions carry Be More Kind a considerable distance.
Kevin Abstract is the ringleader of predominantly queer, self-described “All-American Boy Band” BROCKHAMPTON, who broke into the mainstream this year with a show on Viceland, numerous music videos and three studio albums, each one more killer than the last. He also can’t drive. To most, this detail is unimportant, but to me, someone who has struggled with driving anxiety and the shame surrounding it as I approach the age of 23, it means the world. It means that my flaws do not define me and that I also have the capability to work hard and utilize the resources around me to create something artistically satisfying.
If that seems heavy, well, 2017 was a heavy year – heavier than 2016 and with 2018 showing no signs of lightening up. Ironically enough, 2017 was a year of accomplishment for myself; I graduated from college, moved away from my hometown and worked on two studio albums, one of them being my own dream-pop debut and another being a friend’s hip-hop project. But BROCKHAMPTON has inspired me to push even further. I’ve recently taken to writing in a notebook, detailing the things I want to create (a podcast, a film script, the next Flower Crown LP) and the steps I need to take to get there.
“Rap is the new rock n’ roll,” Kanye West declared in a passionate 2013 interview with Zane Lowe, and whether you like it or not, he’s right. Any passing glance at how Top 40 has change over the past 35 years will confirm mainstream radio’s transition into pop and hip-hop. Even major rock releases this year from genre mainstays like Foo Fighters and Weezer were quickly set aside in favor of the stronger, more youthful voices of artists like Open Mike Eagle and Big K.R.I.T.
Ultimately, this leads us to a larger conversation centered around age, privilege and politics, but short of (re)writing a thesis about the importance of hip-hop in 2017, I offer you this: rock music, as a general genre tag, is dead in the water. Where it continues to thrive, however, is in niche markets – select corners of internet forums like this one and on DIY airwaves, where new bands attempting to revive everything from dream-pop to post-punk are offered equal opportunities to share their vintage visions. One such place is DKFM, an L.A.-based radio station operated by shoegaze blog When The Sun Hits, where cuts from Kindling’s massive new album, Hush, have become regular rotation.
Over the span of nearly 25 years, Weezer have come to be known for a lot of things – frontman Rivers Cuomo’s absurdist lyrics, the goofy Beach Boy persona that seems to contradict his well-documented reclusiveness, a series of self-titled albums known by their respective color palettes – but staying in one place for long has never been one of those things. And so it is unsurprising following the relative critical success of 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and 2016’s Weezer (White Album) that Pacific Daydream is an inconsistent album by a band whose entire career could be defined by the very same word.
If Pacific Daydream doesn’t sound like the album fans expected, it’s likely because it wasn’t the album the band originally intended to deliver. Fans of Weezer (White Album) rejoiced when Cuomo spoke of a darker, more experimental follow-up, naturally titled Weezer (Black Album). But that same praise seemed to push the band in another direction as he soon began curating a different project. Pacific Daydream is still dark and, at times, experimental, but only in the sense that it occasionally sheds the quirks Weezer have become known for in favor of generic indie-pop largely targeting the same college radio stations inhabited by bands like Twenty One Pilots and Fitz and the Tantrums.
Brian Sella is a notoriously sweet guy. So sweet, in fact, that he doesn’t even correct me when I refer to his band’s new single as “Raindrops” rather than its correct title, “Raining.” When I ask him if he still gets nervous playing shows, he replies, “Oh, totally!” When I inform him that I’ve been doing interviews for three years now, but that I was still nervous to speak with him, he laughs.
“Oh, don’t worry about it! You’re a professional. That’s what you’ve gotta tell yourself.”
In the context of The Front Bottoms’ discography, Going Grey reflects Sella’s current “vibe,” a word he uses frequently in our conversation. As he’ll tell me, the band learned that an “anything goes” attitude in the studio can result in plenty of band and fan favorites. In this way, Going Grey is an expansion of the polished-yet-experimental sound of their 2015 powerhouse, Back on Top. It continues to analyze topics such as mortality, relationships and getting older – oftentimes within the same three-minute pop song.
If asked to condense Brand New’s career into one word, that word would be “reactive.” From the title of their second album, Deja Entendu, translating to “already heard” to the abrasive, pedal-infused guitars that dominate their fourth album, Daisy, Brand New have always been a band known to react to critics, fans, and perhaps most importantly, themselves.
For many readers of AbsolutePunk.net (R.I.P.) and now this site, August 17th was a day eight years in the making. It started in typical Brand New fashion with fans receiving cryptic packages in the mail, sparking internet confusion and excitement. This time, however, that package contained the band’s fifth (and presumably final) album, Science Fiction – a fitting goodbye to fans who waited just as long for lyric booklets, let alone a new album. After all, frontman Jesse Lacey has been uncommonly direct about the band’s whereabouts this past year, announcing things like, “We’re done,” at shows, selling shirts predicting the band’s end (2000 – 2018) and even ribbing the band’s bad habits on standalone single “I Am a Nightmare” (“I’m not a prophecy come true/I’ve just been goddamn mean to you”).
Barlow is a Pittsburgh-based noise-pop band comprised of three people in their early twenties. Over the past five years, the band has released three full-length albums, a B-sides compilation, three EPs, two splits and two singles in addition to frontman Ethan Oliva releasing a 35-track solo album and 52-track Guided By Voices tribute album – both in 2015. Perhaps most impressive about this observation isn’t the amount of music they’ve released, but the consistency that can be traced all the way back to the band’s beginning. Oliva’s commitment to producing quality music is the stuff of legends and reflects the prolific tendencies of his most obvious influences. With this in mind, the band’s third LP, In a Stranger’s Car, is another success rooted in growth, confidence to explore the darker side of pop songwriting and pedalboards that would make Kevin Shields blush.
Those new to the band may instantly recognize the four-track production that marked much of college and indie-rock in the 90s, and there’s a skillful use of dissonance between the crackling of cassette tape and the band’s bubblegum melodies that’s always played to their advantage. That is no less evident here as opener “Tirebiter” lets its squealing, distorted guitars take hold of the track and never let go. These same guitars are evident during the album’s most eclectic standout, “You Have to See It,” which splits its time equally between an aggressive, blown out chorus and delicate, eerie verses that reflect the album’s artwork. Also highlighted are the album’s longest tracks, single “False Eye” and closer “Time Man.” The former, Oliva’s self-professed favorite Barlow track, plays like a greatest hits experience in four minutes, explosive in the way it changes directions and executes several of the band’s trademark sounds.
Earlier in May, I wrote about Mac DeMarco’s new album This Old Dog, concluding that it was “his best and most mature album to date.” This is relevant because, generally speaking, This Old Dog isn’t much different from any other Mac DeMarco album. Sure, the songs are more polished and his production has shifted to put more on the personal singer-songwriter aspect of the album, but these are relatively small revolutions in what has ultimately become the trademark Mac DeMarco sound. Put simply, This Old Dog is just more of what Mac DeMarco does best, done better than before.
This is one way to do things.
Other times, a “good” artist who has historically released “good” albums reaches a critical point in their career: here, they must decide whether to remain stagnant or let loose. And sometimes, a band that chooses the latter ends up releasing their best album yet.
This is the another way to do things, and this is what Beach Fossils have done with their third LP, Somersault.
“And the old hippie?”
“The old hippie’s out there somewhere, yeah. Gives me a call every once in a while. ‘Hey, I heard your song about me, kid…”
“Did he say that?”
“And what did he think?”
“[I said] Just wait until you hear the rest, buddy.”
That is an excerpt from Mac DeMarco’s recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron. Maron is known for his very conversational approach to interviewing, and he and DeMarco laugh throughout the conversation – even when discussing DeMarco’s absent father, the overarching theme of DeMarco’s (technically third) full-length LP, This Old Dog. This attitude is reflective of the album. If there’s anything DeMarco is known for, beloved or despised for, it’s his onstage persona and antics. From vulgar classic rock covers to interviews with his mother, DeMarco’s goofball personality is almost certainly what strikes you first and foremost, but it’s his undeniable penchant for vintage guitar and synth sounds that keeps you invested.
“I think most peoples’ idea of authenticity is pork pie hats and vests and banjos and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone views their own experiences as being the golden standard for authenticity. If you can empathize with people and make them feel like what you’re talking about is somehow reflective of their own experiences, then you’ve won their vanity, and thus achieved authenticity.”
This is a quote from Father John Misty’s episode of Pitchfork’s Over/Under series, a series Josh Tillman jokingly referred to as a “twisted game” as he and his wife were asked to rate such concepts as self-control, marriage, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was Tillman’s explanation of “authenticity,” and though he never formally “rates” the concept, his answer may outline the biggest problem with Pure Comedy, his third album under the FJM moniker. It’s not necessarily Tillman’s polarizing personality (or character, as some call it). It’s not the album’s excessive 74-minute runtime, or even its questionable sequencing.
Put simply, it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s talking down to you.
Mark Kozelek doesn’t like what I do. This was made abundantly clear somewhere between Universal Themes’ “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” and Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood’s “Philadelphia Cop,” in which the song breaks for a strange skit between a “music journalist” and an outdated impression of a teenage girl (both voiced by Kozelek). It’s true; things have gotten pretty weird between Kozelek and in followers since the release of his recent opus, 2014’s Benji. He’s publicly lashed out against music journalists, other artists, and an entire North Carolina audience. Truth be told, he couldn’t give a shit whether or not I “recommend” his new album or not. So why do I continue to be so drawn to it?
Since 2002, Minus the Bear have released a string of fairly consistent, ambitious (if not always successful) albums that navigate the shared ground between math-rock, prog-rock and groove-based dance numbers. Each album tweaked its predecessor’s formula enough to keep the band interesting and listeners on their toes. Even Infinity Overhead, which dropped the band’s penchant for experimentation in favor of a more straightforward, pop-rock hybrid sound, ultimately contained more hits than misses (and a few career highlights). VOIDS is the first album to flip this formula on its head and double down on its misses. Largely built on filler, it leaves listeners somewhere between disappointment and relief that it took the band this long to hit their weak spot.
It’s been one month since Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino) released his third studio LP, ”Awaken, My Love!”, and surely, that’s enough time to have analyzed it. But this is a tough one. My initial reaction was negative. ”Awaken, My Love!” felt forced, a career’s worth of artistic evolution crammed into one record obsessed with showcasing the new Donald Glover. No longer is he the nerdy optimist with a case of “nice guy syndrome,” his raps filled with more punchlines than his stand-up sets. If 2013’s Because the Internet marked the beginning of a transitional phase for the artist, Glover’s new era of success is defined by even more self-seriousness found in everything from his interviews and his music to his first television show on FX. It’s a self-seriousness that very well may have landed him the role as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars film.
2016 was…a year. What else is there too say? There’s nothing profound about how tough it was for a lot of people. While there are logical reasons for the number of celebrities and beloved musical personalities we lost, there are also plenty of personal reasons for why, at times, it really sucked. I lost both a family member and friend this year. But to solely call it a bad year wouldn’t exactly be fair to the people who also made it a special year for me. I got engaged this year. I went on tour, twice, and put out my first album. So while 2016 closed a lot of doors that left me feeling upset and anxious, it ultimately opened more with endless potential for myself and the people I hope will be a part of my life for years to come. And luckily, I didn’t go through anything alone. My Top Albums and Songs of 2016 reflect the artists that I spent time with during both my lowest and highest points over the past 12 months.
Before I started writing this review, I felt the need to revisit both Say Anything’s album from this past January, I Don’t Think It Is, as well my subsequent review of the album that I wrote for AbsolutePunk.net. This was a surreal experience, partially because of my own disdain for the album but more so because I spoke with Bemis about the aforementioned review. Following its publication, we had a (very pleasant) dialogue about my review, Bemis’s music and art criticism in general, and all things considered, it proved to be a thought-provoking and productive conversation.
What you must understand is just how much Say Anything’s music has meant to me over the past decade. Even now, at a time in my life when I find myself returning to the band’s later output less and less, it’s easy to trace a thick black line from my tastes today to the year I discovered In Defense of the Genre, and subsequently …Is a Real Boy. At the time, my 13-year-old mind had never heard something quite so complex, so unique as Bemis’s knack for musical arrangement and lyrical phrasing. They were my favorite band for years, and the release of I Don’t Think It Is in January, my review and the discussion surrounding it, left me questioning my growing musical tastes, platform, and the very purpose of music reviews in the Age of Streaming.
I caught up with Kevin Devine on the same morning that his new album, Instigator, launched for stream onto the internet — a fact he seemed almost as relieved as he was excited about. Over the next hour, we talked all kinds of things from the connection between the album’s title and its artwork, how his song “No Time Flat” has aged over the past decade, and what full-length album he might want to cover next.
Ah, The Weirdness.
Generally speaking, The Weirdness hits plenty of artists looking to follow-up their most critically acclaimed album. The timeline goes something like this: The Artist has likely released several albums to generally positive reviews. The Artist may have a modest-yet-loyal fanbase. Then, something happens to The Artist, causing them to reach within and write The Defining Statement. The Defining Statement is an album that makes critics take notice; The Defining Statement is a bridge between fans and critics. In fact, sometimes (but not always), The Artist goes on to resent or even loathe the success of The Defining Statement, and in an act of defiance, they give into The Weirdness.
The Weirdness is an album that turns heads. It is commonly experimental, a sonic left turn that pays more attention to The Artist’s tastes and less attention to what the fanbase may want. It can be an unfiltered and honest look into The Artist’s thoughts and influences. In short: The Weirdness can be awesome.
Rarely does one have a moderate stance on Radiohead. More often than not, those who are familiar with the band have by now either accepted that Thom Yorke and company are geniuses (or perhaps aliens) or that the band is, as Dan Ozzi so eloquently put it, “for boring music nerds.” It should be no surprise that I fall in the former camp, believing the band’s penchant for mystique and evolution has helped pave the way for other scene favorites (including Thrice and Brand New) and that even their most flawed albums (The Bends, Hail to the Thief) contain a spark that is integral to their later-career masterpieces.
You have to pick one: an album you enjoy or an album that the artist is happy with.
I’m not here to say either answer is correct or to call those who don’t enjoy Thrice’s long-awaited comeback, and ninth studio album, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, selfish or wrong. But let’s be honest and say that rarely does artistic growth and vision mesh completely with fan expectation. Essentially, I’m arguing that there are going to be some fans who are disappointed with Thrice’s new album. As unfortunate as that is, the band should take solace in knowing they’ve crafted their best work in years.