Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Best of 2020 (So Far)

I don’t need to tell anyone reading these words that 2020 has been a tough year. The last few months have, in many ways, been like living through a nightmare and slowly realizing you don’t get to wake up from it. Thank God, then, for the music. A few major artists delayed their new albums because of COVID-19, but the ones that stayed the course and released their art into this uncertain world have had an unusual opportunity to make a mark as much more than background music. In the depths of quarantine, I certainly used music as something of a life raft, looking to Fridays and new album releases as rare bright spots in weeks packed with bad news, or building huge emotional connections with the records on this list. I frankly can’t remember a year that had a stronger first half in terms of music releases. I guess someone out there knew we fucking needed something good to break the deluge of bad.

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Review: Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand

Tenille Townes

The first time I heard Tenille Townes, I knew she was the real deal. Her proper major-label debut release was an all-acoustic EP titled The Living Room Worktapes, and it was a masterpiece. Townes has a strong but unusual voice that conveys depths of empathy and emotion, as well as a talent for crafting songs that ask deep existential questions about what we’re doing here, how we connect with one another, and what the afterlife might look like, among other things. These talents are impressive in any context, but there’s something about hearing them over a sparse acoustic arrangement that makes them all the more jaw-dropping. Listening to The Living Room Worktapes captures the way it feels to hear a complete unknown at an open mic night—just voice, guitar, and unbelievable songwriting—and be absolutely bowled over by their talent. While just four songs long, that release left me with the highest of hopes for what Townes’ career might hold. Here was an artist with Lori McKenna’s talent for storytelling and understanding of the human condition, paired with a Patty Griffin-like voice that could cut you right to the soul.

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Review: The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

The first time I ever heard American Slang was in my freshman college dorm room, just a week or two from the end of school, on a gorgeous April spring day. Now, if I’d been a law-abiding listener, the wait to hear the new album from The Gaslight Anthem—their follow-up to 2008’s acclaimed The ’59 Sound—still would have been the better part of two months. American Slang didn’t officially hit the streets until June 15. But 2010 was maybe the golden age of album leaks, and as a broke college student with a budget for little more than gas and the occasional midnight McDonald’s run with my roommate, that fact was very good news for me. It also meant that American Slang, a bulletproof summer soundtrack album, got to serve as the bookend to my first year of college, and to all the anticipation I was feeling as four months of summer approached.

When The ’59 Sound broke in 2008, The Gaslight Anthem quickly became one of the most buzzed-about rock bands in all the circles I was a part of online. Here was a band that respected classic rock traditions and made them sound new again; a band willing to pilfer from their influences in the most loving manner possible; a band whose frontman was, perhaps, worthy of being called “this generation’s Bruce Springsteen.” All that hype only became louder and louder throughout 2009 and into the early part of 2010, which meant that by the time Gaslight announced their new record, excitement for it was through the roof. A title and an album cover that seemed to promise another sweeping classic-rock-styled masterpiece? Well, who could resist that?

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Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is telling ghost stories.

Sometimes, the things that happen to us in our lives register immediately. Other times, years or decades have to pass for us to fully comprehend how a person or occurrence changed us. Time and experience lend perspective. They give us the wisdom necessary to look back and re-read the pages of our lives, reconvene with our former selves. That’s why reflection is so important, and it’s also why hearing one of our greatest living songwriters look back and commune with the ghosts of his past is so thrilling. Isbell has long been a master of craft: his songs have conveyed the struggles of addiction, the healing and humanizing powers of love, the joys of parenthood. But never before has he captured so thoroughly the bizarre and beguiling feeling of spending a moment inside a memory. On Reunions, by delving into his own past, this master songwriter finds new things to say about experience and identity, and about how the very act of living changes the stories we think are worth telling about our lives. It might just be his greatest album yet.

Isbell has gone on record to say that the songs on this album were things he wanted to write 15 years ago, but there were barriers in his way. “In those days, I hadn’t written enough songs to know how to do it yet,” he said. He hadn’t yet honed his songcraft into the razor-sharp knife it is now. He hadn’t gotten sober, which meant murky nights and hungover days with not enough energy left over to focus on the deeply personal layers he would need to excavate to tell these stories. Perhaps most of all, he hadn’t given himself enough time or distance to understand just how deeply the ghosts in these songs would prove to haunt him. It’s unnerving the way that regrets or papered-over traumas from our pasts tend to worm their way deeper and deeper into the recesses of our minds as years go by. Eventually, you end up alone with your thoughts on some solitary night, with nothing to do but dredge up those specters and let them speak. Reunions is the sonic equivalent of that kind of reckoning.

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Review: The National – High Violet

The National - High Violet

When The National reemerged in 2010, they were primed to explode. It didn’t matter that they were coming up on their fifth album and had already passed the milestone that marked their first decade together as a band. They were, as people have often described their albums, a slow burn, or a grower, and by the time the new decade began, their fuse was ready to blow. 2007’s Boxer had changed the game for the Cincinnati fourpiece in more ways them one, turning them into prestige indie darlings, landing songs on the soundtracks of virtually every moody drama on television, and even earning them a small but memorable role in the campaign of a presidential hopeful named Barack Obama. By the time The National appeared on Jimmy Fallon in March of 2010 to officially kick off the rollout for High Violet, with a majestic performance of “Terrible Love,” it was clear they were ready to be rock stars.

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Chorus.fm’s Top 25 Albums of 2019

It’s easy for end-of-decade years to become an afterthought in terms of the music they produce. Most music publications dropped their “best albums of the decade” features in early October. At Chorus.fm, we held off until December 9th. Still, when you spend months of the year reflecting on past years, and on the albums you loved from throughout a whole decade, the music from the year you’re currently living in can get overlooked, forgotten, or short-changed on listening time.

I suppose we were guilty of that sin ourselves, as our “albums of the decade” list ultimately lacked a single entry from 2019. Call it anti-recency bias, or maybe just an occupational hazard of having to start planning and compiling these lists months before any readers actually lay eyes on them. But therein lies the beauty of still being able to revert to old routines: to end the year with a proper tribute to everything it had to offer on its own.

And 2019 certainly had plenty of riches to offer, from old favorite bands delivering some of their sturdiest albums in years, to one of the strongest slates of debut talent I can remember getting in a single 365-day timeframe. Taking in the scope of a decade and all the music it gave us is a fulfilling experience; it’s certainly something I invested a lot of time in this year. But there’s also something wonderful about being past that now, and about being able to take things day by day again: week by week, release day by release day, album by album. Making lists is fun, but listening and discovering will always be the greatest parts of being a music fan. Here’s to the 25 albums that we discovered, listened to, and loved most in 2019. [CM]

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Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2019

I wrote a lot of album blurbs in 2019. If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that 1) I’m an insane person, and 2) my big writing project this year was a rundown of my 200 favorite albums of the 2010s. I concluded that project in mid-December, around the same time that everyone else in the music criticism world was sharing their “Best of 2019” lists. For a few days, I debated not even writing up a list this year. I was so emotionally exhausted after pouring so much of myself and my life into that end-of-decade piece that I just couldn’t see myself sitting down to do it all over again—albeit, on a much smaller scale. But then I started delving back into my favorite 2019 albums, albums that I maybe hadn’t spent enough time with in my race to relive a full 10 years of music. And then I started making late-year discoveries, new albums I’d overlooked that excited me greatly. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t let a year end without the big-list ritual that I have followed every year since 2011.

I did give myself some extra leeway this time, though. Instead of going to 40 albums, as I have for the last several years, I stuck to 30. I also opened the door for late additions (and for the corresponding deletions they would require). The resulting list is not at all what I expected it would look like even two months ago. It’s a list loaded with exciting new talent and with albums that I can’t wait to spend more time with, brushing up against records I’ve already listened to hundreds of times, from artists I’ve loved for many years. I can’t say it’s my favorite end-of-the-year list that I’ve ever made, but it might be the most unexpected. I could feel my music tastes yearning to shift and grow in new directions while compiling this collection of 30 albums, which is frankly a very exciting place to start a brand-new decade. So bring on the 2020s! But first, here are my 30 favorite albums of 2019.

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Chorus.fm’s Top 50 Albums of the 2010s

new-best of the decade

2020? Are you sure?

It seems like just yesterday that I was combing through the AbsolutePunk.net boards, reading the 2009 end-of-the-year lists that crowned records like Manchester Orchestra’s Mean Everything to Nothing and Thrice’s Beggars among the finest releases of the year. A lot has changed since then—in music, in our lives, and with the state of the world—but here we are again 10 years later, taking stock of another ending.

There have been a lot of endings over the past decade. Bands we loved have called it quits. Staff members who gave countless hours of their time writing for this website have moved on to other things. AbsolutePunk had its own sunset in 2016, relaunching as Chorus.fm that spring. And yet, a lot of things have lived on, too. Our love for music, certainly, is alive and well. The vibrancy of this community as a place to talk about bands and share things you love with like-minded souls has persisted, too. And some of us have been here for a very long time, watching the state of the music scene and the world at large shift from behind our keyboards, the headphones in our ears playing us the latest thing that might get our hearts racing like our old favorite records always have.

I don’t have a neat little bow to tie around the 2010s to commemorate their impending conclusion. It’s been a chaotic decade in a lot of ways. It’s certainly been the most chaotic music era on record. The way we listen to music has changed. Entire formats have shifted. Trends have sprung up and others have died. Artists have reshaped the way that music is written, recorded, packaged, released, shared, and marketed. And perhaps most importantly, there’s just been more: more music making its way into the world on a weekly basis; more ways to hear it all; more ways to discover; more ways to think about what art can do, both in our personal day-to-day lives and to the world that we live in.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that our list of favorite records from the 2010s is a bit chaotic in its own right. It’s a smorgasbord of genres; a kaleidoscope of emotions; a place where massive pop superstars can coexist with the bands that really feel like they are ours, the ones that have been so foundational to this community and its unique musical identity. The list is also a testament to how much opinions on music can change over time. Some of our former Album of the Year winners are missing entirely; other albums have grown in our estimation, swimming to the forefront as, we think, the foremost artistic achievements of the past decade. Ask us again in two months and we might see things differently. For now, it’s time to put our pencils down and close the book on this chapter.

To everyone who is reading, or to anyone who has played a part in the AbsolutePunk/Chorus.fm story over the past decade, we say thank you. What a long, strange trip it’s been. Here’s to another 10 years of music mending broken hearts. [CM]

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Review: Jimmy Eat World – Surviving

At least on the surface level, the title for Jimmy Eat World ‘s 10th full-length album feels like a proclamation. Surviving. Not many bands know quite as much about surviving as Jimmy Eat World. They’ve weathered a lot over the years: getting dropped by their first major label; being (incorrectly) considered a one-hit wonder by many; being a part of a genre and a music scene that most critics have always written off; touring with Third Eye Blind, apparently. Perhaps the most impressive thing they’ve survived is time. When I first started seriously listening to Jimmy Eat World, they’d been a band for ten years and were about to release the follow-up to their breakthrough LP. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the band is celebrating 25 years and ten albums. They’ve kept the same four-person lineup since 1995 and have released a new album, like clockwork, every three years since 2001. And they remain as beloved today as they ever have been—a go-to “favorite band” for seemingly every person who follows them.

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Review: The Menzingers – Hello Exile

The-Menzingers-Hello-Exile

The last time we heard from The Menzingers, they were fretting over getting older. “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” frontman Greg Barnett asked repeatedly on “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track from 2017’s After the Party. If that album had ended with its title track, Barnett would have had his answer (and the band could have feasibly had their happy ending). “After the party, it’s me and you.” The record proved to be a growing-up narrative that culminated in a love story—or so it seemed. But the last song on that record was actually “Livin’ Ain’t Easy,” where life was likened to a continental breakfast where they’re always out of coffee.

Hello Exile is essentially that line blown up into a widescreen, cinematic experience. The party is way past over, and so are your twenties. This time, youth and young adulthood have been replaced by the next chapter, and it’s one where things don’t seem quite as black and white as they used to. “How do I steer my early 30s?/Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40?/ Ain’t it a shame what we choose to ignore/What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?” Those are some of the first lines that Barnett sings on “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” Hello Exile’s disillusioned opening track. A lot of this record is about trying to pretend that you’re younger than you are, or trying to get back to those golden days of youth—back when you had no cares or responsibilities. Right off the bat, though, “America” tips the record’s hand, because how can you get back to that place of innocence when the whole nation seems to be going to hell? Later, on the terrific “Strain Your Memory,” Barnett pines after a girl with a simple proposition: “Can you strain your memory back to the times/When trouble wasn’t always on our minds?” It’s a nice thought, but it’s not always that easy.

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Review: Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

Sturgill Sound and Fury

At the end of 2016, Sturgill Simpson managed maybe the most unlikely Grammy Album of the Year nomination of the modern era, for his third LP, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. A few months later, he lost that particular award—to Adele—but did manage to walk away with a Grammy for Best Country Album. None of those things are going to happen again, and it’s not because Sound & Fury, the long-awaited follow-up to Sailor’s Guide, isn’t great. Rather, it’s because Sound & Fury 1) isn’t a country album, and 2) is even more blatantly unmarketable than its predecessor.

In a lot of ways, Sound & Fury is an anomaly in the 2019 music world. It’s the sound of a guy who was once hailed as a country music savior—first for his trad-country debut High Top Mountain and later for the experimental, boundary-pushing Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—callously tossing that mantle in the fire. It’s also the sound of an artist who was on the cusp of superstardom—maybe not quite Chris Stapleton/arena-concert-tour level, but close—walking away from it. Finally, it’s a loud, dirty, unapologetic ‘70s-style rock album—the kind that absolutely no one makes anymore. The guitars are so loud and so prominent that they sometimes threaten to drown Sturgill’s voice out entirely. Not that he’d probably mind.

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Review: Noah Gundersen – Lover

Noah Gundersen Lover

I’ve interviewed Noah Gundersen two times in the past and both conversations centered around his restlessness concerning his art. The first time I spoke with him, ahead of the release of 2015’s Carry the Ghost, he told me how his debut album, the previous year’s folk-steeped Ledges, no longer reflected who he was or the music he wanted to make. In 2017, when we chatted about his audacious, adventurous third LP White Noise, it was the songs from the spiritually fraught Ghost that he was ready to move on from. “I just think I’m perpetually dissatisfied, which can be really frustrating,” he said. “But it also drives my creativity and my desire to do better and to make things that are better than what I’ve made in the past.”

On his fourth record, titled Lover (and released on the same day as an album by Taylor Swift that shares the exact same name), Gundersen seems perhaps more comfortable with letting his restlessness slide than he ever has before. The collection is at once both unique from everything he’s ever made previously and packed with songs that call back to previous moments from his catalog. There are raw acoustic songs that feel ripped from the cloth of the traditionally-hewn Ledges. Lead single “Robin Williams,” with its fractious electric guitar chords, plays like a twin to Carry the Ghost’s first single and lead-off track “Slow Dancer.” “Out of Time” initiates flashbacks to the Radiohead influences that blossomed all over White Noise. The entire Noah Gundersen toolkit, it seems, is fair game on this album.

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Review: The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature

Expectations can mess with your mind as a music fan. We all have favorite bands, but there’s a weird sort of contradiction where those favorite bands are also the ones most likely to disappoint us. Hearing a new record from an unfamiliar artist and having it blow the doors off your mind is a wonderful kind of madness, but it’s also impossible to replicate. Loving an album means accumulating baggage with it—the baggage of years and memories and emotions entwined with the songs. When the next album from that same band comes along, it’s easy to feel let down. Even if the record is good—even if it’s great—expecting it to recapture the magic of the first time is a recipe for disappointment. Virtually every band or artist that has ever made a beloved album contends with this cycle eventually, and it’s part of the reason why most bands don’t last very long. It’s also why maybe the only thing more exciting than having that lightning bolt moment with a new band is hearing one of your favorite artists raise the bar, change the game, and shatter every expectation you had of what their music could sound like, circa right now.

Mother Nature, the fifth LP from The Dangerous Summer, is that kind of album. It takes a band that previously felt like a faded version of its glory days and breathes immense new life into their sound. It makes you excited for this band again, and for what their path might look like going forward. It creates spine-tingling moments of pure catharsis, but in a different way than this band did on their previous beloved albums, 2009’s Reach for the Sun and 2011’s War Paint. And it immediately makes reservations for whole lot of windows-down, sunny-day drives this summer. It’s the right album, at the right time, from a band a lot of people had written off or counted out. And it feels fucking great.

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Review: The Dangerous Summer – Reach for the Sun

It’s funny the way that albums can mark time. How hearing the right songs at the right moment can make them sound like more than songs, or how going back to those songs after 10 or 15 or 20 years can reawaken every feeling you had when you first heard them. It’s funny, too, how the music that does those things to you might not do anything for anyone else. How something can be an incredibly meaningful and important document of your past, but just sound run-of-the-mill to someone else. Or how, if you’d heard an album a decade or a year or six months too early or too late, it might just be a footnote in your musical history rather than a symphony.

No album has ever taken me more by surprise than The Dangerous Summer ‘s Reach for the Sun. I didn’t see it coming, and I wasn’t looking for it. I had no knowledge of the band or their past work, no clue what they sounded like or what their songs might have to say about my life. I just read a rave review of the album one day on AbsolutePunk and decided to give it a shot. Ten years later, those songs still shoot shivers down my spine and choke me up, because they sound like the cusp of adulthood, and like all the friends and memories I’ve left behind in the past decade.

Reach for the Sun had remarkable timing. Its release date was May 5, 2009, just as spring was bursting into full, glorious bloom. I first heard it on May 3, in the early evening, coming out of old boombox speakers in my bedroom, with the gentle glow of the sunset streaming through my window. The day before, my sister had graduated from college. In another month, I’d graduate from high school. My parents and I had driven home, from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, that afternoon. I had a boatload of calculus homework to do and was dreading the evening. AP exams were just days away, and I needed to buckle down and focus. Certainly, I knew I needed a good soundtrack for the study session. So I downloaded this record on the recommendation of a glowing 95 percent review from Blake Solomon and loaded it onto my iPod.

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