There’s a moment on “Sour Breath,” one of the many highlights on Julien Baker’s second album Turn Out The Lights, where the strings swell, the guitar strums pick up, and Baker’s vocals slowly build until the floor drop outs from under us and her voice breaks through the silence – “The harder I swim, the faster I sink.” It’s a jaw-dropping moment in an album that’s full of them. And stringing those moments together are cathartic confessions throughout Turn Out The Lights – an once-in-a-lifetime album that’ll leave you speechless.
Turn Out The Lights – once again self-produced by Baker – possesses a richer, fuller sound than 2015’s Sprained Ankle while still maintaining its intimate, minimal appeal. The imagery on the album is stunning and the album’s eleven tracks continues to accurately paint a picture of living with depression while struggling with the idea that she’s been rejected by romantic partners, close friends, God, and even herself. Songs like the title track, “Happy To Be Here,” and “Hurt Less” depict those thoughts perfectly.
The album’s title track is a deconstruction of what it can feel like to live with depression. “There’s a hole in the drywall still not fixed. I just haven’t gotten around to it. And besides I’m starting to get used to the gap” is an incredibly accurate look at existing with functional depression while the lyrics “So you wish you could find some way to help. Don’t be so hard on myself. So why is it easy for everyone else?” recalls the outside world’s infuriating interpretation of it. And it’s the song’s haunting conclusion that acknowledges the album’s overall battle, as Baker reveals, “When I turn out the lights there’s no one left between myself and me.”
There are certain albums that represent milestones in people’s musical development. Ones that trigger a rush of nostalgia more powerful than just the simple recollection of a memory. There are a couple that I can think of off the top of my head that bring me back to a time and a place, but none more powerfully than Motion City Soundtrack’s 2007 LP, Even if it Kills Me. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the band before this. I was just starting to develop my own taste in music. I wasn’t quite over my Metallica phase and not quite ready to throw myself headfirst into any of the scenes I eventually would in High School. I was in sixth grade, I had yet to get my first guitar, and the two bands dominating my SanDisk MP3 player were Green Day and Fall Out Boy.
Based on those two bands alone, you can assume that my music listening was still largely radio-based. It was before my friends and I would regularly swap CD’s and the idea of being able to share playlists with each other over the internet was too far in the future to even be a thought. It really was a surprise to stumble upon a band I had never heard about, making music I fell head-over-heels for.
This first impression was originally posted as a live blog for supporters in our forums on October 20th, 2017. First impressions are meant to be quick, fun, initial impressions on an album or release as I listen to it for the first time. It’s a running commentary written while listening to an album — not a review. More like a diary of thoughts. This post has been lightly edited for structure and flow.
It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these.
It’s been a while since there’s been a really hyped album coming out that felt right for something like this. But, this Julien Baker album seems just about perfect as we move into fall. Her last album, Sprained Ankle, is one of my favorite fall albums and it’s only a matter of time until this one cements itself in my cold weather rotation as well. In many ways it takes what the first album did and expands upon it in every way. It reminds me a little bit of how Manchester Orchestra took ILAVLAC and enhanced a variety of different aspects of that sound, and their songwriting, to take it up another level for METN. That’s the feeling I get from this album. It takes Julien’s songwriting to a new level, maintains the “it” factor that solidifies her as one of the most exciting and talented voices in music right now, and puts her in rarified air. It’s the kind of album I could see us talking about for years.
In a year that’s been filled with so many new albums, it’s hard to pick out the ones that I think will live a life longer than just this year. The ones that we will return to, talk about, and obsess over for years to come. What are the next classics? The next great albums? The ones all of us remember as the year it came out? I’ve heard a few this year that I think are in contention, albums that have knocked me on my ass, brought a huge smile to my face, and left me speechless … and then “Claws in Your Back” finished and I looked down at the hair standing straight up on my arm. Jesus. That’s new.
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“I remember smelling smoke/I woke up, I was choking/Lorrie grabbed the baby and we made it safe outside.” So begins Turnpike Troubadours’ A Long Way from Your Heart, with a family fleeing a burning house. It’s a stark place to start. The characters in this song lose everything but their lives, a photograph, and a shotgun. But the song that takes those things away, called “The Housefire,” is rollicking and lively instead of being dark and downtrodden. There’s even a ripping guitar solo in the song’s extended outro, while the ever-present fiddle—a crucial element of Turnpike Troubadours down-home country sound—flits through the arrangement almost triumphantly.
“Lord knows that I’ve been blessed/I can stand up to the test/I can live on so much less/This much I’ve been learning,” Evan Felker sings in the chorus, because “The Housefire” isn’t about a burning house; it’s about bidding farewell to material encumbrances and realizing what really matters following a crushing tragedy. It’s about finding hope in a dark turn of fate. In a word, it’s about resilience.
On the whole, those same descriptors apply to A Long Way from Your Heart as a whole. These songs are tinged with tragedy, but they are also populated by characters who carry on regardless. The title of the album comes from the bridge of “The Housefire,” where the narrator starts lamenting the “heavy blow” his family has just been dealt. “I’ll bet you make it, it’s a long way from your heart,” his wife responds wryly. You’ll survive, in other words. ‘Tis but a scratch!
There’s very little solace to be found in Mineral Girls’ This Is the Last Time Every Time. The world the characters inhabit is an indifferent – if not outright cruel – one to be certain, but most of the anguish on display here comes from inside. “I’m not trying to get any better / I’m just trying to make it look like I am,” becomes something of a mantra for the record.
This Is the Last Time Every Time is an appropriate title for an album as concerned as this one is with trying to change. The title of the opener (from which comes the above lyric) is “Let’s Talk About Us,” after all. And the song is just as cathartic as it sounds. See, for all the intensity behind the lyrics, the band behind them matches it pound for pound. For the most part, they’ve ditched the fuzz from Cozy Body in favor of a rougher, more straightforward emo sound. “The Bruise on We” begins with a Mineral-style riff, building and building to a post-hardcore climax, complete with harsh shrieks. It’s the only moment like it on the album, but it feels totally necessary. Elsewhere, like the title track, the band introduces electronics into their sound.
When Travis Meadows sings about hitting rock bottom, you can tell he’s been there. There’s a rawness and pain in his voice that tells you he’s not just playing a character or weaving a narrative. His songs ache with the scars of a hard life. As a child, Meadows’ younger brother drowned, his parents got divorced, and he ended up the odd man out between a mother and a father who started new families and moved on without him. At 14, he was diagnosed with cancer. He survived the disease, but lost his right leg in the battle. Eventually, he turned to alcohol as a crutch. He was already writing songs, and already had a publishing deal in Nashville, but he was such a mess that no one would agree to write with him. It took four trips to rehab before he could make sobriety stick.
Meadows has been off the bottle since 2010. In the interim, songs he’s written have been cut by Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, and Jake Owen—three of the biggest male stars in country music right now. His songs, though, remain haunted by his past. In a recent profile for Uproxx.com, Meadows said that he uses songwriting to admit the secrets about himself that he’s too scared to say out loud. That honesty radiates through First Cigarette, Meadows’ second full-length album and the most starkly intimate LP that anyone has made this year.
I’m not sure I have ever anticipated a new album with quite the furor that I anticipated Jimmy Eat World’s Chase This Light in the fall of 2007. Futures had been a game-changer for me, the album that transformed me from a budding music listener into a voracious, lifelong die-hard. As often happens when you’re young, the three years that stretched between the October 19, 2004 release of Futures and the October 16, 2007 release of Chase This Light seemed to last an eternity. (I was 13 when the former came out and 16 for the arrival of the latter.) The wait was eased a bit by the 2005 release of the Stay on My Side Tonight EP, but the dark, moody nature of those songs only made me want a full-length. An album packed of songs like “Disintegration” and “Closer”? Count me in.
Chase This Light was decidedly not that record. Futures gave the band two basic paths forward. The first was to embrace the moody, late night autumnal vibe that manifested on songs like “Polaris” and “23.” That path evidently led to Stay on My Side Tonight, which was made up of songs the band had written for Futures but hadn’t finished or put on the record. The second possible path was for Jimmy Eat World to keep following their arc as a glossy studio band. They’d made Futures with Gil Norton, a well-respected rock producer known for making big, robust rock albums. Futures sounded appropriately huge, and there was some feeling—particularly in radio singles like “Pain” and “Work”—that Jimmy Eat World could be a massive radio rock band for the new millennium if they wanted to be. They could prove that “The Middle” wasn’t just a fluke hit.
By all accounts, Circa Survive shouldn’t be here. The band’s frontman, Anthony Green, sometimes can’t even believe that the band has survived all the demons and turmoil over the course of their career. But Green and his bandmates have continually persevered through it all, alive and thriving with their sixth full-length album (and Hopeless Records debut) The Amulet, the band’s darkest and most personal piece of art yet.
The hazy opener, “Lustration,” begins with Green’s familiar croon before erupting into an unshakeable groove provided by drummer Steve Clifford. It’s a warning of sorts (“Beneath your finger nails/they’ll find small pieces of stone/you’ll face the sun/cut with the pressure point”) mixed in with Green’s desperate pleas (“I don’t want to be the anchor on your chest“ and “I don’t want to see the moment you forget”). Elsewhere, the album’s ominous vibe penetrates on tracks like “Premonition Of The Hex” and “At Night It Gets Worse,” with the latter being a career highlight. Its glacial pace slowly picks up as the implied dread increases, leaving the listener feeling uneasy. We also get some of Will Yip’s best production work ever – the thrilling guitar riff that kicks off “Stay” is incredibly crisp and Nick Beard’s bass work across the record (especially on the Juturna-esque “Tunnel Vision” ) is thoroughly killer, providing the backbone to the vast majority of The Amulet. Colin Frangicetto and Brendan Ekstrom’s dueling guitar acrobatics are a pleasure as well – “Never Tell A Soul” never lets up the pace as Green tears through the chorus.
Sammi Lanzetta is undoubtedly a new, and welcome face in the rock scene. Her first song showed up on Bandcamp in May of 2016. “House Plants” instantly shows off what kind of artist she is, with a sound best described as “anxiety rock.” On her new EP, For Avery, we get a better exploration of this sound. The EP consists of four songs none run over two and a half minutes. Lanzetta gets right to the point and that gives the EP has a great flow.
“Circles” pulls no punches with its biting opening line: “Why are you such a misogynist? I would rather slit my throat than be stuck in a house with you.” Now, if that doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re diving into with For Avery, then I don’t know what would. While the lyrics bare it all, the music is painfully real as well. She sings about her fears, anxiety, and many more emotions in the relatively short amount of time of just four songs. “Anxiety Olympics” is completely upfront about being around other people her age and how she may pale in comparison. She wants to be better, but also doesn’t want it to feel like a competition. That just might be something we can all relate to, even for those of us who are competitive.
The connection found amongst shared interests within pop culture can be the catalyst for some of the strongest bonds in life. A terrible day capped off by the most mundane social event, spent staring at carpets with a drink in hand, can be altered by the moment another human mentions a band you love or nonchalantly slips a quote from your favorite sitcom into conversation; ears prick up from across the room, time stops for a second, a small spark and a “me too” moment occurs. In January of this year, 23-year-old Phoebe Bridgers released “Smoke Signals,” and it managed to hone in on that precise feeling. Packed with references to Bowie, Lemmy, Thoreau’s Walden, The Smiths, and a guitar line that emulates the Twin Peaks theme, the song encapsulates the warm-glow of discovering a connection via a first conversation with someone. It’s a masterclass in introspection and nostalgia that transcends boundaries in a way that it could soundtrack any one of our very own memory trips.
It’s this intimate, conversational approach of Bridgers that makes her debut album Stranger In The Alps a gut-punch of a triumph. The sheer candor and familiarity as foundations are rare to find but the listener has a goldmine here, resulting in one of the most rewarding and affecting records of the year.
The Killers just can’t seem to catch a break.
You’d think that penning one of the most iconic, ubiquitous pop songs of the millennium would win you some points. Same with putting out a debut album that almost single-handedly prolonged the life of rock radio for an extra year or two. By all accounts, Brandon Flowers and company are nice guys who work hard, put on an exceptional live show, and have a better track record of radio singles than any other rock band this side of the Foo Fighters. But The Killers have never been cool. They certainly never earned the stamp of approval from critics, who took the “No Fun Police” stance against the singles from Hot Fuss and then vowed to bury the band when Brandon Flowers had the audacity to suggest that 2006’s Sam’s Town would be “one of the best albums in the last 20 years.” Most music writers expected The Killers to be a flash in the pan, and they were graciously willing to help the band reach their inevitable demise.
But a funny thing happened along the way: The Killers held on. As radio rock died, they kept writing hits. As the critical darling indie rock bands of the early 2000s slid toward mediocrity or obscurity or both, The Killers remained stubbornly present. Now, 13 years after Hot Fuss and five years after their last album, The Killers are back, and they are every bit as inescapable as they always have been. In the release week of September 22nd, which saw a massive deluge of new albums from acclaimed and up-and-coming artists, no one got as much press as The Killers.
In 2003, The Appleseed Cast released Two Conversations, the followup to their critically acclaimed two-disc Low Level Owl project. Fans were disappointed. Two Conversations was decidedly more commercial than Low Level Owl; the ambiance was replaced with melody and, it seemed to fans, the band traded ambition for accessibility. It’s true that Two Conversations shifted away from the unrepentant post-rock sound of the Low Level Owl CDs, but it’s also true that it’s an impressive album in its own right, even if it isn’t what was expected out of The Appleseed Cast. Most have come around to that by now.
I foresee something similar happening with Prawn’s new album, Run. 2014’s Kingfisher was unanimously praised on release by fans and critics alike. The record’s blending of emo and punk with post-rock made for an engrossing listen – one you can sing along to as well as brood to. Like Two Conversations, Run is a far more straightforward album than its predecessor. It’s more Into It. Over It. than Moving Mountains, let’s say – especially when the punk influence shines through on songs like “Empty Hands” and “Snake Oil Salesman.” The latter of which is a highlight on the record; Tony Clark shouting, “I know what you’ve been selling,” is one of the most fun moments in the band’s whole discography.
2017 has been a miraculous year for young talent in the country/roots music space. From Colter Wall to Tyler Childers to Lindsay Ell, a fair chunk of the best albums in those genres this year have been made by twenty-somethings. Add Christian Lopez to the list. At 22 years old, Lopez is just crossing the boundary between youth and adulthood. His brand-new sophomore record, Red Arrow, is all about making the journey.
A crisp collection of roots-pop songs, built on a foundation of catchy melodies and organic instrumentation, Red Arrow is as immediate a record as you’ll hear this year. That might be a surprise, given Lopez’s youth. Shouldn’t a guy who’s only been on the planet since 1995 still be learning the ropes of this whole album-making thing? Apparently not. While Lopez is young, he’s not inexperienced. He’s been touring tirelessly for the past few years, building a following largely on the back of hard work and strong word of mouth. And it also can’t hurt that he’s made his first two albums with two of the best and most respected producers working in roots music right now.
The War on Drugs weren’t just a buzz artist in 2014: they were arguably the artist of the year. In a year that lacked an obvious consensus critical favorite—thanks in part to the fact that most of the “big artists” stayed quiet—an unassuming rock band from Philadelphia snagged a whole boatload of accolades. Sure, not every publication chose Lost in the Dream, the band’s grandiose third LP, for its top honors, but no album appeared on more lists or managed a higher average rank.
That breakout year could have fundamentally changed things for Adam Granduciel, the frontman and mastermind of The War on Drugs. The band made the jump from Secretly Canadian, the indie label that had put out their first three records, to the major leagues, signing with Atlantic. But rather than interfere or try to push Granduciel toward something more marketable or palatable to radio audiences, Atlantic seemingly just let the man do his thing. The result, a new album called A Deeper Understanding, somehow manages to improve upon its predecessor in every way without abandoning the signature sound it established.
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.
Few albums sound more like growing up to me than Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope. Last year, for my 26th birthday, I wrote a blog post where I chose one defining song from every year I’ve spent on the planet. “Car Crash,” the opening track from Some Mad Hope, was my pick for 2007. For me, that song—and this record in general—marked the end of youthful innocence and the beginning of something a little more complex and a little less black and white. It’s tough to imagine a better record for that moment in life than Some Mad Hope, which effortlessly pairs pop hooks and anthemic arrangements with emotionally weighty lyrical work. What is tough to process is the fact that this record—the one that marked the start of my journey from youth to adulthood—is now 10 years in the rearview.
Some Mad Hope would prove to be Matt Nathanson’s breakthrough, but it wasn’t his first record. On the contrary, in Nathanson’s catalog, Some Mad Hope holds the status of being the sixth LP. He’d moved the needle slightly in the past. His cover of the James hit “Laid” opened American Wedding, the final film in the initial American Pie trilogy, and his fifth album, 2003’s Beneath the Fireworks (produced by future Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello) spawned reasonably well-known tracks like “I Saw” and “Curve of the Earth.” But until this record, Nathanson tended to be known as an artist who put on a fantastic live show, but could never quite translate the energy and fun of his concerts into compelling studio records.
Earlier this year, when Canadian country singer Colter Wall released his self-titled debut record, it felt like someone had caught lightning in a bottle. How was it possible that this young, 21-year-old kid could produce the kind of booming, haunting baritone voice he sang with? How could he get closer to sounding like Johnny Cash than anyone in Nashville, when he’d only been seven years old when Cash passed away? It felt like Wall had the kind of once-in-a-generation voice that was going to make him a country music legend. And then you got to the penultimate track, a take on the old German folk song “Fraulein,” and heard another breathtaking voice stealing the show.
That voice belonged to Tyler Childers, an unheralded (at least until now) singer/songwriter hailing from the state of Kentucky. Like Wall, Childers is young. He’s 26 now and has been touring the southern and midwestern United States since he was 20. But Childers doesn’t have Wall’s cavernous baritone voice. Instead, he’s got a gritty, versatile tenor, equally adept at selling loud honky tonk rave-ups and tender, lovelorn ballads. It begs the question: what kind of deals with the devil did these two young troubadours have to strike to get such distinctive instruments so early in their lives? And if country music has these kinds of remarkable young talents hiding around the fringes, then why the hell are we putting up with nothing vocalists like Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett?
Before recording anything for Manchester Orchestra’s fifth album, Andy Hull aimed to deconstruct what the band was. “My challenge was whatever you’re instinctively going to want to play on the record, try and not do that,” Hull explained to UPROXX earlier this summer, “try and do the opposite of that thing.” Obviously, there isn’t anything like a simple “how-to” guide on achieving such a goal, so the band worked with multiple producers at various studios to create a record that could cement their legacy as one of this era’s great rock bands. And after a year full of obsessive detail, second guessing, and a grueling recording process, Manchester Orchestra emerged with A Black Mile To The Surface, their most majestic and challenging record yet.
When Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs, it felt like the beginning of something. Six years on from Funeral, the record that made the band torchbearers of the critically acclaimed indie rock scene, here they were, finally being recognized on the big stage. The records they beat—pop juggernauts from Katy Perry, Eminem, Lady Gaga, and Lady Antebellum—were all more indicative of what the radio sounded like in 2010. But Arcade Fire’s victory showed that, maybe, the pop world was finally ready to embrace something darker and more nuanced. Maybe they were ready to let a rock band back into the fold.
Looking back now, the Grammy win feels more like the end of something. Future Grammy winners didn’t sound or look much like Arcade Fire. Neither did radio stars. Instead, on 2013’s Reflektor, Arcade Fire started looking (and sounding) a lot like the pop insiders. Just like most of the other marquee acts that released albums that year—Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake (x2), Jay-Z, Eminem, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga—Arcade Fire made it clear that they were going for a capital-B Blockbuster. The rollout was excessive and overblown; the album was long and ambitious; the hype stretched on for months. And the songs…well, they didn’t have that much to offer, at the end of the deep, deep rabbit hole that Arcade Fire dug for fans. Writing for Grantland, Steven Hyden called 2013 “The Year Music Failed to Blockbust.” He wasn’t wrong, and Arcade Fire was at the center of it.