Adeline Hotel Alex Antwander Alex Lahey American Watercolor Movement Andre 3000 Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness Andy Shauf Avalon Emerson Avery Dakin Awakebutstillinbed Bad Bunny Bailey Zimmerman Beach Fossils Belle & Sebastian Bestia Bebé Bethany Cosentino Be Your Own Pet Billy Woods & Kenny Segal Black Country New Road Black Milk Blondshell Blur Bombadil Boygenius Butch Walker Carly Rae Jepsen Caroline Polachek Caroline Rose Charlotte Cornfield Cheo Chuck D Cory Hanson Courtney Barnett Crooks & Nannies Cut Worms Danny Brown & JPEG Mafia Danny Brown (Quaranta) Dengue Fever Dierks Bentley Drayton Farley Drake Durand Jones Dutch Uncles El Michels Affair & Black Thought Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra Eversame Everything But The Girl Far Caspian Fatoumata Diawara Gabrielle Aplin Genevieve Artadi Gracie Abrams Graham Parker & The Goldtops Greg Mendez Gum Hack-Poets Guild Haken Hardy Hataałii Homeboy Sandman Home Is Where Hot Mulligan Husbands Indigo De Souza Jake Borgemenke (Drinks) Jake Borgemenke & Joey Joesph Jana Horn Jamila Woods Janelle Monaé Jason Aldean Jenny Conlee Jenny Lewis Jenny O. Jenny Owen Youngs Jessie Ware Joanna Sternberg Juan Wauters Julie Byrne Kali Uchis Karol G Kate NV Kerosene Heights Kerry Charles Killer Mike Lael Neale La Femme Lana Del Rey Land Of Talk Las Rosas Laura Cantrell Lil Yachty Lloyd Cole Lucinda Chua Luke Combs Madison Beer Man On Man Margaret Glaspy Maxo Metric Mitski Mon Laferte Monseur Periné Morgan Wallen Motorama Nas Nation Of Language Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds Noname Oliver Anthony Olivia Rodrigo Open Mike Eagle Origami Angel Osees Owl City Pacifica Pahua Palehound Paramore Paul Simon Peso Pluma Peter Gabriel Pierce The Veil Poppy Pynkie Quasi Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble Riverside Rodney Crowell Róisín Murphy Sage Elsesser Samia Saturdays At Your Place Seven Impale Sigur Ros Slowdive Spanish Love Songs Sparks Squirrel Flower Steven Wilson Sufjan Stevens Susanne Sundfør Sydney Sprague Tennis The Clientele The Front Bottoms The Hold Steady The Japanese House The Lemon Twigs The Natvral The New Pornographers The Reds, Pinks & Purples The Rocket Summer The Rolling Stones The Streets The Waeve Thomas Bangalter Tim Hecker Tiny Ruins Travis Scott Troye Sivan Valley Queen Van Morrison Wednesday White China White Reaper Yasser Tejedá Yes Y La Bamba Youth Lagoon Yussuf Dayes Zach Bryan Zopp Zulu

A live look-in at the record store:

live look-in at the record store.

Adeline Hotel — Hot Fruit My insatiable hunger for all things Office Culture brought me here: a set of instrumental acoustic meditations that resemble the lengthy outro bits on late ‘70s folk rock records, or perhaps the interstitial bits from a Scottish indie movie starring a lamb. Chiming John Martyn patterns, woodwinds, brushed drums, and good old Winston Office-Culture on stone-skippy piano. Midway through, I expect Van the Man to start mumbling about Keats and the Eternals, and I’m not even too disappointed when he doesn’t. The principal is Dan “The Knish” Knishkowy, a jazz guy with a light touch who has appeared alongside many Kings County outfits. Because what Winston tried to tell us at Berlin turns out to be true. They have their own bands nowadays in Brooklyn. Really! It isn’t all shysters and stevedores; who knew. Somebody ought to do an article on this phenomenon.

Alex Antwander — El Diablo En El Cuerpo This endearing doofus has been one of the prime movers in Chilean alternative music for awhile now. Much like Javiera Mena (who guests on “Unx De Nosotrxs”), he’s simultaneously made it more synthetic and queered it up, contributing new wave sequencers and Village People thump ‘n grind to South American pop. Should you want to see Alex wear his sunglasses in the Santiago night, the new one oughta do the trick: it’s pure post-Frankie dancefloor sleaze, full of horny horns and portamento synths, “Everybody Everybody” house piano, slap-you-in-the-ass snare, and Alex’s weenie vox. Somewhere Troye Sivan is taking notes. It’s all undeniable, even if it’s also designed to be as frothy and forgettable as possible. Oh, and Alex wins points for the outrageous clip for “Maricoteca,” in which he snorts blow and smokes doobage while leather-clad men feel each other up. Then he takes to the stage in a Spandau Ballet outfit amidst a stream of plastic bubbles. For a doofus, he’s got guts.

Alex Lahey — The Answer Is Always Yes A few of these Sleeper-style power pop numbers from Down Under are keepers: “You’ll Never Get Your Money Back,” that’s a good song. I doubt The Beths would kick that one out of bed, though they might turn the screws a little on the composition. “On The Way Down”?, that’s a nice stormy pouter; one already reserved for the soundtrack to the next Josie And The Pussycats movie, I imagine. Yet, ironically, this music is so thoroughly received that it’s hard to enjoy it as it’s happening, or even properly access it. Your mind keeps beating her to the spot where you know damn well she’s going. Actual headline on the actual Internet: Alex Lahey Says The Courtney Barnett Comparisons Are Sexist. Get the fuck out, Alex. Learn to take a compliment, willya? How about this: she rips off Stella Donnelly, too.

American Watercolor Movement — The Odyssey Of Captain Vivian Ribbons See, even the locals are getting into the vintage prog thing. I wrote about this album extensively on Jersey City Times and I don’t have too much else to add to that, but I will say that it’s remarkable how well they approximated Saucerful-era Floyd sound while recording in the belly of a beached whale in the Hudson-Bergen canal. This is a beautifully tripped-out space opera complete with sound effects, spooky backing vocals, and an Icarus-like storyline about psychic disintegration, meant to be spun and heard in a single sitting, just like The Dark Side Of The Moon. I’d say that some tycoon ought to finance their next project just to see what they could do with a real budget, but I don’t even know who is in this band, and I live right here. I do think Jersey City ought to be celebrating this project more. Guess that’s on little old me.

Andre 3000 — New Blue Sun Not that I know much about the snooze music market for meditation and tantric sex and etcetera, but my gut, if not my tailbone, tells me that this is more or less what the audience is looking for. Should you find yourself in the mood for laid-back flutestrumentals, I reckon this is just as centered as anything from the catalogs of Yanni or Zamfir. Lord knows Andre Benjamin has earned the right to play what he wants whenever he wants. I’d just prefer it mightily if he’d find it within himself to shake it like a Polaroid picture. I’m still waiting for that. Not holding my breath.

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness — Tilt At The Wind No More I have a tough time believing this prickly ass customer is interested in anybody’s upliftment. He keeps insisting he is, though. And when he insists, he does it in that grandiose tone he takes when he’s battling leukemia or breadwinning or otherwise exhibiting his manhood. Obvs, anybody capable of calling their album Tilt At The Wind No More is not shy about pomposity. You might argue that pomp is necessary to a songwriter who reaches so frequently for the anthemic. No doubt that’s so. The evidence is in, though — about ten albums worth of it — and I think it’s pretty clear that Andrew does better when he’s moody and unsure. His application of piano to glossy emo-pop and synthpop production works when it’s balanced and understated, with plenty of ringing intervals, and that’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Though he adjusts his eye level with each release, he’s never quite recaptured the bleak magic of the first In The Wilderness project, or the productive insecurity of the first Jack’s Mannequin album. As for “Konstantine,” well, you get one of those per lifetime. A rummage through Andrew’s mixed bag means an encounter with a few goopy substances. Some of these new ones are sopping with glo-stick innards, and his little pep talks to the downtrodden never quite ring true. I do like the one where he likens his psychological outlook to that of a man in a submarine with the lights out. That seems honest. Then there’s the song where he confesses that he’s too misanthropic for arena rock. We should believe him. More importantly, he should believe himself.

Andy Shauf — Norm Unlike his hero Paul Simon, whose writing on the subject of the ground of being is some of the best you’ll find outside of Paul Tillich, Andy’s approach to the Almighty leaves a bunch to be desired. On Norm, Andy struggles with the concept of unconditional divine love, suggesting that it is irresponsibly applied to the unworthy, such as pervs. God takes his eye off the ball and (it is implied) lets the girl get raped and murdered because he’s too busy extending mercy to the wicked title character. Not that the big guy doesn’t feel bad about the way it works out. It turns out he’s hamstrung by his own regulations, and as whiny about it as, well, as Andy Shauf. Turns toward crime drama are usually acts of narrative desperation by writers who are grasping for a genuine driver, and Andy is not helped here by the limpest music he’s ever recorded — limp even for the mushrock era. I can’t believe I am writing this, but it’s true: Andy needs to listen to Morgan Wallen sing “Don’t Think Jesus” and internalize the lesson. He’s much too smart to be missing the point this badly.

Avalon Emerson — & The Charm Avalon Emerson has been introduced to us as a daring club musician. I can’t speak to her deejay sets, but this album isn’t like that at all. It’s a solid, enjoyable, rather conventional exercise in modern mushtronica, fun when the bass is in place and lost in the fog when it isn’t. I reckon it’s for people who wish Caroline Polachek didn’t yodel so much. Avalon, bless her, is yodel-incapable: her range is about three notes. But she intones each of them gracefully and effectively, in a voice like a polite and un-provocative tickle, kinda like Trish Keenan after a very heavy supper. I keep expecting her to break into the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner.” It’s all a reminder of how little is needed in order to, er, bait the stream: a loop, some processed sounds, a fragment of melody, a clutch of vaguely confessional lyrics that act as a pocket mirror for the listener, that’s about it. You could do it too, if that pesky individuality of yours didn’t keep getting in the way.

Avery Dakin — Bloom Fine young pop-soul singer from Halifax with nice round vowels, a disinclination to indulge in gratuitous melisma, and a gently interrogatory manner on the microphone. She’s easygoing, even when she’s telling some clown to fuck off. Her phrasing and light touch elevates all her material, including the business about strawberry wine and sunshowers and other such fluff. She keeps things simmering nicely over rimshots and jazz-funk guitar and other limp bizkits served by her producers. So it’s a pleasant surprise when the music picks up on the second half of Bloom and she’s able to revel a little in beats worthy of her crossover-caliber talent: the TLC-ballad thump of “Hurricane,” the vintage Maroon 5 swing of “My Girls,” the slow burner “Faded Blue,” and “Comin’ Up,” a sustained performance that exposes the hard wood under the velvet cushions. So: not fully baked. Not even browned on the edges. But worth watching through the oven window.

Awakebutstillinbed — Chaos Takes The Wheel And I Am A Passenger Young pop-rock artists: I am very sorry to hear about your grandparents! Yes, even those of them who didn’t win medals in the Great War. The fatal car crashes and drug overdoses?, those are sad too. But a true emo doesn’t need a proximate cause to get torn up. A true emo will fall to pieces while crossing the street. Encountering the anguish of the ordinary day is sufficient. Hey, babies howl for a very good reason. This is a punishing world, and if you are brave enough to move through it with your defenses down, it’s gonna hurt. Shannon Taylor of Awakebutstillinbed doesn’t short us on the genre-specific specifics: “Airport” leads us to a delicious fight with an overbearing intellectual parent (“With the data in hand/You’ve drawn a diagnostic diagram/Of the faults of my brain/In the sand;” I’d laugh if I wasn’t crying), “Clearview” introduces a suicidal fan in nowhere Missouri who the singer was unable to save, and “Scramble Suit” contains a poetic description of… a fatal car crash. A terrifying lonesome way to die!, Shannon sobs. Hey, she’s deep in the style. Not for nothing does she call it extremo. She’d howl in horror even if there was no visible tragedy on the horizon. Chaos Takes The Wheel is the testimonial of a woman chased by ghosts: she shrieks straight through this set, indifferent to pitch, meter, and the sleep requirements of the neighbors. Producer Joe Reinhardt of Algernon Cadwalader — who has become a major enabler of the protests of recalcitrant youth — emphasizes the distorted six-string splatter and tom-pounding speed-ups. He allows the band to follow a six and a half minute tantrum with an eight and a half minute tantrum. When the fire starts burning, he lets the blaze rage. This may well sound like torture to you. If it does, you are best advised to put this one down and approach the genre, and the emotions it channels, via less invasive means: Jimmy Eat World, maybe, or dental surgery. But there is a certain kind of rock listener who views Mineral’s Endserenading as a landmark in the annals of free expression and obstinate defiance, and if you’re one of those, you may be impressed by how fully Shannon brings herself to life through her words and her ragged performances. Scowling in the back of the band van, arms wrapped around her knees, skate sneaks up on the vinyl, sarcastic, idealistic, restless, dangerously observant, wondering aloud about the psychic price of her own ferocious ambition: a real handful. Boxing gloves on, punching her punching bag.

Bad Bunny — Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va A Pasar Mañana Frankly, I begin to share Titi’s concern. Some cads are made for muchas novia, and others find they’ve got a logistical challenge on their hands. No longer despues de la playa or anywhere near it, an oddly cowed Benito makes his pivot back to the rough comforts of intemperate urbano. The defensiveness comes through in any language. Enjoyable as it is, it’s also interminable, and reiterative, and it doesn’t exactly paint the principal in the warmest Caribbean light. Cross the pensive post-coital Drake with Kanye in a paranoid, bombastic spell, and then flip it in Español, and you’ll have a pretty good idea about the (bad) mood of the set. Surprisingly, there isn’t much reggaeton on this one — it’s mostly trap beats plus a few gooey, brooding art pieces that barely have a beat at all. Benito tells us he only looks happy in old photos. Awww. He kills time addressing petty controversies and complaining about the performance limitations of his Bugatti, which may or may not be a figure for his dissatisfaction with the music industry, or, perhaps, dissatisfaction with his bicho. Then there’s the unbelievably petulant “Baby Nueva,” a comprehensive character assassination of an ex-girlfriend that ought to delight the Spanish-speaking quadrants of the manosphere. The hot tub jet that is Bad Bunny’s baritone has not slackened in force or steadiness. It is telling, though, that many of the most exciting moments on Nadie Sabe come from collaborators: Colombian pop singer Feid, rapper Luar La L, trap kitty Young Miko. They sound thrilled to appear on the follow-up to one of the twenty first century’s historic albums. As for the principal, it’s his party, y llorará si quiere.

Bailey Zimmerman — Religiously. The Album Meet the sad country incel. Go on, shake hands; you can rinse afterward. Most of Bailey’s bro-country bros want to assure us they’re getting lucky in those truck beds and then free and easy down the road they go. Bailey, by grim contrast, has been done wrong by a girl, and is now he is licking his wounds on the farm. He is on his tractor and in his feelings. Bailey’s voice — two-thirds wood-chopping grit and one-third pop-punk weenie — is nicely calibrated for this sixteen song sulk. Most of this is standard, squared-away Nashville machine music, but the principal sure as hell inhabits his heartbroke scenarios. You might find Bailey’s passive aggressivity (“been a long time since your kisses felt like kissin’,” indeed) preferable to a drunk and burping Luke Bryan telling you to shake your can for him, but I dunno, the sublimated rage on this set seems more dangerous to me. He didn’t really have to follow up a super-entitled breakup song with a cover of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” but he did, and it’s…. vivid, delivered with conviction and clearly pointed at somebody. Music City: full of bad boyfriends of all kinds. Miranda could tell you all about it.

Beach Fossils — Bunny Certain astute listeners have pointed out sonic and compositional similarities to Ride circa Carnival Of Light. This is not untrue. But in the late ‘90s, Ride had one of the more formidable rhythm sections around. They also had George Drakoulias behind the board, demanding definition and musical happenstance from the songwriters. There is simply no way George would have allowed Mark Gardener or Andy Bell to slather this much reverb on the vocal signal, or present flatso arrangements that make Real Estate seem like a ride on Kingda Ka by comparison. It’s disappointing. Somersault felt like New Directions in Mush. This one is just the mush. It does not help that every time the pot haze clears for a moment, Dustin Peyseur is revealed to be whining about New York City and/or a relationship that didn’t suit his needs. If bicycle thieves and graffiti artists are too much for Dustin to handle — if he really believes they’re worsening his Ativan habit — might I suggest that he take a fucking hike. He can leave his apartment to one of the ninety thousand kids who’d love to have it. Go on, head straight to Westchester and join the Republican Party.

Belle & Sebastian — Late Developers This meaningful uptick in quality from the varsity contains the most obviously song-doctored song in the B&S discography (though I do have my suspicions about “Nobody’s Empire”): “I Don’t Know What You See In Me.” It plays like Stuart’s long-promised entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, and it’s so blithe and enthusiastically canned that it makes me wish they’d do an entire record just like that. Be popular, play pop, his muse once told him. That seems like solid advice. Dunno how the other boys and girls in the band are processing this, but there aren’t many signs of discouragement or resignation on these tracks. They’re tackled with fresh motivation from a crew reacquainted with interpersonal pain and the alacrity it engenders. “I’m waiting like a coiled spring,” Stuart and Sarah sing in tight harmony, and as cheery as this album gets from time to time, that’s the prevailing mood: feelings of invisibility, secret desires for solitude and separation, discontent with the football scores. “Who said I had the wisdom/had the answers/wasn’t me,” Stuart concludes, over a track as bouncy as The Fantastiks. Shortly after releasing this set, Stuart had a tour-scrapping relapse of his famous anxiety issues. No coincidences in pop, vol. 4080.

Bestia Bebé — Vamos A Destruir This opens in classic rock glory with “El Verano”: five minutes of speedy garage-style drumming plus harmony guitar solos and plaintive vox. As an old Gallagherite, I appreciate the pumped-up Oasisisms of “Humo Negro.” From there, things settle into a Strokes-y groove that’s never less than pleasant, but it’s not exactly revelatory. I could use less stateliness from these guys, and I do get the sense that they’d like to defy the restrictions imposed by their song forms and experiment more. But they might have Argentinian arena rock obligations that, as a damned Yankee, are lost on me.

Bethany Cosentino — Natural Disaster All hail antimush activist Butch Walker. Dude cuts mush like Palmolive cuts bacon grease. His highway heart belongs to the late ‘80s: the era when Michelle Shocked, et. al., stepped to the microphone and, with absolute clarity and minimal reverb, sang… some pretty dopey shit, IIRC. Right in front of the whole class, too. You can kinda see the appeal of the My Bloody Valentine approach: gaze at your shoes, mumble, and hope the teacher calls on somebody else. Not so for Bethany Cosentino, who dares to be stupid on a Butch Walker special that is ostentatiously indebted to mid-period Liz Phair and all-period Sheryl Crow. Bonnie Raitt gets an enthusiastic shout-out, too. As does Train, no foolin’; they went all in on the countermove. I admit that I loved to watch the mush demons and slime worshippers at Pitchfork choke on this, although Bethany was not as pleased. What would have been even better was if this set had been undeniable, all killer no filler, and it isn’t quite that. Some of these heartrending melodies are a little too treacly even for me, and many of the words so bravely sung sans cushioning by the star are, um, dumb. But the main idea here — that times of mortal peril require a radical and tender embrace of the moment — is so earnestly and forcefully advanced that any awkwardness soon dissolves in the onslaught of sentiment. It’s not the way the apocalyptikids from Home Is Where would have put it, but that’s why Bethany is out on a prestige label distributed by Universal and they’re eating ramen blocks in the van. The tunes are very nicely built, Butch leads a crack team with many spring reverb amplifiers and two-inch tape machines at their disposal, and Bethany comes to your window, over and over, with so much vigor you’d think Melissa Etheridge was still alive (she is). Best Coast, you might recall, was often on the fuzzy end of the power pop lollipop stick. Bethany could have followed the crowd and made a safer, gooier, dreamier, yecchhier album, and nobody would have been surprised. Instead she’s thumbed her nose at mushspectations. Not a paradigm shift, no; not even a hit. But I’m still calling it Exhibit A in my argument that the mushrock era is finally drawing to a close. Call it a thaw. Christmas in Narnia. Somebody wake up Mr. Tumnus.

Be Your Own Pet — Mommy I understand why Jack White got behind this: It’s heavy with the dated effrontery that he, and perhaps no one else, still sees as a blow against the empire. That date, by the way, is 1976 or so — somewhere near the origin of female-fronted pop-punk, unless you consider Jane Austen female-fronted pop-punk, in which case you’re gonna have to go back a little further. Women’s Libber Jemina Abegg makes the verities clear. She wants autonomy for her sisters, space from her abusers, and free consensual sexual expression in every cupboard. That sounds great to me. But a slogan contest this isn’t. We return not to the speaker with the best cause, but to the singer with the best song. These numbers are so rudimentary and musically conservative that it’s hard to imagine how they could empower radical action. I mean, they empowered me to put a more interesting record on. I guess that’s something.

Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Maps No more spider hole for Billy. Now he is enjoying the gourmet repasts at the label parties. He’s on the road in some style, far from the three clocks of Brooklyn, grousing about his weed dealers with the petulance of a suburbanite at the Wegman’s customer service counter. I believe a similar thing happened to Mike Skinner. He left the council flats for good on the third album and began rapping about the rich man’s world, caustically to be sure, but with a certain sense of entitlement and air of arrival. Did people like that? Not so much, as I recall. Billy remains witty, and when he’s not disassociating, he’s one of the best scene-painters and storytellers around. The return of the sensitive Kenny Segal means that Billy gets some accommodating beats, and he does make the most of them. Yet for Maps to work for you, you must accept that Billy’s paranoia is still warranted, even as he is movin’ on up to the festival circuit. Billy’s drift through the demimonde of minor celebrity and nouvaux riche society needs to feel incongruous; he must maintain his outsider status. Otherwise, he’s just another rock star complaining about soundchecks and forgetting the lyrics. Because while it’s true that any day could be the day that you are manacled and frog-marched, for Billy, that day is not today. Today, he’s far more likely to be feted at BAM. Maybe he should pop the Courvoisier, as I am told they do in the subsegment of the music industry in which he has chosen to labor.

Black Country, New Road — Live At Bush Hall The big loudmouth is gone. No screaming about antidepressants and Nutribullets and the place he inserted the blade; not much screaming, period. Once and for all, they’ve left Kanye out of it. But if any modern band is positioned to ride out the loss of a charismatic frontperson, Black Country, New Road is that band. With no pressing need to apply their distinctive instrumental voices to the task of illustrating Isaac Woods’s stories, they’re free to tell a few tales of their own. Isaac was hounded by furies and troubled by his class position. His old mates have no comparable neuroses, which is both good and bad; consider that the kickoff track here and the conclusion is, on its surface, a song celebrating the group’s accomplishments. Heartwarming, unnecessary. But that’s where they’re at: they’re seeing where their axes can take them, following unusual compositional instincts, making missteps only when they (mostly bassist Tyler Hyde) attempt to mimic Isaac’s style and attitude. Woodwind player Lewis Evans rambles to the microphone for a couple of dramatic show tunes, pianist May Kershaw gets crafty on her bench and contributes a pair of post-Newsom fables, violinist Georgia Ellery adds color and turns down the microphone, perhaps saving her vocal ideas for her Jockstrap project, drummer Charlie Wayne punctuates everything with semicolons and long ellipses and whispered parentheticals, and guitarist Luke Mark is, for once, discernible. The live recording makes this all feel loose and inhabitable, like a good exploratory gig might, with everybody settling into their new roles, but never so comfortably that the creative friction and productive crackle of artistic insecurity disappears. Bush Hall is like one of those Steeleye Span albums where members of a team of complementary artists contribute noncommercial but endlessly replayable folk-orchestral songs and take turns in the driver’s seat, never with a foot too heavy on the accelerator, everybody rattling along with camaraderie that feels tenuous but real. It’s a genre I’ve missed — one where much of the pleasure comes from the enthusiastic and occasionally confrontational interactions between oddball instrumentalists with distinctive voices that have evolved their styles together. Progressive rock, I believe we called it, in a more civilized time. Live At Bush Hall turns out to be the rare third set that makes the first two easier to understand. Turns out it was never about the invincibility of one man in sunglasses, but instead about the indissolubility of a musical bond. Friends forever, even if they go their separate ways.

Black Milk — Everybody Good? Wow, this thing sounds fantastic. Vulcanized bass hugging the curves, synth like wind whistling in the alleys between skyscrapers, and on “Ain’t Nobody Coming To Save You,” a massive, filthy, skull-snapping reappropriation of the “Hey Joe” riff. Maybe there’s slightly less definition on the drums than we’re used to. But that’s a minor quibble. All of this is expected. We come to a Black Milk record to dive into the soundscape. What you want to know is how the star fares as an emcee. Truth is, he’s given back a bit of the ground he gained on Fever. Sometimes this hardworking but undistinguished vocalist gets swamped by the black surf. His feelings of inadequacy to the historical moment hover over his verses and tie his tongue from time to time. He’s pacing the city and thinking about those claimed by the streets, but he’s unable to make the forceful intervention he’d like to. Lots of bodies in chalk and life sentences dispensed; it’s cold in the D, no matter how warm and weird the harmonies are. “Had to get over survivor’s guilt,” he tells us. Maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t. Oh, and I guess Phonté was molested by his babysitter when he was six. This, according to Phonté at least, accounts for his mistreatment of his wife and kids. It’s kind of strange to hear about that in detail on a record that’s otherwise short on specifics. But you never know which box is going to get the confession.

Blondshell — Blondshell Overcorrection was necessary. Boys dominated guitar pop for far too long. We needed to hear from the girls. I’m glad we have. But there are now so many albums exactly like this — same attitude, same instrument sounds, same metaphors, same hunger for acceptance lurking in the subtext, same expressions of the same trauma, same drugs — that I’m amazed that they get made. I’d figure the musicians would lose interest halfway through.

Blur — The Ballad Of Darren No disrespect meant to the crack of anybody’s magic whip, but this is the first time these country sad ballad men have worked together properly since, what, “No Distance Left To Run”? Way back in the Interregnum? Better than taking shots at each other in The Guardian, IMO, but what do I know?, I’m not even British. It cannot be a coincidence that Damon has gotten his melodic act (and his band) together during the same year that Noel Gallagher has recovered his tunefulness. Perpetually intertwined they are, like Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath, or Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. I will leave it to the Anglophiles to sort out who is the brooding supervillain and who is the anguished hero. As Noel clings desperately to his Be Here Now philosophy as the ship of British state goes under, Damon keeps artfully withering away, dissolving into the fog of Avalon, estranged from himself and his emotions, stiffening that upper lip. We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose, he tells us, and what really gets to him is the barbarism of it. Alienation is so regrettably unruly. Damon brings brutal breakup lyrics and lots of reflections on the path traveled, including a run-in with Britpop ghosts in St. Charles Square, and a call for rock to pull him out of the coma and the slow drift of days. His mates back up his despondency as they did way back when: scraggly-wire leads and fish-n-chip greasy textures from grody old Graham, High Street strut from posh Alex, and the usual tube-schedule precision from the right honorable Dave. Still chased by long shadows down the Portobello Road. Still firm in the belief that modern life is rubbish. But still around.

Bombadil — In Color Chaotic Good counterweight to the Lawful Evil forces of Mordor. Old proto-hippie; such a blithe, benevolent, and bearded force that he is gifted by the author a gorgeous young woman named Goldberry to fuck incessantly. Wait, we’re talking about the band named after Tom Bombadil. Oh. Well, for starters, they’re dragging the name of the character through the Middle-Earth mud. They’re not capricious, merry, or vocally powerful. They’re not even particularly drugged. Nobody is getting any to music this flaccid. And I’m gonna go out on a limb and wager that this group will not persist throughout time.

Boygenius — The Record Like fishing for strawberry gumdrops in a bag that’s half licorice. Sure, you might grab a strawberry gumdrop, but the licorice flavor has probably rubbed off on it. The new Phoebe Bridgers material here isn’t going to make you forget about Punisher; it’s around the quality of the writing she did for Better Oblivion Community Center, which means it’s pretty good. She’s still turning phrases and making observations in her distinctive songwriting voice, even if she’s got nothing new for you. It’s worth a ride on this axle-breaking bumpy road of an album just to hear her sleepily vicious read on “once I took your medication to know what it’s like/and now I have to act like I can’t read your mind.” The trouble is her two accomplices. Julien Baker is settling into a role as a strong-voiced, middleweight indie rock singer. The blazing fire that made Sprained Ankle an attractive proposition on a cold night has turned into a more of a controlled burn. She’s a good complementary piece and a team player, but she’s rarely more than that. And Lucy Dacus has been regressing in a hurry. Her talent has always been evident. But with every release, she’s gotten a little more self-impressed, and on this one, the smug quality that has always been present in her writing has erupted into a revolting superciliousness. One made worse by how gentle she is about it all; she’s turned into a real Mom Who Knows Best, and boy is there no place for that in pop. Was it Lucy who changed “I wanna be emaciated” to “I want to be happy” (ugh)? Or was it just proximity to Lucy that messed with Phoebe’s usual impeccable diction? Lucy’s romantic revelations, such as they are, are always centered on interpersonal banalities, and they’re getting increasingly sexless as she wizens on the vine. She even gives the tsk-tsk treatment to Leonard Cohen, of all people, in a strong contender for worst song of the year. She also continues to write the dumbest shit about religion and the Bible I have heard in a long time, and I have listened to the Hardy album. As long as she can transmute boneheaded sanctimony into antiseptic but radiant high harmonies, she will always put the C in this modern day CS&N. But I dunno, maybe she should’ve gone to college after all. She’s dying to correct somebody in class.

Butch Walker — Butch Walker As… Glenn Here’s a trip: Butch in the guise of an aging piano-pop troubadour, slugging it out with a rowdy audience at a California roadhouse, with crowd noise (plus a conspicuous bar fight) added by the principal for the sake of the verisimilitude he values more than the average bear. Dude loves to playact. Mostly Butch applies his formidable sound-matching skills to the band, chasing Elton John, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne like a big dog running after a car, tongue out and tail wagging. Does he have the voice for this? Well… no. By the second half of this project, he reverts to hair-metal form in performance and attitude. But on the first few numbers, the illusion is remarkable, with Butch jamming choruses reminiscent of The Stranger atop verses that could have been on The Pretender. Go on, roll down the car windows and sing along. I am semi-pleased to report that Glenn shares all of Butch’s obsessions, including the fatalistic belief that new technologies have unfit listeners for music appreciation (more appropriate in this context than it generally is) and despair over the national political divide. He’s also got Aaron Lee Tasjan completely down with the program: the guitarist has his Kortchmar on straight through the set, even when Butch grows weary and slips into Jon Bon territory. I also commend Butch for demonstrating that the distance between Billy Joel and Bon Jovi isn’t far at all and never was; what was “Runaway” but “All For Leyna” with a little more pre-amp distortion and Turnpike grease? If only my middle-school peers could have been quite so broad-minded. That would have been great for a budding piano man such as I.

Carly Rae Jepsen — The Loveliest Time Santa Claus arrives with two bags. One contains world peace. In the other is a Carly Rae Jepsen full length produced in its entirety by Rostam Batmanglij. Only one of these Christmas miracles may I have. And goddamn, I guess I am going with the world peace thing. I’m not a total monster. But fuck you Santa for making me think about it. Rumors abound about of an epic Carly Rae-Rostam recording session that filled the vaults with CRJ-Rostam material, and since Carly Rae wrote forty songs in the time it took for you to read this entry I do not doubt its existence. In the musical equivalent of tickle torture, she has been spacing them out across her full-length drops, one or two at a time, right next to “Beach House In Malibu” and whatnot. I want to do bad things to you, indeed. And yes, I like “Beach House In Malibu,” too, but that’s not the point. Carly Rae plus Rostam is sublime. Not since peanut butter met jelly has a match been so tasty. We get: powdery synth patches applied like dabs of cosmetics to a beautiful face, beats that swirl like the hem of a dress on a prom queen checking herself out in the mirror, and melodies that glitter and patter as they climb like glass slippers on a staircase. And Carly Rae’s come-hither-with-an-ice-cream-cone performances!, so flirty and wide-eyed, with rapid heartbeats and utter infatuation. The sound of an expectant intake of breath; the aural equivalent of tilting one’s chin for a smooch; a Western wind. This is the girliest shit I have ever heard in my life, and that is the highest compliment I know how to give. Quality control on The Loveliest Time is very high — this is no b-sides collection. You can add “Shy Boy” to your infinite playlist of irresistible Carly Rae come-ons, and “Psychedelic Twist” is her best approximation of an approximation of an approximation of disco yet. But it’s the two fluttering Rostam tracks that I’ll remember this album for. They leave me ravenous for more. I’m begging these two: open the floodgates.

Caroline Polachek — Desire, I Want To Turn Into You The mushrock era has produced many fine pop stars, but only three who deserve to be called mush auteurs; that is to say, artists who’ve figured out how to get all this mush to work for them metaphorically, and thematically, rather than merely as sonic enhancement or as a perception distortion mechanism that they can hide behind when the going gets rough. For Drake, the mush is the curl of smoke of a casually-ashed cigar, rising to the ceiling of an opulent but stuffy drawing room, sweetly poisoning the atmosphere, and bleeding its scent into the papers of the epistles he’s sending to various hoes. For Lana Del Rey, the mush represents the gauzy footage from the vaselined lens of the pornographer and the patriotic American hagiographer (is there a difference?), and the haze of the film stock as icons slowly fade into the national wallpaper. Then there’s Caroline Polachek, a mush sorceress, for whom mush is a reasoned intervention in dull dailiness and a kind of shorthand manifestation for the sort of love affair that resembles infinite regress. It’s eternity as a hall of mirrors with distortions included, opening the door/to another door/to another door/to another door, etc. She does not merely wish to experience desire. She wants to become desire, and transmute her own flesh into sheer emotional force. Can this be done via pop music? Seems like our best bet. On Pang, Caroline slathered the mush all over the place, and all over herself with both hands, and slid around the mixes like a Turkish olive oil wrestler. She’s more judicious about it on the new one. She injects the mush into strategic points of her compositions like a Botox surgeon plumping a pair of thin lips. And it works!, I don’t mean to disrespect the method. Via mush injections signifying that transcendent romantic state, Caroline makes her many howlers oddly palatable, amusing, even: calling a boyfriend “mythological and Wikipediated” and fantasizing about taking a dive through his face into to the pain within, wearing black to mourn the sudden loss of innocence (“sudden,” she says!), cracking wise about a harlequin who lies like a sailor but loves like a painter. It’s all puffed to a pleasing plushness via buckets of ‘verb and synthesizer gloss. Then there is Caroline’s voice, which is something like the result of mating Enya with a whooping crane. And what about the name of the star?, more redolent of college-level social studies than the charts. She could have been Cassie P., or something similarly hyperpop. Instead she is Professor Polachek of the Mush Department, stealth candidate to take over as chair whenever Elizabeth Woolridge Grant gets sick of those administrative duties.

Caroline Rose — The Art Of Forgetting Like Ezra Furman, Caroline Rose found an ideal throwback sound and dropped it like a hot potato for reasons unclear. For Ezra, that sound was the yakety-yak saxophones and doo-wop vox of Perpetual Motion People. For Caroline, it was the Farfisa, the ninety-nine tears and roughneck Costellobeats of Loner. Ezra’s hybrid was an aural metaphor for the wobbliness of identity and retrievability of history. Caroline’s was impudence and sarcasm translated into soundwaves. Neither artist stopped being funny, but in both cases, humor fell into relative disfavor as a persuasive strategy. This is particularly problematic for Caroline, because when she wants to be, she’s one witty fucker. The mushrock set Art Of Forgetting isn’t a heavier album than Loner was, because Loner was fighting words directed at real challenges. But it is more grave, and in pop, as in astrophysics, people screw around with gravity at great risk. The theme here is memory and how it affects our ability to refashion ourselves, and while she’s smart about it, I’m afraid she ends this breakup album (gulp) deciding to love herself. The Caroline Rose who made Loner would never have let that happen. Even if it was (double gulp) true to experience.

Charlotte Cornfield — Could Have Done Anything I gotta think fans of Big Thief are enjoying this one. Charlotte’s gently interrogatory warble is not dissimilar to Adrianne Lenker’s, and she applies it to sharply written and carefully observed folk-rock originals. The melody to “Cut And Dry,” in particular, is a total winner, sturdy enough to bear a character sketch that makes the narrator’s desire and perplexity equally palpable. No howling Two Hands guitar solos, but we can’t have everything, can we? The real point of dissimilarity has more to do with disposition. Adrienne takes a broad view and puts all her interactions into a cosmic context, which suits the lofty ambitions and stoner grandeur of her barn band. Charlotte is more Great Plains modest. She has a propensity to put her love stories in the context of her own mental and physical health. That’s awfully reasonable given what we’ve all been through, but not too, you know, smokin’ hot. But maybe this is how healing needs to happen: incrementally, one conversation at a time, stitch by stitch, bringing friends back into the fold with walks and easygoing conversations, the slow loosening of the ties to unnecessary weights. Smiling when we can. Slowly, gently, laying the impossible burden down.

Cheo — Musica Para Verse Bien It was not so long ago that Jose Luis Pardo made genuinely exciting music with the rock combo Los Amigos Invisibles. Check out, among other records, Arepa 3000: a Venezuelan journey into space. On his own, he tries to strike the same balance between psychedelico tonto, humid tropicalía, and sentido del humor. It’s all fairly well played and sung, but the bubbles in this beachside spritz arrive curiously flat. You know what they say about the Caribbean sun. It’ll age you prematurely.

Chuck D — We Wreck Stadiums It’s no secret that Mistachuck always wanted to be a sportscaster. See my monograph: McCall, T., Marv Albert’s Influence On Hip-Hop, Volumes I. – VII. I always took Chuck as, primarily, a hoops fiend, but I guess he’s been to the diamond a few times, too. Most of these baseball rhymes started as ESPN promos, and they’ve got that athlete’s foot spray flavor about them. But Chuck’s enthusiasm is genuine, even if he can’t really rap anymore. He wins points from me for his interpolation of the TWIB theme, hyping Jon Miller, and standing up for the perennially underappreciated Ferguson Jenkins. And I love this succinct poetry about Dave Parker: “Power/personality/left hand swagger/top of the RBI ladder/another four bagger.” Guess that Pirates hat wasn’t just for show. I’ll even forgive him his apologia for Pete Rose. He probably identifies. He’s always been a bit of a Charlie Hustle himself. Best of luck with your retirement job, Chuck.

Cory Hanson — Western Cum For those who found Pale Horse Rider too diffuse and cosmic-American, this vigorous exercise in cock rock is your jismy antidote. Consider the title an act of mercy: Cory wants you to know that he’s going to be fingering his board for forty-five minutes, and that all this sliding and grabbing and twisting and bending is done with clear intent to spooge. This behavior is out of fashion in our gynophilic rock era, and I sure do know why. But hey, if it wasn’t for cocks, what sort of human race would this be? A non-existent one, I gather. Then we wouldn’t get any records at all. By design, we are up there onstage with sensitive vibrating sticks attached to our crotches. It’s part of the art we call classic rock. Denial of that is puritanical and silly. To my dirty mind, the ferocious onanism of Cory’s playing is fully justified by his undeniable skill as a soloist in the Uriah Heep style, his winking self-awareness (check out the videos), his gleeful rapport with the other members of the circle jerk he calls his band, and the pure weirdness of the apocalyptic storytelling. His dances with the reaper link him to Buck Dharma as surely as his tone does. Though in Cory’s case, I can’t say I don’t hear any fear.

Courtney Barnett — End Of The Day I’m sure I wrote that I’d listen to Courtney Barnett read the farm report. But the farm report has words. This does not. It’s a set of ambient guitar instrumentals. That’s an even worse thing to do to me than working with Kurt Vile was. It derives from the same impulse: even on her best projects, Courtney likes to switch on the fog machine. End Of The Day is fog and nothing but. For the hardest of hardcore completists only.

Crooks & Nannies — Real Life More pre-apocalyptica from the alt-pop operations center. Can you blame them? I sure can’t. This lot matches discordant images to bruised, unhurried folk-rock; one of the singers sounds like Adrienne Lenker, which is something I thought there’d be more of by now. I hear picked acoustic guitar and electric six-string saturated in turpentine, mumbled close harmonies, toy piano, lone fiddle, drones, spooky screamed voices, Western Philadelphia wind. You know how it comes in cold off the Schuylkill. In those row houses, relatives are dying. The drain is clogged and nasty stuff oozes out. Porchlight flickers and the rip in the upholstery worsens. Days are spent digging through garbage and climbing gravel piles. There’s a memory of disrobing in the kitchen at night; no sex, just a lot of running around. An eerie stanza that could well have come from Big Thief: “It’s flooding in the basement/and I’m trying to save my stuff/and I didnt realize/I had this much.” You never do until the water starts to rise.

Cut Worms — Cut Worms Nobody asked for a mushrock Marshall Crenshaw, but now that we’ve got him, we may as well make the most of him. Sonic choices aside, this chirping cricket with the grody band name is a practiced hand at turning a tune. He digs the early rock and Northern soul and a whole lot of sock hop nonsense for Ralph and Potsy. He also shares Marshall’s innocent bewilderment and vain quest for the cynical girl. All the vigorous nodding and waving at Brian Wilson and shameless raiding of the cutout bin pays off handsomely on “Let’s Go Out On The Town,” which absolutely could have been a hit in Abilene in 1965. Small stakes, sure, but that doesn’t mean the game is not worth playing. I also like the humble protest number “Take It And Smile,” the Belle & Sebastian-ish “Don’t Fade Out,” and “Too Bad,” a slow-dance closer that makes me smell the varnish on the floor of the high school gym. Only on “Is It Magic” does the flabby mush production overwhelm the classic melody. ’Course when Marshall Crenshaw revisited the ‘60s, his mom and dad were spry enough to cut a rug. It’s forty years later and we’re still out there with the same Big Bopper, still crashing in the same plane. Drove my Chevy to the levee, and wouldn’t you know, there’s still plenty left in the levee. Reports of its dryness were greatly overstated.

Danny Brown & JPEGMafia — Scaring The Hoes, Vol. 1. Others have pointed it out, so I will too. Danny delivered some amazing rhymes on the Billy Woods & Kenny Segal album: funny, loose, relaxed loopy, deeply human, everything that drew us to him in the first place. It’s his best verse in years, and it prompts an obvious question. Where the heck has that guy been? Because he ain’t here. That’s not to say that Danny isn’t adept on Scaring The Hoes, because he is, and it isn’t to say that he misplaces his irreverence for a moment, because he doesn’t. But Danny rhyming over a Kenny Segal beat highlights the folly of matching him with a spazz like JPEGMafia. He doesn’t need to compete with thirty thousand clattering beats a minute plus computer feedback and rock guitar plus noisy sped-up samples. Density is doing him no favors. He needs an empathetic producer who understands narrative, and who’ll give him plenty of space to unwind and tell his stories. I recognize that Danny’s association with chopped-up electronic sound tethers him to the Detroit techno that is his by birthright. When he rides a berserk and blippy rhythm like he does on “Fentanyl Tester,” it probably feels like coming home. But music like this forces him to fight so hard that by the time he gets to the microphone, all he’s got left to project is his famous zaniness. He’s at his best on tracks like “Orange Juice Jones,” where the rhythm slows down and there’s space to express some of the other sides of his personality. Because as much as he sounds like a cartoon refugee, he thinks in three dimensions. Consider, for instance:

Danny Brown — Quaranta A pirate looks at forty. And while the Adderall Admiral outranks Captain Jimmy Buffett, the observations from the choppy seas of their own lives aren’t too different. Were the years dedicated to pharmaceutical adventures and merry pranksterism worth the cost? Maybe, they decide. One guy drugging himself up to face his girlfriend and the other at the beach bar, petting his parrot. Here, Danny matches his midlife storytelling to the most wistful beats he’s ever graced, including a five song stretch to close the set that might be the prettiest music released this year. Maybe it’s even… wholesome? Wouldn’t you know it, Black Milk didn’t even have anything to do with it. The album culminates in a burst of reflective radiance — a reminiscence about listening to records with his mom — that would be brutally nostalgic if it wasn’t so soulful. Pleased I am to report that Danny is rapping in his grown-man voice here, the one burdened with the full weight of Detroit trauma. He does throw a couple of smurfed-out numbers on here to maintain the brand, but for once his heart isn’t in his acts of annoyance. Those who demand lunacy from this goblin can turn to that radioactive guest shot on the Billy Woods album. The rest of us can spin this one and feel vindicated.

Dengue Fever — Teng Mong Now here’s an odd bite of duck laab: five psych-rock guys from Los Angeles plus one legit Southeast Asian pop singer. Chhom Nimol was a star, or semi-star, in Phnom Penh before coming to the United States, and you can see why. Her intonation is outstanding. Chhom’s phrasing and flourishes are indebted to a folk tradition, and in a way, the band’s are, too. They’re aware of the Cambodian surf-rock and party-rock movement that was rudely extinguished when the Khmer Rouge took power (see Gray, Spalding, et. al.), but the California sun is their guide. Much of the music on Teng Mong is just American college rock played as any American college rock band would play it. When Chhnom graces their mixes with her fluttery, note-bendy vox, there’s no dissonance. But there’s still a lingering sense that she’s being wasted — and when the guys start to sing, hoo boy.

Dierks Bentley — Gravel & Gold We’re now deep in the reiterative phase of Dierks’s run. That’s better than the geriatric phase, but it’s still rough on a cowpoke. He’s not fighting it: the first song on his umpteenth set is called “Same Old Me,” and yep, it’s as advertised. He reminisces about teenage love and frets about the accommodations at his funeral (there must be beer). He’s not thinking about ending things, though. He’s just being realistic, and conserving his energy. Now pushing fifty, Dierks cannot hope to match Luke Combs or Morgan Wallen twang for twang. Instead he gets over on sincerity and avuncular appeal, and his distinctive combination of respect for the Music City verities and courteous departures from them. That makes him the rare country singer who can lodge a gentle protest at the superficiality of bro country and turn around and rhapsodize about cowboy boots with no dissonance at all. When he pledges his eternal allegiance to Colorado, it does indeed sound like he’s Rocky Mountain high.

Drayton Farley — Twenty On High Talent scouts in Music City know what they’re doing. Somebody looked at a gawky girl from Pennsylvania with a put-on accent and saw Taylor Swift. I could not have done it. Neither could the purists at Saving Country Music, who are constantly trying to convince us that the machine elevates the unworthy at the expense of foursquare, Isbellish Americana artists like Drayton Farley. What they really mean is that they believe star quality is incommensurate with true country, and thus Drayton, who has no star quality whatsoever, is therefore qualified to be a country star. Pretty dim, guys, especially since Drayton is doing the same thing that bro country stars are. He’s just doing it blandly. No glamour or excitement can attach to it. This pleases those who believe glamour and excitement are a Communist plot. There are a lot of them. I believe we used to call them Puritans. They’re entitled to their own art — even though they’re notoriously bad at art. They’re free to moan about the aesthetic choices of their libertine neighbors. But we’re not required to listen.

Drake — For All The Dogs Whoah there, Aubrey. Easy on the dad jokes. Hanging in the summer like a coat. Get you coming out your shell like a yolk. So many checks owed he’s Check-owe-slovakian; thank you thank you, he’ll be here all week. Geographically anachronistic and corny, too, that’s your modern Drake. He does continue to refine and economize his epigrammatic puns and pop culture references: “silence in the Lam like a horror film,” that’s a succinct encapsulation of the experience of fighting with your girlfriend in a luxury car. Opulent surroundings, all-too-common dreadful feelings. The critical consensus on Dogs is that it exhibits signs of the star’s weariness with his own shit, which, TBH, has been what critics have been saying since Views. It was wishcasting then and it’s wishcasting now. I hear no evidence whatsoever that he intends to ease off the spigot any time soon. Thick, ribbon-wrapped tranches of letters from the Drake dead letter office, smelling of cigar smoke and tears, will continue to land on our desks. What’s changed is the track-to-track persistence of the misogyny. Drake has decided that what the dogs want is extra he-man woman-hating, and he may well be right about that. You’d think that culture and perspective, not to mention bazillions of dollars in sales, might have mellowed him like a glass of Henny. But no. Instead we get a litany of invective, petty complaints, and bad boyfriend self-justification. It’s wearisome. Drake is determined to invert Elvis Costello’s trajectory by traveling from battered but equanimous love man to vicious incel. Far be it from me to question the marketing judgment of a megastar and major artist, but I am left wondering who the fuck this new record is for. Yes, the dogs, we are told. But not good old fashioned fetch-a- stick dogs. Not police dogs. Not attack dogs. Maybe the kind of dogs who yap all night. Dogs who hump your leg and look angry about it. Eventually they pee on the carpet.

Durand Jones — Wait Til I Get Over This queer black soul singer is a good guy. I am sure the emotions he felt upon returning to small town Louisiana were volcanic, and salient to his struggle. But I access none of them here, and that’s his fault, not mine. Durand’s attempt to tell a personal story is torpedoed by his overreliance on universalist language; i.e., R&B cliché. A transformative reunion with one’s roots ought to prompt marks on the page in your own handwriting, don’t you think? You can’t rely on the internet lore to establish the context in which your writing will be received. Your lore is not your album. Even “A Letter To My Seventeen Year Old Self” is larded with shopworn phrases: fools rush in, he’s trying to understand this thing called life, he can’t break loose, etcetera. If you take the time to drop a line to a past version of yourself and you don’t even have the courtesy to say who won the World Series the next season, you’re not reaching across the years with any compassion or ingenuity, or interest in history.

Dutch Uncles — True Entertainment It’s always worth checking in on the Uncles for the bass player alone. Though it strikes me that Robin Richards is not playing quite as vigorously on this one as he did on O Shudder and Big Balloon. Time, the thief of all things, including low end rumble. In general, Dutch Uncles number six doesn’t ascend to Level 42 quite as effortlessly as past albums did, though it certainly has its moments, including an Anna Prior sighting on “Tropigala (2 to 5).” Lucidity remains an issue: for the second set in a row, I struggle to understand what the heck Justin Wallis is singing about. He seems to find himself delightfully droll, though. He should let the rest of us in on the joke more often.

El Michels Affair & Black Thought — Glorious Games Wait — did he just say “if you can’t see the poetry, you are the poem?” That’s… that’s beautiful. I don’t even know if I believe it, but it sure gave me the chills. It’s so much better than saying if you can’t see the poetry, you are a lousy Philistine. Which I am sure Tariq has been tempted to think from time to time; he’s never been Mister Lowest Common Denominator. Maybe if you can’t see the poetry, he wouldn’t have the time of day for you. But he is speaking to and for his fellow Philadelphians, some of them ground down by circumstance and hard knocks, reeling, too busy making it from moment to moment to appreciate the aesthetics. Tariq sees the nobility in the struggle. As he approaches fifty, we can say with honesty that he never stopped behaving like the most profound poem was the kid on the corner — Redford Stephens from Undun, to give one example — and he was merely the amanuensis, getting it down on wax. He’s the relayer, as Jon Anderson might put it. Humility in hip-hop is usually bullshit: it exists, but it sits funny next to slamming beats. Very few emcees can pull it off. Tariq, with his stories of his grandma scrubbing the hall with Pine-Sol, Uber Eats drivers trying to escape gang culture, climbing to the pinnacle only to meet suspicion and his own devastating self-doubt, is the rare rapper who does. I like Questlove a lot; he’s a hip-hop true believer of the best kind. Kamal, Rahzel, even Scott Storch, they all made their contributions. But the story of the Roots begins and ends with Tariq Trotter. Without him, they’re the Saturday Night Live band.

Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra — Racing The Storm Armed with an orchestra, Emiliana and company exhibit their mastery of plinks and plonks. Should you be a plink or a plonk connoisseur, I might even call these pizzicato-prodded pee-pee pieces required listening. I don’t mean to be reductive. There are some klinks and klonks here, too. Delicate pitter patter on the xylophone, glassy what-is-its, girly hand-clapping games, and the strange inverse egotism of using an orchestra to sound small, all of that. God help Emiliana, she probably thinks it’s cinematic. She’s from Iceland — she doesn’t know any better. Events up there move at a glacial pace. For those people, rain pattering on a damsel’s headscarf is enough to make a movie out of. Or a sheep, leaning across a fence fetchingly, waiting to be kissed. Art house stuff, in other words. They do not understand, as we do, that in order to make filmed entertainment, it is necessary for Liam Neeson to blow up a large edifice. Then he must jump toward the camera with the explosion behind him. This record wouldn’t get Liam an inch off the ground. Now he is burning to death and it is all Emiliana’s fault.

Eversame — Tell Me Where The Flowers Are As the mush explosion spreads out in a great mush-room cloud, it contaminates all genres and all styles and seduces all kinds of musicians who might be a bit, er, slippery about intonation and composition. There’s been quite a lot of mushrock-emo crossover in the past few years, and much of it has been vaguely likeable if somewhat forgettable: Parannoul, for instance, or Asian Glow. The guitar arrangements on the Eversame album suggest a working knowledge of American Football and standard shoegaze; it’s mostly aspirational for these Slovakian kids, but heck, you’ve got to shoot for something. You might as well synthesize the styles you like. You might recall that Rachel Goswell of Slowdive appeared on that last American Football album, right after the track that featured Hayley Williams. Eversame noticed: that’s them on YouTube with their MCR hair dye, performing an acoustic cover of some My Bloody Valentine song or another. Mind you, I’m not telling you to look at it. I don’t want to throw discord into your day. I’m just making a point.

Everything But The Girl — Fuse This is one of those acts that I’ve never really gotten. I’ll entertain the possibility that the problem is me. I’m also open to the idea that the problem is everybody else. EBTG is allegedly a club act but they’ve never inspired me to dance. Their music is basically soft rock plus wub wub noises and machine beats and synths that sound like they came from a groove box that somebody bought in Ibiza for fifty quid. Tracy Thorn is a competent singer in the throaty Moyet style, but she never has anything interesting to say. “Do away with cruelty/do away with pain/do away with scheming,” that’s what she’s got for us. Sounds good, Tracey. You first.

Far Caspian — The Last Remaining Light Okay, it is time for me to gather speed and start rippin’ like former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien. With a name like that you’d figure he’d have done better than he did. Dude threw some interceptions, IIRC. You’re not gonna listen to this album anyway, so I might as well make an ass of myself en route to the longer entries below. Far Caspian is an Irish mushrock project stewarded by a talented guy who can do an awful lot with his guitar, though I am never quite sure why he’s doing any of it. Beauty, I am told; beauty is the reason these bashful fellows gaze at their shoes. But are shoes really so beautiful? Debbie Reynolds had some smart ones on in Singing In The Rain. I’d gaze at those. These not so much. Murmured vocals suggestive of Kevin Shields slowly drowning in vegetable syrup do not help. Gauzy, floaty, extremely forgetty.

Fatoumata Diawara — London Ko There are two ways Fatoumata’s producers can go with their talented client. They can keep her in the Malian desert by doubling down on the hermetic quality of Fatou. Or they can open up her sound by introducing elements from a contemporary pop world that could sure use some invigoration from an artist like Fatoumata. Take that scummy little Western horizon and broaden it with both hands. On Fenfo, they opened the door a crack; on London Ko, they kick it in all the way. The sole on the shoe belongs to Damon Albarn, noted Afrophile and pop buttinsky, who co-wrote a bunch of these tracks and adds his cheeseburger synths and depressive croak to “Nsera.” Fatoumata champions Pan-Africanism and decries genital mutilation; Damon, pulled into self-absorption by the elemental quality of the motherland, wonders aloud if his rootless European ass even exists. Others are invited to the party, including a Cuban pianist and a West African rapper. All these cross-cultural handshakes are snug, and it’s all nicely played and presented. But I can’t help but notice that Fatoumata is still at her best when it’s mostly just her and her guitar and there’s minimal interference from Damon and the Putumayo crew. Those of us who love Fatou will probably experience these talented collaborators as intruders in a reverie, shatterers of a shimmering heat-mirage who’ve arrived on the sand dunes with industrial cooling equipment. Were I Fatoumata, I wouldn’t want to be confined to the folkways circuit either. Also, were I Fatoumata, I’d be much better looking. So it’s hard not to want to be. I reckon Damon feels the same way.

Gabrielle Aplin — Phosphorescent Here’s a neat surprise: an unapologetic middle-of-the-road pop record in the old-fashioned Lilith Fair style. Mush elements abound, but it’s not pure mushrock. Lots of piano, big round bass, some unobtrusive club beats, and consistently effective singing from the principal; words lovelorn, charming, and often horny-romantic if not horny-get your rocks off. This is not what I expected from Gabrielle, who has spent most of her time since English Rain tripping over her shoelaces. Suddenly every shot she takes goes swish in the bucket: the tasty fake soul on “Anyway,” the remix-me-please lite-EDM moves on “Never Be The Same,” the one hand on her crotch howling on the chorus of “Call Me,” the rambling Joni wannabe stuff on “Mariana Trench.” It’s even forgivable when she tells us that the river carries her. There’s not a surprise to be had here, but that’s no hanging offense when the marks are hit this squarely. There’s no single. But it’s not like A Fine Frenzy ever had a hit. At times Phosphorescent even reminds me (God help me, I’m gonna say it) of Brooke Fraser. High quality pre-mom rock for high quality pre-moms.

Genevieve Artadi — Forever Forever Interesting, musically sophisticated psych-pop project from a singer and songwriter with roots in the Los Angeles jazz scene. You can guess her address from the harmonies she digs and the Thundercatty growl of the bass. Many of these songs are platforms for one instrumentalist or another to blow — sometimes the synth guy, who brings out those motion-heavy Innervisions-style sounds, and the guitar player, who approaches his leads like he arrived at the ECM showcase forty years too late. As for Genevieve herself, her plaintive purr conceals reserves of vocal elasticity, and she leaps around these difficult intervals like Super Mario pops from platform to platform. Yet as is often the case with music derived from jazz, I often wonder if she’s leading the chords or if the chord progressions are boxing her into counterintuitive melodic decisions. These aren’t tunes designed to be sung back or even remembered, and while there’s logic to them, from a distance, they sound like the vocal equivalent of setting an arpeggiator on the random setting. By the end of the set — hell, midway through the set — it’s tough not to get unmoored. It adds up to the sort of album that sounds really good whenever you drop the needle, but resolves into a slurry of notes after thirty minutes of uninterrupted listening.

Gracie Abrams — Good Riddance To the mushmanor born is this child of the director of the final and most horrendous Star Wars movie. A few of these exercises in reverb supersaturation called by their creators “songs” are fairly enjoyable, so in the coherence department, that puts her miles beyond her dad. Let it not be said that we cannot transcend the starcruiser sins of our fathers, provided we can procure sonic supervision from Aaron Dessner. Gracie demonstrates a better-than-working knowledge of Folklore if not folklore, and she juuuuuust might have heard the first Olivia Rodrigo album a time or two. But the main influence here is Phoebe Bridgers, shamelessly, hilariously so, right down to diction, inflection, and Californian-fatalistic attitude. Just like everybody else making a living at Phoebe-imitation, Gracie cannot begin to write lyrics like her hero can. But she puts her head down and tries anyway. “I’m a roller coaster/you’re a dead- end street” is about what she’s got for you. Mixed metaphors and awkward tales of magical lesbians do serve to humanize Gracie a bit, and that’s important, because the musical composition arrives with the chilly touch of predictive text. So as pleasant as this album is, I have to admit I’m glad that it didn’t become a smash. We don’t want to send the wrong message. Mastication and amalgamation of prior hits is and always will be an important part of pop. But every now and then we need a forceful reminder that originality is real and indispensable. Without it, the computers won’t know what, or how, to aggregate. I suspect Aaron Dessner won’t, ether.

Graham Parker & The Goldtops — Last Chance To Learn The Twist I appreciate it when Grandpa Graham follows the one that expresses genuine concern for Pablo Escobar’s hippopotami with one extolling the transportive virtues of doobage. No stodgy prohibitionist is he. I also enjoyed his reflections on dendrochronology, flooding in Pakistan, and what to do on the Fourth of July when the mosquitos come out. “They bit me on the ankles! They bit me on the hip! They bit me in the places you should never get bit!” Oh Graham. Never more animated than when lodging a protest of things he cannot personally affect. Kvetching, I think we call it. Those carrying Graham Parker/pub rock scorecards should mark down that Martin Belmont of the Rumour is back in the gang, as is Geraint Watkins of the Nick Lowe band. This is like listening to your grandpa at the pinochle table, shooting the shit with your favorite uncles on a late-summer night.

Greg Mendez — Greg Mendez This appealingly understated and decidedly downcast singer-songwriter comes to you from a dark bedroom somewhere in the entrails of Philly. Mendez takes the most self-flagellating elements of acoustic emo and the basement poetry of Elliott Smith, lets it all bleed together in the wash, and then tries picking up girls with it?, really, Greg? That’s not likely to work. Luckily his songwriting is sturdier than his game. I’m the first one to caution listeners never to confuse the writer with the narrator, but in this case, I wonder if he wishes it was the other way around.

Gum — Saturnia How strange it must be to be Kevin Parker. Pop producers worldwide mimic the goofy experimental stuff he did in his bedroom in Perth, long ago. Everybody wants his EQ settings. Everybody is compressing the drums and busting out the fuzz and suboctave pedals. At least Jay Watson of Gum has a good excuse: he’s actually recorded and toured with Tame Impala. His snare stutter and moon bounce bass come straight from the master. Thus this mushadelica album with mild prog touches and obvious nods to “Femme D’Argent” makes a decent mindless holdover while we’re waiting for Parker’s next move. Headphone jockeys who enjoy marijuana ought to find plenty here to zone out to. Yet as an individual with no taste for edibles, I must say that I find his Fridmannesque tendency to saturate the sonic spectrum a grotesque overcompensation for the emptiness of the sentiment. Because there’s one thing that everybody forgets about Tame Impala, including, I guess, people who are actually in Tame Impala: the words are really good. Really important to the songs, too. Maybe somebody ought to imitate that.

Hack-Poets Guild — Blackletter Garland Heralds have brought news the shire. Should ye seek to create British folk-rock, ‘tis well advised to obtain yerself a Waterson. As Lal and Mike are, alas, defunct, it’s necessary to turn to a newer (but no more cheerful) model. Hack-Poets Guild marries Marry Waterson to fellow limey folksingers Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann for a set of suitably grim numbers, many of which, in accordance with long British Isles tradition, contain ghosts or evil spirits or dead bodies or, worst of all, mothers. Richard Thompson is nodding in recognition, isn’t he. The two non-Watersons prove to be just as adept at handling this depraved stuff as the Waterson is. Also I can’t tell which of these numbers are newly minted and which date back to the Jacobite era, and I consider myself a devoted follower of this style. Anyway, I’d call this a jaunty good time if the songs weren’t quite so menacing and morbid. There’s one where the Devil goes around convincing otherwise happy people to commit suicide, and another describing the flagellation of the working women of a textile mill, and another, sung through ye olde digital voice processing, that reminds us that we’re meat for worms. “O clot of brittle clay,” they call me. I know, guys, I know. I heard the Watersons the first time around.

Haken — Fauna Allow me to describe to you goons the experience you will have when you set aside the mushrock and dedicate yourself to the new Haken album:

  • Track 1: This sounds like Tool in wannabe Crimson mode. Is this what they mean by djent? Who cares? Hard pass.
  • Track 2 (if you do not pass): This is, undeniably, an attempt to create a post-Radiohead prog epic. It’s accomplished, but I don’t know if it’s likeable. Also, the singer is a blowhard.
  • Track 3: …oookay, well, this is getting pretty good. These guys have a ton of musical ideas, and they aren’t repeating themselves. I suppose I should pay closer attention to this.
  • Tracks 5 & 6: TTTTTTTTTTT
  • Track 7: Wait, are they singing about spiders ripping each other’s heads off and eating each other? (They are.)
  • Track 8: This sounds like P.T. Barnum fronting Gentle Giant. But I have been sucked past the Haken event horizon and cannot turn it off, or even down.
  • Track 9: This is, undeniably, an attempt to create a post-Radiohead prog epic, and they have succeeded in that attempt. Also, I am exhausted. Water. I need water.

Enjoy the ride, friends.

Hardy — The Mockingbird & The Crow This is getting lumped in with Morgan Wallen and I do know why. Hardy co-wrote some of stoopider chain-yankers on One Thing At A Time, including the unspeakably inane one about beer in the Bible. Seriously, I just lost ten points of IQ from listening to that song. Morgan’s work is suffused with lost-cause energy and dirt road resentment. Hardy, on the other hand, is a hick triumphalist — when he tells us he’s podunk proud, he sure as hell means it, even if his idea of what it means to be a rural American derives from repeat viewings of Duck Dynasty. Hardy tells his treacly but vicious parables with absolute confidence, like a homicidal Harry Chapin, and proceeds on the assumption that his popularity ratifies his approach. As a reasonable human being, you’ll probably blanch at “Wait In The Truck,” a song in which the narrator executes a home invasion and murders a random domestic abuser he doesn’t know at all. “Truck” lays the algorithm at the base of all those country revenge songs bare: the singer has weaponry, he’s itching to use it against human beings, and he’ll do so on whatever pretext he can drum up. He’s gonna kill shit till he dies, as he makes crystal clear on the prepper anthem “Kill Shit Till I Die.” If his petulant girlfriend steals his rifle, no sweat, he’s got plenty more to spare. Morgan’s true love is the bottle; Hardy’s is the bullet. This guy thinks it’s a right jolly thing to funnel images of deer carcasses into your Instagram feed. Ugh. Sounds like trouble, right? So why do I have time for this? Well, for starters, Hardy is a genuine lyricist. That’s not to say that Hardy’s lyrics are particularly good or poetic, although sometimes they are. What it means is that the project involves the strategic use of words to advance his ideas — even his musical ones — and Hardy, a verbal tactician, pursues novel ways to express himself through language. He believes it’s the stinging line, not the power chord, that puts the muscle in his punch. This is rarer than you’d think it’d be. Many musical artists write strong lyrics without contemplating what they’re doing. It’s one thing to turn a phrase, and quite another to study the mechanics of that turn. Writerly self-consciousness penetrates all of Hardy’s records, even as he tries to convince you that he’s an inbred coot covered in dip spit (actual lyric; not my exaggeration). How you know this is a words- and character-first project: the mid-album pivot from vigorous boilerplate country to Puddle Of Mudd-style hard rock sludge and throwback nu-metal barely affects the storytelling approach. The genre switch-up becomes an instantiation of the theme: Hardy feels verbally stifled by those who insist on politeness, and thus he’s going to cast around for as many ways to be vulgar as he can find. You may have noticed that millions of Americans feel similarly misused. With another bruiser of an election year on the horizon, I think it behooves us to take their poet seriously. Hardy’s outlook on the culture industry collides most violently with the political subtext on “Radio Song,” in which a heavy metal yowler interrupts a letter-perfect machine-country chorus with profanities. It’s like redneck Dr. Demento. The seething contempt with which Hardy delivers the hook is part of the critique: he lets you know that as masterfully as he can follow the rules, he’s doing it all under duress. The truck and the beer and the moonlight, see, are repeated tropes in bro country not because the bros have no imagination, but because the censorious authorities won’t let them sing about what they really want to sing about. Institutional control has been suppressing the voices of the people. All the hollering is the clatter of the lid as it pops off the pressure cooker and falls to the floor. How noxious is the steam filling the air in the kitchen? Guess we’ll see soon enough.

Hataałii — Singing Into Darkness Interesting albeit uneven project. Hataałii is a Navajo singer-songwriter with a moody delivery and an Echo And The Bunnymen drawl. He intones his sketchlike poetry over spare Velvet Underground beats, cymbal hits that linger for days, and the occasional bird call. Echo is used strategically to imply desert vastness; the desert at night, mind you, when it gets very cold and hungry animals stalk the sand just past the protective circle of the campfire. Lyrics are mostly on brand, too: discussion of Highway 66 and the piñons, strange happenings in Tucson, Athabasca foaming beside the plains, politics, mercy, dried cantaloupe rinds under the dark pines. One Stonesy groove becomes a distraught sex fantasy involving a politician and a steel truck on hay day. How much of this is specific to the experience of life on the reservation and the towns nearby? Quite a bit of it, probably, which is why I wish that more of these fragments and vamps cohered into memorable songs. As it is, this feels more like a mood piece with provocative lyrics than the spooky storytelling set that Hataałii was shooting for. Also, the lead guitar playing on this set might generously be called aimless noodling. Though it might be more accurate to call it sabotage.

Homeboy Sandman — Rich A question for this fearless freethinker who doubts the germ and the journalists who are, and I quote, selling the scoop. Where the fuck was he in spring 2020? Where was he when there were sirens on the street every night and the hospital halls and waiting rooms were full of gurneys? Did he miss that? I can almost tolerate this callous irreverence from a country boy who didn’t have to face the pointy end of the spike protein until it mutated. From a New Yorker, it’s borderline treason. Other rappers want you to know about their cars and their cash. Angel Del Villar boasts about being the one who never got the shot and never got infected. But wait a second: how does he know? The scariest thing about the early days of the crisis was that much of the spread was asymptomatic. Without even knowing it, Angel might have been the typhoid emcee. On the mic, spitting wicked pathogens, straight from the motormouth of a man so awash in first-world perspectives that he mistakes his choice of breakfast cereal for a political statement. Boy Sand’s self-congratulations at avoiding the fate of the sheeple are so continuous, and, to be frank, so odious that it’s easy to miss his best flows and best production since Dusty. It’s also — and this has been going on for a few album cycles now — very, very frustrating to see him fail to connect the smugness and social obliviousness he’s been cultivating to his romantic problems. His girlfriend just might want something more than galaxy brain observations, avocado toast and mingling farts. But how do you cohabitate, or even communicate, with a guy with no room in his heart for any hero but himself?

Home Is Where — The Whaler Speaking of old yellers, here’s Brandon MacDonald, shouting her head off about tapeworms and whatnot. She’s trying to drive off those who don’t understand the fifth wave, and apostates who don’t understand that emo means all of the emotions, even the ugly ones. Well, fat chance of that, Brandon, because this thing is great — a full realization of the explosive ideas introduced on the I Became Birds mini-album, and complete justification of the Neutral Milk Hotelier sobriquet that some Internet wag hung on this outfit. The regurgitave screams underscore the theme: how fast human beings become inured to disaster. Brandon suspects that the apocalypse is in progress, but we’re all too desensitized by constant trauma to realize what’s happening; “the end of the world is taking forever,” she groans, exasperated as an applicant at the DMV. C’mon, just get on with it. Don’t make us live in an endless 9/12, back to work the next day, down in a hole with blinders on, pretending that there’s something constructive to do with all this ash. Like Wednesday, Home Is Where grounds this music in the American heartland experience via pedal steel, quivering musical saw, saloon piano, and even a little Counting Crows harmonica. And for a rage-over-pitch vocalist who credits herself in the liner notes with “tantrum,” she comes up with some pretty snappy tunes now and then. The singer’s campaign is abetted by the pitch-perfect emo twinkle of guitarist Tilley Komorny, who, like Brandon and countless others, is a MTF transgender person who has been driven out of Florida by the actions of radical killjoys. I ain’t got no home in this world anymore, vol. 4080.

Hot Mulligan — Why Would I Watch The rougher edge of contemporary emo, tight, tuneful and aggressive. Hot Mulligan provides springy six-string scrawl and lead vox suggestive of Soupy Campbell with his toe in a rat trap. Fast tempos, plenty of screaming, mathy guitar intros that soon get swallowed by thicker overdriven leads, muscular drumming, an acoustic elegy for a dead pet, and, on the first section of “This Song Is Called It’s Called What It’s Called,” the year’s most convincing American Football fake. They know their way around the playground. If you are listening to this, I bet you do too. You are in the parking lot of Giants Stadium for the 2006 Bamboozle. Heat is coming up from the tarmac and forlorn looking boys are wearing T-shirts advertising free hugs. Someone has spilled Fanta all over your sneakers. You are trying to see Taking Back Sunday but the guy in front of you keeps bopping you with his backpack. When you tap him on his shoulder, he turns around, and for a moment, you think he’s going to slug you. Then he starts to cry.

Husbands — Cuatro Professionally discharged mushrock from echo junkies who try to get their vocal stacks to create the excitement and wonder that ought to be generated by the melodies. That didn’t work for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and it doesn’t really work here, either. This is what used to be called corporate rock: smoothed out, harmonically redundant, highly predictable music in a contemporary style, lyrically neutered, safe as a toddler seat in the back of an SUV. It’s parked on a cul-de-sac, but not the one where Karly Hartzmann is doing it. Oh, and guys, if you’re going to start a song with a Steely Dan groove, you owe us more than two chords.

Indigo De Souza — All Of This Will End As taken aback as I was at first to discover that Indigo misplaced the stormy rock sound that made Any Shape You Take such a nostril-clearing experience, I found myself adjusting to the new synth-driven reality awfully quickly. That’s what happens when you’ve got focus, and focus is something that Indigo possesses in spades. Many of these newies clock in right around the two minute mark, and they sink their teeth into your arm and hang on no matter how hard you shake. I still don’t care for Indigo’s masochistic relationship to relationships — “you came to hurt me in all the right places”, indeed — but at least she’s not asking to have her brains fucked out until they ooze all over the floor anymore. It turns out Indigo wants to live!, who would have guessed? She remains as flatfooted as pop writers come: “I eat too much when I’m nervous,” “I’d like to think you’ve got a good heart and your dad was just an asshole,” “I’m talking to God or something,” other such prosaic confessions. She will never win the poetry slam. But she compensates by exuding personality with every line, and that turns out to be way better than poetry. Especially when you can sing like Indigo can: bombastic and brash one minute, peevish the next, and elemental enough to be amazed by the elements (water in particular). And when she complains about the deadening effects of her job at the co-op, she puts you right there in the parking lot, exhaustion pressing on the vinyl of the car, and the supervisor’s face glowering from the other side of the grocery plate glass.

Jake Borgemenke — Drinks The stoned acoustica. Jake strums his way through some charming, ponderous lo-fi, with nothing strained, nothing premeditated, everything unserious, easygoing and scarfable as a crusty pot brownie. Jake gives the impression that he’s making it up as he goes along: you’re trapped in a stuffy suburban basement with an unshaven guy who is hi as fuck, and singing such shit as “my alien girlfriend/her skin is green/she has a big ole head/not sure what she said/but her love is all I need.” It’s the sonic equivalent of rubbing your eyes after waking up. The one you’re really looking for is Subliminal Clave with Joey Joesph.

Jake Borgemenke & Joey Joesph — Subliminal Clave That’s not a typo: that’s how Joey spells his last name. Maybe he’s just screwing with us. He seems the prankster sort. Like Jake, Joey sings in an elf voice over mid-fi, mid-tempo pop-rock songs crammed with percussion, faux horns, doo-wop backing vocals, taped interjections, and occasional applause. Great piano sounds, too. At times this feels more Zappa than Animal Collective, though the ramshackle spirit of ‘00s psychedelia is one of the animating spirits of this delightfully zonked set. Ideas recur, sounds overlap, songs fade out and roar back in, instruments drift out of tune and out of time like they would on an old record player winding down, and then suddenly speed back up with the twist of fingers on a knob. Maybe this was done on a computer, but everything about Subliminal Clave feels like four-track tape and rusty pedals, creatively positioned microphones and vintage outboard gear. The album concludes with “Breezy Sunday Morning,” a ten minute epic with a caveman beat, guitar growl, ‘70s computer-demo synthesizer plinks, plenty of hiss and spit, and a remarkable expression of stoner confusion. Joey (or is it Jake?) wakes up on the sofa with the cat on his lap. He’s lost track of the time and he can’t find his marijuana. His hair is greasy and the sun is hot. These Cincinnati weedheads manage to make you feel every ray.

Jana Horn — The Window Is The Dream Jana is a poet and, more importantly, a Charlottesville girl. Therefore I feel I can speak frankly, and press questions that I wouldn’t bother putting to a typical indie showbizzer in Brooklyn. For instance, what prevents this faun from stopping and nosing into those windows that intrigue her so? Fear of the unknown? Fear of discovery, or of recognition? What if she saw a cutie? Does she hang out at home, fretting, to paraphrase Pusha T, over what she shoulda did? The text is not clear. Later she tells us that the last thing she wants is not to float herself into the bath of existence. Tangled verbiage and double negatives aside, it seems to me there’s an easy solution. Saddle up your inner tube, your rubber ducky, and get floating. Ain’t no one stopping you but you, Jana. You and the hesitancy that infects every corner of this polite, timid, and tune-shy project. Remember, there is a place for tentativeness in pop, and that place is the remainder bin.

Jamila Woods — Water Made Us Love is the warmest weather, Jamila says. Maybe it was a bitter February in Chicago when this singing poet wrote those words. Even so, for an artist who has always led with her meticulous diction, it seems a little inexact. In the warmest weather, the human body doesn’t want to be snuggled. We can appreciate the way skin and hair glistens, or how sun highlights our curves, but it’s the nip of the wind that gets us most inclined to be cozy. Perhaps Jamila is being honest in spite of herself, and perhaps she’s giving the game away. Because much of this set is about her fickleness, her moodiness and frequent desire for distance, and her itch for more than one lover at once. You can tell she worries she’s infuriating her addressee. Turns out she’s a heck of a lot surer of herself when she’s talking about legends of African American history or exploring the arcane dimensions of Black Girl Magic than she is when she’s insisting on her own sexual prerogatives. It wouldn’t matter at all if this was a Beyoncé or Jenny Lewis album, but Jamila is a limited singer. For her records to get over, the poetry needs to be top drawer: clear, subtle, forceful, resonant, internally consistent. Most of it is. But some of it isn’t. The slight but noticeable slippage in the lyrics department can be partially attributed to the artist’s newfound interest in scrying and mysticism and other hippie business. She’s compensated for that with music that’s a teeny bit hookier than usual, plus guest shots by Saba and Duendita and Social Experiment alumni. She also directs some entreaties for patience our way. When the artist is cookie sweet, that’s not hard to give. But she doesn’t need to apologize for anything. She’s Jamila Woods. Sojourner was a freedom fighter and she taught her how to fight. She once told us that she tenderly fills her enemies with white light. So what if she tenderly fills her boyfriends with blue balls.

Janelle Monáe — The Age Of Pleasure Then there’s Janelle, who has, in fifteen years, gone from interstellar civilizations and time-traveling androids in the twenty-fifth century to “hands around my waist so you know what’s coming next/I just wanna feel a little tongue.” Sure got my attention. Janelle isn’t the first popular singer to strip away the narrative superstructure to get right down to the more combustible stuff at the core of her artistry, and it’s not like those bright bisexual colors weren’t always visible between the towers of her space metropolis. Given her initial pretensions, the enthusiasm with which she fallen into an interorgasmic stupor is a bit surprising, if not necessarily unwelcome. Janelle and her collaborators pant, float, and waterslide straight through this one, grinding and sweating and squelching, and finding the most inappropriate places to drop in some SpottieOttieDopalicious horns. I do think it’s a wee bit problematic that she’s matched her swan dive into retardation to a soundtrack filled with Afrobeats. She might think that’s her birthright, or her Hollywood-given prerogative as one of the Hidden Figures. To me, it’s no different than any other (white) intellectual turning to jazz saxophone and mandingo cliché to score a sex scene. Guess we all pop the Viagra we need.

Jenny Conlee — Tides: Pieces For Accordion And Piano I have a special place in my heart for Jenny Conlee because she was well on her way to becoming one of the distinctive organ and synth stylists of the century before her trajectory was interrupted by cancer. She seems to be okay now (fingers crossed so hard) and she’s made quality contributions to Decemberists albums since her diagnosis, but she’s never returned to the dizzying leads of Crane Wife and Hazards Of Love. These solo meditations aren’t dexterity exhibitions and aren’t meant to be; her Tull days are in the rear view mirror and she won’t be making a U-turn. They’re pretty enough for background work and pleasant, if never revelatory, when scrutinized. They’re also for Decemberists completists only.

Jenny Lewis — Joy’all It’s hard to tell what Dave Cobb contributed to this. Most of the tasty production moves here — and there are a lot of them — feel like extensions of stuff that Jenny was doing with Beck. That means digitally enhanced percussion and panning tricks, monkeying around with Jenny’s voice, and some reverb treatments I associate with very early hip-hop. As for the country twang, that’s been present in her music since the days she and Blake moved to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene, I believe is the way they once put it. But Dave sprung Jenny free from Tinseltown for a season, and if that’s all he did for the artist, that was enough. When last we’d left Jenny hanging on the line, she was despondent on a Hollywood lawn, dogged by her encroaching mortality, all screens up and unable to break her Candy Crush addiction, attempting psychic communication but mostly freaked out by the sound of her own laughter. Everybody knows we’re in trouble, she told us, and boy was she right about that. She made great art out of it, but she was at the end of the valley road and she knew it. She needed to put down the phone and find a place where in-person experiences are still considered worthwhile. “Lovefeel” isn’t just a mash note to Nashville: it’s also an expression of exhilaration from a person getting reacquainted with all her senses at once. If it ain’t right it’s wrong, Jenny tells us, from the perspective of a cautious middle-aged romantic determined to recenter herself. Sugar in the gas tank will get you as surely as the phone apps will, but at least you’ll be fully present to your own horrible demise. In 2023, maybe that’s all we can ask for.

Jenny O. — Spectra So what about Phoebe?, I hear you cry. Seems like you love her. Why don’t you count her among the mush auteurs? I am glad you asked. Phoebe Bridgers is a quintessential mushrock artist and one of the defining figures of the mush era, but after listening to her projects a bunch, I don’t really see what the mush is doing for her. I’ve never understood the point of her production choices, and that includes those she made on Punisher, an album I continue to find one of the most powerful of the past five years. Songs like “Kyoto” and “Chinese Satellite” would work just as well if they were shorn of the echo, the loops, and the gauze. They might even work better. The mush elements in her music aren’t sonic metaphors, and they’re not there to enhance anything in particular. They’re there because she’s a storytelling melody-first singer-songwriter, and her accomplices want to give her the best chance to compete in an industry driven by playlists and streaming. If she’d come out in 1976, she’d sound like Jackson Browne. I feel similarly about Jennifer Ognibene, a Long Island singer-songwriter who has demonstrated an ability to turn a tune. Her occasional excursions into mushadelica are inoffensive, but they’re also pointless: they add nothing to songs that could just as well be presented dry, and with far less effort. I believe that’d better suit Jenny’s voice, a rock instrument designed by God to stand up to the rigors of an indie band. Just as Phoebe, powder-puff that she is, would have struggled to be heard during the alternative era, Jenny is struggling right now. The ugly truth is that most artists working in the major mushstyles — dream pop, shoegaze, pop-psych, monoculture R&B and undanceable electronica — choose mush effects to obscure their compositional limitations. They don’t know how to develop a melody or write words or create tension and release over the course of a three-minute pop song, so they attempt to blur everything out in the hope that their shortcomings will be masked. But as a legit writer, Jenny O. doesn’t benefit from adding psychedelic goop to her tracks. The way music is currently delivered to ears is at odds with what she does well. Her best hope is that the times change. When you’re in the middle of it, it feels like they never will. Then suddenly they do.

Jenny Owen Youngs — Avalanche Josh Kaufman continues his campaign to National-ize the industry (sorry), spreading that folklore around one ghostly guitar plink at a time. Here he gives the Cassandra Jenkins treatment to a Jersey-born refugee from the MySpace empire who has spent the last decade in Los Angeles, doing TV recap podcasts and things similarly ignoble. But back in the day, Jenny was, ever so briefly, the thinking woman’s alternative to Ingrid Michaelson: a Triple A songwriter with good compositional chops, an interesting if not revolutionary outsider’s perspective, and a chip on her shoulder just heavy enough to make her cranky in a good way. Mister Kaufman remembers. Or maybe he just did the research; regardless, he’s arranged these numbers so that the emphases fall hard on the upsetting details, sprinkling the finest salt straight into the writer’s wounds. They are plentiful, and plenty ugly. Jenny remembers skipping out on a friend’s funeral. She puts her alcoholic partner’s mother into hospice and then brutally dumps her (the partner, not the mother). She feels the tug of the grave and does not itch to resist. She eroticizes one lover’s trauma and admits a desire to verbally demolish another. Emo topics all. Jenny approaches them like a grim thirtysomething rather than a bratty teen, which, naturally, is scarier and sadder. Everything here has the ring of truth, and a bright and cleansing peal it is not. It’s more like the dull iron tolling of a funeral bell. As a pro writer, she decks out these austere tales nicely, but never overdoes it: the choruses are well constructed and modestly presented, the instrumental licks are tasty but rarely bossy enough to impede the black ice slide of the storytelling, and the words are vicious little darts that bite into the target over and over. Kaufman takes care of the spectral folk intros and outros, and the star intones everything with the dazed clarity and white-knuckle precision of a survivor giving a report to the police after a lethal car crash. I notice she’s pinched a couple of melodies from that other Jenny from the block. I’m just going to chalk it up to good taste.

Jessie Ware — That! Feels Good! On the cover of Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa looks a little pensive. She’s secure in her hotness, naturally, but she’s weighing the drawbacks of a night out in the club. She’s gonna go: she’s got that big moon pushing her. Compare to Jessie Ware. Jessie throws a shoulder in our direction but her look is unambivalently come hither. If she has any reservations, she’s going to leave them for the next set. As a club veteran she knows there’s always tomorrow night, and tonight is nothing but pleasure. This is mid-June on Fire Island. Summer’s just started but it isn’t too hot yet. A light breeze off the bay is tossing around the hair on the heads of various cuties. Is it the seventies? Are we in that prelapsarian sexual wonderworld that disco supremacists rave about? That mythic time when inhibitions were the only thing off limits? É proibido proibir, as Caetano Veloso put it? You are invited to shake it ‘til the pearls fall off, and if you don’t know what that means, you ought to try it anyway and see what happens. Dua built in a few breathers; Jessie, by contrast, is just burning straight through the set. Latex-bottom bass and mirror ball synthesizer, the funky drummer and the show-off on the microphone, cut to the hook and repeat it, and stuff all of the excitement of a twelve inch single into a three minute whirl around the dancefloor. I admit some of the lyrics are dunderheaded. For once in my life I am going to let that slide and release the wiggle instead.

Joanna Sternberg — I’ve Got Me My gosh. Edith Bunker put out an indiepop album. One cut, it seems, on the piano at 704 Hauser Street. Those were the days. Now, if framed properly, Edithesque innocence and naïvete are acceptable, and maybe even appealing. But in pop, guilelessness is a very hard tone to sustain. This is the Devil’s music, and we expect our artists to be hip to the Devil’s tricks. Otherwise they may as well be visiting from some godforsaken segment of society, like accounts payable, or the sphere of forensic medicine, or Hollywood. As this show — our show — runs on sex and depravity, a childlike perspective is always going to feel out of place, especially when it is voiced by someone who is not a child. Joanna Sternberg, a fully grown human being, writes simple, snappy, sturdy songs and performs them on acoustic guitar and schoolroom piano with minimal edits and almost no overdubs. Like Randy Newman does, Joanna draws from church music, showtunes, and the American folk tradition. Many of the melodies are very strong: “The Love I Give,” “Mountains High,” “She Dreams,” these put the notes in the right places and move economically from introductory phrases to satisfying conclusions. Think “Dear Landlord,” “Let It Be,” “Dayton Ohio 1903.” So why don’t I love this? Welp, I kinda do, but there are three major drawbacks. Number one is the regular use of facile end-rhyme, which robs the songs of the surprise they’d need to be distinct from their antecedents. You will always know exactly where Joanna is going, and since the narrator fears upsetting or confounding anybody, I must conclude this is by design. Number two is the singing, which is prepubescent, anachronistically folksy, and devoid of sexual urgency. This is true even when Joanna is singing about magnetic attraction. Number three is the protagonist’s astonishment at the simple romantic gamesmanship that, say, Taylor Swift was able to identify and counter by the age of fourteen. Joanna is stupefied when a lover grows bored. Her narrator is crushed to recognize a capacity to dissemble. Though an object of affection has drifted hopelessly out of reach, this dingbat is going to keep the love coming. Everybody is constantly overlooking poor Joanna. Sad, not too attractive, very un-pop. Does it help to imagine these songs warbled to Archie? Yeah. A little. Okay, more than a little.

Juan Wauters — Wandering Rebel Though he’s coming at it a little softer than he did on the last set, the Uruguayan answer to Jens Lekman is still pressing the same pandemic-era critique. He’s mad about rich people who quit New York City and decamped to country houses when things got rough. This strikes polite old Juan as a breach of decorum as well as an affront to community. So what does this instinctive urbanist make of, say, Los Angeles? It scrambles his ethical compass: he doesn’t like the dependence on the automobile or the absence of a social safety net, but the laid-back vibe plainly appeals to his gentle strumming fingers. Later, over a piano part weirdly reminiscent of Father John Misty, he batters his audience with some of the most flatfooted language this prosaic character has ever waxed. “I’m looking to start a family, so if this music thing doesn’t pick up, there’s gonna have to be some changes in here.” “I like to stay at home,” he later confesses-slash-threatens, just in case you took the title of the album literally. He reckons that the peripatetic existence of an indie rocker gets in the way of the deep connection to place he’d like to cultivate. Perhaps as a consequence, his latest musical globe-trot is lighter on its feet than his music often is: most of these are straightforward acoustic sketches with wan and watery synthesizer coloring, fewer samples, fewer voices, fewer overt allusions to hip-hop and South American music. The exception — “Bolero,” a track with a sung hook as insidious as a nursery rhyme, a clumsily endearing rap by somebody named Super Willy K, and an airhorn blast worthy of Funkmaster Flex.

Julie Byrne — The Greater Wing In the middle of 2021, Eric Littman, producer and inspiration for this mushrock set, died suddenly. That’s not me being irreverent — it says so right in the press release. “Died suddenly,” no irony. Littman, 31 and previously healthy, became one of the many to keel over out of the blue. I have to believe that Julie didn’t see it coming, because the grief expressed on this set is pretty fresh. Littman wasn’t a musician only: he was also a genetic biologist at the University of Chicago. Sloan-Kettering employed him as a researcher. Guess Sloan couldn’t save him, either. Before you think that a cocktail of grief and madness has driven me into the bony embrace of Russell Brand, you should know that I don’t suspect the MRNA vaccine — at least not directly. I don’t think it’s the shots. I think it’s the COVID. I think the culprit in the worldwide rash of excess deaths is a pathogen of nebulous etiology that, for some reason or another, we’ve decided to stop studying and tracking, even as it morphs so fast that it’s almost certainly eluding full detection. In 2020 we didn’t know where it came from. Nearly four years later, we still don’t know. We’ve mapped its nucleotide sequences, but we still don’t understand what it does when it sets itself up inside the human body. We don’t understand why it never seems to go away. Its relationship to blood clotting continues to mystify hematologists. Cognitive and behavioral symptoms that follow infection are waved off or disregarded altogether. The World Health Organization, the pharmaceutical companies, the research universities and hospitals: answers are not forthcoming from any of them. The Biden Administration wants to hang a Mission Accomplished sign on the nearest spike protein. Republican denialists are even worse. And maybe we are like the rabbits in Cowslip’s snared warren in Watership Down, dreaming through the days, making abstruse art, dodging and deluding ourselves, refusing to see that we’re living in a deathtrap. Because the alternative is terrifying. We’d have acknowledge complete institutional failure. Or worse. Way worse.

Kali Uchis — Red Moon In Venus Candlelit bubble baths like this one are only fun right when you dip your toe in. After that there’s too much sloshing around, and too many rose petals ticking your nose. When you try to grab the rubber duck with your soapy fingers, it bobs away. After five minutes or so you’re steamed up like a lobster and you feel like you need to wash, only to realize that you are washing. There’s filmy, freesia-smelling stuff under your fingernails. Your eyes are crossing a little. Now, Kali’s reggaeton record grew on me ferociously and I keep expecting this one to do the same. So far it has not. Given how often I’ve tried with this, so far is pretty far. Things poke out of the lavender haze: a rap beat, a pussy put-down, a few war whoops on the battlefield of love. But it never coalesces into anything much. I think I’m going to have to call this an iffy experiment in Sade-chasing and hope that the next one is better defined.

Karol G — Mañana Será Bonito Peppy, bright, enjoyable pop-perreo and pop-reggaeton record, postmarked from Medellín with love. Snappy tunes ladeled generously over pan-Latin beats until they drip over the edges of the paper plate and splash on the green grass of the picnic area, and a voice that goes to tape like a brush loaded with red paint goes to a primed canvas. Karol G sings and dances with Shakira, but she’s not begging for the baton. She doesn’t spend any time looking backward. She represents a new generation of Colombianas who have come to adulthood in boom conditions — she’s fashion-conscious but not obsessed with appearances, romantically bruised but never lovelorn, radiant but scrupulously non-arrogant, full of patria-chica but also transnational in outlook. There’s even an attempt at norteño that’s at least as authentic as Mon Laferte’s acts of cultural appropriation. In short, this is a strangely well-adjusted individual. That’s the only negative thing you’ll ever hear me say about her.

Kate NV — Wow I recall Kate gifted us with a peppy electropop song a couple of years ago with a lo-fi video to match. From Russia with electronics. Anyway, none of this is likely to be mistaken for pop. There’s no vox, no sign of analog instruments, no lights on the horizon, no air, really; just the bowels of some Muscovite mainframe, spitting out tones (can’t really say notes) in virus-glitchy bundles. That’s about sixty per cent of this anyway. The other stuff sounds like the music that plays in the background when Steve Jobs makes a product announcement. Beats in rapid sequence connoting intelligence, cohering into harmony from time to time, but mainly suggestive of energy, forward momentum, money, optimism. Is this really how they’re feeling in the former Soviet Union these days?, after two years of war, revanchism and ruin? Maybe it’s true what Dima Vorobiev says about Russia: there’s the inner ring of Moscow and there’s the rest of the country, and they may as well be two separate nations. That explains a lot, really.

Kerosene Heights — Southeast Of Somewhere Above-average emo band playing in what we still, confusingly, call the Midwestern style, even though few of these groups are from the Midwest these days. The middle western part of Philadelphia, maybe; wherever Some Kind Of Cadwalader was recorded. The Kerosene Heights rhythm section is tight and the twinkle is at the right magnitude, and although the singer screams a bunch, he’s really no more ragged than the guy from Hot Mulligan. It’s been a screamy year. We’ve seen some ghosts. Bandcamp tells me they’re from Asheville, which does not surprise me; much of the notable music of 2023 is. That town of a hundred thousand — less than half the size of Jersey City — is having itself a moment. I feel a road trip is in order.

Kerry Charles — I Think Of You I am ashamed to admit that it took me a good month to realize that Kerry put a butt on his album cover. Plenty callipygian, too. Dunno, I thought it was abstract expressionism. I must be slipping, because this is true ass music — sophistipop, pitched midway between Daryl Hall going one on one and Donald Fagen leering through “Hey Nineteen.” Glassy DX7 synth textures, slo-dance on the boat tempos, scratchy funk six-string, coke-comedown vox from a Jersey guy who has surely fled to Philly by now, and at least one track with a genuine Clavinova doing a classic ostinato pattern. Most importantly, there’s a sensational sax guy who burns straight through this set, anticipating Kerry’s melodies, contributing commentary and shadowing other instruments, and whipping the band up into a horndog frenzy on the excellent “Shoo In.” Now I’ve got you thinking that this is the 2023 answer to Office Culture, and it’s not quite that. Kerry doesn’t take those kinds of risks, and like Ice Cube, his protagonists are only out for one thang. Representative come-on lyric: “Jenny’s out of town tonight/and the time is right/out of mind and out of sight,” etc. Better yet: “Here, down in Hell/been waiting for your letter/uh… how’s the weather?” I recognize that Jenny herself might not find any of this very funny. But c’mon, she had to know what she was getting into. Date a guy with these guitar textures at your own peril.

Killer Mike — Michael As long as Mister Michael Render is working with Jaime Meline, his tendency toward self-aggrandizement and TED-talking is held in check by his partner’s deliberately undignified production. No I.D. exercises no such restraint. Instead, he pairs Mike with the sort of bombastic music generally reserved for Kim Jong-Il style military parades and/or Jay-Z albums. The rapper dives into this with the enthusiasm of a parolee at a wedding banquet, dragging us through origin stories, reflecting on the dynamics of the struggle and the efficacy of ghetto economics, patting himself on the back for his kind treatment of his junkie aunt. In the process Michael reveals himself to a bit of a blowhard — the kind of professor who, dazzled by his own correctness, continues lecturing twenty minutes after the bell. If he keeps this up, he really is liable to get himself elected to Congress. Which might have always been the endgame anyway.

Lael Neale — Star Eaters Delight Lael is an inexpert singer, quivering through her two-chord numbers and gliding into her high notes gamely but without much precision. It’s likeable, though. Friendly and approachable, like a woodland creature or a corner whore. To her credit she hides none of it: vocals here are right up front, sitting quasi-pretty over synthesizer pads and occasional motorik beats. Given her limited range, it stands to reason that the more she drones, the better she does. “In Verona” is an eight-and-a-half minute report from the front lines of hypnosis: a one-note tune, a sustained wavering tone, and a delicate little blues riff on a rinky electric piano. Like many of the tracks on Star Eaters Delight, it’s reminiscent of the moments in Spiritualized songs before the band crashes in. You may be the sort of psychedelic voyager who finds the setup more intriguing than the payoff; if so, here’s one for you. You know, the journey is the destination, something beatnik like that.

La Femme — Paris-Hawaii Billy Woods concludes Maps by wondering how long he has to live. He is not the only one watching the hourglass. All over the world, excess mortality figures remain uncomfortably high. Does the coronavirus have time-bomb properties that we haven’t scoped? Is it vaccine injury? Has it mutated to an untraceable form? Is asymptomatic spreading now the rule? Your guess is as good as mine, and our guesses are bad because officials have stopped talking. Authorities speak of the pandemic as something that has happened. Now it’s time for us all to get back to work and create surplus value for the commonwealth. Anecdotally and statistically, we know that people continue to get sick and stay sick. Meanwhile, the investigation into the origins of the virus has gone cold. Three years later, we’re still talking about wet markets in Wuhan as if that’s salient to anything related to present public health. But a zoonotic reservoir has never been identified. No additional jumps from animal to human have been recorded. The less governments say, the more likely it seems to me that COVID was the result of a fuck-up of titanic proportions: a gain-of-function experiment that somehow (how?) broke free of its biological chains and ate Tokyo. And if such experiments were being conducted, it really is incumbent on heads of state to level with us. Tell us exactly what was being added to what — and to what end. The answer may scare us witless. The spike protein that we’ve all been exposed to, multiple times, may well do things to us that no genetically selected particle ever could. We may rebel. Some people might get turfed out of office. But this is not going to go away quietly. The misalignment between the official story and the lived experience of millions is too wide and too fundamental to dismiss. It’s an uneasy time we’re living through: one where silent authorities are practically daring laypeople to believe in a depopulation agenda. I wrote in in 2015, and it’s even truer now: the reason why conspiracy theory is so prevalent is because the distance between the governors and the governed is unsustainably wide. If we are not treated like adults by the state, people are going to fill that empty space with space aliens and Bill Gates worshiping the devil and Hillary Clinton torturing babies in the basement of a pizzeria. If we’re not going to be told the truth, that’s what we’re going to get. That and worse. And it’ll be the authorities’ fault, not ours.

Lana Del Rey — Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd Forget Blue Banisters. The real key to understanding LDR’s spookiest album is Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass. That’s the spoken word set where she engages in plain talk about the price of the artist’s mission and her intuition that there’s a cataclysm coming just over the smoldering hill. It’s also where her identification with the landscape of Southern California reached a level of allusive intensity we usually ascribe to writers like the Boss. On Ocean Blvd, she’s pondering the same streets, pushing those stickpins into the map of the Golden State that has become her own interior landscape. She once likened the taste of her pussy to Pepsi-Cola — an archetypical American experience, she means — so why should we be surprised that she’s now comparing it to a disused Los Angeles rail tunnel? “Don’t forget me,” she sings, with all the ache and longing this still-sad girl can muster. Not much chance of that. Later, in a line that unlocks her entire body of work, she challenges her boyfriend to love her until she loves herself. That’s the kind of simple syrup that gains complexity as it ages. Because two songs later, over the course of the most powerful seven minutes of music this major artist has ever waxed, she gives us a portrait of a woman who has given up on that possibility. “A&W” stands for the experience of being an American whore, holed up at the Ramada and submitting to psychosexual torture at the grubby hands of “Jimmy,” a figure for all the men whose affection is conditional on some bullshit that gets him high. She’s got no recourse other than a complaint to his mom, because her own mother has become estranged to her. Elsewhere, she grasps at family and memory with both hands, only to find the kite string slipping through her fingers. She dances with the young and restless and nearly drowns herself. When she gets to the part where she reaches, wildly, out to the spirit of her dead relatives, if you are not flattened by the rock chills, I can’t help you. Somewhere along a crooked line, this New Yorker with an adopted Left Coast homeland and a made-up name became the most candid confessional singer in the business. She had to indulge in heavy-duty all-American hooey to get there, but we all must travel our own blue highways. Yes, I, too, wish she’d do a whole album with hip-hop beats. Maybe she’ll get away from the piano long enough to make that for us sometime. Meanwhile, this is what we’ve got. I’d say it’s plenty hardcore. Maybe I’d even say it slams.

Land Of Talk — Performances Wait, didn’t this woman play guitar? I suppose she still skronks it up now and then in the spaces between the synthesizer pads and the submarine-station echoes. But on Performances, that doesn’t happen very often. Mostly this is sad, slow, ponderous, and as deadly dull as watching a feather fall from the top of a forty story building. OTOH, Performances wins points for working “if you like it/why don’t you marry it” into an otherwise somber and soporific mushrock number. An undanceable, unjammy clarinet instrumental is called “Clarinet Dance Jam.” There’s a bratty kid in there somewhere, buried under the avalanche of mush. Go get the jaws of life.

Las Rosas — Shadow By Your Side I can’t tell if this guy is horny or if he’s just leering like this because it’s the traditional thing to do. I assume he’s a proper masher in the style of Jagger on the streetcorner, or at least Casablancas hanging out by the ladies room. Then again, I have been known to project my boners on to the unwitting. My strong feeling is that he is hot for Christa with the red hair, and in general he’s randy and funny in a back-alley street-rat sort of way. He’s cracking wise as somebody knifes his motorcycle tires. But so much gets washed away in the torrential downpour of bourbon that it can be hard to follow the storytelling. I do appreciate his desire to project rock attitude. And when he tells us that he ain’t losing no sleep — even as he sounds like he’s about to fall headfirst into the drunk tank — a teetotaler like me can appreciate the literary irony.

Laura Cantrell — Just Like A Rose: The Anniversary Sessions Lots of pro players on this one, including Buddy Miller, Paul Burch, and Steve Earle on a redone version of “When The Roses Bloom Again.” Everybody wants to make some laid-back, plodding pop-country with Laura. This is tuneful, hummable, and surprisingly El Lay for this Brooklyn/Nashville loyalist, though that might just be an accident of the guitar tone and the ever-increasing emotional complacency of the star. The title track is about a sassy guitar-slinging lass (one who may or may not resemble Laura Cantrell) who is too lost in the music to answer to your quotidian concerns. Funny to hear Laura try her hand at some Natalie Hemby small-town hooey and then follow it up with one of the sleepiest exercises in Western swing you’ll ever hear. Then she tries to get away with a gruesome, glacial anthem pleading for reconciliation between angry white men and angry white women. Spare us from solemn wafflers. Well appointed, as always, but geriatric. That hurts.

Lil Yachty — Let’s Start Here I’d call this a nice try, but that implies that some effort went into it. Instead, this is a slapdash assembly of arrangement elements associated with space rock, psychedelic funk, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. It’s yoked together — loosely — by a vocalist who sounds like a lush singing along to “The Great Gig In The Sky.” The mush pours down like a piledriver in gross jismatic columns. As is now customary with onanistic projects like this, Let’s Start Here demonstrates great awareness of Kevin Parker’s rack and total inattention to the things that make Kevin Parker sing in the first place. When he gets to the city, he will grab on your titty, and then turn around and tell you that he’s the one who is pretty. Grab on your own self, Lil Yachty. Preferably in private.

Lloyd Cole — On Pain Llots of llove for the llatest Lloyd. Those who’ve responded to the many subtleties of his music in the past will found that his expressive powers persist in full. He’s still using music as the key to unlock his tales, phrase by manicured phrase, quarter turn by quarter turn. He’s a master of the UK haiku. Lloyd pares his words back, but he can sketch a pivotal moment in a few syllables, and he’s so sensitive that I believe him when he tells me he can hear the sun. Me, I hear something I should have noticed long ago. If you told me in a blind taste test that some of these new tracks were Death Cab For Cutie, I’d buy it. In retrospect Lloyd’s influence on Ben Gibbard is pretty plain: moodiness, fatalism, short-story craft, elaboration of vexed relationships between men and women, words and words. Too emotional for the new wave, too subdued for punk, too reluctant to oversell melodies and chord changes for the pop kids. The Commotions were progenitors of the meditative and morbid strain of emo music, and a quiet inspiration to those who understand that a well-turned sentence is every bit as evocative as a power chord. Someone go tell the emo council. The English teachers have already been notified.

Lucinda Chua — Yian Pure mush from the mush sluice. Ponderous non-tempos, hushed ASMR vox, echoed plonky synthesizer and tinkle piano, treated backing vox, some shit about the ocean, everything resolving to the quality of a long, drawn-out cello note, reverberating in some prestigious concert hall where senior citizens pay two hundred and fifty bucks to get culture and fall asleep.

Luke Combs — Gettin’ Old Naysayers and thinkpiecers ought to remember that Tracy Chapman did not get much roadside assistance when she first took the fast car for a ride. She heard it from the conscious emcees who didn’t like a girl swerving into their lane; I remember an interview in which Chuck D said that he wouldn’t sell a message to the streets unless his funk was in place, thereby suggesting that Tracy’s wasn’t. She also took fire from the literalists, who were aghast at their discovery that she was a college-educated creative writer rather than a wan homeless person. How dare she. The Wikipedia entry is not wrong: the reason Tracy got put on in the first place was because Stevie Wonder’s floppy disc (!) broke and some gutsy fool had to take to the stage at the Mandela tribute with nothing but an acoustic guitar. So it is no more incongruous to find her name on the country chart in 2023 (or the dance chart in 2015) than it was to see it on the pop chart in 1988. Arguably it’s much less, since bumpers and headlights and other fragments of that car have been turning up on Nashville curbs for the past decade. “Fast Car” is an acoustic guitar number about broken heroes/on a last chance power drive; Music City is full of those. Very few of them are as good as this one. Luke Combs may be a fan, or maybe somebody at his label is. It hardly matters. The important thing is that his cover is respectful — so respectful that he didn’t even change the pronouns. Country star with a big voice tells a powerful story of hardship: it’s a problem that this was a hit? Apparently it was to some people who considered the Combs version an act of appropriation and/or erasure, though what he was supposed to be erasing or appropriating they never did say. Eventually Tracy expressed her appreciation for the gesture. That was a heck of a lot more support than she ever got.

Madison Beer — Silence Between Songs You might remember Madison as the artist who swiped, shamelessly, from every pop star in sight, with an enthusiasm that bordered on kleptomania. Life Support, her debut, was a magpie’s nest crammed with pretty bits and bobs she’d purloined from other records. Ethically questionable, sure, but that’s what made it fun. On the new one, she tries to establish her own identity and slips into the cracks between her influences. Some rogues are born thieves. It’s a storied profession. Maybe not the noblest, but you certainly could do worse.

Man On Man — Provincetown “We got robbed in a safe space,” Roddy Boddum concedes, and not without a certain satisfaction and sympathy for the crooks. The world according to Roddy is rough trade. To suit, we get a buttload of strictly homosexual hard rock and brutal synthpop tunes from the man who turned Mike Patton into a blowjob cheerleader. The music tends toward the grisly and overdriven, with thick pancake chords and grunted vox rammed through the gloryhole of distortion. That’s when it’s not dancing on the industrial edge of Depeche Mode at their roughest. J. Mascis stops by The Cock and does his thing; you’ll barely notice. Many of the narrators voiced by Joey Holman are gay lifers expressing frustration with bi boys, dilettantes, and P-Town tourists in the bear bar. “Piggy,” for instance, is a broadside against a poser on Grindr who’ll only show his chest. You’ll never be one of us, Joey growls in “Take It From Me.” Funny, painful, true. Yet they’re not so curmudgeonly, or exclusionary, that they don’t come through when it counts. Joey and Roddy on gender: “take a minute/to get with the pronouns/listen to kids/’cause the grownups are kind of a letdown.” And that’s all that needs to be said on that particular topic.

Margaret Glaspy — Echo The Diamond Exhibit B is a personal favorite. For Margaret Glaspy, the Telecaster is hand-powered hardware straight from the toolbox. Sometimes is a pair of pliers that she uses to grab the song and pry it open, sometimes is an awl jabbing ragged holes in the verse, and sometimes it’s a big flat-end screwdriver with its end in the groove, and she’s twisting as hard as she can. On the last album, Margaret hardly strummed a six-string at all. Devotion, her pop move, was pretty tasty and plenty weird, but it also felt like a capitulation to contemporary trends that an artist on a label as unfashionable as ATO ought to be disregarding. For Echo The Diamond, she’s put the synthesizers back in the closet and returned to her original plan, which means one guitar (hers) slashing and poking and growling and a rhythm section trying to keep up. These songs aren’t as crooked as those on Emotions And Math — an album that has aged, and sharpened, like expensive Cabrales — but they’re expressions of the same sandpapered post-Pinkerton soul; something like Joanna Newsom if she’d been raised on “El Scorcho” rather than The Kick Inside. I find Margaret pleasantly ragged and combative on Diamond, and I can listen to her play that axe all day and all of the night. Thus I’m thrilled that she’s resurfaced. The gooey rip currents of the mushrock sea have claimed many an unwary sailor. Artists go in but they don’t come back. I’m glad to see one struggle ashore, coated with slime, no doubt, but ready to blast the goop from her hair via the astringency of an unvarnished guitar tone. That’s better than Prell.

Maxo — Even God Has A Sense Of Humor “Imagine baring all your soul in a world you don’t trust.” Sure, Maxo, that’s what artists have up to since the beginning of time. The emcee subscribes to the theory that cold hearts — including his own — are created and further iced by a procession of slights and misfortunes, and maybe he’s right about that. It would sure explain the way grownups behave. That’s temporal reality, though, and Maxo has spiritual concerns. His suspicion that he can talk his way into heaven rests on his understanding of circumstance: like certain lesser writers, and lesser rappers, he imagines that there’s wiggle room at the pearly gates, and that justification through argumentation is possible. Maybe that’s why he’s surprised to find that God possesses an understanding of literary irony, and even more surprised to discover that it’s irrelevant to the fate of individual human souls. Maxo thinks that it’s about point and counterpoint. Even Curtis Jackson recognized it’s bigger than that.

Metric — Formentera II This is not the worst Metric album, but it’s the first one that doesn’t advance the story or add anything new to it. It’s less a sequel than a fan club throw-in. I can appreciate the tawdry glam of “Days Of Oblivion” and the smudged rearview mirror reflections in “Who Would You Be For Me.” But they’ve done better versions of these songs in the past. The rest of the tracks are sawdust sweepings after the house is built. I know; sometimes it’s just nice to hear a tight, world-class new wave band in action.

Mitski — The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We Mushski.

Mon Laferte — Autopoéitica Brilliantly sung, as always. Here Monserrat tries her restless hand at a bunch of popular styles, including some prog-reggaeton moves that nicely one-up Rosalía, moony dreampop, straight-up Gaga electropop, toney Lafourcadian Day-of-the-Dead folklorico, and a few big salsafied productions. She acquits herself best on the throwback Latin pop, naturally, but you can see why she might be a little tired of that approach by now. I think we can be generous and see the star’s willingness to indulge in heavy vocal processing as an effort to transcend her limitations by suppressing her core skill and redirecting her energies elsewhere. As for the sashaying trip-hop, I take that as a message from Mon Central that she’s ready to sing a Bond theme. Which is long overdue, but why stop there? Kali Uchis asked “why would I be Kim?/I could be Kanye” and then lived the boast; how about Mon Laferte as the next James Bond? Can’t you see her in the suit, swaggering around the baccarat table, ladykilling and outfoxing Blofeld? Shaken not stirred. I might even be moved to buy a ticket to the cinema for the first time since Bull Durham.

Monseur Periné — Bolero Apocaliptico Gosh I had no idea the apocalypse would be so eclectic. Toney and high-spirited, too. I was imagining more locusts. But then I am not a Santafereño. It’s possible that the mood has gotten so good in Colombia that the people there even know how to chill during Armageddon. Or maybe they are barricaded inside the castle of the King of Bogotá, dancing the night away before the pitchfork mob storms the moat. It is plausible that Monseur Periné would be the house band at the last royal affair, and never you mind that Colombia is a democratic republic. Go with me here. Catalina Garcia is just the sort of South American cosmopolitan who’d host an upmarket shindig as the end-times fascist insurrection swells. Come to the cabaret, old chum. She sustains that wedding party mood for four songs at least, mixing soundtrack jazz with pan-Latin pop and cumbia shake-me-ups, and it’s all more than fine until she starts singing in French. If that’s not bad enough, they hit you with The One The Guy Sings (TM), which remains the very worst musical genre. After that it’s a lot of cheerful jumping around from speakeasy to soirée to coffeeshop. Far be it from me to expect gravity from a band named after the male grundle, but I do wonder why they’re so relaxed about end times. Maybe they know something we don’t. And maybe they’re just killing time. Altogether now: the end o-o-o-of the wo-o-o-o-rld is taki-i-i-ing foreverrrrr.

Morgan Wallen — One Thing At A Time Something I dig about pop music: attempts to deny the undeniable inevitably end in failure. Not that anybody really needs to defend this Morgan smorgasbord, what with its ninety songs in the Top Ten and more on the way. But certain critics are making asses of themselves, again putting inchoate political imperatives ahead of the music. Leave it to Rachel Maddow, people. As I see it, you’d have to be utterly immune to Music City cooking — executed at the highest level, with all the smoke, spice, and sauce in Tennessee — to resist this set. And it’s the way in which Morgan and company refine their formula that makes One Thing At A Time significant beyond the tunes, which are mostly pretty great. Morgan projects hillbilly attitude and shitkicker resentment over legit trap beats. He applies piledriver HOT97 compression to steel guitar and close harmonies redolent of bluegrass. Then there’s his flow, which would not get him booted off Cash Money Records. Others have tried it, but nobody has done it half as well, or been so relaxed about it, or made the distance between hip-hop and country seem quite as irrelevant. And I’d call this ironic, but is it really?, are we supposed to think that rappers don’t get shitfaced and say idiotic, offensive things? C’mon. That’s practically the business model. Just as Bumgarner and Puig were the same guy (and that’s why they fought so much), Morgan is backwoods 50 Cent, right down to the bruised masculinity, the sublimated rage and innate conservatism, and knack for wounded country-blues melody. Once again, his vocal performances are one filthy inside fastball after another, ninety-five and humming with movement. He’s had plenty of songwriting help from the unstoppable Ashley Gorley, craftsman behind a thousand Nashville hits, who learned about storytelling and drama from hip-hop and R&B. But the stealth MVP is Ryan “Charlie Handsome” Vojtesak, who shows up hot from his work on “Fade” from Life Of Pablo plus many other rap tracks. Charlie Handsome was responsible for the best trap-country hybrid production on Dangerous — “Still Going Down” — and he picks up right where he left off. (Hardy co-wrote “Still Going Down,” for those keeping score at home.) That’s his street-shaking 808 on “Lifestyle” and “You Proof,” and his Hotlanta crack house snare on “Last Night,” the song that ate America. The tone of the set is rueful-alcoholic rather than bro-celebratory; Morgan is uninterested in firearms and brawling and the truck is just as likely to be carrying a disgusted girlfriend away from him as it is to bring her home (it’s “F-1-50/50”, he reports; never tell me the odds, Morgan.). Women and the bottle vie for his attention and the bottle almost always wins. The narrator is willing to engage in some complex emotional manipulation to get to the next drink, which would be pretty awful to experience in real life but makes for songs with more narrative depth and storytelling muscle than they initially seem to have. For every girl he purloins from across state lines to validate his Tennessee lifestyle, there’s another, like the barfly in “Single Than She Was,” who comes alive as a character nearly as screwed up as Morgan is. Oh, and amidst the wreckage, he sends one out to his momma. That’s another thing that rappers do. Country and hip-hop, the two purest forms of American art. Mirror images; firewater from the same Southern wellspring. Music made by miscreants from the back pews of churches from Harlem to Tuscaloosa.

Motorama — Sleep, And I Will Sing For many album cycles, this Russian post-punk outfit proceeded with absolute indifference to developmental melody and song structure, preferring instead to concentrate on the parameters of the guitar jangle and the doomy vox. This made them no different from thousands of other bands tilling this nutrient-starved patch of soil in the garden of pop-rock. Yet like gauche Muscovites on vacation in Paris, they’ve slowly developed an appreciation for the finer things. Now the tunes move around a bit and some of their newer tracks cohere into the internationally recognized shape of songs. The chief intoner is, bit by bit, turning into a lead singer. Color is returning to his limbs. The geese have returned to the Volga. At this rate they’re going to give us a real winner roundabout 2032.

Nas — Magic 2 Nas has had so much trouble finding reliable beat suppliers that his reluctance to mess with a good thing is understandable. However. The Jones-Hollis partnership is beginning to show signs of exhaustion. These guys aren’t pushing each other like they once did. The Hit-Boy beats for the original King’s Disease were excessively bright and baubly and designed to impress a magpie-like Hall-Of-Famer whose affection for things that glitter is well established. From time to time on collaboration number five, Chauncey gets lazy and slips his charge a rock. As for the famous rapper, he’s mostly interested in Polaroid flips through vacation photographs and tales of the olden days that don’t exactly come to a point. Did you know, for instance, that Nas did a double album? And that he really put his heart into it? The Geritol-popping vibe of the storytelling is not helped by Nas’s frame of reference, which, after several decades at the table with high rollers, is now more or less the same as that of any other grumpy executive with a growing prostate gland. When he starts to grumble about the need to bring back beheadings, I can’t say it sounds far out of character.

Nation Of Language — Strange Disciple Further manouevres in the dark from our own private Tubeway Army. All shameless bites from Kraftwerk and New Order aside, much of this set is less immediate than the first two. Don’t be put off: they might not push the hooks as ruthlessly as they did on “Fractured Mind,” but that’s because they’ve got this whole thing as tightly sealed as a submarine. So sleek and waterproof is this vessel that it might take a pass or two for your sonar to pick it up. Aidan Noell, throwback synth tweaker with a bank of analog blurbles, evocative patches, sweeps and stark Bauhaus riffs, handles the deftest twists of the screws. But the final and most muscular turn of the wrench comes from bassist Alex Mackaye, who locks everything into place, smooths it all out, and gives it the propulsion and displacement that makes it seaworthy. As for the moaning I.P. Devaney, he’s more focused too, thinking primarily about his dong and how he might reach out across the cold mechanical expanse and possess the object of his night-sweaty obsession (presumably Aidan Noell, but you never know). He sings it all in a voice like hot steam on the fan blades of the turbines. Boldly stepping into a horny future when not throwing back to a horny ‘80s; harboring a not-so-secret wish that the days to come could be as passionate as the days we remember.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — Council Skies Well if it isn’t Mister Meat and Potatoes, back with another helping of meat and potatoes. Last time it was smothered in gravy and other condiments. This time, it’s been slow-boiled to a butter-like tenderness, and you know what?, I’m gonna cut it out with this metaphor before it gets really gross. The point is that Noel remains the most committed formalist in pop — more committed than Taylor Swift, even — and his devotion to the basic tactics of Beatlesque songwriting is as unswerving as ever. That means lotsa compositionally clever bits, tricky little wrinkles of melody and some neat chord progressions upon which he can hang his tunes. The soft rock production helps him out here: AM gold strings and seventies piano, backing vocals, and copious EQ smoothing applied to a voice that, to be frank, has never exactly gone down easy. And it amazes me how much distance there is between the character Noel plays in his cranky interviews and the Noel we get when he gets in the studio. One Noel seems intent on policing pop-rock on behalf of values that were already anachronistic at the time of Definitely Maybe, and the other Noel is… well, he’s a record nerd, basically. If he could just accept that and stick with it, it’d be easier for us all to appreciate him the way we appreciate, say, Lloyd Cole, or Neil Finn, the artist he most resembles these days. Because these songs could only have been written by a craftsman with a lot left to give. That big mouth into which you can fly a plane keeps getting in his way. I dunno. Maybe for once in his life, Matty Healy has a point.

Noname — Sundial Dispiriting it is to find Fatimah Warner at the same intellectual level as the Robert Downey, Jr. character from Back To School. Football may or may not be a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war, but it’s also a sport that millions upon millions of ordinary people love. Noname knocking Beyoncé for performing after fighter jets at the Super Bowl is a little like Patrick Stickles dismissing Kendrick as a shoe salesman. It’s technically accurate, but it completely misses the spirit of the thing, and it’s no way for a would-be member of the vanguard to connect with the proletariat. If it were only an outlier on this, the year’s crudest set. Sundial is the sound of a writer deafening herself to the poetry and grace of the world around her, elbowing through the crowd with the self-importance of Savonarola at the bonfire, thinking she’s setting vanities aflame, but mostly just making an ass of herself. On the unspeakably sanctimonious “Hold Me Down,” she gives the game away: “first black President and he’s the one who bombed us.” Us, she says. See, she’s exonerating herself from complicity with drone attacks by claiming membership in imagined communities like the Global South, the international underclass, etcetera, rather than repping the great American city that gave her a podium. This transplanted Los Angeleno fantasizes about frying plantains in a commune in South Sudan — a place where women aren’t allowed to own businesses or land or go to school, let alone put out hip-hop records. She wouldn’t be welcome in Russia, either, but that doesn’t stop her from threatening Whitey with a Soviet rifle. Nothing like solidarity with a socialist union that doesn’t exist anymore. Not that she’s fact-checking. This all comes to a spewing zit-like head with a Jay Electronica verse so antisemitic you’d think it was written by Skrewdriver. When challenged on this, Fatimah played the he-wrote-it-I-didn’t card, which is about the most cowardly way imaginable to handle a gross controversy you’ve created yourself. Sundial was always a possible outcome for this artist; she was always a decent candidate to go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. I’m a little surprised it fell apart so fast, but these are dangerous days. The rising tide of fury will swallow whole any Hollywood phony ready to put tankie symbols in social media profiles. As for Noname in particular, her flavor of anger can’t be blamed on the restless mood of the emerging markets. That’s pure All-American rage and superciliousness she’s pointing in our direction. It’s red, white and blue to the core. In retrospect J. Cole went way too easy on her. He’s a gentleman, and he treated her like a lady. He should have treated her like a rapper. That might have done us all some good.

Oliver Anthony — “Rich Men North Of Richmond” and Jason Aldean — “Try That In A Small Town” Ahhh, the sweet smell of Astroturf. Eau de polymer. You remember what Colonel Tom Parker said: if I could find me a homicidal white guy who could sing like a nonhomicidal white guy, I’d make me a million dollars, or land me a million thinkpieces in mass-marketed publications. Look at Oliver Anthony. He rode his crude musical mail bomb all the way to the Republican debate. That certainly tracks. Belligerence and threat?, that’s the only language those guys understand. I’m sure they were happy to get down with the rare musician whose nasty rhetoric is as reductive and as artless their own. Once the journalists who spent 2017 searching for Trump voters in Midwestern diners got a gander at Oliver’s red hair and face, it was off to the races, and never mind that this story is as funny as Confederate money. Oliver claims to live off the grid on hard work and the Lord’s word. But his lyrics tip his hand: not only does he refer to various Internet controversies and conspiracy theories, he frames them in the exact way that bloggers and podcast jocks would. This beardo, whose name isn’t even Oliver Anthony, is keeping a working modem warm. His perspective is about as organic as that of Poppy or Pewdiepie. Now it is possible that Oliver really is as dumb as he is playing, and really does believe that God — the Christian God — has commanded him to be a jerk to fat people on welfare. He might have chosen to namecheck Richmond because it is the nearest cultural center to his slice of the backwoods, which, we’re told in all seriousness, is called Farmville. Richmond also happened to be the capital of the breakaway region that rose in armed rebellion against the United States the moment it looked like Uncle Sam might free the people they’d chained up. They fought it out, bloodily, north of Richmond, over this for four years. Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Antietam, Gettysburg: as dim as this bulb is, I’ve got to believe these placenames ring a bell for him. Certainly they do for the unscrupulous people who’ve orchestrated his rise. As for Jason Aldean, there can be no question: he’s practically a Republican operative at this point. A lucrative future speeding around in the Ted Nugent lane is wide open for him. In order to get there, he’s had to sacrifice his last shred of artistic and literary credibility, which, I am sure, was not a problem for him. If he’d rather be a mouthpiece for the NRA than a country singer worth respecting, that’s between him, his handlers, and whatever is left of his conscience. I ask only that the nonmusical media quit amplifying his belligerent message. Talking points might delight those on Vikram Ramaswamy’s rapid response team, but they do not make for listenable songs. Nobody who actually cares about music is fooled. This is not Merle Haggard giving voice to an alternative perspective in his own pungent words. This is the pop-rock star as the clearinghouse for stupid ideas and wedge issues cooked up by think tanks in order to motivate voters via resentment and grievance. Of all of the fates I can imagine for popular music, that has got to be the worst.

Olivia Rodrigo — Guts Rock star makes kickass rock album. That’s it. That’s the only headline you need. Anything else misses the point and the significance. If you went into a rock club on the Lower East Side in 1999 and caught this young woman doing this set, in this order and in this very manner, you’d leave the show convinced you’d heard the indie zeitgeist rattling its chains. That is not to say that Olivia and her bandmate (and he is best understood as a bandmate) Daniel Nigro have proceeded with G.G. Allin-like abandon. They have big figures to move. Everything here has been squared away for mass consumption and passed through company inspection like so many six-packs of Coke. It’s more a matter of attitude and intent, and the disposition of the star, who is loose and funny throughout, and has figured out how to concentrate and direct her outrage. Those Chuck Taylors she wears in the album art are not unearned. They fit better than the Disney princess costume she donned as a teenager and the Swiftie outfit she’s recently shed. Bites from Costello, Frischmann, H. Williams, et. al. are better integrated into the writing than they were on the plagiaristic Sour, and since Olivia owns each note choice she makes with a ferocious proprietary sensibility, it’s hard to call her a copycat anymore. No, these musical and lyrical choices are hers, including the ones on the ratty guitar numbers that broadcast her deep discomfort with herself, and the sopping chewing-gum power ballads that reflect her masticated teenaged feelings. Moreover, the line-reading skill she exhibited on the last album — an actress’s talent — has been buffed up and honed until it is less a mark of distinction than a personal superpower. There is nobody in popular music who is delivering sentences with this much presence, or subtlety, or unreliable micronarration, or landing the right articulation of the right syllable on the right beat to render the full range of the narrator’s emotions manifest. I dig the audacity of the Americanized Wet Leg sprechesang on “Bad Idea, Right” and the Lene Lovich hiccups at the end of “Love Is Embarrassing.” And while she namechecked Billy Joel on the last one, it’s Guts that proves she was really listening, and taking notes on how to make a showtune sound as snide as the Sex Pistols. She continues to be concerned with the rat-race down the aisles of the beauty supply, the dynamics of betrayal, and the illogic and inconvenience of her own overdriven sexual responses. But mostly she’s convinced that there’s nothing of any worth on the far side of twenty, and she’s tired of grownups telling her otherwise. And that, my friends, is the most rock and roll thing of all.

Open Mike Eagle — Another Triumph Of Ghetto Engineering Michael Eagle is like that friend who won’t stop quipping. Conversation devolves into nonstop witticisms and puns and references to comic books and Ewoks and the Seattle Seahawks. There’s a message in there somewhere, but he’s gonna make you extract it from a barrel of yuks. Michael’s rhyme for the sake of riddling has made me suspect that he really wants to be a comedian. Then again, since Brick Body Kids, he’s gone at it hard, releasing very little that can’t be classified as solid verse. Not a lot of pop hooks or concessions to the marketplace here, just walls o’ text, like the Wu used to do. The new one feels like a caboose attached to the procession of loaded boxcars that was Component System With The Auto Reverse, but it still rattles on the rails and makes the kids squeal as it shivers by. “We Should Have Made Otherground A Thing” namechecks every alternative rapper under the sun — the day job boys, he calls them, with one eye, as always, on his flat career trajectory — and reveals that the members of Freestyle Fellowship thought that Michael was annoying. If he really thinks his lingering desire to be the best emcee is a sign of immaturity, it’s not hard to believe they’d feel that way. But it still takes courage to put own up to something like that on wax. Well, courage and corrosive self-deprecation in equal measure.

Origami Angel — The Brightest Days Here’s a facetious cap-tip to New Jersey from D.C. wise-crackers, complete with a Beach boys breakdown. Ryland Heagy thinks we’re a bit, erm, frank. The brightest days are few and far between for him, and forthright and fatalistic as we are, we’re not helping his mood. What can I say on our behalf? Trenton decided decades ago that in-your-face honesty was state policy. Our emo bands are simply complying with municipal ordinances. And emo this really ain’t. It’s more of a throwback easycore record executed by a gang of enthusiastic shredders and showoffs who flit between styles just because they can. Punk breakdowns, ska, molten metal, acrobatic passages with “Georgie Girl” ba ba ba backing vocals, finger-tapping, pure power pop: it’s hard to tell how good they are at any of it since it all blows by like stations from the windows of the Acela. The melodies are imaginative, if a bit flowery, the use of complex chords and major sevenths demonstrates solid instincts about how to move a tune, and the guitar signal is so ferociously compressed that I think I just bodyboarded on it. As for Ryland’s plan to lock himself inside his Faraday cage while the District burns (“Welcome all you tourists who infiltrate the Capitol/Protesting abortion!/Tickets to the Nationals!”), I admit that it’s disappointing to hear such sanity from a kid so ambitious. This is hardly the climate to postmark a teenage symphony to God and leave it at that. If it’s really true he can’t find a side to choose, I reckon he could use a little Jersey straight talk after all.

Osees — Intercepted Message This is some silly, noisy, fried-egg-sizzly shit, which does not exactly distinguish it in John Dwyer’s filler-filled discography. Many of these tracks are barely songs, loaded as they are with FX pedal nonsense, panting, cymbal wash, pained yelps and assorted gasps, and lyrics about gooning, fish on bicycles and other goblinoid crap. Yet I find myself returning to this one fairly often, and I bet you know why. This is Osees’s first synthesizer-forward album, and Tomas Dolas has brought the heavy equipment out of the barn: Moog Matriarch, some Death By Audio gear, analog pieces from the seventeenth century, etc. This allows him to bop from Wakemanesque widdly-widdly leads to Ravenstine-like blips and blorbs to Dunckel/Godin ribbons of saw- and square-wave sound. It’s all a reminder of how good real synthesizers sound in this context. Not quantized and tamed, tucked into a computer grid and massaged into the background, but raging, ear-splitting, over beats provided by musicians who understand the urge to be obnoxious. It kinda makes me want to fire up the Korg, turn some dials, and trigger some oscillators. Earn myself some noise complaints.

Owl City — Coco Moon Something that isn’t said enough about Adam Young: this is one weird son of a gun. Rare it is that a man so out of step with the rhythms of life as it is lived by the average Joe should find success in a popular artistic medium. That he has done it, even in fits and starts, demands our respect. His own susceptibility to suggestion and his surrender to charismatic religious inspiration has led him down paths no sane singer would travel. Adam has composed some of the most powerful Christian pop songs I’ve ever heard — songs that make me pray for my tawdry soul — but he’s never been part of the Christian music industry. He’s a synth virtuoso and shows off his dexterity and imagination on every album (just check the outro to “Field Notes”) but he hasn’t been embraced by gearheads or prog fans. When he added electronic dance beats to his songs, no festivals came calling. When he tried to participate in the alt-pop dialogue, he was accused of ripping off the Postal Service, and he was brutally spurned by tastemakers. Mobile Orchestra was a good-faith effort to shake hands with certain segments of the mainstream, including a full side of pure CCM and some small town country nonsense cut with Jake Owen. That didn’t work. Thus he has chased the twinkling fireflies back home across the prairie to the Upper Midwest and artistic independence. On Coco Moon, Adam is completely off the chain, devoting six minutes to a dense music description his first job in a grocery store and retelling the plot of the Tom Hanks shipwreck movie from the point of view of the castaway’s volleyball. He spins intricate stories about finding buried treasure on a farm and dodging a tornado. He gets a surfing lesson from a tattooed woman. He visits Dinosaur Park and hopes against hope that the moonlight could bring the lizards to life. “What do dinosaurs talk about when they’re all alone?,” Adam wonders, in total earnestness. Then there are the theophanies: the Bird of God that stops the soldiers from shooting, the vision of Jesus in the thunderheads, hanging there as vivid as the Audrey Hepburn hallucination on the Sky Sailing album. This is wholesomeness pushed to the point of delirium — wholesomeness more ungovernable and defiant than any black metal dance with the Devil. Any fool can worship Baphomet, and many fools do. But only this fool has dropped to his knees before the Almighty at an angle so strange and so sincere. Should you be brave enough to follow the cross, this is where it leads: not to the conformity of the corporate-devotional music, but toward the examination and expression of the unique, bizarre, unfashionable quarters of the human soul. Adam is as God made him. That is how he asks that we find him.

Pacifica — Freak Scene This could be Exhibit C: Argentinian teenage girls revved up on coffee and careening from power chord to power chord. Slide that barre around. They sneer and pout and make their declarations of autonomy while feeling, as teenage girls do, for the limits of their expressive power, keeping their cool as they discover to their glee (and ours) that it’s wider than they’d expected. Ines Adam and Martina Nintzel come off as BFFs out for a mutual confrontation with the adult world — one of those two-headed gum-cracking don’t-mess-with-my-sis teams that all rock scenes must possess. Truth is they met on the ‘net a year ago and began posting Strokes covers to YouTube. And we’ve really done it this time, haven’t we?; we’ve got virtual toddlers with nostalgia for the Meet Me In The Bathroom era. No pile of coke is safe. When they reopen Don Hill’s, I am fleeing town for Rhode Island. Consider that Ines and Martina weren’t even born when your buddy (you have one, I’m sure) fell down the stairs to the basement of Luxx. But they’ve got the attitude and energy down, and they’ve come up with a pretty good approximation of the sound, too. The songs are a different matter, but for now, let’s be generous and call them promising, if recursive. You’ll recall that the Strokes had so little material when they started that they had to play “Last Nite” twice. It made me wonder at the time why more bands didn’t do that sort of thing. You had to have no shame, and having no shame is a great place to start in this biz. It sure beats the hell out of a desire to sound like the Cocteau Twins, or acquiescence to a (male) producer’s Cocteau fantasies. Maybe Justine Frischmann was the hero we needed all along.

Pahua — Habita The Sotomayor sister slathers her avocado paste across a full-length set as the Sotomayor brother sits somewhere on the CDMX sidelines. To be totally honest, I wish somebody would phone that guy up. Paulina’s digital percussion is audacious y muy sabroso, and I continue to be impressed by the way in which she fuses cumbia and trad-Mexican rhythms with Afropop, Euro-electro and island nonsense in her private supercollider. The guest shots are well selected and represent a nice broad spectrum of Central American talent. She’s just not bringing the hooks the way she did with her family band, and without them, there’s not much to hang these ribbons of rhythm on. It all just slithers by quick and disappears, rattling and hissing, sinuous motion ruffling the tall grass at the edge of the city. What was that?, who knows. It’s gone now.

Palehound — Eye On The Bat Dry potato pancakes for dinner; no sauce. Edible, somewhat nutritious, filling. Dense, with black cakey stuff built up around the bottom. Mom may I be excused.

Paramore — This Is Why If they quit right now (and maybe they will), their trajectory would make a perfect parabola: one half Josh Farro, one half Taylor York, with Hayley Williams the constant throughout. Abums three and four are the twin pinnacles — records made when everything was clicking, documents of a great band in action with nothing received, one set half-helmed by Josh and transcending mall punk and emo-pop, the other half-helmed by Taylor and transcending the new wave revival. Albums two and five were the letter-perfect genre exercises where you knew where they were going but you were unable to resist them because they were so darn smart. Not as good as three and four, not as much imagination, but great albums nevertheless. One and six are the product of restless gangs of musicians with evident talent and cohesion, energy to burn, sometimes hitting and sometimes missing, giving the impression that they’re figuring things out in real time. One and six are also the only Paramore albums that contain songs that don’t really work, but the failed experiments are forgivable since the frontwoman and the drummer are so compelling. From Riot! through After Laughter, Hayley’s occasional lyrical missteps were those of a person who refused to self-censor and was willing to let her rage get the best of her (not a hanging offense for a rocker). On All We Know Is Falling, she was a kid who’d barely experienced the Warped Tour; on This Is Why, she’s approaching middle age, and beginning to write about stuff that would have been beneath the woman who sang “The Only Exception”: privilege, the news cycle, etc. When all the beans are counted, I reckon she’ll go down as the great American rock singer of the first part of the twenty-first century, and one of its strongest writers, too. But nobody hovers at five-star level forever. My guess is that she’s got one more fantastic project left in her. I doubt it’s gonna come with this group.

Paul Simon — Seven Psalms Joanna Newsom once asked why the pain of birth is lighter borne than the pain of death. Joanna, here’s your answer. I don’t think you’re gonna like it.

Peso Pluma — Genesis Of all the Pop En Español projects to make a splash the States in the wake of Bad Bunny’s commercial breakthrough, this one might be the most unlikely: a Norteño slash evil mariachi record sung by a part-Lebanese longhair with a vampiric knack for sucking the sun out of the rudiments of Mexican folk music. It’s got something to do with the super-chilly reverbs he’s using, and something to do with horn charts so staccato that it’s like they’re firing at you with silencers. Execution-style killing in some graffiti-tagged alley on the seedy periphery of Guadalajara. Target: you. The bass is thrummy and often far more aggressive than it needs to be, and the percussion sounds like somebody whacking on a plastic picnic plate with a pencil. The effect is spidery and unreal, and deepens the feeling of menace. As for Peso himself, he possesses the dead-eyed, pitch-perfect delivery of a saloon singer who will get capped by Tony DiNono if he misses a note. Mr. DiNono is angry tonight. Very touchy. Anyway, this is a monumental hit in Mexico, and the corrido-resistant U.S. audience has fallen for it, too. Strong melody plus distinctive sound plus sinister overtones?, that’s entertainment, no matter where on this benighted globe you might trot.

Peter Gabriel — i/o Feels so unnatural. Two — wait, no, three mixes, released all at once. How Kanye of him. It’s like he assumes we have infinite patience with Peter Gabriel (we do). Which one is the album? Well, that’s up to us. That so and so. No epistemological security with Peter around. For what it’s worth, I prefer the Bright Side mix to Tchad Blake’s Dark Side, mostly because the leavening imparted by Brightsider Spike Stent works better with Peter’s cautious late-life optimism about the transformative possibilities of technology. Peter has prodded the algorithm and decided that our prejudices are the main obstacle standing in the way of a delightfully fulfilling global mind-meld. “Love will be flowing, I have no doubt,” Peter assures us. Me, I have doubts; I mean, I’ve covered the Jersey City City Council. Those people can’t even agree about how to fix a pothole. You’d figure that a guy who spent his formative years in a band with Tony Banks would have more skepticism about the possibility of human progress; “why do we suffer each race to believe that no race has been grander,” etc. But eagle flew out of the night, and that was probably the best thing for his health in the long run. Maybe he really is aging backward. That would account for the pure Eighties pop moves of songs like “Olive Tree” and “Road to Joy,” and the layers of “Mercy Seat” synth pads, laid on trowel-thick, providing a pillowy cushion for peter’s woolgathering. He still sounds magnificent, with that ageless, soul-drenched voice of his, mixed (on this Tchad and Spike agree) so that no inflection, no matter how minor, is lost to the listener. And it is always a great pleasure to hear Manu Katché play the drums.

Pierce The Veil — The Jaws Of Life No sane person is ever going to make it through track number two. Vic Fuentes locates the most irritating part of a thoroughly abrasive performance and finds a way to return to it, many times over, with a vile regurgitative delivery that, I have to think, totaled an expensive microphone. I doubt that any band would ever cop to a Brokencyde influence, but I sure as hell hear one. But I can’t help it. I have a soft spot as wide as a Warped Tour mosh pit for these guys. Vic has a knack for generating musical drama shared by few of his pop-punk peers. Like a looter at a riot, he grabs the most cornball elements from various déclassé styles with both hands, through broken glass, and runs like hell. The next thing you know, there it is in his trophy room/basement: glam rock (title tune), hair metal (“So Far So Fake”), electropop (“Shared Trauma”). As bratty as he sounds, Vic is a note-perfect singer with terrific technical and emotional range, and as a guitarist, he’s a cheap thrills merchant, opting for speed and aggression even when he doesn’t have to. When Chloe Moriondo swings by to duet with Vic on a torch song, it’s hard not to worry about her well-being. Chloe survived. I reckon you will too.

Poppy — Zig Moriah Pereira zags back to Gothy pop. Main collaborators here: trusted buddyroo Simon Wilco, one of the architects of the post-Titanic Poppy character, and Ali Payami, Max Martin empire refugee and contributor to Taylor Swift’s Reputation. The latest Poppy album does sometimes play as an alternate-history Taylor set in which she never, er, zigzagged away from electrobeats to the more natural sound of Lover. Some of the material here is positively normal. The star registers an un-Poppy-like complaint about inauthenticity on “Knockoff,” and “Motorbike,” delicious as it is, is practically an empowerment anthem. But the more you spin Zig, the weirder it gets. Moriah pushes into glitchiness, off-kilter electronica, and muted expressions of rage. “Life is a commercial for death”: other writers could have come up with that, but only Poppy could have made it into a chorus. You may miss the speedy guitar, prog-metal changes, and hellacious shrieks, or you might just surrender to the stormy beauty of “Panic In The Attic.” Poppy’s singing continues to improve: her voice is still thin, but she’s learned to crack it like a lash. When she calls herself the blood and guts all over the page, she’s got the history and the discography to back up the boast. She wins extra points from me for utterly obviating the need for Grimes, now and forever. So trust Moriah. She keeps on giving.

Pynkie — Songies Locally sourced mush. Pleasant and friendly, but indistinguishable from the six zillion other albums made in this very style. Guitar gauze and b-vox haze, powder-puff performances, echoes upon echoes, the babbling brook of cliché and genial complaint. Representive lyric: “the Internet is getting boring/I can see through the veil of perception.” Well way to go. Congratulations for passing media studies class. Pynkie is on this list because she’s from Jersey City and her initial recordings were crisp and promising. Since going semipro and hitching her wagon to streambait production, it’s been all mushrock and sonic backwash. It’s a depressing story, IMO. Let’s just stop talking about it.

Quasi — Breaking The Balls Of History There’s that sandpaper combo organ and those upturned rubber bucket drums, going at it like it’s the 1990s. Just listen to these two arrested adolescents on “Riots & Jokes”: overdrive, fuzz, cymbal sizzle, hollering, everything that the squeamish gate out. The lyrics are like a transcription of Resistance Twitter, but at least they’re witty about it. There’s a storm brewing in Portland. “Black coffee, no future” — that’s the diagnosis from the man who once predicted state-ensured contentment via total isolation and suffocating surveillance. I thought about the kickoff song on Featuring Birds about a zillion times during the lockdown, and I imagine the members of Quasi did too. “Doomscrollers” plays as “Our Happiness Is Guaranteed” Part Two, only it isn’t speculative fiction anymore. Funny how the grimmest predictions of America’s future keep coming true. We keep making soothsayers out of our most articulate pessimists. It kinda makes me glad I won’t be around in 2112.

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble — A Gallery Of The Imagination Grouchy Rick is entitled to do whatever he wants. Grouchy Me reserves the right to prefer it, vastly, when he’s doing lengthy synthesizer solos a la Red Planet. This is Rick and Company bringing artworks to life via foofy orchestral vignettes. They’re like scores for interstitial scenes in TV movies; montages in which Angela Lansbury dotes on a baby raccoon at Christmastime. Rick does get off a couple of good leads, though. That’ll be his last act before he kicks off: they’ll bring him a Moog on his gurney, he’ll give us some final Revealing Science of God, make a snarky comment about the doctor, and turn out the lights. It’s been a life well and grumpily lived, Rick.

Riverside — ID.Entity “Just machines to make big decisions/program our fellows with compassion and vision.” So sang Donald Fagen in 1982 in the voice of a kid from 1960. We have been fantasizing about artificial intelligence for a long time. No matter how much dystopian lit we’ve cranked out about the rise of the robots, it is a fantasy. We want machines to compensate for our inadequacies. Otherwise, those big decisions are left to the likes of Ron De Santis. Not only do we dream, persistently, about Fagen’s streamlined, tech-governed world, we have labored for decades to make it happen. Automation came to the arts decades ago, and it did not displace the artist. The TR-808 did not eliminate the need for Phil Collins. Generative artificial intelligence has been in use in video games and pop music since the turn of the millennium at least. Software designed to make the onerous task of writing a bit easier by guessing the likely word to come have, too. All these programs — including ChatGPT and Midheaven and the rest — are aggregators. They all work on the same principle. There are datasets, and there’s a big-ass computer. The big-ass computer makes predictions and anticipations based on recognizable patterns in the data mine. The only difference in 2023 is that the sets are wider. We are shoveling our data into the smelting furnace of the Internet with the assiduousness of a thousand mithril-forging dwarves. This allows us to rewrite “Bad Romance” in the style of William Carlos Williams or create a full set of Topps baseball cards out of the mayors of New York City. And this is fun; globe-cooking as crypto, I am sure, but a neat diversion for a slow news/meme day. However, this is where the story ends. The computer can make extrapolations and suggestions and do it so fast and so seamlessly that it can look to an outsider like it is reasoning. But it is not reasoning. It’s a machine. It doesn’t have a mind or a body. We can only get out of it what we put into it. The computer that teaches itself to be smarter than humans is another sci-fi fantasy, authored by creative human beings who are anxious to transcend our crippling intellectual limitations. We have been programming computers since the dawn of IBM, and never once has a machine come up with an original thought. They can beat us in chess. But chess is a closed system devised, down to the last pawn, by humans. Outpacing the human processor is what the computer is there for in the first place. If it couldn’t beat us in chess, it’d be a damned refrigerator. What this means is that all the handwringing about artificial intelligence is entirely misplaced. We are not going to be battling HAL9000 anytime soon, but we may well be battling yokels with Viking hats from Arkansas who want the head of the Jew on a pike. If we can use technology to pacify or otherwise sideline those guys, by all means, bring on the technology. I cannot help but notice that our application of computer modeling to social, political, ecological, and medical exigencies has been a spectacular failure, as the world around us continues to burn and we keel over from unexplained blood clots. So for God’s sake, let’s cool it with the hyperbole about A.I., can we? This is not a miraculous transformative moment. Humanity is not passing the baton to synthetic superiors in any field of endeavor. Hell, I can’t even get my bank app to work properly. Our machines are frail because people are frail. Our machines, alas, are all too human.

Rodney Crowell — The Chicago Sessions See, Lucy? You hear that, Andy? This is how you do religious skepticism. No unearned irreverence for smart points. Instead, a wrangle with inexplicable forces from a wounded, weary cowboy, and a complaint about the inadequacy of our methods and our language. Take the space between us/and fill it up some way. Rodney has earned his occasional cynicism through his grasp of the basics, and producer Jeff Tweedy tethers the thematic flags firmly: compassion, struggle, heartbreak, romantic longing, it all snaps in the Lake Michigan wind. Like late Rizzuto, Rodney never forgets to give us the balls and strikes, even during his senior moments. The interjections of pianist Matt Rollings break through the occasional somnambulance, and make the Texas highway connecting Rodney and Lyle Lovett bright enough to be visible from space. Though Rodney is far nicer to the chicks in his path than Lyle ever is. It’s hard to imagine Lyle doing an I-owe-it-all-to-you song. Rodney kicks off with one. I may even be inclined to think he means it.

Róisín Murphy — Hit Parade A woman I know from independent music in New Jersey has taken to picking fights with transgender people on the Internet. She’s intelligent and sharp-witted, so she tends to win these battles: either the transgender person gives up in the face of her irritation, or the transgender person falls back on laudable but argumentatively empty emotional appeals. I’ve watched her gather a following for doing this — a group of other online warriors who identify as trans-exclusionary feminists, or just trans-exclusionary — and I know the dynamics of the web well enough to see where this is going. If you’re clever and angry and impatient with those who don’t see things as you do, and you’ve got time to devote to venom-slinging, the Internet will make a niche star out of you. Those same personality traits that turn audiences off in the indiepop clubs are celebrated and amplified by social media, which tells us something about social media, and maybe something about indiepop, too. Although she uses much harsher language, her argument isn’t too different from the one that’s gotten J.K. Rowling in hot water with a large segment of her fanbase (including some of the actors in the Harry Potter movies.) She believes that men are men and women are women, and neither hormone treatment, nor psychological therapy, nor gender-reassignment surgery, nor self-affirmation nor prayer will ever alter basic biological facts. She argues that it isn’t incumbent on society to ratify the trans person’s thinking; in fact, she insists it’s imperative that we disabuse the trans person of her delusion. Feminists organized and fought for safe spaces designed for women, and transwomen ought never to be allowed in those spaces. Those who insist on inclusion are, she believes, invaders at best, and predatory at worst. Intellectually, I understand this. I don’t agree with it at all, but I get where she’s coming from. I can see the logic that led her to the conclusions she’s drawn, even if the vehemence and cruelty with which she’s arguing makes me think that she’s motivated by something other than point-and-counterpoint debate. Yet my own experience of the world tells me that she’s dead wrong, and her arguments, no matter how elegantly constructed, are making life tougher for people who really don’t deserve any more abuse than that which they’ve already gotten. Because if there’s one thing that the trans-exclusionary have in common, it’s how persistently they’ve determined to punch down. It’s almost as if they can’t help themselves. Which brings us to Róisín Murphy, an artist who, until recently, was considered a zany prankster not of this world. That was her rep until she was caught doing something terrestrial: signaling Facebook support for Graham Linehan, a British comedian who, like way too many middle-aged famous people, has recentered his celebrity around vehement objections to transgender advocates. Almost immediately, Róisín got body-slammed by the two hundred and fifty pound linebacker that is Internet opinion. Róisín faced one of the most consequential cancellations that any artist has suffered since PWR BTTM went poof. Hit Parade was disowned by Ninja Tune and the BBC booted her from their radio programming. Positive publicity in the pipeline was flushed into the sewers; The Guardian felt the need to amend a five-star review. Shows got scrapped. Even so, like Morgan Wallen, Róisín got her revenge at the record stores. She also refused to retract her written statement, even as she issued the dreaded Apology If She’d Upset Anybody. Thus it’s all too likely that this ugly chapter isn’t over. Those compelled to take to public platforms to register their dismay over transgender rights find it hard to stop. They are animated by an impish spirit that prods them to do things like picking fights on social media mere days before an album release. While Róisín the Citizen has every right to express herself, this is conduct unbecoming of a pop star, and it’s deeply disrespectful to the party weirdo audience that made her idiosyncratic career possible. Like Rowling, and Linehan, and, for that matter, Magdalen Berns, she’s not a biologist. She isn’t a social scientist. She’s a disco singer, and a very good one. Venting on Facebook like a cranky old man is far beneath her. We depend on our artists to transcend the quotidian and show us something a little more cosmic than tawdry op-eds and gender policing. That’s the job. It’s jarring to see them indulge in the same behavior we associate with neckbeards and common shitposters. In this era of rampant side-taking and loud calls for ideological purity, it’s imperative for all of us to remember that we don’t have to have an opinion on everything. It’s okay to say, you know what?, I’ve never looked in an electron microscope in my life. I didn’t pay attention in science class, and that was a principled, noble stand I took; I was hot as balls and meant for the stage. I will leave the adjudication of complicated medical questions to the geneticists. Those in lab coats can chromosome around on this subject in the medical journals. I’m going to listen to a higher calling, and in so doing, I will continue to ratify the lifestyle choices of young listeners who depend on me to be a projection of their fantasies and possible futures. My mind might be just as narrow as that of any other aging authority figure, but I’m not going to let on. I’ll tacitly advance the twin causes of personal reinvention and the plasticity of identity, not to mention sexual expression. If pop is going to turn its back on that stuff, we really might as well shut the whole thing down and let the damned podcasters and TED talkers rule the earth.

Sage Elsesser — Ways Of Knowing Hmm, this is a little more Chilled Cow than I’d expect to hear from such a brand-conscious fellow. Very 2019. Beats to relax/study to. I guess that stream ain’t gonna bait itself. I point the finger at producer Budgie, who mines the crates for soul and gospel samples too buttery-smooth to carry any actual soul or gospel fire. They’re beautiful, but their significance is mainly cinematic, narrative and predictive. Like the distant ring of Mr. Rogers’s trolley, they’re letting you know that life lessons are on the way. I guess we’ve got to accept that sort of thing from a man called Sage. Luckily he isn’t insufferable about it, even when he’s mumbling boasts about his grace and poise. There’s something to be said for a hip-hop album that goes down as easy as this one does, with words assimilating effortlessly to the flow of sound, ideas dissolving into the quiet storm and turning into gentle mist. Breathe in, close your eyes, let your yoga teacher correct your alignment. Oh, and if you don’t know, Sage Elsesser was the kid in the interview on the tail end of Frank Ocean’s Blonde. He was born to this. That helps to explain the asceticism and lack of hunger here. Even the requisite voicemail message from his momma is unnaturally calm. It’s comforting, in a way, even though a family like this probably should be pursuing careers in preventative medicine.

Samia — Honey Samia Finnerty’s debut set had some snappy tunes on it. The new one, rushed as a Rachael Ray Thirty Minute Meal, does not. The star attempts to get over on impertinence and nihilism, rambling about killing a romantic rival, fighting with the emergency room doctor, making water boogie (whatever the fuck that is) to Ke$ha, “bonding” at parties, parties, parties, and fantasizing about what it would feel like to stand for something. Admitting that she lied when she said she hates Los Angeles. That part, at least, I believe.

Saturdays At Your Place — Always Cloudy Nothing groundbreaking here: emo kids from Kalamazoo playing emo in the Midwestern style. But if you ever want to know why this particular expression of American popular music persists in the face of general commercial indifference, the song “Tarot Cards” is a place you might want to look. All the elements are in place: the twinkly guitar part answered by the six-string crunch of suspended chords, the urgency of the pushing-pushing drummer, the half-shouted chorus melody that’s just sugary enough to stick but mostly a savory treat, and the essentially benign quality of the Holden Caulfield-like narrator. He meets a girl at a party. Her friends don’t like him, and he concurs with their assessment. They trade compliments warily, neither sure that they’re deserving of them. Together they slide into a reverie and stretch the time like taffy before they have to go home. Since they agree they don’t want the night to end, even when it does, it never does. You were there; you remember. And if you weren’t — if you were cramming for the test instead — I’ll let you in on something. Nobody really cared if you turned your homework in.

Seven Impale — Summit Another in the bumper crop of fine progressive rock albums we’ve been growing this year. This one has nice tangled roots; they’re hard to peel but they’re nutritious and tasty nonetheless. The best thing about this gang of Norwegian hellions is the organist, who’ll remind you that an overdriven B-3 (or whatever B-3 simulator he’s using) can set a whole mix ablaze like a blowtorch on dry kindling. When he gets going with the sax man and the pianist, these ten-minute epics catch fire faster than you can generate a Van Der Graaf. The association is deepened by the wonderfully pompous frontman, who comes on like a cross between theatrical Peter Hammill and Anton Szandor LeVay in mid-Satanic sermon. The black magic is undercut somewhat by the ear-hammering doom-sludge metal tendencies of the rhythm section, who attempt to accomplish via sheer force things that could probably be better expressed if they were insinuated. Horror kids, remember the lesson of Alien/Aliens: in Alien, you never get a good look at the alien. In Aliens, they show you the alien. Once they’ve shown you the alien, there’s nowhere to go. They’ve got to keep giving you bigger aliens. Let’s just say that by the end of this set, that alien has gotten pretty big. Space goop all over the place.

Sigur Ros — Atta Oh god no.

Slowdive — Everything Is Alive Sight And Sound recently identified Jean Dielman by Chantal Akerman as the greatest movie ever made. Other members of the movie cognoscenti followed suit. Chances are you don’t know what it is, so I will tell you: it’s a slow-moving, three-hour slice-of-life picture about a French housewife. It’s probably fantastic. But that’s beside the point. You can call this new critical consensus a blow struck on behalf of feminist cinema, or a celebration of auteur-style filmmaking, or just a win for the underdog. What you cannot call it is healthy. Film is a popular medium. People do not storm the cinemas for movies like Jean Dielman, and for understandable reasons. When critics rate an obscure release ahead of Star Wars and The Wizard Of Oz and Saturday Night Fever, they wave away values that have been ratified, over and over, by the general public. This is not to say that unpopular movies aren’t worth championing, or that idiosyncratic picks and oddball takes aren’t welcome. They always are. Wave that flag for what you love, critics. But evaluation of pop forms must also take pop tastes into consideration. Otherwise critics end up on a leaky dinghy drifting farther and farther away from the ship, and nobody on the ocean liner can tell you if the food is any good. Popular music is far more hale than the movies are, and critical consensus does not tend to be misaligned with mass approval. Nobody is going to rate a collection of Scriabin sonatas ahead of the latest Rihanna, and we don’t have the equivalent of Spiderman Sixteen: Regurgitation Of Spiderman making critics’ eyeballs glaze over. Our blockbusters tend to be appreciated by the dedicated and the superficially engaged alike. That said, it wasn’t so long ago that the Internet publication of record opted not to review Taylor Swift’s fourth and finest album. A scary percentage of people who ought to know better performed stupefaction at the ongoing success of Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night.” How could this plainspoken character sketch performed with absolute clarity and emotional intensity over a head-nodding trap beat be a hit?, it’s only exactly what people have liked since the dawn of American music. The big problem with all the plaudits for mushrock is that the style breaches the covenant that the prophet Chuck Berry brought down from the mountain on the sacred discs of rock. We’re supposed to put the vox on top and mix the singer so that all the architectural features of the Heartbreak Hotel are easily apprehended. We’re meant to leave the midrange open so that we can follow the story of Eleanor Rigby without undue interference, and we’re supposed to present a firmly-defined bottom end to send tremors through our loins. The star is supposed to be a huge presence: James Brown working up a cold sweat, Tina Turner rolling on the river, Bob Dylan demanding to know how does it feel, heck, Cab Calloway hi-de-hi-di-hi-di-hoing his way around the Cotton Club. If you check the charts, you’ll see that the biggest and most memorable hits still follow this template. They likely always will. Shoegaze, dreampop, psych and other mush substyle practitioners are never crashing the party. The music they make is often expertly discharged, but it will be remembered only by genre aficionados and record collectors. So: long may American popular music be filled with left turns and weird moves and projects that confound expectation. But there is a main thread. Lately we’ve been missing it.

Spanish Love Songs — No Joy Big hearted, solid and square rock band, a wee bit overrated in the emo/pop-punk demimonde and virtually unknown elsewhere. They give you the car crash right off the bat and leave the dead grandparent to the next song. I don’t mean to be (overly) snide. I just think their sense of pacing and occasion betrays them; their maturity, too, which, in a complete misunderstanding of the genre, is often advanced as a reason to pay attention to them. So, tempted as I am to write that this is a good place for the emo-skeptical to start with the genre, I think that would be misleading. It’s not that Springsteenian goodness can’t be accessed by way of The Wonder Years and Aaron West. It’s that both Springsteen and Soupy Campbell understand that storytelling requires timing and tonal variation to work. Dylan Slocum opens with operatic fervor and maintains his hyper-seeeerious baritone whether he’s riding an ambulance, contemplating suicide, guilt-tripping his neighbors, or wondering whether to beat down a trust-fund kid. He’s like an actor who addresses the camera with the same anguished rictus in every scene of every movie. His drummer has a similar problem: he’s technically very good, but he drives the same speed on and off the highway, and whoah, buddy, you can’t pull into a gas station like that. That’s the opposite of emo. It’s the inverse of something like Awakebutstillinbed, a band that requires you to sit there and listen to the nuances of Shannon Taylor’s tantrum in order to get it, and it’s vile and upsetting and off-key, and you’re all what the fuck is this?, until it suddenly coalesces into a full portrait of a human being. Spanish Love Songs sounds great when you drop the digital needle but never advances past the initial impression. So slap “Haunted” and/or “Marvel” on your year-end mixes and leave the full-album statement to Home Is Where. Oh, and before I let this go, I feel the need to share with you my least favorite couplet of the year, taken from a song called, I kid you not, “Re-Emerging Signs Of The Apocalypse”: “I watched the empire fall while I was waiting for a tire rotation/or was it on the day that I met my ex’s shaman?” That’s everything that people hate about emo in twenty words. Faux-confusion, delusions of prophetic grandeur, absurd oversharing of superficial wounds, the narrator’s assumption that his sensitivity makes him privy to particulars that the muggles miss, nasty and gratuitous shots at a girlfriend, and the conviction that every personal misfortune is a harbinger of the end of the world. Well, I guess people hate the whining, too. The whining and the screaming.

Sparks — The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte Sure, what the hell, why not bring Sparks back while we’re at it. Not that these two ever exactly went away — not with celebrity pals and fawning documentaries lavishing the praise on their iconoclasm. But even by this band’s weirdo standards, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is a heck of an odd duck. Traces of glam-rock and arty new wave are audible here, but there’s also techno-experimentation, machine noises, Euroshivers, and string arrangements redolent of ‘40s and ‘50s movie palaces. Melodies come in on funny beats, passages deliberately wrongfoot the listener, the Devil claims the intervals, and escalators are put in motion. It’s music only the Maels would make. With Sparks, superciliousness is always a problem, even if you accept that it’s part of the point of the act. Whether Russell really cares about the weeping gehl (“Sad!” he deadpans) is open to interpretation. Tears for the wartime plight of Veronica Lake hit the sampler in a pattern suggestive of “Synchronicity I,” which, to me, makes their sincerity moot: that, to me, is art. Some of the funny ones might be called cringe comedy, like the tale of an accountant and design teacher who pretend to be fugitives, and the North Koreans who call Kim Jong Il their deejay and dance, murderously, to his beat. But I don’t think there’s anything too funny about the guy buying drugs for his girlfriend, or the newborn baby who judges the world insufficient and begs his mother to let him back in the womb. Ron Mael’s lyrics are excellent throughout, and Russell delivers them in that arch, absurdly affected voice he’s been using since Watergate at least. They told us in ‘73: regardless of the size of the town, it won’t be them who are gonna leave. I’m glad they were good to that.

Squirrel Flower — Tomorrow’s Fire During the early days of the pandemic, some mischief-maker must have pressed the sludge button on the back of this woman’s head, or somewhere on her activation CPU. A sludge gate creaked open. At first, Ella Williams generated only moderate streams of sludge. But as those in the environmental protection biz will tell you, that’s not sustainable. Undammed rivulets soon become a sluice river in a sludge crescendo. In 2023, this human sludge pipe is pumping impressive amounts of sludge into the mushrock ecosystem. No one can stop it. Hate it or love it, it’s given her a lane of her own, and it’s added some swamp-stomping sound to a style that, to be honest, could use a little biodiversity. To turn herself into a formidable filth-sprayer, Williams decamped to Asheville and solicited the services of MJ Lenderman of Wednesday and the dirtheads responsible for smudging up Indigo De Souza’s party dress. They’ve retained many mushrock elements, such as heavy reverb, vocal stacks, phasing, processing, apocalyptic lyrics and lugubrious tempos, and poured sludge into the mush in a great sludgy, mushy belch, and stirred until they achieved the rich, gummy texture of a sludge-mush slurpee. Rock on, Ella!

Steven Wilson — The Harmony Codex The neo-prog BMOC returns with a set that puts me in mind, of all things, of Random Access Memories. It’s a similar crisply-ironed patchwork of electronic music, krautrock, sighing vox, showoff prog, and blatant overtures to the pop market. There’s valorization of warmth, but it’s not as warm as its creators think it is. Instead, it’s a little impersonal; there’s a certain sense of crushing inevitability from the drivers of the steamroller of virtuosity. Pharrell was up all night to get lucky, Steven is up all night arguing with reactionary trolls on internet message boards. Is that really so different? (It is.) What I will remember in both cases are the accomplished performances that erupt from instrumentals that justify their excessive length via dynamic shifts, melodic and rhythmic development, and pure momentum. The best one here is the electric piano solo that rises like a cobra out of a basket on “Impossible Tightrope,” but I also like the filthy, comically overdriven bass workout on “Staircase.” As for the maestro, he has decided to go as David Gilmour for Halloween. He keeps the costume on most of the time, except for the moments when he appears in the guise of Steven Wilson, erstwhile lead singer of Porcupine Tree.

Sufjan Stevens — Javelin It’s fun to root against the St. Louis Cardinals until somebody gets hurt. Then you’re reminded that the guys you’ve been demonizing to heighten the drama of the game are human beings. Comically excessive vilification just doesn’t feel good anymore. Over the years I’ve ripped on Sufjan harder than I have on any artist that doesn’t start with a Radio and end with a Head. During his late-nite Internet wanderings, he might have chanced upon my over-the-top invective and got a kick out of it. Or maybe it pissed him off. Or maybe he didn’t care. Whatever it was, I’m sure his reaction was honest. Those were games for sunny days. In December 2023, I am sincerely sorry to read about the death of his partner. I could say that I can only imagine what he went through, but, alas, I don’t have to imagine. So let’s do this one accordingly. Sufjan Stevens is an extremely talented and dedicated musician whose idea of what makes for a good recording is very different from mine. And today, we will leave it at that.

Susanne Sundfør — Blómi Susanne knows English; she does most of her singing in it. Ergo I must conclude that she is baiting me with that title. And you know what, nope, I am not taking it. We are sophisticated motherfuckers here. We are all about the music. You may recall that in 2017, Susanne made a minor mushrock masterpiece called Songs For People In Trouble. It contained some Floyd-y voice bits and musique concrete, some distraught Scandinavian folk-rock sung by a woman who sounded like she’d just been abandoned in the fjords, a track or two that played like Dolly Parton getting ripped apart at the subatomic level in the Hadron Collider, and tons of goopy b-vox stacks of Susanne unashamedly ten-tuple tracked with extra reverb on top. Blow Me picks up right where Trouble left off, but this time, it takes about ten minutes of cranking the key in the starter before the engine turns over. I hear that happens on icy days in Norway. By song number three she’s got the fire going, and she maintains a good, comforting simmer for the better part of this too-short set. “Fare Thee Well” is basically “Natural Woman,” and you sure won’t hear me complaining about that; “Leikara Ljód” peaks with a plea for shock treatment over a gospel clap-down that suggests that she’s got an understanding of the roots of pop-rock that most in the frozen North cannot access. I don’t even mind that she’s not so distraught anymore. Six years ago she was one of the first to recognize we were in trouble. Maybe she’s one of the first to recognize when we’re pulling out of our slump.

Sydney Sprague — Somebody In Hell Loves You One way out of the mush morass is to follow the example of mush-era rockers who’ve managed to cauterize the gooey stuff so they could walk on it. You think I mean Paramore, but I don’t: they were always talented enough to levitate right over the whole mess. I’m thinking about Threads by Now, Now, a record that was almost completely ignored upon its release, but which, I am glad to see, has come to be accepted as an early teens landmark. In time, maybe it’ll even be considered a classic. Sydney Sprague, aka Exhibit D, is an Arizona youngster torn, as so many youngsters are, between her desire to tell a story and an equally ferocious impulse to throw a fit. Somebody In Hell Loves You reconciles those impulses via indignant rock songs, at least two of which are essentially “Crooked Teeth” by Death Cab (not complaining; gotta start somewhere). Sydney is sufficiently mush-adjacent to land a few tunes on Spotify playlists, but you can tell she’s parting the fog with her hands and straining for the kind of compositional definition that has been out of fashion for the past decade. Some of the tracks remind me of Now, Now, and others suggest the artist Samia Finnerty could have been if she’d been able to pull herself away from the punchbowl. Trends on the apps make me think she’s not just yelling into the wind. As I type, one of the biggest successes on TikTok is “Blame Brett” by the Beaches, a Canadian band that has been throwing Frischmannized punk at the digital wall for years in the hope that something will stick. It finally has. They haven’t changed. So it must be the world.

Tennis — Pollen Mushrockers do not tend to have long careers. Make an album or two, do a Gorilla Vs. Bear feature, appear at SXSW and a few festivals, tacitly concede to your paucity of musical ideas, return to public policy school. Tennis is a notable exception. They keep cranking out the same record, surrounding one and a half good songs with pailsful of glistening, gelatinous mush. In a sick sort of way you have to admire their consistency. I think it comes from living on a prison ship, or wherever the heck they make their home. Sea-salted gruel in, sea-salted gruel out.

The Clientele — I Am Not There Anymore You could call this a judicious reallocation of the maximalist energy of Music For The Age Of Miracles, or a nifty balancing act by tweepop checkbook-balancers, or some topiary snipping in Alisdair’s hedgerow. Instead of violins and horns and nylon-string guitar and electronics all going at once, now it’s a little machine-feedback noise over here, a burst of cello over there on the margins, pitter-patter in hushed corners, backward-masking for the phantoms on the dark October lane. The bass player plinks out some piano instrumentals and the broad from the Would-Be-Goods rambles about her suburban childhood in two spoken word tracks that kiiiiiiinda push it, but who’s counting? Not me. Not when Alisdair has contributed a couple of his best pure pop tunes in years: “Blue Over Blue,” “Lady Grey,” and “Claire’s Not Real,” a shoo-in candidate for your all-time Clientele mix. A little of that whispered spooky-dooky on “Dying In May” and the “Garden Eye Mantra,” lotsa girls’ names, reoccurring images that spread like fire (including images of fire) from song to song, tweedy British romance and smooching on the still Edwardian streets. Plus hints of mortality and permanent loss, and, in “Chalk Flowers,” a shattering heartbreak lyric good enough for Richard and Linda Thompson.

The Front Bottoms — You Are Who You Hang Out With Coach Sella advises us to strap on gloves and batter the punching bag. Get out that rage and resentment before it eats us up. Hey, I thought that was what emo music was for. Maybe it’s (whispers) a metaphor. Or maybe that’s how Brian imagines the microphone — a responsive membrane hanging there to flutter in the gale of his recalcitrance. Brian’s oppositional defiant disorder has always been expressed through his nonchalance, but push him a little and he’ll howl about how he’s always been/sort of an embarrassment. Those who don’t really get this band will sometimes knock him for his occasional use of Autotune. He’s not T-Pain, folks; he isn’t trying to have pop hits. He’s just adjusting the emotional weather. The new one splits the difference between the wounded reveries of Going Grey and the lacerating fourthwave of In Sickness And In Flames to nice career-summarizing effect. Matt Uychich continues to radiate irascible personality from behind the kit, amplifying Brian’s bursts of lucidity and punctuating the gags. Barking dogs, cellphone notifications, radio shack synthesizers and goofy what-is-it noises: the arrangements highlight the silliness that has always been part of the subversion. Well, sometimes. Other times it’s just mischief for mischief’s sake. Goofballs on a roll. That works, too.

The Hold Steady — The Price Of Progress After a couple of sets that foregrounded the band, this one places the emphasis back on the storytelling. That means a return of some of Craig Finn’s old foibles, including narrators who just wander around sans discernible motivation, getting in over their heads and smiling as the bulldozer approaches. Since most of these new characters are only tangentially related to the rock, there isn’t even a chillout tent for them. Instead, encounters that seem to promise meaningful developments in the lives of the protagonists merely open the door to more frustration, like the story of the junkie who crushes up pills and watches her straightlaced upstairs neighbor settle into a conventional life after their one-night drug stand. (She shoulda boned him, the song implies.) There’s one where a couple of tourists in the bush get gummed up with a band of guerrillas who are probably running drugs. It’s a little like Fred Schneider doing a V.S. Naipaul audiobook, and it’s good. Better: the tale of a drunk who runs out on the field at a football game. “Flyover Halftime” deepens my suspicion that Finn would like to be a hooligan, but he’s too empathetic to tear up the turf. So he gets his buddy to do it.

The Japanese House — In The End It Always Does The perils of working with Justin Vernon, vol. 4080. Here, Justin gifts one of his pillowy drunken robot beats to Amber Bain, who puts it in the cleanup position on her new album. Before the wax on the vinyl even sets, he turns around and sells the same beat to Travis Scott, who promptly puts it in the fourth position on his album. We can discuss the business ethics of this with our Rutgers business ethics class should we need to pick up some adjunct work. But I doubt it would be fruitful to bring it up with Justin, who has since smoked a lot more pot. A lot more. More pot. A lot more pot. Huh? Amber’s sunshower-steamy brand of mushrock is slightly better defined than it used to be, but I can’t say I think about her at all when I am playing Utopia. That’s totally unlike my experience of listening to “Over There.” No matter what amber coos and sighs, I keep on expecting Travis to barge in and start bragging about the roly-poly on his wrist. Before you suggest that Amber is laughing all the way to the Japanese bank, notice that her name does not appear anywhere on the Utopia credits. Justin, by contrast, is credited as a writer and a producer. Kids, this is what happens when you topline: your butler whips the rug out from under you and lets Travis Scott wipe his feet all over it. Oh, also, if Amber loves Joni enough to name her dog after her, and if she can even kindasorta play piano like Joni, why doesn’t she do that all the time? Wait, don’t answer that. The perils of working with Matty Healy, vol. 4080.

The Lemon Twigs — Everything Harmony And on that subject: some bands call themselves the 1975. This band is 1975. These two madly baroque Long Islanders, brothers, I believe, flip over pages of the classic rock playbook that are infrequently referenced — Seals And Crofts, Orleans, Bread, Iain Matthews Southern Comfort, etc. — and do it with such grace and supple wrist action that I’m comfortable saying we may have a new Left Banke on our hands. The Lemon Twigs give us chimes, strings, falsetto harmonies, chord substitutions, modulations, tricky chromatic passages, everything we’re told that new songwriters don’t care about anymore. From a cloud in Nirvana, Burt Bacharach nods approvingly. This is so carefully appointed and exquisitely crafted that I have to believe they spent the entire lockdown sound-matching. Gold it is, but I’m not sure I’d call it mellow. Otherwise, why would the centerpiece of the set be a song that goes “every day is the worst day of my life,” over and over? Don’t answer that; we all know. When the words fall away and we’re left with a sighing outro, it’s a long, sad look out the window on an inaccessible world. Let it not be forgotten how much young people sacrificed in an attempt to keep old people alive. Maybe old people ought to, at the very least, acknowledge this, and say thank you.

The Natvral — Summer Of No Light Of all the odd pivots in the history of alternative pop, Kip Berman’s successful conversion to hardcore Bossism might be the biggest shocker. Fundamentalist Bossism, even; End Of Days dispensationalism preaching out on E Street. Struck dumb by the career-nuking audacity of The Natvral, I returned to the four Pains album in search of clues. I ended up dancing, naturally. But I also thought that if I squinted my ears, I could discern a frustrated heartland rocker lurking behind those C86 remakes. No dice. Kip’s aesthetic and delivery were seamlessly attuned to audience expectations. There was no daylight whatsoever between Kip’s execution and the band of Slumberland’s fantasies. Now that dream pop and attendant styles have reached nauseating saturation, he could have continued cranking out Pains records albums indefinitely and he would have been seen as a progenitor and as a leader of the mushpack. Turns out Grandpa Shoegaze wasn’t what he wanted to be. Not since Ice-T made the Body Count album has a cool points possessor adopted a style at such radical variance from the genre with which he was associated. Cop killer better you than me. Why did he do it? Life is short. Rothko might have been content painting blurry rectangles for a hundred years. Other artists might not want to repeat themselves for a living. They might have other avenues to explore. Good on Kip for flipping the script. It’s like Sarah Bareilles said in ’13: Kip Berman, I wanna see you be brave. Yes I paraphrase.

The New Pornographers — Continue As A Guest As pandemic projects go, here’s one of the most destabilizing: the moodiest set in the NPs catalogue, and a clear expression of alienation, complete with some of the grimmest metaphors for our technodystopia and cabin fever yet waxed. The firm of Newman & Case gives us Pontius Pilate showing selfies of the crucifixion to a revolted captive audience. “Pilate, too soon!,” they tell him, and when will it ever not be? Uncle Carl misses Kurt Dahle like schools miss teachers/like Kathy Lee misses Regis, but he’s compensated with misty Roxy art rock complete with lots of breathy blowing from a saxophonist who amplifies the weary melancholy of the songwriting. Long afternoons in too-warm rooms where the windows don’t open, clever, ambiguous one-liners, sick self-burns, the usual vicious barbed hooks. Guest is more of a Carl Newman solo album than he probably wanted it to be, but that, too, goes straight to theme. And the one where he boasts sarcastically about his command of the romantic languages is, in attitude if not sound, the closest to Pretzel Logic this stealth Dan fan is ever going to get.

The Reds, Pinks & Purples — The Town That Cursed Your Name Well well. Glenn Donaldson finally found an emotional pit deep enough to contain his ire. No more is he fretting over girls. His true beef is with his record contract, or lack thereof. I expect indie musicians will relate, even if they’re not gonna like the trajectory here: vague hopes of finding a pathway to professional success to ostracism and defiance in the face of rejection to selling the van and the equipment. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. Glenn has sounded pissed off before, but never quite so acidic and unmarketable. It suits the subject matter to a T. As if to prove a point, he’s sharpened up the songwriting too. And sure, about three or four of these numbers are the exact same song. Just call it an indiepop suite from a rueful guy who won’t be thrown off message, and this begins to look more like the downcast concept album it is. Also, I recall entire Sarah Records compilations that were the same song over and over. Glenn remains in the company he most wants to keep.

The Rocket Summer — Shadowkasters More screaming out of Bryce Avary than we’ve ever heard before. More shrieking falsetto, machine beats, plasticky synthesizer doing flight-of-the-bumblebee runs, sub-Nine Inch Nails industrial fartouts. He’s pushing himself into new territory; unfortch, that new territory is an acidic swamp, and my God, look at those boots. We learned on Zoetic that Bryce enjoys pushing the needle into the red. This time around, he’s pegging it and not letting go. Now, part of the reason Bryce is concerned about where he kasts his shadow is that he is, once again, the only guy in the studio, overdubbing and manipulating, refining his sound into the wee hours, and, likely, driving himself a little nuts in the process. Ever since Life Will Write The Words, I’ve believed that Bryce could use a collaborator, or at least somebody to throw a bucket of water on him when he overheats. Instead, he keeps concentrating his Bryce sauce it until it’s intense enough to eat through the tablecloth and leave burn marks on the wood below. It takes some bravery to do that in the mushrock era. But bravery has never been the problem.

The Rolling Stones — Hackney Diamonds Sixty-year-old glimmer from eighty-year-old twins. You might expect that the years have tarnished the glow. I did. That goes to show what I know. Octogenarian as he sounds, Mick remains the king of rock phrasing. His knack for putting the right nasty twist on the right vowel on the right millisecond before or after the beat?, those are the real Moves Like Jagger. Keith backs him up with a bit of timeless snarl and a whole lot of ragged grandeur. Never one to miss a Hall of Fame Game, Paul McCartney swings by to add some filthy bass to the hardest rocking song on the set; helter skelter and all that. Then there’s Lady Gaga, who nails her vocal with the same candy striper’s reverence that she brings to all her visits to the senior center. But the twin high points here come with the arrival of two Stones who are no longer rolling. Bill Wyman steps out of retirement to lock into Charlie Watts’s backbeat (and Elton John’s piano!) on “Live By The Sword,” and peerless Charlie gives us one more pocket on “Mess It Up” before tipping his cap and taking first chair in St. Peter’s own percussion section. Goodbye, Charlie. We didn’t deserve you. On both tracks — the best two on an album that’s awfully good — I’ll be damned if the thing doesn’t happen. If you’re reading this, I bet you know what I mean: that shuddering, bewitching pull, that magic swivel, that alteration in gravity that takes you by the pelvis, tips you up, spins you round, and points you to the nearest dance partner. Rock, and roll, I believe they call it. Devil music doing the angel’s work. I like it like it like it.

The Streets — The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light Now that’s more like it. A couple of years after an amusing but ungentlemanly set that, in retrospect, deserved to be called a mixtape, Mike Skinner is back with a far less derogatory project. The Darker The Shadow is a soundtrack to a movie about a club deejay with tall psychological hurdles to clear, which probably sounds to you like the most Streets thing ever. It’s not quite that: the stories aren’t as rewarding to follow as those on A Grand Don’t Come For Free or The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living. But they’re loaded with gruff midlands detail and wonky barstool philosophy, and Mike still delivers his rhymes in the voice of an irritable but endearing schoolchum. By now we know he’s not a rapper, not really, no matter how the electronic beats stutter and sting — and he’s come up with some very good beats this time around. No, he’s a modern version of the music-hall raconteur, speaking his way through his songs in patterns that suggest awareness of persuasive properties of melody without giving an inch to the crowd-pleasing demands of the tune. He’s the carrier of an tradition of impertinence that stretches from Michael Smith of Yard Act and his fellow UK sprechesang-rockers back through Parklife, and Ian Dury to George Rose and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Seriously. Rex had flow.

The Waeve — The Waeve It turns out Graham Coxon is a pretty good sax player. No great surprise there: he’s a talented guy. The way he’s matching his woodwinds with blown out organ and guitar leads makes me think he’s caught the prog bug too. “Sleepwalking,” in particular, feels very Canterbury School. But harmonically, this sounds like another crack of the Magic Whip, only with Rose Elinor Dougall perched in Damon Albarn’s chair. There are times when Rose’s inflections are so Damon-reminiscent that you’d think these two are, as the Brits say, taking the piss. But no, she just grew up singing along to Blur on the radio, and now she’s walking on the jagged shore in his footsteps and falling into that meditative saunter. Her words and her acid-folk melodies get lost amidst the guitorchestra, which may be the mix and EQ, maybe residue of the lugubrious quality of some of these tracks, or maybe a problem related to Graham’s ego. When they surface, the lyrics hint at Westernitis and civic discomfort at a time when it is a little embarrassing to be a Brit. Well. At least they didn’t drag Fatoumata Diawara into it.

Thomas Bangalter — Mythologies We were up all night to get lucky, and what we got was this? Welp bad luck is a kind of luck too. Fortune will not smile on the listeners of an interminable set of moribund symphonic music based, we are told, on myths from around the world. If mythology really was as boring as this, our present heartless technocratic world state would have evolved centuries ago. Remember, kids: classical music does not (necessarily) suck, but classical pieces composed by pop artists who ought to know better always do. Get back on the disco floor, Thomas, before Aphrodite and the Minotaur kick your ass. They’re gods of love and projections of the id. They don’t deserve this highfalutin calumny. As self-indulgent in its way as Michael Jordan trying to play baseball, or Chris Christie trying to be President.

Tim Hecker — No Highs Hey, he said it. Points for honesty if nothing else. And I mean nothing else.

Tiny Ruins — Ceremony Neat, polite, quietly devastated folk-rock band from Auckland with finger-picked acoustic guitar, noodly bass high on the neck, Moog squirreling around at a great distance from the rest of the mix, pitter-patter percussion, and cello overdubs for extra mournfulness. What these spectral Kiwis are mourning is anybody’s guess; sometimes it seems like it’s the landscape itself. Tellingly, the strings are added by the guitarist who is also the singer who is also the songwriter. You kinda get the feeling it’s her project and everybody else is flimsy beach house decoration. Hollie Fullbrook has a cautious, held-breath voice that suits the style, but she’s also got a habit of slurring her way toward the note she means to sing and then pooping out once she’s hit it. If this was Laura Marling — and I get the sense that they desperately wish it was — that (severe British accent voice) would not be permitted. I do like the number where Hollie coolly puts off an old friend who wants to reconnect. That seems true to a restless mind. She shows more compassion for a crab she meets in a cove. Hollie rightsides it and sets it on its way, and then gets lost in the bay. I need a ritual, she tells us. Maybe on the next album.

Travis Scott — Utopia “Imagine my world of misogyny.” Funny, Travis, I thought I was living in it. Perhaps Travis’s world of misogyny is akin to ours but with slimy Astroworld flavor: run-of-the-mill misogyny plus Travis calling you up at five A.M., drunk off his ass, pleading incoherently for slurp jobs and sleeve jobs. It could be worse. He could have Drake’s emotional manipulation skills, or Young Thug’s lax attitudes about coercion, or Kanye’s delusions of godhood. Travis lacks the patience, aggression, and discipline for any of that. Instead, he wants to rap glittery blather, all day, over beats designed to remind you of his work on Yeezus. His topics — indiscriminate taste in cars and designer clothing, inability to resist marijuana, sexual expediency, a childish inability to delay gratification — don’t flatter him as much as he thinks they do. They mostly just make him sound like a slob. Now, a slob with a big budget can set up a gaudy playpen to roll around in. When Travis gets going, he can make the walls shimmy. He matches his flow to the ‘Ye-like music he generates so effortlessly that you might just blur your ears and ignore the words altogether. You can treat him like a jazz horn or something of that sort. I dig the jet propulsion he generates on “Skitzo,” and Beyonce’s blown kiss on “Delresto,” and the TP for my bunghole on “Cornholio” (not actually a song.) I can even get into a Bon Iver feature that comes on as gooey as a Mallomar, even as I am still picking bits of it out of my teeth. Now that auteur-rappers have become rare again, Utopia feels like a control experiment. It proves that if the same guy is making the music and the words, he’s got a puncher’s chance of imposing aesthetic uniformity on his album even if he’s got nothing whatsoever to say. Maximalist, harmless, enjoyable, pretty vacant.

Troye Sivan — Something To Give Each Other “I feel like my mother might like you/just not in the same way that I do.” Wait, Troye, your mom doesn’t want it in the butt? In fairness, not everybody enjoys that. Lots of lubrication, lots of conversation, as Dan Savage might put it. Troye, OTOH, continues to aggressively foreground his hole. On the new album he becomes the first artist to use the term “bussy” in a mainstream pop release. He’s going to turn it out for you. He wants to be one of your girls. You are inching (tee hee) closer to him on the couch. In a world of self-affirmation anthems and unmotivated mushrock numbers about who knows what, God bless Troyboy for seizing on the main idea, focusing, monomaniacally, on it, and conjuring some sugary-repetitive music to bolster his sugary-repetitive obsessions. I like the way he’s finagled the vocal envelope on the first song so it sounds like his backing vocalists are singing “addicted to your tush.” He’s establishing his theme right away. That’s something English teachers, pop singers, and pornographers can all agree on.

Valley Queen — Chord Of Sympathy This is certainly not a bad album. On the good-bad scale employed by good-bad scientists at first-rate publications, the arrow points, emphatically, to good. But after Supergiant, I admit I’m disappointed in it. No more MMJ-style guitar rave-ups or lightning on the mountain; no more tape-warping ululations from the Valley Queen herself. No more excess. One pill makes you small, and it appears like they took that pill. Chord Of Sympathy is the work of a tidier queen; one who arrives at the court with a mop after the decapitations. Application of mush elements to a singer as bossy and unruly as Natalie Carol could not have been easy, but damn if they haven’t tried: in with the echoed vocal stacks, the oohs and the unghs, the synthesizer pads, and the measured soft-rock approach from the rhythm section. I am reminded of Eisley’s accomplished pivot to mushrock on Currents, especially on the title track, which shudders along on a very Dupree-ish drumbeat. In both cases I understand the move — unclassifiability isn’t sustainable in an era of aggregation, and nobody involved in these projects is exactly capitulating to mass tastes. They’re just trying to amplify the elements of the band that might make them more appealing to playlist makers, and de-emphasize the yowling and growling that interrupts the seamless delivery of chill. But some of us aren’t chill and never will be. Now we’re down a queen, and getting a pawn to the other side of the chessboard is gonna be a bear.

Van Morrison — Moving On Skiffle It’s like Voltaire told us: I may not agree with what Van Morrison says, but I will fight to the death for his right to say it. Moreover, Voltaire and I hasten to remind you that Van never tried to sell you an NFT, or pushed cryptocurrency, or pretended that artificial intelligence was interesting. No, Van’s crimes were purely those of the pub freethinker, offended that anybody would get in the way of his right to be Van Morrison, pro loudmouth, whenever and wherever he chose to be. A communicator to the core he is, for better or worse, and enough of a showman to realize he’d taken things too far. Moving On Skiffle is a pivot back toward his core competency — it’s a set of R&B standards — and darn if it is not a corker. Everything that made you love Van is here, including the Caledonia soul and the horndog grunting, the possessed, monomaniacal performances, and, on “Green Rocky Road,” one more trip Into The Mystic, just to show you he still can do that. It is astounding to think that, forty-four (!) albums into his run, he can lead a band as skillfully as this, and sing as well as this, but that is why he is The Man and you are not. Of course he gets in some complaints about his freedom of speech rights, none of which have ever been abridged or threatened. He’s the same cantankerous fellow he always was. Great artists: they’re a pain in the ass. But model citizens do not make Moondance, or Moving On Skiffle, for that matter.

Wednesday — Rat Saw God There are days — not happy days, mind you — when I am half-convinced that no social theorist has unraveled the riddle of the national psyche better than the gang behind this acrid set. Much has been made of the chaotic music, but it’s hardly a thing: the Sonic Youth goo is here to serve Karly Hartzman’s storytelling, her yowl, and her attitude, in that exact order. This is the clamor which rings between the ears of Karly’s characters: foot-in-a-bear-trap emo/screamo, drug-addled dreampop, drunks behind chicken wire playing Drive-By Truckers songs on beat-up pedal steel, toothless hillbillies letting the guitars provide the bite, yes, all of that, but also the noise of highways in the holler, heavy machinery backfiring, the buzz of yellowjackets, rain on country shingles, bandsaws, firing ranges. In sparing, merciless verse, Karly exposes Jason Aldean and Hardy as the bowdlerizers and jingoists that they are. Hers is the small town as catchment basin for casual violence, populated by the stupefied and resilient, high (or low) on recreational Benadryl, playing Mortal Kombat and sticking their fingers in sockets just to have something to do. Everybody on Rat Saw Dog is getting rushed to the hospital after a Saturday night binge and teaching Sunday school the next morning. You’re lucky to be alive, Karly deadpans in the voice of the exasperated country doctor, all the while knowing that luck has nothing to do with it. And are they really lucky? These people?, driven toward sensation beyond entertainment, bored by thrills and thrilled by boredom, torching the cornfield and running into burning houses, are they fortunate to have a future? “Nothing could be as vivid as the darkest time in my life,” she mutters during the one where the guy drops the power tool on his foot. Gruesome and memorable, but I’m just as struck by the image of the bird that smashes into the same glass window every day, unable to die or learn. Never braced for the next impact, even as it’s right around the bend. As for Karly herself, she is, in her wry diction, the girl we were chosen to deserve: pissing in the street and setting atop her amplifier after a near-electrocution, but mostly nonplussed and ready. The indestructible Southerner; too much of a wise guy to be Gothic. Found out who she was/and it wasn’t/pretty. But she’s back for more of the same, even if it makes her shriek for two minutes straight like she’s clutching hot coals. Ask not who Karly screams for. Ask why she won’t let go.

White China — Hang Up The Lights Whatever I was expecting from a solo set by Lana Del Rey’s producer on Lust For Life, it sure wasn’t this. Hang Up The Lights alternates sketchy, spooky minimalist synthpop pieces with strum ‘n’ echo folk-rock sung by a guy who sounds as if he’s suffering from a horrid migraine. Weirdly, this isn’t a problem for me. Maybe I’m sadistic. The back half of the record contains the misty numbers that unfold as slowly and cautiously as an April flower on a chilly morning; they’re reminiscent of Damon Albarn solo sides, and they’re all pretty winsome. But what sold me on White China is the mid-album stretch reminiscent of Broadcast: chintzy drum machine, rudimentary synthesizer, repetitive and skewed melodies and mumbled vox, a spectral not-quite-thereness, songs with the urban penitent quality I associate with the best of Amen Dunes. Oh, and the first two songs are kinda boring. By the time you’re through with the next two, you’ll forget all about them.

White Reaper — Asking For A Ride Straight from the overcorrection zone comes White Reaper. And yes, You Deserve Love was a little mersh by their previously established standards. This time they start out in the Trans Am, doing doughnuts in front of the convenience store, and once they get to track number four, you’re dizzy and all the gas is gone. Maybe there’s a cop on the way. Oh, and synth player Ryan Hater, so central to the Raspberries flavor of the last album, fell out of the car on the first turn. Now he is on his ass in the parking lot, looking up at his “buddies” as they spin around. Do they notice him? What do you suppose?

Yasser Tejeda — La Madrugá Those who got hooked on the radiant Dominican indiepop of Alex Ferreira may be interested in his fellow islander. Yasser isn’t exactly on Alex’s side of the street — he occupies a gaudier house on an adjacent cul-de-sac — but they flash similar toothy smiles to the same Latin alternative crowd. Six-string purists are likely to admire Yasser’s breezy tone and his ability to move seamlessly from bachata to Afropop to lounge jazz to heavy metal stomp. Occasionally that flexibility makes La Madrugá feel less like a personal statement than a demo from a talented showoff looking for session work. When this chameleon settles in to the beach bar for “Todo Va A Marchar” and gets everything whipping in the tradewinds, it’s hard not to want more of that, even if the principal suspects it’s a little beneath his fretboard capacities.

Yes — Mirror To The Sky John Davison sounds like a man who thinks he can imitate Jon Anderson. Billy Sherwood sounds like a man who knows damn well he can’t imitate Chris Squire. John Schellen sounds like a man who can’t decide whether he’s got the goods to imitate Alan White, but is game to find out via trial by fire. Geoffrey Downes sounds like the buggliest of the Yes synthesists, which is exactly what he is. As for Steve Howe, he’s the reason we’re even out here screwing around with the understudies. His post-Heaven And Earth decision to reorient the band toward prog epics continues to bear fruit, albeit the sort of fruit you pick off a withered old tree with gnarled roots and a couple of grafts. His guitar is mixed louder on this one than it was on The Quest, which is a plus. Mirror To The Sky lacks the howlers that have marred most recent Yes albums, including Fly From Here. This is the smoothest listening experience we’ve gotten from the crew since Magnification. But smooth, in prog, is not always preferable to getting tossed around, and you may find that scrupulous adherence to the demands of nostalgia has robbed this band of some of the excitement that was always part of its reason for persistence, if not existence. Jon believed in the logic of affirmation and accretion: the band was called Yes because they were going to try shit, all of it, and get the mountain to come out of the sky and stand there. It was positivity taken to absurd extremes, done in the spirit of rock excess. Chris was the great oak tree that stood in the middle of the garden and kept pushing toward the sun. Steve, by contrast, is a technician at heart, occasionally possessed by the band’s spirit, but more usually committed to the task of realizing a specific sound or mastering a specific passage. He’s not the man you’d necessarily tap to carry on the work of a group that, in its heyday, never saw a risk it wouldn’t take. Still, it’s a testament to how great Yes is that the number three guy in the history of the outfit is able to make a record (several, now) worthy of the band’s name. Even in the absence of guys number one and two. And four, and five, and six, and oh, doctor.

Y La Bamba — Lucha Las gachas, masa blanda. What’s the Spanish word for mush? Not that it really applies here: Luz Mendoza is from Portland. Like many mushrock albums, this one is a quest for personal identity within an ethnic-cultural context, as if anybody outside the sociology department cares. Oh, what’s that? She’s moved to Mexico? What kind of cultural exchange is that? They send us cuisine and their heirloom corn, and we send them our mushrockers? As if they don’t have enough big-nosed individuals screwing around with loops and effects processors. We, on the other hand, are hungry for tamales, totopos, sopes, etc. The youth of America won’t whip them up. They’re too busy making mushrock. Go on, kids, let that masa go unmilled as you tweak your synthesizer signal. Just don’t come crying to me when you get the munchies.

Youth Lagoon — Heaven Is A Junkyard Wait, is this a different record from the prior Youth Lagoon releases? Guess it is. It says so on the sleeve, anyway. Instead of endlessly reverbed guitar, here we have endlessly reverbed upright piano. Trevor powers imparts a tremendous toilet bowl tinkle feel to the proceedings, like when you do not tinkle smack in the middle but rather around the edges. Mind you, I do not doubt that Trevor has had recent encounters with his mortality and the mortality of others, because we all have. I just question his highly indirect manner of address. It’s hard to shout down or even shake up the little devil from the country when you sound like a peeved Keebler elf. I’m sure he’s trying as hard as he can. Not everybody is a singer, vol. 4080.

Yussuf Dayes — Black Classical Music He means jazz, naturally. Would Mozart have liked it? Probably, but why bring up Mozart at all? You might remember Yussuf providing the gunshot snare beats on Tom Misch’s otherwise limp What Kinda Music. Since then, he’s hit the skins for other members of the London underground, a snoozily syncretic scene that attempts to yoke the attitude of hip-hop and the detached futurism of electronic music to jazz. If you really need that much life support just to make your style of music go, maybe it’s most merciful to simply let it fall into eclipse.

Zach Bryan — Zach Bryan As I type this, the number one song in the country is a four year old Swift/St. Vincent stadium new wave number with a stomping chorus and a world-famous bridge. Both Blink-182 and the Rolling Stones are back on the charts. Morgan Wallen and Hardy are hanging around on the corner strumming riffs, and then there’s that Olivia Rodrigo album with the Avrilish power ballads and all the mallpunk attitude you need. Luke Combs is in the top ten with a very straightforward reading of “Fast Car.” So I don’t want to hear dumb shit about rock on the ropes anymore. Rock remains the nation’s dominant musical style and it shows no signs of ceding market share to heartless European electro or classical crossover or whatever else was supposed to be coming for the crown. Heck, rock seems to be outlasting hip-hop, which is not something I would have bet; most of the energy and innovation in modern rap is tucked away on independent releases, while traditionalist rock stars keep packing arenas with traditional approaches and sounds. Exhibit Z has built a huge, passionate fanbase with music that’s just Springsteen with a little Mumford stirred in; six parts Springsteen to one part Lumineers with a John Cougar ain’t that America garnish and a little red dirt around the rim. Zach Bryan pitches its sound somewhere down the Nebraska River and growls this stuff out in a just-got-laid-off man voice. He’s not the lyricist that Bruce is, but he doesn’t have to be: his personal story of military service and shaky American re-entry makes him the singing embodiment of the characters on Born In The U.S.A. and Devils And Dust. Zach claims his mind is calloused, but every performance says otherwise. He’s won over the crowd with one exhibition of emotional effulgence after another, honest confession after earnest turn of phrase, just as folk-rockers have always done. The dude leads with his personality and looks after every one of his words like a sheepdog driving his flock. Because of our weird modern nomenclature and outdated classification system, we call him a country musician, as if there’s been any meaningful difference between country and rock for decades. Ignore the marketing and the stereotypes and accept him for what he is: 100% rock star. Another one of those is always welcome.

Zopp — Dominion We fans of Fish-era Marillion have been waiting for a year like this. No overtures to prog, no apologies for prog, just prog like momma made it. Momma, being from the old country (England), whipped it up and dished it out in different troughs. With Haken, it’s the rough stuff and the rollercoaster ride, complete with time signatures that you’d need several brains in vats to follow. Zopp is a gentler proposition: it’s the kaleidoscope swirl and the hippies out dancing on the heath, with lead synthesizer, sometimes in thick layers and sometimes in near-classical counterpoint, over drumming that’s jazzy and loose. This feller -— and it’s mainly one guy — is as indebted to the Canterbury bands as Haken is to Yes and Crimson, and as cognizant of the sonic innovations of Tame Impala and Wand as Haken is of Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. It’s telling, too, that the best songs on Dominion are the long ones, with measure after measure of interlocking ideas, the slow ratcheting up of intensity over tracks performed at a fast clip, until it all crests at a moment of delicious release: an analog synth squiggle, a groove-shattering vocal harmony, a revelation. When he tells us he wants to tell us about the lines, it’s good news he’s spreading, vector by vector. Oh, and on this subject, I must add: what is Live At Bush Hall but Wish You Were Here? Conceptually, I mean, not musically. There’s no lyricist in Black Country, New Road who can float Roger’s pig, of course, but their concern for the plight of their lost bandmate, down with mental health issues that may have been brought on by the act of playing in a progressive rock band, is their main motivator. Their forever friend and former frontman reached for the secret too soon/and tried for the moon, and they all watched him do it. They’re simultaneously heartbroken and proud, sending guilty, moving, impassioned messages to a man who may be incapable of appreciating them. Desperate transmissions, sent into the void. Just like prog always is.

Zulu — A New Tomorrow Even Weird Al felt the need to register his disgust with Spotify. And Spotify, as secure in its market position as the Pope, didn’t hesitate to host Weird Al’s complaint. Ha very ha, isn’t Al funny. But much of the blame for the mushrock era can be lain at the doorstep of these Swedish thieves. Chill playlists are the new Casey Kasem. And just as certain politicians would vanish if we could just stop clicking on trash articles with their names in the headlines, chill playlists — and the whole Spotify empire — could be taken down if the hoi polloi could show a little discipline. It can be done. We just need to make wise decisions and support platforms that support musicians. For instance, and maybe only in this instance, you might like to emulate yours truly. You may have a problem with my scurrilous takes on these sets. What you cannot dispute is that I listened to them all. According to my personal obessive tally (I keep one!) I have playedi three thousand seven hundred and forty four albums so far in 2023. Not one of those streams occurred on Spotify. My “wrapped” report is a giant goose egg, and I am happy about that, because the less we use this service, and the less we make apologies for its horrendous practices, the better it will be for the musicians we care about. The average cost of a digital streaming album on Bandcamp is ten bucks. That’s a reasonable fee for a considered and sequenced capture of the best thing that human beings do. Should you make that purchase on a designated Friday, all the money goes straight into the musician’s pocket. The band isn’t going to see as much scratch from a compact disc sale at a store like Tunes or the Princeton Record Exchange, but by buying a physical object there, you’re keeping retail strips healthy. You also get to own your music and put it on a shelf in your house, rather than renting space for it on a remote mainframe that can be taken away from you at the whim of some Scandinavian pirate. So. You can be as obsessed with music as I am, and you can leave Spotify out of your life. This green meanie can be defeated. All it takes is a little resolve, and the exercise of the respect that all artists are due. If a miscreant like me can manage it, so can an upstanding citizen like you.

That’s all for 2023,

Tris McCall