Ariana Grande, My Everything: Ariana Grande burst onto the scene last year with “The Way”. Or I should say she burst onto my particular scene; there’s a whole scene of tweens who knew her from Sam & Cat. Strangely, I had never heard of her. Listening to her whole first album, you got the sense that Grande wanted to reach back into the R&B heyday of the ‘90s and single-handedly bring it into the intense, weighty R&B haze of the ‘10s. Not every song was great, but enough of them were to make you pay attention. My Everything is more of a whole album; she’s let go of the ‘90s R&B idea, and it sounds like she’s between ideas. But it also sounds like she’s on her way to a good one.
Spoon, They Want My Soul: The “rock is dead” narrative was boring before it even started. But Spoon exists outside of such narratives- even the one the critics have hoisted upon them that revolves around their almost boring consistency. All frontman Britt Daniels cares about is making good music. They Want My Soul is the first Spoon album I’ve heard that sounds like it could unravel at any second. “Do You” is among the best songs they’ve ever made, and “New York Kiss” is indie-rock at its scuzzy finest.
Swoope, Sinema: There’s been a dearth of great Christian rap for a while. After Lecrae’s and Trip Lee’s one-two punch in 2012, no one’s reached as high. That same year saw the wonderful indie-rap tandem of Beautiful Eulogy and Propaganda, and Beautiful Eulogy released an even better record last year. But apart from that everything great in Christian rap has been on the fringes, like Shai Linne’s understated Lyrical Theology series or Sho Baraka’s subversive Talented 10th. Swoope’s Sinema is the first album in a while to reach for something approaching mainstream rap heights. As the ringleader of the great Christian rap group W.L.A.K., Swoope has precedent for game-changing flow. But he’s trying for something bigger here, a headier statement. If it weren’t for Propaganda, he’d have the best Christian rap album of the year.
The Gaslight Anthem, Get Hurt: The Gaslight Anthem have never been about subtlety, but they’ve never been about hitting you in the head with a hammer quite as much as on Get Hurt. Frontman Brian Fallon has always had a Springsteen-lite vibe to him that he hasn’t been shy about. He never had the Boss’s lyrical acumen, but he wasn’t bad. On Get Hurt, he’s bad. If vagueness or bluster is your thing, then you’ll like Get Hurt. I guess vagueness or bluster is my thing, because I liked it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a bad album.
The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers: I can enjoy something without liking it, but that’s not what this is. I can enjoy something without thinking it’s good, but that’s not what this is. I can enjoy something without feeling excited about it, but that’s not quite what this is either. I can enjoy something without remembering a single thing about it when it’s over. That’s what this is, and The New Pornographers didn’t use to make albums like that.
Willis Earl Beal, Experiments in Time: Willis Earl Beal is full of contradictions. And that’s okay; it forces you to accept him as a real person, rather than the mystical R&B troubadour mask he sometimes wears. It was those paradoxes that made Nobody Knows. one of the most exciting records of 2013. But since then, all the records Beal has made seems to be in reaction to the success of that one. Experiments in Time finds Beal dialing everything back, and that restraint robs Beal’s voice of the dynamism that was so key to the appeal of the record I actually liked.
Under the Radar
Foreknown, Ornithology: So up till this point, I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a joke-rap Christian rap record. UNTIL NOW. I don’t know that the world was begging for it, but after listening to Ornithology, it’s hard to argue we didn’t need it.
Grace Askew, Scaredy Cat: Seeing as how The Voice is the most popular singing competition on television (take that, American Idol!), calling Grace Askew “Under the Radar” may seem hard to justify. But considering being the most popular singing competition on television isn’t exactly a high bar to rise above, I think it fits. Anyway, Askew’s brand of blues + country (=bluntry) isn’t original, but she’s got it down.
Twin Peaks, Wild Onion: You may expect a record with a song called “Sloop Jay D” on it to be a Beach Boys tribute. But the only thing Twin Peaks seems to have in common with the Wilsons & Co. is a propensity for classic hooks. “I Found a New Way” and “Good Lovin’” are just two examples of the kind of guitar rock that would be of a piece with Spoon’s older records.
Off the Grid
FKA twigs, LP1: Sometimes albums get really high Metacritic scores and I don’t understand why. Like, we all like alternative R&B now, but did it have to go this far? If I wanted brooding AND obtuse, I’d listen to metal. But everyone seems to love LP1 so much, I feel like I’ll have to give it another try at some point.