Albums of the Month: July 2016


I’m adding to my stable of music criticism posts by introducing a new Albums of the Month feature.  The basic gist is that on the second Wednesday of the month (or, as is the case when I procrastinate, on Friday), I will write reviews of 3-5 albums released within the past three months (in this case May, June, and July of 2016).  If there’s an album you love that you’d like me to review, post a suggestion below.  Similarly, if there’s an album you hate that you want me to pillory, also let me know.  And if there’s an album you’re timid about listening to and want me to try first, I’m open to anything.

Ratings scale:

***** – An all-time classic album (highly recommended)

**** – Great album (recommended)

*** – Solid album (consider buying or streaming/downloading top tracks)

** – Weak album (only consider streaming/downloading top tracks)

* – Poor album (not recommended)


ARTISTJames Blake
ALBUMThe Colour in Anything
RELEASE DATE: 6 May 2016
RATING: ***
COMMENTS:  Blake’s gospel-style voice is paired with electronic sounds or sometimes a piano in this mournful album of love lost and a directionless life. This is a headphone album to hear the textures deep in the sounds in the often spare arrangements.  This is not something to put on when you’re already feeling blue.  Despite the title, this is a colourless, muted recording.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS: “Points,” “Waves Know Shores,” “Always,” and “Meet You in the Maze.”


ARTISTTourist 
ALBUM: U
RELEASE DATE: 6 May 2016
RATING: **1/2
COMMENTS: Reminiscent of Passion Pit and Jamie xx, this is electronic music that is danceable but introspective.  The standout tracks are excellent but overall it sounds repetitive and dull.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS: “Run,” “To Have You Back,” and “Foolish.”


ARTISTRadiohead
ALBUMA Moon Shaped Pool
RELEASE DATE: 8 May 2016
RATING: ***
COMMENTS: Quiet and folky with orchestral flourishes, sometimes reminiscent of  Sigur Ros and early 70’s folk pop, This is not as innovative as I’m accustomed from Radiohead and while a worthy addition to their catalog, it’s not a vital one.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS: “Burn the Witch” and “Desert Island Disk”


ARTISTFlume
ALBUMSkin
RELEASE DATE: 27 May 2016
RATING: **
COMMENTS:A downtempo electronic album feels the strains of anxiety and uncertainty, especially in the high register vocals of the many guest artists.  A few songs stand out, but overall this is kind of a drag.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS: “Never Be Like You (featuring Kai)”, “Wall Fuck,” and “Tiny Cities (featuring Beck)”


ARTISTMoon Hooch
ALBUMRed Sky
RELEASE DATE: 10 June 2016
RATING: ****
COMMENTS: This is the latest collection of saxophone tunes with EDM arrangements. Mostly instrumental, but a few vocal tracks (with less sax because they’re singing – duh).  A great party record.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS: “Sunken Ship,”  “That’s What They Say,” “Something Else,” and “Alien Invasion”


ARTISTBlood Orange
ALBUMFreetown Sound
RELEASE DATE: 18 June 2016
RATING: ***
COMMENTS: This album bridges 80s r&b rhythms and sounds (a definite Michael Jackson influence) with socially conscious lyrics.  I want to like it more than I do.
OUTSTANDING TRACKS:  “By Ourselves,” “Augustine,” “But You,” and “Hands Up”


Music Discoveries: Janelle Monáe


Today I finally begin a new feature on this blog I’ve been planning for a long time called Music Discoveries.  The idea is to find musical artists and bands I’m familiar with and do a deep listen of their full catalog of recordings.  I was inspired by a fellow blogger on Desert Island Mix Tape when he listened to the entire back catalog of the Bee Gees and then wrote it up.  I’ve procrastinated a long time and hesitated posting at all because I’m not particularly skilled as a music critic.  But then again I’m not a book or beer critic and that hasn’t stopped me, and I can only get better with practice.  So please be patient with me as you read this and offer constructive criticism in the comments.

Let us begin with Janelle Monáe, a musician I first learned of a few years back from my wife (who is often more up to date on contemporary music). The 30-year-old artist from Kansas City, KS is a singer, song writer, producer, collaborator, and all around performer. Her musical style is eclectic bringing together soul, art music, R&B, hip-hop, funk, and even opera and cinematic scores.  In many ways she is a musical heir to the recently deceased David Bowie and Prince, a comparison heightened by her androgynous public image and signature tuxedo. Other clear influences on her work and style include Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, and the Afrofuturism of George Clinton and PFunk.

One thing for sure about Monáe is that she is committed to a high concept.  Her recordings are a series of suites called Metropolis inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name.  The suites center on Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android from the year 2719, who breaks the law by falling in love with a human and while a fugitive becomes a messianic figure to other androids.  While there’s a lot to be gained from listening to the suites in order, the songs have universal themes that allow them to succeed out of context.  They work as a science fiction story but also as love songs as well as commentaries on social issues such as inequality, social stratification, racism, and discrimination against LGBT communities.

Monáe’s first recording is an extremely limited 2003 album called The Audition, which I wasn’t able to find so I’m going to skip ahead to her 2007 EP where the suites begin

AlbumMetropolis: Suite I (The Chase)
Release Date: August 24, 2007
Favorite Tracks: “Sincerely, Jane” and “Mr. President”
Thoughts:  This EP introduces the first of the Metropolis suites and introduces Cindi Mayweather and the science fiction plot line.  Pop and funk are mixed with opera and old standards (the special edition includes a rendition of the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile”). The album is short but epic and cinematic.  A good start
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumThe ArchAndroid
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Favorite Tracks: “Locked Inside” “Cold War”
Thoughts:  Suite’s II and III of Metropolis make up Monáe’s  first full-length major release.  The music here is upbeat belying the seriousness of the lyrics. Musically the album jumps among genres from song to song and even within songs.  Funk, soul, new wave, afrobeat, psychedelia, and even punk rock (“Come Alive” is reminiscent of the B52s).  The music gets a little slow and less interesting in Suite III, but this is definitely a masterpiece.
Rating: ****

AlbumThe Electric Lady
Release Date: September 6, 2013
Favorite Tracks:  “Givin’ Em What They Love” “Dance Apocalyptic” “Can’t Live Without Your Love”
Thoughts:  Monáe’s second full album and the fourth and fifth suites of the Metropolis opus is full of notable guest artists inluding  Miguel, Erykah Badu, Solange, Prince and Esperanza Spalding.  Musically this is smoother than The ArchAndroid with some slow jams, and jazz, hip-hop, and gospel influences. I could live without the radio breaks with the android DJ because the verisimilitude to a radio jock patter with callers is all to close.  Still this is a worth follow-up to The ArchAndroid  and shows Monáe’s s growth and range.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumiTunes Festival: London 2013
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Tightrope”
Thoughts: This live recording mixes together 5 previously released tracks, showing how well they work independent of the suites and more importantly the incredible energy Monáe brings to performance.  The horn section playing behind her is particularly fantastic. Definitely need to take the opportunity to see Monáe  in concert.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumWondaland Presents: The Eephus
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Favorite Tracks: “Yoga”
Thoughts: Technically this is not a Monáe album but a compilation of songs by her collective at Wondaland Records (Jidenna, St. Beauty, Roman GianArthur and Deep Cotton).  There’s only once song by Monae, featuring Jidenna, called “Yoga” (which is, er, not really about yoga).  Monáe’s fingerprints are all over the recording though showing her capabilities as a collaborator and a producer.
Rating: ***

Speaking of collaboration, Janelle Monae appears as a guest on many other artists’ recordings.  Probably the most famous is “We Are Young” by fun.  Monae’s part on the bridge makes a great song – and music video – all the more epic.

Janelle Monae also brought together the Wondaland Records lineup last year on the powerful protest song “Hell You Talmbout” where they chant the names of African-Americans murdered by the police.

I will definitely continue to listen to Janelle Monáe’s music as her career continues.  I expect she will continue to grow as an artist and create some of the more innovative music of our time.  I’m sad to say that I somehow missed Janelle Monáe Day in my hometown of Boston a few years back, but I hope to see her in concert one day when she returns.

Stay tuned next week as I will tell you what I heard listening to every album by Kate Bush.