• Happier Than Ever

    Happier Than Ever

    Eilish, Billie

    A subtle triumph in the face of overwhelming pressure and expectations, Happier Than Ever is the sound of an artist coming into their own. Without losing any of the experimental, genre-blurring spirit of her Grammy-conquering debut, Billie Eilish elevates her trademark sound and expands her scope with the assistance of her producer-brother Finneas. In addition to baring her soul with increasingly confessional lyrics, she's also strengthened her delivery and range, taking inspiration from jazz and vocal pop greats of old like Julie London and Peggy Lee, lending a timeless air to tracks like "Billie Bossa Nova" and "my future." With this sophomore set, Eilish steps out of the shadows of When We All Fall Asleep, transforming from the creepy little sibling that freaks out the neighbors into a poised and confident young adult with existential issues aplenty. Growing older (relatively) and wiser in the years following her breakthrough, she processes the flood of experiences that come with a swift ascent in the public eye. Reflecting on the pitfalls of being famous, the introductory "Getting Older" reveals the immense pressure and associated dangers of the limelight, setting her insight and measured optimism to a delicate electronic heartbeat. Later, she charts her struggles in a male-dominated industry and details encounters with predatory men and misogyny on the scathing "Your Power," an indictment of exploitation disguised as a gorgeous acoustic ballad, and on the striking interlude "Not My Responsibility," she confronts critics and toxic opinions atop ominous synths and atmospheric haze before calling out media objectification on the hypnotic "OverHeated." Beyond these emotional trials, Eilish leans into the album's title, realizing her own growth, hope for the future, and newfound feelings of self-love and self-empowerment. The nostalgic Bristol-scene trip-hop vibes of the dubby "I Didn't Change My Number," hit single "Therefore I Am," and the boom-bap-lite "Lost Cause" offer mischievous diversions from the otherwise moody meditations, but a trio of dynamic standouts steal the show. Throbbing to life with deep bass and a thick beat, the lustful "Oxytocin" is a club hit in the making, nailing the pleasure centers like the titular hormone, while the cautionary "GOLDWING" lures listeners in with an angelic hymn before skittering to life with tribal flair like early-era Björk. On the title track, Eilish begins with an old-timey vocal showcase that explodes into a '90s alt-rock rager, complete with cathartic kiss-off lyrics, crashing drums, and jagged riffs. In these moments, Eilish reclaims a bit of herself and hones her perspective, effortlessly playing with a wide range of genres in the process. Delivering on the promise of her industry-shaking debut with confidence and grace, Happier Than Ever has the markings of a big career moment, one that signals artistic growth and hints at even more greatness to come. ~ Neil Z. Yeung (syndetics)

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  • Welcome 2 America

    Welcome 2 America

    Prince

    Prince recorded the 12 songs that comprise the posthumous album Welcome 2 America back in 2010, polished off some mixes, and allegedly completed a sequence, then he set it aside. It's impossible to tell if Prince considered the album finished or if he planned to release it. He did launch the Welcome 2 tour in December 2010 but it was in support of 20Ten, an album given away with copies of the Daily Mirror in the U.K. and never officially released in the U.S., and almost no songs from the Welcome 2 America sessions were played on-stage or leaked from the vaults: the fizzy trifle "Hot Summer" was streamed on the website of local radio station 89.3 The Current but that was it. Few Prince fanatics were aware of its existence until it was unearthed in 2021 as the first release in his estate's deal with Legacy. Complete unreleased albums are relatively rare among Prince's known outtakes, so the appearance of Welcome 2 America was big news. The album itself doesn't quite live up to expectations. Welcome 2 America is essentially the product of Prince giving the rhythm section of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman a test run, leading the pair through chord sequences without singing scratch melodies or anything that would give them an idea of a finished song. Prince added his vocals later, along with harmonies and keyboards from Morris Hayes, who is credited as a co-producer on the released product. The results sound every bit as complete as either 20Ten or Art Official Age or any other latter-day official Prince album. It also sounds very much of a piece with the music Prince made toward the end of his life: he moves with ease through the slipstreams separating funk, soul, and pop, using his guitar as the bonding agent between the styles. The opening triptych of "Welcome 2 America," "Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)," and "Born 2 Die" suggests Welcome 2 America may be a thematically weightier album than usual from Prince, but by the time "Hot Summer" kicks in, it's clear this is a trick of sequencing; the rest of the album is fairly standard Prince fare. The sequencing doesn't do the album a lot of favors, as it gets the proceedings off on a slow foot, but the second half has a distinct pulse surfacing on the fuzz-funk of "Check the Record," the sultry "When She Comes," and the jazzy struts "Same Page, Different Book," and "1010 (Rin Tin Tin)." Welcome 2 America is still a latter-day Prince album, so it's filled with vaguely baffling turns of phrase, slick jazz-funk, and covers of 21st century Soul Asylum songs. In other words, it's not a buried gem or a return to form but a snapshot of an excellent musician having a pretty good run in the studio. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Gold-diggers Sound

    Gold-diggers Sound

    Bridges, Leon

    One doesn't have to be all that familiar with Leon Bridges to speculate with accuracy that the artist's third album, named after the East Hollywood facility where it was made, has nothing to do with mining for instant pop hits. It's coincidental and maybe a little ironic that, just before the release of Gold-Diggers Sound, Bridges collected gold and platinum RIAA plaques for singles off his 2015 debut, but that's emblematic of the singer's knack for creating ephemerality-proof R&B that offers a true alternative to what's favored by urban contemporary radio programmers, yet structurally and sonically rooted in tradition. Gold-Diggers Sound is actually Bridges' most modern-sounding album. The singer and songwriter stretches out with producers and instrumentalists Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau, his main collaborators on Good Thing, and he brings in an all-star lineup of progressive jazz and R&B musicians. "Born Again" sets the tone with the keyboards of Robert Glasper and brass and reeds from Keyon Harrold and Terrace Martin adding to weary if resolute sentiments like "Feeling joy again/When all else fails, your love will last forever," where Bridges faintly slurs his notes like he's a saxophonist himself. Harrold and Martin later re-appear -- the alto sax of the latter most prominently brings color to the machine-drum pulse of "Sweetness," a touching and personal ballad written in response to the murder of George Floyd. Synth-soul duo We Are King, secret weapon Atia "Ink" Boggs, and percussionist Carlos Niño, among a great number of other musicians, add to a sense of communality. Bridges' writing, however, tends to be as intimate as ever. "Motorbike" envisions a joy ride for two rendered in slow, daydream-like motion. Bridges is enamored in "Details," rustic soul-blues with a touch of Philly sitar and some thump in the low end. "Why Don't You Touch Me" seeks resolution, or just a reaction, with a sluggish sway. Only on a couple occasions does Bridges let loose a touch while in the moment. "Sho Nuff" is yet another ballad, but one full of affection and desire through its Southern groove. "Steam," all easy-rolling romantic escapism, picks up the tempo a bit with a fine threading of blues, funk, and candied background vocals. Even in those moments, there is never an indication that Bridges could possibly lose his composure. The unswerving self-control he has demonstrated across three albums both impresses and mystifies. ~ Andy Kellman (syndetics)

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  • Screen Violence

    Screen Violence

    Chvrches (Musical group)

    No matter what musical direction they take, Chvrches go all in. On Love Is Dead, they leaned into pure pop, working with A-list producers like Greg Kurstin to polish their music to perfection. As much as they committed to that choice, it only focused on one aspect of their music. With the self-produced Screen Violence, however, they tap into everything that makes them so special among the legions of bands reinventing synth pop in the 2020s. At the top of that list would be Lauren Mayberry’s voice. She sounds as bright and emotive as ever, and her youthful clarity contrasts satisfyingly with the maturity of her lyrics. Mayberry remains brilliant at expressing complex emotions with eloquently simple words, and every song on Screen Violence feels like a showdown with the Big Bad. Sometimes, it’s herself; “I wish I had been more kind,” she laments over “Lullabies”’ gleaming guitars. Sometimes, it’s a complicated relationship; she’s an expert at saying goodbye even when she doesn’t want to, and on the beautiful failure of “California,” listeners hang on her every word as she captures how hard it is to leave the past behind and how good it feels to leave it there. More often, though, Mayberry confronts the existential horror of being a woman in the 21st century. The feminist synth pop anthem “Good Girls,” is quintessential Chvrches, from its choppy intro melody to its defiant mood (“Killing your idols is a chore/And it’s such a fucking bore” is immediately one of the group’s classic first lines). On “He Said, She Said,” Mayberry responds to the contradicting messages women and female-presenting people hear from the media, marketing, and those close to them (“Look good/But don’t be obsessed”) with a frustrated voice and a breaking heart echoed by the song’s fractured, juddering beats. And on “Final Girl,” she ponders marriage and changing her accent to “make herself more attractive” as the music behind her flickers between hopeful and haunting. Chvrches weave horror movie imagery deftly throughout the album, especially on “How Not to Drown,” where Mayberry and Robert Smith trade notes on self-preservation over music that’s dramatic and gloomy enough to honor the legacies of everyone involved. Later, “Nightmares” folds ‘90s alt-metal into its doom-laden stomp. Screen Violence may not be positioned as a breakthrough album, but it sounds bigger than ever, with plenty of climaxes, codas, and of course, synths. On “Asking for a Friend,” circular arpeggios magnify Mayberry’s heartache before leading into the track’s gigantic choruses. Not only is Screen Violence Chvrches’ finest work since The Bones of What You Believe, it’s also their most purposeful. It feels like they took stock of who they want to be and what they want to say, and these epic songs about letting go but holding onto the ability to feel make for a stunning creative rebirth. ~ Heather Phares (syndetics)

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  • Carnage

    Carnage

    Cave, Nick

    Given the spare, textural soundscapes of 2016's Skeleton Tree and 2019's Ghosteen, it was not hard to wonder just how much Nick Cave still needed the Bad Seeds to bring his visions to life. 2021's Carnage suggests he may not need them at all outside of his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis. Cave and Ellis collaborated on Carnage while they were in lockdown thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and in most respects it's of a piece with Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, with Cave's dour, doomstruck lyrical meditations taking center stage while the musical accompaniment hovers in the background. This puts it in a very similar stylistic place to those two albums, though it also manages to sound more diverse, and also more emotionally upfront. This music came out of a time of fear and uncertainty, and much of Carnage reflects those emotions, yet there's a sense of fractured, gospel-informed hope in "White Elephant" and a glorious epiphany of love and life's possibilities in "Balcony Man" that's as close to unguarded optimism as one could ever imagine coming from Cave. This music is rooted in mood rather than melody, as one might expect, though Cave and Ellis have given it a far livelier pulse than they did on the Bad Seeds albums that immediately preceded it. The tight focus of the bass patterns and the growl of the violins and guitars on "Old Time" and the percussive effect of the vocal loops on "Hand of God" recall the well-crafted menace of the Bad Seeds' peak years; while ultimately this music has nothing to do with rock & roll, it is intense and deeply felt, and will draw in nearly anyone who meets it on its own terms. There is greater sense of spontaneous energy in Carnage than in much of Cave's music of this period, and that doesn't blunt the craft of this album. It's the work of two collaborative artists who are in the midst of a later-period renaissance that has spawned powerful, evocative music that speaks to its time without being confined to the crises that sparked its creation. ~ Mark Deming (syndetics)

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  • McCartney III Imagined

    McCartney III Imagined

    McCartney, Paul

    Take note of the title. This is McCartney III Imagined, not "re-imagined." The difference may be slight, but the implication is clear: this collection of remixes, covers, and interpolations from Paul McCartney's 2020 album McCartney III by a variety of guest stars isn't a revision of the original, but rather an album that exists on its own parallel plane. McCartney's presence naturally looms large on McCartney III Imagined, as he provided the essential foundation for the record, not only through its songs but the original instrumental and vocal tracks. His vocals float in and out in the remixes, the apparent aging of his voice standing in striking contrast to the sleek, seamless electronic expansions. These remixes are interesting, but the most compelling moments on McCartney III Imagined arrive when artists cut their own version of one of the album's tracks: Phoebe Bridgers finding the sweet, spectral pulse on "Seize the Day," Beck singing along to his funkified version of "Find My Way," and Josh Homme treating "Lavatory Lil" like a Desert Sessions jam. These moments help elevate McCartney III Imagined into something a little more than a curio. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • The Golden Casket

    The Golden Casket

    Modest Mouse (Musical group)

    Modest Mouse is back with their first new album since 2015's Stranger to Ourselves. Here, frontman Isaac Brock explores themes ranging from the degradation of psychic landscapes and invisible technology to fatherhood. (syndetics)

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  • Native Sons

    Native Sons

    Lobos (Musical group)

    Los Lobos named their debut album Just Another Band from East L.A. back in 1978, when they were still primarily playing acoustic music. While the title was meant to be tongue in cheek, their hometown is clearly a major part of who they are and what they do. It's hard to imagine another city giving them the fertile ground to create their trademark fusion of rock, blues, folk, Latin, R&B, and Tex-Mex that manages to be more than the sum of that remarkable list of parts. Los Lobos pay tribute to the Los Angeles musical community and the songs that inspired them on 2021's Native Sons, which features a dozen songs originally written and recorded by artists from L.A., along with one new original. The covers album is often a risky proposition, as it suggests the artists may have run out of fresh ideas of their own, but if Los Lobos didn't write most of the songs here, they make them their own with the imagination, spirit, and commitment of their performances, not to mention their impressive chops and the incredible feel that comes from more than four decades of working together. They open the set with "Love Special Delivery," a classic side from the East L.A. R&B act Thee Midniters, who fittingly were stars in California without breaking big anywhere else, and while it's mostly faithful to the original, the band tears into it with the fervor of true fans. They show a special joy in putting their stamp on material from hometown heroes like Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos ("Los Chucos Suaves"), Willie Bobo ("Dichoso"), Don & Dewey ("Farmer John"), and the Jaguars ("Where Lovers Go"), though they can also tackle Buffalo Springfield (their arrangement of "For What It's Worth" expands greatly on the menace of the original), the Beach Boys (a emphatic performance of "Sail On Sailor") and War (a jazzy exploration of "The World is a Ghetto" with guest vocals from Little Willie G. and Barrence Whitfield) with an individual style. And the impassioned plea of the title cut sounds just like one of the dusties that inspired them in the first place while also feeling fresh and totally like them. Native Sons is a tribute that manages to be more than a set of covers -- it shows what the band learned from these songs, as well as showing us where their long musical journey has taken them. It's essential listening from one of America's greatest bands. ~ Mark Deming (syndetics)

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  • Daddy's Home

    Daddy's Home

    St. Vincent

    The sixth album from St. Vincent is the latest facet of an ever-evolving artist regarded by many as the most consistently innovative and intriguing presence in modern music. (syndetics)

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  • Jubilee

    Jubilee

    At the start of a new decade, Japanese Breakfast is ready to fight for happiness, an all-too-scarce resource in a seemingly crumbling world. This finds Michelle Zauner embracing ambition and, with it, her boldest ideas and songs yet. (syndetics) (9/26/2021 5:58:02 PM)

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