Aluminium: 10 Years of Favourite Worst Nightmare

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Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Released April 23rd, 2007 on Domino Records

The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll.  After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs.  It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”

They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong.  This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi.  This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England.  When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another.  Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred.  At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy).  Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.

How to follow up such a successful first album, though?  It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted.  So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare.  Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful.  While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album.  “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters.  “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked.  “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll.  Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”.  “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for.  Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.

(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)

It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this.  As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage).  Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag.  Not bad for four kids from Northern England.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Ashtray Rock

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Joel Plaskett Emergency – Ashtray Rock

Released April 17th, 2007 on MapleMusic Recordings

A triumph of album-making, the third Emergency album tells the story of the Ashtray Rock, a place in the woods near the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park where the local teenagers gather to get drunk and crank the volume on already-loud rock ‘n’ roll music.  Two guys have a great time hanging out at the late-night parties but they have a falling out over a girl.  One of them gets the girl for a little while, and the other one forms a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As far as ideas for concept albums go, it’s squarely in the Who camp, but Plaskett and Co. pull it off at the height of their powers and it ends up being exhilarating rather than ridiculous.  Part of the success in this is that the concept and lyrics are near and dear to Plaskett’s heart and he has said at times that some of the characters are his old bandmates in Thrush Hermit, and that the music-in-common part of “Penny For Your Thoughts” is tuned to his wife’s tastes.

Regardless of the concept, of course, it’s an amazing lineup of songs that strike a clear tone and build hooks like skyscrapers.  It was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris Music prize (along with Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible) but eventually lost out to Patrick Watson’s Close To Paradise.  This is too bad, really, since Ashtray Rock is the absolute peak of the Emergency, a rock ‘n’ roll triumph whose nostalgic paeans to youth and young love will ring on long after the last notes.

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

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Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Person Pitch

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Released March 20th, 2007 on Paw Tracks

BestEverAlbums: #317

RYM:  #433

When Person Pitch first came out I was of the opinion that it sounded exactly like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys had been granted access to high-octane research chemicals during the writing and recording process.  Very little in the ensuing decade has given me any reason to change this opinion.

 

Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox was, in early 2007, on top of the world.  His day job band, psychedelic electronic acid-jammers Animal Collective, were being increasingly recognized as one of the most vital bands in contemporary indie rock (Strawberry Jam was just around the corner to cement this status).  Between Feels, AnCo’s breakthrough album, and Person Pitch Lennox moved to Lisbon, Portugal; the sunny climate and generally carefree atmosphere Lennox found heavily influenced the sound of the album.  The stacked vocals evoke a very beachy, very free-wheeling sense of fun and abandon; the sampled loops and instruments that clatter on beneath everything add to the sense of unreality, as though you’re on an endless vacation in a place where the sand is white and the water is a clear, brilliant blue and you have no return ticket.  “Bros” (jam of a lifetime) and “Good Girl/Carrots” add a bit of gallop to the sound, as though the Grateful Dead (pre-Workingman’s Dead) had access to a modern recording studio and all of the LSD they could ever want.

 

Person Pitch was the height of Noah Lennox as a solo artist.  His next album would largely ditch the samplers in favour of more guitar-focused work, and his follow-up to that would try to rework samplers back in while striving for a more radio-ready sound.  Neither have the sense of hedonistic abandon that characterizes Person Pitch and neither has the reverb-laden choral quality of vocals that marks the album out as something special.

China: 20 Years of The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

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The Dismemberment Plan – The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Released March 17th, 1997 on DeSoto Records

The Dismemberment Plan are the perfect band to dance like no one’s watching to.  Hell, that’s pretty much how they played music.  With a couple of exceptions, the songs on The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified are either played with abandon – nearly random guitar squiggles, songs that explode out in every direction at once, and then suddenly veer off in another direction – or played as moody proto-indie songs that come out as confessions.  Occasionally, as on “The Ice Of Boston” (still the best New Year’s song out there), they’re both.  In an interview with Stylus singer Travis Morrison described it as “the most dedicated to hip-hop record we have.”  I feel like this is sort of what Christgau was saying when he said that The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified sounded “sort of the way Primus might if Primus enjoyed a normal sex life.”  It’s an album that writhes spastically in odd directions but is still completely relatable, as though you just discovered that your accountant was in a noise rock band.  While it was eclipsed by it’s followup, the sublime Emergency & I, it’s a recommended listen for anyone into noise rock, or post-hardcore, or inventive post-punk in general.

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Sound Of Silver

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LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver

Released March 12th, 2007 on DFA/Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums: #129

Who sounds like they’re having more fun than James Murphy?  In the middle of the Oughts, people thought dance-punk was something that honestly sounded like a good idea, probably because they heard a couple of old Gang Of Four records and thought they could inject some irony into the proceedings and call it a day (The Rapture).  Along with a number of groups who thought they could get along doing the same thing, James Murphy started putting out a string of singles on his co-owned DFA Records label that were along similar lines to the other stuff that was going on in 2005, with a key difference:  Murphy and LCD Soundsystem weren’t afraid to get funny as well as funky; it was this combination that made their early singles such successes, and their self-titled debut such a critical darling.

 

Sound Of Silver, their sophomore effort, turns that idea on it’s head.  To be sure, it’s still funny as hell:  the self-deprecating party kids of “North American Scum” make for great fun; the chorus of “Sound Of Silver” is good for a rueful grin.  What Sound Of Silver really is, though, is poignant, and it rides that particular aspect far better than LCD Soundsystem rode snarky humour.  “Someone Great” looks back on the lost, both broken relationships and dead people; “All My Friends” contains the immortal line “You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again.”  “Us Vs. Them” feels alienated from the crowd and all the sad drunk boys on their knees; “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is exactly what it says on the tin – a nostalgia for the old septic New York City and an admission that sometimes the modern theme park version of NYC can get a little much.

 

Wrapping all of this feels is a slick, eminently danceable disco-punk that keeps moving without stopping (until the end, of course; “New York” is the perfect comedown for a sweat-filled night out).  The effect is that Sound Of Silver sounds like a night out with your friends, the ones you haven’t seen in forever but for whom it feels as though no time at all has passed.  You want the night to last forever and for a while it feels like it will but eventually you get exhausted and the city seems like a vulture waiting to pick your bones clean and then the sun comes up and there’s one last fleeting bit of glory before you stumble through the dawn streets to find your bed so you can collapse and pass out.  It’s as much fun as it sounds.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Neon Bible

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Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Released March 3rd, 2007 on Merge Records

BestEverAlbums: #99

RYM:  #426

Rock ‘n’ roll is shot through with instances of the Difficult Second Album.  A band makes it big, often by surprise, with a debut album that resonates with the masses.  The band then tours like mad, builds up a huge amount of hype, and is suddenly faced with the prospect of having to follow up that glorious debut with something that keeps the momentum going.  James Hetfield once said “you have 18 years to write your first album, and six months to write the second,” and it’s uncomfortably true.  Metallica themselves made it through okay, releasing a second album that was even better than their debut; many other bands have fallen by the wayside by doing the exact opposite.  Often, bands will either release an album that completely falls flat (let’s talk about Marcy Playground some more) or an album that rehashes the first with diminishing results (hello Cloud Nothings).  The hype and pressure combine to completely wreck a band in the process of trying to prove that they’re more than just a flash in the pan.

 

So, Arcade Fire, Greatest Band Of Their Generation.  Funeral was huge when it came out in 2004.  I wept – literally wept – when I first heard “Neighbourhoods #1 (Tunnels)”.  There was a choral nature to the album that struck everyone that listened to it.  It was exactly as it appeared at first blush – the sound of a group of people working out their grief through music that, instead of wallowing in misery, affirmed the beauty and the inherent goodness of life.  If you held a gun to my head, Funeral would be my choice for the greatest album ever recorded.  Hell, you wouldn’t even have to point a gun at my head.  You could just point.  You could ask.  You could be in the same room as me.  I could walk into the room you were in, and I’d tell you the same.  It would get annoying.

 

How to follow it up, though?  The gap between 2004 and 2007 was a long one and the hipsters were waiting for the second Arcade Fire with knives sharpened over and over again.  When it came out, they leapt on it, ready with accusations:  “Ugh, earnest lyrics and politics, how pretentious” and “OMG, it’s so Bruce Springsteen, how gauche” (a line Rolling Stone would take with The Suburbs, with lumbering Boomer efficiency).  Neon Bible shrugs both accusations off, however.  To the first, it adopts a certain fatalism with regard to its apocalyptic subject matter.  In 2006-2007, war fatigue had set in across the Western world.  Bush was in the middle of his Difficult Second Term, and the band’s own home country was engulfed in economic restructuring and political instability.  The crash was still a year off, but the signs of the gathering storm were everywhere.  “Keep The Car Running” wasn’t just paranoia; in 2007, there was a palpable sense that there was something coming, and it was coming in hard.  Who’s to say that, ten years later, the song isn’t even more viscerally relevant:  disappearing from friends and family, gone into the night.  The knock at 4 AM.  The same place animals go when they die.  Keep one eye to the door, listen out for the neighbours, and the stairs.  Keep the car running.

 

There’s that same heady weight to all of these songs.  “Black Mirror” (with that soulful twisting French line that seems to flow out of Regine Chassande like fine chocolate) walks out to the ocean and is greeted with an implacable and ancient force that is as humbling to the human psyche as the stars.  The vast, impersonal ocean crops up again and again throughout the album.  “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” and “Ocean Of Noise” both tread the same waters, wondering what good human fuckery is in the face of a monolithic force that will always override them without thought or care.  “Neon Bible” and “Intervention” both tackle the grim joy of the Christianity of city missions and the inherent hypocrisy embedded in devout evangelical religion.  “(Antichrist Television Blues)” furthers this exploration by positing Joe Simpson, father of Jessica, imploring God to treat Joe as his mouthpiece and show His glory by selling his daughter to the entertainment machine “to show the world what you’re doing to me”.  “Windowsill” turns away from that same entertainment machine, and from it’s dread implication, Pax Americana.  “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” he sings, “I don’t want to live in America no more.”  “Windowsill” is like “Keep The Car Running” in that it knows that something is coming.  Conor Oberst once sang “I Don’t Know When But A Day’s Gonna Come” and all three know that to be true.  “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Win Butler sings, and it’s a question that can still be asked a decade on.  “No Cars Go” is his answer to all of the above:  fuck it, let’s just leave.  We’ll find a place where this death trap we’ve created and christened as The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Western Civilization can’t find us.  No planes no trains no automobiles.  No snowmobiles and no skis.  No bosses, no bankers, no landlords.  “My Body Is A Cage” ends on a more intimate note, something more like what “Crown Of Love” was on Funeral; if you’ve never seen the spaghetti western mash-up video for it, you should look that up right now.

 

Where the hipsters saw pretension, there actually exists unvarnished emotion and the sound of a band tapping into the zeitgeist.  The second accusation is much easier to dismiss.  Who doesn’t want to sound like Bruce Springsteen?  I mean, he’s the Boss.  Plus, this cacophony of instrumentation – these guitars, these church organs, violins, clarinets, keyboards, drums, synthesizers, these massed and stacked and soaring vocals – conjures up all of the power that was latent in the Boss’ music in the 1970s and fills it with glorious noise.  When that wall of organ crashes over you (like an ocean wave) on “My Body Is A Cage”, it is at once utterly obliterating and more apocalyptic than even Bruce “There’s no more jobs anymore on account of the economy” Springsteen could have summoned up by 1980.  Win Butler and Co. are earnest and straight-talking, up to a point, but their flair for the dramatic is unmatched in any other band, contemporary or classic.

 

Neon Bible is often the overlooked album in the Arcade Fire canon.  Funeral was the critical bombshell; The Suburbs was the mainstream hit; Reflektor was the Defiant Artistic Statement.  Neon Bible, meanwhile, doesn’t have an ethos-defining peg to hang from – but it might be their most consistent album, and it hits with the implacable force of a tsunami.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Wincing The Night Away

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The Shins – Wincing The Night Away

Released January 23rd, 2007 on Sub Pop Records

One of the biggest problems with indie rock fans and critics is that they get bored far too easily.  Everything has too be cutting-edge, post-modern, and hip for it’s own good.  If you try to work on what you’re good at, try to write good songs in the vein you’re mining, people invariably move on to newer and shinier things.  Such was the fate of Wincing The Night Away when it was first released ten years ago.  The Shins had scored two huge albums on Seattle’s venerable Sub Pop label, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow.  They were also immortalized in the Zach Braff vehicle Garden State, where Natalie Portman’s Manic Pixie Girl character told Braff to listen to The Shins because “they’ll change your life.”  When the album was released, it debuted at #2 on Billboard, the highest chart position of any Sub Pop album ever.

 

So where does the backlash come in?  I think it is a combination of all of the above factors.  They were an indie band on their way to mainstream, and if there’s any one thing that defines hipsterdom as a whole, it’s that coolness and popularity are inversely related.  Once a bunch of middle class kids latched onto the band through a movie, the writing was on the wall.  “Oh my god,” you can almost hear the scarf-wearing poets with their PBRs saying “can you believe how popular this band is?  They play them on the radio now, how plebeian is that?  Oh well, let the peasants have their charming pop songs, I’m much more into drone music now.  And Robyn, but only ironically, of course.”  So critics start to dig for things to dislike about Wincing The Night Away in order to fit the prejudices of their readership and suddenly it’s not cool to like The Shins anymore.  When their follow-up, Port Of Morrow, was released five years later, I remarked to a friend that it was nice to hear The Shins putting out new music again; said friend decided to inform me that “no one listens to The Shins anymore,” despite the album getting a solid 8.4 on the Hipster Bible itself.

 

It’s a shame because I consider Wincing The Night Away to be their best album, narrowly eking out Oh, Inverted World for that title.  “Sleeping Lessons” is a stellar way to start an album, with a riff nicked directly and deliberately from “Mr. Sandman” and a galloping second half that barely stays in control of itself.  “Australia” could really be the quintessential Shins song, in that it combines pretty much everything that makes James Mercer’s songwriting great – bouyant riff, curvy melody, and an energy that doesn’t require you to be drenched in sweat to have a good time.  “Phantom Limb” follows in that same vein, adding in one of those wordless choruses Mercer is so good at; the two together are proof that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down, you just need to write well and be true to yourself. “Sea Legs” adds an interesting stutter-step beat to the Shins sound, and “Black Wave” adds a haunting acoustic air to it.  “Red Rabbits”, “Turn On Me”, and “Split Needles” are great examples of Mercer’s way with melody (and are also reminiscent of his later work with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells).  “Girl Sailor” manages to stretch Mercer’s range and “A Comet Appears” strips down and presents the bare reality of the band and it’s raison d’etre.

 

Cutting-edge is fun and all, but it’s nice to hear a band stake out their sound and pound away at it until they’ve perfected it.  Wincing The Night Away was the sound of The Shins perfecting their sound, regardless of how many clueless Brooklynites got bored and wandered off in search of the next specialty coffee shop.  They may not change your life, but they’ll inform it, and that’s arguably a better role to fill anyway.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

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Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Released January 23rd, 2007 on Polyvinyl Records

BestEverAlbums:  #421

Kevin Barnes is a weird dude, but he’s utterly committed to a good concept.  Hissing Fauna is the first album in a concept trilogy that revolves around Kevin Barnes having a breakdown and transforming into a black male-to-female-to-male transgendered individual named Georgie Fruit, who has spent a couple years in and out of prison and once played in a hard funk band back in the drugged-out Seventies.

What?  OK, check it –

Kevin Barnes married an artist named Nina Twin and moved with her to Norway.  While there he had a bout with clinical depression (he felt the bleak despair of those black metal bands) and marital trouble (a constant refrain of every Of Montreal album after this one) and eventually was prescribed anti-depressants, which leveled him out and gave him the inspiration to write Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?  He came up with the concept of Georgie Fruit, a glammy alter-ego that was more than a bit of a nod at David Bowie’s theatrical character-switching, and in the course of eleven-plus minutes on “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” switches into the costume.  If that still sounds confusing, just listen to “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger” and that should clear things up for you.

Of Montreal is part of the fabled Athens, GA Elephant Six recording collective, and so it must be said that Hissing Fauna is replete with fey psychedelia, ambitious and experimental sound placement, and a love of the culture and music of the Sixties.  Barnes welds that with horny R&B-influenced pop, much as Prince did in his heyday, and as such there’s less “bearded weirdo playing an obscure instrument on an early Beatles cover in a wooden backwood theatre” and more “awkward indie kids dancing at a hole-in-the-wall and hooking up later in a room covered in theatre bills and Xeroxed punk rock flyers”.  It’s less on-the-nose Prince worship than the next two Georgie Fruit-fronted albums, Skeletal Lamping and False Priest, and it retains a lot of the early Of Montreal whimsy and delicateness; it’s telling that the band has never produced a real classic album since.

 

What a pinnacle, though.  “Suffer For Fashion” opens the album with an artillery blast of a pop song, easily one of the best indie tracks released in the Oughts.  “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” makes waiting for anti-depressants to kick in sound like it should have always been the subject of a glam-rock epic.  “Gronlandic Edit” has a strut that a thousand would-be funkateers would die for.  “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” is probably the most Elephant Six of the songs presented, and even it wiggles it’s ass for all its worth.  “She’s A Rejecter” is a harrowing hard rocker that presages the more bitter songs Barnes would write about his wife (later ex-wife) as albums went on.  It’s an album overflowing with big hooks, funky struts, and hip literary references that can fly by without being noticed – the mousy girl screaming “violence, violence” is a reference to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on the same song that Barnes directly references Georges Bataille and “The Story Of The Eye”.  Ten years on, neither Barnes nor the band as a whole have come close to topping it, despite individual songs capturing the old magic a bit.

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

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Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Released May 13th, 2016

During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear.  Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.

Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised:  a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion.  Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid RapColoring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people.  “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole.  It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets.  The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place.  Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails:  he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it.  He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.

Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent.  He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas.  Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape.  It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”:  “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”.  Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive.  Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book.  They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.

Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al.  He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else.  In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.

AND THE REST…

A$AP Ferg

Always Strive And Prosper

04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music

The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.

Wire

Nocturnal Koreans

04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records

Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP.  As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.

Greys

Outer Heaven

04/22/2016 on Carpark Records

Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part.  In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs.  While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact.  Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.

Plants And Animals

Waltzed In From The Rumbling

04/29/2016 on Secret City Records

A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue.  Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.

The Jayhawks

Paging Mr. Proust

The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career.  Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.

White Lung

Paradise

The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album.  It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old.  At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.