Twenty-seven years in the game, the Green-Eyed Bandit hasn't let the punches come through. Nearly ten years since his last album, E.S.P. (short for Erick Sermon's Perception) is classic, pre-synthesized hip-hop straight from New York. Funky, brassy and borderline cheesy samples smoothly loop over old school flows that give this long-awaited album the smooth, vintage sheen that has been ignored since the days when Wu-Tang's Killa Beez ran the scene. To just give it that perfect veneer, the final touch is throwing in special guests like Redman, Method Man, Mary J. Blige and Too Short. If you're nostalgic for when New York was the prime scene of hip-hop, E.S.P. might convince you again that the east coast is the best coast.
L.A.-based Gardens & Villa have made the psych-pop album of the summer with Music For Dogs . Dually informed by the art-pop of ’70s artists such as Brian Eno and Sparks as well as the soulful new wave of groups like OMD and Yaz, Music For Dogs is a pleasurable pastiche of sympathetic and well-curated sounds. “Fixations” is an irresistible single that springs along a bouncing piano line and engaging vocal hooks. The catchy but fitful and wild synth-pop of “Maximize Results” shows this is a band willing to take some chances, setting them far apart from the bloated electro-pop crowd. What works the best is how G&V are able to pair brainy ambitions — squiggling synths and sudden mid-song diversions — with amiable, even occasionally silly lyrics that keep everything firmly planted in the pop field. They’re not perfect — “Everybody’s” resemblance to The Shins detracts from the song’s estimable charms. But Music For Dogs is remarkably solid all the way through, throwing in new sounds at every turn, like the sumptuous proggy soft-rock of “Happy Times” that surprises on side B. It’s a big leap forward for the band and an album that should land them among the A-list of young, thoughtful pop bands.
Alternative R&B artist The Weeknd has gone from underground sensation to worldwide phenomenon, thanks to critical success of albums like House of Balloons and his association with acts like Drake. Beauty Behind the Madness steps up the energy from 2013’s Kiss Land , which wasn’t a bad album but failed to fully capitalize on his indie cred. No such thing with Beauty , which comes on strong and doesn’t let up. The gloriously hedonistic “The Hills” manages to build a radio-ready R&B slow burner while folding in the more experimental elements upon which Abel Tesfaye made his name—a digitally clawed-up croon, atmospheric backdrop and strange effects, like a sampled horror-movie scream acting as a chorus cue. “Earned It,” used in 50 Shades of Grey , goes the other route, a cool jazz ballad with classy strings and lyrics that are more suggestive than crude. “Often” dazzles with its ghostly production, and Tesfaye keeps the party moving on the MJ-ish “Can’t Feel My Face.” Lyrically, Tesfaye leaves something to be desired in the way he sings about women—he’s better off in the parts of “Tell Your Friends” that just focus on doing drugs and funny wordplay (“I'm never rocking white, I'm like a racist”). Throughout Beauty , Tesfaye’s sound is flawlessly constructed, and his voice has grown remarkably from its breathy beginnings to a confidence level that would make him appealing even without his estimable songwriting and production skills. Beauty Behind the Madness is the album that finally, truly announces Tesfaye’s arrival as an A-lister. It’ll be tough to find a more entertaining (or inventive) R&B album released this year.
Part of the continuing wave of weirdo, new agey, borderline dancey electronica by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never and Holly Herndon, 21 year-old Georgia Barnes (but performing under the more laconic Georgia) is pushing artistic limits of electro-pop. Her R&B laced vocals are almost more shocking in the sampling typhoon of Sufi chant samples, repeating syllables, Super Nintendo synths and percussion that is BANGING. Each track is densely filled with all sorts of sounds coming that you might be a little shell-shocked. But this isn't avant-garde dissonance. This is just the new frontier of sophisticated, risk taking pop; the perfect amalgamation of dub, Eurobeat, hip-hop that is too frenetic to just be listened to, but has to be moved to. The outsider choices and wild chances Georgia took guarantee that the impact of her debut will be felt for a while. This is groundbreaking pop.
On Abyss , Chelsea Wolfe embraces the industrial music and doom metal that have always lurked as influences and adds them as blackened flourishes to her gothy experimental electro-folk. “Carrion Flowers” writhes slowly on a corroded beat that hits like a door slamming beneath her curling and cooing voice. Groaning guitar noise introduces “Iron Moon” as Wolfe’s entrée into the metal world (save for her celebrated cover of black metal band Burzum’s “Black Spell of Destruction”). The eerie, wiry strings and sludgy power chords of “Dragged Out” become a pummeling wash at the chorus, which is reminiscent of Sunn O))), for whom she’s opened in the past. The album’s opening is bold, but echoes of her past work radiate through Abyss , on its strings, which can be achingly beautiful on tracks like “Maw” but wail like banshees on “Crazy Love,” or on the wavering synths of “After the Fall” (seemingly the only thing left over from some of the synth-driven exercises of her last album, Pain is Beauty ). The biggest holdover here, besides an overall grim aesthetic, is Wolfe’s voice, which can sometimes get buried but breaks through the din to emote beautifully on “After the Fall” and “Crazy Love.” Some fans might bristle at the changes she’s made, but most will likely find the heavier sound suits Wolfe’s compositions and voice quite well. Besides being great on its own as an album, Abyss hopefully will add another chink in the armor of the seemingly closed-off and overwhelmingly male world of critically respected, heavy guitar-based music.
As a solo singer/songwriter, Nathaniel Rateliff pens acoustic odes that cut to the heart, thanks to Rateliff’s stellar voice. But as the frontman for his new rock ‘n’ roll combo, The Night Sweats, Rateliff goes from sweet to savage. Catchy but raw, Stonesy rockers like “I Need Never Grow Old” allow Rateliff to really unleash his voice, a bluesy growl with a power rarely heard in this day and age. There’s an undeniable soul to horn-laden tracks like the rousing “Howling at Nothing” — which is appropriate, given that this is Rateliff’s first record on the legendary Stax label. They make pub rock an art form on songs like “I’ve Been Failing” and indulge in some sighing steel guitars on the honky tonkin’ “Wasting Time,” while “S.O.B.” is like a spiritual that morphs into a rollicking kiss-off. The band rocks hard enough to appeal to fans of bands like Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons, but classic rock fans could easily get hip to this. True to their name, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats leave you panting and begging for more on their kickass debut.
Beach House’s latest album strips back some of the pop shimmer of their last two albums while maintaining the more confident songcraft they started debuting on 2010’s Teen Dream . It’s a bold move, and one that proves to be the right one for Beach House, as they’ve kept the reins on their trajectory and integrity while furthering the quality of their songwriting. First single “Sparks” is a powerhouse shoegazer that showcases the duo’s strengths, pairing Alex Scally’s emotive guitarwork with Victoria LeGrand’s lush, layered vocals. “Space Song” is a luscious, swaying love song built on a bubbling synthesizer and sighing guitar slides. “10:37’s” deliberately chintzy drum machine keeps time like a cheap alarm clock while Legrand’s vocals and synths float by hazily like nighttime clouds. Album highlight “PPP” reimagines girl group devotion in a serpentine, whispery ballad that ranks among the band’s finest songs. You might miss some of Bloom ’s bombast, but you also can’t argue with the quality here. Beach House remain the most consistently great band of their ilk on another album of uncommon, unflinching beauty.
Surf rock gets grim with La Luz, like someone splattered blood all over your Dick Dale collection. The moody lyrics that howl out of lead singer and guitarist Shana Cleveland is that monster that comes out of the sea to eat and chase beach goers on an otherwise beautiful day. The coolest bummer Summer.
Kip Moore is a mega hunk who happens to be a mega talent, sneaking his way up to the top of the country music charts with the song "I'm To Blame" that's destined to steal the hearts of every lovelorn woman with a radio playing. Each song is a solid boot stomper, as Wild Ones treads more into the territory of anthem rock with power beats ready for dancing and cheering. Kip doesn't go for a straight, machismo approach to love, but takes a more subjective step back as he sings about his own personal errors or the tragic expectations of romance. He's a bad guy with a sweet heart. So wipe those tears off your face, because Kip knows how tough love can be.
Vancouver's synth powered unit, Yukon Blonde, have smoothed out the fuzz and reverb by instead infusing it with '80s nostalgia without ever stumbling or sounding instantly dated. And you would have no clue they were capable of this sound if you heard their previous albums. Haven previously cut their teeth on more melodic, spacier jams that felt like indie rock's take on The Eagles, their latest is surprisingly modern, with a hint of neon-tinted shine, sounding like missing tracks from the movie Drive . Relentless showstoppers like opener "Confused" and "Saturday Night" pulse in your veins with mechanical sounding percussion right out of New Order's heyday, staccato guitar rhythms and synths coloring each tune in a warm, late-afternoon haze. If you were flirting with the idea of bringing back the Flock of Seagulls hairdo, On Blonde might just push you to do it.
Mac DeMarco’s warbling guitar licks, laid-back vocals and goofy/sweet sensibilities return for a wonderful set of surprisingly classy tunes. His latest is a charmingly low-key release that demands little of its listeners and rewards them with instantly hummable little ditties that show DeMarco’s continued growth into a mature singer/songwriter (however immature his delightful persona continues to be). The overall mood here is a little more bummed-out and lovelorn than his previous releases, especially on the electric-piano-led, Beck-ish title track and “A Heart Like Hers,” in which DeMarco howls for lost love in a way we haven’t heard before. Yet these are gently crafted tunes that aren’t too much of a downer, a groovy little bassline in “No Other Heart” and jaunty march in “I’ve Been Waiting for Her” keeping things spry. Another One finds DeMarco doing the opposite of so many other artists: Rather than respond to his growing success with a bloated follow-up that aims high and misses, here, DeMarco scales back and tones down, settling peaceably into his sound —and into his new digs in Far Rockaway, to which he invites listeners at the end of the album, giving out his real address. Fans who do choose to stop on by for a cup of coffee, as he suggests, should let DeMarco know that he’s one of the best young songwriters alive.
Austrailia's Deaf Wish is rock music in the sense that it's got guitars, drums and a bass, but they're something far deeper. Just when they start to resemble what you think is punk, Sonic Youth styled noise, distortion and downright weirdness becomes as fundamental to each track as the guitar and drums are. If this were still the '90s, this would be the prime example of "post rock" as Deaf Wish dissects and aggressively stuffs familiar forms like punk and alt rock with feedback laced guitars that fizzle in each song with unsettling uncertainty. If you thought that an album called Pain would let you off easy, you won't be ready for the pummels. It's taken them eight years, but now their music is finally ready to melt in your ears with their major American debut on Sub Pop. This is so fierce that just listening to it will just get you perspiring.