Vulnicura is the album Bjork fans were longing for. Co-producing with white-hot underground beatmaker Arca, Bjork crafts some of her most singular and affecting music yet, writing complex string arrangements that elevate the drama in songs like “Stonemilker” to that of classics like Homogenic’s “Joga” or “Bachelorette.” Vulnicura measures the effects of the end of a relationship—the end of Bjork’s partnership with artist Matthew Barney serves as the catalyst—and she acts as an emotional scientist on tracks like “Lionsong,” tinkering with what’s left in the aftermath (“Should I throw oil on one of these wounds? But which one?”) amid vocal manipulation that calls to mind her work on the voice-centric Medulla. As that striking album art portrays, the core of Vulnicura is a gaping wound. On “History of Touches,” she sees every touch and sexual ecounter as a singularity, illustrated by electronics that glow like an aurora borealis. But her shield of objectivism crumbles on “Black Lake,” Vulnicura’s absolutely devastating centerpiece. Over 10 minutes, Bjork details how hitting absolute bottom at the end of a relationship that feels like a life’s worth of work coming to and end. Every so often, the music, a dark swirl of strings and beats supplied by Bjork and Arca, cuts out for a strange, long coda that feels like a necessary swallowing of air before she delivers the next stanza, sometimes wearily, sometimes desperately. Each time it hits like a punch to the gut. She’s simply never done anything so affecting before; given her catalog, this alone is remarkable.
Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, left such an impression that hype for a follow-up has been through the roof. So forgive the Compton rapper if he kind of Beyonce’d To Pimp a Butterfly, teasing singles before announcing a release date and suddenly putting it out a week early. Pulling the rug out from hype and inevitable backlash, it gives us a change to all hear To Pimp a Butterfly at once, in all its glory. Butterfly doubles down on the idiosyncracies of good kid, eschewing club-friendly tracks in favor of those that cast a light on Lamar’s pure skills as a rapper and wordsmith—always celebrated, yet perhaps distracted by stellar production and good kid’s concept-album style—as well as his ability to put together a layered and compelling album. Tracks like the “For Free” interlude are showcases for Lamar’s dexterity, while “u’s” desperate, verge-on-tears delivery find him at his most vulnerable —Drake’s never done anything like this. The production across To Pimp a Butterfly, courtesy of such luminaries as Flying Lotus and Thundercat, like those artists’ work (and similarly to D’Angelo’s recently released Black Messiah), effortlessly melds hip-hop, R&B and jazz on excellent tracks like the off-kilter “Institutionalized” and gorgeous “These Walls” to exist in some mystery middle space, without drawing attention away from Lamar’s star power. While headier tracks dominate the album, Lamar unleashes a couple of huge singles at the album’s closing. At first, “i” could come off as Lamar’s “sell out” track, catchy enough to sit alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” as a crowd-friendly that sands off his rough edges, but it serves as a bit of a breather here, dressed up in The Isley Brothers’ unstoppable “Who’s That Lady,” though Lamar’s lyrics remain deeply dark, exposing his own depression, and a spoken word passage that delves into a discussion on racial slurs adds context. Following the reclaiming of racial stereotypes on the absolutely killer “The Blacker the Berry,” To Pimp a Butterfly ends ultimately feeling conflicted yet triumphant. It’s a deep, complicated work, yet not one that feels the slightest bit overstuffed or overwrought. Kendrick Lamar successfully defies all expectations yet again, on what’s sure to be one of the year’s best albums.
Fucked Up fans might be surprised to learn the band’s guitarist, Ben Cook, hides a secret power-pop fetish. Ripe 4 Luv is full of gleaming guitars, tinny drum machines and immediate, Big Star-inspired melodies. Cook still lets the guitars rip on songs like the irresisitable “Crawling Back to You,” but they’re in service of spaced-out love songs rather than post-hardcore epics. So even if the Ariel Pink-ish “Aquarius” is about as far from Fucked Up as you can get, it proves Cook can wear multiple hands and do it quite well. Ripe 4 Luv is a sterling piece of charmingly lo-fi power-pop that burns brightly over its snappy eight songs.
The singer/songwriter/producer and Spacebomb Records founder returns with a second album that re-creates the American songbook D.I.Y.-style, moving from classic R&B (“Take Care My Baby”) to country-soul (“Rock & Roll Is Cold”) to gently orchestrated romantic indie pop (“Fruit Trees”), showing a master’s touch throughout.
Ghanaian highlife artist Ata Kak was brought to light through ethnomusicologist Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes From Africa blog when he posted the unstoppable “Daa Nyinaa.” Shimkovitz bought the Ata Kak tape more than a decade ago and finally found him living in Ghana. Only 50 copies of the original Obaa Sima tape were made, and though the original master DAT had disintegrated, Shimkovitz’s tape was used to reissue Obaa Sima. Details of Shimkovitz’s search for Ata Kak could likely fill a book (in fact, a documentary is being made), but it only serves to give the truly awesome Obaa Sima even more allure, as does the tape hiss from the transfer. Its seven tracks offer nothing but good times, a non-stop party that sounds removed from time, full of delightfully rinky-dink synths, instant-play beats and Ata Kak’s motormouth rap. The slightly off-time nature of the backups on “Agdaya,” the louder than necessary mix of the vocals—all things that could be construed as negative instead feel like happy accidents that make Obaa Sima sound so singular. One track flows into another across Obaa Sima, coming into centerpiece “Daa Nyinaa,” an Afro-house masterpiece of warehouse-party cool. But stick around for the slightly sinister “Yemmpa Aba” and head-bobbing vocal-less closer “Bome Nnwon,” which will have you replaying the entire album once its final handclap echoes into silence. When Ata Kak is on, you won’t want to listen to anything else. If you need me, I’ll be watching this video on repeat:
Colleen Green details major life upsets as she faces the end of her 30s on her new album, I Want to Grow Up. From breakups to digitally addled attention spans, Green’s power-pop panache makes quarterlife crises go down smoothly on hooky songs like “Pay Attention” and girl-groupish “Wild One.” “I’m so sick of being self-absorbed,” Green sings on the title track, yet she’s so good at communicating that sense of staring at the ceiling and chastising yourself that we can’t help but be hooked on her particular brand of sugary anxiety. She writes a catchy ode to getting clean and going to bed early with “Things That Are Bad for Me” and then follows it up with another track about wanting to get fucked up on the drone-rocking “part 2,” summing up a sentiment on this album we can all relate to: I’m gonna get it together, maybe tomorrow. Read more about I Want to Grow Up in our interview with Green here. See her live at Amoeba Hollywood today at 7 p.m.!