This Month's Picks

Uptown Special (CD)

Mark Ronson

Uptown Special picks up where the funk and soul of the (now seemingly long) past left off: fuzzy guitar, crunchy keyboards, punchy horns, and funky bass make an album that is jamming, and I mean jamming like roller skating in a tracksuit while rocking a gold chain on a neon lit city street.

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Genre: Rock

Rebel Heart (CD)

Madonna

Faithful Madonna followers, rejoice. Rebel Heart is the return to form we were hoping for. It’s a classic Madonna album that keeps up with modern trends without chasing them in the way MDNA did, calling to mind Like a Prayer-era Madonna in the way it commands the dance floor. “Living For Love” is her best single in years, as Madonna delivers a confident lead vocal over a gospel-infused Diplo house production. On powerhouse “Iconic,” Madonna steps into the ring with a Mike Tyson intro and delivers some inspiring lines that move into a huge chorus of pounding beats and funhouse synths. She still courts controversy, of course. “Devil Pray” sees Madonna reciting a laundry list of intoxicants. “Illuminati” has her turning a favorite hip-hop subject into a nasty club banger that calls out everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah. “Unapologetic Bitch” takes its vocal cues from Beyonce and M.I.A. and sees her delivering kiss-off lyrics over swaying dubstep that can’t help but read as missives to ex-husband Guy Ritchie (“You never knew how much you loved me ‘til you lost me, did you?”). It doesn’t always work—Nicki Minaj barely saves the jarring “Bitch I’m Madonna”—and there are some throwaways here and there that could’ve been trimmed for length. But it’s great to hear her being a firebrand once again, experimenting and trying different things out. With Rebel Heart, Madonna proves that musically speaking, she’ll never go gentle into that good night—she’d rather flip us off, have a good laugh and entertain us all the while.

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Genre: Rock

Escape From Evil (CD)

Lower Dens

These indie rockers drew comparisons to their Baltimore brethren Beach House with 2012’s excellent Nootropics, but they get synthier and catchier with this follow-up.

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Genre: Rock

Cry Is For The Flies (CD)

Le Butcherettes

I caught Le Butcherettes as the opening act for Melvins last fall, and I was completely blown away. I can’t get enough of Teri Gender Bender’s vocals. Her voice mixed with punk-tinged mangled circus organs make for a driving, yet dark, record.

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Genre: Rock

Short Movie (CD)

Laura Marling

At only 25, Laura Marling is releasing her fifth album, following 2013’s excellent, Mercury Prize-nominated Once I Was an Eagle. Like that album, Marling expertly details relationships and breakups on Short Movie, only there’s more variety here—sometimes she’s playing wistful acoustic dreamscapes a la Joni Mitchell, other times she lets loose with snarling attitude like a young Chrissie Hynde. She delivers medieval kiss-offs to a caustic relationship over majestic guitar playing and ambient guitar noise on “Warrior” (“I can’t be your horse anymore/You’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for”); immediately following, the rockier “False Hope” describes urban loneliness in detail. Tracks like “Walk Alone” explore the nuance in Marling’s exquisite voice, while “I Feel Your Love” and “Strange” approach bluegrass and spoken-word delivery from a unique standpoint. “Do I look like I’m fucking around?” she asks on the alluring yet slightly menacing “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.” The answer’s no—whatever Marling tackles on her remarkable fifth album, she does so capably, transforming her demons into songs that cut to the heart.

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Genre: Rock

To Pimp A Butterfly (CD)

Kendrick Lamar

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.

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Genre: Hip Hop

Vestiges & Claws (CD)

José González

It’s tough to pin down just what makes Jose Gonzalez’s music so special. On one hand, the Swedish troubadour writes simple songs that don’t stray far from a template, drawing inspiration from Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkle and Latin folk. On the other hand, the songs on Vestiges & Claws, his third solo album, possess a paralyzing beauty, their lyrics a clarity that is all too rare in a time when folk music seems to be more about looking like you were born in 1918 and festival-style chanting. Lyrically, Gonzalez deals in existential themes and inward thoughts. “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” seems to be about a fight, but his line “sitting in silence, wondering what to do” sums up the feeling, capturing a rare in-between state while some snarling acoustic solos untie a homespun groove. Musically, Gonzalez still can pack hidden hooks into these songs the same way he did on a song like “Heartbeats,” but he’s boosted them ever-so-slightly, adding swelling choral harmonies to the curative “Let It Carry You,” for instance, or tracing private heartache with a beatific flute while he sings “Why didn’t I see the forest on fire behind the trees?” on the stunning track “The Forest.” Vestiges & Claws may deal with heartbreak, but Gonzalez has the uncommon gift to turn it outward and craft relatable songs about dealing with loss and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, especially on the album’s core tracks, the rousing “Leaf Off / The Cave” and “Every Age,” a universal ballad about knowing oneself, being good to one another and “making the best of this short-lived stay”—that may sound cheesy, but Gonzalez makes you believe. In the end, Gonzalez’s music communicates hard-won optimism, and as such, Vestiges & Claws feels restorative, passing through you and filling in the empty spaces.

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Genre: Rock, Folk

Hallways (CD)

Homeboy Sandman

Homeboy Sandman’s second LP for Stones Throw should hopefully take the Queens-born rapper’s detailed, honest accounts to an even wider audience. Tracks like “Problems” offer funny, poignant lyrics that touch on both everyday and serious concerns, from STDs to cigarette smoke hanging on a sweatshirt. “I’m surrounded by hipsters; what does that say about me?” he asks funnily while contemplating his relationship to independent film over music that sounds like glasses clanging against each other in a smokey jazz club. On “America, the Beautiful,” Sandman offers a heartfelt (but not heavy handed) pep talk for feeling nationalistic, describing the random, perhaps overlooked things that make our nation relatively safe and livable by international standards, from the post office to child labor laws, saying “the streets aren’t paved with gold, but at least they’re paved” and “we are the 99% locally, we are the 1% globally.” It speaks to Sandman’s ability to say what’s on his mind without succumbing to pressure to appear harder or angrier than he really is. Production-wise, Hallways is a smorgasbord of great underground producers and showcase for Stones Throw labelmates like Jonwayne, who produces standout “America, the Beautiful” and also creates a moving landscape for “Refugee,” while longtime collaborators 2 Hungry Bros go heavy on the bass for “Loads” (featuring Blu) and Oh No set out a great, trippy landscape on “Heaven Too.” Homeboy Sandman’s ability to be really real may not be for everyone as some tracks may feel frivolous, but it feels like a nice counterpoint to the more self-serious underground stuff. Those who appreciate honestly and true personality in hip-hop storytelling should flock to the engaging Hallways.

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Genre: Hip Hop

Eat Pray Thug (CD)

Heems

Das Racist emerged as young successors to the Beastie Boys in the late ’00s, combining juvenile yet satirical wordplay with anything-goes production, of warped Nintendo synths and classic hip-hop samples, into a strangely effective new medium perfect for the YouTube generation. As the band flamed out, Das Racist member Teems (aka Himanshu Suri) has kept busy releasing mixtapes on his own label and traveling South Asia to connect with his roots. This background helps to inform Eat Pray Thug, which is much more serious than anything we’ve heard from Heems before without losing his adventurousness or sense of humor. “It’s the Hindu Spike Lee!” he declares on the entertaining “So NY,” claiming his own space within a classic hip-hop production (“I’m with the brown boys, we roll around so deep”). Race plays strongly throughout the album, but Heems has a way of working his commentary into nuanced raps that never come off as preachy, rapping “Had to leave Williamsburg and of all the white drama/had to leave my home, they callin’ me Osama” on “So NY” or, more seriously, “They wakin’ up my friend at night for no reason/they promised him freedom, now he guilty for treason” on the hard-hitting “Flag Shopping.” Heems knows the best way to get his point across is through empathy, rapping “I was there, I saw the towers and planes, and I’ll never be the same” over “Flag Shopping’s” post-9/11 pulse. However, Heems also doesn’t allow himself to be typecast as rapping only from and about his South Asian-American perspective, as Eat Pray Thug has its share of simpler songs, like the aptly titled “Pop Song (Games)” and lush R&B track “Home,” featuring Dev Hynes. Such tracks might be breadcrumbs leading to Eat Pray Thug’s headier material, but taken together, they add up to a mightily impressive studio debut from Heems.

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Genre: Hip Hop

Moonlight (CD)

Hanni El Khatib

Hanni El Khatib’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll grows longer fangs on third album Moonlight. The sinister title track sees El Khatib engaging in some swampy blues with chords that hover too closely together, like kissing cousins. “Melt Me” adds some much-appreciated full-and-dirty fuzz to the mix. El Khatib largely supplants ambiance and swagger for melody, but you won’t mind when the results are as pulsating with life as songs like stomping blues-rocker “The Teeth.” While his last album, Head in the Dirt was strong, Moonlight sees El Khatib finding his voice more and dedicating himself to it, coming up with a deliciously whiskey-soaked album that suggests grimy, dimly lit dive bars and the things that happen after closing time.

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Genre: Rock