This Month's Picks

Emperor Of Sand (CD)

Mastodon is one of those bands that have gotten better over time. Though their albums are thick layers of fuzzed-out guitars, slamming percussion, and dramatic vocals, Mastodon manages to keep a subliminal level of pop that makes them feel less impenetrable than most heavy-duty metal bands. With their seventh album, they created a sophisticated concept album that deals with mortality by telling the story of a man in the desert who has been sentenced to die. It was born out of the desire to create something that represented the band's personal journal of having friends and family become ill with cancer. But this anger and confusion is vented through relentlessly powerful metal that shreds and marches forward with pure fire.   As soon at the opening riff of "Sultan's Curse" kicks in - from mysterious bells to a riff that gallops into hellish imagery and doom - your body rocks with intensity. But the precision and love for prog rock is all over the track with various drums going wild into multiple layers of sonic insanity while guitars jam out into psychedelic free forms. It feels less like an album to mope over tragedy, and more like a violent rejection of life's problems. "Show Yourself" is probably their most "normal" sounding track as they sculpt what otherwise could've been a solid rock number; except in pure Mastodon fashion, the guitars never give you a chance to breathe and even the lyrics add an atmosphere of suppression. The song almost treads into comedic territory, but the music always takes itself seriously. Emperor of Sand is easily their best album to date. All the elements combined make it feel like prog for the 21st century without the pointless noodling. This is concise, loud, and tough music. More
Genre: Rock

Contact (CD)

Pharmakon’s Contact is an exploration of transcendence, power, and empathy, based around the concept of the four stages of trance: preparation, onset, climax, and resolution. Not that you’d ever know it from listening to this brutal yet beautiful album. Noise queen Margaret Chardiet screams, moans, and threatens over imposing, ominous beats and harsh walls of textured sound. Contact is an intelligent, challenging, immersive noise album that will prove irresistible for those who like a little pain in their pleasure. More
Genre: Rock

Al Jamilat (CD)

Yasmine Hamdan
It seems like it was divine intervention that Yasmine Hamdan's first exposure to the west was in Jim Jarmusch's 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive , where she gave a wonderful live performance that felt like a perfect preview of her sound. Her first album reached the States the following year, delivering a fresh sound in the world of art pop. Now three years later, she returns with her third album and it's already one of the best albums of the spring season. Treading between trip hop influenced rhythms and Middle Eastern tonalities, her unique voice leads the way for new directions in pop. The album has been loosely translated as "The Beautiful Ones" or The Beautiful Women" and it reflects what Hamdan has in mind. She herself says that "It's about me as a woman... I think of women as a minority in most societies today. Women, children, homosexuals, transsexuals. We are all, in a way, minorities of when it comes to power and economic structures."   In a time when the west seems to be turning to myopic, racist, and intolerant views, embracing her femininity and racial identity in a multicultural world feels like defiant protest. "La Ba'den" opens with a guitar echo reverberating in out-of-tune wonky experimentation until the beat kicks in and morphs the song into a chill electronic riff. Her voice has a gruffness and raspier overtone that puts her in a similar league with Marianne Faithful's current work. As the song starts to wind down, the instrumentation spreads out with Arabic violins delicately screeching, minimal piano chords, and harmonic ambiance until the track vaporizes. Yasmine Hamdan proves that protest music is alive and still retains that level of poetry and sensitivity it always has. It's an album that's made in defiance of the changing values of our world. More
Genre: World

The Ride (CD)

Nelly Furtado
For her latest release, Nelly Furtado sought out producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, St. Vincent) to create a “pop-alternative album” with more of an indie feel than her past work. The result is The Ride . It’s definitely still a Nelly Furtado album and it bears all the hallmarks — catchy hooks, smooth, glistening melodies, and that dulcet voice — but altogether the album is more substantial, experimental, and impactful. Furtado’s lyrics are introspective, although her sound is still as clarion as ever, with much of the album spent delving into themes of disappointment and rebuilding. Single “Pipe Dreams” is an interesting example, with a bouncy, irresistible beat segueing into a serious pipe organ solo that Furtado pulls off with aplomb. This is a smart, thoroughly enjoyable album that makes us hope for another outing from the newly-minted Furtado/Congleton team. More
Genre: Rock

Mental Illness (CD)

Aimee Mann
With a title like Mental Illness  you could either expect an album to be a bit tongue in cheek or humorlessly overbearing. Thankfully Aimee Mann's latest is more the former than the latter. With simple and effective lyrical puns and plays on words, Mann paints vignettes of melancholia with a folksy sense of humor. The content is less psychoanalytical and more allegorical, with a detached sincerity. Based mostly around spare acoustic strumming and plucking, the arrangements subtly build with tastefully placed percussion, eerie accompanying vocals, and delicate strings, as on album opener "Goose Snow Cone." On songs like "You Never Loved Me," one of many hypnotic waltzes, Mann's sense of lyricism and melodic timing create an engaging story that switches between humor and pain, in a way that evokes some of Bob Dylan's more playful writing. "Lies Of Summer," with its laid back beat, sounds like a Neil Young anthem with Moody Blues orchestration, while "Patient Zero" is a ballad of Hollywood gloom and paranoia, which could also pass as a Shins deep cut. All throughout, Mann's voice is honest, pure, and direct, without any sense of being self-absorbed. More
Genre: Rock

Drunk (CD)

Thundercat is on a roll with his latest LP, Drunk . The Los Angeles-based producer and singer brings some top-notch talent to his new jazz/soul/funk fusion masterpiece; with friends like Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell in the credits, you know you’re in for a treat. (There’s also the slightly weird addition of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins to lead single “Show You the Way”…which believe it or not, totally works, in the best possible way.) Congrats to Thundercat on another sumptuous, richly textured record that’s sure to make many critics’ year end Top 10 lists. More

Hot Thoughts (CD)

Spoon’s ability to write songs that are not only catchy but compelling make them stand tall amongst the indie rock herd, and on Hot Thoughts , they’re at their best. The tracks are propulsive, upbeat, and smart, with Britt Daniel and friends getting inventive via dub beats, disco rhythms, and some serious cowbell. Spoon are masters of dance-y indie rock and these new elements keep their sound fresh, innovative, and unexpected; just as you’re nodding your head and tapping your toes, the band throws you a curveball…and it’s awesome. Another strong entry from Spoon, Hot Thoughts looks like it’s destined to be a classic. More
Genre: Rock

Rennen (CD)

English producer Christopher Taylor (aka SOHN) returns with the contemplative, devastatingly lovely Rennen . The songs' strength is in their simplicity, which allows Taylor's raw vulnerability to shine through. The album is tinged with melancholy, the vocals plaintive but the melodies strangely buoyant. While SOHN draws on elements of folk, pop, and experimental music for this latest LP, the sound is uniquely his own. More

English Tapas (CD)

Sleaford Mods
Working class Nottingham punks Sleaford Mods return with another brilliant minimalist takedown of austerity Britain, contemporary society, and anything else that pisses them off. On their latest, English Tapas , the duo’s genius lies in crafting songs that are simultaneously abrasive, acerbic, and appealing. Among all the expected rowdy, incisive numbers, there’s even a surprisingly (dare I say) pretty and moving track, “Time Sands.” Hats off to the Sleafords for their ability to keep the punk genre evolving, and for keeping listeners on their toes. More
Genre: Rock

Process (CD)

South London producer/performer Sampha Sisay has one of those voices that speaks volumes. (You’ve probably heard his work on tracks by Katy B, Kanye, Solange, FKA twigs, Drake, Frank Ocean, and Jessie Ware.) On Process , his velvet tones convey a depth of feeling; one minute the listener is drowning in Sampha’s own longing, the next minute buoyed by a radical hope. The melodies are equally strong, with raw, powerful piano and barebones soul structure. This smart, heartfelt album checks all the boxes for a future classic. More