Last week’s inaugural music-year-in-review post showed that 2013 didn’t exactly get off to a rollicking start with two mediocre albums and two terrible ones. But this week – with a belated appearance from A$AP Rocky, whose album I didn’t get to last week – was almost uniformly terrific. In fact, all of these week’s albums could get bumped up a letter grade in due time. For now, my reactions – along with those from resident music gurus Dan Kaplan and Dan Lyons, once again – are below…
A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP
Kevin Brown: Rocky’s debut album is full of standout tracks, from early Song of the Year nominee “Goldie” to seven-rapper collaboration “1Train”. Outside of a few generic hip-hop tunes that add nothing around the start of the album, Rocky’s verses are clever and beats are catchy. LONG.LIVE.A$AP features a number of terrific guest moments as well, from Drake’s verse on “F***in’ Problems” to Kendrick Lamar’s lines in the aforementioned “1Train”. At just 24, he’s a voice to be reckoned with in hip-hop’s future.
Dan Lyons: I’m not usually one for pretty standard Top-40 Hip Hop fare, which A$AP Rocky’s debut probably can probably be classified as, but the album brings in a bunch of other talented young rappers to add a lot of variance to the songs here, and quite frankly, a few of them are a ton of fun. The highlight for me is “1Train”, a six minute romp featuring a slew of rappers including Kendrick Lamar and Yelawolf. The second single, F***in’ Problems, is an intimate look at A$AP’s crippling bout with sex addiction. Even the Skrillex-aided track (because every album this year will have to be run by Skrillex, apparently) “Wild for the Night” doesn’t get too bogged down in womp womp-i-ness and is a decent listen. If you’re not a fan of the constant n-bombing of the movie Django Unchained, I would avoid the song “Phoenix”. My biggest gripe with the album is the constant use of the voice machine to create that really low voice that Kanye loves so much. I think A$AP just bought that machine and decided to make use of his investment by putting those in every song, and it grows tiresome.
Dan Kaplan: Right off the bat, you can see the album just has a way with verses–all of which showcase tremendous delivery from both A$AP and his guests. In several cases, though, the refrains leave something to be desired; oftentimes they feel sort of disjointed from the rest of their songs (i.e. “Hell,” “Long Live A$AP”). And just as you said, Lyons, the effected, voice-machine bass vocal inserts that seem to appear on EVERY OTHER SONG also become a bit annoying after a while. Only in rare instances are they handled with any remote amount of taste. That said, the album finds its stride in the second half with songs like “F**kin’ Problems” and “1Train” and ends up becoming a solid listen overall.
The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
Brown: I’d heard of The Joy Formidable precisely once before Wolf’s Law – a few months ago, when lead single “This Ladder Is Ours” played on 101.9 WRXP (R.I.P.). The song was good enough to perk my interest in the band – and my goodness, am I glad it did. Wolf’s Law is easily the best album of the year’s first three-plus weeks, and it comes from a three-piece alt-rock Welsh band. Female lead singer Ritzy Bryan shines on everything from tribal-influenced tunes like “Forest Serenade” to all-out rockers such as “Bats”. “This Ladder Is Ours” starts the record with an invitation to essentially join the band on their journey, and The Joy Formidable reaches dizzying heights with an incredible array of sounds. Wolf’s Law lands on an epic scale that tops everything I’ve heard so far this year. Stunningly beautiful.
Lyons: Is there a better feeling then seeing a random album on Spotify by a band you’ve vaguely heard of, putting it on, and having it end up being incredible? I knew that I had seen the name before, but I didn’t know The Joy Formidable was a female-fronted band from Wales, and I didn’t know that they made some absolutely kick-ass music. The group’s sound falls right in the middle of a scale with Metric on one end and Sleigh Bells on the other, and seeing as I love Metric and Sleigh Bells, that works out really well for me. Wolf’s Law opens with two solid fast-paced tracks, “This Ladder is Ours” and “Cholla”, which do a good job in establishing a baseline sound for the album, and then Ritzy Bryan and company really start to show their range. The best example is the back-to-back punch of “Bats” and “Silent Treatment”. “Bats” could have found its way on a Sleigh Bells album, while “Silent Treatment” is a gorgeous acoustic song. Yet my two favorite tracks on the album are “Maw Maw Song” – because any song that has a chorus of vocalized chord sounds and TOTALLY pulls it off is awesome – and the final track, “The Turnaround”, which is a good song in its own right, and features the hidden title track on the back end, which holds up as one of the better songs on the album despite being buried behind the last song.
Bad Religion, True North
Brown: Sophisticated and unrelenting punk rock marks True North, the latest effort from the veteran band. The lyrical imagery and different verse structures from song to song keep the album fresh for each of its 16 tracks, with the back end at least as strong as the front. “Dharma and the Bomb” and “My Head is Full of Ghosts” pack as much ambition as possible into a pair of 2:00-or-so songs, and lead single “F*** You” says something about, well, essentially say nothing. Who’s got two thumbs and a long discography to work through? This guy!
Lyons: I’ve listened to Bad Religion for years, and while I don’t think that I’ve ever been upset with one of their releases, they’re rarely so good from top to bottom that I take note and consider it a top album from any genre. Well, in its 34th year the band just kicked that notion to the floor and curb-stomped it. True North is amazing. The band is pretty special in the way that they’ve stayed unquestionably punk rock, but have really strong pop sensibilities and use them to write punk songs that have a really wide appeal, at least in my opinion. True North has Bad Religion angry, political, and affected – the band at their best. Personal highlights are “F*** You” (not a Cee-Lo cover, unfortunately), “True North”, “Robin Hood in Reverse”, “In Their Hearts is Right”, and “Hello Cruel World”, but there isn’t a weak song among the sixteen tracks on the album.
Kaplan: To put this mildly…holy shit. Who would have guessed Bad Religion still had this kind of album left in them–particularly after the lackluster New Maps of Hell and The Dissent of Man? True North is pure back-to-basics punk rock. With the songs all set up as two-minute bursts of pure aggression, even the lesser songs don’t end up detracting from the album all that much. Also, the outside influences from the last two albums (alternative rock, even folkier stuff from Greg Graffin’s solo work) are GONE altogether. Perhaps the best indication of this album’s success is that any single one of these songs could be the soundtrack to an old-school skateboarding video (or Tony Hawk video game). Best album for Bad Religion since The Empire Strikes First and easily a top five release for their career. Wow.
Ra Ra Riot, Beta Love
Brown: I’m working chronologically backwards for the Syracuse indie-rockers, but I love the sound of Ra Ra Riot’s third studio album, Beta Love. It’s synth-heavy and electro-poppy, but Beta Love feels both like a loving homage to the ‘80s and a blast of fresh air at the same time. Beta Love isn’t anything too substantial – its 11 tracks clock in at barely over a half-hour, and it’s not concerned with much serious lyrical matter. But it’s impossible not to want to get up and dance to tracks like “Angel, Please” and “Binary Mind”. Somewhat slight, but undeniably enjoyable – think a shorter, not-as-good version of Passion Pit’s Gossamer.
Lyons: At first listen, Beta Love is pretty jarring for long time Ra Ra Riot fans. The band, which had really carved out a niche for beautiful string-based indie rock, takes a heavy shift towards synth-rock, and I’m sure not all fans are digging it. The loss of Alexandra Lawn almost definitely had an impact on their sound, but Ra Ra Riot’s always been a band that has liked to experiment, which I have a ton of respect for. The songwriting here remains top notch. The album opens with three tracks – “Dance With Me”, “Binary Mind”, and “Beta Love” which really showcase the keyboard-heavy sound…and they’re a lot of fun. The album starts to incorporate more of the band’s classic sound after those three – “Is It Too Much” probably does the best job of blending the influences together. Overall, I rarely begrudge bands for trying new things, and in this case it works really well. Just think of it as “Ra Ra Riot Does the 80s!” or “Ra Ra Riot just attended a Passion Pit seminar and wrote an album!” It’s different, but different can still be pretty damn good.
Kaplan: Before Beta Love came out, there were more than a handful of lingering questions: would Ra Ra Riot be able to follow up on the resounding successes of The Rhumb Line and The Orchard? How would they cope with the loss of longtime cellist Allie Lawn? As most of you will know by now, they’ve shifted to a bit more of an electronic sound on this, their third album, and for the most part, the transition has been kind to them. This is a very listenable album, with “Binary Mind,” “When I Dream” and the title track emerging as the true standouts. The thing that stuck with me is how SHORT Beta Love is; the longest song you’ll see on here is about 3:00, give or take. There’s still some room for the band to grow, but most songs strike a good blend between the classic baroque pop Ra Ra sound and this newer keyboard-driven dance-y motif.
Big Harp, Chain Letters
Brown: Married couple Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drooten-Senseney form this bluesy duo, a group that makes for easy listening on their sophomore effort. Chain Letters is a great mix of country, blues and singer-songwriter styles – and frankly, while it’s not an incredible record, it’s an easy listen that’s hard to dislike. “Outside in the Snow” shines as the standout track, utilizing both members’ vocals and a pounding set of drums.
Lyons: I’ve been looking for more good modern blues-rock band. With the incredible success of the Black Keys, it seems weird that more bluesy bands haven’t hit it big, as we saw happen with folk following Mumford and Sons. I was very happy to discover Big Harp, a band formed by husband wife Chris and Stefanie Senseney, blends a heavy blues sound with some folk and a touch of alt-country (don’t run away) and it is tremendous. Chris’ grizzled voice works incredibly well when layered over some top-notch instrumental work. The best comparison I can find is Gary Clark Jr’s work but with less polish. Highlights include the album opener “You Can’t Save Them All”, “Waiting For Some Drunk”, “Outside in the Snow”, and the super-fun final track “Call Up the Calvary, Strike Up the Band”. In a week that saw the release of some great albums, this may be my favorite.
And now, for some bonus reviews! Here are the Dans’ takes on a few albums I didn’t listen to this week…
Toro y Moi – Anything In Return
Lyons: Toro Y Moi, if anything, has a very interesting sound – a blend of funk and electronica that mostly works. Anything in Return is a pretty solid effort, but loses points from me for being very homogeneous. The songs run together and there aren’t really any tracks that stick out as a result. While I thought everything sounded fine, it’s not an album that I see myself looking to listen to much past this.
Kaplan: I did enjoy Anything in Return. Not a bad album by any means, but it doesn’t score as high as it might otherwise have because all too often, the songs become indistinguishable from one another. This happens both from a stylistic standpoint, but also because in many cases, the songs don’t simply stop and start but just blend into one another. This becomes less of a problem down the stretch, and Toro Y Moi still gives us a nice soundtrack to listen/chill out to. Nice range of influences, too…from synthpop to jazz, to electronica.
Voivoid, Target Earth
Lyons: For a Canadian thrash metal band, this whole record was incredibly boring. The mumbled rambling vocals do nothing for me, and the instrumentals were mostly uninteresting. The only time this album really caught my attention was during “Corps Étranger”, when I realized about halfway through that they had switched to French (I wasn’t paying much attention). The songs on here are entirely too long – six of the ten are over six minutes – considering that nothing noteworthy happens in them.
Kaplan: This album came off sounding like a half-assed hybrid of Ghost and Corrosion of Conformity. I won’t even bother formulating thoughts on it.
Trapt – Reborn
Thanks again to the Daniels for their work. Reminder in bold: if anyone else is interested in writing a couple of sentences/a blurb on any week’s new releases, drop me a line either in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week’s tentative reviews include…well, I don’t know, really. Biffy Clyro? Tegan and Sara? We’ll see. Let me know if there’s anything you want to see.
Finally, my current ranking of 2013 albums, to be updated weekly:
1. The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law (A-)
2. Bad Religion – True North (A-)
3. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP (B+)
4. Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love (B)
5. Big Harp – Chain Letters (B)
6. Yo La Tengo – Fade (B-/C+)
7. Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed in Blood (B-/C+)
8. Black Veil Brides – Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones (C-/D+)
9. Hollywood Undead – Notes from the Underground (D-)
Dan Lyons (@Dan_Lyons76) is a contributing writer for “Kevin Reviews Things” and proud but occasionally traitorous native Nutmegger from Stamford, CT and a 2012 Syracuse University grad. He enjoys a wide range of sports, all kinds of non-Nickelback rock music, and of course, his friend Baxter here.
Dan Kaplan (@dkaps89) is a contributing writer for “Kevin Reviews Things” and a 2011 graduate of Syracuse University. A Reading, PA, native, he’s now based in Brooklyn and occupies his time, for the moment, as a public relations professional. The blog’s resident “metal guy” has recently rebooted his own blog, List Planet, which you can find at thelistplanet.wordpress.com.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinnbrown.