• Punisher

    Punisher

    Bridgers, Phoebe

    Indie singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers's popularity exploded after the release of her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps. Her sad, sardonic songs were undercut by her dry wit, and her straightforward delivery of emotionally naked material placed her in a lineage of songwriting excellence that included Elliott Smith, Neko Case, and Cat Power. Second solo album Punisher arrives after two high-profile collaborations: a 2018 EP from boygenius, her supergroup with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and Better Oblivion Community Center, a makeshift band based around songs written by Bridgers and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. Back on her own with Punisher, Bridgers offers up a set of hushed narratives that push her music into new, ominous places. After a brief instrumental introduction, "Garden Song" is a gentle blur of acoustic guitars, slow-moving electronics, and lyrics rich with imagery of houses on fire, flatbed trucks covered in roses, and haunted gardens. Baritone harmonies from Jeroen Vrijhoef and the gurgling textures beneath the song add to the strange atmosphere. Much of Punisher follows a similar formula. Vocals on the title track are doubled with robotic Auto-Tune, making lyrics about loneliness and longing all the more detached. Glistening strings on "Chinese Satellite" and the ghostly wind that blows through "Halloween" add intensity to themes of numbness and a struggle to find authentic emotional connections. The several upbeat moments on the album are some of Bridgers' finest work. "Kyoto" is a bright travelog, painting a brilliant picture of a day on tour in Japan marked by feeling unexpectedly empty and displaced. Dark lyrics are contrasted with a tangle of sunny melodies and the bright trumpet lines that move the song along. Bridgers repeats herself a little bit with the country-tinged harmonies of "Graceland Too," which is similar in execution to boygenius, and some of her melodic turns sound like revisitations of earlier songs. The development on Punisher comes in its subtleties. Where Stranger in the Alps was an excellent showcase for Bridgers' songwriting, the arrangements and production were fairly basic. Punisher's use of moody, barely there electronics and creaky instrumentals enhance the uneasy, dissatisfied feeling of the album. Already masterful at creating sad, smart songs, Bridgers reaches new depths with Punisher. It's an album of shockingly self-aware explorations of dark feelings and Bridgers is more willing than ever before to throw herself headlong into the darkness. ~ Fred Thomas (syndetics)

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  • Evermore

    Evermore

    Swift, Taylor

    Just months after releasing the biggest selling album of 2020, and a few days before her birthday, Taylor Swift surprised fans again with her ninth studio album. Billed as the sister album to Folklore, it includes the single Willow. (syndetics)

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  • Wildflowers & All the Rest

    Wildflowers & All the Rest

    Petty, Tom

    Following a half-decade of collaborations with the ornate Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty decided it was time to strip things back for 1994's Wildflowers. He swapped Lynne for Rick Rubin, the Def Jam founder who started cultivating a production career outside of hip-hop and metal in the early 1990s, then hunkered down with a team of musicians anchored by his longtime lieutenants Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Together, they achieved a sound that was lean and sinewy, fulfilling the goal of getting Petty back to the basics, but the singer/songwriter wrote too much material for a single album. After toying with the idea of releasing a double CD, Petty whittled Wildflowers down to a single disc that ran the length of a double album, a considerable indulgence for a rocker who usually restrained himself to a tight 40 minutes (or, on the case of the first two Heartbreakers albums, a quick half hour). The extra space allows Petty to stretch out and breathe, to spend as much time strumming sun-kissed folk tunes as he does rambling through ramshackle rockers and heavy-footed blues. The Heartbreakers specialized in clean, efficient rock & roll, and while this solo project echoes their sound -- how could it not with Campbell and Tench aboard -- Wildflowers is distinguished by its casual gait. Whether it's the highway anthem "You Wreck Me" or the stoner shrug of "You Don't Know How It Feels," the performances benefit from this space to breathe, while the larger canvass helps steer attention to the character sketch of "To Find a Friend," the sardonic wit of "It's Good to Be King," and the bittersweet undercurrent of "Crawling Back to You." Other, earlier albums provide a greater rock & roll wallop, but thanks to its extra space, Wildflowers captures the full range of Tom Petty as a singer, songwriter, and rocker. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • We Will Always Love You

    We Will Always Love You

    Avalanches (Electronica group)

    An exploration of the vibrational relationship between light, sound, and spirit, The Avalanches have moved beyond the party-up exuberance of their youthful music to a tender, reflective sound infused with hard-earned life wisdom. Building on the sample-based approach of their classic albums Since I Left You and Wildflower, this is their most song-oriented album yet, made with an array of guest singers and writers. (syndetics)

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  • Future Nostalgia

    Future Nostalgia

    Lipa, Dua

    In 2017, after years of promotional buildup and an unbroken streak of hit singles, English singer Dua Lipa became a veritable superstar, conquering the pop landscape with a near-perfect debut and racking up additional chart smashes as an in-demand guest vocalist. At the turn of the decade, she returned with her sophomore effort, Future Nostalgia. Without collapsing under the pressure of high expectations, Lipa managed to deliver a package that was somehow sleeker, cooler, and more compulsively listenable than her first outing. In the spirit of pulse-pounding classics like Kylie Minogue's Fever or Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, Lipa channeled the best of past decades -- '70s disco, '80s dance-pop, and '90s club jams -- to create her own joyous, sweat-glistened vision of bliss. Not a moment is wasted here, and Future Nostalgia is a brisk and breathless experience that begs to be played on loop. With an endless supply of confidence, charm, and cooler-than-you attitude, Lipa pulls listeners onto the dancefloor with immediate earworms like the funky kiss-off "Don't Start Now," the rapturous out-of-body rave "Hallucinate," and the glistening full-body workout "Physical," a distant cousin of Madonna's "Hung Up" and Lady Gaga's "Applause." At the end of the night, when things transition to the bedroom, Lipa offers the begging "Pretty Please" and the giddily horny "Good in Bed." Throughout, she finds inspiration from the funkiest of forebears, channeling 2000s Timbaland hip-pop on the title track, Daft Punk's own Chic-inspired electro-disco on "Levitating," and even INXS' guitar-based allure with "Break My Heart." She even drops a surprising sample on "Love Again," which fans of the Al Bowlly-sampling White Town one-hit wonder will absolutely adore. Flipping her hair at detractors with a wink and a smile on "Future Nostalgia," she sings, "You want a timeless song/I wanna change the game." With this flawless effort, she manages to achieve both. Future Nostalgia could have just as well been titled "Future Classic." ~ Neil Z. Yeung (syndetics)

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  • McCartney III

    McCartney III

    McCartney, Paul

    Paul McCartney didn't plan to release an album in 2020, but in the isolation of 'Rockdown,' he soon found himself fleshing out some existing musical sketches and creating even more new ones. A stripped-back, self-produced, and, quite literally, solo work marking the opening of a new decade, in the tradition of 1970's McCartney and 1980's McCartney II. (syndetics)

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  • Greatest Hits 1970-2002

    Greatest Hits 1970-2002

    John, Elton

    Greatest Hits 1970-2002 is a nearly flawless double-disc set commemorating Elton John's three-decade career. Disc one features what may arguably be John's most essential work: Seeing songs such as "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Candle in the Wind," and "Bennie and the Jets" -- not to mention "Your Song," "Rocket Man," and "Tiny Dancer" -- lined up back to back reaffirms just how diverse, and yet universal, his songwriting talent is. Disc two finds this talent maturing gracefully into the '80s, '90s, and beyond, touching on pop gems like "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "I'm Still Standing," and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" as well as his Lion King classic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and the Aida duet "Written in the Stars" with LeAnn Rimes. The collection also finds room for the highlights of his most recent albums, including Made in England's "Believe" and "Blessed," The Big Picture's "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," and Songs from the West Coast's "This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore." For most casual fans, Greatest Hits 1970-2002 will replace the need for collections such as Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, and Greatest Hits, Vol. 3, although these collections are still worthwhile as of-their-time retrospectives of John's work. ~ Heather Phares (syndetics)

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  • Medicine at Midnight

    Medicine at Midnight

    Foo Fighters (Musical group)

    Foo Fighters pack nine new songs into a 37-minute album. This collection includes the smoldering new single, Shame Shame. (syndetics)

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  • Fetch the Bolt Cutters

    Fetch the Bolt Cutters

    Apple, Fiona

    About a minute into "I Want You to Love Me," the opening cut on her fifth album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple holds a note a few seconds longer than you'd expect, then a few seconds more. It's the first time Apple veers away from the expected course on Fetch the Bolt Cutters and it's hardly the last, but it's telling that the shift occurs within a song, not in a transition between tracks. Apple spent the years after the 2012 release of The Idler Wheel sculpting the songs and sounds of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, working at her home studio with a band featuring drummer Amy Aileen Wood, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and multi-instrumentalist David Garza, using their interactions and interplay as a suggestion of where the finished track should head. Everything on Fetch the Bolt Cutters seems restless: overdubbed harmonies don't quite jibe, rhythms are cluttered, narratives turn inside out, and Apple treats her own voice as a rubber instrument, stretching it beyond comfort. As pure sound, it's exhilarating. It's rare to listen to a pop album and have no idea what comes next, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters delivers surprises that delight and bruise at a rapid pace. The density is dizzying but melodies and certain lyrics make an immediate impression, such as the jolting denouement of "For Her." Apple wrote "For Her" in the wake of the contentious Brett Kavanaugh hearings and while its fury is palpable and by no means an anomaly on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the album isn't defined by anger. Rage sits alongside heartache and humor, the shifts in mood occurring with a dramatic flair and a disarming playfulness. The unpredictable nature feels complex and profoundly human, resulting in an album that's nourishing and joyfully cathartic. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • When You See Yourself

    When You See Yourself

    Kings of Leon (Musical group)

    When You See Yourself is best seen as a continuation of Walls, the 2016 album Kings of Leon made with Markus Dravs, a producer best known for his Grammy-winning work with Arcade Fire and Coldplay. KOL retained Dravs for this 2021 album and decided to delve a little further into atmospherics and mood, a move that feels timely and appropriate for a group that's facing the onset of middle age. The band can still work up a head of steam but it's for dramatic effect, not catharsis; they either push a song toward its inevitable crescendo or need a shift of tempo to give the record a richer, natural pacing. Settling into a deeply etched cavernous groove suits Kings of Leon. Hedonism never did, not even in their wild early days, so the moody stateliness of When You See Yourself showcases their knack for building melodrama. The downside to this gift is that the album can seem like an interconnected piece, not a collection of songs. Individual tunes don't float out of the ether so much as fade into another handsome moment that's distinguished by production flair as much as it is by melody or hooks. Perhaps that's a long term problem, as the songs don't linger as much as the vibe does, but that spacious, sumptuous feel is appealing as When You See Yourself marches steadily to its conclusion. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics) (4/18/2021 5:30:43 PM)

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