What’s this? A good album? In this day and age?
* Ever since I started recapping music monthly in a less categorized manner the ratio of griping to exaltation has been roughly 10:1, because I’m hard to please.
But okay, how about we start off this write-up with an entire, full album, recently released – yes, in 2018 – that is a front-to-back listen. Yes that is true, some unreserved adulation. No caveats. The honour goes to Welsh hard rockers The Joy Formidable, whose weird blend of dark bass grooves and South Asian accoutrements results in a record with a sense of melody and urgency. AAARTH even takes elements of nu-metal and makes them sound downright artisanal. Some songs have frontwoman Ritzy Bryan singing only in whispers, opener “Y Bluen Eira” is done entirely in Welsh. Through all this the band stays true to their dark, heavy core, something they’ve kept intact since their inception.
* Congratulations St. Vincent, you have now written precisely two good songs. The first of course was the frenetic “Actor Out of Work” from 2009. The second is this new rework of last year’s “Slow Disco”, a standalone single appropriately titled “Fast Slow Disco”. Though it slightly rips off Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ “Zero”, it still is a concise and enjoyable piece of indie pop.
* As much as I poked fun at Bon Iver‘s now decade-old For Emma, Forever Ago and the heartbreak cabin mythology behind it, at least Justin Vernon made music with some semblance of authenticity holding it up. The same can’t be said for LANY, a group that makes Walk the Moon look like auteurs of high art in comparison. New album Malibu Nights lacks not only memorable songs, but any reason to exist. It’s utterly indistinguishable from any generic music found in Coca-Cola or Gap commercials, and if it truly was inspired by a failed relationship then it’s probably for the best they parted ways because it was likely a lifeless affair.
* One of my biggest pet peeves ever were the countdowns of “Worst Songs Ever” that were so prevalent in the early 2000s. Not because I was particular protective of these so-called terrible songs, but because objectively speaking they were far from the worst things on the airwaves.
All the songs that regularly made the rounds on “Worst of” lists weren’t there because they were actually bad, they were there because they were recognizable novelty songs whose performer didn’t have much of a career afterwards. “Disco Duck”, Right Said Fred, and Vanilla Ice were easy targets, even if years before everyone loved them.
No, the true menace are the “third and fourth radio filler singles” that more successful artists used to release once upon a time. They exist only to bolster said artists’ catalogue, to buffer the back end of their greatest hits package. Good artists, bad artists- everyone indulges in them. It’s hard to write a lot of good songs. That doesn’t excuse the fact that most of these singles are forgotten for a reason: they’re generic junk. Foo Fighters have released a lot of them. As has Rihanna. Even bands I thoroughly enjoy like The Killers have dropped late album filler like “Here With Me” and the unforgivably bad “Rut”. It’s these types of bland exercises that deserve to be called out for boring masses everywhere.
There’s also those artists who build entire careers off second-string material. Think any adult contemporary act – Train, Maroon 5, Lifehouse. These are the villains we must fight.
Why am I bringing this up, apropos of nothing? It’s because Mumford & Sons have a new album coming out, and their last release contained what I consider one of the most horrible songs rock radio has ever played: “The Wolf”. That is what should be on all “worst songs ever” charts. As should the next single, “Ditmas”. The band’s bizarre decision to ditch the banjos and go full-on generic rock resulted in some truly awful music.
New song “Guiding Light” isn’t quite as awful, but the interesting thing about it is that it seems to be from some alternate universe. It sounds like it could have been released way back in 2012, and even though it also isn’t banjo-based (sounds like there may be one buried in the chorus), it hews much closer to the band’s original melodic pallet. It might have synths and the big pop beat, but it does fit in between “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave”.
Delta will probably not be a modern masterpiece, but it is already shaping up to be better than the painfully bad Wilder Mind.
* If I am to make a bold prediction about the legacy of modern hitmakers, it’s that twenty-one pilots will be held in a higher regard than most of their peers. They may be a punchline at the moment, but what separates them from fellow punchlines Imagine Dragons is their willingness to use a genre to its full extent, rather than just pay lip service. Secondly, they were among the first groups to dip their toes into the 2010s omnigenre pool, so their Frankenstein assembly method rings a little truer than all the other genre hoppers. Finally, they have the gumption to take risks like making a weird concept album like Trench. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but it certainly is interesting with its Fortnite-esque visual aesthetic and convoluted plot threading the songs together. Some tracks shine – “My Blood” and “Chlorine” are standouts – while others sink – “Morph” and “Leave the City” opt for modern cliches rather than substance.
* If we’re talking concept albums I have to mention Coheed & Cambria, whose prog-punk/sci-fi metal has spawned some sort of epic saga that I can definitively say I have paid zero attention to. If we’re talking about the music though- it has been at the very least acceptable over the past decade and a half. Not everything reached the highs of “A Favor House Atlantic” or “Far”, but a lot of it has settled in listenable territory. New song “Unheavenly Creatures” gets close to greatness, but the first half of the chorus lacks punch. We’ll see if there’s any of that punch on the rest of the new album.
* Hard to believe that Tokyo Police Club have been jangling along for over 11 years now, spawning an army of nightmarish imitators since their start in the late 2000s. Along the way Jangle Patient Zero have not changed much, even while their many acolytes have branched out. Their new semi-self-titled record is more of the same, and its mileage will depend on your propensity for whimsical garage pop.
* Another band that’s been around forever are Bright Eyes second fiddles Cursive. I have never understood their longevity, seeing as their only tolerable song up until this point was a knock-off of Bright Eyes’ “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”. They remedy that with a knock-off of another Conor Oberst band, this time punk group Desaparecidos. “Under the Rainbow” sounds just like that side project, but it is moderately memorable.