The Bravery – The Bravery ★★★

2005The BraveryThe Bravery★★★57RockAlternative RockPost Punk Revival

The Bravery’s self-titled debut is a boilerplate Post Punk Revival record from a band trying to break into what was the genre’s growing scene in 2005. It’s a well produced album, and the band puts everything it has into it — whaling, quick strummed guitars over fast, dancy drums, with energetic, somewhat whiny vocals and some grand, catchy choruses — making it easy to get into and enjoy.

The album starts with “Honest Mistake,” a fun, danceable breakthrough single with synths that draw a little from New Order’s “Blue Monday” and that cashes in on The Killers’ giant success one year prior on Hot Fuss. This track is not as catchy as the best of The Killers, but is clearly the standout on this record and holds its own.

That last line is kind of how most of this record feels. It’s pretty good song after pretty good song of dance punk beats with some tasteful synths and electronics thrown in here and there. It isn’t as poppy at The Killers, but it isn’t as good either. “No Brakes,” “Fearless,” “Unconditional” are all single-quality indie rock tracks with solid guitar work and energy, but I don’t think there’s anything that The Bravery does that really makes them stand out among the pack of other artists from the mid 2000s.

The garage-rock aesthetic isn’t good enough to stand up against the Arctic Monkeys or The Strokes, although “The Ring Song” feels like a Room On Fire B-side. It’s not alternative dance enough to fit in with The Rapture or LCD Soundsystem. And there isn’t anything as distinct as Franz Ferdinand’s vocals, or Bloc Party’s more layered, angular guitar work. 

The Bravery clearly fit in, but it’s always a problem when you listen through an album and are constantly thinking of the other bands that it reminds you of instead of enjoying it as something new. Overall, it is solid, and there are songs to enjoy. It just isn’t anything special.

LULU – Conway the Machine ★★★★

2020LULUConway the Machine★★★★77Hip-Hop

At only 22 minutes long, Conway the Machine might technically consider LULU an EP, but it feels like a complete album, and The Alchemist’s production just transports you into Conway’s world, with HARD bass notes, menacing, dissonant synths and gritty, methodical percussion. The beats are crazy, and Conway fits right in with his snarl and sometimes sinister feeling. 

There isn’t too much modern hip-hop that actually sounds like 90s New York hardcore rap out there, and now days expecially it’s near impossible for something to authentically be an “underground” record. But Conway and the other members of Griselda feel and sound the part more than anyone else with a real following. 

The album’s art — a Great White Shark’s gaping mouth breaching the surface of the ocean, showing off its teeth —  is a perfect representation of the realness, rawness, and ferocity in the songs and lyrics. 

“Shoot Sideways,” featuring ScHoolboy Q — who fits flawlessly on the record — is my favorite track, followed by “Calvin,” where Conway’s flow is captivating, especially the chorus, “I’ve seen it a lot,” which rolls right off the tongue in a fun way. But every song has something gripping, from the loud, long, sustained synth hits on “They Got Sonny” to the theatrical strings and horns on “The Contract.” 

Griselda has put out oodles of albums since 2019, but out of the bunch from 2020, LULU is my favorite, and Conway’s solo work always impresses me more than some of Benny The Butcher and Westside Gun’s albums. 

LULU is just great with its visual storytelling and references, with stellar, cold production tying it all together beautifully.  

how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX ★★★★

2020how i’m feeling nowCharli XCX★★★★84PopElectropopHyperpop

how i’m feeling now is a really good, well crafted pop album that expertly combines Charli XCX’s catchy, simple choruses, with complex production that keep you interested and coming back for more. 

It’s a work that is 100 percent a product of the environment that it was made in. Being the product of the Covid-19 pandemic, an upbeat, modern pop record that sounds fun but is intimate and grounded in the ideas of isolation is so appropriate and relatable. 

The opening four tracks bring a lot of variety and go up and down in intensity really well. “Pink Diamond’s” aggressive, glitchy sound effects energize you right away. “Forever” is a little softer but is a classic, catchy top 40s-style pop song. “Claws” is more obnoxious, nails-screeching and in-you-face, but fun as hell, before the album calms itself down again with “7 Years,” a nostalgic, electronic ballad. 

All of these elements bounce back and forth throughout the record, and although the mid section is a little less memorable, the closing quartet of songs bring similar quality and intrigue as the opening. 

“Anthems,” in particular, really caught my attention the first time I listened to the album and has been my favorite track ever since. Those loud, staccato synths are explosive and exactly what you want in a song that’s supposed to feel like you’re losing control or losing your mind while you’re bored with your everyday routine and longing for human interaction. 

I do think a few songs in the middle of the album like “Detonate,” “Enemy” and “I Finally Understand” aren’t as strong and drag a little, especially compared to the higher energy tracks at the front and back ends of the record. They aren’t bad — “Detonate” has some cute little electronic flourishes in there that make it work, and “Enemy” is good, but a more straightforward radio pop song, which in my opinion leaves it more in the B tier of tracks. 

Similarly, if you’re looking for fault, the vocabulary on the record and repetitiveness of some of the lyrics are sometimes underwhelming if you stop to think about them. Thematically, they work, but you’re reminded that you’re indeed listening to a pop record, which could be a good or bad thing depending on what you’re wanting out of the experience.

The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails ★★★★½

1994The Downward SpiralNine Inch Nails★★★★85RockIndustrialElectronic Rock

The Downward Spiral has so many things going for it, and really feels like a starting point for making some of the darkest parts of alternative rock and metal music from the 90s more mainstream. Yes, Trent Reznor as Nine Inch Nails has been making music for years before this, and alternative groups like Korn and Marilyn Manson were already bubbling up, while grunge introduced plenty or darker themes for radio rock, but The Downward Spiral has a raw emotional edge to it that didn’t feel tapped into fully in 1994. 

While this album is usually considered a rock classic, it is a lot more industrial and electronic than it is actual rock music. Most of the percussion is created either through a drum machine, samples or loops, which is typically what happens when a band would bring Flood in to produce an album back in the 90s. A lot of the guitar is highly distorted to the point where it could be synthetically produced. Most tracks also have a modulating synth engine beneath the surface that, combined with the percussion, creates a driving force that propels you through the record. 

The seven-song run to start the album up to “I Do Not Want This” is incredible and there are a lot of individual moments in each song that really standout. 

“Mr. Self Destruct” pretty perfectly sets you up sonically and lyrically for what the album will be taking you through — it’s loud and abrasive right away with electronic, industrial  production, over distorted layers of guitar and muddy vocals, and has these huge contrasts in dynamics and timing that come out of nowhere. “Heresy” starts with a kickass synth out of the 80s that turns into a revving guitar sound in the chorus. I love the modulating synth bass in the pre chorus on “March of the Pigs” leading up to the commercially soft  “Now doesn’t that make you feel better?” line, before getting loud again. I enjoy that the melody at the end of “Closer” is playing in reverse in the distance during the song’s chorus, and returns as a reprise in the title track later on the album. And the synth brass in the chorus of “Ruiner” is really fun and really makes the soft, slower guitar solo at the bridge stand out. “The Becoming” does the exact opposite, with a heavy metal distorted guitar in the bridge that contrasts the acoustic guitar through the majority of the song.

Later on, “A Warm Place” is another aptly named song, because it kind of serves as a warm, softer, slightly comforting and reflective moment right after the craziness on “Big Man With A Gun.” “Eraser” adds in instruments gradually every eight bars or so and has a slightly unorthodox time signature as the song builds for 3 and a half minutes before the few lyrics at the end. And then “Hurt,” obviously, is an iconic track with its haunting dissonant, hanging note at the end of every phrase, leading to that final, grand explosion of noise at the very end. In terms of finishing off an album there aren’t many albums that do so more appropriately.

I don’t like every moment on this album or every song, but I can find something cool in each, which makes for a rewarding listening experience every time. 

That said, The Downward Spiral absolutely is not an album for everyone, or an album for any time or mood. It’s uncomfortable at times, abrasive most of the way through and obviously tackles themes and subjects like suicide, violence, mental health and inner termoil that aren’t particularly fun to think about. 

I also feel that the album’s a little front heavy, with the softer tracks near the end serving a purpose to balance the album and the story but without being that memorable other than “Hurt. And the album, for how intense and draining it is emotionally, is probably a few tracks too long. I think most folks probably get their fill 50 minutes in, which would be a lot more palatable than the hour plus we get.

Kala – M.I.A. ★★★★

2007KalaM.I.A.★★★★76ElectronicAlternative Hip-HopSynthpop

Kala is a loud, bangin’ pop record that’s much less hip-hop leaning than M.I.A.’s previous album Arular and more overall about electronic production and creating dance tracks than her vocals. 

With an almost childlike, playground chaoticness or aggressiveness, M.I.A. mixes futuristic electronic sounds with tribal drum beats, world music elements and rapping that’s both playful and in your face. It feels like a really refined album, but has a grimy, grittiness to it at times that makes you feel cool and energized while listening to it. 

“Paper Planes,” is obviously one of the most iconic tracks of the 2000s and still holds up, but “Jimmy” and “20 Dollars” I think are additional standouts. 

There are a few issues with Kala though, the first of which being that the album is cranked up in volume and energy the entire time. The first few songs are probably louder than they are actually good, and the album doesn’t really settle down until the back half. 

And while “Paper Planes” may be the best song on the Kala, I actually don’t think it fits in all that well with the rest. It’s slower, and compared to the other dance tracks kind of kills the vibe a bit. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard it 100 times more than the other songs, but it feels much more traditional and contemporary than the rest of the record, which is more stimulating. 

Overall, Kala is an interesting and energetic album with one-dimensional production that’s cool and great in the right situations — like when you really want to get moving or to dance around — but that doesn’t really work in most other settings.

Post – Björk ★★★★

1995PostBjörk★★★★81ElectronicArt PopTrip-Hop

On Post, Björk delivers both a more mature and more commercial performance compared to Debut two years prior. The vast production and pop styles touched on Post are breathtaking at times, mixing elements of dance, trip-hop, industrial sounds, art pop and big band all in one package. There isn’t a bad song in the lot, and the best moments are stellar. 

The powerful, in-your-face synths that start “Army of Me,” set the tone for what you might expect going forward, with Björk’s soft vocal and unique lyrics mixing with booming sound effects and climaxes. 

The softer “Hyperballad” follows up as one of those songs that, when I heard it the first time I thought to myself, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever heard something quite like this before.” The experimental and minimalistic whirling electronic production, her vocal performance and the introspective lyrics that almost glorify thoughts of self harm and conflict as a way to better appreciate the good things in a relationship all combine to make a totally one of a kind experience. 

Almost every track heads in a new direction, whether it’s moving from loud electronics to minamalitic, chill tones, or transitioning from orchestral-based production to blaring horns or looping dance percussion. 

However, when I put Post in context with the rest of Björk’s career, the experimentation on Post is just the tip of the iceberg of what she’ll reach in the late 90s and into the 2000s. Björk’s creative genius is just starting to show, and the steps and chances she takes later on are so much more interesting overall than what’s here in 1995, which, while great and interesting, are still pretty firmly in an accessible pop format. 

And while the production and overall product is a great success, I do think Post feels disjointed and scattered. That’s partly because, as mentioned earlier, each song does have a different style to it and there isn’t one overarching sound beginning to end. In fact, I feel like Björk is really tipping her toes into the different genres she’ll further and more successfully explore later on. 

While the more poppy “Oh So Quiet,” “Miss You” and “Modern Things” are all slight expansions of her previous sound on Debut, the trip-hop elements on “Army of Me,” “Enjoy” and “Possibly Maybe” feel like they could be on Post’s followup effort. Similarly, the minimalist ambient noises on “Hyperballad” and “Headphones” are reminiscent of some of the techniques she’ll use again on Vespertine, and the orchestral sounds on “You’ve Been Flirting Again” and “Isobel” can be heard countless times later in her career, especially after 2010. 
All this to say, the songs on Post are good, overall it’s a high quality package from start to finish and it’s an album that goes down as a classic because of the hits it produced, what it meant for Björk’s career and musical growth. But I do think most of these songs have future counterparts that are similar and do what Björk was attempting here a little better, and the sonic consistency found on most of her future albums is honestly missed.

Mutations – Beck ★★

1998MutationsBeck★★43RockAlternative Rock

The first of Beck’s soft rock, no nonsense efforts, Mutations is almost offensively inoffensive. 

The songs are slow, they don’t really go anywhere, and Beck doesn’t do anything to impress or really even show any kind of emotion in his vocal performance, which comes off as a knockoff of Kurt Kobain on a few songs. 

But there’s also nothing particularly annoying or bad about the songs or the style at all. Every song is just…fine, but as a whole the album is so incredibly dull. 

There are three and a half good songs on here —  “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” “Tropicalia,” “Static,” and the hidden track right after it. The production on “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is interesting and matches the whole, quasi-60s Beatles vibe Beck is going for on this album. The chill, a little jazzy coffee shop groove on “Tropicalia” sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the other songs, but in a welcome way. It’s a refreshing change from the faux country music in front and behind it. 

Other moments are interesting, too, but fall a little short. I think “Static” has got a lot of cool stuff going on with the bells, the distortion fading in and out and some cool guitar work. On an album that was more upbeat I think this would have been a really nice change of pace, but on an album that’s very slow and soft already I think it gets a little lost, but deserves a deeper look. Even though “Diamond Bollocks” is a mess, and starts up and stops a bunch and is scattered, it’s a lot closer to fun, upbeat Beck than the rest of the record, and for that it really stands out. The bass and the somewhat intense guitar at the chorus are exciting and a burst of energy on an album severely lacking it. 

Beck is a really fun and weird artist, but every few albums he tries to show that he can be more serious and that he has a more conventional side to him. Mutations is the first example of this, but also the least impressive. Sea Change in 2003 has a little more energy and a more thoroughly developed sound overall, while Morning Phase in 2014 recreates that vibe but with a few nods to classic rock tradition, which I enjoy enough. 

I understand Mutations was the first time Beck changed up his style in this way, and he probably impressed fans and critics with his range and versatility, but when you know that he has so much more to offer that’s this same style, but better, in the future, it’s hard to really appreciate that alleged innovation. 

Without a standout single to draw you in, and sandwiched between Odelay and Midnite Vultures —two good and extremely quirky records — it really just falls flat.

The Stone Roses – The Stone Rose ★★★½

1989The Stone RosesThe Stone Roses★★★½73RockPsychedelic RockMadchester

The Stone Roses’ 1989 self-titled debut album is a little disjointed and underwhelming at times, but overall the band brings a lot of good songs to the table and moves in a bunch of different directions that keeps you engaged the entire way through. 

The opening two songs are probably the two strongest on the album. “I Wanna Be Adored” is a dark, shoegaze influenced track that’s an alt-rock classic that deservingly still gets played on the airwave and fits right in 30 years later. It’s followed by “She Bangs the Drum” which is a good, upbeat song that makes you want to go on a jog in the crisp air. 

I also really enjoy “Fool’s Gold” at the end of the album too; the straight madchester vibes don’t quite fit the rest of the record, but it’s a fun song overall that I could see myself throwing on outside the context of the record a lot. 

Some psychedelic 60s and 70s vibes shine through from time to time too, and help the album not get too serious or weighty. There are times where it feels like a song is going to get kind of dark, but it usually resolves in a pleasant way musically. 

But as mentioned before, the album goes in a lot of directions stylistically, and I never feel completely comfortable or settled in because of that. Even if I like most of the individual tracks, it’s hard for me to find a real connective tissue from beginning to end, which makes the album drag on. The last two tracks being the longest by a lot also adds to the dragging, and “Bye Bye Bad Man” earlier in the record is just a miss in my opinion.

Parklife – Blur ★★★★½

1994ParklifeBlur★★★★½88RockAlternative RockBritpop

It’s easy to listen to Parklife for the very first time and dismiss it as basic, or not particularly serious. Blur uses standard Britpop instrumentation, and there’s nothing individually that seems spectacular. Lyrically and vocally the songs are jokey and straightforward. And while every song on the record is good, none sound like “greatest song of all time” material.

 But the more you listen and get familiar with the album, the more comforting and friendly it feels. It always brings me joy, it’s always a great time and I always appreciate throwing it on, whether to listen to a choice few tracks or the entire record start to finish. 

I don’t know if there’s another album that quite feels the same as this one.  It’s hyperactive, funny, self deprecating and reflective all at once, without it feeling too scattered or messy. All the songs feel like they fit in and serve a purpose, and the album paints a picture of what I imagine living in 1990s London felt like.

“Girls & Boys” is a playful rock song with an almost sarcastic, springboard sounding bounce to it that’s essentially Britpop’s response to a Madchester dance track. “Parklife” is a loud, anthemic and athletic track that’s followed by a raucous, brief punk track in “Bank Holiday.” “Tracy Jacks,” “Badhead,” “London Loves,” “Message Center”…essentially every song has its own charm, its own character. and its own quotable moments that’ll make you smile. 

I do think the front half of the album is quite a bit stronger than the back end, and with three instrumental interludes mixed in bringing the tracklist to 16 songs, Parklife does feel long at times. But the album’s closing track, “This is a Low,” is a phenomenal, more serious and reflective track that kind of perfectly puts a close to the party and is a worthy payoff at the end of the 52 minutes.

I Know NIGO! – Nigo ★★★½

2022I Know Nigo!Nigo★★★½72Hip-Hop

I Know Nigo! Is a quick, fun, hip-hop compilation record curated by Japanese fashion designer and BAPE founder Nigo. A DJ with Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boy, the second album under his name — and first since way back in 2000 — is much more about the collaborators than Nigo himself (I’m not sure what he actually does here except be a friend). Pharrell, Tyler The Creator, Pusha T, A$AP Rocky each make multiple appearances and create a well-rounded 32 minute project.

Pharrell is really the star of the show here, producing or co-producing seven of the eleven tracks. He’s also the glue that connects a lot of the elements together — his relationships with Tyler The Creator and Clipse, as well as Kanye West, who produces a track as well, makes up about 70 percent of the record.

Every song on this album — other than maybe “More Tonight” — is good, but the clear best track is “Come On, Let’s Go.” From Tyler’s classic heavy synths and embellishments, and The Neptunes-styled drums, to the straightforward, simple, but funny and relatable lyrics about impatiently waiting for someone to get ready to leave the house, the song is pure fun.

The pounding crashes on “Paper Plates” and Pharrell’s falsetto go really well together with FERG’s deeper voice, making it another intoxicatingly interesting and fun track. Pusha T and A$AP Rocky also feel natural on their tracks, and deliver expectedly solid and fitting verses.

Even though Pharrell has a hand in most of the songs, as a compilation record, it naturally sounds and feels a little disjointed.

Opening the album with an old freestyle from 2019 by Tyler and A$AP is an odd choice that slightly dates the album right away. The more dancy Kid Cudi track, and the two drill songs tacked on near the end of the record feel a little out of place, kind of like Nigo was trying to on a modern trend or felt obligated to have a club track on the album. The songs themselves are actually fine, but it takes away some of that cohesiveness I like in a record.