Straight Outta Compton – NWA ★★

1988Straight Outta ComptonN.W.A.★★40Hip-Hop

Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. was a monumental and pioneering hip-hop record, but age has not been kind to it, and while you have to talk about how instrumental the album was in forming gangsta rap, highly political music about racial injustices and inequalities, and putting hip-hop on the map, you can do that while also acknowledging that it just is not that good compared to some of the things before it and much of what it inspired. 

More often than not, the songs on Straight Outta Compton are not fun or easy to listen to (I don’t think they’re supposed to be). The beats are repetitive and straightforward. Other than Ice Cube, the verses are weak and lack energy, and he even uses what feels like a third grade vocabulary most of the time. 

The three singles — the record’s title track, “Fuck the Police” and “Express Yourself” — are all solid tracks and are all songs folks know and played a big part in hip hop history. The first two open the album with a lot of energy and anger, and the opening 5 tracks are all good enough. “Express Yourself” is a great change of pace midway through that has a more positive or optimistic outlook.  

But while the record opens with a few bangers, the album really falls off after “Express Yourself.” For hip-hop music, this is like an early punk album, where it’s impressive because of the emotion, the anger, and the way N.W.A. used the art form to express their feelings, not necessarily because the beats were super innovative or the lyrics were particularly smart. It’s about being risky and not sugar coating anything. And obviously, for better or worse, this album shaped a good third of all hip-hop records that came out after it. Speaking explicitly about crime and gang life, women and sex, and oppression are all still things covered in hip hop today. But the album does feel and sound highly dated. 

Hip-hop just a year or two later was a lot more musically creative and lyrically had more depth. Even other albums from 1988 by artists like De La Soul, Public Enemy and Rakim were more accessible and aesthetically pleasing to the ear. Seeing how so many artists who are highly respected and made fantastic gangster/hard core rap in the 90s were inspired by this album, I wish I could have heard it in context at the time. But when retrospectively looking at it 100 percent through a musical lens measuring it both against its peers and contemporary music, it really doesn’t stack up well against either. 

Forever and Ever – SALES ★★½

2018Forever and EverSALES★★½50RockIndie PopBedroom Pop

Forever and Ever by SALES is a stereotypical bedroom pop record, with sweet, dreamy vocals; soft, gentle guitar; do-it-yourself drum programming and production; and teenage diary-style lyrics. For the most part, albums like this are pleasant background music and offer something that’s easy to listen to without having to think too hard about it. There’s something endearing about them and comforting.  

Every track on Forever and Ever is extremely polished and manicured, making it a very consistent listen from beginning to end, and the 33 minute runtime is just about what you’d hope for this style of music. 

But while this album may look the part for bedroom pop, it’s so very vanilla and bland. It’s like someone who thought a little too hard about which outfit to wear at a party so they’d look like one of the cool kids, but they do such a good job that they get lost or ignored in the crowd. 

Everything here is inconsequential. The guitar tracks seemingly consist of no more than 8 notes per song. The drum programming feels like a rhythm loop that comes pre-installed on your guitar pedal that’s meant to help you practice. The vocals are good, but it’s not a voice that’s memorable, and her lyrics are very basic.

It works as good background music that’s inoffensive, but every single song offers the same exact thing, and if you’re looking to analyze an album a little deeper there isn’t really much there. 

A few of the tracks I did enjoy more than others — “Spiral,” “Off and On,” and “Moon Dogs.” I think of the batch, those tracks had a little more energy and had a few more layers of guitar, drum and ambient noise than the others. 

House of Balloons -The Weeknd ★★★★½

2011House of BalloonsThe Weeknd★★★★½87Hip-HopR&BAlternative R&B

I really love how House of Balloons flows from beginning to end, that the subjects and themes return from song to song, and put the main character through a wringer of emotions and situations delivered with R&B vocals over guitar samples, dream pop synths and slow drums, as opposed to more traditional hip-hop elements.  

“High For This” is a great opener that sets the dark tone and destructive themes for the entire album. “What You Need” introduces a cool, laid back drug vibe with eerie production, before the album’s title track shows you the more destructive, loud and aggressive side of drugs. Then “The Morning” picks up the very next, with memories both fresh and hazy and some soothing sounds before we talk about strippers, and then even more strippers on “Wicked Games,” which lyrically shows a lot of vulnerability. We’re back to partying with an awesome Beach House sample on “The Party & After Party,” where “Coming Down” again serves as that post-party come down. “Loft Music” flips another Beach House sample well, and the free flowing, unstructured lyrics without a chorus are different from the songs that focus more on singing. It transitions really well into that Cherry-Coloured Funk sample on “The Knowing,” which again is a little different thematically and a bit of a “take a look in the mirror” approach, but without real remorse or regrets. 

While one could dismiss the lyrics as repetitive and shallow — yes, every song is about doing cocaine and strippers, which can lead someone to think it’s just stereotypical hip-hop songwriting about partying and women — I think they’re a lot more complex at times and deliberate in building the album overall. 

So many of the songs seem like either a drug song or a song about sex, but in reality most of the time they are written in a way that you can see them as either. The first time I heard “What You Need” I definitely thought it was a guy trying to convince a girl to cheat on their significant other with them, but now I only really hear it as a song about someone needing drugs and not being able to get over their addiction. Sex and drugs are similar addictions so it makes sense you can write about them interchangeably, but you usually don’t see it done in such a seamless way. 

The exorbitant amount of drug use and destructive behavior mentioned here is so far above a typical “lets get drunk and party” pop record, to the point that it’s almost scary, and the tension in the music really plays that up. Not every party, every hit or every woman is a good time or something The Weeknd’s proud of. He’s clearly addicted, he’s clearly struggling to get through things and he admits it at times, while still continuing to go out every night. That honest look at life and vulnerability is something you don’t get very often in music like this. 

I do think  the negatives about the album are pretty obvious. Some of the outros for the songs are way too long and get tiring if you pay too much attention or aren’t in the mood. “Loft Music” is really cool, but that 3+ minute outro should really only be a minute or so long to serve as a bridge between that song and the next. “The Party” is good but, in a similar way, “After Party” overstays a bit, and you could say the same thing about “Glass Table Girls” (although I wouldn’t).

Some of the songs are a bit repetitive lyrically as well. Again, “Glass Table” and “After Party” have very repetitive elements in their outros, and some of the choruses throughout are really one phrase over and over. “Bring the 707 out” is said 12 times in “Glass Table Girls.” “I always want you when I’m coming down” is said 8 times in every chorus of its song, so is “ I know everything,” in the closer. “All that money” and “Girl, put in work,” are similar in “The Morning.” I like those songs, and I like those parts of those songs, but it’s a lot sometimes and does feel repetitive when you really pay attention to it instead of just vibing to the music. 

The Impossible Kid – Aesop Rock ★★★

2016The Impossible KidAesop Rock★★★60Hip-Hop

The Impossible Kid is a fine album from a rapper who’s a holdout from an era of underground, electronic alternative New York-based hip hop that never really thrived or flourished into the mainstream. While most of Aesop Rock’s peers from the early 2000s have either long faded away — making the occasional cameo appearance here and there — or pivoted like El-P did with Run The Jewels, Aesop continues to chug along, perfecting his lyrical craft over the same sparse, sometimes in-your-face electronic production that was all the rage from 2000-2004. 

Those beats are interesting — intense and intricate at times, but usually with a softer element of eerie, uneasiness to them. Mixed with his signature lyrics — which include long words and overly descriptive phrases with sometimes abstract meanings and personal reflections — he’s slowly gathered a following of loyal fans to appreciate his quirks, his experience and his showmanship. 

The Impossible Kid is not Aesop at his freshest or most creative state (that would have been way back in the early 2000s), but it is him at his most mature, most meticulous and most pristine. Everything feels polished and accessible, but there’s nothing to indicate that he’s “Selling out,” because he’s not. The album does still have hints of the rawness of the underground scene, with a little less of the grime. Labor Days is my favorite of his albums, but this one does have a little more replay value I feel because of that cleaness. 

For someone who, at the time of its release had been in the rap game for close to 20 years and had seen most of his friends fade into obscurity amongst the more popularized versions of hip-hop, it’s impressive he could still navigate the space well and put out a quality record. 

Despite my appreciation for Aesop’s career and a lot of the consistency rappers in that underground New York scene provided in the early 2000s, I’m usually not blown away by any of their albums. Whether I’m listening to Aesop, El-P’s solo work, Cannibal Oxl… you name it, I usually come away thinking, “that was pretty cool, all the songs were fine” but not really wanting to revisit it, and that’s kind of the same here. 

Some songs, like the opening two tracks, do stand out above the others, and some lines and stories are more memorable than others. But overall, it’s all more or less the same, overly complicated and one-tempoed delivery start to finish, and the lack of feature artists — who maybe could have spiced things up here or there — doesn’t do the almost 50-minute album any favors.  

Horses – Patti Smith ★★★

1975HorsesPatti Smith★★★63RockPunk RockArt Rock

Horses is a nice dose of classic rock a la the Rolling Stones or The Who, mixed with some punk energy and enthusiasm without the blaring distortion. Patti Smith is definitely a good frontman for a band, and brings with her some raw emotion, and a pretty varied vocal range with a recognizable voice, which stands out even more so when looking around the male-dominat landscape of the 70s. 

I don’t like everything on Horses , but there is a lot of good. “Gloria” starts things off right, from its softer, more melodic introduction to the loud, fast-paced outro that displays perfectly the kind of range you’ll find throughout the record. I tend to prefer the more high-energy songs — “Gloria,” “Free Money,” “Land: Horses” — than the soft ones. Her guitar work and vocal ad libs on those songs clearly influenced a lot of bands to come later on in the 80s and 90s, from R.E.M. to U2 to PJ Harvey. 

The softer tracks also have piano work and slow builds that are quite lovely when they pay off as well. It’s really strong for a debut album.  

Patti’s voice can, however, get a little tiring, especially with some of the over-to-top inflections on phrases and the repetitive nature of some of the lyrics, particularly in song bridges and fadeouts. 

I also don’t like the song order all that much, specifically tracks 2 and 3. “Redondo Beach” doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album, and “Birdland” is way too long, with vocals that don’t do it for me, although I do like it as an instrumental track. I think those songs kind of really drag you down before the album picks up again energy wise, and maybe would have been better separated or elsewhere.

A last note, nothing on the album blows me away. I like the songs and the sound, and I probably would have been blown away hearing it in the 70s, but now, with all the rock music that’s come since, like a lot of pioneering stuff from the era it feels a little bland at times.

Brother, Sister – mewithoutYou ★★★½

2006Brother, SistermewithoutYou★★★½65RockAlternative RockIndie Rock

mewithoutYou brings together a nice mix of mid-2000s indie rock styles on Brother, Sister — garage rock, punk, post punk, art rock, some folk, some emo. 

I tended to enjoy the punk end of the spectrum here — especially the tracks in the middle of the album like “Wolf Am I!,” “A Glass Can Spill,” “Nice and Blue,” and “Sun and Moon” — which reminded me of Bloc Party, Interpol, Editors and Arctic Monkeys in bits and pieces. The more art-rock sections of the album also gave me some Arcade Fire vibes, especially the closing track. 

I don’t mean those comparisons to be a criticism, or as a way to say mewithoutYou sound like copycats, because they aren’t. The music came up at more or less the same time as those other bands, and it plays a part in the overall movement. 

I also appreciated that the album had a similar tone from start to finish, while continuing to vary up the sound. It didn’t all sound the same even though it had a consistent overall vibe.    

Although I wouldn’t say I disliked any songs on Brother, Sister, the spider-themed tracks and “O, Porcupine” didn’t quite do it for me. 

One thing that does grind a little, though, is Aaron Weiss’s voice and singing style. There’s plenty of great music with vocals that are more talking loudly than singing, so I get it and think it fits a lot of the songs here, but I didn’t feel like he was as dynamic of a personality as I want out of that kind of performance.

Technique – New Order ★★★½

1989TechniqueNew Order★★★½70RockNew WaveAlternative Dance

I really enjoy New Order’s Technique because it fits perfectly into its time period. Are the lyrics corny? Sure. Are the synths and dancy percussion over the top? You bet. Do their basslines take the lead from the guitar more often than not? Absolutely. But for 80s alternative dance, it’s a lot of fun, if maybe a little unoriginal at times. 

I liked most of the songs here, particularly “All the Way,” “Guilty Partner,” “Run” and “Mr. Disco,” but the album is missing a big hit or standout track. 

New Order has had some really great singles throughout their more than four decade run as a band (and as Joy Division), but this is the one album from their peak that didn’t have a hit. It’s probably more consistent from start to finish than some of the others, but without a hit it loses a bit of its appeal, and doesn’t have the same draw as Power, Corruption & Lies, Brotherhood or even Get Ready. 

Also, I may not totally mind the corniness, but it is corny, and some of the love lyrics are sooo lame. Songwriting in a lyrical sense has never really been Bernard Sumner’s forte, but here it’s more noticeable than on some other records. 

Little Oblivions – Julien Baker ★★★

2021Little OblivionsJulien Baker★★★63RockIndie Pop

On Julien Baker’s third record, Little Oblivions, she shifted from her indie, stripped down, vocal-focused sound to a more high-end, pop rock production style. I think the introduction of drums, more piano, and distant, colorful synth keys were a welcome addition here, and they add a little more depth to the mix compared to her mostly quiet and intimate past. 

The pop rock style that Baker is leaning towards though, caught me a little by surprise. It’s closer to the one that was prominent from 2005-2009 and again around 2012, when indie pop was shifting closer to the pop end of the spectrum. Generally, the style has been reserved for anthemic rock bands that were entering the second (or third) phases of their careers, and trying to claim a more commercial audience, like U2’s 2005 release, X&Ys by Coldplay, the Goo Goo Dolls releases in 2006 and 2010. 

The album this production reminds me most of is Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie. Listen to the synths on “You’re a Tourist,” the drums on “Some Boys,” “Monday Morning,” etc. Those songs would fit pretty perfectly on Little Oblivions.  While sometimes corny, it’s a sound I like when done correctly, and has summer sunset vibes. My favorites on this record are “Hardline,”  a great opener; “Heatwave,” a cute, folky track; “Repeat” with an appropriately repeating synth; and Bloodshot, with a faster drum beat that’s a noticeable and welcome addition to the mix. Most songs here are solid though, and sound like they perfectly work together as a coherent and well-meshed album. 

My main criticism of the album, though, is that while I appreciate it’s more energetic than Baker’s first album, it isn’t nearly as emotional.  Her previous album, Turn Out The Lights, was a collection of good, slow, sad and emotional ballads that lacked musical depth. It was all guitar and piano, no drums, no real production or mixing… just some well written, heartfelt tunes that individually all worked, but as a package lacked a little bit of variety both in instrumentation and tempo. 

Little Oblivions, on the other hand, brings some more production in, but unfortunately, it again suffers as a package, with all the songs doing more or less the same thing. I think it actually lacks what the other album did really well with its stripped down sound. 

In other words, I think Little Oblivions would benefit from having 3-4 of the true, soft, emotional, building ballads that Baker had on her previous album, while Turn Out The Lights could have used a handful of the songs from here to add balance. 

Baker’s got a good voice, she’s a solid songwriter and can clearly shift her style a bit here or there, but, at least up to now, she hasn’t been able to pull it all together for a total album that’s enthralling from start to finish. 

Pang – Caroline Polachek ★★★

2019PangCaroline Polachek★★★56PopIndie Pop

I’m a big fan of creative pop albums, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Pang, Caroline Polachek’s third solo record. A lot of the disappointment comes from her repetitive, elementary lyrics throughout the album. 

Listening to Polachek’s lyrics mostly felt like what I imagine reading an eigth or ninth grader’s diary would be like — a lot of lines where they think are funny or clever or edgy because they talk about sex and relationships in a somewhat open way, but the metaphors aren’t nearly as creative or telling as the writer thinks. Maybe they’re fun for some, but they come off as lame and cringeworthy corny to me most of the time, and so generic and general that there isn’t much that seems relatable. 

Pang does have solid electronic pop production and Polachekhas a good voice, which can actually carry an album pretty far. The atmospheric elements here all line up well to create a straight forward, ethereal pop record. 

The overall sound here offers a bit more than generic radio pop, and a more emotional vocal performance even if I don’t like most of the lyrics. “The Gate,” the title track and “Ocean of Tears” were the standouts for me.

6 Feet Beneath The Moon – King Krule ★★★★

20136 Feet Beneath The MoonKing Krule★★★★78RockJazz RockAlternative R&B

6 Feet Beneath The Moon is full of emotion, coming from a deep, raspy voice sung by an at-the-time 19 year-old, thin, ginger kid from London. It’s sparsely produced, with soft, mostly guitar and drum tracks that mix genres like folk, jazz, hip-hop and blues really well. 

It’s not the most energetic album by any means, but the smooth instrumentals with King Krule’s distinct vocals create a really chill groove that just works for me. Most songs are stoner tracks, with either a dreamy, or dark, eerie synths filling the sound out in the distance. I visualize a crocodile quietly swimming through a city sewer at night. 

There are also a handful of great moments that somewhat break the mold of the rest of the album—the high-energy, jazzy “A Lizard State,” the hip-hop influenced “Neptune’s Estate” and the guitar break on “Out Getting Ribs” come to mind.  

The album’s admittedly one dimensional and low energy, which can make its 52 minute run time feel a bit longer than it actually is. I like it, but I’d understand if it dragged on for someone looking for something more fun or traditional from a singer-songwriter.