Despite the hit the music industry is taking from the COVID-19 pandemic, many labels are still pushing out new releases. Some artists, faced with canceled tours and festivals, are finding that they have more time than ever to make music. (Charli XCX took this sentiment to the extreme, recording a whole album while quarantined at home.) While April saw big releases from Fiona Apple, RINA SAWAYAMA and The Strokes, the month of May arguably featured even more acclaimed artists. Here are some of the best albums released this month.
Perfume Genius, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”
Mike Hadreas, the man behind the Perfume Genius moniker, has a way of opening his albums with a single phrase drawn out so long it burrows into your soul. In just the first 10 seconds of “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” Hadreas lingers on his words with a sorrow-tinged swagger: “Half of my whole life is gone,” he sings. In his first two releases, Hadreas placed his painful history at the center of his lyrics — as a high schooler who was bullied for being gay and later as a young adult who struggled with substance abuse. While his music no longer directly confronts these stories, traces of past traumas mingle with beauty, grit and triumph across the lushly-arranged tracks of Perfume Genius’ latest release. The body that once felt pain both tangible and internal now embraces desire and its transcendence of the physical. “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” expresses inexplicable convergences — of pain and pleasure, solace and sadness — to bring comfort to the outcast.
Choir Boy, “Gathering Swans”
Recent popular indie rock releases have generally fallen into two camps. One comprises mostly female-fronted groups that plunge into deep themes and push musical boundaries (think Big Thief, Snail Mail or Phoebe Bridgers). The other camp, for which a grab-bag of labels such as “dream pop” or “bedroom pop” would fit, looks to Mac DeMarco and Tame Impala as inspirations. These bands settle into familiar, catchy sounds heavy on reverb and light on lyrical complexity (think Dayglow, Wallows or Peach Pit). Choir Boy arose from a small punk scene largely separate from either of these camps. However, the Salt Lake City band’s second studio release, “Gathering Swans,” could find success among fans of either. Look beyond the starry synths and earworms that might place the band on a Spotify “Night Drive” playlist, and you realize Choir Boy is still weird. After all, frontman Adam Klopp is a romantic obsessed with gothic imagery, and he sings like an angelic Morrissey (however oxymoronic that may be). Choir Boys’ nostalgic sound is not new, for sure, but it drips with something hauntingly fun.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “Mosaic of Transformation”
Some music makes you dance, some music makes you sing and some music lulls you to sleep as you sit on a bench in a modern art exhibit. “Mosaic of Transformation” feels tailor-made for this last category. The album cover, featuring the artist herself contorted into a (rather difficult) yoga pose, carries a certain New Age “high art” aesthetic some may find pretentious. “Mosaic of Transformation,” however, is not demanding. Composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith weaves orchestral strings and flutes with synth pads to recall meditative moments in nature. When her own voice enters the mix, it floats above the arrangements like a Gregorian chant filtered through a synthesizer. Whether or not “Mosaic” warrants more than a single listen, it is still a pretty thirty-seven minutes — perfect to cook to, work to or accidentally fall asleep to.
Charli XCX, “how i’m feeling now”
Not even quarantine could curb Charli XCX’s creative energy. She recorded and released all of “how i’m feeling now” in the span of six weeks, enlisting help from fans on Instagram along the way. This could scan as a publicity stunt, but looking at her background as an up-and-comer who once had diva potential but instead opted to pursue a less commercially viable brand of future-pop, this seems unlikely. Rather, “how i’m feeling now” further cements Charli XCX’s status as the vanguard of off-kilter radio pop, alongside artists like SOPHIE and Caroline Polachek. Whereas 2019’s “Charli” occasionally suffered from grating vocal effects and distortions, this release benefits from its relatively smaller, softer, home-spun soundscape. This is fitting for the earnestness of songs like “forever” and “7 years,” where amid turmoil Charli XCX affirms the certainty of love.
The 1975, “Notes On A Conditional Form”
As music criticism has developed into both a profession and a pastime, it has generally settled on a few, possibly arbitrary, gauges of an album's merit — one of which being its sonic and narrative continuity. Because of this, The 1975’s sprawling, 80-minute-long “Notes On a Conditional Form” is bound to face criticism for its perceived lack of focus. There is truth to this critique: the politics are mostly hazy leftism, and the songs find inspiration across a wide slate of subgenres. But lead singer Matty Healy’s ultra-sincerity shines throughout the screamo-leaning punk (“People”), the pop rock bliss (“If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”) and the neo-gospel balladry (“Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied”). He makes music for every conceivable moment in a heartwarming coming-of-age film — the rebellion, the house party, the romance, the break-up or the credits rolling as you look away from the TV and realize it’s already dark outside.
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