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Radiohead shows are an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. Much of the legendary alternative band’s music is dark and hauntingly somber. The rest is urgently anxious, save for an uplifting moment or two on “In Rainbows.” All of this weight is felt at a Radiohead concert, yet people everywhere are dancing. There’s a spirit to this group’s music that, especially live, is undeniable.
On “Baby Boy,” the thematic climax of Childish Gambino’s 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!,” Donald Glover speaks directly to his then-newborn son. He gives his child the same advice his father once gave him: “Walk tall, little one, walk tall.” After nine tracks of hazy fear, finally contextualized by the anxiety of bringing his son into a world of violence and hate, Glover arrives at this sentiment of pride and self-love as an answer.
Whether he’s experimenting with psychedelic rock, folktronica or house, Caribou makes music that is, above all else, fun. Ever since his respectable debut “Start Breaking My Heart,” on which Caribou showed he was capable of keeping up with IDM greats Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, the adventurous DJ has carved out a unique role in electronic music by injecting his spirited playfulness into a variety of genres.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the jelly beans video reposted online. Exactly 28,835 jelly beans, one for each day in a lifetime. I scroll past it every time, only to have a “memory” of a photo I was tagged in a year ago flash on my screen. Keep scrolling. A trailer for the next “Star Wars” movie, out in just 47 days! The irony of the jelly beans, of course, is that we’re addicted to the high of sobering perspective. We’re hyper-aware of the passage of time, leading lives of countdowns and memories and nostalgia, and yet it’s in our nature to be overwhelmed by change.
Coldplay’s first two albums played constantly in my dad’s car when I was a kid. I learned every corner of the simple, lovesick anthems that made up “Parachutes” and “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” and they filled me with wonder and warmth. As I matured, so did Coldplay, with the growing pains of the bloated but earnest “X&Y” and the passionate and entrancing atmosphere of “Viva La Vida or “Death and All His Friends.”
Earlier this year, Big Thief transported us to the lush mountain greenery of rural Washington. Manifesting among such a vital tapestry, their mystifying record “U.F.O.F.” beckoned us to look up at the stars and find peace suspended in the wonder of nature’s unanswerable questions. Five days after recording their third album, the indie darlings travelled to arid Tornillo, Texas to record “Two Hands,” a starkly contrasting companion piece that, much like its album cover, leaves no distance between singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, drummer James Krivchenia and their audience.
On “i,i”’s third single “Faith,” Justin Vernon remarks that “this year’s a visitor.” The angelic voices of the Brooklyn Youth Choir follow as Vernon affirms that his faith is not yet gone, and the magnificent pantheism of Bon Iver comes into full focus. The cycles of nature and ego are one and the same in the world of Bon Iver. So when the trailer for “i,i” likens the record to the arrival of autumn, we can just as well interpret the album as the completion of a long personal journey.
Thom Yorke has always had a curious relationship with his past. Never one to repeat himself, the Radiohead frontman makes a sharp left turn in technique and instrumentation with almost every release. This habit was born out of a fear of stagnation, but over the past 25 years its source has evolved from anxiety to a spirit of experimentation.
Let’s be honest: the typical Bastille listener is not going to read this review. We don’t look to this London synth-pop group for musical innovation or critical merit. Rather, Bastille’s biggest strength is its ability to craft songs that are both danceable and tinged with a hint of existential dread, creating the perfect atmosphere for listeners to simultaneously channel and escape from such a feeling. Consequently, given that today’s young adults are the first generation to have grown up with the fear and anxiety promoted by ubiquitous social and news media, it’s no surprise that Bastille has been able to use this formula to become one of the most popular bands of the 2010s.
It’s not often that an artist follows a song as big as “Take Me To Church” with four years of relative silence. Sure, Hozier toured extensively in the years following his breakout in 2014, but fans of the Irish multi-instrumentalist had to wait until 2018 for another release. His “Nina Cried Power” EP made waves last year, riding the popularity of its eponymous Mavis Staples collaboration and landing on many year-end music lists, but it mostly garnered anticipation for a full-length follow-up to his self-titled debut.
Girlpool have already outgrown the minimalism that both elevated and plagued their first album. Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker stripped their debut “Before The World Was Big” down to its most barebones components in an attempt to expose their imperfections. The effort was sometimes clumsy, sometimes earnest and always teenage in its self-sabotaging expression of vulnerability.
On “Assume Form,” James Blake’s fourth studio album, the London genre-bender is enamored and overwhelmed by the many facets of human connection. An immediately accessible approach to pondering such an abstract area would be to ground it in something tangible, be it technology or simply the physical sensation of touch. But James Blake is an intuitive personality type: He perceives information from within rather than from the outside world. So instead, he is most inclined to look inward for answers to the age-old questions of human connection, and these internal reflections on external behavior couldn’t have found a better home than Blake’s already nebulous and wintry music.
I sat in the back row of the BB&T Pavilion in Camden, N.J., steady rain showering the fans on the lawn behind me. Marcus Mumford had been pouring his soul into the brooding climax of “White Blank Page” when dark clouds rolled overhead and thunder and lightning sent the band running offstage. For 45 minutes the storm repeatedly teased its retreat until, finally, the sky parted. As quickly as they had left, the band returned to the stage and, as the last sunlight of the day peeked through the grey, Mumford & Sons launched into their soaring anthem “Lover of the Light.”
High profile artistic collaborations are often a sort of State of the Genre Address, if you will. The glorious rock star melodrama of Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is all too representative of art rock’s peak, and the self-celebration of Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne” is precisely the type of extravagant spectacle hip hop was heading towards in 2011. The 2010s has seen the rise of a new genre that is actually an amalgamation of several sub-genres, a festival-friendly blend of indie rock and folktronica most notably occupied by Mumford and Sons, Cage the Elephant and Sufjan Stevens. Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, seemed to be the perfect candidate to make this young genre’s State of the Genre Address. Instead, however, the two indie titans have put forth an album of pieces that are more freeform concepts than songs, providing some nice sounds and a few inspired moments but all in all leaving much to be desired from two of the greatest songwriters of the decade.
For a time, Snow Patrol was the best part of a fairly stagnant period of rock music. It was out of the post-grunge Britpop phase of the late '90s that the clean, simple guitar rock of the 2000s emerged, spearheaded by Coldplay’s “Yellow” and the Fray’s “How To Save A Life.” There wasn’t much to it: throw together four chords, a piano and electric guitar, and some introspective lyrics sung by a decent impersonator of either Jeff Buckley’s angelesque falsetto or Liam Gallagher’s nasal crooning. Logic would dictate that an artist can’t put out more than an album or so of such formulaic music without sounding dully repetitive, but Snow Patrol defied this logic and proved just how simple great music can be. Now, over a decade after “Chasing Cars” defined a generation of young teens discovering alternative rock music for the first time, the Irish band has returned with the ambitious but calculated “Wildness.”
Beach House have already carved out their spot in music history. For over a decade, the duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally has served as a guiding light for dream pop, paving the way for a genre that has permeated rock far more than it is given credit for. Their latest album “7” builds upon Beach House’s legacy as one of the best modern dream pop groups out there while displaying its influences more explicitly than any of the group’s earlier works. The result is one of the most comprehensive works of dream pop in the genre’s nearly 30-year lifespan.
While the repeated stylistic left turns of artists like Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar are exciting, a long and gradual artistic maturation can be just as satisfying. Laura Veirs’ nearly 20-year career has quietly been one of the most impressive examples of the latter over the past two decades, and by demonstrating everything that Veirs has learned along the way, her new album “The Lookout” is her most rewarding work yet.
In many ways, MGMT’s debut “Oracular Spectacular” kicked off a musical movement. Some might even grant this honor (or blame, depending on your taste) to the single ten note riff that had “Kids” stuck in everyone’s heads for all of 2008. Whatever the source, it’s impossible to ignore the sea of imitators that followed — Foster the People, Empire of the Sun and Passion Pit, to name a few. It’s hard to pick MGMT out of this crowd today, but, sure enough, it all traces back to “Oracular Spectacular” and its youthful, somewhat bleak and undeniably catchy riffs. Of course, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser weren’t the first to come up with a radio-friendly riff, but they were perhaps the first product of the early 2000s indie rock movement to shy away from rock elements in favor of concise catchiness and the sweet nostalgia of teenage awkwardness.
As a personal rule, I never read reviews before listening to an album; I like to have a completely unbiased first impression of new music. But God only knows I needed some reason to get excited about U2’s new album, “Songs of Experience.”
The breakup album is one of the most common and successful tropes in music, but how does an artist follow it up? Looking back on the 21st century’s best breakup albums, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern: Kanye followed his dark, career-shifting “808s and Heartbreak” with his bombastic commentary on celebrity “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Bon Iver followed his tenderly barren “For Emma, Forever Ago” with his brilliant self-titled sophomore effort, a slightly brighter folk abstraction with mild electronic experimentation, and Coldplay followed the criminally underrated “Ghost Stories” with the criminally overrated “A Head Full of Dreams,” a purposeless celebration shamelessly launching itself into the Billboard Hot 100.