PopTheology contributor Benjamin Griffin gives your ears a workout with some of the warmest and most fertile tunes for spring.
New Songs for Springtime
by Benjamin Griffin
These first few months of 2016 have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to tunes. I want to write an individual review for all of them but, in the interest of time and space, I’d like to instead offer a little sampling for your springtime listening pleasure. Without further ado, here’s a small review of what I’ve been listening to.
Of course, I would love to dive into my whole playlist but I want to keep focus on the albums that I think will particularly help usher in the warm weather. Sure, we could talk about the new Kanye album (The Life of Pablo) but, aside from the fact that it makes a pleasant night driving album, I’m not sure much really needs to be said (sorry not sorry). I wish I could expand upon my frustration with the new Bloc Party album (Hymns) but, hey, at least it gave us “Eden.” Hell, I’d even love to talk about Rihanna’s album (Anti) but all I need to say about that is “work-work-work-work” (it’s in your head now, isn’t it? MUHAHAHA).
Kendrick’s Masterpiece Follow-Up
So then: first up, I want to sincerely say “Stank you, Andre 3000” for treading the spiritual path that would help Kendrick Lamar find his way. I know there have been many other conscious hip-hop artists to have blazed the trail between the club and the academy but I can’t help but think if Outkast didn’t set the world ablaze only to give Andre the room to make the strange but delightful beast that is The Love Below, I’m not sure the world would be quite ready to give Kendrick as much attention as he requires. But luckily we are ready – and we need it. Although his surprise release untitled unmastered. is technically a B-Side album, it does not function as one. It offers a fascinating look into the formation of his recent masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, exploring some of the same areas of fame vs. faith but focusing more on the split between self-love and self-lust. The music itself presents the same impeccable jazz and darkly meditative funk that Pimp has but doesn’t quite have the same themes. Rather than juxtaposing the world of classic hip-hop concerns (money, sex, & violence) against the difficult reality of Christian ethics, untitled holds a much more personal narrative centered loosely around a Gemini dynamic of Kendrick’s own struggle between the two. Far less broad but just as challengingly deep, untitled stands on it’s own as an incredible testament to Kendrick’s unique and necessary voice.
Click on the album to stream some samples:
Now, on to the next: one of my favorite styles of music for the spring is psychedelic electronic pop. I like a good driving beat and swirling lyrics, nothing too straightforward EDM and nothing that’s too way-out freak-out (both, of course, have their place as well). So far, two of my favorite of such bands have released albums: Animal Collective and Miike Snow. Animal Collective is returning after they delivered a bit of an underwhelming follow-up to their absolute masterpiece Merriweather Post Pavilion and, to my ear, it seems like they’ve course corrected. While not as ‘expansive’ as MPP, their latest, Painting With is about as densely packed as little more than a half-hour of music has any right to be. Once it starts, it doesn’t let up with some of the most engaging and danceable beats AC have ever produced. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes for a dizzying ride with Panda Bear and Geologist’s echoing lyrical delivery.
From Painting With by Animal Collective. Warning: “The video has been identified to potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy.” (Which might be a good name for an album in and of itself):
If you’re looking for a great album to roll the windows down to and dance wildly beneath your seat belt as you cruise down some country back road, I honestly don’t think you could do any better –but you could come close by popping in Miike Snow’s iii (I just realized I’m still using this phrase as if CDs are still a thing…this makes me feel strange).
Far more radio-friendly than anything Animal Collective has done, the latest from the Swedish-American trio continues to perfect their unique brand of slightly off kilter but still massively enjoyable pop songs (run factoid: the two composers gave us Britney Spear’s “Toxic”). If you’ve heard them before then you know what you’re in for – the rousing choruses, the unexpected voice modulations, the somehow euphoric sense of self-loathing. Sound fun? Trust me, it is. Although I’m not quite sure how I rate this next to their surprisingly deep sophomore album Happy to You, this album contains one of my new all time favorite song “For U” and, for that alone, I can’t help but recommend it to everyone. It’s a great joy of a record and one that will have you mindlessly dancing just as easily as it will have you gazing up into the sky, wondering where your head is.
Rock Isn’t Dead Yet
Now that we’ve covered hip-hop and electronica, how about some rock? Or, at least indie rock and folk rock – that counts too, right? We have been blessed (tongue only slightly against cheek) with two records produced by the poncho-wearing mystic of Kentucky, Jim James, also known as the lead singer of My Morning Jacket. Both albums are about as eclectically different as you can imagine. First off, depressingly slept-on Canadian folk songstress Basia Bulat follows up her surprisingly dark and electronically tinged third record with Good Advice, a 60’s female vocal pop sound a la She & Him or First Aid Kit. Trading her usual autoharp for an omnichord, Jim James has helped transform her usual orchestral indie folk into a tight and lovely (if a bit forlorn) modern doo-wop. As always, Basia’s voice is the real star – an impossibly full and nearly ethereal register that can’t help but soar even at the most intimate moments. I recommend that you go listen and buy her first three records if this remotely appeals to you. She is amazing (can you tell I’m a fan?):
The next Jim James-produced album is Ray LaMontagne’s Ouroboros, his follow up the underwhelming Supernova from a couple years back. While not a ‘terrible’ album necessarily, it nonetheless suffered under the fuzzed out, too-cool RAWK-n-roll production of Dan Auerbach who, in my opinion, has quite frankly been far more grating than impressive ever since Black Keys showed up on the scene to piss off Jack White. Ray was made to rock a bar, not a garage, and, honestly, Aurbach didn’t get that. It turns out, however, Jim James understands where Ray’s strengths really lie. Seemingly recognizing that some of Ray’s best works were his long, meandering meditations on Ram Dass (from “Till The Sun Turns Black”) Jim came in with incense aflame and black lights ablaze to give Ray the space to create what seems to be a love letter to Pink Floyd. Beginning with “Part 1,” Ray lets loose his best psychedelic 70’s rock and roll impression for four songs about letting go of the world’s worries only to ease into “Part 2” for another four tracks of meditative melodies on the changing of the seasons in one’s life. A lovely bit of contemplation from a quiet troubadour, Ouroboros is an incredible step in the right experimental direction for Ray and an absolute joy of a record, perfect for those long nighttime drives.
More Mix for the Spring Pot Pourri
There are so many more albums I wish I could really dive into. Recently, Pete Yorn returned after almost 6 years to share his perhaps most focused work ever and a great addition to the early-ought singer-songwriter cannon with Arranging Time. Just this week, instrumental progressive metal wunderkinds Polyphia followed up their maddeningly ornate debut record with an equally absurd burst of guitar magic with Renaissance. Coming up soon is a new Iron & Wine duet record with Jessca Hoop entitled Love Letter for Fire. And there’s a new record from weirdo electronic freak folk darlings Yeasayer called Amen & Goodbye. But hey, maybe I’ll actually get around to writing proper reviews for those.
Anyway, these are just my random musical musings and because I desperately need new music these days, what are you listening to? Leave some suggestions in the comments!