Tag Archives: Recommended Albums

Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy

It’s easy to see indie rock as a dying genre. Though last year saw new albums from some of the genre’s biggest names (Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Phoenix, to name a few), most of them felt just okay. None of the albums felt as essential as any of the stuff the bands had come out with last decade when the genre was in its heyday.

Really, all the hope for indie rock lies in its newer names now, like The War On Drugs, Parquet Courts and – of course – Car Seat Headrest. I was a little bit late to the party when it came to the band’s last release, Teen Of Denial – their first ‘studio’ album – but it’s quickly become one of my favourite releases of the decade so far. The album had something that recent releases from older bands like Arcade Fire seemed to be missing – a certain level of musical and emotional depth. Songs like ‘Fill in the Blank’ and ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ had an old-school indie rock feel to them but still managed to feel fresh at the same time.

Twin Fantasy, Car Seat Headrest’s latest release, isn’t technically a new album, but a reimagining of frontman Will Toledo’s most famous Bandcamp release from the band’s pre-Matador days. It might as well be a new release though, because the album still feels incredibly fresh and incredibly ambitious. Twin Fantasy is a concept album focusing on a teen romance of Toledo’s (it’s still hard to believe that he first wrote these songs in his teenage years), telling a pretty cohesive story over its ten songs. While Teens Of Denial got personal at times, this release definitely feels a lot rawer emotionally.

Just look at the album’s lead single, ‘Beach Life-In-Death’. It’s a monster of a track, clocking in at just over thirteen minutes and featuring three distinct sections. It’s pretty emotionally loaded, dealing with everything from Toledo’s depression to him coming out to his friends over Skype. It’s also a fantastic song musically, shifting and changing constantly without it ever feeling forced. The album’s other huge track, ‘Prophets (Stars)’, which is another three minutes longer than ‘Beach Life-In-Death’,  acts as the album’s huge climax. It’s a slower song, more drawn out, but arguably just as powerful.

With such long songs, Twin Fantasy can seem like a daunting album to jump into, but it also features its fair share of moments that are a little less intense. ‘Sober to Death’ is a gorgeous ballad about depression and features some of Toledo’s sweetest lyrics, while ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’ is probably the album’s most radio-friendly moment. ‘Bodys’ and ‘Cute Thing’ are similarly fantastic – it’s hard not to love the latter track’s roaring chorus – each featuring Toledo’s usual blend of clever lyrics and interesting instrumental choices. There’s a huge amount to love here.

Impressively for an album of this length, every track here feels essential (except maybe ‘Stop Smoking (We Love You)’, but it’s not even two minutes long). It’s an incredibly cohesive release, perhaps even more so than Teens Of Denial.

While it would’ve been nice to receive a completely new album from the band, I’m guessing most people haven’t dug into the Toledo’s Bandcamp back catalogue – essentially making all these songs fresh. Twin Fantasy shows that there’s still plenty of life left in indie rock and, despite some fairly stale releases from last year, it’s a genre that can still surprise us. We just need a few more bands like Car Seat Headrest.

Best Tracks: ‘Beach Life-In-Death’, ‘Sober to Death’, ‘Bodys’.

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MGMT – Little Dark Age

Let’s be honest, MGMT are always going to be defined by their first album. Not because it’s necessarily their best one, but because it’s the home to three huge singles that everyone knows (‘Time To Pretend’, ‘Electric Feel’ and, of course, ‘Kids’.) On the two albums that followed Oracular Spectacular, the band seemed to do everything they could to get away from the poppiness of those singles, taking things in a more challenging psychedelic direction… A move that paid off pretty nicely on 2010’s Congratulations and not so well on 2013’s MGMT.

Given this trajectory, everyone expected MGMT to go even further down the weird rabbit-hole on their fourth album… But nope, instead, we get a bit of a U-turn, with the band re-embracing the pop sound they abandoned almost ten years ago. And surprisingly, it pays off; Little Dark Age is the most accessible album the band have put out in a long time and yet doesn’t feel like a retread of their early successes. It’s creative, fun and just the right amount of strange.

Kicking the album off is ‘She Works Out Too Much’ – a break-up song that’s beautifully ridiculous. Backed by some 80s fitness video-style synths, Andrew VanWyngarden sings about a relationship that fell apart because, well, his girlfriend spent too much time working out. Again, it’s ridiculous but MGMT make it work – in part because they fully commit to the silliness of it all, even having a fitness instructor monologue exercise routines on the bridge of the song.

There are plenty of other tracks on the album that adopt a similar tone, such as ‘TSLAMP‘ or ‘Time Spent Looking At My Phone’. It’s a great little critique of modern culture (‘God descends to take me home, find me staring at my phone’) that, like ‘She Works Out Too Much’, is musically a lot of fun too. There’s also ‘When You Die’, in which VanWyngarden attempts to come across as menacing to hilarious effect. Throughout the song, he tries to assure the listener that he’s evil (telling them to go fuck themselves at one point), the lyrics contrasting with his very boyish vocals. It’s great – just great.

Some songs take a darker tone, being less outright funny, such as ‘Little Dark Age’. The synths on this track are fantastic, having a heavy gothic tinge to them. The lyrics are similarly great, though pretty cryptic. I also love the similarly dark and melancholy ‘When You’re Small’ – on which the band reflect on their own rise to fame. It’s a minimalist track – only really featuring an acoustic guitar, a piano and VanWyngarden’s echoing vocals – and that makes it all the more eerie.

Little Dark Age only falters in a couple of places and never too heavily. ‘James’ is the only song I find easy to skip in the tracklist (coming across as a little bland), with the rest being solid. Overall, it’s an excellent return to form for the band – demonstrating that they can still retain their signature weirdness while making music that’s accessible and poppy.

Best Tracks: ‘She Works Out Too Much’, ‘Little Dark Age’, ‘Me and Michael’.

Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin

Much like his garage rock contemporaries Oh Sees and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Ty Segall does not believe in taking a break. Following up 2017’s self-titled album, Freedom’s Goblin is Segall’s ninth album in ten years… And a double one at that. It’s been described by a lot of people as his White Album, a comparison that definitely fits. At 75 minutes long, it’s grand, sprawling and diverse (exploring every genre from disco to jazz), demonstrating that Ty Segall really is a master at what he does.

Unlike the White Album though, Freedom’s Goblin is a single, focused vision. Despite all the genre-hopping, it flows incredibly well; the dramatic piano ballad ‘Rain’ slips effortlessly into Segall’s heavy, fuzzy cover of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Every 1’s A Winner’, and the acoustic ballad ‘I’m Free’ feels like the perfect breather after the off-kilter freakiness of ‘The Main Pretender’. All of the songs fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and there’s only a handful that feel like they could’ve been cut. Even ‘Prison’, an instrumental track that lasts only a minute, feels important, acting as a fantastic bridge between ‘She’ and ‘Talkin’ 3’. It’s rare for a nineteen-song album to be so devoid of filler.

There are too many noteworthy tracks on Freedom’s Goblin for me to go into them all. ‘Fanny Dog’ which opens the album is bombastic and fun, with Ty singing about his pet dog over a typically fuzzy guitar and some trumpet flourishes. It’s a solid song, and there’s something undeniably sweet about him singing so dramatically about his pet.  Elsewhere, he dives into more jazzy territory with tracks like ‘Rain’ and ‘Talkin’ 3’. The former is a low-key piano ballad that builds to a big finish, while the latter is a deranged saxophone freak-out. There are also some great acoustic songs littered throughout the tracklist (the best of which being ‘My Lady’s On Fire’) as well as some which resist being pigeonholed into specific genres – like ‘Despoiler Of Cadaver’. Featuring an old-school drum machine beat, the track manages to be groovy and unsettling at the same time – a mood that the album pulls off frequently.

The album also features its fair share of great rock songs among Segall’s experimentation. ‘Alta’ is probably the most straight-forward cut on the album; it features a huge, almost anthemic chorus with a classic rock feel to it. ‘Shoot You Up’ similarly plays things straight, but has a more lighthearted and playful vibe to it. The album’s finest rock moment, though, is ‘She’ – a mostly instrumental track filled with writhing guitar solos and Segall screeching out the song’s title here and there. It’s rock in its purest form, and while there’s not a lot of substance to it that doesn’t stop from being a lot of fun. Segall knows how to put together a song that you just want to rock out to.

Though Freedom’s Goblin is consistent overall, there are a few weaker moments in the tracklist. A couple of songs do feel slightly inessential; ‘Cry Cry Cry’ and ‘You Say All The Nice Things’ in particular lean on the forgettable side. Almost every song on the album has a unique spark to it – allowing it to stand out in its own way – but these two don’t do much that isn’t done better elsewhere. In terms of the album’s softer moments, ‘My Lady’s On Fire’ and ‘I’m Free’ work a lot better for me.

But luckily, these weaker songs don’t detract from the album too much… Freedom’s Goblin is generally solid all the way through and avoids being front-loaded like many double albums are. It opens strong and it closes strong. ‘The Main Pretender’, which lands right near the end, might just be the album’s best cut – it’s fantastically weird, with some off-beat brass instrumentation, yet it also has a great sing-a-long chorus. Similarly, ‘And, Goodnight’, the album’s closer is stunning. It’s indulgent at fourteen minutes, but it feels like the perfect way to cap things off.

When a huge and sprawling album like this one is put out, it’s almost always a let-down. It’s rare for an album so long to remain engaging throughout, but somehow Ty Segall manages to pull it off. Freedom’s Goblin’s is one of the best rock albums I’ve heard in a long time and easily one of the best albums to drop this year so far.

Best Tracks: ‘Rain’, ‘My Lady’s On Fire’, ‘The Main Pretender’

Shame – Songs of Praise

There are no moments of praise on Shame’s debut album. What might be mistaken as a collection of softly sung hymns based on its tongue-in-cheek cover, is, in fact, a whole lot more – blending post-punk and rock, ugliness and anger.

Shame have made a name for themselves over the past few years through their infamous live shows (which may involve the lead singer stripping down to his underwear), leaving Songs of Praise with a lot to live up to. Luckily the band don’t disappoint; the album is a versatile one, with each song having a distinct feel to it. From the Q&A style ‘Concrete’ to the punchy and incoherent ‘Donk’, Shame do a good job of keeping things interesting. They also take influence from a wide variety of bands, with The Fall, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses among other (including some modern bands) shining through their songs at times. While they label themselves as post-punk, they do toy with other genres too.

Because of this, the album rarely feels repetitive and the songs definitely hit more often than they miss. Probably my favourite moment in the tracklist is ‘The Lick’. Backed by a slow and sinister bass riff (that sounds like the audio equivalent of a dark alley), Charlie Steen rambles on in a stream-of-consciousness style. Starting off talking about a trip to the gynaecologist, he quickly wanders onto a number of other topics, with the song including a pretty funny rant about the NME. Shame have stated that an earlier version of the song clocked in at just under eight minutes, and it’s not hard to see why.

‘Concrete’ is another highlight. The call and response structure of the song does a good job of summing what the band is about, focusing on the anxiety and worry that young people feel about today’s society. The verses are a barrage of existential questions (‘Do you alone? Do you feel replaced?’) which the singer shows his desire to break free from on the chorus: ‘No more questions’. ‘Gold Hole’ also stands out, showing Shame at their most compelling unpleasant, with it focusing on a woman’s affair with an older man (‘She knows it’s wrong, but she feels so good in Louis Vuitton‘). It’s a great bit of commentary on consumerism that walks a fine line between being clever and nauseating.

Closer ‘Angie’ is the album’s most anthemic moment, resembling 90s Brit-pop (reminding me of Oasis’ ‘Champagne Supernova’) more than post-punk. Unlike most of the tracks on Songs of Praise, ‘Angie’ avoids social commentary instead of being a love song – though a twisted one. The protagonist sings about his love for a woman who hung herself, leading to lyrics that dance between romantic and disturbing. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And at almost seven minutes, it feels grand in the way that the best album closers do.

Although their debut is heavily indebted to old-school post-punk, Shame still seem to have carved out their own sound – each track bursting with its own sense of character. While Songs of Praise isn’t perfect, it feels like they achieved what they and set out to do on it. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.

Best Tracks: ‘Concrete’, ‘The Lick’, ‘Angie’.

Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother

Following up last year’s excellent B-Grade University EP, the debut album from Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Alex Lahey is a fantastic amount of fun. It’s filled with clever lyrics, energetic instrumentation, big hooks and maybe my favourite song title of the year (‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’) – basically, it just ticks all the boxes.

I Love You Like a Brother is incredibly consistent across its ten tracks, offering up punchy song after punchy song. The opening stretch is particularly strong – with lead single and album opener ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’ exemplifying Lahey’s appeal really well. It isn’t the sort of song that tries to reinvent the wheel, but instead, I guess, just succeeds in making a really good wheel. It’s amazing how on-point everything is here; the lyrics are fun and memorable (‘Fuck work, you’re here, every day’s the weekend’) and the song’s sound progresses just enough to stay interesting. Sure, it doesn’t really break free from the usual verse-chorus-verse structure, but Lahey and her guitar barrel through it with such energy that it doesn’t really matter.

Things don’t let up for a while after the opener, with ‘I Love You Like a Brother’ and ‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’ being similarly punchy. Both tracks are big and catchy like ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’ (‘I love you like brother, just like I oughta‘) and they also do a good job of showing off the cleverness of Lahey’s songwriting. On ‘I Love You Like a Brother’, she breaks away from the usual love song mould, putting together a great track about sibling relationships. It has a really genuine and honest feel to it. ‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’, on the other hand, is technically another song about love – but Lahey frames it cleverly. Rather than talk about the break up the track is about directly, she filters it through her relationship with the city where it happened: ‘Perth is lucky that she’s pretty, otherwise I’d hate that city.’

And this is the main appeal of I Love You Like a Brother for me; Lahey does a fantastic job of balancing the cleverness and emotion in her lyrics. Despite most of the songs on here being about relationships – not exactly an original topic – they never feel generic. ‘I Want U’ opens with a string of close observations about a guy Lahey is enamoured with (‘You’re the kind of person who likes the go to the movies alone’) which really helps bring the song to life. The people she sings about always have a sense of character to them – they don’t feel like the faceless love interests you get in a lot of pop songs these days – which is something I appreciate. The way she gets her emotions across is also great. Like I said, relationships are not exactly an original subject-matter, but Lahey always does a good job of expressing her feelings for someone without resorting to clichés, such as on the hook on ‘Backpack’: ‘I find it hard to put my arms around you when your backpack’s on’. It’s a bit goofy, but it feels really genuine.

‘There’s No Money’, easily the album’s slowest song, is also its saddest. It abandons the fun pop-punk energy that’s present throughout most of the album in favour of a more ballad-like feel. The lyrics here are great as always – with Lahey dwelling on the fear that her life is going nowhere – but it does a particularly good job of showing her great use of sound. The song starts off quiet, with only vocals, a guitar and a drum machine beat – reflecting on the lonely feel of the lyrics. But things begin to build on the second verse, with the drum kit, bass guitar and even some choral backing vocals coming in. Eventually, things come to a big finish, closing out the album really nicely.

I Love You Like a Brother is incredibly consistent, especially for a debut album. Even the album’s weaker songs (like ‘Awkward Exchange’) are hard to dislike too much. Everything moves along quickly, there are only a couple of songs that go over the four-minute mark, meaning that Lahey doesn’t give you enough time to get bored with one sound before she moves onto the next one. Bottom line: it’s a fantastic album that you should check out. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

Best Tracks: ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’, ‘I Want U’, ‘There’s No Money’.

St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

MASSEDUCTION is an album full of contradictions. It’s St. Vincent’s most unabashedly poppy album and yet it also feels like her weirdest one. It’s loud and blaring in places and quiet and tender in others. It’s fun – and it’s also heartbreaking. If it’s not Annie Clark’s best album, it’s at least safe to say that it’s her most interesting one.

With 2014’s self-titled release, it felt like Clark had perfected St. Vincent’s sound. Songs like ‘Birth In Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ felt like cumulations of the weird style she had been striving for from her very first album… So where could she really go next? In answering this question, MASSEDUCTION takes two different paths; half of the album sees St. Vincent go even further down the weirdness rabbit-hole, while the other half shows her taking things in an incredibly stripped down and emotionally honest direction. The divide between these two styles is the album’s greatest strength and its great weakness… It almost feels like Clark is torn between two worlds.

The album’s first half is full of that distinctive St. Vincent weirdness, with tracks like ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘Pills’ being pretty much instant classics for her. ‘Los Ageless’ has all the usual makings of a solid St. Vincent single – the thumping drum machine, the wailing synths, the distorted guitar riffs – and could’ve easily fit onto Clark’s last album. ‘Pills’ is similarly great. Sound-wise, it has a great childlike feel to it, with the peppy synths and Cara Delevingne’s chanting chorus vocals (‘Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week’). I also appreciate the shift that the song takes towards its end, avoiding a big finish in favour of a gorgeous and soft acoustic guitar-led breakdown.

‘Masseduction’ is another of the album’s best ‘weird’ songs, even if there isn’t that much to it. It basically centres around a single line which Clark chants over and over (‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’), but it’s such a great mantra for St. Vincent that I don’t really mind the repetition. But while the high level of repetition works on this track, it doesn’t really on ‘Sugarboy’ – easily the album’s weakest track. While it’s not completely awful – Clark’s seductive delivery on the verses is particularly good – the loud, obnoxious chanting of ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’ does get old incredibly fast.

As I said before, MASSEDUCTION feels like it’s split between two worlds – and this becomes increasingly clear in the album’s second half. Apart from ‘Fear The Future’ and ‘Young Lover’, every track has a quiet, intimate feel to it, with Clark being as emotionally open as she’s ever been before. There’s even a couple of piano ballads – a far cry from the eccentricity usually associated with St. Vincent. The first of these, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, is heart-wrenching and shows just how good a storyteller Clark can be. It demonstrates that there’s a lot more to her appeal beyond her unique instrument choices. The second of these ballads, ‘New York’ – which centres on Clark’s break-up with actress Cara Delevingne – is slightly weaker overall, but just as emotionally raw: ‘You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.’

The album’s closing tracks dial up Clark’s emotional openness even further, delivering some of the artist’s most down-right depressing work. A common problem I’ve had with St. Vincent’s past albums is that they felt like they ran out of steam (or solid songs) before the end – this is especially true with 2014’s self-titled release. MASSEDUCTION, however, avoids this problem by saving its best tracks till last. The lyrics to ‘Slow Disco’ are beautifully sad (‘Slip my hand from your hand and leave you dancing with a ghost’) and the string arrangements that hang in the background just intensify this. It’s a moving break up song that again shows how powerful Clark can be even when she strips back her sound. ‘Smoking Section’, the album’s closer, is somehow even more depressing and just makes you want to give Annie a hug. She knocks herself down pretty heavily – with there even being some suicidal imagery – leading to one her most powerful and difficult to listen to songs.

And it’s the emotional honesty on tracks like this one that really makes the album for me. It’s easily St. Vincent’s messiest and most inconsistent release, containing some of her most forgettable songs, but it also feels like one of her most important ones. And besides, break ups are messy – so shouldn’t an album born out of one be messy too?

Best Tracks: ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Smoking Section’.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

Josh Homme is a man that doesn’t give a shit. And it’s because of this that his project Queens of the Stone Age has been so consistently good. Each of its albums has followed his vision, with him making decisions that might seem questionable on paper but always seem to work out… Evidence of this isn’t too hard to find – the band’s first hit, fittingly titled ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’, comprised of Homme chanting the names of different drugs over and over again.

When it was announced that Villains would take Queens of the Stone Age’s sound in a more danceable direction, I will admit that I was slightly nervous. (Especially considering that the album was following up …Like Clockwork, a particularly dark and moody release.) But, as always, Josh Homme knows what’s best. Villains isn’t just danceable – at times, at least – but it’s also incredibly creative and as emotionally open as QOTSA has ever been.

Despite having only nine tracks, the album is almost 50 minutes long – with many of the songs ditching traditional structures in favour of surprising twists and turns. It’s on these tracks – like ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ and ‘Domesticated Animals’ – that Villains is at its best. ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ opens the album with a slow, indulgent build up. Chanting vocals dominate the first minute before the drums kick in and the song springs to life. The song shifts and changes in tone frequently, somehow managing to come across as dance-y while maintaining the band’s desert rock roots. There’s an almost improvised feel to Homme’s lyrics – a lot of them don’t really connect together – that suggests he’s following his feet rather than his head.

The lyrics on ‘Domesticated Animals’ equally feel confused, but it doesn’t stop the track from being impressive. As its title suggests, it has a wild, almost feral feel to it (Homme even lets off a woof in the track’s opening). Like ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’, the song takes its time, chugging along steadily before abruptly exploding halfway through. The track’s sound ties in well with the lyrics’ central theme of tame animals breaking free; there’s an underlying fierceness to the song even its quieter moments, with its ‘wild’ side breaking out only in places. ‘The Evil Has Landed’ is another track that benefits from its long length, taking a number of great instrumental detours. Similarly to ‘Domesticated Animals’, it’s a lot of fun – Homme sounds like he’s having a ball singing on this one – refusing to go anywhere predictable.

Villains’ less heavy songs are no less impressive though, with ‘Fortress’ perhaps being the most moving song that Queens of the Stone Age have ever put out. The central metaphor, about how we all build emotional fortresses (hiding our true feelings), is a great one and the vocals really sell it. Knowing that Homme wrote the song for his daughter just makes the song tug at my heartstrings even more – it’s a truly gorgeous ballad. And while I wouldn’t have expected synths to fit in with QOTSA’s sound well at all, they really add something to the track. ‘Villains of Circumstance’, the album’s closer, is another great slow number. It matches ‘Fortress’ for emotional intensity, featuring some of the band’s most unabashedly romantic lyrics: ‘Forever mine, I’ll be forever yours’.

A few of the album’s other songs do feel comparatively weak to these high points, but nothing comes close to being outright bad or even mediocre. Lead single ‘The Way You Used To Do’ is as poppy as the band have ever been – you can really feel Mark Ronson’s production on it – but it still feels distinctively Queens of the Stone Age with its abrasive guitars. Its main problem is that it feels a little bit conventional and uninteresting compared to the rest of the album. ‘Un-Reborn Again’ and ‘Hideaway’ are both solid, though do get lost in the album a bit. They’re just not quite as memorable as some of the album’s other cuts.

As a whole, Villains is an incredibly balanced and focused effort from Queens of the Stone Age; there’s a lot less filler than some of the band’s previous releases and even the weaker moments are hard not to love. (‘The Way You Used To Do’ is still going on just about every party playlist I make this year…) More than anything, it shows that even seven albums in Josh Homme knows how to keep things exciting and unpredictable. I can’t think of a more consistent rock band around today.

Best Tracks: ‘Domesticated Animals’, ‘Fortress’, ‘The Evil Has Landed’