Second Quarter Review: April-June 2018

The Top of the Top

  1. Hop Along — Bark Your Head Off, Dog

Once you have achieved a certain distance from your childhood and adolescence, there begins a certain period of reflection on your experiences from that time of life; it’s a new level of reckoning with one of humanity’s favorite questions: “Why am I like this?” It’s a time of re-remembering what has happened in your life, but with a new set of mental tools. As you replay your memories, they are filtered through your newfound capacity for metaphorical thinking and connection-making. You are basically re-remembering everything and writing a new genesis story of your own life.

Frances Quinlan’s lyrics on Bark Your Head Off, Dog read like a series of poetic diary entries documenting this period of re-remembrance: a scattered mix of philosophical quandaries (“was I shaped just for this moment?”), unanchored quotes (“cousin, take me home”), and visceral physicality (“we were covered in snot in my childhood bed”) weave together to form the gorgeous fever-quilt of the narrator’s life. Quinlan is both charming and sobering in her reflections on toxic power dynamics, growing apart from people, and the challenging detective work that goes into tracing the connective tissue between trauma and identity. Quinlan’s often heavy cogitations are accompanied by consistently catchy instrumental riffs, which make Quinlan’s messages much more digestible but do not distract from their urgency. Like so many lines on Dog, the album’s most repeated lyric — “So strange, so strange / to be shaped by such strange men” — is both deeply personal and widely applicable; like everything else; it is up to the listener to “explain what the writer meant.”

2. Cardi B — Invasion Of Privacy

It’s not complicated: Cardi B is the real fuckin’ deal. She is as cool as she says she is, and if you’ve heard “Bodak Yellow” — which, to be clear, literally everyone has — you know that is a high bar. She doesn’t need anyone’s blessing, and it doesn’t take that many listens to realize my particular blessing would be low on that list if it existed at all. So, when I say Cardi B is the real fuckin’ deal, it’s not intended as a blessing. I see it more as a way of signing my name on the right side of history. In “Get Up 10,” the first track on Invasion of Privacy, Cardi says, “I was just trying to chill and make bangers.” She has succeeded, at least, in the latter; her debut album is OB certified. That’s right: Only Bangers. So it is no coincidence that, like an OB, she is a hot, massive star. This is the kind of album that makes one humbled to own speakers.

3. Janelle Monae — Dirty Computer

Even given the excellence achieved on her first two albums, Dirty Computer is Janelle Monae’s best album so far. Nearly every song on Computer could be a lead single, and the short transitional tracks between songs actually add, which, despite the huge popularity of “skits” in the 90’s and early 2000’s, is a huge and very rare accomplishment. Stevie Wonder’s short speech in “Stevie’s Dream,” for example, epitomizes the overall message of the album: “Even when you’re upset, use words of love.” Janelle never backs down from how much there is to be upset about; in fact, she not only tells it like it is, but even manages to make it funny at times, and ultimately she “fucks it all back down” with sexy, sexy, queer, black, fashionable, empowering positivity. The intent of these songs is not unclear: at this exact moment, they are inspiring thousands and thousands of people to be their best selves despite all odds. That’s always been what Janelle is about, but the directness of that mission is what makes this album her best. Plus, just peep. All. These amazing. Looks.

4. Wye Oak — The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Wye Oak has finally found a way to fill an entire album with songs that are as beautifully melodic as their biggest hit to date, “Civilian,” but also as sonically dramatic and experimental as they have shown us they can be on nearly every other project they’ve ever released. The reverberations and wailings at the close of “Say Hello” are reminiscent of OK Computer-era Radiohead, the fast drum and fuzzy bass of “The Instrument” sounds like Tame Impala and Four Tet had a beautiful music child together, and “You Of All People” is so gorgeous it makes me tear up just thinking about it. At the moment, though, my favorite track is “It Was Not Natural,” a funky mess of synth and drums that is anchored by Jenn Wesner’s steady keyboard and silky vocals, and whose chorus sounds like two awesome instrumentals were spliced together but somehow manages to remain better than the sum of its parts.

5. Mallrat — In The Sky EP

I first discovered the music of Grace Shaw, who performs as Mallrat, between sets at a Brooklyn concert. (Her song “Sunglasses” was so good that it managed to remind me that Shazam exists.) The efficiency of emotional punch in her lyrics combined with her social awareness is uniquely reminiscent of Tegan & Sara’s particular set of superpowers, and perhaps it is that which has drawn me in steadily since I first heard her sing, “Everyone around you wears the same sunglasses” about 40 times in two and a half minutes and managed to make it work. The 17-minute-long EP In The Sky is the 19-year-old’s most recent collection of intensely touching and delightfully poppy tracks that explore difficult subjects usually associated with those in later stages of life: achieving real friendship, navigating your loved ones’ suffering, death, and self-aware self-medication. We are lucky to have her wisdom.

6. Tierra Whack — Whack World

Patty-cake, patty-cake; fuck Patty, Patty fake

7. Courtney Barnett — Tell Me How You Really Feel

Sometimes I get sad

It’s not all that bad

One day, maybe never, I’ll come around

8. The Carters — Everything Is Love

I’m good on any MLK Boulevard! (We good!)

9. A$AP Rocky — TESTING

If I’m in your top 10, mine’s better be the first name (“Distorted Records”)

I could give a fuck about a list, ya hearrrd? (“Tony Tone”)

10. Chvrches — Love Is Dead

You tell me that we’ll be all right, but I don’t know if you’re right

I can’t live forever with my head and my heart in the clouds

11. Juliet Quick — The Changeling EP

12. Gorillaz — The Now Now

13. Drake — Scorpion

14. King Princess — Make My Bed EP

15. MorMor — Heaven’s Only Wishful EP

16. Snail Mail — Lush

17. Jon Hopkins — Singularity

18. Florence + The Machine — High As Hope

19. Jorja Smith — Lost & Found

20. Half Waif — Lavender

Honorable Mention

Arctic Monkeys — Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Clairo — diary 001 EP

Let’s Eat Grandma — I’m All Ears

So Bad I Have To Say Something

Sting & Shaggy — 44/876

In its first moments, the title-track of Sting & Shaggy’s collaborative album, 44/876, sounds like it was supposed to be a Justin Bieber filler track. It’s really a testament to how much we all love Shaggy that it is still fun in those opening moments; he starts by making some classic Shaggy sounds and saying words like “ragamuffin” and “combination” to set the mood. Once he launches into the first verse, it becomes clear that this track is an ode to Jamaica. At that point you don’t yet know that in a matter of seconds Sting will appear and sing the following words, which were clearly written by the marketing intern for Jamaica Airways’ British tourism division:

I’m trying to free my mind, and live a life stress free

But the politics of this country are getting to me

I have a dream that I’m swimming in the Caribbean Sea

And then my good friend Shaggy says,

[Shaggy pops in with:] “Come spend time, family”

As if it could get worse, Sting then goes on to evoke Bob Marley for capitalism. I won’t quote it all, but I will say it includes the phrase “spiritual truth.” After track one, you expect the entire album to be propaganda for the Jamaican tourism industry. By track fifteen, you wish it were that focused on any one thing. There is no real message to the album, other than, “Look, Shaggy and Sting are weirdly friends! They made a bunch of songs together!”

Shaggy’s presence on this album is almost entirely non-offensive, except for one thing. Remember when you found out Shaggy is not the one who sings the chorus in “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me”? If you ever wondered why, you have your answer on “Got To Get Back My Baby,” because Shaggy sings real notes, and it sounds exactly like you think it would. What we really learn from this track, so long after the release of “Angel” in 2001, is how Shaggy chose to show the nation his appreciation: by inviting Rikrok and Rayvon to sing those choruses. On behalf of the nation, we are grateful.

A few other tracks do stand out, and it’s all because of Sting. For example, those Sting fans who have wished for the last two decades that he would return to the extraordinary level of public creepiness he achieved on “Every Breath You Take,” but prefer that kind of messaging in a pop reggae format, may enjoy “Don’t Make Me Wait,” which features the uncomfortably direct chorus that gives the song its name — “don’t make me wait to love you” — and verses which can be summarized as backpedaling (“no crime, nothin’ wrong with waiting just a little bit…”) that turns into guilt-tripping (“I’ve been searching for a while, girl, and I know what works for me”). Track six, which is called “Just One Lifetime,” is a reggae version of The Walrus and the Carpenter, notable for that fact that we get to hear String earnestly croon, “The time has come, as Shaggy said, to talk of many things;” meanwhile track ten, “To Love and Be Loved,” gives the listener an almost equally exciting opportunity to hear Sting echo the word “skankin’.” And finally, to repeat a joke I used in my last article, there is also a track name that doubles as my original two-word review of this album: “Sad Trombone.”

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Karl Snyder

Karl Snyder

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Music moves us through our lives in productive and spiritually significant ways. I write about that. More writing on The Wild Honey Pie, FRONTRUNNER, & Patreon.