aural wes looks back at some of our fav albums of this past summer. whether you were hitting the pool every day, hitting the juul every day, or stuck at a boring white-collar internship, these are the records that were in heavy rotation for us this summer.
Sleater-Kinney - The Center Won’t Hold
Like most trends from the 90s and early 2000s, Sleater-Kinney is back. The indie rock outfit recently released their final LP with drummer Janet Weiss, The Center Won’t Hold, tapping into the production talents of Annie Clark (St. Vincent!!!) for a fresh, millennial twist. St. Vincent’s influence peppers itself throughout the album, especially in tracks like “RUINS,” which rely on heavy synths and an electric rumble that’s just as at home on a Billie Eilish song as on a 90s rock staple. At five minutes long, the track is significantly longer than your average punk song, giving the production more room to travel and experiment. Meanwhile, the two-minute follow-up, “LOVE,” is a refreshing and energetic return-to-form, more hopeful than its predecessors. The track revels in the ecstatic possibilities of punk rather than just its moodier side. Whether Sleater-Kinney continues without Weiss or not, the band’s mark on rock music will go down in history even as it forges into the present. As the group said it themselves, “The future is here, and we can’t go back.”
Black midi - Schlagenheim
There’s something very eerie about black midi. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re essentially my age, and listening to their brilliant art punk freakout Schlagenheim leaves me worrying about how little I’ve done in my life so far. Or maybe what’s eerie is their shamanistic ability to embody seemingly anything from the last 40 years of music at random while still sounding uniquely like themselves. At one moment they have angular instrumentation straight out of the Steve Albini playbook circa ‘94, before careening into a drum break that sounds ripped from a Larry Levan disco mix, as the singer howls like David Byrne covering Korn. Yet, by the end of the 43 minutes, this all inexplicably fits into a single artistic vision. But maybe what really startles me about black midi is their stunning effectiveness. Every song is a little ball of incredibly tense energy, and that tension is always released in the most cathartic and brutally effective fashion by the song’s end, whether that release is in the form of a breakneck hardcore punk finish (953), a maniacal noise rock beat down (bmbmbm), or just a wall of noise (Ducter). This is freaky adrenaline music with nothing extra around the edges. An album this bizarre, yet economically flawless, is a wonderfully eerie listen indeed.
Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking rockwell
It’s Norman f*****g Rockwell!
Lana Del Rey— an undeniable influence on Wesleyan’s campus, be it through ‘ironic’ use of her Americana aesthetic or the proliferation of baby voice— released her fifth major studio album on August 30th, a bittersweet summer goodbye. The album runs over an hour, and strays from her typical affected symphonic pop songs into the more nebulous “singer-songwriter” territory that music critics generally consider more “respectable.”
Consequently, this seems to be Del Rey’s most acclaimed album yet, and it's hard to tell if this represents a real maturity of Del Rey's artistry, or a long-delayed apology on behalf of the biased chorus of music critics that often describe her as inauthentic and trite. I tend to think the latter because, yes, NFR is a great album, but not Lana’s best. It lacks the precision of Ultraviolence and the artfulness of (the criminally-underrated) Honeymoon. Perhaps NFR’s somewhat self-indulgent craft (“Love Song” and “Cinnamon Girl” for example, are two alike and superfluous songs in the middle of the album that seem to be there for no one but Del Rey herself) relays a confidence that proves Del Rey an enduring force in the music industry, an attractive energy to the veiled machismo of outlets like Pitchfork and Vice.
NFR offers more than a few stellar tracks: “Doin’ Time,” the Sublime cover for a generation born after the fact, is definitely a standout on the record. It manages to be bright and poppy, yet still mysterious and sultry in a signature Del Rey Manner. “Venice Bitch,” a beautifully layered psychedelic track further proves Lana’s legend status — what other pop artist could release a single pushing 10 minutes and be met with anything other than disdain? Even the painfully meta “The Next Best American Record,” makes for a successful and confident ballad.
NFR is a pleasant, solid, if somewhat expected and excessive Lana Del Rey album. Old fans will love more familiar songs to add to the pop princess’s canon, and her increasingly ballad-forward format could easily draw in new fans influenced by a more traditional acoustic singer-songwriter style.
Jai Paul - Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)
We should begin by clarifying that we know it’s not 2013. If you’re mad that we’re reviewing this album as a summer 2019 album, that’s a you problem. This shouldn’t make you that mad. We’re also not going to waste much time talking about the history of this album. He was here; he was gone; now he’s here. That’s all that matters. For more context than we’re about to give, look elsewhere.
Technically, this album isn’t an album. It’s the official release of a leaked album from 2013. However, had no one told me that, I might never have known. Every track on Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) feels more fresh and relevant today than most songs made contemporaneously. Its influence on the modern pop sound cannot be understated. His music has been sampled by pop titans like Drake, Beyonce, and most importantly - G-Eazy. But more than that, his distinct sound - a lush and chaotically harmonious mixture of Prince, Diplo, D’Angelo, and J Dilla - has undoubtedly influenced some of our favorite artists today. The music of Mura Masa, Tame Impala, Toro y Moi, SOPHIE, Charlie XCX and more all bear Jai Paul’s distinct musical fingerprint.
Basically, this album is incredible. Songs like “Str8 Outta Mumbai” and “All Night” stick out to us as, truthfully, some of the best songs released in the last decade. The singles, “BTSTU” and “Jasmine,” still hit as hard as they did the day they came out, no matter the dozens of times we’ve listened to them since then. This album is glitchy, synth-filled, and tantric. This album is something that I can put on at any moment and become immediately engrossed. This feels like pop regeneration done perfectly.
-Manny Unger + Sam Kurlender
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Bandana
The latest project to emerge from the genius duo of MC Freddie Gibbs and beat-maker Madlib— affectionately referred to as MadGibbs— definitely carried with it a fair amount of hype. Coming off one of the most phenomenal hip-hop projects in recent memory, 2014’s Piñata, the duo continues to impress in many respects on Bandana.
With one finger on the pulse of hip-hop, and another finger on a GarageBand drum machine, Madlib continually reminds the world of his versatility and inventiveness, matched only by the late great Dilla. Madlib recognizes that beat-switches are all the rage now so he throws in some phenomenal ones on standout tracks like “Half Manne” and “Flat Tummy Tea.” His sample material on this record ranges from his bread-and-butter ‘70s soul, to Bollywood filmi songs on a few tracks, to old-school reggae and dancehall, all seamlessly strung together by the driving hi-hat sound that he’s perfected over the years.
The duo is more discerning with their choice in features this time around and it pays off. Each of the five feature spots seems perfect for the subject matter and the beat type. Somehow I’m not even mad they had Killer Mike on a track where he doesn’t rap. When Madlib goes minimal on the beat choices, e.g., on “Fake Names," you can spot that Gibbs is not one of the best MCs out there. But no one can deny that Madlib often brings out the best in Gibbs, whether that be his braggadocious storytelling, his quips, or his head-scratching hot takes.
Similar to how Run the Jewels infuse their already-masterful tracklists with a lighthearted spirit, MadGibbs makes it a point to never take themselves too seriously. Skits on rap albums often seem ill-advised but the comedy samples, Japanese text-to-speech, and Freddie's spur-of-the moment studio dialogue genuinely contribute to Bandana’s victory-lap mood. By the time you get to the soaring heights of “Cataracts,” you already have the feeling that this duo deserve to be immortalized for their contributions to the rap game. Prayers up for MadGibbs part 3 🙏🙏🙏
Mannequin Pussy - Patience
Patience, the third record from Philly-based alternative punk rock band Mannequin Pussy dives into the idea of the physical body and the related emotional connections. The contrast between melodic lyrics and heavy guitar and drums makes Mannequin Pussy’s music unique and enjoyable. The new album especially focuses on vulnerability and openness. Patience shows a step in a slightly new direction for the band, one that I personally love! The band showcases their lyrics more and the overall sound is smoother.
My personal favorite off the album is “High Horse.” Not only does the music itself stick out (the softer intro leading into the heavy, raw rhythm section is different from a lot of the other songs on the album), but the lyrics are powerful. Sharing stories of toxic relationships, getting out of them, and confirming that you are important, “High Horse” is one I think most listeners can find really resonates with them. A close second favorite off Patience is Drunk II! Overall, I think the album is awesome and shows both the band’s new direction and maturity. Fun fact: they’re playing in Hamden, CT on December 5th!
Clairo - Immunity
After a handful of singles and a mini-album, Clairo became well-known on the indie scene. While some of that fame might be attributed to her father’s connections, she was still unmistakably an important player on the bedroom pop floor. With the release of her second album, some had very high expectations and some continued to love to hate her. Personally, I never had any strong opinions on Clairo. Her breakout “Pretty Girl” made me reasonably happy and the somewhat fabricated interviews were also a source of joy.
Fine, I’ll talk about the actual album. Honestly, it was good, a solid 4/5. Yes, a few songs were misses, look at “Alewife” and “Close To You” for reference, yet there were a number of bops. Yes, the indie boy sold out and now thinks Clairo has a few bops. “Sofia,” “Softly,” and “Bags” are songs I listen to on the reg. Obviously, they will not be nearly as successful as “Flaming Hot Cheetos” or “4EVER,” but they’re solid songs. What this album gains in polish, it loses in “lo-fi.” That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: she sounds a lot more professional and kind of grown-up. Pretty Girl was cute but a full album of that would be below-average (even diary 001 sounded reasonably “hi-fi”). You can now put one of her songs next to Halsey or Billie omfg Eilish, and it will fit in. Even though you can hear the studio cleanliness, Clairo doesn’t shy away from careful distortion that adds much-needed intensity. In the end, this is a solid album.
Tyler Childers - Country Squire
On Tyler Childers’ newest album Country Squire, he grapples with his new life on the road, but manages to hold on to his Appalachian roots. After the release of Purgatory in 2017, Childers took his incredibly unique blend of bluegrass, folk, and country on tour, and in Country Squire, we hear about the upsides and pitfalls of this experience. “Ever Lovin’ Hand” is a comic number about Childers’s long-distance relationship with his wife, while “Creeker” is a reflection on his unexpected pain upon finally leaving Kentucky. The album isn’t solely about touring, however, as Childers continues to weave tales of Appalachia throughout his music. “Peace of Mind” is an especially poignant look at a family struggling against poverty, a song that Childers says is a fictional reflection on the kinds of people he knew during his childhood in rural Kentucky.
Though his loyal fans worried that his newfound success would uproot his Appalachia-based sound, Childers was able to expand his songwriting to accommodate his new experiences and tie them in with his old.
Taylor Swift - Lover
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a massive Taylor Swift fan. And I'm not ashamed. I'm not just a 19-year-old who was a Taylor Swift fan at 9, but I'm a 19 year old Taylor Swift fan. I'm in it for the long haul.
That being said, I thought the singles off of Lover that came out starting on April 26, 2019 were godawful. The first three singles - “Me,” “You Need to Calm Down,” and “The Archer” - just felt disingenuous. Then the song "Lover" came out a week before the album drop, and I was relieved. This song is simple, slightly country, and so painfully romantic - it's probably the most Taylor Swift song I've ever heard. With this song I felt she was finally being herself: "swear to be overdramatic AND TRUE to my lover!" But what's the deal with the previous 3 singles?
Lover the album is actually good, despite 75% of the singles being trash. Hearing all 18 (the most songs she's ever put on an album) songs together gives purpose to those 3 outsiders - they're about love for the self, love for the same sex, and love for the fight. This album does not disappoint a true Taylor fan - "Cruel Summer" really just rips at the heart, the bridge of "I Think He Knows" feels like the adrenaline right before you jump in, "Paper Rings" and "London Boy" are just incredibly fun. "Cornelia Street" and "False God" are reflective, "Afterglow" is a raw apology to a partner; she even has "The Man", a song about the patriarchy where she really goes off in a way we've never seen her do before. And then there's "Soon You'll Get Better": the song about her mother's relapse of cancer. It's such a well-rounded album; it celebrates romance, but also acceptance, nostalgia, heartbreak, devastation, friendship (all other aspects of love). She's also taking some risks instrumentally here; this album is much more complex sonically than her past albums. I'd have to say my favorite is "Death by a Thousand Cuts" - I think it's her best written song on the album (lyrically), and I love that she goes to that dark place of the end of a relationship (even though she's currently in a happy thriving one!)
There are songs I don't like on Lover - I still always skip "ME!", and I don't love the opening track "I Forgot That You Existed" - but I do love this album because it really feels like Taylor living as her most authentic self. Is she stuck at the emotional maturity level of a 15 year old (she says on "The Archer": "I never grew up, it's getting so old")? Is she jumping on the politically outspoken train too late in the game? Is she not the strongest singer? The answers to these questions may be yes, but there's still a big place in my heart for her, and this album satisfies me. I'm just happy she's happy, you know?
Frankie Cosmos - Close It Quietly
Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh. Released on September 6th, Close it Quietly is New York native Greta Kline’s fourth studio album under the moniker of Frankie Cosmos. Behind Greta’s distinct vocals and signature introspective and autobiographical songwriting, longtime bandmates Lauren Martin (synth), Luke Pyenson (drums), and Alex Bailey (bass) write and play with a new kind of confidence that can only come from years of working together, allowing the band to expand upon the Frankie Cosmos universe in a familiar yet refreshing way.
Close it Quietly marks Greta’s entrance into her mid twenties. Over the rock-steady march of “So Blue,” the album’s fourth track, she sings “I am everyone you’ll never meet, I am every book you’ll never read, I am the picture that didn’t come out, I am the story stuck inside of your mouth.” This ironic ode to ambiguity paints a picture of a person that doesn’t quite match up to their own expectations. It’s not an identity crisis; it’s a sort of identity anxiety. It actually lends itself well to the college experience.
It might be an understatement to call Close it Quietly an absolute banger, but I’m going to do it anyway. If you haven’t given it a listen, please do. Let this anti-folk masterpiece hug you like a warm blanket and tell you that everything is going to be okay.
Steve lacy - Apollo XXI
Steve Lacy’s 1st album showcases his ability to masterfully transcend and blend different genres while tackling introspective lyrics about personal identity. Steve Lacy’s Demo introduced us to what Lacy could do as a musician; however, because of its brevity (only 13 mins long) it left us wanting more. Luckily, Lacy’s new album fulfills this desire of seeing his creativity blossom. “Like Me,” one of the standout tracks, was recorded a few years ago, just after a period where Lacy felt particularly fearful of expressing his sexuality. The track dives deep into Lacy’s thoughts. “How many out there just like me?” is a repeated line throughout the song, as he is expressing his plea for acceptance. Additionally, the track consists of four tonally different parts ranging from a catchy, chorus-driven segment to a sequence centered on a glockenspiel, showing off Lacy’s skills in composition. Other tracks on the album such as “Guide” and “Playground” have the energy comparable to Dirty Mind, the legendary album by Prince. At the same time, tracks such as “N Side” And “Lay Me Down” have big drum backings and exude sex. Apollo XXI, though not as cohesive as his EP, is a definitive statement of Steve Lacy’s compelling strengths as a musician.
Chance the Rapper - The Big Day
“J. Cole went platinum with no features.” It’s been serious, but more so, it’s been a meme (and a dead meme, for that matter). It’s a phrase I doubt anybody ever cares to hear again. I don’t think it means anything anymore.
It’s time for Chance the Rapper to go platinum with no features.
Listening to The Big Day, I get the sense I’m not listening to a Chance album, but rather a compilation album on which he is the unifying thread. There are simply too many features for Bennet’s unique voice to come through. Within the first two songs, this dynamic emerges - “All Day Long” is as much John Legend’s as it is Chance’s, and all that remains with me of “Do You Remember” is Benjamin Gibbard’s clichéd question - “Do you remember how when you were younger/The summers all lasted forever?”
Notably, we don’t learn much of anything about Chance’s bride (Kirsten Corley), aside from Chance believing she is very attractive when pregnant. We don’t learn much of anything we didn’t already know about Chance, except perhaps on the introspective “Sun Come Down,” towards the end of the 77-minute album. Chance raps “Please don't let my death be about my death/Please don't make no movies about my death/Please make my death about my life,” a lovely sentiment. The track is the highpoint of the album, simply Chance talking about his feelings. When Chance goes solo on “Sun Come Down,” for the first time after 17 songs, he sounds like the Chance we fell in love with.
That is not to say the tracks utilizing collaborations are bereft of merit. “Slide Around” is home to a terrifically fun verse from Nicki Minaj, and the Megan Thee Stallion featuring “Handsome” is the low-key banger the aforementioned “Hot Shower” tries to be but isn’t. Any rapper giving us a Randy Newman outro as Chance does on “5 Year Plan” has scored points for boldness in my book, and I’m always excited to hear both Bennet brothers collaborate, as they do on “Roo.”
The Big Day is a lovely idea - a hip hop album about love, marriage, and happiness. But if Chance aimed to make an album predicated on how he was feeling on his wedding day, I’m unsure why he chose to ask so many artists to help him relay that vision. Chance is so adept at conveying his feelings, he doesn’t need the crutch of features. I hope he continues to make music this happy - I hope he continues to be this happy. I just hope he makes his music alone.