By Spencer. The first couple months of 2016 were a little slow on breakout albums, and I’ve frankly been playing catch-up on a few things. However, as I think back over my listening habits so far this year, there are a handful of new releases I seem to keep coming back to. They’re growers—albums that may not grab you right away, but that reward repeated listens. And if past experience is any guide, these growers often end up being my favorite albums in the long run; past examples include Radiohead’s first three discs, Ryan Adams’s Gold, Travis’s The Man Who, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and pretty much the entire collected works of PJ Harvey. So while it may be too soon to put any of these new releases in that illustrious company, keep an ear out.
The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It: When Mark warned me about the new album from Manchester’s The 1975 by saying that “unless you loved Duran Duran and INXS, you’re not missing much,” I was both intrigued and worried. Because the thing is, I really do love Duran Duran and INXS—and yet I usually hate bands who try to sound like them. Now with a name like The 1975, you wouldn’t expect such an 80s fixation, but it was there in doses on their 2013 debut and it’s back again in spades here. But once you’re ready for that (and once you make it past the first two uninspiring tracks), the whole thing settles into a really nice groove. Highlights include “She’s American,” which is an early contender for catchiest pop song of the year. And yes, the subject matter too often veers toward the juvenile—for example, an instrumental track called “Please Be Naked,” or the not-quite-clever “Somebody Else,” which is about nothing more sophisticated than the worry of “picturing your body with somebody else.” But while a lot of it is fluff, the band does get into a more contemplative mood in the album’s second half; case in point, “Lostmyhead” delves into an almost shoegaze vibe with distorted guitars and cello. Sure, it’s not an album that will establish The 1975 as serious artists, but with the right expectations, it does cement them as one of Britpop’s more reliable sugary pleasures.
The 1975 – “She’s American”
Stephen Kellogg – South, West, North, East: Stephen Kellogg is one of those dumb luck releases I just stumbled across. He’s gotten little to no press, and despite recording with various bands since way back in 2004, not one of my music buff friends has ever heard of him. So consider this my effort to change that. South, West, North, East is a double-length collection of twenty songs split into four loosely-connected suites—one for each of the geographic regions he recorded them in. As a singer/songwriter, he draws comparisons to folkier acts like The Lumineers or Josh Ritter or Gregory Alan Isakov; which is to say that he has one foot firmly grounded in the world of Americana at all times. While there isn’t a song on this album that is particularly groundbreaking, the collection taken as a whole still feels larger, in part due to the concept but also because of the sprawling diversity of moods that Kellogg captures.
Stephen Kellogg – “We Say Goodbye”
Aoife O’Donovan – In The Magic Hour: With a name (it’s pronounced “Ee-Fa”) and a sound right out of Ireland, you might be surprised to learn that Aoife O’Donovan actually hails from just outside Boston. No matter, there was clear promise in her 2013 debut, Fossils, and that promise is being delivered on the new album, In The Magic Hour. The sound is not quite folk and not quite Adele-style pop, but somewhere in the sweet spot in-between—bouncy and energetic but never too cute. Her songs eschew straight verse-chorus-verse structures and take exciting and unpredictable melodic turns. We featured the title track on S&N Mix 21, and “Porch Light” is another bravely erratic piece of acoustic songcraft.
Aoife O’Donovan – “Porch Light”
Beacon – Escapements: I’m notoriously picky about electronic music. The arrangements are often lazy, leading to songs that go nowhere—just a beat and some sound effects droning on for an obligatory four or five minutes. Brooklyn’s Beacon dodges that trap by bringing a slight R&B flavor to the mix, courtesy of co-producer and vocalist Thomas Mullarney. On Escapements, their second full-length album, melody takes priority over beats, and in the album’s impressive second half, songs build into recognizable climaxes that are complex and catchy. In other words, they’re actual songs. Recalling the listenability of last year’s critically-acclaimed release by Jamie xx, Beacon makes music for night driving and deep thinking—hypnotic, trance-like, but never dull.
Beacon – “Escapements”
The London Suede – Night Thoughts: If it’s been a while since you visited with 90s Britpop pioneers The London Suede—or as they’re known in London, uh, Suede—it might be high time for you to reconnect. After a decade-long hiatus that was finally broken with a 2013 reunion, Night Thoughts is the second album of their modern period—and yet fans of their early music will be happy to hear that very little has changed. Vocalist Brett Anderson still does a solid David Bowie impression, and the moderate glam rock influences in the songwriting still back it up nicely. The sounds are still raw in attitude yet epic in scope, with the orchestra so commonplace at this point that it functions as a virtual sixth member of the band. And while Night Thoughts isn’t exactly a true rock opera, it definitely feels like one; the songs flow unbroken into one another, musical themes are revisited on multiple tracks, and the overall vibe is almost theatrical (though the band’s ambition is mostly constrained to the sound and not any concrete story or message). Think of it as art rock without the pretense. Which, come to think of it, might be the ideal description of a band perfectly positioned on the spectrum between Radiohead’s experimentalist bent and Oasis’s sneering sense of faux-rebellion.
The London Suede – “I Don’t Know How To Reach You”