The Strokes The New Abnormal is Perfect For Our New Normal

I am really enjoying The New Abnormal, the latest record by The Strokes. It’s funny, so many people have been quick to dismiss anything after the first two records, myself included, but as time has passed, I’m revisiting that stance. In 2020, are we looking for a Strokes record to really wow us? No. We’re just looking for a Strokes record.

I’m not trying to make some claim that the three records that came after Room On Fire are completely on par with those two – in some cases, far from it, but they truly haven’t made a *bad* album. They never became parodies of themselves, They just kind of were in the business of being a band on their own terms and really didn’t negotiate with what that meant, and a lot of fans didn’t really jive with that.

It’s a popular complaint that “Julian (Casablancas, singer) doesn’t care”, but i don’t know if I buy that. I just think the five members of the band that have been together for the past 22 years (I know!) just don’t make a bigger deal about what the group needs to be at this point. Also, at 40, does anyone have that laser focus and the exacting intensity like Casablancas reportedly did in the early days in his early twenties? I’d say not likely. Nor do I think they ever really cared about living up to the expectation of being the biggest band in the world. They chafed against it, more than anything.

Bands just last longer now, too. The Strokes never broke up. They never experienced a lineup change. They just kind of show up and go away fairly intermittently. It’s pretty common for many groups to knock out an entire career in a five or six year stretch. But groups now take better care of themselves, makeups and breakups are a little more fluid, and the start and stop of many groups hardly makes a wave anymore, unless you’re Oasis. Was I waiting for a new album by The Strokes? No. Am I happy to see one? Of course.

Nothing is going to replace the feeling of being 16 in the fall of 2001, in the wake of a major crisis and seeing the video for “Last Nite” on MTV. I went to buy the This Is It CD with the US-edition cover and being blown away by what I was hearing. I didn’t know 70’s-era NYC punk then, but I did think that these guys playing in lockstep with darting, angular guitars and a dude sounding like he was singing through an old landline was fucking awesome. That was then. The world is different. I’m different.

I think anyone trying to compare The New Abnormal to the first two Strokes records is looking for the nostalgia that they’ll never find. Nothing will make you feel like those two records did. They’re from a different time and world. With any band you love, I think you’d be hard pressed to truly any record from the present will make you feel the same way the first one you feel in love with.

The New Abnormal won’t make new fans, but it is a record that is a worthy chapter for longtime fans of The Strokes and very honestly, it’s fascinating chapter in the band’s long career. It’s moody, a little off kilter, and strangely irresistible. After several listens, it might be my third favorite of their albums after the first two. I can’t exactly pinpoint why I like it, but I like that it exists. It fits like a worn-in dress shoe. You probably could get a nicer, cleaner pair, but when they fit the purpose you need them for, why switch it up? You can count on them, and that’s all that matters.

The New Abnormal is out now on Cult and RCA Records.

Top Albums of the Decade 2010-2019

I’ve considering albums of the decade for a while now, and this where I’m at. I went through all of my lists for the last decade and pulled from that, plus how much I honestly listened to each of them for the past decade. Spotify playlist below.

I don’t know if this really merits full write-ups, but some short thoughts for the top 10:

I think I was fairly certain that even at the halfway mark in 2015, MBDTF was the one to beat. No one did.

The Monitor, despite the very up and down decade Titus had is still is their high water mark, despite what its creator has said.

Celebration Rock could be two, but I think had I switched those spots it might have been a contrarian pick where I had no argument.

High Violet is not only a great record, but had the best artwork.

Southeastern. Come on.

Robyn’s songs on this collection are modern classics.

Run the Jewels 2 is a record people are going to be catching up on years from now. Somehow both of it’s time and ahead of it’s time in 2014.

David Comes to Life brought Fucked Up to the next level. and some days I like Dose Your Dreams more. But ‘David’ means more.

In Colour is the sound of 2015 for me, the same way A Deeper Understanding was for 2017.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
3. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
4. The National – High Violet
5. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
6. Robyn – Body Talk
7. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
8. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
9. Jamie XX – In Colour
10. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
11. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
12. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost
13. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
14. Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
15. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY.
17. Telethon – The Grand Spontenaean
18. Deafheaven – Sunbather
19. John Moreland – In the Throes
20. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Favorite Albums of 2019

This year featured a lot of veteran artists pushing themselves outside of their boundaries to make records that in some cases, were career-bests. There was so much great music to sift through this year, almost any of these could be interchangeable on this list. A Spotify playlist with every album is at the bottom.

1. Sturgill Simpson – SOUND & FURY

Every record by Sturgill feels like a dare to his audience to follow him. Take the two albums that precede this one. The psych country of 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music evaporated in favor of 2016’s rock-soul hybrid A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. So, it’s no surprise that SOUND & FURY is a hard left turn. It’s a record full of scuzzy guitars and squelchy synths, each song crashes in to one another often without notice. Songs like the nervy, ass-shaking “A Good Look” slips right into the mechanical terror of “Make Art Not Friends”. Then you head into some seriously dystopian ZZ Top shit when you get to “Best Clockmaker on Mars”. That’s three of them in a row. The whole thing is a ride. Get on.

P.S. – Watch the accompanying anime film on Netflix if you want your brain bent just that much more.

2. Big Thief – Two Hands

What does it sound like when a band gets white-hot? Big Thief answered that twice over this year with two distinctly different records. Their first album of the year, May’s U.F.O.F. is full of dreamy, astral folk, including the instant classic “Cattails” and the album’s slippery title track. It’s a gorgeous collection that threatens to vanish in the ether, but always keeps its glow.

Surprisingly, the band released another, and ever better album in October. Two Hands feels firmly planted on the ground, the band playing both to and for each other. The killer “Forgotten Eyes” shuffles and stomps and lightly rocks, with Adrienne Lenker’s tense vocal lighting the way.

“Not” is simply one of the best songs of the year, and maybe the band’s best ever. Adrianne Lenker’s vocal performance on this song – a building, insistent vocal that eventually breaks briefly into a roar before the band kicks into a jam on a two minute long guitar solo that reaches out skyward. Briefly Crazy Horse in miniature, but then something totally of its own – breathing, vibrant, feral.

Two Hands and U.F.O.F. are staggering achievements – two career-defining albums, completely independent in their own sounds, released only months apart. Big Thief is a band that is operating at such a high level with impermeable intimacy that many bands work their whole careers for and may never find. How lucky we are to experience their band in this moment in time.

3. Bon Iver – i, i

Justin Vernon’s most famous project has had quite a decade putting together a gorgeous collection of records each representing a different season. First came his spring record – the soft rock thaw of Bon Iver, Bon Iver in 2011, then a five years wait before releasing the glitched out the digital ash of 22, A Million, a record he refers to as “our crazy energy summer record”.

This year, Bon Iver released the ‘autumn record’ in the cycle – i,i, – one that is both one of the brightest and best collections of songs he’s ever done. It’s difficult to describe a record so rooted in feeling – but when you hear things like the persistent digital heartbeat that connects the synths, orchestral swells and Vernon’s falsetto on “Hey, Ma” – you’ll then know the pure privilege of experiencing the alchemy of seemingly disparate sounds. Every listen unfolds some new element that doesn’t feel like it was there before.

4. The Hold Steady – Thrashing Thru The Passion

Brevity is important with this one – simply it’s a return to form. There was a time that another record with this band was not guaranteed, much less one with the six piece lineup. Thrashing is a joyous record that is full of human disasters, big riffs and life lessons. It’s the sound of a group having fun again, and after 17 years, that’s all you can ask for.

5. The National – I Am Easy To Find

Up until this year, The National had kind of been coasting on the dense, occasionally gorgeous sound they’d perfected with 2010’s High Violet. While subsequent records had plenty of bright spots, the returns diminished. They began to sound too tightly managed by their creators. The band could have made the same brand of moody, broody “The National ™” albums over and over again, but with I Am Easy to Find, they blew it all up to start over again.

It’s a record heavy on female vocalists – Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey. It leaves singer Matt Berninger a featured guest on his own band’s songs to thrilling effect.

With a runtime over an hour, it’s the band’s longest record, but it also has some of their highest highs – the gorgeous “Quiet Light”, the four-way vocal treat on the delicate “Hairpin Turns”. Then, of course, there’s the real treat for longtime fans of the band, “Rylan”, a song they’ve played live for almost a decade before it finally found a home on their last album of the ’10s. Just when you thought you had the answers with The National, they change the questions.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

Grief is both impossible to quantify or adequately express. Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur died in 2015 when he fell from a cliff near the family’s home. Recording was underway for his 2016 album, Skeleton Tree at this time, an album not so much about the tragedy but still informed by it. It’s a staggering portrait of a man trying to come to terms with something that happened recently. It’s follow up, Ghosteen, examines that grief in greater detail. It’s a disservice to try to talk about any of these songs individually. Take time with it like you would if you were listening to anyone who has had to endure something unimaginable. It is a record of incredible beauty and intense sadness.

7. Oso Oso – Basking in the Glow

Leave it to Oso Oso to fill The Hotelier-sized hole in the hearts of emo fans. Somewhere in the past few years, emo has felt less-like a catch-all genre name/light insult to describe a full-hearted strain of indie rock and instead now is a bit of a badge of honor to describe lyrically intense, musically complex songs by quiet guys.

Basking in the Glow sounds like a record I may have loved somewhere in late 2004 early 2005, with none of the confusion or angst beset by band of the era. By nature Jade Lilitri’s songs feel a little more reflective and lighter on their feet. “The View” with that incredible hook – “My eyes lit up when I saw it/The view from where you sit/and apathy, I was in love with it” and the fluorescent brilliance of “A Morning Song” – “Living on my knees/Praying my sins crash into me/And now back up on my feet
I was so lost and alone/I was so far out and it shows”
. Basking in the Glow is a big, bright record that has just the right amount of introspection in a genre that could always use more of it.

8. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

Sharon Van Etten spent most of the early 10’s making enduring records like 2012’s Tramp and 2014’s classic Are We There. Then she took a break. In that time she had a child and planned a move from New York to Los Angeles. At the top of this year came her first record in five years, Remind Me Tomorrow -new songs that disassemble her guitar based singer-songwriter confessionals and reconstitute them in exhilarating ways.

The aptly named “Comeback Kid” is a fist pumping miasma of dry drum hits and thick organ while “Jupiter 4” is a theremin backed dystopian love song. Moments like this are plenty on Remind Me Tomorrow, but the album’s true gem is “Seventeen”.

In the song, 30-something Van Etten talks to her younger self about her time in New York City. “Sure of what I’ve lived and have known/I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown”. It hits right home for someone who spent the early years of this decade with those same romantic ideas of New York and survived to tell the tale about it in their 30’s.

9. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

After 2013’s staggering Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend parted ways with multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij. With losing a key element and member of their sound, it’d be easy to assume that may have been it for the group. Instead, they took some extra time and released the double album Father of the Bride in May. It’s a kaleidoscope of many styles – rock, folk, jazz, psych and soul – there’s also elements from jam bands and samples of ambient Japanese tracks. With almost a dozen collaborators and disparate sounds across the album’s 18 tracks, it’s be reasonable to think that a record this big with this many cooks in the kitchen would be a mess. Listen to “Harmony Hall” then “Sympathy”, then “Stranger” – all different, but all unmistakably Vampire Weekend.

10. Spielbergs – This Is Not The End

The Norwegian trio seemingly came out of nowhere – and have seemingly stayed there. This Is Not The End is a collection of crunchy punk/atmospheric power pop that that’s irresistible on the first listen and every subsequent one. Just play it.

11. Telethon – Hard Pop
12. Garcia Peoples – Natural Facts
13. Craig Finn – I Need A New War
14. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
15. Pkew Pkew Pkew – Optimal Lifestyles
16. PUP – Morbid Stuff
17. Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
18. Jeff Tweedy – Warmer
19. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
20. The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons

Strand of Oaks Eraserland is an Essential Visit

Strand of Oaks – Eraserland

Let’s get it out of the way: Eraserland is a career-defining record from Strand of Oaks. That’s saying a lot, as the project from Tim Showalter is punctuated by plenty of highs and lows. He’s an underrated songwriter that exists in starts and stops. For every HEAL, his breakthrough 2014 record, there are records like 2017’s Hard Love, which was not as warmly received. After thinking that Strand of Oaks was done after jettisoning his former backing band, he teamed up with members of My Morning Jacket for this, his sixth record.

Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t Strand of Oaks fronting My Morning Jacket. It’s a statement that’s far more consequential. The album opens with “Weird Ways,” where a dejected Showalter sings “I can’t feel it anymore/somehow I feel clearer than before”. He sounds dejected, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar as a slide guitar begins to accent his vocal. As the song nears its chorus, it begins to sweep, and at 1:30, a thunderous electric riff and drumbeat. It’s an incredible statement, invigorating life in to a group and proving that this is very different iteration of the band.

This continues with “Hyperspace Blues”. It is an apt title, as it feels like you’re zooming forward with Showalter in the Millenium Falcon. The guitars sound like the future, scribbling, squalling and fuzzing. Both ballad “Keys” and “Wild and Willing” sound like the most traditionally-sounding SOA song on the record, but it’s still a nice departure from the electric jolts of the first few tracks.

“Moon Landing” feels anxious. It’s full of squelching guitars (provided by Jason Isbell, sounding nothing like you’d expect from him) and humid rock organ. This fits completely in line with the lyrics, where Showalter ruminates on the death of Malcolm Young, the downside of being a professional musician when you’ve got a family, and Chris Cornell. There’s a lot going on here, but the last verse is both a little sad and a little true: “Cornell was born on the 20th of July/Same day I was born back in ’82/Same day Neil Armstrong took Buzz’s spot on the moon/Sometimes you get there first”.

The album’s title track feels positively huge – huge walls of synthesizer and monolithic guitars, it feels like you could live there. It sounds like Showalter wants to. He addresses someone named Mary who has been gone for some time, singing about wanting to “build a house where no one lives/get away from my phone and drugs/just my wife and people I love”. It sounds part fantasy and part hope. Then, moments later: “I am the Eraserland/I can start again“. Then it just feels like confidence. That’s real. It’s album of authentic, brutal moments and crafted by a band that can support the weight of Showalter’s conviction of a songwriter. Here’s hoping we make another few trips to Eraserland with this version of Strand of Oaks, because it seems like the right place to be.

Eraserland is out now on Dead Oceans.

On Nearer My God, Foxing Craft an Instant Classic

I’ve been struggling to write about this album since I first heard it a few months ago, and it’s mostly because I’m overwhelmed by every listen of Nearer My God. It’s an album title that smacks with the air of supreme confidence and ambition, one that too many bands fail to live up to. Foxing are not one of them, I am happy to say. It’s one of those super-rare occasions where a band somehow hits their stride as artists and hits a creative peak.

For their third record, Foxing paired with former Death Cab for Cutie member/producer Chris Walla. It’s abundantly clear that his steady hand has guided the group in a way they haven’t even bothered to attempt on record before.  Songs like the opener “Grand Paradise” with its blippy churn and the horn swells of the single “Slapstick” really are just setting up for sonics that are weirder and more ambitious. “Lich Prince” sort of feels like a woozy 2011 Drake ballad before it opens up to a gasping, monolithic rock song. Have the lyrics “I feel like a houseplant” ever been used before? Have they ever given way to a cataclysmic world-burning guitar solo? Has that ever seagued into falsetto harmonizations all in the course of a minute? Of course not. That’s what makes it so awesome.

The album’s title track “Nearer My God” has already made waves as the band released it in five different languages total – Spanish, French, German and Japanese. It’s a soaring, chugging power ballad, perhaps the most traditional thing on the record. Once you hear it, you can almost understand the universality of that melody and how it would translate into other languages. “Heartbeats” doesn’t sound like a rock band at all – soundscapes tempered with program drum hits and orchestral samples that sound super familiar but transformed into something that feels entirely fresh. Also, go listen to all nine minutes of “Nine Cups” and try to figure out what it is. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot longer than I’ve already spent with it.

Nearer My God packs so much detail per song it’s impossible to quantify the breadth of what an accomplishment it is. Make no mistake Foxing have made an instant classic. It’s a template for going forward and a record we’ll look to as ‘emo’ (or whatever this is) makes the great leap forward. Very rare does an album come along that perfectly captures what it’s like to push the boundaries of an established sound and do it so brazenly and make it sound so organic. What a gift that is. 

On Lessons, The Sharp Shadows Show Off Some New Skills

On Lessons, The Sharp Shadows sophomore album, it’s clear the band has learned something after 2016’s Small Victories. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston power-pop trio led by Stephen Bailey has returned with a collection of songs that feel a little more lived in then its predecessor. “Believe In Yourself (But Don’t Take On The World Alone)” feels a little Nick Lowe and a little Ted Leo, while “Don’t Say You’re Sorry to Me” feels straight out of a 50’s sock hop. (That’s a good thing.) The album’s first single, “Push Push Push” is unlike anything Sharp Shadows have done before – a nervy, shifting punk track where Bailey duets with Michelle Hutt of The Royal They. It’s barely over two minutes long and infectiously catchy – Sharp Shadows execute a perfect song in half the time it takes other bands.

With Lessons, it’s abundantly clear that Sharp Shadows have mastered their craft of big guitars and even bigger hooks. Bailey is no question a student of the power pop game – there’s a little Graham Parker, a little Big Star and plenty of confidence here. If there’s something to learn after this album is over is that Sharp Shadows are continuing  to evolving in their quest to create the perfect pop song. They’re pretty darn close as it stands.