It's another one of those weeks where so many good albums came out that it was tough to narrow it down to five. My picks include two beloved, prolific artists who are still finding ways to push their careers forward, a promising newcomer, and long(ish) awaited returns from two underrated artists. One honorable mention this week is the debut album by Super Unison, the new Deathwish-signed hardcore band from former Punch singer Meghan O’Neil and former Snowing drummer Justin Renninger. Don't let that one slip under your radar.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Conor Oberst must have been hit with a huge creative burst recently, 'cause these last couple years he's been making some of the best music of his career. Last year his reunited punk band Desaparecidos released Payola, Conor's best album in a decade (his best since Bright Eyes' 2005 LP I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning), and this new solo LP Ruminations is on that same level. It's virtually the opposite album sonically though; it's his quietest, most bare-bones release in a very long time. For some people, this is exactly the Conor Oberst they fell in love with. This is the Conor who wrote songs like "A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, And a Necklace" and "Amy in the White Coat." Still, Ruminations may be quiet like those early Bright Eyes songs, but it doesn't quite sound like them. Conor's one of the guys who got hit with the "Next Bob Dylan" title, but he's never sounded as much as like Dylan as he does on Ruminations (there's some Harvest-era Neil Young on here too). His early acoustic songs had a similar dark drama to the emo boom going on at the time, but this new album has the rustic folk and unpolished harmonica playing of Freewheelin'.
It's also the first full-length album he recorded entirely on his own since the pre-Bright Eyes days. Every sound you hear on this album is either Conor's voice, his guitar, his piano, or his harmonica, and the sparse background really puts the lyrics in the spotlight. Sounding in some ways like the sequel to "Lua," Conor gets gentle and romantic on "Counting Sheep" when he whispers "Don't wanna seem needy to anyone... including you" before an instrumental break of folk-blues riffing, but there's a darker side too. The same song opens with "Closing my eyes, counting the sheep, gun in my mouth, trying to sleep / Everything ends, everything has to." It's far from the only time Conor alludes to death on this album. On "A Little Uncanny," he rattles off dead celebrities he misses. The next time he namedrops famous people, he looks more inward: "I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith / It didn't make me feel different," Conor sings on "Next of Kin." "I guess I lost all my innocence way too long ago." A new album it pairs well with is the recent Okkervil River album, another somber collection of loss-of-innocence songs by a once-unhinged songwriter.
Conor may have learned to tame his voice over the years, and he may have learned to work with huge bands that incorporate pedal steel, fiddles, horns, synths, and more, but this is a guy who has stolen hearts with songs that went straight from his brain to a four-track tape recorder in his basement. Ruminations -- which Conor says was started and finished in a mere 48 hours -- manages to have both the charm of those early recordings and the wisdom of his more recent ones.
It's an interesting coincidence that the new Jeff Rosenstock album comes out the same day as the new Conor Oberst album. Both are guys in their mid 30s with strongly dedicated fans who still obsesses over the music they made as teenagers, and both are still making new music that speaks to new fans. When Desaparecidos played with Joyce Manor and Touche Amore last year, there were probably kids in the audience who weren't born when the first Bright Eyes album came out. Likewise, Jeff has become a peer of youth-loved bands like PUP and Modern Baseball, whose fans may have no clue about Arrogant Sons of Bitches. The current phase of Jeff's career started with last year's great We Cool?, a batch of indie-punk songs that went over just fine with his pre-existing fans and won over a lot of people who never really connected to ASOB or Bomb the Music Industry.
WORRY. picks up right where We Cool? left off, but it also goes in about a thousand different directions. It's 17 songs in 38 minutes (a bunch are under two minutes and a couple are like thirty seconds), and it reaches Beatles White Album levels of diversity. Part of the reason that comparison comes to mind is that "Staring Out The Window At Your Old Apartment" sounds like a basement punk band's best attempt at writing a late-'60s Beatles song. "Wave Goodnight To Me" is as good an indie-punk banger as PUP or Modern Baseball or Joyce Manor have released this year. "Planet Luxury" is straight-up hardcore, and "Rainbow" embraces the deeply uncool genre that Jeff played for many years: ska-punk. It's not so often anymore that I hear ska-punk songs that resonate with me, but "Rainbow" is a really good ska-punk song. It's a fun thing to get one of those in 2016. The album has acoustic songs, piano ballads, electronic pop, and still more, and it always comes back to the kind of raw, anthemic punk that Jeff has been most known for lately. It has the confidence to be quirky and all over the place, and the knowledge to know when it's time to tighten things up. Surely Jeff's two decades of experience come in handy, but WORRY. -- like We Cool? -- truly sounds like a new beginning.
Male Bonding were one of the bands -- along with Wavves, Best Coast and Cloud Nothings-- picking up buzz at the turn of the decade for a sound that put a fashionable lo-fi twist on blink-182's '90s material. If you're somehow still in denial that Male Bonding sounded like blink-182, listen to about three seconds of "Tame The Sun" off 2011's Sub Pop-released Endless Now and then listen to literally any song on Dude Ranch or Cheshire Cat. Those three aforementioned bands went on to abandon lo-fi and make real-deal rock records that weren't as self-conscious about their influences (Wavves in particular sound like an actual pop punk band now), but Male Bonding disappeared. (You could also sorta put Japandroids and Cymbals Eat Guitars in this group.) Five years later, Male Bonding are finally back with a self-released, surprise-dropped third album, and it was worth the wait.
Male Bonding haven't gotten as polished as some of their peers, but they're not making scrappy lo-fi anymore either. The vocals are way more in the forefront (and they sing a lot better than they used to), and these songs are darker and heavier. Like Cloud Nothings did on Attack on Memory, Male Bonding are fully embracing the punk side of grunge (Kurt Cobain is probably an influence and Eddie Vedder is probably not). They're also mixing grunge with shoegaze in a way that's closer to Siamese Dream or Hum or Title Fight than to their earlier, reverb-coated material. The chorus of "What's Wrong?" is really the only time you'd call the album "pop punk," and even that chorus is punctuated with Dischord-style shouts. The most obvious Cobain homage is "Not As Planned," with a riff that's right out of Kurt's songbook, but instead of angsty screams, Male Bonding give this one a sneering psychedelic twist that's more like Ty Segall or Thee Oh Sees. Male Bonding's buzz-band era may be over, but their era as a powerful punk band begins with Headache.
New York trio Crying debuted with a couple chiptune EPs, drummer Nick Corbo also plays bass and sings in '90s indie rock devotees LVL UP, and singer Elaiza Santos also makes stripped-down bedroom folk as 100% and Whatever, Dad. So, up until this point, Crying may have had a diverse résumé, but they never exactly had an inventive one. With Beyond the Fleeting Gales, their first full length, that all changes. Guitarist Ryan Galloway stopped making literal video game sounds on his Gameboy, and instead he's slashing away at the kind of power chord riffs that are meant to fill arenas (he sort of finds the middle ground between Motley Crue and New Found Glory), or he's delivering synth lines that sound like Rush's "Spirit of the Radio" one minute and Van Halen's "Jump" the next. But Crying never actually sound like an arena band. Elaiza is as resistant to sing for the people in the nosebleeds here as she is in her solo projects, and it works to Crying's advantage. I once compared Crying to Mew, and that band's knack for mixing an indie rock approach with prog's ambition is all over this album. On that note, they say when you're a rock band -- especially a complex one like Crying -- you're only as good as your drummer, and Nick Corbo is a beast behind the kit.
Again, a lot of Crying's influences are 30-35 years old, but this album is very 2016. If i had to compare it to another band with a new album out this year, it'd be Kvelertak. That band may harshly scream and Crying may gently sing, but otherwise, both bands manage to distill the prog, the pop, and the metal of the early-mid '80s and reshape it in a way where it always feels like something new.
In 2012, Luke Roberts released the severely underrated The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport, an album that anyone who likes '60s/'70s folk would dig. Luke did catch the ear of one particular folk historian, Kurt Vile, who invited him on tour last year (and joined Luke on stage during his set) and now sings and plays banjo on Luke's first album in four years, Sunlit Cross. (Not to mention Luke had already won over Thurston Moore, whose label Ecstatic Peace put out Luke's first album.) Hopefully KV's co-sign gives Luke a bit of a push because he deserves it -- Sunlit Cross is really good stuff. Kurt Vile's fans will probably find a lot to like here. He makes similarly breezy, arpeggiated folk songs to Kurt, but Luke Roberts certainly has his own sound. Both are probably huge Neil Young fans, and Luke pulls from Neil's country side more than Kurt does -- just listen to the melancholic pedal steel on "Untitled Blues." Luke also sounds more rooted in the past. Sunlit Cross could believably be a forgotten album from 1972, the kind of thing you might find in a bin of old folk records next to Roy Harper and John Prine. It may be a decades-old sound, but since even most of the OGs remain relatively obscure, it's one that's still worth exploring.