Earlier this week, we got not one but two major AOTY lists (Rough Trade Shops and Decibel), which reminds us that 2016’s end is near (I’d say “thank god” but 2017 isn’t looking any better). The year’s new music hasn’t stopped yet though and this week has some wildly different stuff, from under-appreciated folk rock to the biggest metal band in the world.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
D∆WN (aka Dawn Richard) has been around for quite a while, but it wasn’t until 2012’s Armor On EP that she switched musical gears and started making a highly inventive mix of R&B and dance music. Her peak thus far was last year’s Blackheart, one of the most genuinely unique, experimental R&B albums to come out in recent memory. It’s kinda what I hoped FKA twigs sounded like. After dropping singles all year, she finally follows Blackheart with Redemption, which has some of those singles and excludes others (sadly the great “Dance” is not here). Redemption is heavier on the dance music than its predecessor — thanks in part to Dawn’s recently-formed collaborative relationship with Machinedrum — but no less distinct.
When the whole “alt-R&B” movement started, the sound came both from indie artists looking to unleash their pop side (like How to Dress Well) and pop artists who wanted to experiment with less commercial sounds (like Miguel). Dawn manages to challenge both of these groups. With the “Interim” interlude leading into “Renegades,” she sounds like Imogen Heap duetting with Rihanna over a UK garage/house beat. She’s always sort of too radio for the underground but too underground for the radio. She doesn’t neatly fit in anywhere, and that’s probably the point. 2016 is a year where Beyonce made an album influenced by James Blake and Bon Iver made one influenced by Kanye West, yet Dawn Richard still manages to sound like an outsider.
Metallica haven’t released a truly good album since 1991, and it’s been even longer since they’ve released a truly great album. But Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets is arguably the second best three album run in heavy metal (only behind Black Sabbath, Paranoid and Master of Reality), so — no matter how many times they disappoint us — we always hope that each new album will somehow be the comeback that we all crave. We may never get a true comeback, but, all things considered, Metallica’s recent music is in a pretty okay place.
After the famously hated St. Anger, Metallica hit such a low point it felt like the only direction they could go is up, and that’s what they did. Its followup Death Magnetic showed us that when Metallica revisit their thrash roots, they don’t sound half bad. They continue that approach on Hardwired… To Self Destruct, an album that’s certainly flawed but full of enjoyable moments.
At an hour and 17 minutes, it’s too long for an album that hardly varies. (More so than revisiting their early riffs, I’d like to see them revisit the perfect album structure of Lightning and Puppets — eight songs, each entirely its own beast.) James Hetfield’s cleaner vocals sound too heavily processed, and sometimes the attempts to relive their past are too on the nose. “Murder One” is basically half of the “One” riff and half of the “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” riff. “Am I Savage?” feels like an obvious rewrite of the Diamond Head song they always cover. But when Metallica get in the zone, they remind you that there’s still pretty much no one who can do it like Metallica can.
If you’ve seen them live lately, you know that their performances are truly larger than life. Their mix of heaviness, melody and precision is rarely matched. When they whip out something like the intro riff to “Moth Into Flame” or “Halo On Fire” (both of which exemplify this album’s knack for high-quality twin leads), that same feeling from the live shows starts to come back. The solos on Hardwired are all pretty ripping, and when James yells, he’s still got power. Metallica also manage to compete with some modern bands in a much more natural way than St. Anger‘s sloppy attempts to modernize. (Part of this may be because we’re thankfully not in the midst of the nu metal explosion this time.) The riff that comes in around around the six-minute mark in “Halo On Fire” is a dead ringer for Kvelertak. A handful of parts on this album kinda sound like Baroness too, and James is a known fan of both of those bands. Hardwired sounds like an earnest attempt to write music that Metallica would have fun playing, and that their longtime fans would like. It ultimately falls short, but Metallica have certainly managed to do way worse.
Justice may be forever tied to “D.A.N.C.E.” (and/or the rest of their debut album), but they left those days behind them a long time ago and never looked back. Their sophomore album, 2011’s Audio, Video, Disco, saw them tapping into ’70s disco and AOR, and really looking to come off like a band. Like tons of ’70s bands did, Justice also love to release live albums. They have bigger arena rock ambitions than half the current rock bands who play arenas. Five years after Audio, Video, Disco, Justice finally have a followup, Woman, and it follows in that album’s footsteps. It’s still got thumping house bass, but it definitely feels more like a many-membered band than two DJs. And there’s not a kids’ choir in sight.
Opener “Safe and Sound” has stabbing funk bass, fluttering psychedelic synths, and falsetto harmonies that feel right out of the disco era. “Randy” (which features Morgan Phalen of Diamond Nights) is coated in strings that make it sound closer to ELO than to the rest of Ed Banger Records. On the not-subtly-named “Heavy Metal,” Justice live out an electronic version of the heavy metal fantasies they’ve (slightly more subtly) had their whole career. The intro kinda sounds like a French house take on AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Closer “Close Call” is the kind of fantastical classical-influenced prog that you might expect from a Moody Blues album. The world might not have been ready for Justice to make this shift when Audio, Video, Disco came out, which might be why that album kinda flew under the radar. But Woman follows Daft Punk’s massive Random Access Memories, which took a noticeably similar approach. Maybe RAM fans could use some latter-day Justice in their lives.
Folky indie rock was at an all-time high in the late 2000s, and among the many artists doing that sound was the great but underrated Phoenix band Dear and the Headlights. They had an earthy, emotionally bare sound that any fans of Band of Horses, Frightened Rabbit or Bright Eyes would’ve felt at home with, and like all three of those bands, DATH singer Ian Metzger had an instantly-recognizable voice. He’s as much a natural with an addictive chorus as he is with a clever turn of phrase, and he can really belt it when he needs to. It was a bummer when Dear and the Headlights broke up after releasing just two albums, 2007’s Small Steps, Heavy Hooves and 2008’s Drunk Like Bible Times (both on Equal Vision), but good news came earlier this year when Ian and DATH drummer Mark Kulvinskas revealed they’d be releasing an album with their new band The Gentle Hits (whose lineup also includes James Mulhern of What Laura Says, and Wayne Jones).
The Gentle Hits basically pick up right where Dear and the Headlights left off, getting just a bit twangier. This time it’s less Frightened Rabbit, more Deer Tick. Other than that, Ian’s way with words and a melody are as impressive as they were eight, nine years ago. If you’ve been holding out for new music since their breakup, this album is a real treat and it’ll likely evoke some pretty heavy nostalgia. Small Steps, Heavy Hooves was a big deal for me when it came out and hearing this Gentle Hits album immediately brings back so many images and memories. It’s a truly powerful thing when music can do that.
North Carolina rapper Rapsody reached a bigger audience than ever before after she contributed a standout verse to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (on “Complexion”). Not long after TPAB dropped, she put out an expanded edition of her 2014 EP Beauty and the Beast, and now she finally returns with an entirely new project, Crown. As always, her rapping is poetic and intricate — taking influence from artists like Mos Def and Lauryn Hill — and the soulful, jazzy production suits her voice well. The few guests on the album, including past collaborators Anderson Paak and Ab-Soul, are all coming from a similar place too.
Like her “Complexion” verse, Crown is full of uplifting pro-black messages. It’s also full of pro-Obama messages, some of which are directly related to her Kendrick Lamar association. “In the White House singing ‘we gon’ be alright’ all night with the POTUS,” she raps on “Gonna Miss You.” On standout song “Mad” she continues, “They mad a Black man is the best President that we ever had.” With all the anti-Trump music we’ve been getting, it’s kinda nice to send off Obama with some positive music about him. The whole album isn’t peace and love though. There’s some real anger here, especially about the violent racial inequality in America. On the charged-up Crown closer “Fire,” she raps, “The media portray me with lies / Wanna justify how my black folk died / They don’t wanna hear our cries / So we set that motherfucker on fire.” Throughout the rest of that song, she references war, rent prices, drugs, Melania Trump and more, and the whole thing ends with “I blame your parents, they ain’t raise you right.” It’s an album filled with pride, but it ends with a call to arms.
Looking for more recent releases? Browse the Notable Releases archive.