August was a blazing hot month for new music. We’ll give Endless and Blonde the courtesy link off, but these two albums got more headlines between them than most musicians can hope for in a lifetime. The point of this column will be to highlight albums you might’ve missed elsewhere, something to put on in a moment when you’re wondering what you need to catch up on. These are albums that exist either beyond hype or despite it. Listen below.
25. HyunA, A’wesome
Kim Hyun-a is a South Korean sensation — and not just because she costarred in Psy’s infamous “Gangnam Style” video. As member of the K-Pop groups Wonder Girls and 4Minute, she established herself as pop star caliber performer and eventually broke off on her own to pursue a solo career. A’wesome is the fifth EP she’s released on her own — and it’s also her first official release this year — but it’s a cut above even for the wonderful world of K-Pop. It’s full of her supercrush, glittering vocals and enormous EDM beats that fuse together for six of the most ideal end-of-summer firecracker pop songs. Remember the Legally Blonde soundtrack? This is like if Hoku’s “Perfect Day” got outfitted with a drop and neon fangs. Foolproof pop for the change of seasons.
24. Dinosaur Jr., Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
Personally, I love it when indie rock icons put out new music. It feels like a good chance to familiarize myself with the older stuff that critics are (almost) inevitably going to deem better, and makes me feel connected to the larger arch of rock history. Of course, it also helps if the band in question are still making music that’s great, which Dinosaur Jr. unequivocally is. This is their fourth new record to come out of since the 2005 reunion of sorts, and the muted storminess of Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not picks up right where 2012’s I Bet on Sky left off. Admittedly, Dinosaur Jr. are one of those bands I still need to fill in the gaps on a little bit, but even for fans like me who are just arriving, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not forges lackadaisical grunge and heartfelt exploration into a quicksilver rush that still stuns over three decades after their inception.
23. Haley Bonar, Impossible Dream
One of the things I love the most about Haley Bonar’s latest record is I can’t figure out exactly what it is. Folk? Noise? Pop? The Canadian singer-songwriter grew up in South Dakota, and there are traces of that state’s empty desolation in her honeyed slowcore rock. But, Bonar spent some years of her musical career living in Portland, Oregon, and some of that city’s beloved twee and urgent grittiness have also seeped into the heart of her new record, Impossible Dream, which occasionally rattles like an empty coil. Though she’s been making music for over a decade, it wasn’t 2014’s Last War that the St. Paul-based musician began getting the shine she deserves. That previous record was a sinister and sharp intake of breath that exhaled out struggles of motherhood and the music industry in one long gasp. The follow-up is a bit more tender, or perhaps more resigned — sometimes it takes a bloodletting to make knitting things back together feel possible. Title aside, this record is anything but hopeless, functioning instead like a road map back from the middle of nowhere. An album for starting over, or starting anything at all.
22. Cheena, Spend the Night With… (maybe, SB would be happy but swap if need)
2016 is a helluva a time to put out a throwback record. As the music industry at large dutifully mines the soft psych of ’60s folk rock, the chintz of ’80s pop and the slow burn of ”90s R&B, Cheena have set their sights on one era and one era only: gritty ’70s New York rock. In the year of our Lord 2016, the flea market is a more popular place to shop for furniture than Ikea, and vintage vinyl carries greater cache than even the latest headphone-less iPhone 7 ever will, so looking backwards isn’t as much expected as it is reasonable — maybe shit really was just better then? Regardless, Spend the Night With… holds a candle to all the idols it so clearly references while gleefully dripping wax on their faces. I can’t think of a better act of homage than the way Cheena dutifully chronicles noisy punk carelessness, then twists it to suit their own needs.
21. Dogbreth, Second Home
Anytime an indie and punky band puts out a record full of introspective and earnest lyrics, there’s a propensity to label it emo. While Dogbreth isn’t really emo, they utilize the same simple chord progressions, casually existential riffs and endearing shout-sung harmonies. But the band, who occupy the unusual space of being split between Phoenix and Seattle, are at their best when dismantling their — and subsequently our — myths about music. Case in point, on “Cups and Wrappers” — “Rock and roll won’t make it all okay / But it used to seem that way.” Second Home is the opposite of nostalgia-rock, it looks ever forward and in the process discovers that the only thing more fun than worshipping is pressing toward the future. Their records seems to argue that you can make a home in a new space, and odds are, it’s going to be better than your first. Given that tenet, I can’t wait to hear what this band does next.
20. Rae Sreummurd, Sremmlife 2
From the gleeful crackling of the opening bars of the last track — “All my girls do yoga / then get high at night” — on “Do Yoga” to the Gucci Mane-featuring coup “Black Beatles,” Sremmlife 2 has something for anyone who delights in the innocent hedonism that defines the gospel of the Brothers Sremm. One of their most blatant frontrunners, Lil Jon, guests here, as does the still imprisoned rising star Kodak Black, revealing the breadth and depth of their influences and compatriots. At this point, if you’re not actively investing in Sremmlife, you’re not investing in yourself, but some people still won’t accept happiness, even when it’s bouncing around shirtless onstage and looking them dead in the eye. So hit the mat and then hit the blunt, or if you don’t want to, pass ’em both to me.
19. PartyNextDoor, PartyNextDoor P3
Drake’s and Oliver El-Khatib’s latest depressed R&B protege is settling into popstar territory in his own right. Jahron Brathwaite, a Canadian-born songwriter who signed a publishing deal at the tender age of 18, penned summer’s slipperiest jam, Rihanna’s unavoidable “Work,” and spent the last several months embroiled in a tumultuous, speculation-driven relationship with fellow R&B midfielder Kehlani. Those twin events have left Braithwaite with his own emotional crosses to bear, and all of that weight comes through on PARTYNEXTDOOR P3. After two EPs and one full-length, PartyNextDoor P3 feels like the most cohesive project from this member of the OVO cohort. At only 23, Braithwaite was born in the nineties, and he seems determined to combines the luscious sounds and lasciviousness of that era with the fleecy darkness of OVO’s own skeletal, clattering R&B strain. Velvety and overstuffed, P3 is an album full of indulgences designed to soundtrack many more.
18. Justin Moore, Kinda Don’t Care
Like plenty of country stars before him, Justin Moore has had a long slog to the top. Country radio continues to squeeze the life out of its own genre, but like that sketch of a frog trying to choke the stork that’s swallowing it, artists like Moore and others soldier on. Moore talked to Rolling Stone about incorporating more pop production on his latest album Kinda Don’t Care, which is led by the pun-tongue-twisting single “You Look Like I Need a Drink.” It’s currently nestled in the top 20 on the Country Airplay chart, a feat even for a country artist making good off the Big Machine that made Taylor Swift into a megastar. But you’d do better to look toward the album’s rebellious title track to get a real read on what makes Moore care — or not. That’s the guitar-drenched backwoods apathy I’d play on the radio, given a shot at those dials.
17. Ka, Honor Killed the Samurai
Tabloids gonna tabloid, but for those of us who don’t stoop to taking what was probably a planted tips from disgruntled firefighters who can’t stand their rapping compatriot, a new release from the legendary underground Brooklyn rapper Ka is cause for celebration. With four full-length albums, two collaborative albums and two EPs, anyone who has done a cursory Google knows that Ka works as a firefighter during his day job. This in no way should or does prohibit him from addressing the crooked, racist cops in New York City and elsewhere in the country in his art. Fittingly, Honor Killed the Samurai is as cold and sharp as the swords that make these Japanese soldiers dance deadly like ballerinas. Above any beat and searing, soulful production, Ka dances just as deadly, rapping without regard for the weapons formed against him. To borrow a recent phrase from the First Lady herself: “When they go low we go high.” Ka is floating far above us, spooling out hellish verses that will smolder long after New York’s most laughable rags fold.
16. Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
If Ryley Walker keeps putting out albums on the current pace he’s on, we’ll have more reason than just his freewheeling songwriting and that angelic baritone to compare him to Van Morrison. In 2015 Walker released the mesmerizing Primrose Green in March, a fantastic joint record with fellow Chicago-based guitarist Bill Mackay called Land of Plenty in August and still managed to get Golden Sings That Have Been Sung by the following summer. Perhaps the momentum is half of what’s fueling Walker anyway, because Sings reaches new levels of self-examination and melodic exploration for the songwriter, who manages to make songs that are warmly familiar and psychedelically puzzling without any overlap.
15. Factory Floor, 25 25
If you don’t know anything about the intersection of dance, post-punk and industrial noise, may I recommend Factory Floor as the perfect jumping off point? The London group have gone through a few personnel changes since their inception in 2005, but their commitment to rendering post-industrial dance music threaded with severity has remained strong. Throw on 25 25 for a reminder that less is very very often more, and that songs need not have a narrative arc in order to tell a compelling story. If you hear only blank space in a record this precisely sculpted, I’d kindly suggest the listener may be the source of said nothingness.
14. Lydia Loveless, Real
A bleeding cowpunk heroine who won’t stop bleating about her feelings with an urgency belied by the often gentle genre she’s chosen, Lydia Loveless offers her most aggressively honest record to date on Real. If you want to cry over the rubbery stretch of love’s possible snap, put on “Bilboa.” If you want to eviscerate the idea of the eternal, throw on “Heaven.” In other words, this record is the perfect blend of folk rock sentimentalism and sneering realism. And nobody sneers as endearingly as Lydia Loveless does. Nobody.
13. DJ Earl, Open Your Eyes
The debut from this footwork has been a long time coming. Grief has a way of paralyzing those caught in its terrible grey undertow, and after the passing of DJ Rashad most of his Teklife collective found returning to footwork without his guidance to be an impossible task. Yet, it seems unlikely that few things would’ve please Rashad more than the advent of his apprentice DJ Earl’s first official full-length. Open Your Eyes is the first release of new material for the eponymous Teklife label, following a collection of Rashad’s own unreleased tracks. It features a number of collaborators, including Oneohtrix Point Never, and frequent appearances from DJ Manny, DJ Taye and MoonDoctoR. As always, Earl manipulates fragments of sound until they cohere into something much larger and lasting than the samples they build on. If these songs were hallways, they would be clean and well-lit, leading out of the darkness of grief and up into some illuminated future. Footwork is now, if you want it.
12. Pill, Convenience
There’s little left for me to write about the aggressively intelligent political missives that Veronica Torres issues forth as the frontwoman of Pill. I’d call the band a fountain, but they’re not orderly enough. I’d call them an ambulance, but that implies they’d adhere to a strict infrastructure. I’d call them an eruption, but magma eventually cools and Convenience won’t. One of the finest new collections of post-punk rage that I’ve encountered in my tenure as a music writer.
11. Dolly Parton, Pure & Simple
I write a lot about joy and music, because the pursuit of joy is the main thing that brings me back to this art form time and again. And it’s hard not to think about joy when you think about Dolly Parton, a woman who is easily one of the brightest lights the world of country music has ever seen. Parton is dazzling, even at 70 years old, penning brand new ballads about love and contentment that would ring saccharine in any other mouth, in any other accent. On her 43rd album (!) Dolly is back with plenty of spoken word interludes, effusive gratefulness and the ever-present delightful drizzle of her career-defining vibrato. This is Dolly, Pure & Simple, if you’ve been in for the last half a century, this will only cement your status as a fan — and the fact that it’s her first number one album in 25 years supports that statement. If by some chance you’re new to the fold, welcome, we’re always taking converts. (Newcomers should also head here immediately.)
10. Britney Spears, Glory
Every millennial worth their salt knows Britney Spears has been through the motherf*cking ringer. In some ways, it feels like we went through it together, Britney coming up on the tail end of the CD-driven music industry that turned teens into sex objects without a second thought, all of us hurtling on the edge of sudden danger. When the danger struck, and Spears melted down under the pressure of fame, motherhood, failed marriages and God knows what kind of monetary entanglements, it felt like part of me broke, too. The sanctity of something had been shattered, and I didn’t know why, but the well-being of this woman seemed just as important as the safety of my friends. Maybe that’s why Glory feels different than the comebacks of countless other pop stars, many who’ve probably pulled it off better. There’s a preciousness to Britney, a tenderness that reminds me of my own struggle with the staggering enormity of adulthood. On this album, she’ll glance across the surface of past pain before pirouetting back into the escape of sex-for-pleasure or self-as-pleasure. Either way, it feels like heaven to hear her skip over the subject of love all together, and glory in the sound of herself, desiring. Wanting something is the first step back toward daylight; even when it totters, Glory walks into the sun.
9. Iamsu!, 6 Speed
Can we get a moment of silence for this fantastic cover art? Okay, thank you. I don’t know why the Bay Area — one of America’s historically most significant and fertile regions for art of all kinds — continually gets overlooked by the rest of the country. Particularly in the realm of hip-hop and R&B, the Bay will often set the pace for the rest of country only to have that sound jacked and repackaged later on. Anyway, Iamsu! rarely gets credit for the influence he’s had on the last five or so years of rap, which has been substantial. 6 Speed is more of that.
8. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love
Cass McCombs approaches songs like they are found objects. The tracks on Mangy Love sound like thoughts drifting through someone else’s head that McCombs somehow got a hold of and decided to set to music. He’s got one of those tenors like an enormous kite that floats improbably until it crashes headfirst into a growl or a falsetto. Either option is equally likely. The unpredictability of his voice is fleshed out with organ and guitar riffs borrowed from the ’70s and flecked with a carelessness that decades have attempted to ape, but that’s the only one that really pulled it off. You should listen to Mangy Love if you like songs that leave you with more and more questions on every repeated listen, or if you like Neil Young’s older work quite a bit.
7. Joseph, I’m Alone, No You’re Not
Folksy sister trios can be hit or miss — Joseph are a bona fide hit. Fans of last year’s tempestuous, harmony-laden record If I Was by The Staves will find I’m Alone, No You’re Not to be a worthy follow-up in the same vein. Joseph veer a bit more toward the pop side of things, so think Haim meets The Staves and you’ve got the right sisterly vibe. A record full of lush, thick feelings and soaring choruses that will embed themselves in your brain. An ideal record for fall, especially if you’re in a city that has lots of leaves turning. I’d particularly recommend “SOS (Overboard),” which has early Ingrid Michaelson vibes and a great cinematic moment shout-sung chorus.
6. Isaiah Rashad, The Sun’s Tirade
One of the most interesting things about TDE is that as Kendrick’s star gets ever brighter, the rest of his crew have been putting serious work into self-improvement too. ScHoolboy Q’s last joint Blank Face LP is downright great and is right at home with other mainstream rap stars, and Isaiah Rashad sounds like a man reborn on The Sun’s Tirade. One of the things I love so much about the album is how west coast it sounds, with Rashad slipping into a jazz scat as easily as a Lamar-esque flow. He’s way more psychedelic than the rest of his TDE cohort though, delving into prophesies and the simulacrum of the rap world at large to get a better understanding of himself, then relay both back to us from across the universe.
5. Chris Farren, Can’t Die
Can’t Die is power pop with a bloody knee. Chris Farren manages to beg, demand and cajole his listeners for their attention without ever becoming annoying or ever considering giving us any space. And it works. The insistence that he is here, making more excellent sugary punk introspection is both his most endearing quality and the one that makes him a songwriter worth paying attention to. I won’t list his accolades here, but it’s safe to say he’s put out as many records as most of us have scars on our knees. Stick around for the final track, “Until I Can See the Light,” to get a full sense of why this guy never shuts up, and why he never should.
4. Nathan Bowles, Whole & Cloven
Nathan Bowles writes songs for the quiet night of the heart. Joining the growing ranks of artists who make thoughtfully introspective and innovative music on the banjo, Bowles only occasionally even layers lyrics onto his experimental and sometimes ominous playing style. Mostly, though, I would characterize this music as softly adventurous. It splays out and explores, never settling in on one chord, one picking style, or one mood. “Moonshine Is the Sunshine” picks up the well-worn thread of nonsense narrative folk songs, and the nearly eleven-minute-long dirge “I Miss My Dog” brings us to the other more somber end of that spectrum without ever uttering a word. A banjo can speak, but Bowles makes it talk. It’s in the midst of trying to discern whether he’s making it speak on grief or the absurd that you’ll realize they’re one and the same. Come for Zen koans in backwoods plucking, stay for unsettling moments of noisy dissonance.
3. No Panty, WestSide Highway Story
Broke my own rule and included an album you can’t stream in full on Spotify. But what are rules for except to be broken? And the inclusion should be a good indicator of just how good No Panty’s recent tape is. A supergroup of sorts composed of Bodega BAMZ, Joell Ortiz and Nitty Scott, MC, WestSide Highway Story is probably the most perfect album I’ve heard all year. Laced with Latin production provided entirely by Salaam Remi, a guy known primarily for his reggae-tinted tracks, No Panty recalls the kind of conversational interplay that once made Wu Tang world famous. But what really makes this tape stand out head and shoulders above any potential peers is who is involved in the conversation. Bamz and Ortiz trade bars with the fiercest rapper to incorporate novella plot lines into her bars, Nitzia Scott aka Nitty Scott, MC. As the New York stories of lust or abuse and memory or arrogance get spit, Scott gives voice to a whole different side of the story that hasn’t traditionally made it onto tape. So even if the only member of the group who actually wears panties ends up bodying her crew members half the time, their name hints they don’t really mind. But even if they do, we’re lucky that she rhymes.
2. Vince Staples, Prima Donna
You could say Vince Staples has a way with words. Given his propensity for brutal, hilarious quips on Twitter, you probably already know that even if you haven’t listened to his music yet. A lot of rappers have plenty to say, but not a lot to speak on. Staples speaks with authority on subjects that others would seek to avoid or cover up, namely the poverty and abuse that faces the black community in America, and the stacked deck against people like him. Prima Donna furthers this conversation, tucking right in behind the slipstream of his 2015 opus Summertime ’06. It’s a brutal, deafening collection of seven tracks that dig deep, buoyed only by Vince’s own playful caress of even the most deadly phrase. Staples’ familiar compatriot Kilo Kish shows up here — but so does A$AP Rocky — a sign, perhaps, of where his messages have been landing and where else they’re destined to go.
1. Angel Olsen, My Woman
A lot of people wrote incredible pieces on this album, because art this fantastic inspires an outpouring among people who come into contact with it. I wrote one too, but feel unhappy with it, like the way a housewife does when her spotless kitchen is serving its purpose instead of standing as a silent monument to her ability to worship cleanliness. So yeah, My Woman is the kind of record that makes you want to get downright filthy, stick your hands deep in the dough of yourself and knead it around. It’s an album full of psych-folk jammers with a mission to jolt you out of your stupor and out into the glorious mess of life. Luckily, all of the calls-to-arms are supplemented with half-tweaked lullabies for the inevitable comedown. I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone, Angel sings, doing what she says until she’s right, and you’ve forgotten all the verses and dreams that came before. Then, in the midst of that emptiness, try writing your own reaction.