These days I’m introduced to most new music via streaming services. Yes, I still receive the occasional download from an artist’s label and/or promotion company (or from the artist him/herself), but when something new breaks on a given Tuesday, it’s first heard online via NPR First Listen or that destroyer of the music industry, Spotify. If after a few spins I can’t live without it, a purchase is made.
As a result, here’s my new album reviews rating system.
Vinyl — A classic albums that deserves to be purchased in an expensive, collectable format.
CD — A good to great recordings worth keeping in a semi-permanent format.
MP3 – A collection that contains at least a few good songs worth owning, but not in a physical format.
Spotify — The most immaterial format of all.
Here’s how I applied those ratings to what I listened to last quarter:
Strand of Oaks, Heal (Dead Oceans) — It’s a throwback record, the kind of album they used to make in the days before the internet — huge songs, anthems, heroic in scale (though not in subject matter). Tim Showalter has been compared to Springsteen and U2, but I hear Neil Young in the darkness of his stories and his recognition of simple melodies that build into feedback-drenched monsters. Centerpiece track “JM” — a tribute to the late, great Jason Molina — is startling and essential, but every song is memorable and necessary. And, yes, it rocks. Rating: Vinyl
Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom + Pop) — This young Aussie is a cross between Liz Phair and Foxygen, an intrepid slacker/stoner 20-something loaded with clever lines. Imagine Hope Sandoval (of Mazzy Star) with a sense of humor. Simple, personal songs tossed with twangy guitar and an amusing, self-deprecating honesty. Rating: Vinyl
Alvvays, self titled (Polyvinyl / Transgressive) — Reminds me a little of Camera Obscura but the songs are better; the overall sunset shimmer of the recording and Molly Rankin’s soaring pop vocals recall ‘90s indie, or maybe it’s just how the album conjures all my favorite musical moments of the ‘90s, heart-tugs and all. Rating: Vinyl
Mark Kozelek, Live at Biko (Caldo Verde) — You might remember him from Red House Painters, he reinvented himself as Sun Kil Moon, which just released Benji, which is, in my opinion, his finest work and at the core of this live recording. The reason I list this rather than Benji is that it reminds me of the night I saw him at South By Southwest — just him and his guitar in an echoing old church. Perfect. These songs aren’t confessions so much as documents of Kozelek’s life passed and passing. Honest, sometimes funny there’s a sadness to every one. Rating: Vinyl (though it’s only available on CD/mp3).
The Hussy / Digital Leather (Southpaw)— The Digital Leather side of this split LP is downright… romantic, a sort of collection of twisted love songs that shines a light on Shawn Foree the Balladeer. Maybe the most serene DL recording yet, but it still rocks. The Hussy side is a riot, and includes a cover of Digital Leather’s “Studs in Love” that’s playful compared to DL’s own original, quirky version. Rating: Vinyl
Gold-Bears, Dalliance (Slumberland) — Same energy as the finest Superchunk moments sung in a nasal yawl reminiscent of Jeremy Enigk. Trust me, you’ll like it. Rating: CD
Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art) — Detroit-based punk fronted by a guy who looks like an insurance salesman but sings like Husker-era Mould or The Fall’s Mark E. Smith or Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. Deadpan anger, straight-faced disgust, like an upset father with a controlled rage and a back-up band that is pure Gang of Four post punk. Rating: CD
The Both, self titled (Superego) — This is indie veterans Ted Leo and Aimee Mann, together. It ratchets down Leo’s usual hyper-pop while ratcheting up Mann’s usual serene heartbreak (Thanks to Leo’s roaring guitar). Vocally, they’re perfectly matched. Fans of each will be satisfied. Rating: CD
Mitch Gettman, Stop Living Like it’s the End of the World (self released) — A craftsman creating a style of indie/alt singer-songwriter acoustic rock that we all remember from the ’90s (or ‘70s). As a whole, Gettman does little more than turn already well-toiled soil, but he does it with an exquisite plow. A real surprise. Rating: CD
Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin (Merge)— The return of heavy, fast Bob, and despite the grim subject matter it’s the funnest, fastest record he’s released since his Sugar days. Rating: CD
Orenda Fink, Blue Dream (Saddle Creek) — Another serene take from one of Omaha’s best songwriters. That said, I miss the edge she brought to O+S and Art in Manilla. Time to rock again, fair lady. Rating CD
Conor Oberst, Upside Down Mountain (Nonesuch) — The most straight-forward of his catalog, the songwriting while more tuneful is the most obvious and least surprising, as if he’s growing tired of taking risks. Rating: MP3
PUJOL, KLUDGE (Saddle Creek) — Too mannered to be considered true garage, it’s frenetic rock sung by the loudest guy at your last party. Rating: MP3
Guided By Voices, Cool Planet (Fire) — How many more of these collections do they need to make? Rating: Spotify
Morrissey, World Peace is None of Your Business (Capitol / Harvest) — His suffering has become whining. There’s a couple keepers here, but overall it’s a rather droll listen. Rating: Spotify
Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Interscope) — Beautiful and dark and long and boring. Rating: Spotify
While you’re in Spotify, check out Amen Dunes, Love (Sacred Bones); Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (Mom + Pop); Rookie, The Trouble with Templeton (Bella Union); and OBN IIIs, Third Time to Harm (Tic Tac Totally) and tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack (4AD).
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.