“Valtari” (2012) by Sigur Rós

Do we all remember Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust? Different, wasn’t it? Icelandic post-rock giants Sigur Rós essentially abandoned all that had propelled them into the sights of pop music and adopted, ironically, a much more pop-oriented sound. The minimalistic beauty of Ágætis byrjun and the rich, thick musical layers present in ( ) were left behind for playful melodies, acoustic guitars, and (get this) tempos above 80 bpm! In a Sigur Rós album! Heresy! This shift was first noticeable to observant listeners in Takk… , but it was really Með suð that embraced their new mentality. And then they went on an indefinite hiatus. I mean, I liked Með suð, but I never wanted to see it become their swan song. This is the band that released ( ), the best album of the century so far (in my opinion, obvs), and they sign out with an album shows the band members naked on the cover? No thanks.

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“Watch The Throne” (2011) by Jay-Z & Kanye West

Riding on the success of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, two of the most critically and commercially successful rappers of all time have come together to record a collaborative record, Watch The Throne. But where the former succeeded, this album falls flat on its face. Gone is the flow and cohesion that poured out of Dark Twisted Fantasy; gone is 95% of the emotion and 100% of the killer verses.

Watch The Throne has ambition. It is blatant that Kanye is trying to carry over his trademark highly dense production style to this collaboration. Samples from all sorts of genres are flying in from left, right, and centre as Kanye and Jay-Z lazily rap over the top of them. The production is brilliant, no doubt. But the problem, unfortunately, is the rapping. Unlike the clever, intricate rhyming structures that we know both rappers are capable of, Watch The Throne seems to be constructed of boring monosyllabic rhymes and effortlessly (not in a good way) written lyrics, for the better part of the album with no deeper meaning to them at all. Both Kanye and Jay-Z have become complacent – on this album we have two of the greatest rappers in music, and all they can do is talk about how brilliant they are, which is a shame.

There is never really any true chemistry between the two, either. Jay-Z and Kanye both have their own verses and songs, but very rarely do they rap together, playing off each other’s rhymes. The final product is an album which sounds mostly like Kanye recorded some songs, Jay-Z record some songs, and someone mixed them up and put them in random order.

Props go to a few songs, such as “Otis”, but for the better part Watch The Throne is what happens when two of the most famous and successful musicians in the world get together and let their egos absorb them, resulting in a complacent, self-righteous mess.

5.6

“Green Naugahyde” (2011) by Primus

Primus are… different. After not releasing a single album in the last decade, they’re back with their distinctly Primus sound in Green Naugahyde - and again, if you like Primus, you’ll like this. If you don’t, then, quite simply, you’ll hate it.

Les Claypool and company have always had a reputation for being the weird folk of the music industry, labeled alongside the Residents and Frank Zappa/the Mothers. Green Naugahyde breaks no new ground, but sees Primus embrace what they (and only they) know best – creepy melodies, an abundance of slap bass, chanted vocals and satire of Western culture.

A recurring theme that runs throughout Green Naugahyde is childish humour, delivered by Claypool’s nasally voice such that it truly becomes unnerving. Don’t let it put you off, though. Primus have always been respected as one of the most musically gifted rock groups around, even if they are best known for the South Park theme. Claypool in particular is widely recognised as one of the best electric bass players in the world.

Green Naugahyde plays out like a twisted carnival – loud, terrifying and dark. Primus’ return to music has filled a void in the rock scene could only ever be filled by Primus themselves. And what a glorious return it is.

Don’t let this positive review fool you. You either love or hate Primus. If you have given them a good go before this, and couldn’t stand it, then there’s really no point in bothering with Green Naugahyde. If you are a fan, however, or haven’t listened to them before, then this record comes highly recommended.

7.8

“I like it. I really really like it. I think I’m gonna buy it cause I really really like it.” 

“Megalomania” (2011) by Aqua

Aqua will forever be remembered for their albums Aquarium and Aquarius. I’m the first person to admit that I genuinely enjoy their first two records. Who could forget “Barbie Girl”? “Lollipop (Candyman)”? And what about “Doctor Jones”, “Heat Of The Night”, “Cartoon Heroes”, “Roses Are Red”… the list goes on and on. But despite the abundance of subtle sexual innuendo, Aquarium was as much an album for kids as for adults, perhaps even more. Their songs were about fairytales and action heroes. They were mentioned in the same breath as other 90s “Bubblegum dance” groups seemingly aimed at children – Vengaboys, S-Club 7, Eiffel 65. So what happened?

Let me introduce you to one of the singles, “Like A Robot”. If you recall Aqua’s past work, you will remember that they would never, ever be explicitly sexual – but how about this line: “Even after 1, 2, 3 tequila shots you still leave me high and dry, thanks a lot … So why do you still fuck me like a robot?” I can just picture the collective jaw of mothers around the world dropping when they buy their kid an album that they assumed was harmless.

Strangely, as they are usually considered one of the classic groups of the genre, Aqua have abandoned the idea of “Eurodance” and are now, simply, dance. No longer are they the cutesy Danish pop group with spiky hair and bright clothes. Just one look at Lene’s new outfit on the cover would hint towards this. No more songs about fairy tales, siestas or Indiana Jones - Megalomania is about sex, fame and nightclubs. Is this a bad thing? As a longtime fan of Aqua and condemner of contemporary pop, I’d have to say yes. They were once a group suitable for everyone – pure, unadulterated, bubblegum pop music. They used to be able to do subtle sexual innuendo, which you’d listen to as a kid only to think “that’s what that means?” fifteen years later. Now they’re playing dry, bland – and worst of all, generic – club music.

I have to admit, though, it’s not all bad. Lene’s voice has only improved with the ten years since we last heard it on a record. Additionally, the bass-heavy songs are definitely suited for club play, which I’d assume is exactly what they were going for. I guess it’s alright, especially if I hadn’t heard an Aqua album before – but I have, and because of that, it’s just disappointing.

Megalomania is going to polarize both Aqua fans and pop critics. In closing, I have one last comment, which also applies for every album ever released by everyone: MORE RENÉ DIF.

4.2

“Relax” (2011) by Das Racist

When three middle-class college students from New York City released “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2008, their immediate rise to fame on the Internet went hand in hand with their dismissal as a novelty rap group – one of the worst things that can happen to a band after a debut single. In 2010, Das Racist countered these labels with two highly respectable mixtapes, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man; the former bravely including the aforementioned song that gave them the novelty label in the first place. Inevitably, however, the question that has lingered around Das Racist since 2008 still remains – are they for real?

Let’s take track 8 as an example. “Booty In The Air”. Horribly catchy synthesizer hooks and hand claps provide backing to such insightful lyrics as “She got her booty in the air like her booty was a cloud/And when her booty clap, you know the booty clap loud.” Then follows what I can only assume is a reference to the infamous “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” with the chant “Booty in the air! Booty in the air! Booty in the air! Shake it all around!” Are they for real? Or is this an almost-too-conspicuous critique of pop music?

Exhibit B: “Punjabi Song”.  This begins with a Punjabi chorus courtesy of Bikram Singh, which is followed by “Get fucked up, get bud … Move it out, move it in/Okay, let me do it again”. Again, the question must be asked: Are they for real?

Personally, I would have to say that the majority of the songs on the record are pure satire, saturated with obscure references, absolutely magnificent rhymes and questionable segues. But it has to be asked: does it matter? Regardless of whether Relax is a satire, serious, or simply the product of a few too many THC-filled weekends, it stands as one of the freshest (albeit, not best) hip hop albums I’ve heard in quite a few years. If nothing else, Das Racist unquestionably have endless potential.

7.6

“New Album” (2011) by Boris

Creatively titled “New Album” is the first of three full-length Boris records (and one shared LP with Merzbow) so far this year; and, living up to its name, New Album sticks out like a sore thumb in a sea of happy, healthy thumbs that make up Boris’ back catalogue. All traces of Boris’ position as one of the world’s leading noise bands are totally shunned to make way for a melody-heavy, shoegaze, almost Visual Kei record. Yes, it’s a “New Album”, as this is unlike anything Boris has ever done and likely will ever do again.

Every song sounds totally different. There’s ballads, the hardstyle-influenced techno, straight J-Rock; and no drone. Forgive me for preoccupying over that, but the idea of a Boris album without noise is like Brokencyde without awful – it just doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened, and it never will happen. At least, I thought it never would. This isn’t to say it’s a bad record, just unexpected.

I can dwell upon how different New Album is, or, I can shut up and review it. Boris sound like a band that, after nearly twenty years of having crafted their own ground in the music world, slipped, fell, hit their head, had a laugh about it, and released an album in hindsight. This is the product. The fact that it is one of four released in the space of three months emphasizes just how little time must have gone into the production – instead, it seems like their tongue was firmly in their cheek while they laughed at themselves quietly.

That being said, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this is a bad record. Because that’s not true. New Album is Boris saying to the world “Hey, yeah, we can play drone, but look what else we can do too!”. And while it’s a huge departure from their usual formula, it’s nice to hear a band break away from expectations every now and again, especially when the expectations are so firmly rooted into one broad genre (no, not as broad as “rock”, I just didn’t know a better way to put it).

Boris’ New Album is just that. New. Once again a veteran band thwarts all expectations of them, presenting themselves in a totally different light. Will it stick? Well, after listening to its two successors (“Attention Please” and “Heavy Rocks”), no. Boris are doing what they do best. But if you can’t get yourself into the noisy goodness of Boris’ traditional style, New Album would be a good place to start. It’s nothing that unique in the grand scheme of things, but for Boris, it’s the white elephant.

7.1

“Collapse Into Now” (2011) by R.E.M.

Generally, when an old band starts to slump, that’s the end of them. All it takes is that one bad record and their music will start getting worse and worse. For R.E.M., the band that produced masterpiece after masterpiece up until about 1992, this slump began with the departure of Bill Berry in 1997 – the band’s main reason to continue after this was Berry’s own request that they stay together.

In 2008, R.E.M. made their return to commercial and critical success with their minds set on their I.R.S. years, “Accelerate”. A year later, R.E.M. released “Live At The Olympia”, highlighting their newfound appreciation for both their ’82 debut EP “Chronic Town” and the 2005 critically panned “Around the Sun”. Now, in 2011, R.E.M. have released their best record for the last 15 years: “Collapse Into Now”.

Collapse forges a perfect balance between R.E.M.’s three distinct eras – the I.R.S. years, the early ‘90s, and the post-Berry years. Here is a band who have finally re-found (is that a word?) their feet, their confidence, and their enjoyment of what they do. Where “Accelerate” was made up of mostly Murmur-esque jangle pop (which by no means is a bad thing), “Collapse” sees the band embrace their entire history. Despite the cringe worthy album art.

The openers, “Discoverer” and “All The Best”, are powerful jangle pop songs songs that definitely bring forward memories of “Lifes Rich Pageant” and “Reckoning”. From here on, the listener is taken on a trip through R.E.M.’s back catalogue – and even through the catalogues of some of their friends (listen to the closing track. “Fitter Happier”, anyone?).

With a voice like a fine wine, Stipe has led his band through the thick of it, and thanks to the realisation that middle age really isn’t all that bad, has finally reclaimed his band’s spot on top of the music scene. “Collapse Into Now” sounds like a greatest hits record by the R.E.M. of a parallel universe – twelve songs that were each recorded at a different point in R.E.M. history. And with each song, a breath of fresh air. This wasn’t the R.E.M. anyone was expecting, but it definitely has what has been wistfully missed for the last 15 years – originality, creativity, and balls.

9.0

“I’ll have my Oxford comma, whether you like it or not.”

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010) by Kanye West

I’m sure you’ve all heard the praise heaped upon Kanye’s fifth record since its release. Pitchfork deemed it good enough to be one of 12 records that they’ve given a 10/10 upon its release. And yes, it’s amazing. It truly is. Never before has a hip hop record carried this quality of… well, of anything, really.

Production-wise, it’s perfect. Kanye has cemented himself as one of the greatest producers of this generation. Nothing seems out of place or tacked on – even the auto-tune, of which I am usually a passionate and outspoken condemner. Unlike the majority of hip hop records being released recently, Kanye hasn’t felt compelled to smother the beats and hooks in layer upon layer of overdone production. His sampling is fitting, emphasizing his wide range of musical influence, from the recurring Gil Scott-Heron sample to King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”.

But it wasn’t just Kanye who created Dark Twisted Fantasy. The smorgasbord of special guests all work perfectly in their respective songs – yes, even Drake, though, thankfully, he’s not the most prominent performer in the track. Pusha T.’s collaboration in “Runaway” is an early candidate for the best hip hop track of the decade. Even the unusual partnership between Kanye and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver works, without sounding overly like either a Bon Iver song or a typical Kanye song.

Dark Twisted Fantasy just isn’t a typical album. It’s not your run-of-the-mill, Flo Rida-style, Auto Tune-obsessed, money-hungry, commercial product of some big record producer. Dark Twisted Fantasy is a product of, well, Kanye’s own beautiful, dark, and twisted fantasy. Unlike the majority of pop records being released at the moment, the lyrical content is far too deep to be overlooked, even for a second. There’s not really any “Stronger”-esque club-pumpers, but there doesn’t need to be. Dark Twisted Fantasy brings to mind Warp Records’ compilation “Artificial Intelligence”. They are two albums, both of a style that contemporary society dictates must be danced to. And both records seem to emphasize that they’re not for dancing, but for listening. Properly. If that makes sense, I dunno, it made sense in my head.

No, I wouldn’t consider it a 10/10. It’s probably not even the best album of the year, in my own personal opinion. But yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, undeniably, brilliant.

9.3

“Familial” (2010) by Philip Selway

So, Phil Selway – probably the last member of Radiohead I expected to release a solo album – has gone ahead and, despite being recognised as one of the finest drummers of the past two decades, abandoned his drum kit for a guitar. Thank god, might I add. He’s a brilliant drummer, but I’m not so sure I could bear a solo drum album. So, leaving his drum kit for six nylon strings and a microphone, Selway has composed an album that slots just left of centre in with the rest of the indie-folk coming out at the moment.

Little nods to contemporary acts such as Bright Eyes, Iron And Wine, and Bon Iver are definitely present in Familial, but the most prominent influences on Selway seem to be the forgotten folk artists of the late 60s/early 70s – Nick Drake, Rodriguez, Tim Buckley – and 90s artists such as Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith. Familial would definitely feel more at home in the 70′s than the 10′s.

The record consists largely of just guitar and vocals, with percussion, bass, horns, and any number of other instruments entering the fray only for a song or two. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Matt, you’re a massive Radiohead fan. How can you possibly expect to be able to write an unbiased review?”. I was thinking that myself. But the fact of the matter is that Selway has really hit the nail on the head – this what a folk album should sound like. Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s not about to be a contender for the album of the decade, as Selway’s releases have been in the past. It’s good in its own right, I’ll give it that. And it may well be the only insight we get into Selway’s personality.

Familial is a good folk album. Selway’s mournful voice and quiet guitar offers a traditional record, but retaining the weird appeal that Radiohead have become synonymous with. Some tracks are amazing, some are disappointing. It’s good. It’s not brilliant, but it’s good, and will serve as an interesting footnote to Radiohead’s story, and to whatever Selway accomplishes next.

7.6
Recommended tracks:
By Some Miracle; All Eyes On You; The Ties That Bind Us; Broken Promises
If you like: Nick Drake; Jeff Buckley; Tim Buckley; Radiohead