Top 25 Albums of 2015

As I begin the second semester of my sophomore year at the U, I’m thinking about the music that helped make this last year great. There were amazing albums across all different genres of music this year, and some great albums that defy genre categorization at all. Adele and Björk returned. My favorite band (Beach House) released TWO (2!) new albums. I fell in love with pop music and garage rock in equal measure. I’m excited to see what 2016 has in store. Here are the albums that soundtracked my year.

 

In alphabetical order:

Adele — 25

 

Unsurprisingly, Adele’s first album since 2011’s record-crushing 21 and third overall album is amazing. You’ve got it all: upbeat pop songs destined to be number one hits (“Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” “Water Under the Bridge”), stunning piano ballads (“Hello,” “When We Were Young,” “Remedy”), and soulful anthems (“River Lea,” “Sweetest Devotion”). Most importantly, Adele’s unfailingly astounding voice makes listening to this album and trying to do anything other than be transfixed by That Voice impossible.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “When We Were Young.” Singling out a favorite song was really difficult, but this one just ecompasses the feeling of the album so well, starting with a simple piano melody the unfolds into a sweeping ballad accompanied by strings and stately percussion. Adele’s vocal are kind of unreal, for lack of a better word. She goes from a really low, velvety part of her range in the verse to a beautifully belted high note on the last chorus that probably made Taylor Swift cry.

 

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Beach House — Depression Cherry & Thank Your Lucky Stars

 

After three years of silence, Beach House decided to make 2015 their year, releasing two new full-length albums. First was August’s Depression Cherry, which was preceded by the single “Sparks.” Less than three months later, the band announced that their 6th record, Thank Your Lucky Stars, was due in a week, with no prior mention of the album’s existence. The band has insisted that the albums are meant to be seen as separate statements that stand on their own, but it’s hard not to think of them in the context of one another. Depression Cherry feels like daytime — opener “Levitation” conjures up images of a beautiful golden sunrise, and closer “Days Of Candy” feels like a sweeping sunset. Thank Your Lucky Stars, on the other hand, feels like music made in the shadows of night. “She’s So Lovely” feels positively cosmic, and “Elegy To The Void” has a similar spooky, moonlit vibe. Each album does stand well on its own, though, and they’re both good enough that I think I would maybe be able to make it if Beach House decided to stop making music. Fingers crossed that the duo’s got a few more albums in ‘em, though.

 

HIGHLIGHTS: Depression Cherry’s highlight would have to be “PPP,” an elegant, 6-minute sweeping song that ends on three minutes of a single spiraling guitar line. The sound could fill a cathedral, and it’s one of Beach House’s cathartic songs yet. “One Thing” is the best part of Thank Your Lucky Stars, with a chugging guitar progression that nods to ‘90s shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, but it’s carried by Victoria Legrand’s unmistakable voice.

 

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Björk — Vulnicura

 

Björk has made a career out of being one of the most left-field, idiosyncratic, and just plain weird pop stars of the last two decades. On her ninth album, Vulnicura, Björk’s weirdness is still intact, even though she stated this this album would be a plainer, more singer-songwriter-y endeavor. The album documents her breakup with artist Matthew Barney, and it’s presented in chronological order, starting months before the breakup and ending months after. We can hear Björk’s coming to terms with her relationship ending in real time. This album is emotional, and Björk essentially cuts out her heart and puts it on display for everyone to see. The songs here are built around sweeping chamber-pop strings and skittering, frenetic beats, courtesy of The Haxan Cloak and Arca (FKA twigs, Kanye West), who co-produced the album with Björk.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Stonemilker,” the album’s opening number, is stately and elegant, with somber strings and passionate vocals.

 

Carly Rae Jepsen — E•MO•TION

 

Who could have possibly expected this? Three years after “Call Me Maybe” became a massive hit, Carly Rae Jepsen is back, delivering one of 2015’s best pop albums, and definitely its most underrated. Filled with songs mining the sounds of the ‘80s andfeaturing great production and songwriting from pop powerhouses Sia, Max Martin, and Shellback, the album also boasts songs from lesser-known songwriters, like Rostam Batmanglij (formerly) of Vampire Weekend (the pulsating, spacious “Warm Blood”), and Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira), and Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange (“All That”).

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Run Away With Me.” The album’s opening track has a killer saxophone solo, and infectious beat, and a chorus you can’t not scream along to.

 

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Chvrches — Every Open Eye

 

Scottish synthpop band Chvrches found success in 2013 with “The Mother We Share” from their debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe. That song resonated with people because it was fun, upbeat, glossy, and actually had depth when compared to a lot of the pop music that was popular at the time. Chvrches probably inspired countless other bands, and that’s why in 2015 their music doesn’t necessarily sound as unique as it once did. That doesn’t really matter, though, when the songwriting is as strong as it is here, on Every Open Eye. The album follows the same basic formula that the rest of their music does — pulsating synths, driving percussion, and other studio bells and whistles. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice is still clear and pretty and ties everything together. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Down Side Of Me” turns the tempo down a couple notches for something a little bit more R&B-inspired. It’s still right in Chvrches’ wheelhouse, but it’s a little bit more somber than anything else here, and apparently somber works well for Chvrches.

 

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Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

 

Courtney Barnett is an Australian alternative rock artist who found success with her debut Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit because of the album’s rehashing of the sounds of 90s acts like Pavement and Nirvana, along with her witty, incisive lyrics and deadpan singing style. The album is upbeat and a lot of fun, with songs like “Pedestrian At Best” and “Elevator Operator” driving along at a quick pace, and others like “Sleepless In New York (A Portrait Of Loneliness)” and “Boxing Day Blues” showing a more laidback side to Barnett.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Depreston” is the quietest and most introspective thing here, which makes it a bit of an outlier, but it’s beautiful. The lyrics find Barnett looking for a house in a shitty neighborhood with the person she loves, and features a chorus singalong at the end.

 

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Deerhunter — Fading Frontier

 

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Following 2013’s angry, fuzzy, noisy Monomania comes Fading Frontier, a record that almost sounds like an entirely different band, were it not for frontman Bradford Cox’s signature stream-of-consciousness lyrics and earworm guitar melodies. The album is bright and clean, featuring bubbling electronics and cleanly-strummed guitars. Cox was hit by a car in December 2014, and nearly lost his life. He’s said in interviews that the accident marked a turning point for him, and Fading Frontier’s overall attitudes of maturity and tranquility definitely show that.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Duplex Planet,” which is just so sunny and warm. It’s one of those songs that would be perfect to listen to while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the top down when the sun is just starting to set.

 

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Empress Of — Me

 

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Empress Of is the moniker of New York-based singer, songwriter, and producer Lorely Rodriguez. Me is her debut album, following a string of singles released from 2012 to last year. Me is an extremely cohesive statement, and each song scans as one piece of the whole. It’s clear Rodriguez has a vision for her music, and she ties in elements of Björk’s early dance music-rooted solo material with current sounds popular in alternative dance and R&B. The songs are confident and Rodriguez’s clear voice and plainspoken lyrics are the focal piece. “How Do You Do It” has a squiggly, brassy synth line on the chorus that’s impossible to not shake it to, and “Kitty Kat” has an almost aggressive sound with lyrics criticizing men who catcall women on the street. Rodriguez wrote, performed, recorded, produced, and engineered the album all alone while staying at a friend’s remote lake house in Mexico City. The title is appropriate for an album that is clearly one person’s work.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Standard,” which is just one of those songs that makes you feel like a badass while you’re walking around with your headphones in. It also features one of the many super-catchy wordless vocal hooks that are all over this album. The chorus has clanging percussion, bass that makes your speakers tremble, and a really cool descending melody.

 

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Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear

 

Father John Misty is the stage name of Josh Tillman, who was once a member of Fleet Foxes and has also released a few solo albums under his own name. I Love You, Honeybear is his second album under the Father John Misty name. The album is about Tillman’s recent marriage, and although most of these songs would classify as “love songs,” this album isn’t corny or hokey. It’s actually really funny, kind of upsetting, and features lots of self-deprecating lyrics. Tillman is a rather gifted singer, and his voice fits well with the ’70s pop/folk sound that this album is based around.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Strange Encounter” is lush and beautiful, and has funny and insightful lyrics about a the girl he’s in love with almost dying, but pulling through.

 

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FKA twigs — M3LL155X

 

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Alright, M3LL155X isn’t technically an album, it’s an EP with five songs. But it’s one of the year’s strongest releases, crystallizing the sounds from twigs’ 2014 debut LP1 into five musical bursts that are as hard and impenetrable as diamonds. The trip-hop beats and found sounds that categorize her best songs are here, along with a newfound confidence and dabbling in contemporary R&B with “In Time.” M3LL155X was probably released to tide people over until twigs drops her second album, but it’s only made me anticipate a new album even more eagerly. Also, you need to watch the 15-minute short film that accompanied the EP’s release.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “In Time.” This song is a certified banger, with a beautiful and haunting synth melody on the verse that explodes into a chorus with sing-along lyrics and an infectious trap beat. It’s maybe the best song FKA twigs has released so far.

 

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Grimes - Art Angels

 

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If I had to pick, I would say that Art Angels is 2015’s best album. Claire Boucher, the driving force behind the whole Grimes project, is wildly ambitious. She writes, produces, records, and engineers her music and also creates the artwork and directs her own music videos. Having complete creative control over her brand in that way makes her music idiosyncratic and cohesive. Art Angels jumps around all over the pop spectrum, from bubblegum pop (“California,” “Artangels,” “Butterfly”) to experimental, almost abrasive pop (“SCREAM,” “Kill v. Maim”) to dance and house influenced tracks (“REALiTi,” “Venus Fly”). There’s also tender moments in songs like “Easily” and “Belly of the Beat,” and a pop punk influence in “Flesh without Blood” and “Pin.” This blending of genres would be dizzying if it weren’t for Boucher’s singular vision for the album. Art Angels is Grimes’ fourth and best album, and there’s a newfound confidence in Boucher’s singing that wasn’t there on her last album, 2012’s Visions, which was built around airy, featherlight synth tones and vocals that were mixed to almost be part of the background. Art Angels finds Boucher taking in everything her influences and idols have given her and making it into something all her own.

 

HIGHLIGHT: I think I’ve finally decided that it’s “Kill v. Maim,” because that song is just fun as hell. It’s seriously bonkers but so, so good.

 

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Hiatus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon

 

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Hiatus Kaiyote are an Australian neo-soul/funk group. Choose Your Weapon is their second album, following 2013’s Tawk Tomahawk. Lead singer/primary songwriter/guitarist Nai Palm is a force to be reckoned with. Her voice is silky-smooth, and her melodies are knotty and a little hard to remember without repeat listens. Luckily, Choose Your Weapon is an album that rewards deeply after repeat listens. It’s a long album at about 70 minutes, but nothing here really feels like filler. The songs range from 30-second interludes to six-minute epics. This is a weird album made by a bunch of weirdos, but they really know what they’re doing. I saw them live this past October, and they put on an amazing show. The fact that there were only four people on stage creating such involved, intricate music was awe-inspiring.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Borderline With My Atoms” is a slow-burning R&B jam that starts with just piano, bass, guitar, and some sparse percussion and blossoms into something transcendent, with a huge wall of sound and background vocalists.

 

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Jamie xx - In Colour

 

With his main band, the xx, Jamie xx creates music that makes the dead space between notes the most powerful part of many of their best songs. On his solo debut, the approach is a little more maximalist, featuring dance numbers that are probably now being shuffled into DJ mixes all across the world “Sleep Sound” and “Girl” aremostly vocalless, and both songs are hypnotizing and atmospheric. Opener “Gosh” is mesmerizing and frenetic, with a chopped and screwed vocal sample of someone saying “oh my gosh!” being the main driving force. “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” featuring rapper Young Thug and dancehall singer Popcaan, is a trap-infused pop song with clattering percussion.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “High Places,” featuring Jamie xx’s bandmate Romy, is a beautiful pop song with a billowing piano line and a gospel choir, all filtered through Jamie xx’s idiosyncratic production.

 

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John Mark Nelson — I’m Not Afraid

 

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Minneapolis’ pride and joy, John Mark Nelson, is only 22 years old, and I’m Not Afraid is already his fourth album. Nelson started his career recording folk-leaning songs in high school, releasing his first album in 2011. His first three albums stay in that folk field, adding various studio flourishes here and there, but basically sticking to the same sound. It was a good sound for him, and it’s what got me hooked on Nelson when I saw him open for fellow local artist Haley Bonar when she played at Northrop Auditorium in September 2014. On I’m Not Afraid, you can tell that Nelson’s continued success has finally allowed him the luxury of making the album he’s always wanted to. These songs explore different sounds a little bit more, with groovy baselines, lots of piano, and a focus on the vocal interplay between Nelson and keyboardist Kara Laudon (who also released a great solo album this year, I Wasn’t Made). I’ve seen him play these songs live a few times over the last year, and him and his band are unbelievably in sync with each other, and that’s what makes the album so arresting.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “I’ll Give You More” is the greatest example of groovy baselines and lots of piano. The arpeggiated piano melody works so well with Nelson’s vocal melody, and everything just sounds so air-tight and locked in.

 

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Julia Holter — Have You In My Wilderness

 

L.A.’s Julia Holter has spent the last half-decade releasing albums that have mostly gone under the radar, probably because they lease closer to the “art” side of art pop, but Have You In My Wilderness should change that. The album is the most straight-forward and downright poppy music Holter’s ever made. “Sea Calls Me Home” combines the sound of 70s pop like Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel with a killer harpsichord melody, ending with a saxophone freakout.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Betsy on the Roof,” which is built around a beautiful and simple piano chord progression that blossoms into a giant, sky-scraping ballad, with ethereal strings and percussion flourishes.

 

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Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly

 

What’s left to be said about this album? Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly is a jazz-rap opus that discusses themes of social justice and being black in America, and it’s exhilarating. The production is amazing — it’s lush and weird and sounds fresh compared to the rest of the current rap landscape. Lamar is an exceptionally skilled rapper, and tries on many different voices here. This album feels like a capital-A work of Art, an instant rap classic.

 

HIGHLIGHT: I really love “Institutionalized.” It’s funky and beautiful and Snoop Dogg’s verse is the best thing he’s done in a while.

 

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Lady Lamb — After

 

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After is Aly Spaltro’s second album, and first after shortening her name from Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, the name credited to her 2013 debut Ripely Pine. Like on her first album, After finds Spaltro constantly shifting sounds, from the ’90s garage rock and post-punk influence found on songs like “Vena Cava” and “Batter” to the folk singer/songwriter feeling of “Sunday Shoes” and “Ten.” There are some truly weird songs on this album, like “Violet Clementine,” which opens with bluegrass-y banjo and lyrics that sound like a children’s book rhyme that ends on a jazzy sort of vibe, with trumpets and a choir of lead vocalists.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Billions Of Eyes,” the album’s lead single, is so damn catchy — with a bright, cheery guitar sound and really wordy lyrics that are so much fun to sing along to once you’ve finally learned them all. This song mines the sounds of late-’80s/early-’90s indie rock like The Smiths and Pavement, but Spaltro’s commanding voice makes it something all her own.

 

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Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon

 

On Honeymoon, her third album, Lana Del Rey pretty much does away with any semblance of conventional pop sensibility she had left for an atmospheric album of slow-burning torch songs, and it really, really works. There’s nothing upbeat about this album; the tempos never really rise above a funeral march, and that can make it kind of harrowing to listen to. The focus here is on Del Rey’s ever-velvety vocals and the beautiful orchestral arrangements. She doesn’t completely abandon current trends, though. Songs like “Freak” and “Art Deco” feature skittering trap beats (slowed down to fit the lethargic tempos).

 

HIGHLIGHT: “God Knows I Tried” features one of Lana’s best-ever vocal performances. She’s always had very rich and technically-skilled vocals, but on this song, you can hear the emotion in her voice, which is new for the artist.

 

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Laura Marling — Short Movie

 

Laura Marling has been releasing albums since she was 16, and Short Movie is her fifth. She’s only 25, but after five albums of elegant folk music, Marling really seems like someone that could be described as having an “old soul.” Her voice is expressive and sounds like it should be coming from someone at least twice her age. Her lyrics are thoughtful and mention the ups and downs of love with the grace of someone who’s been in love their whole life. Short Movie marks a shift for Marling stylistically, as she wrote and recorded these songs with electric guitar instead of the acoustic sound that had become her trademark after four albums. Her songs don’t lose any of their power or intimacy in light of the change in sound, because she’s become a better writer, singer, and musician overall compared to when she was first starting out. I honestly have no idea where she could go from here, but I’m excited to see.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “False Hope.” It starts with Marling strumming on her electric, and when it hits the second verse, the full band comes in, filling out the sound and delivering one of Marling’s best songs.

 

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Marina And The Diamonds — Froot

 

Marina Diamandis’ third album is her most Marina™ album yet. She wrote the whole album and co-produced it with David Kosten, and most songs are built around guitar, drums, new wave-ish keyboards. The best songs here feature Marina’s voice in the forefront, like the piano ballad opener “Happy,” and the sweeping closer “Immortal.”

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Blue.” It’s feather-light and Marina’s vocals sound amazing. It’s also ridiculously catchy and upbeat; the lyrics are kind of sad but the incessant drum beat still makes you want to dance.

 

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Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love

 

Sleater-Kinney is a Portland-based punk band, featuring Janet Weiss on drums and Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein on guitar and vocals. The band released a string of consistently great albums from the mid-1990s to their last album before No Cities To Love, 2005’s The Woods. During the decade-long hiatus, the members of the band were involved with various other bands and other ventures (Brownstein co-created and stars in Portlandia with former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen). The new album is a half an hour of pummeling drums, bright guitar melodies, and great vocals from Brownstein, who leads on the (ironically) new wave-influenced highlight “A New Wave,” and Tucker, whose cathartic belting is never better than on “Surface Envy.” This is capital-‘R’ Rock music, with the typical political and feminist lyrical themes of their best work, and it shows that these women didn’t lose any of their thunderous energy during the break.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Fangless,” which has a wheelhouse Carrie Brownstein guitar melody and a squelchy, bassy keyboard line. Brownstein and Tucker both sing lead vocals at different points of the song, and it showcases both of their idiosyncratic voices.

 

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Sufjan Stevens

 

This album is emotionally devastating. It documents Sufjan Steven’s memories with his estranged mother until her passing in 2012. Most of these memories come from the summers he and his siblings would spend with their mother (Carrie) and stepfather (Lowell) in Oregon as a child. I mean, the lyrics are about the tough times he had with his mother and grappling with her death from cancer. There’s no way it couldn’t be a heavy listen. The music lets in light where the lyrics don’t. These songs often start out as quiet, plainly- strummed folk songs, and many end with huge, expansive washes of sound. Stevens’ extraordinary gifts as a songwriter and attention to detail have made him of the most popular indie artists of the last decade, and this album will only gain him more notoriety, even though it may be as a sad boy with a guitar.

 

HIGHLIGHT: I can’t pick one. This album is meant to be heard as an album. It’s not that these songs don’t have the same impact individually, but the cohesiveness of the album makes it one of those that when you hear one song from it, you want to listen to the rest.

 

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Tame Impala — Currents

 

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Like Grimes’ Art Angels, Currents is an impossibly huge-sounding and expansive record whose writing, producing, arranging, and engineering credits include only one name. Kevin Parker’s older albums as Tame Impala found him channeling the sounds of ‘60s psychedelic rock, to great success. With Currents, Parker explores the next decade a little bit more — the album is rooted in ‘70s disco and soul, kind of mimicking David Bowie’s shift from glam rock to what he called “plastic soul” on his 1975 album Young Americans. The sound fits nicely on Parker, who still sounds an awful lot like John Lennon. The songs on Currents sound a lot like what I imagine I would be listening to if I were floating on a cloud. “Eventually” juxtaposes a hard rock guitar riff with smooth verses and lush strings. Opener “Let It Happen” is an eight-minute prog disco epic. “‘Cause I’m A Man” is a slow-burning R&B-influenced jam.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “Yes I’m Changing” is dreamy and woozy, with a driving mid-tempo beat and airy synths. It just sounds like there’s so much going on in this song, but it never sounds like too much. Despite the music’s overall sunny disposition, the lyrics deal with moving on after the end of a relationship.

 

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Torres — Sprinter

 

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Sprinter opens with heavy, PJ Harvey-styled guitars on “Strange Hellos” and closes with Mackenzie Scott, the musician known as Torres, nearly whispering into the mic while she strums barely audible acoustic chords on “The Exchange.” This sort of loud/soft dichotomy is stamped all over Sprinter, Torres’s second album, following her 2013 self-titled debut. The sound here is rooted in ‘90s alternative rock territory, sometimes almost crossing over into grunge. There are outliers, though: “Ferris Wheel” is a forlorn, 7-minute ballad that scans as post-rock, and “Cowboy Guilt” is built around an inventive guitar figure that nods to fellow female singer/guitarist St. Vincent.

 

HIGHLIGHT: “New Skin.” This song has a heavy, almost Nirvana-inspired guitar melody on the chorus that juxtaposes the quiet of the verses really well.

-Erik Starkman

Scott MeyerComment