Death Cab for Cutie – No Room In Frame
The newest Death Cab album, Kintsugi, is getting mixed reviews, which is pretty much par for the course for latter day DCFC (or, really, any once critically beloved band), but for my money this is their most thoroughly enjoyable album since Plans. There’s a darkness throughout the album – reflecting Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel – and that’s exactly what was needed to rejuvenate the band (sorry, Ben). For that reason, “No Room in Frame” is the perfect opener, a bitter kiss off to a lover who is too enamored with her own fame and public appearance to allow room for him. It’s biting, incisive and tinged with hurt, like every great Death Cab song should be. Oh yeah, it’s catchy, too.
The Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2
Last year, John Darnielle released Wolf in White Van, his first novel. Well, technically his first novel, because in reality most of his albums are so full of details and painfully true characters that it feels like I’ve been reading Darnielle books for years. When the most recent Mountain Goats release, Beat The Champ, was announced, I was a little skeptical: an entire album about wrestling? Well, no shock, Darnielle managed to take a subject I couldn’t care less about and find the pathos and humanity in it. “Heel Turn 2” is the centerpiece of the album, and besides for having his trademark lyrical vulnerability, it makes a genuine left turn halfway through the song: The vocals disappear and all that’s left is gorgeous, haunting piano work. In a career built on unexpected maneuvers, there’s really only one thing you can count on from Darnielle: Beautiful music.
Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July
If you’re seeing a pattern with these choices this time, there’s a reason for that. This has been a flat out phenomenal year for music so far. I feel spoiled. Not only are some of my favorite artists releasing music, but none have disappointed. Sufjan Stevens came out of hiding with Carrie & Lowell last month, and man does it pack an emotional wallop. Sonically, the album is probably his least varied creation so far – mostly unadorned vocals and piano or guitar with lilting atmospheric tones floating behind him. Yet, each song evokes very specific emotions, like the devastating “Fourth of July” (which brings to mind another holiday song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”). If I had any nitpicks with this album, it’s that it was released 3 months too late. This is clearly winter music.
Damien Rice – I Don’t Want To Change You
Dropping back to last year (only because I already mentioned the Decemberists in my last entry in this series), I have to give a shout out to Damien Rice’s lovely return from exile, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Rice vanished after his last, not-quite-critically beloved album, 9. Folksinger with a guitar is always going to risk being a little too ‘soft rock’ for the critics, and admittedly some of his lyrics can be a bit ponderous. But Rice’s gift has always been in the gut-punch manner his songs connect both the saddest and happiest parts of love in one moment. In that way, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is classic Damien and a stand out track on an album that constantly reminds me why I used to listen to O night after night in my college years.
Taylor Swift – Style
Hate if you must (must you?). Question my manhood (you wouldn’t be the first). Think Taylor Swift is annoying (eh) or a bad singer (eh) or has lousy legs (I will fight you to the death), but it doesn’t matter. I could pretend otherwise, but the truth is, I can’t get enough of this song. I thought “Shake It Off” was catchy, I enjoyed the self-deprecating wit of “Blank Space,” but “Style” is where TSwift (I promise I will never write that again) hits it out of the park. I’ve made no secret of my affection for pure pop gold, and that’s what she’s managed to create here. It’s easy to hate Taylor Swift when she’s talking about life in New York City or saying stupid, 14-year-old girl shit in interviews. It’s a whole lot harder to hate her when she just lets the music play (and, also when she’s wearing a “tight little skirt”).