Top Ten Albums of 2017

I’ve rarely felt so detached from the prevailing music culture as I did in 2017. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

It’s not only that my resounding obliviousness of the songs that stormed the pop charts (I wouldn’t recognize Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” or Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” juggernauts both, if they started spilling out of a speaker near me), since that’s been the case for quite some time. This year, I also felt a detachment from the albums that were ensnarled the attention of music tastemakers. I dallied with the likes of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Lorde’s Melodrama, and Fever Ray’s Plunge only to find myself aware of artistry and purpose while also feeling a pronounced disconnection. When I’m feeling generous, I attribute the personal chill to the simple possibility that these albums are not for me. In less gregarious moments, I’m convinced I’m assessing music in an Emperor’s New Album scenario.

Given the compounding misery of the year about to close, maybe I found greater solace in the familiar, the new music that spoke directly to my embedded preferences. As I type, I’m listening to Savage Young Dü, the unlikely box set collecting early, largely unheard material from Husker Dü, and it’s warming my soul like few other records have these past twelve months. So this list of the best new albums of 2017 may not stand up to scrutiny from modern music aesthetes, but it absolutely speaks to where I’m at now. I don’t know if this list is cool, but it’s absolutely mine.

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1. Perfume Genius, No Shape — Every time I cycle back to No Shape, I am awestruck anew by its majesty, poignancy, and piercing beauty. Mike Hadreas delivers epic pop music, awash in layers of sweeping, unpredictable sounds. It manages to be massive and intimate at the same time, the latter quality enhanced by the brutal, beautiful honesty of Hadreas’s lyrics, tracing love and hope and pain with surgical precision and disarming ruthlessness.

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2. St. Vincent, Masseduction — Annie Clark’s jagged genius decimates all the rules of rock and pop. Songs soar and simmer, constantly offering devious flurries of invention even as she embraces the rigors of established pop song craft like never before. Few other current artists so consistently push boundaries with the same enrapturing results.

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3. Waxahatchee, Out in the StormThe creative outlet of ace guitarist and sharp songwriter Katie Crutchfield hit a new peak with Out of the Storm, an album of heartache channeled into swirls of contained sonic fury. The influence of nineteen-nineties alternative rock is still present, but Crutchfield’s palette has marvelously expanded.

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4. Diet Cig, Swear I’m Good at This — The full-length debut from this poppy punk duo is jammed full of songs that deliver their sharp jab and bound away. The lyrics are clever and lined with the awaking feminist urgency of lead singer and guitarist Alex Luciano. The jumpy joy Diet Cig obviously feels in making the music is infectious.

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5. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding — Complex and soulful, A Deeper Understanding is the sort of album that would undoubtedly be plentiful if the sonic textures of classic rock had kept evolving over the years. Instead, it’s a blessed rarity, drawing on familiar styles while forging something beautifully distinct.

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6. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream — Whether viewed a comeback or simply the next entry from an outfit that laid low for a bit, American Dream is a jubilant blast of creative dance music met with wry, understated lyrics. It’s a spirited survey of all the possibilities of the form.

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7. Grizzy Bear, Painted Ruins — Deceptively easygoing, the fifth album from Grizzly Bear is resonant and alluring. The band comes up with crafty melodies and punchy hooks, then sketches in musical details that promise fresh discoveries with every listen.

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8. The Mountain Goats, Goth — Theming an album around the outsider cultures that found respite in the most glamorously gloomy artists of the heyday of college rock (The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Gene Loves Jezebel are among the bands explicitly invoked), songwriter John Darnielle finds one of his purest muses yet.

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9. Sylvan Esso, What Now — An album fixated on the freeing pleasures of great pop songs is appropriately built around tracks that sound like they could dominate the charts if justice was a component of popular taste. The unashamed simplicity of the pining for pop song pleasures is exactly what makes What Now wondrous.

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10. Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock — The absurdist musical master’s finest album since Spooked, released in 2004, is giddily playful, loping through genre exercises with a carefree confidence. It plays like a statement of revived purpose.

Previously…

Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2012
Top Ten Albums of 2013
Top Ten Albums of 2014
Top Ten Albums of 2015
Top Ten Albums of 2016

The New Releases Shelf — Colors

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(Image nicked from Beck’s Twitter)

Even as I’ll admit that I’m fairly detached from up-to-the-minute music scene scuttlebutt, it seems to me there’s a surprising lack of enthusiasm or even basic interest around the release of Colors, the new album by Beck. This is an artist who has been a major figure in pop music for around twenty-five years and who is also coming off an album that won him the top prize at the Grammys, joining the small legion of performers who unfairly bested Beyoncé in entertainment award competitions. (Don’t even get me started on Lemonade losing out to whatever drivel Adele hacked up that year.) I understand that taste is fickle and fleeting, but how can Colors be such a minor blip?

I’d like to think it’s because that trophy-nabbing predecessor, Morning Phase, has come under enough sharp enough critical reassessment that the realization has widely dawned that it’s actually a fairly dull affair. That’s probably not it, though. The problem could be the major lag time between the first bubblings of the album, over one year ago, and it’s ultimate release, a circumstance Beck chalks up to a determination that the overall chipperness of the music might not sit all that well in the immediate fallout of a gruesome presidential campaign and even more dire election. Maybe the explanation is yet simpler than that. Colors is bright, frothy, and a little wobbly. Its imperfection can make it seem like a let-down.

Regardless of the purposeful creativity Beck insists he brought to the album, Colors plays like a grab bag of decent ideas executed with a mindset that wavers between playful and mildly disengaged. Arguably, “I’m So Free” is the most emblematic track. It is stuffed full of studio-driven notions and indulges in some pleasingly modern concerns in its passing consideration of digital isolation (“Who am I supposed to be/ In the middle of the day with no good connection?/ I’m so free now”), but there’s a distressing Weezer-ish quality to its basic buzz-pop lope, and the insertion of rapidly jabbered lyrics with a magnetic poetry randomness only delivers greater sabotage.

The minor reworking of early single “Dreams” maintains its joyfully rambunctious embrace of every effective dance music trick, and “Dear Life” nicely splits the difference between Beck’s layered dance music explosions and his more ruminative, Sunday-morning-acoustic side. There are also instances of reasonable curiosity, such as “No Distraction,” which is the sort of track the Police might have come up with had they embraced disco around the time of Ghost in the Machine. Even if they feel a little negligible at first, they have the sonic stickiness that has always distinguished Beck from other quasi-ironic musical tricksters in his alternative rock peer group.

The album is also saddled with more regrettable examples of Beck’s craft. “Fix Me” is drippy and drab, and “Up All Night” sputters along with hints of Avalanches-style manipulated sounds and a groove that strains for the spirit relaxed Prince. Those qualities could be intriguing, achieving the invention-through-appropriation scheme that has lately proven winning for the likes of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. Instead, the song sounds recycled, a bit of a shock from one of music’s more iconoclastic figures.

Despite the missteps, there are pleasures to be found on Colors. Beck is a skilled creator, and even uncertain swings of the piñata stick are likely to spill some candy. It’s his thirteenth studio album, after all. Consistent ingenuity can only be expected to last so long. Colors might not be a tremendous event, but some attention should be paid.

The New Releases Shelf — Masseduction

 

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Image by Simon Genillier Roelsgaard, taken from St. Vincent’s Twitter.

Of the wondrous “New York,” the lead single off Masseduction, Annie Clark recently said it was the first entry from her swath of creations under the name St. Vincent that she listened to and believed it could be someone’s favorite song. Modesty aside, that might be a baffling notion given the spiky feats of musical genius Clark has already delivered. But it also speaks to a willful evolution she’s undertaken across her past two albums. In reflecting on the material on her prior record — the best in show St. Vincent —Clark recounted the way touring with David Byrne opened her up to the sheer enjoyment that could be stirred up in audiences. She makes great art. Maybe she can make favorite songs, too. Even the title speaks to bringing a teeming group of people under her sway.

Masseduction, the fifth St. Vincent album, performs the dazzling magic act of sounding more commercial without particularly compromising. “New York” after all, hinges on repeated variants of the lyrics “You’re the only mother fucker in the city who can handle me,” all delivered with a charming tenderness. It may be polished, but its not in retreat, simpering for affection. For a co-producer, Clark enlisted Jack Antonoff, who has portions of Taylor Swift’s 1989 on his resume, but the music only slips so far down the spectrum to candy-colored pop. Across the album, tracks are closer to the Lemonade model: layered, dense, confessional, confrontational, intoxicating.

“I know you’re probably sleeping/ I got this thing I keep thinkin’/Yeah, I admit I’ve been drinkin’/ The void is back and I’m blinkin’,” Clark sings on album opener “Hang on Me,” over synthesized waves of sound that make it seem as if the song is edging down a very long, potentially treacherous hallway. It quickly establishes the way the album is going to offer personal revelation beyond what Clark has allowed previously. (St. Vincent started with an impish diversion about naked cavorting with desert reptiles.) But as it unfolds, “Hang on Me” also makes it clear that Clark’s talent for sonic invention is also moving into unprecedented territory. The music undulates and swerves, inviting scrutiny and repelling easy categorization.

The second track is “Pills,” which initially seems more familiar, trading in Clark’s sexy robot act with an almost nursery rhyme repetitiveness (if a nursery rhyme would casually reference “Pills to fuck,” that is). Then, at the midway point, that shiny sheath falls away like a stainless steel theater curtain, suddenly transforming the song into an almost Beatlesque psychedelic swirl. It’s an assertion of intent. Clark will take songs anywhere her riotously creative soul sees fit.

The album is a procession of grand discovery. There’s the rigorously blendered dance music of “Fear the Future” and the elegant drama of “Slow Disco” (which vaguely recalls Kate Bush). Even when Clark veers toward the potentially trite, she salvages the song with the purity of her intent and the offhand invention she brings to every detail. At first, “Los Ageless” strikes me as a little too easy in its punny social commentary, but my resistance is entirely disarmed by its forward thrust and the vulnerable ache of the chorus: “How can anybody have you?/ How can anybody have you and lose you?/ How can anybody have you and lose you/ And not lose their mind?”

Clark’s instincts as a creator are unassailable, and her capability as performer keeps up. Her vocals have a crystalline clarity that’s been in evidence before, but there are added glimmers of character and warmth that are new. It’s another act of engagement, one more component to reach out to the listener. Masseduction is unmistakably an extension of the icy art of earlier St. Vincent albums, but there’s a newfound openness that’s thrilling. The closing track, “Smoking Section,” features Clark’s wavering, fragile voice repeatedly singing, “It’s not the end.” That seems right. Masseduction, I’d wager, is only the beginning.

The New Releases Shelf — Lotta Sea Lice

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There’s plenty to like about the music of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, but I honestly don’t know that it would have ever occurred to me that the pair would make dandy collaborators. While they both exhibit an arch cleverness and an unyielding faith in the worthy primacy of the guitar, I think of Barnett as punchy and genially anxious, which is somewhat out of step with Vile grunge-doused hippie comfort with sprawling soundscapes. In general, Barnett’s songs spring up, spill their ample charms, and skitter away. Vile has never sounded quite as contented as when he swelled the almost-title cut to his 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, near to the ten-minute mark.

Officially, the album Lotta Sea Lice finds Barnett and Vile take turns on songwriting duties — four tracks are credited to Vile, three to Barnett, there are two covers, and no collaborations — but it all sounds like a enfolding of sensibilities. And there are times when one creator seems to deliberately try to ape the other. I was certain that the lyrics “I cherish my intercontinental friendships/ We talk it over continental breakfast” (on “Continental Breakfast,” natch) sprung from Barnett’s inky pen, until I checked the credits. Across the album, Barnett’s propulsive instincts are slowed by Vile’s lackadaisical drag, and Vile’s slope-shouldered indifference is roused by Barnett’s alertness.

If the bedfellows seem less strange that I expected, they can occasionally get a little too lost in the tenderness of their musical explorations. Mostly, though, the record is sharp and engaging. Album opener “Over Everything” is an ideal introduction, alternating Vile and Barnett on lyrics about the ways in which hope and depression quietly coexist (“When I’m outside in a real good mood/ You could almost forget bout all the other things/ Like a big old ominous cloud in my periphery”) and the guitars and drums trot along with ease. The lovely guitar muddiness of “On Script” is reminiscent of mid-nineties R.E.M. at their most downbeat, and “Peepin’ Tom” (a revised version of “Peeping Tomboy,” from Vile’s excellent Smoke Ring for My Halo), with its rubbery acoustic guitar sound and Barnett’s warm, wafting vocals, amazingly suggest what Edie Brickell and New Bohemians might sound like if a rift in the timescape caused them to emerge today.

Lotta Sea Lice ultimately comes across as a uncommonly productive lark. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t give the impression that is it — or should be — the beginning of some long, prosperous partnership between Barnett and Vile. It’s no slight to note that one album might be plenty. The case is made. They work well together. There’s enough evidence already to make the judgment clear.

The New Releases Shelf — Sleep Well Beast

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Since the release of Sleep Well Beast, the seventh studio album from the National, the commentary has settled into two camps. There are those who insist that the album represents a serious modification of the band’s sound, pushing into intriguing new sonic territory. Then there’s the counterargument, maintaining the material is an echo of all that’s come before, and a little pallid due to that familiarity. Maybe, just maybe, both camps are correct.

Sleep Well Beast couldn’t have come from any other band. All of the National trademarks are in place, including Matt Berninger’s deep-pitched vocal gravity and the lush intricacies of the music conceived by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner. The sound of the National doesn’t move so much as it undulates, sending out tendrils of melodic texture to snake in the listener. At the most comfortably in line with past triumphs — like the loping “Day I Die” and the intoxicating, spirited croon of “I’ll Still Destroy You” — the band almost seems to be offering an assurance. There may be embellishments around the fringes, but the general mode is same as it ever was. When a band’s legacy is as strong as the National’s, echoes aren’t a bad thing.

I’d argue Sleep Well Beast is also successful when the National explores different terrain. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” scabbed with rhythmic, electrified guitar trills, practically aches to turn into the sort of disco-fied arena anthem Arcade Fire has been trafficking in of late. The song’s stubborn refusal to do so creates its own satisfying tension. Similarly, “Turtleneck” takes an established form and adorns it with so much restless exploration that the evocative yet cryptic lyrics (“Now Mother, let your daughter dance with me/ I’d like to spin her wild around the cottonwood tree/ There’s something ’bout her eyes, I think her roots are rotten/ This must be the reason she wears her hair up in knots”) resonate with a revived immediacy, allowing for a bracing connection with the band’s plainspoken poetry.

Even so, there are stretches, especially late in the album, when the material is mired in its own dulled introspection. The lyrics sometimes tip toward the redundant and trite, as on “Carin at the Liquor Store” (“It’s gonna be different after tonight/ You’re gonna see me in a different light”). But the graver problem is a sense that the music stays locked in a dreadfully low gear. “Dark Side of the Gym” is the band at its sleepiest, and the lengthy title cut, which closes the album, is obviously mean to be ruminative and profound. In truth, it meanders, tromping down high grasses without ever forging a path.

If Sleep Well Beast is a mixed bag, the National have earned the imperfections of their experiments. Their ability to combine earnest dramatics with quiet insights is unmatched among their peers. They make music that demands to be heard, wrestled with, felt down to the marrow. The offerings here don’t drive as deep with the same sort of immediacy, but I suspect they might keep burrowing as time goes by.

The New Releases Shelf: American Dream

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I mean, no one really thought there would never be another LCD Soundsystem album, right?

For all the anguish and wistful valedictory celebration that accompanied the announcement of LCD Soundsystem’s farewell, back in 2011, the dissolution of James Murphy’s triumphant collaboration of electronic extravaganzas always felt temporary. Viewed benignly, it seemed like more than an impulsive hiatus. Under more cynical examination, it had the air of a calculated put-on, which Murphy has basically admitted was the case.

And here we are, in the dazzling, spinning mirror ball reflected light of the least surprising reunion in ages. American Dream is the fourth full-length under the LCD Soundsystem name, and it no mere rehash. It shimmers and soars with all the same anxious ingenuity that has typified the group’s output from the start. Album opener “Oh Baby” immediately sets the mind at lovely unease, sounding like a warmer Public Image Ltd (I catch a hint of “Rise” in the track’s heartbeat rhythms) as Murphy pines with language that is simultaneously simple and achingly poetic (“Oh lover/ You run from me/ We move like a bad scene/ Shot in the dark”). It establishes that Murphy and his crew are back in the mode of channeling decades of electronic influences into material that is inventive and original.

In that alchemy that makes the familiar into the blazingly new, American Dream is a sort of successor — or perhaps an answer — to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Where the French duo was explicit in their glitter-doused history lessons — bringing the likes of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder along for the rollicking ride — LCD Soundsystem is slyer, more playful in deploying echoes of influence. “Other Voices” takes the ersatz funk of Talking Heads and folds in the mind-bending casual experimentation of Laurie Anderson. It’s followed by “I Used To,” which sounds like Art of Noise with a welcome soul transplant. And “How Do You Sleep?” plays like the disco reconstruction U2 thought they were making, circa Zooropa and Pop.

Drawing those comparisons might imply American Dream is derivative. It’s not. LCD Soundsystem has long had a skill for making their material reverberate with grand invention. That remains in full evidence throughout the new album. “Tonite” is a quintessential LCD Soundsystem song, at once satirizing and mastering modern dance floor fare as Murphy zings back and forth between slump-shouldered asides and questing croons in his vocals. “But embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted/ By versions of selves that we thought were the best ones/ ‘Til versions of versions of others repeating/ Come laughing at everything we thought was important,” he sings, getting at the existential woes of the modern age with a plain perfectness that puts to shame lyricists who stick with the established she-made-me-happy-then-she-made-me-sad grammar of pop songs.

As the album grooves to a close with the elegance of “Black Screen,” a heartbroken, mournful, and icily experimental David Bowie tribute, its clear that LCD Soundsystem have provided a danceable argument for their continued contribution to the pop culture discourse, no matter what feigned bows they may have already taken. There’s no cause for a band to leave the stage when they can still dominate it. The dream is real, and it offers uncommon sonic luxuries.

The New Releases Shelf: A Deeper Understanding

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I readily concede that at this melancholy moment there’s a greedy desire to hear echoes of Tom Petty just about everywhere. But, whenever I now cycle back to A Deeper Understanding, the new album from the War on Drugs, I hear little shimmers of Petty’s reflected sensibility all over the place. The album’s first track, “Up All Night,” might open with a electronic hummingbird shiver that seems nicked from a vintage Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but it quickly gives in to a loping, keening melody that is like an even more relaxed version of Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Elsewhere, “Pain” has the balladic ruminating and “Nothing to Find” has some of the highway reverberation I associate with the dearly departed rock legend.

Acknowledging those comparisons upfront seems only prudent, since they’ll happen anyway and will be conspicuous no matter how they’re deployed. The invocations are inevitable because I can’t listen to the War on Drugs without my mind tumbling into a undulating mass of other artists, each new musical reminiscence arriving and departing with the fleeting suddenness of a bursting bubble. When I wrote briefly about the Philadelphia band’s previous album, Lost in the Dream, I conceded my bafflement in trying to settle on an assessment of what the music contained therein sounded like to me. “Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey,” I wrote, helplessly. The new album sounds nothing like that. Except when it does. Once again, it changes day to day.

In less certain, less capable hands, the tonal and spiritual fluidity would come across as indication of soulless, visionless music. A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be further from that. Chief songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel builds tracks of strident sonic exploration, like a Flaming Lips record, but aspiring to the polished discipline adopted by legacy rockers when they were given the keys to state of the art recording studios in the nineteen-eighties. “In Chains” has signs of Jackson Browne’s gentle agitation, “Strangest Thing” could have retrieved from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, and the sprawling “Thinking of a Place” is one whole side of an old LP all on its own, cooing and coaxing toward achy poignancy.

Amazingly, this tall stack of the familiar doesn’t tally up to a finished product that moans with derivativeness. Rich with the past and crackling with the easy confidence of an artist with a restless eye to the future, A Deeper Understanding feels fiercely original in its commitment to a certain true-heartedness that used to come standard on rock ‘n’ roll albums. I’m not sure if any of the predecessors of the War on Drugs feel as though they’ve passed the torch along to them, but it doesn’t matter. A Deeper Understanding shows they’ve got a firm grasp on it, and they’re carrying it proudly.

The New Releases Shelf: Painted Ruins

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(image found elsewhere)

In the best way, Grizzly Bear makes music that nags at me. Although there’s the occasional track that is immediately arresting — “Yet Again,” from 2012’s Shields, for example — but my predominant experience with the group’s music is one of not realizing it’s taking up residence in my brain until it seems as if it’s spilled and swelled to take up every corner. Other bands are all clamor and clatter. Grizzly Bear insinuates.

This is usually the kind of description that sends me skittering for different quarry in the record store, generally adverse to the sort of sonic wallpaper it often represents. At least across Grizzly Bear’s past couple of albums — including the new Painted Ruins, their first in five years — my normal rules of engagement are torn up and scattered to the winds. The songs are sly and rich with tricky, intriguing musical details. As I listen to Painted Ruins, I’m not immediately intoxicated, but there’s a bourbony waft that creates a quick comfort.

The opening track, “Wasted Acres,” appropriately establishes the vibe of the album. It is a lushly lackadaisical seduction, as if the end goal is a dozy cuddle in a hammock rather than something more carnal. The lyrics are spare, even simple (“Were you even listening?/ Were you riding with me?/ Were you even listening?”), putting the burden on the music. Like a living thing, the music rises up to meet the challenge, taking swerving curves as it goes. Both perpetuating and reinventing the textures of electronica, the song — like the rest of the album — is bold, vivid, inventive. At their most head-spinning, Grizzly Bear is like Sonic Youth if they’d tried to make something unbearably pretty.

Despite the layers of creativity, Grizzly Bear’s music sounds decidedly unlabored, as if it simply sprung into being or was at least captured casually. On the jabbing “Mourning Sound,” Edward Droste sings, “It’s the sound of distant shots and passing trucks,” and it’s easy to imagine the song here began as the same sort of syncopated ambiance. Thrillingly, the album has the feel of interpretation as much as creation. A universe collapsed into the studio and Grizzly Bear described what they saw, most of them using instruments rather than words. Only by capturing the pulse of that mystical dimension do they find their way to the chugging, pinging musical refrain of “Losing All Sense” or the forceful bursts in the heart of “Cut-Out.”

Others were a skill for crafting music — or at least a reasonable grasp of its composite tasks — can undoubtedly identify the mechanics of the tracks on Painted Ruins better than me. I’m left with elaborate equations, such as noting the tick-tock rhythm, warbling electronic effects, and mildly psychedelic come on vocals on “Glass Hillside” make it into the musical equivalent of slowly slurping a neon elixir through a bendy straw. There might be some flailing nonsense built into that description, evidence of a need to make sense of something that it slightly beyond me. But I’ve got to make my attempts, no matter how flawed. As I noted, Painted Ruins is rebounding around my head.

The New Releases Shelf: Dark Matter

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In November, Randy Newman will turn seventy-four years old. Despite his advancing years, he sounds exactly the same as he always has in his latest full-length release, Dark Matter, his eleventh studio album. That’s not a testament to virile youthfulness bursting forth from the record. To the contrary, Dark Matter fits comfortably into Newman’s discography because he’s sounded like a cantankerous old man from the very beginning. The masterful early albums 12 Songs and Sail Away sound like they were crafted by the most world weary human being imaginable, his very soul beaten down by years of cynicism-inducing spiritual abuse. He was still in his twenties when he made those.

Dark Matter opens with Newman extolling, “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” in the last moment of benevolence the album holds. Well, even that’s not quite true, as the sentiment drips with irony, introducing the atypically sprawling song to come. Across the eight minutes of “The Great Debate,” Newman presents the scientific and political arguments of the day as a moderated argument (“Next question, global warming/ Is it? And if so, so what?”), playing every role and alternately freely between vaudevillian showmanship, Broadway bombast, and co-opted gospel (the latter representing the “true believers,” who respond to every major mystery of the universe with “I’ll take Jesus every time”). The listening public is put on notice: Newman is going to do whatever the hell he wants to do.

Sometimes, that generally admirable credo doesn’t yield gold. “Putin,” a track about the Russian leader, is dopey and frankly beneath Newman. It plays like a song hammered together absentmindedly in a bid for attention. His ode to Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sonny Boy,” similarly would make a better opening number for a musical about the blues icon rather than an album centerpiece. That quality slips into other tracks on the album, giving it a veneer of skilled cast-offs rather than a cohesive artistic statement. Sometimes, that’s clearly the case, as with “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which was first written for the television show Monk, over a decade ago. That’s not uniformly problematic (Newman’s cast-offs are better than most songwriter’s pinnacles), but I couldn’t help but wish that the album grabbed me a little more tightly, with a little more urgency.

As much as Newman has been justly vaunted for his bleak comedy over the years, he’s at his best when he gives in to an inclination towards the quietly lovely, though even his sentimental streak is speckled with defeat. “Lost Without You” unfolds as the tenderest of love songs, briefly and gently obscuring its story of a dying woman and the grown children wary of looking after the drunken widower left behind (“They said, ‘Has he been drinking again?/ He stumbled at the door/ He can’t take care of himself, Mama/ We can’t do this any more'”). Album closer “Wandering Boy” is also tinged with loss, imaging a father worried about a son who’s gone missing. They’re poignant short stories rendered as lyrics, the piano kindly providing a melodic pulse.

Newman, of course, has nothing to prove. He can approach any new album with diverted attention and still wind up with something that can stand proudly within his discography. If Dark Matter is unlikely to become a major entry in the Newman canon, matching the genius of his first few records (or his finest movie scores, for that matter) is an unreasonable goal anyway. Uncompromising perseverance is achievement enough. If a few truly exquisite moments are delivered, too — and they are — all the better. Maybe the world isn’t all that wearying, after all.

The New Releases Shelf: Everything Now

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When I first heard songs from Reflektor, the fourth album from Arcade Fire, I was left a little cold. The long run-up to that album, the Montreal band’s follow-up to the surprise Grammy winner The Suburbs, doled out songs one by one. The strategy was meant to tantalize, but it did the material a disservice. Individually, the track could seem muddled, aimless, overburdened by a seeming attempt to present a sonically different identity for the band. Together, though, they cohered into something grand and complicated. Emboldened by success, Arcade Fire was intent to keep growing, evolving, challenging.

I shared this observation as acknowledgement that I consider my initial reactions to Arcade Fire music to be a little suspect. With each new release, there are mysteries afoot, and, more than any of their contemporaries, Arcade Fire is a band that operates with a stealthy ingenuity. While they have a flair for opening salvos — whether advance singles or opening tracks — that fiercely demolish expectations, their clearest, more enviable skill is a level of musical craft that seeps into the psyche. Their music lasts.

Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s fifth album, and it has already stirred some of the predictable commentary about unwanted shifts in sound. To my ears, it takes no more dramatic of a step than any of its predecessors. It draws on an expands on the clamorous electronics of Reflektor, just as Reflektor took and transformed the fevered propulsive energy of The Suburbs, and that album was an understandable next step from the complex layering of Neon Bible. Only someone who hasn’t sampled the band since the days of their debut, Funeral, should find the sound of Everything Now jarring.

And when Everything Now is at its most grand and grabbing — at its most immediate — it is as good as all of those terrific earlier albums. The title cut sparkles with Abba-esque pop flair, driven by dreamy swirls bracketing an exuberant chant, like it’s just waiting for the modern equivalent of Olivia Newton-John roller skating her cares away. The lyrics are less celebratory, sketching out an existence of helpless consumption that bludgeons the soul, that friction is part of what makes the track strong. There are similar gratifying contradictions on the skittering “Creature Comfort” and the air disco of “Electric Blue.” The lyrics can get a touch too leaden, burdened by ill-conceived melding of the literal and the coyly cryptic, but the band’s showmanship provides a good enough disguise much of the time.

Although I’m inclined to give the band quite a but of latitude, there are stretches that come across as half-baked or otherwise poorly thought out. “Chemistry,” with its odd Reggae-tinged beat, plays like an experiment that no one involved had the nerve to veto, and and the double dose of “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” misguidedly marvels at the different ways the second word can be pronounced and the altered meanings that come with the shift. It’s presumably meant to be cheeky, but it winds up merely dopey, the intellectual posturing of a teen who thinks they’re the first to discover a philosophical pun.

There’s fine material on Everything Now. Arcade Fire is likely awash in too much creativity to turn in a true dud — at this point, at least — but the new album is the first to suggest they can stretch little notions too far, until they snap and recoil back to leave a nasty welt. I thought bits and pieces of prior albums were drab until they eroded my resistance, so gradual forces might also be at play here. What’s different is that I’d occasionally found passages of the earlier albums drab, and Everything Now sometimes crosses over to grating.

Maybe I’m judging too quickly. I’ve been mistaken before. It’s time to live with Everything Now, holding out hope it will win me over. It’s got a tougher task than I ever would have expected.