Ariana Grande: My Everything (Republic) In many ways Ariana Grande typifies all that is superbly ludicrous about popular music. Her actual name sounds like something you’d order at Starbucks. The title of her new album—her second in just under a year—sounds like the climax of a long-forgotten Burger King “Have It Your Way” ad. Like many of today’s hottest young stars, she first made a name for herself on the Nickelodeon/Disney kidsploitation circuit and is pleasingly, perfectly, and anonymously talented. She sounds like Mariah Carey slightly sped up. Her new album features a familiar cast of cronies—Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, Zedd—and is polished, just-this-side of funky-pop, and filled with just enough electronic vocal treatments to vaguely recall that old weird Cher single. She seems perfectly OK, fully functional, and on such tracks as “Break Free” with Zedd, precisely poised to be her generation’s Vicki Sue Robinson. And that’s not a bad thing—just not especially essential.
Robyn Hitchcock: The Man Upstairs (Yep Roc) Robyn Hitchcock’s knack for memorable lyrics and melody has been evident since the earliest days of his much-loved band the Soft Boys; since then, on his own or otherwise, he’s lost little, recorded much, yet never seemed to have wasted his time or ours. Though he’d never admit to being a rock criticky-type himself, his musical areas of interest, like those of, say, Julian Cope’s, are fascinatingly well-schooled in stuff that’s better than the norm. Which may explain why he’s called this new album, produced by no less a figure than Joe Boyd, his “Judy Collins album”—meaning it’s filled with good stuff penned by himself and others, and really does evoke, in the very best sense, those quaint old days. But in 2014, those old days include renditions of Roxy Music (“To Turn You On”), the Psychedelic Furs (“The Ghost In You”), and Grant-Lee Phillips (“Don’t Look Down”), which in their understated manner sound both inspired and completely Hitchcockian. It is good stuff from an artist who has always seemed likely to run around in circles repeating himself, but—as evidenced here—hasn’t yet.
Various Artists: Nashville Outlaws – A Tribute To Motley Crue (Big Machine) An outright fascinating record, if only because it takes some of the most anonymous, wretchedly horrid hard rock imaginable—er, that would be by Motley Crue—and then actually proceeds to put it on a pedestal, to worship it, you might say, by throwing that material to an array of today’s most popular artists in the Country genre, most of whom appear to take it seriously. Yikes! While one could make a case that the glorification of the lowest common denominator that empowered the Crue’s crappy music might translate via scattered “joke”-infused covers (Brantley Gilbert’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” or Rascal Flatts’ “Kickstart My Heart”)—and it’s true, the new versions are just as divinely idiotic as the originals—we’re still trying to forget that Garth Brooks track on that Kiss tribute 20 years ago. I think I’d feel warmer inside if all these people were on an Eddie Rabbitt tribute or something. Maybe they would, too.
Royal Blood: Royal Blood (Warner Bros.) One can’t help but be impressed by the royal thud made by Royal Blood, who would appear to be taking their cues from a peculiar combination of Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes, with Brits Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher offering in their unusual duo context the Stripes’ minimalism and Zep’s maximalism. Considering their apparent inspiration, the new duo’s sources seem more rockish than bluesish—and that’s a good, modern-sounding, non-copyright violating thing—and the entire affair here seems much more forward-looking (and –sounding) than you might think. Really good. And when really loud, even better.
Bitchin Bajas: Bitchin Bajas (Drag City) Must pay tribute to the sheer listenability and all-out coolness of this latest, self-titled set by the Bitchin Bajas—who in the course of making fascinating instrumental music that at times recalls the works of Fripp & Eno and, as with this album, the latter duo’s central inspiration Terry Riley—are just on the right side of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and drone-loving. It’s difficult to take this latest set off—all 18 minutes of album opener “Tilang” just kind of glue you to your seat—but is you have a moment, you might want to visit their website to watch their spectacularly quaint/quaintly spectacular 12-minute video for “Bueu,” which apparently exists only to be enjoyed. How about that?
The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (Matador) For a band that’s been around long enough to garner praise that seems oddly damning in its faintness (“the 24th best indie album of all time,” “No. 79 in the ‘100 Best Albums Of The Decade’”), the New Pornographers, when they’re good, are exceptionally good, and this record is precisely that. There are oodles of talented humans making music in this group; not a single song sounds like another; odd tracks like “Spidyr” pop up, evoke names like Bill Pritchard and David Werner, then suddenly blow up in your face, apparent harmonica in hand. Their first album in four years, Brill Bruisers is rich, substantial, and really, really good pop music.
Rustie: Green Language (Warp) Returning for album number two, Scottish electronic music dude Rustie betters 2011’s Glass Swords with a vibrant suite of sonics that combine what his bio refers to as his love of “shoegaze, grime, trance and Dirty South hip-hop” into a compelling and joyful diversity of sound. As the feathered dudes on the album cover helpfully illustrate, “green language” is otherwise known as “language of the birds”—not for the birds, mind you—and there’s a subtlety and beauty on display here, between the bursts of high energy and D Double E proclaiming “What goes up / Must come down,” that makes that cover surprisingly appropriate. Youthful, creative and energized, and nary an egg laid anywhere.
Opeth: Pale Communion (RoadRunner) Not just a surprisingly strong album for this long-lived Swedish heavy metal band—their 11thstudio set—but a highly listenable and creatively arranged piece of music likely to appeal to many. A while back, the band’s Mikael Åkerfeldt was singing the praises of the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle and Scott Walker’s The Drift, and while nothing here approaches that heavenly stuff—which would not be easy—both that level of music appreciation and the participation of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, who mixed the album, could only make this a very significant step up for the band. If you’ve never heard Opeth, here’s a good place to start. Recommended.