As you can see, we have a “Part 1” title of Albums of the Month. That’s because May is so packed with music it would be an awfully unruly article to provide you with all of May’s recommendations at one time. So we’re splitting it up into some of the best records that came out in the first half of the month.
Also, next time we’ll have a Very Special Episode of Albums of the Month, which will not just be talking about the best albums of May, but the genre they represent and what that genre means in the larger world of independent music.
But for now, two of May’s bigger releases…
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Nine albums in twenty years, with only two falling to the level of “ok, this isn’t the greatest thing released this year,” seems like an unbelievable standard to hold a band to. These days, releases are more spaced out, the artist no longer pressured to keep pushing out LP-length content to make their living (not that their songs are actually making them a living in the first place). It gets slightly less impressive when you start considering Radiohead in the context of the greatest bands that have ever existed; The Cure put out nine albums in 13 years; Led Zeppelin, nine in 13 years; The Beatles, 12 albums in seven years (?!). In that context, the fact that Radiohead have had two albums that could be classified as “weak” is a severe mark against them.
That’s how far along on the sliding scale of modern Western pop-rock history Radiohead have drifted. As an increasing number of hip-hop artists this millennia stake their claim among the all-timers (Beyonce, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar), the landscape of rock bands that belong in conversation with Lennon, McCartney, Richards, Jagger and Page seems completely bare, save Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Further still, the group’s 2011 album The King of Limbs was a weak-willed effort by an increasingly woozy Yorke to impose more of his will on the band, diminishing results be damned.
Thankfully, A Moon Shaped Pool is a reclamation of Radiohead’s legacy, as fitting a (potential) coda on their career as one could imagine. All the necessary Radiohead adjectives are on full display here: spectral, icy, tense, paranoid, gorgeous, technically precise. Yet in the vein of the band’s great six-album run where it sort of felt like they might never make a non-perfect song again (The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows), Pool also dances around the beating heart of a group that can still pump out the pathos of feeling men. The glassy keyboards drip from “Glass Eyes,” lilting strings as Yorke’s meandering, startlingly clear verse burbles out from the fog: insecurity, a lack of knowledge of the future, but also a relatable protagonist in a situation many people have felt themselves in.
Pool is a stylistic descendant from In Rainbows, the sharp arpeggios of Radiohead’s rhythm section and the playful, Wonka-esque kitchen sink approach of Jonny Greenwood at his station (will he pluck his guitar? Will he throw a splash of synthetic color on the canvas?) play off of each other, guaranteeing wonder and surprise. When Yorke is noodling his falsetto around “broken hearts/ make it rain,” Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood keep the band grounded while Jonny takes everybody into space.
The album suffers from some thematic emptiness; it’s unclear why, at this moment, Radiohead thought these eleven songs deserved to be put out into the public. This is the same disease King of Limbs was afflicted with, and it has more to do with Radiohead’s excellence timing the releases of their masterworks to specific cultural moments than the actual quality of the records. Still, the largest criticism you might be able to levy on A Moon Shaped Pool is that it’s just another excellent Radiohead album. Maybe the second half drags in places (“The Numbers” gets bogged down a bit in a watery haze), but the sequence from “Desert Island Disk” to “Identikit” is so on point its hard to fault the band for tailing a bit off.
Which is why it’s also hard to categorize Radiohead against anything but itself. The band was so unassailable for so long that when they create something merely excellent, instead of “moment-defining,” it feels slightly empty. “True Love Waits,” the closing track, and the most popular Radiohead b-side of all time, clutches the album together and defines the band’s moment in time. Perhaps, in our haste to put Radiohead in the box of all great artists, we’ve left the band’s own identity behind. All members of the band have gone off and done their own thing; Jonny and Thom in particular have brought their soundtrack work and dance-y techno back to the band in the best possible way. But if King Of Limbs was Radiohead losing its way at the precipice of its ending, A Moon Shaped Pool (conceivably) closes the Radiohead novel as tastefully as one could imagine. As the piano plinks of “True Love Waits” fade away, the question of Radiohead’s future remains… but it doesn’t seem so dark anymore.
RIYL: C’mon, it’s Radiohead
Essential Tracks: “Daydreaming,” “Ful Stop,” “Glass Eyes,” “Identikit,” “True Love Waits”
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Somehow, after its enormous April, hip-hop still had some gas left to release the most anticipated mixtape since Lil Wayne was messing around and killing Swizz Beatz joints on his Drought series. So, fresh off his 23rd birthday and his most recent hospitalization, Chancellor Bennet, aka Chance the Rapper, returned to bless hip-hop with his own brand of all-consuming rap jubilation.
As noted last month on my review of Kweku Collins’ Nat Love, hip-hop finds itself in an clouded headspace, consumed by the proliferation of mind-altering substances that don’t have the inherent dangers of the old drugs. All of the up-and-comers, as well as a decent percentage of the stars, fumble around in the morass of trap hats and psilocybin, sometimes falling into a bizarrely compelling sound (hey, Young Thug) but more often existing as more of a trinket of a time when hip-hop lost its way (‘sup Yachty).
Which is not to say that Chance is some straight-edge icon. He gets as woozy as the rest of them on “Mixtape” (featuring Thug and Yachty), or as hyped up on “All Night.” But what sets Coloring Book, and Chancellor, apart is Chance’s refusal to let his artistry define itself with drugs. Rather, he retreats to music as a drug, an escape from all the other escapes that have come to define his scene.
Coloring Book opens on this note. “All We Got” is a bombastic choral shaker combining Chance’s winning spirit and Kanye West’s epic scope. It’s a fitting opener; West’s influence is all over the album, in obvious and subtle ways. Chance doesn’t dodge away from this, explicitly referencing his Kanye support on the simple spoken word poem “Blessings.” But by the time “No Problem” blasts through the speakers with its explosive chorus, there’s no question about whose time the listener is on. Ping-ponging from brassy chorus beats (“No Problem) to juke-y slow jams (“Juke Jam”) to blissed out smoke breaks (“Smoke Break”), Chancellor never feels out of control of the Popemobile he’s deftly swerving through Chicago. Coloring Book feels sonically of a piece with Kanye West’s death-defying debut, The College Dropout, yet most thematically Chance draws from West’s masterpiece, Late Registration. Here’s a presumed king, put on blast by other rappers to the point that labels must be falling over him. Here’s a modest rapper, the first one with the spiritual background Chance has, taking center stage to speak his truth. Here’s a rapper openly challenging to give Lucifer a swirly, to poke Satan in the eyes… it’s effervescent the way Chance skates around his references and influencers, as if they were mere signposts on the way to his overall point.
And that point most often feels like… here is a city that’s struggling with beautiful people. His laments and praises for Chicago are as complicated as Kendrick’s characterization of Compton. Chicago is a place where Chance can juke, worship, get lost or get saved. Rather than running for mayor (Kendrick) or acting like he’s putting the place on his back as a larger rep (Kanye, falsely), Chance operates as Chicago South’s poet laureate, a storyteller capable of capturing the lost youth of its slums or the exultant gospels of its churches. If that means ceding the stage to a choir, or the powerful spoken poet Eryn Allen Kane on “Finish Line/Drown,” then so be it, all for what is great about life. Perhaps the Kanye cosign will propel him out the city; fame certainly screwed Kanye up royally. And Chance is only 23, he’s got plenty of time to lose the plot of the things he promised to honor. But Coloring Book has the childish joy, teenage angst, and early adult frustration with the status quo to finally accept the crown nobody bothered to pick up after ‘Jesus walks.’
“Finish line,” as clever a closer as there could be despite not closing the record (hey Kanye), outlines this more closely. Chance got lost in LA for four months on Xanax before realizing his soul is apparent on his White Sox hat, and suddenly by the second verse he’s back with family and girl, in line for food among friends and his city. And right before the chorus rides us out on the second blessings, Chance sums up his magnificent worldview with a single couplet: “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood/ make you remember how to smile good.” And if you’re not smiling by the end of Coloring Book, you should check your pulse.
RIYL: Kanye West’s first two albums
Essential Tracks: “No Problem,” both “Blessings,” Same Drugs”
Other Albums Worth Checking Out
White Lung – Paradise: The blistering fourth record from ascendant Vancouver hard rock punks finds them making a pop heel turn, with expansive and well thought-out results. Don’t miss “Below.”
Julianna Barwick – Will: Another installment in the indie composers catalog, further fleshing out her “voice as choral instrument” mood. Includes a bit too many non-vocal instrumentations for my taste, but still a powerful statement from a growing artist.
Gordi – Clever Disguise EP: Debut EP from Australian singer songwriter heretofore most famous for a scintillating cover of Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener.” Won’t stay unknown for long; her folk-to-chamber pop musings are headed for lights.