August was an utterly absurd month for new music. As the sun crests over the horizon and we enjoy our final moments of warm weather, it seemed as if every major artist was pushing themselves to get their records out before the season’s end. From long-awaited debuts to big-name collabs, there’s a lot to write home about now that the summer has entered its death throes, so let’s reflect on the greatness we’ve been lucky enough to receive over the past month.
Travis Scott - Astroworld
While it’s clear that Travis Scott will never again attain the bombastic attention-seeking highs of his early days or the conceptual glitz of his creative peak, Astroworld at least restores hope that he can get close. After the half-effort Birds In The Trap Sing Mcknight, and the aggressively-middling Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho it seemed as if Travis Scott was on an irreversible downward trend. While these are harsh words, they’re only because I know Travis has it in him to make another classic. In fact, I’m such a fan of Travis Scott, last year I wrote nearly 7,000 words lamenting the fact that both he and Drake were so successful they didn’t have to try anymore. Now one year after airing those concerns we have our hands on Trav’s newest project, and it’s… better.
Astroworld is far from perfect, but it at least signals that Travis Scott is taking a bit of a more holistic approach to his music again. Opening track “STARGAZING” is an excellent mood-setter featuring tight bars, a cascading instrumental, and multiple beat switches. It’s a fantastic introduction that leads to the crowd-pleasing “CAROUSEL” where a surprise Frank Ocean feature leads to an unexpected Drake introduction. Similarly, “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” packs Kid Cudi, James Blake, and Stevie Wonder into one of this year’s most heavenly and star-studded five and a half minutes. While this is all impressive, by the end of the record it becomes clear how much Astroworld has been propped up by features. From “NC-17” onward it’s essentially a plummet straight down into dregs of meandering trap. The album’s back half of barely-conceived hip-hop is punctuated by the album’s final three songs which all feature Travis Scott solo. While “COFFEE BEAN” is a compelling album closer, this ending stretch of songs only highlights the fact that Travis Scott probably couldn’t hold an entire album on his own. Even though Astroworld is a bit of a mixed bag, the loaded front half is so undeniable it ends up elevating the entire thing above some of his more recent offerings. A solid, but lopsided album with scattered glimpses of greatness.
Tides of Man - Every Nothing
Tides of Man went through a bit of an identity crisis in the early 2010’s. After releasing two landmark post-hardcore records on Rise Records, lead singer Tilian Pearson left the group to join Dance Gavin Dance. Rather than embark on a search for a new vocalist, the band decided to move forward without one entirely and threw themselves headlong into the world of post-rock. Having proven their chops on 2014’s Young and Courageous, the group is back with their second instrumental release and defacto sophomore album in their current incarnation. From its first seconds, Every Nothing sparkles and shines with the polish equal to the post-rock greats. Evoking Explosions In the Sky, God Is An Astronaut, and Caspian, this album proves that there’s life after loss. A recovery after an identity crisis. This is the sound of a band sticking the landing after a seismic change that would have dissolved any lesser group.
Foxing - Nearer My God
Having raved about Smidley’s album last year, I might have entered this album with higher expectations than usual. I’ve never been an enormous Foxing fan, but the singles leading up to Nearer My God all hit home for me. “Slapstick” was fun, “Nearer My God” was a multicultural revelation, and “Gameshark” was a proggy Mars Volta-esque jaunt that felt out-of-the-box. This string of singles combined with the well-thought-out visuals seemed to imply a Foxing album that would finally land with me. While Nearer My God kicks off with the jaw-dropping “Grand Paradise,” the record then quickly devolves into Foxing’s usual brand of “acceptable” emo. Singles and opener aside, there’s nothing else in the album that truly resonated with me. I don’t know if I could tell you one other moment that stuck with me outside of these four songs. Nearer My God would have been a great EP, but maybe this band simply isn’t for me.
Jesus Piece - Only Self
Sometimes you don’t need beauty. Sometimes you don’t need happiness. Sometimes all you need is destruction, and that’s exactly what Jesus Piece offers on Only Self. The album is a debut long in the making that finds the Philadelphia band blending metalcore and doom for a particularly potent and exponentially-heavy effect. Bearing propulsive drumming, low-swinging riffs, and vitriolic lyrics, Jesus Piece has created something entirely their own and more intense than anything I’ve heard from the genre in years. It’s fighting music. Music that makes you angry. Music you want to lift heavy things and punch back. It’s not an everyday emotion, but when the mood does strike, I can’t think of a single band doing it better than Jesus Piece. Phenomenal.
Young Thug - Slime Language
Young Thug is the rap game’s Joker. Unpredictable, animated, and reveling in his audience’s utter confusion. And this isn’t a role that comes easily; Thug has spent the last few years cultivating his absurdist image while simultaneously upending all of hip-hop’s traditions in the process. From taunting the greats, and rocking dresses to performing the bare minimum required to qualify as enunciation, Young Thug seems to have cemented himself as something that’s sorely needed in hip-hop today: an unknown.
On Slime Language Young Thug offers up nearly one hour of outsider hip-hop from someone who’s spent years rising through the ranks yet still remembers who he is. Even when the words themselves are covering well-trodden hip-hop topics, the way he says them is never the same. You will find yourself listening closely just to see what Thug will do next, and I think that’s exactly what he wants. From a scratchy velcro octet of tire onomatopoeia on “Ardemaur” to a dexterous chorus on “STS,” everything on Slime Language feels fresh in a way that only Young Thug can do. Within any one song his inflection, voice, and flow can change from one word to the next, and it’s absolutely enchanting. Infectious and enigmatic. A hip-hop cult of personality.
IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance
Having produced one of last year’s best punk albums (and one of the decade’s best debuts), IDLES have returned with a follow-up that’s equal parts gnashing and emotional. After losing his daughter last year, lead singer Joe Talbot publicly grappled with what that meant on both a cosmic and personal level. Joy as an Act of Resistance is the outcome of this meditation. Slow-building tracks that mount with dread until they erupt into thrashy punk explosions. Tonally different than last year’s Brutalism, but just as hard-hitting. A sonic reckoning in the aftermath of a sudden car crash of an event. The ebbs and flows of grief and loss. Sound and fury that lead to eventual recovery.
Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner - Big Red Machine
Helmed by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, Big Red Machine represents a meeting of the indie minds the likes of which we rarely see anymore. With both artists coming off award-worthy, career-defining albums, the two find themselves collaborating at the perfect intersection as they find mutual ground in downbeat electronic soundscapes. From unexpected vocal deliveries that border on rapping (“Lyla”) to haunting, gospel soul-searches (“Forest Green”) every song on Big Red Machine hits just as hard as you would imagine. Turns out combining the wine-drunk sadness of The National with the snow-covered sadness of Bon Iver is a recipe for something even more emotional than the sum of its parts.
Mitski - Be the Cowboy
Existence is tiring. Other people are frustrating, relationships are messy, and even your own thoughts can be confusing. This sort of millennial malaise and caustic confusion is exactly what Mitski is capturing with Be The Cowboy. Like a diary transposed to music, the album traps Mitski at its center, shines a blinding spotlight on her, and then lets her writhe in agony for 32-minutes until both she and the listener collapse from exhaustion. It’s humanizing, flawed, messy, and isolating, just like all of us. Be The Cowboy is the exact kind of consolation you need after a breakup, hookup, or whatever falls between. An entire existence recorded to music.
Mac Miller - Swimming: The the continuing story of the Pennsylvanian teen who has moved out, broken out, broken up, and grown up before our eyes.
YG - Stay Dangerous: Flashy gangster bangers and not much else.
Trophy Eyes - The American Dream: Effortlessly-catchy pop-punk that’s forward-moving, deeply-comforting, and soul-affirming.
The Ocean Party - I.B.O.: Six musicians. Two songs apiece. One minute per song. A musical sketchpad of flexible artistry.
Shy Boys - Bell House: Hard-cutting instrumentals that fall away for moments of stark honesty that shimmer like a lost Beach Boys song.
Iggy Azalea - Survive The Summer: Remember “Fancy,” guys?
Bad Bad Hats - Lightning Round: Songs about being a deeply-flawed and inherently-fucked up human. A therapeutic soundtrack to life.
Moses Sumney - Black In Deep Red, 2014: A three-pack of groovy left-field RnB tracks with masterful multi-layered instrumentation and rich vocalization.
Erra - Neon: Progressive and mathematical metalcore that rapidly alternates from airing saccharine sentiments to violently lashing out.
Trippie Redd - Life’s A Trip: At least it’s got a cool cover.
Beach Bunny - Prom Queen: Charming and compulsive indie rock that’s not afraid to be emotionally-bare.
El Ten Eleven - Banker's Hill: Engaging post-rock that occasionally explodes into math, metal, and electronic diversions.
Death Cab for Cutie - Thank You for Today: Ethereal, moody, and mature indie rock from the group that seems to have become masters of those feelings.
Animal Collective - Tangerine Reef: A psychedelic audiovisual album about the havoc we have wreaked on the environment and the damage still to come.
The Oh Sees - Smote Reverser: One of the last bastions of jammy, proggy, nerdy rock music. As dexterous and eclectic as it is complete and exhaustive.
Ariana Grande - Sweetener: It’s pop music.
mewithoutYou - [untitled] e.p.: Slow-building orchestral emo that imparts the feeling of floating through a dream world that barely resembles our own.
Rubblebucket - Sun Machine: A surprisingly-dancy indie record that’s packed with confessional slice-of-life dioramas all backed by lavish beds of woodwinds and brass contributions.
Lemon Twigs - Go To School: The Lemon Twigs’ sophomore record is a concept album about a monkey that is raised by humans, goes to school, and discovers himself along the way. A whimsical reverse-Tarzan of a musical that commandeers your attention and charms your pants off.
White Denim - Performance: Fuzzy T.Rex-inspired throwback tunes send in from a parallel funk dimension.
Whitney Ballen - You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship: Heartfelt songs of precious relationships, emotional turmoil, and the inescapable feeling that you’re less than everyone else around you.
Blood Orange - Negro Swan: Pensive RnB that revels in sexuality, race, self-doubt, and anguish.
WSTR - Identity Crisis: Defiant fist-clenching pop-punk.
The Kooks - Let’s Go Sunshine: No longer Naive, The Kooks navigate the lovesick waters of adulthood in an hour-long Britpop expedition.
Wild Nothing - Indigo: Dream pop with a retro 80’s twist.
Troye Sivan - Bloom: Immaculately-produced pop that seems chemically-engineered to burrow its way into your brain.
Iron & Wine - Weed Garden: Sleepytime music for sad hipsters.
Mogwai - Kin: It’s not technically a new Mogwai album, but I’ll take their brilliance wherever I can get it.
SahBabii - Squidtastic: Low-gravity RnB beamed in from another planet.
Eminem - Kamikaze: After stumbling a bit with Revival, Eminem seems to have broken his downward trend of pop-hop and snapped back into full-on rapping for this surprise release.
In August we also heard new singles from This Will Destroy You, J Cole, Father John Misty, Saves The Day, Joyce Manor, Mick Jenkins, Courtney Barnett, DRAM, Mac Demarco, Logic, Soccer Mommy, Boygenius, Lil Yachty, Mr. Sister, 6Lack, Toto, FIDLAR, Kurt Vile, Bryson Tiller, Gucci Mane, Empress Of, and Kanye West.
Finally, here are a handful of albums from earlier this year that it took me until this month to discover.
The Growlers - Casual Acquaintances: Laid-back yet precise indie rock produced by Julian Casablancas. Created for late-night leather-clad bar hopping followed by ungracefully stumbling home.
Stella Donnelly - Thrush Metal: Hard-hitting and intimate songs of Donnelly’s innermost thoughts and conflicts. Confessional and confrontational, “Boys Will Be Boys” may be one of the most important songs of the year.
Retirement Party - Somewhat Literate: Punchy and meaningful pop-punk that’s hit me harder on first listen than anything else this year.