“The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire: Nostalgia for suburban ennui and simplicity is kid’s stuff compared to the loftier themes Arcade Fire has grappled with their first two albums, but Win Butler and Co. know the territory so well that they find the perfect tone for it.
“The Suburbs” trades grandiosity for meditative sprawl, meaning the songs about wasted hours and work-a-day defeatism don’t sentimentalize those experiences but settle into them knowingly.
Nothing here dazzles in the way that the similarly themed hits “Wake Up” and “No Cars Go” do, but this is the Arcade Fire album richest in small, unfurling pleasures. Those who find it unremarkable should bring as much sympathy to the minutiae as the band did, and note that the album is slyly conscious of its own status as a grower, as when Win Butler sings: “It seems so strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive/But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive.” Rating: 4/5
“Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” by Big Boi: Understandably sore about being overlooked on the biggest selling rap album of all time, the less-revered member of Outkast opts for sleek gratification all the way through his official solo debut, and listening to pretty much any song here proves his success.
Taken as a whole, though, the various experiments and stylistic flairs undercut each other as much as Outkast’s failed experiments would undercut the group’s brilliant singles. “Sir Lucious Left Foot” is a piecemeal collection of songs Big Boi recorded over three years with more collaborators than I feel like counting, which accounts for its stunning diversity as well as its instability. These are 15 very good, sometimes masterful songs that don’t play well at all with each other.
A stronger unifying presence would have helped. Big Boi often takes a backseat to the eclecticism — Jamie Foxx, Janelle, Monae and Gucci Mane don’t so much make guest spots as build whole songs for Big Boi to make a guest spot. At least he’s still a great sidekick. Rating: 3/5
“Thank Me Later” by Drake: Jeez, rappers these days get frustrated so early! In the good old days, Eminem had to release at least one LP before releasing an album bemoaning the good life. But on his first full-length album, the 23-year-old Drake arrives sick and tired of pretty much anything worth envying — uncharted promiscuity, being famous, having famous friends and releasing a first full-length album. His moodiness is complimented by the spacey, “emo-rap” beats, making most of “Thank Me Later” one of the most unexciting debuts from any rapper of such hype.
While nothing about Drake’s good life crisis is new, he’s at least got a gift for conversational, multi-syllabic rhyming that keeps his familiar subjects from being DOA. And the morose overtones only make the occasional moments of sweet release even sweeter, especially the top-of-the-world finale “Thank Me Now.” Drake is a real deal in the making, whether or not he’s going to act happy about it. Rating: 3/5
“Recovery” by Eminem: Like Prince, Eminem is making up for a sorry-ass comeback by making sure his follow-up is the “realer” comeback. And also like Prince, it’s safe to say that Marshall Mathers’s reign as the earth-scorching, barrier-breaking voice of a generation has run its course. But an album with spots of brilliance is hardly out of the question.
He’s too tunnel-visioned about this clear-headed expunging of drugs, horrorcore and stupid accents, meaning the serious songs are drowned in 12-step rhetoric or power ballad bombast, and joke songs about white trash parties and sexual one-upping feel even more dispensable than they normally would.
As per usual, Mathers is best when unfiltered, and so the best songs here (“Cold Wind Blows,” “Won’t Back Down”) drop all angles and simply run on clever punchlines and stream-of-consciousness fury. As long as he can keep tapping into those resources, he needn’t worry so much about proving he’s still got it. Rating: 3.5/5
“Maya” by M.I.A.: M.I.A. has a confounding presence on her own records. Her voice is almost always distorted, disembodied, glitchy, obscured and she doesn’t lead any songs so much as she bleeds right into them.
It’s that quality that helps make her third album her most incendiary, along with the fact that she’s stopped globe-trotting for exotic beats and instead immersed herself in scary, industrial cacophony.
It’s scary, at least, to those who joined the bandwagon because of “Paper Planes.” Otherwise, the noise is fascinating and justified — no matter how haughty anyone might find M.I.A.’s political views, shouldn’t any good revolutionary sound at least this incensed? Rating: 3.5/5
“Clinging to a Scheme” by The Radio Dept.: Considering how this is the summer’s finest ear candy, it’s easy to let this one blow by. This Swedish band’s monotone vocals, subdued electronics and flat pacing make their third album pass along as a dreamy blur at first.
For something that eventually becomes such an absorbing and ethereal listen, it’s best to play fair and let yourself slowly sink into these songs. Even then, there might not be any one song that feels like a revelation, perhaps save for the radiant guitar blast “Heaven’s on Fire.” But then again, there’s also not a song here that doesn’t push you further into delightful escapism. Rating: 4/5
“King of the Beach” by Wavves: Nathan Williams’s first two albums ran on a thin gimmick of lo-fi excess, and his decision to make everything prim, proper and pop-friendly on this third album is as gimmicky as his decision to bury all his old songs in too many layers of distortion. The amazing thing, then, is that this album is so much more than a change in production values — it’s also this year’s most surprising display of talent.
The pop songs lovingly recreate the Beach Boys’s summertime utopia, the ethereal electronic songs are serious challenges to Animal Collective and the four chord barrages are amongst the better Nirvana updates I’ve heard.
But hearing Williams extract something fresh from his obvious influences is just part of the adventure. The rest comes from the pure exhilaration of hearing a former underachiever let his true creativity run rampant for 37 minutes, and wondering what he could have in store next. Turns out the no hope kid now has a world of possibilities. Rating: 4/5
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.