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With the 56th Grammy Awards looming on the horizon (January 26th), it seems like an appropriate time to look over the list of nominees and review a handful of the albums that I missed writing about when they first dropped. On the docket are Drake’s Nothing Was The Same (nominated for Best Rap Album), Kings of Leon’s Mechanical Bull (Best Rock Album), and Lorde’s Pure Heroine (Best Pop Vocal Album).

Let’s jump into it.

Drake – Nothing Was The Same

Drake has always been something of an enigma amongst the titans of the rap game. Despite what he’d have us believe from his self-mythologizing “Started From The Bottom,” Drake did not have the type of hardscrabble upbringing that has shaped the rhymes of many of his peers (to his credit, he admits as much on “Wu-Tang Forever,” when he raps, “I find peace knowing that it’s harder in the streets / I know, luckily I didn’t have to grow there”). And amongst the leading rappers of the day, Drake actually spends the least amount of time actually rapping, opting instead to spend a large chunk of time singing and pursuing more of an R&B vibe. Despite the title of the record, that hasn’t changed here. In fact, Nothing Was The Same does indeed follow in the same footsteps as its predecessor, Take Care (which, oh by the way, happened to take home last year’s Grammy award for Best Rap Album).

Though the formula is essentially the same–dark, spare production work handled predominantly by Drake’s pal Noah “40″ Shebib, and songs that are based more on mood than hooks–it does seem that Drake learned a few lessons from Take Care that he’s implementing here. Namely, he cut back on some of the chaff (though still not enough), turning in a much more manageable and listenable hour-long album, and he all but eliminated guest spots for other rappers. Other than Jay-Z, who seemingly gets a pass for his eminence, there are no other rappers in the mix to compete with Drake. And that’s a good thing, because, as we found out on Take Care, those guests had a tendency to show Drake up. Without them, he comes off much smoother. It’s a matter of perspective, sure, but it certainly helps the overall product. And there are plenty of non-rapping guests to help flesh out the poppier songs, including Jhene Aiko on “From Time,” an exploration of self-confidence and how the lack of it can damage a relationship, Majid Jordan on the slinky hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” and the gorgeous hook that Sampha lends to “Too Much.”

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My last review–of Haim’s debut album–was about a band breaking out in a big way. My next review is about another band experiencing something of a breakout, but on a far smaller scale. I’m talking about Baltimore’s J. Roddy Walston & The Business and their new album, Essential Tremors.

Their previous self-titled album, released in 2010, started to grow the band’s name and got them booked to several large festival bills, but with Essential Tremors, they are finally getting some well deserved national attention, largely in thanks to the album’s first track and lead single, the hellacious “Heavy Bells.” This track has been put in rotation on rock radio stations nationwide, and that’s provided the band a level of exposure they never could have received with just their touring schedule.

“Heavy Bells” is an interesting introduction to the band and the album. It is, by far, the most raucous track on the album, with Walston exploding into frenzied shrieks over a punkish rockabilly groove. It’s a sweaty, throat-shredding slab of infectious southern-inspired riffs, but nothing that follows is quite so extreme.

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Haim are blowing up, for real. Days Are Gone, the debut album by this Cali sister trio, came out in September, topping Justin Timberlake in the UK. They’ve received major press outlet spotlights and were booked to play Saturday Night Live (where, aside from killing it onstage, they also made their way into the awesome “Josie” skit, featuring a playful take on The Outfield’s “Your Love”). They’ve even scored guest spots from hip-hop big shots Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino.

It would be hard for a debut release to go smoother than these ladies have made this one seem. And all the attention? Completely deserved.

The older two Haim sisters (bassist Este is 27, and guitarist/lead singer Danielle is 24) were actually at one time in a pop group that scored a spot on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack, but that music was not in the long-term cards for them. As is made evident on Days Are Gone, the sisters Haim are heavily influenced by the 80s and early 90s radio rock that I’m sure they grew up listening to. (It’s the kind of music that I, as a child of the late 80s and early 90s myself, heard all the time as a kid on the car radio, and that’s probably why this record sounds so natural to me).

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As the year draws to its close, it’s clear that the three biggest female pop albums of 2013 came from Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. And given that Taylor Swift didn’t release a record this year, that should come as no surprise. Miley, Katy and Gaga are pop culture behemoths, and anything they put out is bound to make a big splash.

So, which lady takes the year’s pop diva crown? It’s quite a tough choice, but let’s discuss.

Miley Cyrus – Bangerz

As big as Katy and Gaga are, 2013 has unquestionably been the year of Miley Cyrus. How could it not be? From the twerking to the tongue, the drastic hair cut and dyed eyebrows, the VMAs and the wrecking ball ride, Miley blasted off into the stratosphere this year. As so many in the media and all the regular folk standing tall on their soapboxes and sitting high on their horses tried to rip her down and shame her, Miley straight up owned them all by going out and confidently asserting her own maturity, sexuality and smarts, proving that she cannot be lumped in with all the other former Disney princesses who now litter Hollywood as failed and embarrassing pop starlets. Her cover story in Rolling Stone is a master class in how all young women should look to go about making that tenuous transition between innocent and powerless young girl to a woman in complete control of her life and decisions. Sure, not every move has been flawless (seriously, those eyebrows…), but I simply don’t have enough bravos to give her on how she’s stepped into maturity while pissing off every prudish person in this country. You can’t expect or demand that a 21 year old girl forever remain the sexless tween you see her as from your days of watching Hannah Montana with your niece.

So that’s a definitive A+ for her image and stylistic choices. How about the record?

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Back in March 2012, I went to go see the Black Keys play in Washington, D.C. Their opener for that show was the Arctic Monkeys. Although the Monkeys weren’t  yet supporting their new album, AM, it was clear to me–even as a novice Monkeys listener–that the band had moved beyond their “British new wave of garage rock” mantle that their career was birthed upon. I never got into that genre, never felt it. It always seemed so forced, as most over-hyped and quickly fading British music fads do. But I could dig the show they put on that night.

Little did I know that those four lads from Sheffield would soon find themselves back in the studio, undergoing the same kind of transformative sonic rejuvenation that rocketed the Black Keys from a solid, straight forward garage rock band to slickly produced arena wallopers. Might the Monkeys have learned something from the Keys along the way? It sure sounds like they did.

AM is the Monkeys in their finest form.

The cover art–a hypnotic amalgamation of an elastic bass note, sunglasses at night, and a tiny bikini top (what, I can’t be the only guy who’s mind went there, right?–is a perfect representation of this album’s sound. It’s slick, lascivious, and simmeringly sexy, and it’s the perfect soundtrack to get you through the night, whether it’s one of hazy-headed dancing at the club or wiling away the hours thinking about the girl who threw her chance with you away, all in the pursuit of some fleeting thrill ride.

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Hesitation Marks was supposed to be Trent Reznor’s masterful, long-awaited return to producing music as Nine Inch Nails. Instead, it feels like the intervening five years between now and his last, pre-hiatus NIN album, The Slip, have all but lobotomized him.

It was a given–and he had been showing increasing signs of this–but no one should have expected Reznor to remain the Prince of Darkness forever. People tend to mellow out as they age, and it just looks desperate to scratch and claw to maintain the image as the lord of the goths as maturity and stability set it (see: Marilyn Manson as exhibit A). But getting older (and happier) doesn’t necessitate that you forget how to feel passionate or inventive. The best (or perhaps I should say “lucky” ones) just figure out how to keep the spigot of inspiration tapped as they progress through their careers, and are able to redirect its flow in order to stay fresh and exciting.

NIN are one of my favorite bands, and I’m glad Reznor is back to writing NIN music, but Hesitation Marks feels like a giant, rudderless ship.

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I thought about including Jesu’s new album, Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came, on the instru-metal roundup I recently wrote up. But while much of Jesu’s music–and this album–is instrumental, he does indeed lend vocals to the mix. And perhaps more importantly, this record is hardly metal.

Every Day pushes hard in the shoegaze, ambient and post-rock directions that have always been a part of the Jesu sound. But whereas past releases have been heavy on droning guitar wallops, this album sees Justin Broadrick–the mastermind behind Jesu–heavily embrace the softer aesthetics of Nine Inch Nails (he’s a dead ringer for Trent Reznor on the beautiful opening track “Homesick”). There’s even a dollop of the floating, electronic introversion of Justin Vernon (“Comforter”).

The more metallic and heavy aspects of his sound only rear their heads during a few movements on the mammoth, seventeen minute centerpiece “The Great Leveller,” and even then, they are softened by Broadrick’s auto-tuned vocals, rather than the harsh screams you’d expect. Thematically, Every Day is a record of emotional yearning. Broadrick frequently sounds like he is just reaching the precipice between debilitating emotional exhaustion and the battle to keep from falling over the edge into total isolation. The emotionally numbing drone and plinking, out of tune piano highlights this slow motion struggle.

My one qualm with this record is that its title suggests some sort of inevitable progression, which is not held up by the music. The tone and tempo generally languishes in place for the entire 45 minutes, and you end on the very same note on which you began, no closer to any sort of light.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Linkin Park, a band with its toes dipped in a multitude of different genres–from nu-metal, to hip-hop, to electronics and pop–would seem like a band readily inclined to churning out plenty of remix compilations. However, up until Recharged, the band’s new album, Linkin Park had only released a single remix album–2002′s Reanimation. (I count Collision Course as a mashup album rather than a remix album.)

Like Reanimation, which focused on reinterpreting the songs from a single record (Hybrid Theory), Recharged is looking only at the song’s from LP’s most recent studio album, Living Things, with one new song thrown in for good measure (and marketing). I understand why they wanted to focus on their recent music, but there’s been four studio albums released since Hybrid Theory, and only a few remixes have been issued for the songs on those non-Living Things records. It’s particularly confusing since Recharged features three pairs of repeated songs that get the remix treatment (“I’ll Be Gone,” “Until It Breaks,” and the newly penned collaboration with Steve Aoki, “A Light That Never Comes”). Did we really need two takes on “Until It Breaks,” which was decidedly mediocre the first time around? And what’s more, what happened to “In My Remains”? Why was that the only non-interlude song from Living Things left off of Recharged? Surely one of the collaborators who doubled up on one of the above songs could have focused on that one instead.

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After Justin Vernon announced in 2012 that Bon Iver, his pet project that exploded from quiet bedroom recordings to huge, multi-layered anthemic amphitheater shakers, was going on an indefinite hiatus, plenty of fans–myself included–felt pretty bummed about possibly being without new Bon Iver music for a very long time.

Well, it turns out those fears weren’t entirely warranted.

Prior to making that announcement, Vernon had been at work with Volcano Choir, the collaborative band he fronts with his pals from the post-rock group (and most awkwardly named band ever) Colonies of Collections of Bees. Volcano Choir’s second album, Repave, is a step back from Bon Iver’s masterpiece self-titled record, but it still fits in so snugly with the Bon Iver catalog that the only thing keeping it out is the band name attached to it.

Interestingly, Vernon wrote almost none of the music on Repave. His sole role was providing the vocals and lyrics. That’s surprising to me, given how Bon Iver-ish this album sounds. I don’t know if the rest of Volcano Choir specifically set out to write a copycat record, but it’s what they did.

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It would appear that we are living in a golden age of instrumental metal, rock, and post-rock. There is just so much good stuff coming out of this genre that it’s become impossible to ignore. I’ve run several of these “instru-metal” roundups in the past (see here), featuring bands like Animals as Leaders, Scale the Summit, and Explosions in the Sky, and there is another new crop of records demanding similar treatment. Today’s selection of delicious instrumental goodness includes Earthless, Pelican and Russian Circles.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Earthless – From the Ages

San Diego trio Earthless are back after a six year hiatus with their new full-length, From the Ages. The mission statement of any instrumental band is centered around creating an experience or an emotional palette absent any guiding human voice. Some bands pursue that through focused vocal-free “songs,” while others throw restraint to the wind and simply go where the music takes them. Earthless are the latter. Not so much a metal band, Earthless pen monstrous guitar-fueled 70s style psych-rock epics that sprawl and singe in equal measure. From the Ages kicks off with two 14 minute tracks that scorch the earth with guitarist Isaiah Mitchell’s ever-grasping rhythms and solos. The music is blistering but not frantic–Mitchell is ever and always in full command of where these songs are heading. Having that kind of tour guide is essential on an album like this, where one song is longer than your favorite sitcom–the 30-plus minute album-closing title track–and the miniscule four tracks span over an hour. It would be very easy to drown in the sprawl. But as the listener, you must approach this record with the correct mindset. From the Ages is not designed to keep you locked in and on your toes for its entire running time. Rather, it is designed to lull you into a certain head-space where your mind can wander, buoyed by the persistent–but not forceful–guitar heroics. The five-minute “Equus October” is the track that most approaches a typically structured song, and it is a welcome relative comedown after the album’s quick-paced first half hour, but watch out for the blood-curdling distortion that serves as its closing notes; no joke, it had me almost jumping out of my fucking socks and my heart was racing. That is how fully immersed these three musicians will have you. You let down your guard, and give yourself over to their control. For the most part, it’s a mind-clearing, escapist journey.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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