As you may or may not have noticed, it’s been a little bit since I did one of my monthly album roundups. Some of this was due to Criterion Month taking up all of my attention on this blog in late June and all of July. Also, some of it was due to the fact that after a really great first half of the year for music, there haven’t been a ton of albums I loved that came out this summer. Still, there have been a few stand-outs, while I’ve also found myself unable to resist the charms of what will almost certainly come to be regarded as The Album of the Summer.
So as Memorial Day weekend beckons its call for the end of summer, let’s take a look back at some of my favorite albums of these past few sweltering months.
Angel Olsen’s latest album is one I had a really easy time getting lost in as the days got longer and warmer at the start of the summer, though I haven’t thought about it a ton since then. Though listening to it again, I’m still struck by what a lovely album it is by an artist who you’d expect nothing less from. A lot of the press around this album was related to Angel Olsen coming out as queer as well as the fact that she recently lost both of her parents. I’m not sure that I’d instantly recognize this just from listening to the album, since Olsen always seems to be wrestling with something profound in her music, but it does add an emotional layer to an album that’s just as polished as it is contemplative.
The most obvious thing you’ll notice about this album is that Olsen more or less goes full country on Big Time. Now, her classic country influences have always been a part of the mix in her folksy spin on indie rock, but here they’re fully at the forefront. It’s a bit of a left turn from the grandiosity of her last album, 2019’s All Mirrors, not to mention its acoustic companion Whole New Mess or last year’s 80s-inspired EP Aisles. Fortunately, I would say Olsen’s ability to find new ways of sonically exploring sublime melancholy is what has made her one of the best singer-songwriters around for the last decade. I’m not sure that I would quite say Big Time is the pinnacle of her recent string of albums, but that’s just because she’s been so consistently good.
2020 was an overall bad year filled with a lot of good music. However, most of that good music came from artists who you’d expect to make good music during weird times. This made Bartees Strange’s debut album Live Forever a rare breakout moment for an upcoming artist in a year that was mostly pretty tough for upcoming artists who were kept from making a living off of touring. Farm To Table, the sophomore album from Bartees Strange, very much feels like the album that was built on the back of him becoming a more confident live performer, as the sound here certainly builds on what that first album was doing, but in a bit more streamlined way and with a stronger sense of indie rock professionalism.
While Live Forever was marked by knotty eclecticism that saw indie guitar rock being combined with R&B, folk, and hip-hop, this album sees those influences converging into a slightly more cohesive sound. I’m not sure that the results coalesce in quite as interesting a way, especially when none of the songs are quite as thrilling as “Mustang” (“Heavy Heart” comes close), but it’s about all you could ask for in an exciting follow-up to a fantastic debut.
Perhaps not the most fawned-over album to be released by a “Bey” this summer, but still one that I’ve had a great time vibing to. This is about what I’m looking for in a modern R&B album — a littly bit jazzy, chill (but not too chill), filled with some clever hip-hop-inspired wordplay, and filled with plenty of odd little touches thrown into its silky grooves. Some of the songs here are on the shorter side, feeling a little more like musical sketches than fully-fleshed out songs. Meanwhile, songs like “Alright” and “Reprise” are breezy-but-astutely composed numbers that show Yaya Bey knows how to expand upon her sound while also keeping things loose and impressionistic overall. Can’t say that I know a ton about this artist, but the lived-in wisdom of this album indicates that a lowkey major talent has possibly arrived.
Alright, time to talk about the aforementioned Album of the Summer. As I’ve probably mentioned before somewhere on this blog, I’ve always liked Beyoncé fine, but I’ve never really fallen for one of her albums. I know that’s practically sacrilege to say, since she’s one of our most beloved performers (sorry). But there’s always been a little too much of a pop sheen or a desire to please everyone while also remaining empowering in a lot of her music, which hasn’t always worked for me. Anyways, that is not the case with RENAISSANCE. I really like this album (possibly even love it) for reasons that I’m still trying to pinpoint in comparison to the rest of her body of work.
But I think it mostly gets down to just how hard this album goes. This is a non-stop dance party that never lets up, segueing from one song to another seamlessly while somehow managing to keep the energy up and maintain an overarching cohesiveness that makes it feel like you’re doing the album a disservice every time you fail to listen to it in one sitting. What’s even more impressive about the album is how it thrillingly weaves classic house music into Beyoncé’s sound, and yet does it in a way that is so transcendent that it appeals to someone like me who neither listens to house music or Beyoncé all that often.
It’s this last quality that makes me feel similarly toward this album as I did two summers ago about Taylor Swift’s Folklore (though of course, it isn’t nearly as white). It’s an album that sees an already beloved pop-star branching out of their comfort zone and yet somehow doing perhaps their best work yet. Furthermore, it similarly captures a feeling in the culture this summer, as the fall of Roe v. Wade back in June has created an atmosphere where dancing defiantly and proclaiming the phrase “You Can’t Break My Soul” feels about right. That said, the state of things politically has looked a lot better in the weeks since RENAISSANCE‘s release (goodbye, student loans), which makes the album still just as fitting to dance to, but with a little bit of genuine optimism thrown in.
With playfully snarky talk-singing that brings to mind The Hold Steady or LCD Soundsystem combined with relentlessly catchy indie-pop enthusiasm, it should be unsurprising that Cheekface jumped out to me the first time I heard “You Always Want To Bomb The Middle East” on KEXP. Lead singer Greg Katz is one of those easy-to-love/hate singers who might be a little too smart for his own good, but who imbues each song with so much wit and irreverence that I’m happy to go along for the ride. Some of the lyrics are a little satirical, especially in regards to the hypocrisy of urban white liberals, but mostly they’re just pretty funny and amusing. Pair this with some equally infectious melodies and backing vocals and you’ve got a formula that may not appeal to everybody, but that I’m very much here for.