in Review

Well, the leaves are turning, things are getting spooky, and it’s thankfully no longer a million degrees outside every goddamn day. Though this summer felt like a pretty good one for music, I didn’t get around to reviewing really any new albums over the course of it. So before we turn our eyes toward Shocktober around here at Mildly Pleased, I figured I’d take a look back at some of the stand-outs from a summer that often felt like it’d never end.

Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure

Janelle Monáe’s 2018 opus Dirty Computer and its embrace of Black queerness felt like a distinct rebuke to the Trump era, and yet it was also just a vibrant good time that holds up on its own removed from that era. It was an album that saw an already great artist pushing things into an even higher gear by embracing her sexuality as well as more modern pop and R&B influences paired with her typical future nostalgia. The Age of Pleasure, as you might guess from its title, remains in the same vein thematically, while the overall musical vibe is also fairly similar to that of Monae’s previous release.

Which for the most part is enjoyable enough. Monáe cultivates some great spacey vibes on the album that ride the line between modern pop and more retro sounds. However, at a brisk 32 minutes, The Age of Pleasure can’t help but feel a bit like a minor work that pales in comparison to its predecessor. Yet it’s a little hard to be disappointed when the continuation of this sound remains fresh and it’s easy to be thankful for any new Janelle Monae music, since she often takes a while to release more of it in between all of her various other endeavors.

Joanna Sternberg – I’ve Got Me

This album kinda came out of nowhere and took me by surprise. I was at first a little skeptical of Joanna Sternberg’s incredibly precious, sincere brand of songwriting, which is coming from someone who usually tends to value sincerity in music. But the brittleness of her voice combined with the nakedness of her lyrics are something that you do kind of just have to embrace or else be turned off by it making you slightly uncomfortable.

That said, I was pretty quick to come around to I’ve Got Me. It’s an album worthy of its very introverted title, as a lot of the songs consist of Sternberg and an acoustic guitar, singing about her own insecurities and self-loathing. Granted there are some songs that lean a little more into electric indie rock, but for the most part, Sternberg’s sound feels like a throwback to folkie outsider music of various different eras, be it The Moldy Peaches, Daniel Johnston, or the early ’60s folk scene of Sternberg’s native New York. Though at the same time, Sternberg’s knack for directness and simplicity in their songwriting feels uniquely singular in its ability to make the most cynical listener feel some honest-to-god feelings.

Julie Byrne – The Greater Wings

Also on the softer, folkier side of things is the latest release from Julie Byrne. I was a big fan of Byrne’s previous album from 2017, Not Even Happiness, an album I found a lot of solace in in the early mornings of that confusing year’s early months. It’s an album I would occasionally return to, wondering what was taking this venerable singer-songwriter so long to craft a follow-up. However, in the articles surrounding The Greater Wings‘ release, it became apparent why it took so long for this album to see the light of day — while Byrne was in the middle of recording the album in 2021, her producing and frequent collaborator Eric Littman passed away.

In the wake of Littman’s sudden death, Byrne continued to work on the album with a couple of other producers who opened up the album’s sound, adding more strings and synths to Bryne’s fairly straightforward, dreamy songwriting style. It’s hard to know how much of the album’s sound was impacted by Byrne’s grief, since it seems that the only song written after Littman’s passing was the album closer “Death Is The Diamond”. Also, her music has always had a kind of meditative melancholy to it befitting of pondering the mysteries of death, while the album’s more expanded sound fits the songs well by keeping Byrne’s mesmerizing voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar at the forefront.

Noname – Sundial

Another album I’ve been eagerly awaiting for about five years or so was Noname’s follow-up to the wonderful Room 25. That album paired with Noname’s 2016 breakout mixtape Telefone has made Noname one of my favorite (if not my favorite) rapper currently putting out new music, infusing spoken word introspection with an effortless lyrical dexterity. She was also a product of a scene and a sound that really appeals to me, the warmly optimistic R&B/hip-hop sounds that came out of Chicago in the 2010s, courtesy of artists like Chance The Rapper and Jamila Woods.

However, Noname is now a few years removed from her Chicago days, having set up camp in L.A. before the release of her last album, and Sundial continues her development as a lyricist acutely attuned to the weariness that informs your worldview as you get older. There’s a kind of cynicism that has slowly seeped into Noname’s lyrics that are increasingly about politics and morality, and yet there’s still something oddly sunny and accessible about Sundial. It’s not an album that makes any huge breaks with Noname’s previous records production-wise, as there’s the same jazzy push and pull that she’s been building on. But she just keeps getting more confident with each record, even if her admitted lack of confidence in a career in music seems to keep tempting her with the idea of retirement.

Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS

How plugged into pop music I feel tends to fluctuate with each year, and this year I don’t feel particularly plugged in. Though I suppose it’s easy to feel mildly aware of what’s going on in pop just by paying attention to whatever’s going on with Taylor Swift, as she continued to dominate this year once again by releasing a Taylor’s version of Speak Now and invading all of our major cities with her gargantuan Eras Tour. Either way, it has been nice to take a break from Taylor’s cultural supremacy by indulging the latest release by Olivia Rodrigo, a singer who is a bit younger than Taylor Swift but has the same knack for appealing to both zoomers and us ancient millennials.

A big part of how Rodrigo managed to appeal to multiple generations of pop fans on her debut is by indulging the kind of pop-emo angst that ruled the ’00s in the most likable way possible. On GUTS, she leans into that rock-driven sound even more than on her debut and in turn sounds even more like herself and less like her more obvious influences (including Miss Americana herself). It’s a little hard to conceive of what a former Disney star has to be so pissed off about, but these songs are so infectious that it doesn’t really matter. On tracks like the singles “Bad Idea Right?” or “Get Him Back?” Rodrigo channels an irrepressible snottiness that’s oddly charming, while the album’s intermittent forays into “Driver’s License”-esque balladry show that her versatility as a songwriter on SOUR was far from a fluke.