Arts and Entertainment

The Month in Review: A Selection of Album Appraisals

Some thoughts on albums from the past month, including descriptions and qualitative assessments

Reading Time: 5 minutes

As 2020 slowed to its conclusion, its music releases did as well. Still, there was no shortage of notable projects during the tumultuous year’s final month. From chamber-folk compilations to sitcom-style electronic offerings, there’s a lot to cover, as well as incredibly varying degrees of success.

“Nightmare Vacation” by Rico Nasty

Rico Nasty serves her signature raspy aggression in spades on “Nightmare Vacation,” but the final product doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Even if the Maryland rapper’s debut LP is packed full of energy, the inconsistent hooks sour the skillful buildup of the verses. Even a two-minute song overstays its welcome without a sticky chorus to relieve the tension of the dissonant instrumentals and relentless, threatening flow. When Nasty scraps together a solid, cathartic hook, we’re blessed with a banger that very few competitors could hope to touch, but that’s a rare occurrence (notably found on “Nightmare Vacation”). The lead singles, “OHFR?” (classic Rico) and “IPHONE” (a successful foray into hyperpop produced by Dylan Brady of “100 gecs”), stand head and shoulders above the nasalized, bratty delivery on “[EXPLETIVE] Poppin,” the squandered beat on “No Debate,” and the airy monotony of “Don’t Like Me.” Nasty also has originality issues when it comes to production. The leaden piano loop on “Check Me Out” is reminiscent of a royalty free NLE Choppa type beat, and “Loser” featuring Trippie Redd sounds like a soulless ripoff of her collaborator. However, despite its flaws, “Nightmare Vacation” is a promising sign for Rico Nasty’s future. She’s shown more potential than any other rapper in her belligerent, irreverent lane, and it's just a matter of time until she drops a project that properly reflects her talents.

“Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” by Kid Cudi

Hip-hop legend Kid Cudi attempts to update his dreary introspection for the modern scene, to mixed results. Highlights on “The Chosen” follow a formula of arpeggiated shimmers, hazy synth textures, wistful yet hopeful lyricism, and drawn out vocal melodies. Tracks like “Sad People” and “Tequila Shots” feel like getting home after a long day and sinking into your pillow, accepting how tired and beat down you are, but pushing through it anyway. Cudi’s desperate refrains on “Dive” are soul-cleansing. However, the rest of the project forgoes standout moments for a consistent fuzzy vibe that doesn’t distinguish itself much. In fact, it borrows from its contemporaries so much so that it can be distracting.

Despite directly influencing superstars such as Juice WRLD and Travis Scott, Cudi feels like he’s playing catch-up on “The Chosen.” The spacy, atmospheric synths, droning, autotuned hums, and buzzing low end are straight out of the Travis Scott playbook. Their early 2020 collaborative single, “THE SCOTTS,” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, so it’s not unlikely that Cudi is trying to recapture the lightning from that hit. He also draws from the growing drill scene, with sliding 808s, sharp snares, and features from prominent drill rappers Skepta and Pop Smoke. The trendy sounds that populate “The Chosen” never manage to blur Cudi’s artistic identity in full, but they do make the project a bit harder to imagine holding up years down the line when the luster of atmospheric trap has faded. Overall, “The Chosen” doesn’t reach the threshold set by the previous two entries in the trilogy, and it will likely fall out of rotation within a few months.

“We Will Always Love You” by The Avalanches

On “We Will Always Love You,” the Australian plunderphonics powerhouse band The Avalanches return for a disappointing second attempt at recapturing their debut glory. While it would be a monumental undertaking to match the sheer bliss of “Since I Left You” (2000), one would hope for a better effort than “We Will Always,” which is a half-baked pileup of sounds that lack the pulse to be danceable, the hooks to be catchy, the creativity to be experimental, and the breadth to be atmospheric. The final product is a hodgepodge of soul samples that occasionally make their way around a rhythm or a decent guest vocalist, but more often than not go any which way they choose, sometimes left to awkwardly bleed out and sometimes aborting before reaching their logical conclusion. As opposed to the harmonious surges of layered beauty in “Since I Left You,” “We Will Always” delivers a Foster the People-style hook here and a retro jam there; it messes around with bubbly synths for a track before cascading into a trap-influenced clunker that doesn’t even bother to mix its centerpiece rappers properly. Simply put, “We Will Always Love You” is plagued with inconsistency. Somewhere within the core of the project, there’s a great album, but there’s too much muck to wade through to justify the search for any quality in the first place. Stick to “Since I Left You” if you’re looking for an Avalanches project, because this isn’t worth your time.

“Charmed” by DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ

If the Avalanches themselves aren’t going to recapture the glory of “Since I Left You,” someone else has to. DJ Sabrina’s sitcom-tinted twist on future funk and house is a breath of fresh air that is similarly impressive to The Avalanches’ legendary project, with entirely different means. Layered crescendos are present in both projects, but The Avalanches’ chunky basslines are replaced with butter-slick grooves imported directly from a theme song that, though you’ve never heard before, instantly ingrains itself into the back of your head. Sabrina has a knack for bottling the aesthetics of the ‘90s and adding an infectious charm, creating an experience that is infinitely danceable and creates nostalgia even for those who never experienced the era. However, “Charmed” is restrained from its potential icon status by its length and linear structure. Clocking in at just over three hours, it would have benefitted from cutting back on its less impressive moments. In tandem with the standard instrumental palate and the slow, linear progression of each track, the runtime turns Sabrina’s creative decisions from immersive to tiring very quickly. Stripping the project down to its euphoric highlights, such as “How Did You Know?,” “Next to Me,” and “End of an Era,” would’ve elevated “Charmed” from a good project to an excellent one. However, it’s still a standout release and it’s an indicator of great things to come from DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ.

“Windswept Adan” by Ichiko Aoba

“Windswept Adan” sees Japanese folk singer Ichiko Aoba expand the limits of her sound. Aoba is known for using lone acoustic guitar melodies and field recordings as the foundation for her angelic voice; the simplicity of the instrumentals allow her delicate singing to float undisturbed, creating a natural sonic environment that few other artists could foster. “Windswept Adan” fleshes out the foundational perfection of Aoba’s previous works with chimes, harps, flutes, and strings, creating a textured, cohesive and beautiful sound. Each song seems to flutter gently, giving the listener the feeling of sitting on a park bench on a breezy spring day and watching the ripples in a pond pass by. There is nothing particularly profound about Aoba’s music, but it’s so understated and organic that it feels like a part of nature. Nobody created “Windswept Adan.” It innately exists.

Aoba’s hushed approach to the vocals adds to the aquatic timbre of most songs here, especially “Porcelain” and “Kirinaki Shima.” As always, they are serene and calming. Perhaps “Windswept Adan” would have benefitted from more of the creative and varied songwriting decisions seen on previous projects, but it is, nonetheless, a breathtaking album, a must-listen, and a future cornerstone of the chamber folk genre.