Arts and Entertainment

The Month in Review: A Selection of Album Appraisals

A summary and review of some of the most notable albums from the past month

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Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine - “A Beginner’s Mind”

Legendary singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens returns to his roots on his latest collaborative album, “A Beginner’s Mind,” with Angelo De Augustine. The album fuses the breathy vocals and sparse, reflective instrumentation of “Carrie and Lowell” (2015) with the grand scope and layered ornamentation of classics like “Illinoise” (2005). The gimmick behind “Beginner’s” is simple: each song derives its lyrics and themes from an influential film in history. Stevens and Augustine cite “Mad Max” (1979), “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Wings of Desire” (1987), and more to convey the lyrical themes of the project, which include moral anarchy, faith, and the human conscience.

However, the main draw of “Beginner’s” is beyond its cryptic film-inspired poetry. From, front to back, Stevens and Augustine craft an album so deeply beautiful that it defies any impulse for further analysis. It's much easier to sink into the gentle acoustic strums and plucks, angelic falsetto and delicate supporting chimes, piano, bass, synths, and drums. Tracks like “Lacrimae,” “Olympus,” and “Fictional California” conjure beauty in simplicity by focusing on winding, emotional upper register vocal melodies, while “The Pillar of Souls” and “You Give Death A Bad Name” have thick atmospheric instrumental bases that add climactic heft to the otherwise quiet project.

The sonic variety convokes a wide range of musical scenery, ranging from a fantastical verdant purple forest clearing with jeweled foliage and rainbow skies to hallowed grey ruins where the protagonist ascends to challenge their destiny. The mixing is balanced perfectly, giving each instrument just the right amount of space to breathe without impeding upon the role of any other. Following his unsuccessful forays into ambient and electronic music over the last few years, “A Beginner’s Mind” is a return to form for Stevens. It’s a simple album, but its execution is so masterful that it warrants a listen.

Injury Reserve - “By The Time I Get to Phoenix”

On “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” Phoenix hip-hop collective Injury Reserve distills their frenetic experimentation into one of the most unique albums of the decade thus far. It’s debatable whether or not “By The Time” is even hip-hop anymore. If it is, it pushes the definition of the genre to its limits. The project is built upon synth lines and samples that bend and contort into unthinkable shapes, rhythms that self-destruct and put themselves back together, and fiery fragments of vocals that straddle the border between human, alien, and robotic. Lyrically, the project is just as abstract. Much of the seemingly disjointed imagery of toaster strudel, growing up, and natural disasters alludes to last year’s tragic passing of group member Stepa J. Groggs, whose inputs posthumously influenced “By The Time” greatly. While recording, Groggs famously insisted that the group’s goal was to “make some weird [EXPLETIVE],” and “By The Time” is Injury Reserve to living up to that promise.

As such, the tracks that most directly tackle Groggs’ passing are the project’s most impactful. “Wild Wild West,” “Bye Storm,” and “Postpostpartum” channel apocalyptic chaos with cascading, clicking glitches to resemble the sense of swirling dread that the group feels. On “Top Picks For You,” they reflect on unwilling digital immortalization: “Your blood runs through this home/And your habits through much after/Grab the remote, pops up something you would've watched, I'm like ‘Classic.’” Group member Ritchie with a T’s emotional response to Groggs’ favorite shows popping up on his suggested Netflix feed is hard to confront. Groggs was so entwined with his life that even Ritchie’s attempts at escapism are soured with the memory of his friend’s death. “Knees” is an especially powerful and beautiful track, featuring a posthumous Groggs verse about his alcohol addiction and a striking chorus on aging and the futility of pain. However, the album’s peak is “Superman That,” a mind-blowing barrage of kick drums, clicking glitches, autotuned crooning à la “808s and Heartbreak” (2008), and a sample from post-rock band Black Country, New Road. The song sounds like it makes no sense—and at first it doesn’t—but in time, it smooths into a catchy, layered, genre-defying track that occupies a mysterious niche all on its own.

“By The Time I Get to Phoenix” might not appeal to everyone. It’s a challenging listen, but it may be among the most rewarding of the year for those that resonate with the patchwork sonics and cryptic atmosphere.

Wiki - “Half God”

Wiki is among the most quintessentially New York rappers working today. His depictions of city life capture the bustling energy that only a New Yorker would know, and his down-to-earth attitude builds infinite relatability. On his newest project, “Half God,” he opts to build his bars over the rising trend of lo-fi, smoky, soulful instrumentals pioneered by artists like MIKE and Navy Blue, the latter of which produced the entire album and features on the track “Can’t Do This Alone.” While the vanguards of said aesthetic sink into their instrumentals to create a sense of confusion or depression, Wiki is composed and confident, riding on top of the melodious plucks and warm chords, secure in his identity.

Perhaps his conviction stems from his veteran status—Wiki’s been at it since 2014 and has spent seven years perfecting his craft, which is evident with his excellent command of both the pen and mic. Tracks like “Not Today” and “The Business” demonstrate Wiki’s poise as he breaks down gentrification and materialism. His relaxed, almost conversational flow masks the biting lyrics: “You got it twisted, this ain't yours just 'cause this is where you buy/You the gentrifier, terrorizer, not the terrorized.” As refined as Wiki’s political commentary is, the core of “Half God” is a series of vignettes in which Wiki centers himself in his ever-changing city. On “Home,” he describes his nomadic conception of home: he doesn’t need any specific apartment when he has the soul of the city to keep him company. “Roof” is an obvious homage to his roof, his refuge from the overload of New York stimuli. On “Promised,” Wiki reiterates that in spite of fake friends and financial troubles, “a spicy chicken sandwich from [his] akhi” is his anchor. Wiki’s attempt at a love song, “Never Fall Off,” is a success—it’s easily one of the most tender, honest love songs of the year. Navy Blue’s contemplative, starlit sampling ties the track together wonderfully. All in all, Wiki’s maturity shines on “Half God,” and he crafts an essential New York album. Each track evokes a warm feeling of camaraderie and city pride.