Arts and Entertainment

The Week in Review: A Selection of Album Appraisals

Five album reviews from a variety of genres.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Serena Chan

The advent of COVID-19 has certainly slowed the release of new music, but the past few weeks have been surprisingly active. Here are some quick reviews of a few projects that have dropped, ranging from utterly forgettable to impressively potent.


Korean pop supergroup Blackpink has finally dropped the highly-anticipated, sugary sweet follow-up to their 2018 debut EP, “Square Up.” “The Album” is a brisk eight tracks totaling 24 minutes, but each track is chock-full of energy from all four members, assisted by their punchy, driving production. There’s not much variety between the pop ragers, but “The Album” gets in and out quickly, so it’s not much of a detriment to its quality. The trap and EDM tinged production would kill at a party (whenever we get back to having those), and the hooks are sticky from front to back.

“The Album,” however, isn’t without its flaws. The collaboration with Selena Gomez, “Ice Cream,” comes off as cloying and uncomfortable; the anti-drop on the track “Crazy Over You” drags all of the momentum of the project’s buildup to a grinding halt; and most of all, “Bet You Wanna” with Cardi B only succeeds in wasting Cardi’s talents with a throwaway verse and some horrid vocal processing. Despite its shortcomings, “The Album” is worth looking into if you’re interested in K-pop or in the mood for a simple pop album.

Machine Gun Kelly—“Tickets to My Downfall”

Machine Gun Kelly made his first foray into pop-punk with “Tickets to My Downfall” after his largely panned rap career effectively crashed and burned following a feud with Eminem. “Tickets to My Downfall” is much more pop than punk, as it’s openly manufactured for the radio, and there’s no revolutionary ethos to be found anywhere. At worst, it’s a shoddy, overcompressed recreation of the many, many pop-punk pastiches etched into our early 2000s culture. At best, it leans into its transparently fake, uncouth melodrama for a rush of pure pop adrenaline. The Halsey collaboration, “forget me too,” is a perfect example of such a track, and songs like “concert for aliens” and “jawbreaker” capture the same meatheaded magic. If the project were consistently open about its derivative corniness, I might have enjoyed it more than I did, but more often than not, it careens toward cheap trap percussion and 808s à la the late Lil Peep, which comes off as far less than self-aware. The Travis Barker-aided drumwork, however, is punchy and boisterous throughout the record, and the guitar riffs are tight, albeit a bit lifeless. Overall, “Tickets to My Downfall” is openly fake and dumb, but I appreciate it for its honesty. Listeners might check it out if they’re looking for some pop-punk to turn their brains off to. (If you’re looking for some excellently written pop-punk, however, check out “Brave Faces, Everyone” by Spanish Love Songs, one of the best projects of the year.)

Idles—“Ultra Mono”

Now for some hardcore punk. Frontman Joe Talbot’s electric energy surges through Idles’s highly anticipated third project. Packed with toned, noisy riffs and leftist politics, “Ultra Mono” is a focused blast of an album that is a must-listen for any punk fan. But the star of the show is Talbot’s soaring, animated delivery. His mantric and manic flow penetrates the mix on every track, serving as the lifeblood of the album. The way he delivers lyrics is both insistent and declarative—the perfect blend to support the demand for a more just world that Talbot preaches on every song. “Ultra Mono” is pointed and direct, rarely dragging or pulling punches, but sometimes that can be to its detriment. The ideas are rarely presented with much poise or nuance. Listening to “Ultra Mono” can feel similar to the scene depicted on the album cover: getting hit over the head. Some examples of Talbot not leaving much up to the imagination include, but not limited to: “Consent, consent, consent, consent,” “Our government hates the poor,” and “This means war, anti-war.” “Ultra Mono” is more than serviceable for what it is, but it’s a step back from Idles’s previous efforts.

Sufjan Stevens—“The Ascension”

Multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens returns for an electronica epic in the vein of his 2010 project “The Age of Adz” but with a stronger emotional core and better attention to detail. While synths beep and twinkle around Stevens’s thin falsetto and twittering tom fills in the opener, the second track’s ethereal and subdued pads over blocky percussion are a more accurate tone-setter for the rest of the project. Sufjan covers a variety of themes over his decaying and dynamic soundscapes, such as faith and purpose. His lyricism is much more personal, nonspecific, and conversational than what Stevens has been known to pen, and his transition away from his signature lofty character studies can end somewhat poorly, exemplified when he describes pooping in his pants and wetting the bed to very little benefit. And there are a few production mishaps that can break the vibe of the record. The swell of “Tell Me You Love Me” feels sloppy and undercooked, and the understated refrain of “Gilgamesh” is far too shrill—Sufjan’s voice fades beneath the production in such an unrecognizable way. “The Ascension” is a good listen but pales in comparison to what it could be and what Sufjan has accomplished.

A$AP Ferg—“Floor Seats II”

A$AP Ferg has been perpetually disappointing since his bombastic and towering 2013 project, “Trap Lord.” His forward-thinking, Southern-style, grandiose, and religious depictions of drug-dealing and crime life through a New York lens have since dissolved to sterile, forgettable commerciality without much personality or distinct flavor. Most hip-hop fans, however, have remained hopeful, as glimpses of Ferg’s former greatness have shone through on singles and album tracks such as his smash hit, “Plain Jane.” As for his latest attempt at redemption, it’s certainly not as soulless as 2016’s “ALWAYS STRIVE AND PROSPER,” but it’s far from “Trap Lord.” Ferg embraces the rhythms and groove of the emerging New York drill scene to pull together a collection of textured bangers, but very little stands out about the project as a whole. The gritty, creeping synths that populate “Floor Seats II” are par for the course. The only percussion that sticks out is on the opener, and that’s for the worse—the lumpy, accented half-groove isn’t flattering at all, and the sound effects in the back of the mix sound out of place as they fail to add hype to an otherwise downbeat track. As for Ferg’s rapping, he’s clearly a talented emcee, but his lyrics are nothing special, and his flow isn’t exciting enough to carry the relatively brief project.

There are a few highlights though. “In It” is a slapdash, skeletal combination of creaking bed frame samples, chanting vocals, and heavy bass, but guest rapper Mulatto and Ferg flow impressively enough to make the track into some above-average playlist fodder. But in general, “Floor Seats II” fades into the glut of hip-hop without much that stands out. I would be surprised if anyone remembers it in a few weeks, but check it out if you’re in the market for some new tracks for your tepid workout playlist.