Usually I mix positive reviews with mixed ones. Given recent events I couldn’t bear to be mean — I’m working up to it, I swear — so here are four albums that I love. Those who think the election results will inspire a sudden outpouring of excellent politically outspoken music given an energized culture of protest and resistance should read Jessica Hopper’s piece in MTV on the subject. Consider the depths to which indie-rock sank under Bush, especially in his second term. Consider that good art stems from a thriving artistic community, which stems from infrastructure and available capital. Consider the respective relationships between collective morale and artistic inspiration, between Republican economic policy and the possibility of surviving as an artist, between Donald J. Trump and the First Amendment. When the world is in crisis, music matters less, yet we need it just the same.
Rae Sremmurd: Sremmlife 2 (Eardrummers/Interscope)
Right when the year needed some fresh new absurdist fun, along come these siblings from Atlanta with their irrepressible sense of play and a hearteningly quick followup to last year’s excellent debut. How many rappers these days form groups — not just guest features or temporary collaborations, but collectives, with their own names, that tour and record together? And how many rappers these days are comfortable enough with friendly competition that they routinely work hard to top the other guy?
Not much distinguishes this album from 2015’s Sremmlife except maybe dimmed novelty. Behold rattling trap hooks, sticky electronic keyboards distinctly hummable in their pro forma solidity, goofy vocals vaguely aware of Young Thug’s splattermouth while enunciating clearly and slowly enough that their subjectivity remains intact. Their gimmick is youth: Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy are ostensibly in their early twenties, but you wouldn’t guess it when they chirp and giggle like adolescents pulling faces at a crush, peeping and lisping like Kris Kross if those eternal teenage rappers had mixed mouthwash and a splash of Auto-Tune with their orange juice. Familiar party themes are lent resonance and humor when deployed in a calculated evocation of literal adolescence, the feeling that these kids are running around, exhilarated, breathing the wide open air. Producer Mike WiLL Made It contributes hypnotically mechanical synth megahooks, stringing those ubiquitous high wispy keyboards across lower piano chords, constructing a giant lumbering metal animal-machine with discrete, mentally separable cogs. The album is so musically unified I have no clue why “Black Beatles” (“Black Beatles bitch, me and Paul McCartney related!”) in particular is currently topping the charts. Do that many Sremmurd fans catch the veiled “Day Tripper” reference? You’d be surprised.
Who cares about purported social value given fabulous ear candy? These days we need ear candy more than ever.
Tegan & Sara: Love You to Death (Vapor/Warner Bros)
In 2013, twin sisters and former folkies Tegan and Sara Quin released Heartthrob, a startlingly confident ‘80s synthpop revival move complete with arcade bleeps and power ballad choruses. Three years later, what seemed like novelty becomes standard procedure as they tweak their style in passing.
What immediately stands out about this particular installment in their quest for pop idolhood is a cold restraint that doubles as crafted perfection. Heartthrob had big emotions, big gushy bleeding hearts, big synthesizer surges. Here, the glossy keyboards wind tight around the drum machine until their knuckles whiten as their hearts refrain from bleeding a single demonstrable drop. Their earnest, feelgood melodies and sharp beats fit a spareness that by now evokes universality of method rather than any particular era; except insofar as teenpop’s abstract ideal means ‘80s by definition (which it shouldn’t), they’ve discarded the retro tag altogether. This album’s deadpan tops Carly Rae Jepsen’s just as Jepsen’s Emotion topped Taylor Swift’s 1989, but they all belong in the same file: idealized pop stripped down to the bare formalist bones, marked by a blankness whose achievement says plenty when we expect pop singers to put their emotions on display, a blankness whose mood moves the music ever closer to pure, exemplary abstraction. Constructed universality doesn’t equal normativity, though, and the queer subtext enables twists on teenpop convention. In “BWU” we don’t need a white wedding; in “Boyfriend” you kiss me like your boyfriend. They deserve airplay just for opening up a received genre’s sexual possibilities, not to mention for assembling ten ebulliently catchy electrorockets that blast off in unison.
One might reasonably ask how many idealized pop records we need. I’ll take them all. Every interpolation of convention is different. That’s how convention evolves.
Shura: Nothing’s Real (Polydor)
This English electropop fixture has been releasing anticipatory singles from this album for two years now, but no avant-dance expert could have predicted how unified the final product would be. Seamlessly bright, the album gleams with the sparkly polish in whose reflection believers see the flame of romance.
Shura’s signature aural contradiction is that between atmospherics and mechanization. Usually when keyboard players start pushing too many texture buttons, the result is formless, but here waves of swooshy hiss cascade over each other to produce a steamy, echoey surface, lending the illusion of depth to the automatic drum machines, simulated plastic funk guitar, and the tangible synthesizer that occupies the concrete center. Agile enough to provoke dancefloor action, these songs stack enough sonic layers to contemplate idly in tranquility. Her signature mood contradiction is that between heart and machine — there’s a bionic, nearly antiseptic quality to the record that firmly transfers it from chartpop territory to the land of the Chromatics, who share with Shura a sweeping grandiosity undercut by musical artifice, yet at the same time her breathy vocals ache and yearn with fierce pathos. The thrill of discovering sincere expression in an unlikely place — a context thrill — extends to the expression itself — a content thrill. Tenderness here is a function of perceived contrast with the aural environment; it’s like the moment in a sci-fi comic when the protagonist-couple find a place of peace all to themselves. That makes two signature contradictions, and I haven’t even started on their interaction. Albums like this are why the word “dialectic” exists.
“Tongue Tied” is the peak, riding a perfect neodisco groove that ends too soon after four minutes; listening any longer would hypnotize you permanently. The rest of the album bounces and shimmers along in the same vein.
Reekado Banks: Spotlight (Mavin)
Boy do I hope one of these songs cracks the Billboard Top However Many. If Drake can cop a fake patois and go platinum automatically, surely this Nigerian electrodancehall crooner’s good for a hit or two. His full-length debut, immersed in present commercial codes, is also sweet, strong, obsessively committed to glee as a self-justifying aesthetic end, and utterly filler-free.
Anybody who’s listened to the radio during the past year and inadvertently (or otherwise) developed a taste for the bland, luscious, sensitive EDM permutation known as tropical house will instantly delight upon hearing this album, as will anybody who loved the sexy upbeat songs on Justin Bieber’s Purpose but yawned and/or groaned when he strummed an acoustic confessional or spouted a didactic ballad. It’s the tropical house album of dreams, subsuming soft electronic woodwinds, squealing chipmunkesque hooks, and resonant pitched percussion into a lithe, moist groove so physically pleasurable you’re happy to ignore irritants like banal lyrics (although “girl you cool/girl you nice” is pretty funny) and inspirational positivity. American hitmakers have succeeded with the style, too, but only on one single at a time; perhaps because this music is so keyed to the blissful, instrumental, postchorus surge, it hasn’t yet been normalized at album length. Banks rides it for 21 consecutive tracks. His honeyed lilt sweetens dancehall macho with gentle affection and melodic cheer. When he sneaks in a more distinctly Nigerian-sounding highlife riff every now and then, the mesh is pristine. When he duets with Vanessa Mdee on “Move,” two lover-sprites seducing each other over spritzy beats, the result is so unreasonably beautiful I blush. He’s flying so high and so happy he’s setting himself up for a fall.
Isn’t this album a shameless, conniving, manipulative slice of feelgood escapism? Yup! And as long as you know this, its pleasure will do you no harm.