ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Matt on Music tackles 10 albums

I’ve been so busy listening to new albums and preparing for list season that I haven’t put any articles up recently. So, here are ten reviews that I’ve managed to find time to write. Nine of these albums are worth checking out, and one is worth avoiding at all costs.

Antwon – “In Dark Denim” (free Greedhead download): With Greedhead housing so many terrific artists, as well as putting out so many mixes each year, it’s no wonder some of their artists are undeservedly ignored. This quite good San Jose rapper is an example of this. His quality is somewhere in between the label’s heroes Das Racist and the overrated Big Baby Gandhi, but he’s consistent and original. I just wish that all of his songs had at least half the power of this mix’s brilliant final track, “Still Guarded.” Grade: B PLUS

Sam Baker – “Say Grace” (self-released): Compared to last year’s almost overwhelming amount of excellent folk albums, 2013 has been pretty lacking. So here’s Sam Baker to make up for it. It’s not just the songs; at times here, it seems like he’s actually combining elements from last year’s best folk releases. The vocals bring Todd Snider to mind, the music sounds like a more subtle version of what Loudon Wainwright III did on “Older Than My Old Man Now” and the storytelling style is a bit like Bhi Bhiman. But the only one of those albums this fails to top is Snider’s “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables,” which is a very tough to beat. For music so built on emotions, Baker’s songs are hookier than you’d think – “Ditch,” especially – and the way the record is structured ensures that every listen is rewarding. Grade: A

Brandy Clark – “12 Stories” (Slate Creek): Among my most anticipated releases of the year, both because of the hype – critics Jody Rosen and Michaelangelo Matos have both been calling it the year’s finest album for months – and because of its delayed release. But the opening track, “Pray to Jesus,” is disappointing, housing the impressive lyricism you would expect from the woman who gave some of country music’s best performers some of their best songs, as well as boring music that fails to live up to the lyrics. Then, the album hits its winning streak, lasting from “Crazy Women” (co-written by Clark, but originally performed by LeAnn Rimes) up to the brilliant “Stripes.” For the remainder of the album, Clark goes into ballad mode, with a series of tracks that, like “Pray to Jesus,” are both lyrically masterful and musically dull. This is a very good album, but it’s also very overrated. Grade: A MINUS

Miley Cyrus – “Bangerz” (RCA): More upbeat than the first two singles would have you believe, with Miley’s Psychopathic Records-bad rapping dominating many of the tracks. The songs are all pretty dreadful. The opening love song “Adore You,” despite being the main highlight, is less emotionally genuine than her 2008 hit “See You Again.” Meanwhile, “7 Things” was a better heartbreak song than “Wrecking Ball,” and none of the many party songs here are on par with “Can’t Be Tamed,” let alone “Party in the U.S.A.” Miley isn’t more mature here at all, but it’s so safe that people who absolutely hated her previous albums might find this one easier to like. Grade: C

Ezra Furman – “The Year of No Running” (Bar/None ’12): Sad boys can be melodic, too. Case in point, the four key tracks here are among the most upbeat – and they’re still titled “Cruel, Cruel World,” “That’s When it Hit Me,” “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” and “Doomed Love Affair.” Grade: B PLUS

Clay Harper – “Old Airport Road” (Terminus ‘12): When both Robert Christgau and Chuck Eddy recommend a rare album, you know it’s weird, and this may be the weirdest record of the year – or at least the weirdest worth listening to. Harper, who describes his album as “eclectic,” works well on his own. The jazzy “Roly Poly,” the sentimental cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and the even more sentimental “F—k Who You Want” – that’s all him. But when he brings in a guest, that’s when things get really strange. The opening track, “Ole Ray,” is pure blues, featuring vocals from Sandra Hall. “Get That Money,” featuring rapper Slim Red, is a random hip-hop track that feels completely out-of-place. The best track, however, is “Crazy,” featuring Arabic singer Hamid Mohajir, who delivers one of the most passionate vocal performances I’ve heard in a long time. Strange, certainly, but very good all the same. Grade: B PLUS

Icona Pop – “This Is… Icona Pop” (Big Beat): If the surprising chart success of “I Love It” has diminished some of its power, then this album gives some of it back. Minor and repetitive isn’t always bad. Especially when it sounds like this. Grade: A MINUS

The Julie Ruin – “Run Fast” (Dischord): Like her previous bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s new band has released a debut full-length that is also a masterful mission statement. Musically, it’s both catchy and simple, to the point where a simple handclap in “Goodnight Goodbye” makes me smile every time. It’s undeniably pop, with an often greater focus on synths and beats than guitar riffs. There are still plenty of guitar riffs, though, and Hanna’s youthful wail – as sure of itself as ever – keeps things just punk enough. Possibly her magnum opus, although the competition makes it hard to say. Grade: A

Martha Redbone Roots Project – “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake” (Blackfeet Productions ‘12): I’m not a big enough poetry buff to judge an album of poetry set to music without putting considerable weight on the music. Hence, this collection of folk arrangements of William Blake poems is just right for me. The melodies and music that Redbone sets the words to are fantastic, making for an album full of brilliant lyrics that would work even without the lyrics. Grade: A MINUS

Yo Ma Ma – “Symptomology”/Stephen Kalinich & Jon Tiven: “Shortcuts to Infinity” (MsMusic ‘12): Kalinich, a former Beach Boys collaborator, and Tiven, a producer and former frontman of The Yankees, get together and produce the best thing either of them have created possibly ever. Disc one, “Symptomology,” brings “Exile on Main Street” to mind and houses no forgettable tracks. Disc two, “Shortcuts to Infinity,” is iffier, but still fun in its own right. Two-hour long albums that I find myself wanting to put on are rare. This is one of them. Grade: A MINUS

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