Despite the relentless kaleidoscopic colors and energy of Passion Pit's sound, Michael Angelakos' constantly brutal, self-eviscerating lyrics have always balanced things out... until now. Kindred takes its name from the empowering, life-affirming connection Angelakos feels with his family and friends, nearly each track relying one deeply felt gratitude or another. Lead single/opener Lifted Up (1985) announces this new mission statement with a candy-coated wave of stadium-sized synths, and while this aesthetic feels wholly familiar, its twin themes of love and destiny finally match the high-fructose rush that defines Passion Pit. Perhaps this new-found contentment is why Kindred frequently feels less big and bombastic than previous offerings, sneaky earworms like Whole Life Story and Looks Like Rain featuring only minimal adornment, allowing subtle sonics and blissful words to take over. One would be forgiven for missing that joy/misery dichotomy found on their early records, but when Until We Can't (Let's Go) and Five Foot Ten (I) get things going, most complaints are rendered mute.
As aggrandizing as this might sound for a guy still toiling in relative anonymity, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better American songwriter that Mikal Cronin. Don't mistake this for the sort of prodigy/game-changer tag applied to artists like Radiohead or Animal Collective; Cronin's gift is in finding unnervingly immediate melodies and undeniable guitar riffs within established boundaries, not outside of them. MCIII can hardly contain the beauty of his craftsmanship, sumptuous strings and lovely keys pouring out of opener Turn Around from the moment you hit play, slipping into the background to support I've Been Loved's comely acoustic lament. He even manages to step on the gas from time-to-time, Say launching off the blocks into distortion-covered, horn blowing triumph, Ready serving as its pounding, urgent late-album counterpart. The songs Cronin pens and plays pull off that most elusive of musical magic tricks; even on first spin, you feel like you've been listening to these cuts for as long as you can remember.
Mr. Wonderful---Action Bronson
Action Bronson opens the song Only in America by claiming "I'm focused, I swear I'm focused," which, even by the fib-telling MCs own standards, is a flagrant lie. Focus is, by every conceivable measurement, the very antithesis of all things Arian Arslani, the Queens-based rapper with the voice of Ghostface Killah, the body of a 300+ pound Albanian, and the imagination of a 8-year-old who just found daddy's stash of Playboy magazines and gangster movies. Wether adorned in red silk at a Montigo resort (Galactic Love) or impressing the Eastern seaboard with his keyboard virtuoso (Terry), Bronson's glorious fantasies are delivered with easy swagger, and a non-perfectionist attitude that outright embraces the MCs occasional lyrical slip-ups (Brand New Car). These punch-lines and fairy-tales lay on top of one stunning beat after another, from the breezily retro Falconry on down to Actin Crazy, which sounds like Drop it like it's Hot turned inside out. But there's no better example of Bronson's appeal than Baby Blue, with its sturdy piano base, goofily resilient lyrics, awesome Chance the Rapper guest verse, and jazzy horn outtro.
Sound & Color---Alabama Shakes
Well that was fast. Alabama Shakes formed in 2009, released a 4-song EP and started touring in 2011, and watched their debut LP Boys & Girls go gold in 2012. Oh yeah, and Sound & Color opened as the #1 selling album in the nation. Credit the Black Key's ascension for bolstering mainstream interest in Southern-tinged Roots Rock, but the Shakes are the real deal, a band with a specific-yet-eclectic sound, and a knack for crafting catchy grooves. Just one listen to slippery, funky lead single Don't Wanna Fight, and you'll be hooked for life, while the laid-back middle section of This Feeling and Guess Who wafts gracefully out of headphones and speakers, sliding around eardrums like a glove fits a hand. While the instruments and production on had are top-notch, there's little doubting how much lead singer Brittany Howard's voice means to the group, blues-ing away on Shoegaze, scraping the ceiling with her falsetto on Future People, and exploding like a volcano near the end of Miss You. Get used to Alabama Shakes; they're in this for the long haul.
I wouldn't exactly call myself a Björk expert (notice I'm four months late on recommending this one... for shame), but I feel safe in saying that you've never heard the Icelandic troubadour quite like this before. While the art of Björk Guðmundsdóttir has been poignantly esoteric in the past, Vulnicura manages to keep the freak flag flying within one of the most immortal music traditions known to man: the break-up album. On her first record in four years, the singer/songwriter from Mars completely gives up on hiding the meaning of her lyrics, soaring through one plainly-worded ballad after another, the pain and heart-break of her recent split from multi-media artist/partner Matthew Barney felt in every syllable. While the solo work of producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak can feel a bit lacking, their beats are utterly perfect beneath Björk's singular croon, a string section goosing up the stakes and emotions of every waking moment. The 9-track offering bares only two songs that fall short of the 6-minute mark, the other 7 unfurling with the patience and build of a flower in bloom. As gorgeous as it is sorrowful, Vulnicura is one of 2015's very best.
The Waterfall---My Morning Jacket
If you've loved My Morning Jacket like I've loved My Morning Jacket, my condolences on the last decade. Following the walloping one-two punch of 2003's It Still Moves and 2005's Z, the future seemed blindingly bright, and potentially sky-high. Then came Evil Urges and Circuital, a pair of LPs the doubled-down on the band's country western bend while largely sidelining the foundation-shaking power chords and wonky songwriting that powered their legendary Bonnaroo run. In other words, they veered dangerously close to becoming a Dad Rock band, and while many of those ideas and inclinations are still present on The Waterfall, the five-piece finally seems to be easing into this new phase in their career. The size and might of In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) and please-turn-that-up single Big Decisions harken back to the glory days, while Spring (Among the Living) and Compound Fracture employ unfamiliar instruments to show Jim James and company in an ever-so-slightly different light. Best of all, songs that might have turned into out-and-out cheese-fests on their last couple discs work like gangbusters here, opener Believe (Nobody Knows) embodying contentment in a far more believable way than Evil Urges' fan-service-y I'm Amazed, while Get the Point coaxes actual emotions where Librarian could only muster eye-rolls. I'm not here to tell you that My Morning Jacket will ever make it all the way back to their heyday, but they're finally back on the horse, and thank god for that.