Images & Words: Chromatics, "Black Walls"

Chromatics "Black Walls" Dear Tommy (out PROLLY NEVER on Italians Do It Better) Goddamn it, Johnny Jewel. Just when I'd moved on from the idea that I'd ever hear "Dear Tommy," this guy drags me back in with a luscious new track and a (probably fictional) release date for Fall of 2018. "Black Read more

Snail Mail, "Let's Find An Out"

Snail Mail "Let's Find An Out" Lush (out 06.08 on Matador) Though I've somehow not written about them yet, I've been loving the Baltimore trio's pre-release singles for their hotly-anticipated debut LP. The stripped-back third single, "Let's Find An Out," is my favorite of the bunch, pairing songwriter Lindsey Jordan's plaintive vocals Read more

Rae Sremmurd: "Offshore" (f/ Young Thug)

Rae Sremmurd "Offshore" (f/ Young Thug) Swaecation Though I'm still processing the Mississippi superstars' excellent, new 27-song project, the free-flowing "Offshore" feels like an instant classic. Producer Mike Will is a genius at negotiating sonic space, and his gooey, descending synth chords leave plenty of room for Thug to play in. And Read more

The Round-Up: The Best Albums from April '18

Grouper “Grid of Points” Yellow Electric Though only 21 minutes, the haunting beauty of Liz Harris' eleventh studio LP will linger for many years to come. Penned and recorded in just 10 days, "Grid of Points" feels like a moment suspended in time — a distant memory that you just can't Read more

Images & Words: Oneohtrix Point Never, "Black Snow"

Oneohtrix Point Never "Black Snow" (f/ Anohni) Age of (out 06.01 on Warp) Though the Massachusetts native is probably best know for his otherworldly, chaotic experimental electro, some of his best tracks are his quietist. Whether it's his recent stunner with Iggy Pop or the beautiful Anohni-lead "Returnal," OPN (né Daniel Lopatin) Read more


The Round-Up: 10 Musical Things to Love about February ’16

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If Jens Lekman can write, record, and produce a new song every week, I can write a monthly blog post rounding up my favorite musical goings-on from the last 28-31 days. These aren’t in order, and this isn’t a Best Of List. Rather it’s a random collection of ten things (i.e. scenes, songs, albums, new directions, etc) that caught my attention. I’ll mostly be picking things I didn’t have a chance to write about, so as to avoid repeating myself. Leggo.

1. PNB Rock’s melodic masterstroke, RNB3
It feels like Philadelphia hip-hop is on the verge of having a moment. From the buzzing, electric Lil Uzi Vert to the unique Tierra Whack to the A$AP Mob affiliated Chynna, there are a clutch of promising young artists coming through the city right now. And that’s just a few of them.

My favorite of the bunch is 24 year-old Rakim “PnB Rock” Allen. Hailing from Northwest Philly’s Germantown neighborhood, Allen is blessed with an easy tenor and a muscular flow that he effortlessly slips in and out of throughout his unassailable, RNB3 tape. Some may argue that he sounds too much like Fetty Wap, who is on this tape and hails from just a couple hours up I-95. But Allen’s storytelling and songwriting is distinct and more than strong enough to stand on its own. RNB3 has all the fingerprints of a slow-burner (remember, “Trap Queen” was out for almost a year before it blew up), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this excellent disc was the soundtrack to Summer ’16.

Download RNB3 here.

2. Kanye takes us to church on the divine, The Life of Pablo
There’s been a ton of brilliant writing on Kanye’s inimitable seventh album. But what’s stuck with me the most are the religious, ecstatic moments on this thing. Chance’s verse from “Ultralight Beam.” The hook on “Father Stretch My Hands.” Queen Kelly Price. Rihanna channeling Nina Simone. The confessional verses on “FML.” In the build-up, ‘Ye did describe TLOP as a gospel record, but I didn’t think that he’d go this far. You’d think I’d have learned not to underestimate the great man after all these years.

3. Memoryhouse returns
I’ve been swooning (and stanning) hard for this Canadian duo since they released their flawless debut EP, The Years (2010). Their sophomore LP, Soft Hate, is another delicious collection of gentle, affecting dream-pop. Though they remain frustratingly underrated, they continue to grow as musicians and songwriters, which is typified by vocalist Denise Nouvion’s confident, subtly commanding performance on this disc. Keep sleeping on these two at your peril.

4. The 1975 channels 1989 (the year, not the album)
The Manchester quartet’s remarkably consistent second LP plays like a never before heard “Monster 80s” comp. The well-balanced disc boasts captivating slabs of guitar rock (“She’s American,” “UGH!”), moody synth ballads (“A Change of Heart,” “Somebody Else”), and even a pair of “More Than Words”-style fingerpicked tearjerkers thrown in at the end (“Nana,” “She Lays Down”). If you can stomach Matty Healy’s occasional lyrical eye-rolls, there’s a huge amount of songwriting goodness to feast on here.

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Images & Words: FKA Twigs, “Good To Love”

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FKA Twigs
“Good to Love”
Digital Single

Tahliah “FKA Twigs” Barnett knows that stripping things out is often the way to make the biggest statements. Visually, musically, and lyrically, the 28 year-old deals in simplicity and directness, giving a rare, powerful intimacy to her music. Ambiguity is easy, and we’re overstocked with lyricists using a lot of words to not say much.

True to form, her most recent single, “Good to Love,” says a hell of a lot, as she plaintively asks her partner to move past their baggage and let her in. The arrangement is spare and her voice unwavering; there are no distractions. For the next four minutes, Twigs assuages his fear while asserting her own power. “It’s not your fault that I’m loved to my limit. I’ve had plenty so I know you’re mine” is as stunning a lyric as we’ve heard this year, morphing past sexual experiences from a source of jealousy into one of strength. It’s something that anybody who has ever been in a relationship can relate to and an example of how real empathy can break down the barriers that keep us apart.

Hot Jam of the Day: The 1975, “Somebody Else”

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The 1975
“Somebody Else”
I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It (out 02.26 on Dirty Hit)

So little of the chatter around the divisive Manchester four-piece has anything to do with what they sound like. The group’s ridiculously-titled second album has ignited myriad Twitter #hottakes and commenter bitchfests, focusing on who vocalist Matthew Healy is or isn’t fucking, what he’s doing with his hair, and whether music this poppy is fit for the indie blogosphere. It would all be a bit dull in the hands of another band, but the five pre-release singles they’ve dropped have highlighted what a thrilling, unpredictable band they’ve become. And any time a shitload of people are talking about a band who is taking real chances, it’s a good thing for music.

The best of the five is the warm, moody new-wave ballad, “Somebody Else.” While the post-chillwave Small Black/Washed Out vibes are legitimate, nobody in that scene had this level of arena-ready songwriting chops or the graceful power of Healy’s voice. And while much of that music was inspired by the kind of songs that could captivate big rooms, Healy and co. truly aspired to do it. And just three years removed from their debut, they are heading out on a massive tour to do it for real. I’ll be there, and it will be glorious.

Also, check out their SNL performance of the ecstatic, “The Sound.”

Starting V: The Best of Future’s Two New Albums

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We’re only five weeks into 2016, and Future has already #blessed us with two records — mixtape Purple Reign and album EVOL. While his recent prolificacy has delighted his ever-growing core fanbase, I know a lot of casual fans who are finding it difficult to keep up with his relentless pace. For that reason, I picked out five of my highlights from the two albums, which will hopefully provide a foothold into both discs and give you a vibe of where he’s at.

1. “Fly Shit Only” from EVOL, produced by DJ Spinz
EVOL‘s beautiful, swirling final track is the pick of both discs, thanks to the mournful mastery of DJ Spinz. Built around an arpeggiated guitar riff that somehow simultaneously recalls Danzig and Radiohead, Future picks through the bones of life at the top. Reminiscent of 2015’s best song, “News or Smthn,” “Fly Shit Only” is basically a trap power ballad, and his doleful vocals are at their melodic, magnetic best — capable of turning any line into a hook that you won’t be able to get out of your head.

2. “Inside the Mattress” from Purple Reign, produced by Nard & B
As you’ll notice, most of my favorite moments from Purple Reign and EVOL are the downtempo ones. However, there’s plenty of #turnup Future on both records, and “Inside the Mattress” is likely the most potent of the bunch. This isn’t surprising considering that Nard & B produced his most ecstatic song, “Straight Up,” which is also the first Future song I ever loved. While it doesn’t match that track’s frenetic energy, it’s a reminder that Super Future is always ready to make an appearance.

3. “Lie to Me” from EVOL, produced by DJ Spinz
Spinz strikes again, crafting an incredible beat with glistening keyboards and spare percussion. The neon keys give “Lie to Me” a late night drive feel, and Future gleefully grabs the wheel, guiding you through the back roads and flickering lights of his psyche. 

4. “No Charge” from Purple Reign, produced by Southside
Futrue always sounds great on a Southside beat. The 27 year-old is the architect behind “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “Trap N**gas” (among many others), which are arguably the two most popular songs from Future’s recent purple patch. And he delivers again with this spacious, airy beat. Like the aforementioned singles, “No Charge” features Southside’s trademark hi-hat wizardry and deep synths — the perfect canvas for Future to smear his melodic vocals over the top of.

5. “Low Life” (f/ The Weeknd) from EVOL, produced by Metro Boomin, Ben Billion$ & The Weeknd
Future’s music is great, even when he isn’t. Fueled by fellow nihilist the Weeknd, the duo let their misanthropic flags fly, weaving through Metro Boomin’s cinematic synths and rolling percussion. Originally released on Christmas Day, the track is basically hip-hop “Bad Santa,” with its protagonists reveling in how good being the bad guy can be.

The Round-Up: 10 Musical Things I Loved About January ’16

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If Jens Lekman can write, record, and produce a new song every week, I can write a monthly blog post rounding up my favorite musical goings-on from the last 28-31 days. These aren’t in order, and this isn’t a Best Of List. Rather it’s a random collection of ten things (i.e. scenes, songs, albums, new directions, etc) that caught my attention. I’ll mostly be picking things I didn’t have a chance to write about, so as to avoid repeating myself. Let’s see how this goes.

1. The back half of Rihanna’s ANTI
The biggest release of the year seems like a good place to start. Don’t let the pre-release Tidal apocalypse or its lukewarm, Drake-featured first single, “Work”, fool you; ANTI is a fabulous, understated collection that finds one of the world’s biggest stars at her creative and vocal peak. Aside from the wonky Tame Impala cover, the disc’s second half is unassailable — from the venomous break-up jam, “Needed Me” to its stunning piano ballad closer, “Close To You.” The latter is probably my favorite song of the year so far and is one of the most engaging, honest moments of RiRi’s career. Plus, it almost always makes me want to cry, then call everyone I love, then cry again.  Her weary, expressive vocals go places others can’t, dripping with the kind of mournful beauty that is unmatched by any modern pop star. The same goes for the wonderful “Love on the Brain,” “Yeah, I Said It” and “Higher.” It may not have the hits, and “Work” is a dud, but ANTI is one of the strongest releases of her career.

Because Tidal is the worst, you can’t stream any of it here. Pick it up over at Apple Music. Jk, it’s out on Spotify now. Stream it here.

2. The dreamy R&B of King’s We Are King
Rihanna made my favorite song, but the LA trio’s long-awaited debut LP is definitely my top album of the young year. A remarkably consistent 12-song set, We Are King is a balanced, updated take on the soul-infused R&B of people like Sade and Prince. While it’s a totally unfair comparison, it’s far from baseless, and there are so few artists nowadays who are writing such lush arrangements and full, rich vocal melodies. There’s just so much love on this album, and if it feels this good to get swept up in the waves, why would you fight it?

Stream it over at Spotify.

3. We got a new MssingNo EP
Truth be told, I’ve only been able to listen to it once or twice since it dropped this morning, but after two years of waiting, it sure feels like the mercurial Londoner’s incredible, genre defining self-titled debut EP has a worthy successor. After putting out a handful of inch-perfect remixes and one-offs, it’s so exciting to hear another long(ish) form statement from the still-anonymous producer. I’m sure I’ll write more about this when I get a little more time with it, but early returns are fucking massive.

Stream the whole thing over at Spotify.

4. Ryuichi Sakamoto comes back from cancer treatment with the Revenant Soundtrack
In July of 2014, the legendary Japanese composer announced that he was taking a some time off to deal with oropharyngeal cancer. Last summer, we got the good news that he was in good health and looking to get back to work. This January, we got to hear that work, and goddamn, that work is beautiful. Alongside Alva Noto with assistance from the National’s Bryce Dessner, Sakamoto crafted 23 tracks of affecting mood music. I haven’t seen the film, but if I enjoy it half as much as I did the soundtrack, it’ll be one of my favorite movies of the year.

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Hot Jam of the Day: DAWN, “Not Above That”

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“Not Above That”
RED*emp*tion (out soon on Our Dawn)

I’m consistently disappointed by the lack of Dawn Richard remixes lying around the Internet. That’s partially because she remains criminally underrated, but it’s also because few pop and R&B artists have embraced progressive dance music as fully as the New Orleanian. Many of the songs producers would be likely to rework — “Calypso,” “Billie Jean,” “Warriors,” “Dance” — are already packed with the kind of dance breaks, unique instrumentation, and vocal manipulation that remixers tend to employ.

The sweltering “Not Above That” is another example of this. Along with the ever-consistent Machinedrum, Richard crafts another banger that exists somewhere in that delicious nether zone between your duvet cover and the dancefloor. She has spoken about her desire to remove gender, color, and genre from her music, and lyrically, she challenges gender roles again on this record. “That’s why I call you up at 4 in the morning cause I’m not above that” could be a throwaway lyric from a Drake/Future/insert rap dude track. But when it comes out of Dawn Richard’s mouth, it is both a command and an invitation that carries disarming power. Last year’s Blackheart was a masterpiece, and RED*emp*tion is shaping up to be more than a worthy successor.

Images & Words: Zayn Malik, “Pillowtalk”

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Zayn Malik
Mind of Mine (out 03.25)

It’s hard to decide which is more smoldering — Zayn Malik’s bone structure or his first post-One Direction single. “Pillowtalk” brilliantly balances Malik’s sadboi lothario (think: Drake circa Take Care) tendencies with his blockbuster vocals. That voice allows him to veer toward a darker, moodier sound, while retaining the lightness and innocence of his early work. In other words, it’s the kind of song that hordes of teenagers can sing (read: scream) along to in a packed arena, or that two real-life adults might consider having sex to. There aren’t a ton of songs that work for both scenarios, and those tend to be reserved for only the most interesting pop artists.

Zayn’s just getting started as a solo artist, but Mind of Mine officially just vaulted to the top of my “Most Anticipated Albums of 2016” list. Something tells me I’m not the only one.

Images & Words: Wet, “Weak” (Live on the Tonight Show)

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“Weak” (Live on the Tonight Show)
Don’t You (out 01.29 on Columbia)
I don’t normally write about live performances, but I was just so struck by how far the Massachusetts trio has come in the last two and a half years. I first wrote about Wet in September of 2013, after falling in love with their debut single, the crushing break-up ballad, “No Lie.” A few months later, I caught (what I think was) their first ever gig in Brooklyn. They seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight that night, but you couldn’t hear in the way they played. Vocalist Kelly Zutrau stood out, stoically pushing through her nerves to deliver a heartfelt, affecting performance. Guitarist Marty Sulkow added beautiful counter-melodies to the sparse arrangements, while Joe Valle, their most energetic performer, banged away at a skeletal electric drum-kit.

As good as they were that night, I never thought that in just two years, I would be seeing them perform on Network TV. Their performance on Fallon was assured and confident, like a band that has been doing TV shows for years. Again, Zutrau was especially impressive. Much of Wet’s magic comes from the amount of negative space in their arrangements. That space often leaves Zutrau’s voice totally exposed, maximizing its impact but also the pressure placed on it. On what must have been the most stressful performance of their career, she came up trumps, confidently staying in tune and adding an emotional wallop to one of the strongest songs of their glittering young career. The performance isn’t just a reminder of how far they’ve come; it’s an exciting indicator of just how far they can go.

Best of 15: The Best Albums of 2015

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20. 2814
新しい日の誕生 (Dream Catalogue)
I’ve never been to Tokyo, but when I do, I’ll make sure to bring the ambient, post-Vaporware vibes of Dream Catalogue mainman, HKE and producer Telepath with me. The soundtrack to imagined midnight walks through the city, the disc’s cinematic, engulfing eight songs set a palpable mood, sure to keep your eyes closed and your mind wandering.
Hottest Jams: “新しい日の誕生” & “真実の恋”

19. Billboard Brothers
Billboard Brothers (self-released)
Do you love listening to people rap? Then, this is your album. Over 13 joyful tracks, Doughboyz Cashout’s dynamic duo raps their asses off, weaving melodic, adhesive verses over timeless slabs of 90s indebted G-funk. Like Westbrook and Durant, Payroll Giovanni and Big Quis have incredible chemistry, and they work so well together that their verses blend together and stand out at the same time.
Hottest Jams: “Strap on My Lap,” “Do What I Wanna Do,” “White”

18. The Staves
If I Was (Atlantic UK)
Whoever the Staveley parents are, they are fucking lucky. Imagine living in a house with three daughters who sing this beautifully together. On their second LP, they pair their heavenly three-part harmonies with the strongest, most evocative songwriting of their career, picking through the bones of a failed relationship with affecting honesty and relatability. It’s a sad record in places, but the ever-present mellifluousness of their vocals and arrangements guarantee that there’s always plenty of light streaming through the blinds.
Hottest Jams: “Make it Holy,” “Let Me Down,” “Sadness Don’t Own Me”

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Best of 15: The Hottest Jams of 2015

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Welp, that’s it for 2015. It was an incredible year for music, and it was tougher to whittle this list down to 65 than in recent years. Thank you for joining me for another year of ThunderPenguin, and it’s been awesome to see this little site growing. Hopefully, the album list will be up in a day or two.

65. Post Malone
“White Iverson”
Digital Single
I hated it, then I loved it, and then I hated myself for loving it, then I hated it again, and now I’m just confused about it. No matter where I end up with it, the Houston crooner’s ode to the Answer deserves a spot on this list, because of the emotional energy I expended dealing with it.

64. Nicole Dollanganger
“You’re So Cool”
Natural Born Losers (Eerie Organization)
Remember that 90s movie Crazy/Beautiful? The 23 year-old Canadian’s breakthrough LP should really be called Creepy/Beautiful. Its towering closing track is half wedding first dance, half slasher flick, as Dollanganger stretches her unique falsetto to extol the virtues of a love interest who seems to have committed some very grizzly murders (“You got guns for trophies mounted up like animal heads with the skulls of all the high school champs you keep in rows above the bed”). It’s unsettling, romantic, creepy, and very, very beautiful.

63. f(x)
“4 Walls”
4 Walls – The 4th Album (SM Entertainment)
The Korean girl group’s bilingual banger is bright, breezy, and far from the average American perception of what K-Pop is supposed to sound like. There’s bits of R&B, hip-hop, and New Jack Swing (seriously!) in here, and it brings me back to the girl groups of the early 2000s, like Dream, 3LW, and 702, which — in my book — is pretty high praise.

62. Justin Bieber
Purpose (Def Jam)
I considered “I’ll Show You” (Justin’s very own “I’m not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”), but I settled on the 21 year-old’s delightfully sarcastic mea culpa. It should really be called “Sorry (Not Sorry),” and Bieber plays the mischievous scamp to perfection, acknowledging his past hijinks (i.e. monkey buying, speeding, this haircut) while hinting that he’s just getting started. Let’s hope he is.

61. Sufjan Stevens
“Should Have Known Better”
Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
There are a lot of meaningful lyrics on “Should Have Known Better” and many more on the exquisite album that spawned it. But none touched me like the final one here: “My brother had a daughter. The beauty that she brings, illumination.” My sister had a daughter last October, and I’ve been consistently overwhelmed by the staggering mass of power and beauty yielded by someone so small. Much of Carrie & Lowell is focused on the final acts of the people we love, but this special moment of tribute to his niece stands out as a shining beacon of light on a very dark album.

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