Listens for the Week #52-53: Sufjan Stevens, Armand Hammer, Regina Spektor, Metronomy, D2x & More
Although Drake’s latest record is sure to be the biggest release this autumn, it is far from the best. With recent albums from folk legend Sufjan Stevens, abstract hip hop duo Armand Hammer, and lyrical heavyweight Earl Sweatshirt, so many of the year’s finest projects have dropped in a few short weeks.
My Favourite Albums This Week
1. Sufjan Stevens – Javelin (2023) [Folk, Singer-Songwriter]
Quickly following up the piano-led balladry of Reflections, Javelin is a return to form for Sufjan, embracing the lush instrumental arrangements and grim sense of poetry that brought him to fame. Almost 20 years on from his breakout record Illinois, the latest LP is proof that Sufjan’s talents are everlasting, delivering another gorgeous folk album brimming with depth and emotion. Touching on all sorts of subjects from death to heartbreak, Javelin boasts some of Stevens’s most despairing verses, juxtaposed by the uplifting production. Waves of strings, horns, and guitar make up the autumnal soundscape of the LP, capturing a grand sense of hope to contrast his ever-bleak lyricism. A few cuts in the middle don’t impress quite as much, but with a powerful opener and an outstanding closer, the highs of Javelin more than make up for its lows.
2. Armand Hammer – We Buy Diabetic Test Strips (2023) [Abstract Hip Hop]
The latest record from Armand Hammer – the underground alliance of MCs billy woods and ELUCID – Test Strips is among the strongest projects either party have ever released. A host of talented producers chipped in with beats for the album, making this one of the duo’s most eclectic and unpredictable efforts. Whether it be the chilling ambience led by JPEGMAFIA on the opener and closer, El-P’s futuristic fusion of samples on “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, or the ear-shattering percussion DJ Haram delivers on “Trauma Mic”, every beatmaker brings their all. On the mic, Armand Hammer are as consistent as always, bringing ferocious flows, sporadic deliveries, and a list of quotable bars. Bringing together some of the most creative forces in the hip hop underground, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is the quintessential abstract hip hop album of 2023.
Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch (2004) [Singer-Songwriter]
Soviet Kitsch is a colourful, introspective, comedic masterpiece of an album. Regina is a natural performer, able to deliver showstopping high notes then transition into fast-paced passages of comedic storytelling, finding that perfect balance between humour and serious reflection. On the production side, this LP is fantastic. Sprawling piano passages make up the foundation of the album’s sound, with the occasional punch of percussion or roar of guitar injecting bursts of energy here and there. The languid piano-work acts as a throughline across the whole project, giving Soviet Kitsch a tight sense of cohesion that makes every song feel essential.
Something I Love
Metronomy – The English Riviera (2011) [Indie Pop]
The English Riviera is an album whose flaws are obvious, but I love it regardless. Metronomy have never been the most consistent band, always delivering compelling songs but rarely an LP that impresses from front to back. Riviera, in my opinion, is the only exception – a seamless blend of electronica, indie, and synthpop styles, perfectly capturing the summery atmosphere of the location the record is named after. A choir of splashing waves open up the record, leading into the laidback grooves of “We Broke Free”. With a driving bassline and hypnotic chorus, it sounds fantastic, but lyrically, Joseph Mount leaves much to be desired. Although lyricism has never been the focus of pop music, it’s the inverse for indie, making Mount’s vague and often uninteresting verses somewhat underwhelming. Despite that, his relaxed presence – along with the intricately layered production – make for some entrancing songs, with the sheer catchiness of The English Riviera making up for its lack of lyrical substance.
My Favourite Songs This Week
1. D2x – “Waves & Moonlights” (2023) [Conscious Hip Hop]
One of the strongest cuts off Hotel 1105, “Waves & Moonlights” is driven by a hypnotic piano loop and revving guitar, creating a cinematic backdrop for D2x to deliver some of his most compelling verses to date. The grand, soulful backdrop fits right in with the warm, summery soundscape of the whole LP, capturing all the album’s strengths in three short minutes.
2. Tinashe – “Talk to Me Nice” (2023) [Alternative R&B]
Few R&B tracks have captured me like “Talk to Me Nice”. Some repetitive vocal chops invite you into the track, followed by waves of bass and hi-hats. Tinashe’s chirpy, pitched-up vocals give the song a playful tone but with a sinister edge, made even darker when the beat switches and adopts a far more ominous sound.
3. Dom Archey – “Knew I Was” (2023) [Abstract Hip Hop]
From the very first moment, “Knew I Was” is enchanting. The beat creates this spacious, glittering atmosphere to add prominence to the presence of each MC. Numbz and Knowitall deliver excellent verses, with their raw, gritty deliveries on the mic offering a nice contrast against the lush production supplied by Dom.