Contrary to what some of my political opponents may tell you, I am but one man. And as one man, I have a hard time writing about every album that crosses my desk (I don’t actually have a desk at the moment but bear with me). Capsule reviews, named after their inventor Arthur J. Capsule (presumably), allow me an avenue around the boundaries of being a single human being. Here are five short reviews of noteworthy albums from November 2016 that I just wasn’t able to write about in length at the time.
24K Magic by Bruno Mars (Nov. 18)
Bruno Mars’s recent shift into self-aware throwback music—mostly post-disco, soul, and R&B—culminates in 24K Magic. Along with Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine as producing trio The Smeezingtons, Mars drenched his first two albums in overbearing saccharine, but he and Lawrence eventually left The Smeezingtons in 2015 in order to form Shampoo Press & Curl with songwriter Christopher Cody Brown, and the faux-ferocity of Mars’s maudlin declarations of love softened into a velvety funk sound that brought to his music an attribute that it had been sorely lacking on projects past: a modicum of real passion. Mars leaves no stone unturned in his trip down memory lane; 24K Magic offers homage to everyone from the electric James Brown (“Perm”) to the slinky-smooth Babyface (“Straight Up & Down”) to Boyz II Men (“Finesse”), a staple act of new jack swing. The album’s lean 33-minute length is the ultimate display of Mars’s newly-discovered focus; that he can remain so succinct while still having so much fun trekking through such a wide swath of rhythm-and-blues history is loudly emblematic of his positive growth as an artist over the past half-decade or more.
Black America Again by Common (Nov. 4)
Another year, another Common release to coincide with an Ava DuVernay project (this time, the Netflix documentary 13th). Black America Again is Common’s most blunt-force protest album to date, a blistering indictment of the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of police, politicians, the entertainment industry, among others. No one escapes Common’s crosshairs—the title track alone has references to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the practices of Black Lives Matter, the pay gap between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, the death of Sandra Bland while in jail, and the continued neglect by the United States government towards the toxic chemicals in Flint, Michigan water systems. The album’s ubiquitous jazz influence can be attributed to its tight pool of producers, consisting almost entirely of drummer Karriem Riggins (who handled “30 Hours” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo) and jazz pianist Robert Glasper. Black America Again—surely Common’s most cohesive project since 2005’s Be—does nothing if not spotlight the Chicago poet’s impressive adaptability as both an emcee and a storyteller.
A Fistful of Peril by Czarface (Nov. 4)
When it comes to boom-bap tributes, Czarface—comprised of underground hip-hop duo 7L & Esoteric alongside Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan—is either everything right or everything wrong with golden age revival. On their last album, 2015’s Every Hero Needs a Villain, the three artists amassed an impressive features list (MF Doom, R.A. the Rugged Man, and Wu-Tang alums Method Man and GZA, to name a few) and crafted a gritty throwback record with a sharp villainous edge employed in its lyricism. A Fistful of Peril, however, does little to deviate from generic nostalgia. The features list is notably less star-studded (apologies if I’m wrong and the thought of a Meyhem Lauren verse actually makes you salivate), the flows are noticeably lacking in inspiration, and 7L’s production confuses “no frills” with “no personality.” A Fistful of Peril is by no means terrible, but it feels like an afterthought on the heels of its kick-ass predecessor.
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct by Metallica (Nov. 18)
As a follow-up to the disastrous St. Anger, 2008’s Death Magnetic bore the responsibility of restoring Metallica’s relationship with its disgruntled fans, and for the most part, it succeeded in refocusing the band’s sound. That Death Magnetic likened itself more to the early ‘90s commerciality of their eponymous album than the rawer thrash that defined their most acclaimed output in the ‘80s was inconsequential; at the end of the day, it was still very much solid Metallica and still very much not St. Anger. Having recalibrated, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct merely had to keep the ship afloat, and perhaps that’s why I was so nervous going into this project. After all, if, after over 30 years, Metallica decides they want to coast, why even bother making music at all? And as a fan, why bother listening to it? Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, like Death Magnetic before it, manages to succeed based on its dedication to the values of regression. But where Death Magnetic dug up and waxed nostalgia over Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” days, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct reached back even further and embodied the likes of Master of Puppets. The result is an album that, while not great, firmly brings the Los Angeles group full circle in their career. It’s not as dynamic as Death Magnetic, sentimentalizing the past with a rather narrow scope that results in less musical variety than one might like, but it’s a well-mixed (I say that noting the egregious dynamic range compression on Death Magnetic), thunderous example of the artistic fire still churning in the bellies of James Hetfield and company.
The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert (Nov. 18)
Contemporary mainstream country music too often is distracted by the predominance of lazy pop-country song structures and the allure of the stadium anthem, and for some time, it seemed as if Miranda Lambert was one of the artists swept up in the genre’s erosion of origin. Color me surprised to find that The Weight of These Wings packs a wallop not with the blunt-force trauma of a focus-grouped ode to American patriotism but with the nuance of songwriting designed to utilize the most appealing aspects of the country genre—its earthy simplicity, its penchant for tales of heartbreak, and its emotional grit—within the framework of modern folk rock and classic honky-tonk. To say that The Weight of These Wings is short on any pop influence is misleading, but even when Lambert incorporates pop rock into her sound, she does so in the service of expanding the Americana aesthetic rather than merely diluting it. At over 90 minutes in length, The Weight of These Wings could have benefited from a stronger emphasis on concision, but it gives even Lambert’s most vicious critics barely any wiggle room to argue that the Texas singer is anything other than one of country’s most electrifying acts today.