This Week’s Best Albums: December 20, 2011

This Week's Best Albums: December 20, 2011

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

Gruff Rhys: Atheist Xmas EP Test Lengthywords Test (Wichita)

Around this time of year, before the reality and harshness of winter set in, December usually is a time of good cheer and holiday festiveness. And now, thanks to singer/songwriter Gruff Rhys, atheists can enjoy the season too. The Super Furry Animals front-man has just released a new EP called Atheist Xmas — a three-song offering featuring hook-heavy, head-bobbing catchiness, sure to help get you through to the coldest days this winter (or at least a few minutes of them at a time).

With this paradoxically titled recording, Rhys has become a master of juxtaposition — setting deep and dark lyrics to a backdrop of easy-listening, poppy arrangements (with elements of Rhys’ signature style firmly in place: futuristic synths, harmonized vocals, brass ornamentation, etc.). Even with misanthropic titles like “Post-Apocalypse Christmas,” “At the End of the Line,” and “Slashed Wrists This Christmas,” the prolific musician/singer has given an alternate take on holiday merriment. It takes the joyfulness of the Christmastime and turns it on its head, all while maintaining the approachable qualities of holiday music.

And don’t worry — this one isn’t sung in Welsh.

- Text by Michael Danaher.

Common: The Dreamer / The Believer (Warner Bros.)

Common: "Blue Sky"

Production for Common’s new album, The Dreamer / The Believer, started back in 2009, along with Def Jam VP and early Common collaborator No I.D., but the Chicago hip-hop emcee has valid reasons for its unplanned delay. Since his last release, Universal Mind Control, in 2008, Common has written and published his memoir (One Day It’ll All Make Sense), launched a clothing line, landed acting roles in multiple films, founded The Common Ground Foundation, and was involved in one of this year's biggest feuds as a White House poetry-night honoree.

Though the album’s title aptly represents most of its deep, positive content, there are more than a few negative rap stereotypes, creating a lyrical dichotomy. The first track, “The Dreamer,” which includes Common’s exclamations of faith and gratitude and a spoken poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou, rolls into “Ghetto Dreams” with sexist rhymes by Nas. Likewise, the uplifting, ELO-sampled “Blue Sky” is followed by chest-puffing machismo in “Sweet.” And later, the chorus of “Celebrate” ruins an otherwise feel-good track, proclaiming that the narrator has “a couple hundred bitches around” — all before "Windows," a ballad about a father and young daughter.

But despite the lyrical disparities, the aforementioned tracks do not lack in quality, and they rather signify the two main styles on the album – slow grooves alongside harder-hitting production. Neo-soul crooning and minor-key piano chords as just as likely to lead a track as rap-siren blares and turntable scratches. As his ninth studio in 20 years, The Dreamer / The Believer once again delivers Common’s distinctive brand of hip hop.

- Text by Lauren Zens.