Against Me!, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’
The remarkable thing about “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” – besides, of course, it being an emancipating declaration of independence – is that it even exists. Can you imagine, in the late ’90s when this punk-rock quartet from Florida first rocked its way to notoriety, something as transgender-focused as this? Against Me!’s sixth release is a deeply personal outpouring as necessary – both to now-frontwoman Laura Jane Grace and the band’s fans – as it is empowering. An open diary exploring internal and external struggles with identity – but also alienation, acceptance and love, fear and loss – the complex, often-tremendous “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” triumphs at acknowledging one’s differences and the power that can be had when we embrace them. “We can’t choose how we’re made,” Grace insists on the title track, venting frustrations over the gritty track – and then recognizing the one person who truly gets her. “True Trans Soul Rebel” thrashes like some of the best radio-made ’90s rock, but beneath the hard-guitar guise is an emotional undercurrent so heartfelt and raw – especially the verse suggesting suicide – that Grace’s pain becomes ours. “Dead Friend” is brutally honest, and “Drinking with the Jocks” fights with its claws out. And if you’ve ever wanted to piss on the house of a person you hate, “Black Me Out” is your song. But it’s the poignancy of “Two Coffins,” a bittersweet break from the pummeling punk sounds, that really floored me. The gratitude it expresses, while looking to the end of everything, still has me trying to pick myself up off the ground. Grade: B+
Toni Braxton and Babyface, ‘Love, Marriage & Divorce’
In the ’90s, Toni Braxton broke more hearts than she un-broke, and the world was OK with that. The world was so OK with that, Braxton racked up No. 1s, snatched a few Grammys and joined the pantheon of premier female powerhouses – Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion – who could sing a song like a hose puts out a blazing fire. Braxton still sounds every bit as pillow-soft demure and sultry low on “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” her first release since 2010’s “Pulse,” as she did then. And with Babyface as her co-pilot – the producer lured the singer back to music after she almost gave it up entirely – the two recapture the greatness of an enduring, two-decade-plus partnership, once again shaping those sophisticated love songs that speak to the heart and, yeah, sometimes break it. Focusing on relationship ups and downs, the aptly titled “Roller Coaster” has a hooky groove that mitigates its cliche amusement-park metaphor. The song sets the tone for this classy – and sometimes dull – R&B throwback, a therapy session encompassing all the feels of that crazy thing called love: the regretful “Hurt You,” a harmonious mid-tempo about infidelity; the vengeful “I Wish” set to an ironic piano solo; and the kinky “Sweat,” a standout so good you’ll pick a fight just to have makeup sex. Grade: B-
Broken Bells, ‘After the Disco’
You know that period post-clubbing when the lights go out and nothing else matters because you’re too drunk to care? This is your soundtrack to that night. Set to a dreamy ambiance of shimmer, and inspired by late ’70s Bee Gees, “After the Disco” is the second LP from the pairing of artist-producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and The Shins frontman James Mercer. Oftentimes their indie-pop gets swallowed in the morning sun – the melodies just aren’t all that ear-grabby – but occasionally, like on the entrancing synth jam “Perfect World,” it’ll intoxicate you like a night of heavy drinking.
Cibo Matto, ‘Hotel Valentine’
Cibo Matto’s first all-original release since their disbanding in 2001 involves a “love story and a group of ghosts in a hotel.” And if you think that sounds weird, hear the music’s playful wonkiness. The New York duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka C. Honda, long known for their bizarre observations on everything (especially food), queer up “Hotel Valentine” with the most schizo of sonic hybrids: disco meets No Doubt meets speakeasy lounge music on “10th Floor Ghost Girl,” and “Housekeeping” whomps with urban swag and B-52s kitsch. Who needs marijuana? Here’s your trippy high.