The best albums of the week from The Chicks, Illuminati Hotties, and more

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It’s hard to square the whiplash of sensational music and celebrity news in the context of every other paralyzing news development. This week brought some stories that would otherwise hog a cycle with rapid velocity. The continuation of Kanye West’s near-candidacy — which, we repeat, will not result in him winning let alone running competitively in any election — Megan Thee Stallion getting shot during a traumatic, near-death incident after a pool party last weekend, and most recently, Young Thug claiming that James Harden posted photos in a Blue Lives Matter mask because he doesn’t have internet. It’s hard to keep up, but there’s still new music through all of this. The latest slate brings a new album from the Dixie-less Chicks, Protomartyr, Illuminati Hotties’ lean mixtape, and more.

The Chicks — Gaslighter

Is there an album that better reflected the ebbs and flows of the last four months than Gaslighter? Delayed two months due to the pandemic, and repackaged with a new band name following a widespread purge of antebellum references, the Chicks' comeback stands on its own once the dust settles. They’ve been to hell and back, setting the course for an incredibly thin tightrope that any country crossover artist must walk between principled political speech and popularity. Their first album in 14-years situates itself in the pop-country production trends left in their wake, but remains searing and defiant about Natalie Maines’ prolonged divorce. “Texas Man” already feels like a rambunctious instant classic. There’s always a collective trembling when Jack Antonoff hops aboard to produce a major release like this, but hate to say it, dude’s pretty good at this stuff!

Illuminati Hotties — Free I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For

If you were lucky enough to catch a SoundCloud page listed under the band name “Occult Classic” two weeks ago, shared by artists like Lucy Dacus, PUP, and Sadie Dupuis, then you’ve already caught a glimpse of Illuminati Hotties’ latest. An ingenious release effort, stirring mystery and confusion on the feed — despite the band saying their name a few times on one track — it’s groundbreaking in other ways. After an acrimonious uncoupling from old label Tiny Engines, which came under fire last year for shorting artists on royalty payments, Free I.H. is a ferocious last word out the door. Low-key superproducer Sarah Tudzin brings an adventurous, try-anything attitude that 2018’s promising Kiss Yr Frenemies only gestured toward. Band absolutely rips, much harder than before, and somehow sharpened up their bars in the process.

Protomartyr — Ultimate Success Today

It’s kind of a cliche at this point to dub any world-weary, cynical artist as uniquely suited to the moment we’re in, but Protomartyr has worked overtime to fit the bill. The Detroit post-punk doomsayers have always traded in harrowing narratives — of loved ones’ visceral descent into mortality, the Flint water crisis, the plague of mens’ rights groups — without succumbing to the didactic. Ultimate Success Today is of the same headspace, but with even further commitment to the apocalyptic, while trading in vastly expanded instrumentation.

Nicolas Jaar — Telas

On his third new album of the year, following March’s Cenizas and an Against All Logic collection, Nicolas Jaar treads into some of his most expansive, porous landscapes. Continuing a wildly prolific run for the producer, Telas comes with a companion site to view and experience the album in a so-called “liquid state.” The psychedelic visualizer, which you can navigate at Telas.Parts, emphasizes his latest record as something moldable and indefinite. In other words, it’s a bit better than the Spotify experience.

Yo La Tengo — We Have Amnesia Sometimes

As hype started to mount for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, I went back and watched Old Joy for the first time. Good movie, great score from Yo La Tengo. Their instrumentals have always filled a chasm of emotion, keeping enough space lingering for onscreen images to pull added weight. Earlier this week, the remarkably consistent indie rock vets joined Bandcamp, posting stray instrumentals every day this week. These came to comprise We Have Amnesia Sometimes, a five-track album that feels every bit loose and essential for a band that’s still finding new ways to surprise nearly four decades in.