Rapid Fire Reviews (Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Maroon 5)

SamSmithThrillOfItAll.pngSam Smith – The Thrill Of It All

Sam Smith’s sophomore effort showcases his otherworldly vocal abilities from front to back, but doesn’t back them up with anything else to get excited about. Smith doesn’t change up the formula at all here, sticking to the gospel-tinged breakup slow burners that worked for him on debut album In The Lonely Hour, but on a second full album of tracks tailored to be emotionally affecting, you can predict the twists and turns in Smith’s stories beforehand here. Seriously, a gospel choir coming in to back him up is the big “surprise” on half of these songs. For someone whose hit “Stay With Me” came under a lot more fire than it needed to for sounding somewhat similar to a Tom Petty hit – “Midnight Train” being an ACTUAL blatant ripoff of Radiohead’s “Creep” makes you roll your eyes. There are some strange missteps for otherwise great producers here, as Frank Ocean’s go-to guy Malay delivers the extremely flat “Say It First” and Timbaland, coming out of hiding, sounds extremely dated on closing track “Pray”.

I’m much more drawn to the few upbeat tracks on this project, as it’s an area he hasn’t ventured into nearly as much in his solo material and brings his voice closer to the territory of soul music. “One Last Song” is a classic doo-wop ballad, backed up by R&B piano triplets and a persistent horn section around the best structured chorus here. The prominent drumbeat here gives his voice an actual punch, something for it to rise above triumphantly. While the lyrics are often cliched for Smith’s trademark love ballads here, “HIM” twists Smith’s gospel sensibilities to tell an emotionally affecting story of coming out to a priest, the chilling bass of the choir backing him up as he sings “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us, it is him I love”

The surprise of Smith’s vocal abilities can be enough to save a lot of these sleepier tracks at times – it feels even more passionate than it was on his previous effort, with more cracks and restraint in just the right places. There isn’t anybody in this lane doing the high falsetto blue-eyed soul this well in popular music right now. I just wish he took a few more risks – more often than not, they work out well for him.

Favourite Tracks: One Last Song, Baby You Make Me Crazy, Too Good At Goodbyes, HIM

Least Favourite Track: Say It First

Score: 6/10

Image result for maroon 5 red pill bluesMaroon 5 – Red Pill Blues

It surprised me that Maroon 5’s last album, V, came out in the summer of 2014 – the band is such a constant in the background of our lives with their bland and inoffensive pop music that I honestly thought the album came out last year. Now with their sixth effort, unfortunately titled Red Pill Blues as the band was apparently aware of the darker undertones to the phrase, Adam Levine and his band of, somehow, SIX other guys who used to play instruments but now stand around bored hitting a note or two on mechanical drums and keyboards during live performances, venture even further down this rabbit hole of seemingly attempting to make the most detached pop music possible, devoid of any personality or defining characteristics. Not that I’m going to come out here and say that “What Lovers Do” hasn’t been stuck in my head for the majority of this past month – Maroon 5 have assembled a pretty great team here, and they know how to make a hit – but this goes so far to sound like it was written, produced and performed by robots.

When the music attempts to achieve a bigger, more cinematic quality on tracks like “Lips On You”, Levine’s voice is so set in its ways at this point that the smallest bit of emotion he tries to put back into it just falls flat. Levine is less of a singer and more of an instrument all on its own at this point, a constant sonic texture to blend with the rest of the production. The album boasts talented guest stars in SZA, Julia Michaels and A$AP Rocky, but like Kendrick Lamar’s laughably short verse on “Don’t Wanna Know”, which appears as a bonus track here, their roles are inexplicably brief, and all of their essence is sucked out in the same way – I can’t tell, but there must be some kind of mechanical vocal effect here. You can’t subdue Julia Michaels’ vocal quirks that easily.

I wish I had a lot more room to complain, but I’ll say that “Whiskey” contains the nonsensical lyrics “I was so young ‘til she kissed me, like whiskey”, and the album concludes with an ELEVEN-minute song, 8 minutes of the same instrumental repeating with a few brief saxophone flourishes after 3 minutes of yet another bland pop song, and leave it at that.

Favourite Tracks: What Lovers Do, Wait

Least Favourite Track: Whiskey

Score: 2/10

Black-and-white image of Taylor Swift with the album's name written across itTaylor Swift – reputation

The biggest star on the planet’s sixth studio album sees her diving into a theme and embracing the “snake” image that was associated with her in the wake of the mess surrounding Kanye West’s “Famous”, maintaining that she’s above all the drama in an unconvincing way due to the sheer fact she dedicates multiple tracks to it. Regardless, with the assistance of superproducers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff, despite how much it sounds similar to a certain outspoken Chicago rapper, Swift’s ventures into heavy industrial sounds are her most interesting musical turn yet, and the production shimmers across the board. The character Swift here paints is annoying, and the situations she speaks about tedious, but some of the instrumentals and catchy choruses here make it hard to hate, as much you want to. For the most part though, reputation is an inconsistent mixed bag.

The album opens strong, the first five tracks all delivering some of those inescapable choruses Swift is known for, now set to some trap-influenced instrumentals (Future even shows up!) and some grinding, abrasive low synths that give her a perfect soundboard to act villainous over. If you can ignore her trying a little too hard on the lyrics, hearing her snarl over some bombastic synth drops and gunshot noised on “I Did Something Bad” is a captivating dynamic shift for Swift, while “Don’t Blame Me” delivers the most instantly catchy chorus and she scales her persona back on “Delicate”: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me”. The crown jewel is “Getaway Car”, an 80s-influenced track that wouldn’t be out of place on Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION, featuring a twinkling background and Taylor’s most emotional delivery with some great storytelling.

Swift uses the same, muddy vocal effects on more than one occasion here for dramatic effect, but even though she isn’t particularly known for her vocal abilities, she does have a pleasant kind of sweet and innocent tone that creates an interesting dichotomy with what she’s saying here, and I really would have loved to hear her real voice more – it’s used for the whole duration of “King Of My Heart” and ruins an already weaker chorus. Taylor and her team click for some really great moments here, but the worse end is pretty inexcusable – we know the non-starter that is “Look What You Made Me Do”, but we also have an uninspired pop track that doesn’t fit in with the sound in “Gorgeous”, and some pretty infuriating lyrics on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, where she somehow twists her powerful character into playing the victim once again and outright mocks West when she was equally in the wrong. At 15 tracks, some of the excess tracks near the conclusion are thematically similar and could have been easily cut.

Reputation has some of the best and worst musical moments this year had to offer in the same place, but what I can say about Swift is she’s a marketing genius – her place in pop culture history is firmly solidified.

Favourite Tracks: Getaway Car, Don’t Blame Me, I Did Something Bad, Dress

Least Favourite Track: King Of My Heart

Score: 5/10

Advertisements

Schedule + END OF YEAR LISTS

I know I said I would be back at regularly scheduled times the last time I was gone, but I am now officially done with the semester and final exams and ready to catch up on everything here as quickly as possible.

I’m going to be posting quite a few more iterations of Rapid Fire Reviews for the rest of December, and since the last albums of the year are coming out TOMORROW, it will be quickly followed by my 2017 end of year countdowns.

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rap Collabs, Kelly Clarkson)

Super Slimey cover.jpgFuture/Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

On this collaborative project, two of Atlanta’s most genre-defining rappers come together to continue to assert their dominance over some good old-fashioned trap beats. Future’s straightforward approach and Young Thug’s quirky eccentricities are an interesting contrast that frequently sinks or swims as a result of the instrumental. Thug works well on Future’s hard-hitting beats, but Future has a harder time crossing over into Thug’s jovial and airy world. While the project seems rapidly thrown together at times, as there are some mixing issues present, it’s a lot of fun to hear these two superstars playing off of each other.

If nothing else, the project immediately reminds you just how punishingly hard Future can go as it drops into the first wailing siren and hi-hat roll of “No Cap”. It is one of the most disgustingly grimy instrumentals this year and producer Southside quickly brings us into his world. It’s the shortest track here and ends far too quickly, emphasizing the slapdash quality of the mixtape, but it’s an incredible shot of energy. Southside’s other two beats here, “Three” and the Offset-featuring “Patek Water” are equally impressive as he shows why is the most accomplished producer on the project.

Solo tracks here, especially Young Thug’s “Killed Before”, which is creatively built from a bass-heavy trap beat and a tropical acoustic guitar loop, are often better executed than the collaborations, as the two never quite click perfectly. Bringing together one of the most consistent and one of the most endlessly creative rappers doesn’t mesh, they are better excelling in their own lanes. At times, someone like Future sticks to his formula so much that a lower-effort project like this sees him becoming derivative as well. For two established hook men, you’d think there would be more sticky hooks here than there are – the project is more like a streamlined trap experience than clearly defined ideas. Of course, there are bound to be more than a few incredibly fun moments in that experience, and the project is still a necessary listen for a trap fan despite its shortcomings.

Favourite Tracks: Three, Patek Water, Killed Before, No Cap

Least Favourite Track: 200

Score: 6/10

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning of Life (Official Album Cover).pngKelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life

Kelly Clarkson, now on her eighth studio album and under a new label, has been speaking recently of her desire to return to her American Idol roots, straying from her pure pop sound and coming back to the realm of R&B/soul music. She certainly has the voice to do so, and Meaning Of Life has become one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Despite the first third of the album being standard pop fare that fails to excite (why does a singer of this caliber deliver a lead single in “Love So Soft” where she stays on a single note?) we soon get into Clarkson’s incredible passion projects as the album continues to get better and better through the middle.

The album doesn’t pick up until “Whole Lotta Woman”, a confident and sassy half-rapped track reminiscent of Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic. But Clarkson’s true power comes in tracks like “Medicine”, “Cruel” and “I Don’t Think About You”, where she gets to show off her technical ability and R&B sensibilities. “Cruel” especially stands out as an old-school R&B track where Clarkson demonstrates some incredible range and more soul than we’ve heard from her in years. Her reassertion of that incredible chorus an octave higher over the groove of the funk bassline shows some serious emotion as well. Her voice is dynamic and capable, running through whistle tones, more subdued and sensual tracks like “Slow Dance” and the full-voiced belt that comes up on the more upbeat piano jams and huge ballads. Clarkson compared “Medicine” to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” and dedicated the album to Aretha Franklin – these are the lofty vocal aspirations she has here, and for the most part, she delivers.

“I Don’t Think About You” is an incredibly powerful track as the instrumental is reduced to just piano chords, directing all the focus to Clarkson’s vocals. As she sings about her newfound confidence and happiness in the wake of a destructive relationship and throws some gospel harmonies on top, we build into a chorus where she progressively hits higher and higher notes at a crucial point to spine-tingling effect. The ordering of the album is slightly concerning, opening and closing with its safest tracks and misguided political angle on “Go High”, but Clarkson’s new soulful tone is a very welcome surprise and should introduce the singer to an exciting new chapter in her storied career.

Favourite Tracks: Cruel, I Don’t Think About You, Slow Dance, Medicine, Don’t You Pretend

Least Favourite Track: Heat

Score: 8/10

21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin - Without Warning.png21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin – Without Warning

21 Savage and Migos’ Offset team up with top tier trap producer Metro Boomin to deliver a horror movie-inspired project on Halloween. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to SUPER SLIMEY, but Without Warning is a much more well planned out and unique project, as Metro Boomin continues to be the only man keeping trap fresh with his constant reinventions and the diametrically opposed styles of Offset and 21 Savage complement each other surprisingly well. Where Offset brings out complex flows and those goofy ad-libs we know and love, 21 Savage’s menacing deadpan gets straight to the point. While 21 can frequently get annoyingly monotone, his ruthless and desensitized lyrics and persona are right at home over Metro Boomin’s eerie sounds here, especially with someone like Offset to play off of.

One of the best things about this project is that it clearly is not a throwaway mixtape – the transitions here are incredibly well-executed, especially as “Nightmare” is introduced by 21 closing the preceding track by repeating “It’s a nightmare on elm street”. Metro Boomin’s work here is chilling, as wolves howl in the background and he programs his synths to sound like the wind whistling through the trees or the unsettling ambiance of a horror film. Adding his trademark hi-hats makes these beats exhilarating – On “Run Up The Racks” he extends a hi-hat roll longer than I’ve ever heard, nicely accentuating 21’s simpler flows on his solo track.

While 21 is so far into his character it becomes almost hilarious, Offset displays a side of himself here we don’t really see with Migos – while it was always clear that he’s the most technically skilled of the group, his flow switches and speedy deliver here is seriously impressive. “Ric Flair Drip” is the solo track that shows he could be just as much of a superstar as Quavo, while “Mad Stalkers” shows the best contrast between the two. 21 comes in with the hook after a particularly speedy string of syllables and metaphors from Offset, not mincing his words and issuing threats in that inhuman drawl. If Offset is the Joker, 21 Savage is Bane. The combination is deadly.

Favourite Tracks: Ric Flair Drip, Mad Stalkers, My Choppa Hate N****s, Run Up The Racks, Ghostface Killers

Least Favourite Track: Darth Vader

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Pink, Niall Horan)

Apologies for being gone for so long – I’ve been writing my graduating thesis for university but now I’ll be able to get this page back up and running like normal. There’s some albums here that are long overdue for a review so to catch back up I’m going to make a few posts with rapid-fire thoughts on some of these albums from October!

Image result for pink beautiful traumaPink – Beautiful Trauma

Pink recruits some all-star collaborators for her 7th studio album, and while they frequently make their presence felt in some great and emotional musical moments, the majority of Beautiful Trauma is incredibly safe. The project alternates between a familiar mix of soaring pop ballads that exhibit Pink’s gargantuan vocals and upbeat forays into electropop that come across as well worn-out. The outlier might be “Revenge”, a quirkier track where Pink dreams of taking revenge on her ex with some painfully awkward rap lines and delivery before Eminem swoops in with a hilarious and cringe-embracing verse in the way only he can, reframing the entire track as a goofy joke to be enjoyed.

In addition to the rap superstar, Pink brings in some of the biggest names in pop music in Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Jack Antonoff and Julia Michaels. The latter two do the best work here, Michaels applying some of her trademark heartbreaking lyrics to emotional tracks “Barbies” and “For Now” and Antonoff producing the best track here in “Better Life” where we get some great harmonies over an energetic beat and subdued, jazzy piano chords and finger snaps – despite his inexplicable decisions on the title track, which contains 2 abrupt shifts in energy that fall flat.

Pink is undoubtedly a vocal powerhouse capable of conveying the emotion behind these huge pop ballads and she frequently impresses across the course of the album, but when she insists on reaching into the highest part of her register it can get annoyingly shouty – especially on closing track “You Get My Love”. Overall, Beautiful Trauma has some really great highs but is frequently too derivative to be memorable.

Favourite Tracks: Better Life, But We Lost It, For Now, Revenge

Least Favourite Track: You Get My Love

Score: 5/10

Niall Horan Flicker.pngNiall Horan – Flicker

Former OneDirection member Niall Horan continues the surprising trend of his bandmates releasing much better music than they ever did while part of the collective. As each member seemingly diverts to a different genre of music, Horan adopts the acoustic singer/songwriter angle and delivers an album of powerful pop ballads. While it may be very easy to compare him to Ed Sheeran, as he sticks to the formula the superstar adopted, Horan’s calming vocals and assistance he got from Greg Kurstin on this project ensured a solid debut.

We open with the maddeningly catchy “On the Loose”, built around a pounding beat and a pleasant sliding guitar pattern as Horan’s vocals cascade on top of each other into the chorus. These are some smartly written pop tracks – and Horan has primary credit on every one of them. Even some tracks, like single “This Town”, fall into a repetitive and unexciting territory in terms of the instrumental, Horan’s vocals are more than enough to carry these tracks. Subdued and emotional, he puts his heart into every word and truly delivers the emotion of these romance-oriented tracks. While we all know “Slow Hands” by now, the single truly took me by surprise. He sounds absolutely effortless on the track, and the underlying bassline groove distinguishes it from the rest of the album and sends the track over the top. Other highlights include a nicely harmonized duet with country singer Maren Morris on “Seeing Blind” and Kurstin’s “Since We’re Alone”.

As we get closer to the end of the album, the tracks definitely do begin to blend together a bit. The Sheeran influence is worn on Horan’s sleeve, and the slower acoustic ballads that close out the album are similar enough to get a little sleepy. Still, Flicker is easily the most consistent post-1D album yet.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Hands, On The Loose, Too Much To Ask, Since We’re Alone, Seeing Blind

Least Favourite Track: Flicker

Score: 7/10

St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Image result for masseductionSt. Vincent’s fifth studio album, her second since attracting widespread critical attention with her self-titled 2014 effort, is yet another quirky and ambient rock-influenced pop album with a heaping degree of sardonic social commentary to go along with it.

MASSEDUCTION is futuristic and funny, as St. Vincent thrives in the genreless chaos but always maintains enough of a musical and narrative thread to lead listeners along her examination of narratives of sensuality and stimulants. I’d call it one of the strongest pop albums of the year, but that would almost be doing a disservice to all of the many diverse and engaging places Annie Clark manages to transport us to over the course of a single album.

Image result for st vincent

The album was written and produced almost exclusively by Clark herself and superproducer Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, who has contributed to some of the greatest pop albums in recent years and certainly makes his trademark style felt all over this project. While there are not as many Antonoffian repetitions of musical motifs, certain themes continue to resurface as the album progresses, making it somewhat of a concept album with a narrative thread.

“Pills” is quintessential St. Vincent – the chorus syncopates a childlike, advertising jingle of a melody with a gargantuan beat that makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. On this chorus, none other than actress and Clark’s ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne sings a few repetitive and hypnotic lines explicating how taking pills for many ordinary facets of life can become disastrous. On the same track, we get a roaring guitar solo, Kamasi Washington’s saxophone embellishments and a beautiful gospel-tinged outro that takes the sarcastic and cynical nature of the song to the next, darkly hilarious level.

Many tracks on this album inherit this same hypnotic quality, as St. Vincent spends a lot of time criticizing how easily we are indoctrinated by advertising, religion, and the like. They are driven by fast paced beats and techno synths, but the undercurrent of Clark’s guitar sends the entropy of the album into overdrive.

A robotic voice repeats the album’s title on “Masseduction” – ultimately turning to “mass destruction” as Clark submits to the seduction of the masses, while she draws reference to her genderfluidity on “Sugarboy” as the rolling drums pound and a distorted voice repeats “Boys! Girls!” The whole song is full of ambient noise and chaos, but Clark’s mellifluous voice rises above it all to make sense of the madness. It’s all a lot to take in, but more often than not she throws in just enough of a catchy hook somewhere that you become drawn into the explosions and panic – as the album’s title would suggest.

Clark’s voice is incredibly dynamic, capable of delivering a dramatic and emotional hook on a track like “Los Ageless” or resorting to softer, almost angelic tones on stripped-back tracks like “Happy Birthday, Johnny”. The latter is one of the strongest tracks here, as Clark proves she can make magic out of the minimal just as much as the chaotic.

Adopting a theatrical tone that might be confused for Lady Gaga at her most vulnerable, she sings a rather ambiguous address to a self-destructive and displaced person with whom she had some relationship in the past over some somber and achingly beautiful piano chords. “Johnny’s just Johnny – doesn’t everyone know a Johnny?” Clark said when asked to clarify.

Image result for st vincent live 2017

Clark’s lyrics are the glue that holds all of this together. Her dark twists remind me a lot of Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy”, often blunt and sarcastic but dropping the occasional lyrical gem that makes you think about the state of the world in the same way.

Clark is not afraid to address more serious topics either, and she does it in an absolutely spine-chilling way on closing track “Smoking Section”, where she addresses her real-life suicidal thoughts. Her emotional tone really makes you picture it as she describes the gun to her head, or standing on the ledge of a building, as the voice in her head repeats “let it happen, let it happen” with the most profoundly unsettling melody. The track gives me chills every time, Clark’s lower growl contrasting with eerie piano notes and deafening synth explosions. When she reverses course at the end of the track, the album fading away as she ironically repeats “it’s not the end”, it’s an absolute relief.

The album might have benefited from a bit more concision, as some of its more redundant and less defined chaotic moments are all placed closer to its end. “New York” was written as a counterpart to “Los Ageless”, but since it is displaced from the former in the tracklisting the less dramatic, simplistic version of the similar themes feels less potent and unnecessary.

A track like “Fear The Future”, meanwhile, contains the same distortion as many of the tracks that preceded it, but as it is one of the album’s most underwritten tracks and less sticky melodies it quickly becomes easily skippable due to the difficulty of consuming the sheer wall of sound.

“Young Lover” doesn’t do a much better job at reining in the distortion either, although the track does provide some necessary continuation of the narrative of St. Vincent’s mysterious partner – likely Delevingne at this point due to her familial history with drug abuse – continuing to succumb to the world’s, well, masseduction.

MASSEDUCTION is just as much of a masterpiece in experimental pop as St. Vincent was, as Clark’s dynamic voice, intelligent lyrics and guitar shreds collide into a confusing and beautiful sonic world.

Favourite Tracks: Pills, Smoking Section, Happy Birthday Johnny, Masseduction, Los Ageless

Least Favourite Track: Fear The Future

Score: 9/10

Kelela – Take Me Apart

Image result for kelela take me apartR&B singer Kelela’s debut album, released 2 years after the critically acclaimed Hallucinogen EP, scales back her sound into the moody and avant-garde scene of alt-R&B to offer up a truly haunting and innovative sound. Said to be heavily influenced by Bjork, Kelela’s vocals are frequently backed up by glitchy electronic beats, using her characteristically low alto register to tap into a darker side of romance.

Take Me Apart is an incredibly ambitious project that doesn’t always connect. It is certainly not as immediately attention-grabbing as her previous work, but there are many things to be very excited by, especially as this is only a debut album.

Image result for kelela

The project does have some very innovative instrumentals, mostly provided by an unexpected combination of experimental electronic artist Arca and the award-winning and consistently incredible Ariel Rechtshaid. As we are in a time where we’ve reached “peak trap”, it  feels like some of these beats are the next step in the equation, what it will sound like in the future. We have the rolling hi-hats and 808 bass, but they are more sparse over instrumentals that fill up all the space of the track, shifting, changing and building.

Kelela builds an overall air of genrelessness here, with a sonic surprise almost every time the track shifts over – I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear something like the poppier synth chords of “Waitin” so early on in the tracklisting. Still, Kelela manages to bridge the gap between sounds with her strong vocal performances, quick to carve out her own clear artistry in a sea of rising similar artists.

Emotionally potent and possessing a very impressive range which she frequently utilizes to decorate these tracks with beautiful higher trills, Kelela’s approach to romance is hopeful, cynical and tinged with darker overtones. She gets writing assistance from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft on “Jupiter”, and her deeply personal lyrical musings are equally engaging as Croft’s work.

Opening track “Frontline” is one of the strongest, bridging the gap between Kelela’s older and newer approaches perfectly. The lengthy track speeds through a few different sections, as we get an introduction to the full capabilities of her voice in a slower segment before exploding into a Beyonce-esque chorus with some quick rhythms and heavy percussion.

“LMK” follows along the same lines, driven by a strong boom-bap beat and catchy handclaps. Kelela delivers her catchiest – and sassiest – chorus line yet before the song falls away into a softer-toned electronic paradise that could be mistaken for a Cashmere Cat track and a spoken-word breakdown. In her lyrics, she presents a familiar situation – desperately wondering what her partner is looking for, while hiding behind a well-presented façade of not caring either way. By the time she starts hitting those whistle notes to close out the track, we’ve explored the full range of the many impressive things Kelela is capable of. This is how we bring all the vastly different sounds presented here together in a way that makes sense.

Image result for kelela

One of the things I liked the most about Kelela’s past work, especially on the  Hallucinogen EP’s best songs, was her snappy rhythms and soaring choruses. Here, she takes a step back into slower, unassuming alt-R&B on about half of these tracks. The style does succeed at putting the spotlight on her unique and impressive voice, but creates a disconnect between her vocal style and instrumental. A song like “Enough” is a perfect example of Kelela’s execution coming up short of her ambitious goals, her slower vocals in the verses failing to contrast well with the explosive, tribal beat and crowded chorus.

While the album is a consistently engaging and surprising sonic experience throughout, I found that upon my second listen while writing the review I remembered almost nothing about it. Many of Kelela’s innovations are almost too subtle – enough for a quick double-take but not enough to distinguish one track from the other.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were times when I found tracks like “Take Me Apart” too crowded, as the track quickly shifts between an almost drum-n-bass percussion line and quickly echoing synth pattern to a segment full of interlocking and overlapping backing vocals. The strange decisions on this album continue as two of its best tracks in “Jupiter” and “SOS”, each featuring Kelela tapping into a smoother tone in her range and offering up some classic 90s R&B sounds, both don’t even reach two and a half minutes.

Despite its quirks, Take Me Apart winds up being rather similar to a lot of alt-R&B projects out right now, and that can drag it down at times. However, on almost every track here there is an extra flourish of vocal ability, or a futuristic instrumental, that shines a light on how special of an artist Kelela might still become.

Favourite Tracks: LMK, Better, Frontline, S.O.S., Jupiter

Least Favourite Track: Enough

Score: 7/10

Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerInternet sensation Poppy extends her mysterious and technologically obsessed online persona to a debut collection of ridiculously fun and J-pop inspired pop tracks. Anyone who has seen one of Poppy’s bizarre, unsettling videos, often with a satirical twist on our reliance on technology and celebrity culture, knows that it’s hard to look away. Something about her draws you in.

It was a pleasant surprise when she started releasing music that not only extended her message to the next level, but was well-produced, engaging and funny. A few of these tracks might pull back the curtain a bit too much or not quite click as a legitimate song, but I’ve gone too far down this weird and wonderful Poppy rabbit hole to care. “Welcome to the new world, I’m your Internet girl”, the opening track greets us.

Image result for that poppy

“Let’s Make A Video” is an incredible track. Poppy’s voice becomes a lot more innocent as she takes up the voice of an internet vlogger or social media influencer, painting her life as something ideal and perfect to be looked up to. The beat sounds like it’s direct from something a 90s-influenced K-pop group like GFRIEND would sing over, complete with sugary chords and a cascading synth piano melody. Poppy harmonizes with herself and throws in some cheerful nonsequiturs to add to the overall image. Like her videos, it’s a smiling façade with something much darker underneath, and it’s certainly one of the catchiest melodies I’ve heard all year.

When Poppy delves a bit further into her origin story, things take a turn for the comedic as well. Poppy always seems to be attempting to learn about humanity and more abstract concepts, and we don’t know why or where she came from. On “Bleach Blonde Baby”, she paints herself as a perfect girl “from your cotton candy dreams”, saying she was born with perfect features, bleach blonde hair and makeup on. The key change and buzzing synth undercurrent just send the song over the edge.

Different aspects of Poppy’s online persona appears across the board, including jealous nemesis Charlotte on “My Style”, longing to understand the concept of love on “Fuzzy” and going full psychopath killer mode on “Computer Boy” – “don’t go to sleep without me”, “never talk to anyone else”, she instructs her digital lover.

The instrumentals across the board are all infectious in the best way – this is masterful bubblegum pop approaching a Carly Rae Jepsen level. It’s impossible to deny that rush as the chords start pounding faster and she introduces the chorus with a “hey hey hey, ok!” on the adorable “Moshi Moshi”. Most of these tracks are driven by loud synth chords and an underlying techno bassline – blips and bloops to add to the overall computer theme.

“My Style” is one of my favourite instrumentals on the project – Poppy is largely on one note except for some dramatic builds at the end of the verses. The eerie, slurred synths come in to support her, building up in spectacular chords before falling away on the same pitch as her vocal run. The whole thing is driven by this hypnotic bassline, functioning like the tuba in a band, and hi-hats that never let up. It succeeds at being unsettling and impossibly catchy at the same time, and as she asserts back to back, “Poppy is your best friend. Poppy will break your neck.”, I just become more invested in the mystery that is this smiling girl on our computer screens.

Image result for that poppy

At the same time, “I’m Poppy” is too obnoxious to function as a song despite how much I enjoy the fact it is the closest thing we get to one of her videos in musical form. The constant repetition and spelling out of her own name, and interjections from the plant character – asking how he can be more like Poppy, of course – detract too much from enjoying the track as an actual musical experience and won’t have me returning to it.

“My Microphone” is hilarious, but that repetitive guitar riff is grating and out of place, especially when it cuts in and out overtop of a more standard bubblegum pop beat. The track is essentially a 3-minute build up to a punchline at the end – Poppy finds her lost microphone. It’s another one-off spoof.

Closing track “Pop Music”, on the other hand, is more of a stripped-down, acoustic track where Poppy muses on the value the genre brings to the world, but it seems out of character. The verses seem too articulate, and the change in style draws more attention to her vocals. She sounds a lot more human.

I understand that Poppy is basically an elaborate and brilliant marketing scheme, but when its this fun to look at and the product is this good, I have to congratulate Titanic Sinclair and everyone behind this weird character experiment. Repeat after me: I am not in a cult led by Poppy.

Favourite Tracks: Let’s Make A Video, Moshi Moshi, Bleach Blonde Baby, My Style, Computer Boy

Least Favourite Track: Pop Music

Score: 8/10

Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Image result for miley cyrus younger nowMiley Cyrus’ sixth studio album is a return to her roots, abandoning the ridiculous persona that coloured her previous two albums and somewhat problematically distancing herself from the hip-hop genre as a whole, saying the materialism associated with it doesn’t represent her anymore. Younger Now reverts back to some country-tinged, mostly acoustic pop music, Cyrus’ voice still surprisingly impressive but the instrumentals bland and uninspired.

Cyrus speaks a lot of her engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth, who reportedly inspired her lifestyle change. While her music did improve slightly from her disastrous Dead Petz era, for Cyrus to be taken seriously once again she needs to find more genuine personality, or even the smallest spark of innovation.

Image result for miley cyrus 2017

“Week Without You” is the only time we break up the monotony here, as it stands as the greatest song from the set. We switch up the simple acoustic rhythms for a swung tempo and doo-wop influence as Cyrus describes her life in the four years spent apart from Hemsworth. A classic lyrical twist in the song’s final chorus shows the joys of the single life stop being fun, as Cyrus starts wanting him back. She actually sounds interested and engaged with the music here, digging into the groove of the song and having fun singing along to and riffing off of the piano solos in the background.

The slightly improvisational tone of the instrumental and actual musicianship displayed on this track really caught me off guard, showing that Cyrus does have some serious talent that she often has no idea what to do with. Her voice is at its best on lead single “Malibu”, sweet and emotive with some great harmonies to go along with it. It’s a shame the climax of the song turns into nothing more than some weirdly dissonant guitar picking and handclaps.

One of the biggest issues with this album is the colorless and safe musical backdrop that rarely changes from song to song, diminishing the effectiveness of promising melodies by being content to plod along and remain stagnant in the background, taking away most of the concept of dynamics from the project. A song like opening track “Younger Now” sounds like one of Cyrus’ career great songs when performed live, as it is quite smartly written and allows her voice to steal the spotlight, but hearing the full studio mix with its bland acoustic chords and packaged backing vocals just sucks out all of its energy.

Too many of these songs sound like they are set to the same set of acoustic chords, switching up the rhythm of the strumming and calling it a different song. The whole album was produced by lesser-known Dead Petz collaborator Oren Yoel, who adds some pretty awful melodies to some of the worse tracks here as well. The chorus of “Miss You So Much” begins with repetition of some strained high notes before somehow turning a pivotal “here” into a two-syllable word just to fit.

Image result for miley cyrus 2017 live

Even though Cyrus isn’t as visibly embracing drug culture as much with her updated image, some of the laughable lyrical content of her previous two albums persists here, offering some Jaden Smith-esque, starry-eyed musings on the state of the world. Closing track “Inspired”, which Cyrus describes as her “Hillary Clinton song”, seeks to empower her listeners as she lists her dreams for the world … “Starting with the bees, or else they’re gonna die. There will be no trees or air for us to breathe”.

She also continues the unfortunate trend of artists attempting something like activism without actually saying anything of consequence. On the incredibly derivative “Rainbowland”, she teams up with godmother Dolly Parton over the same bouncy country-pop twang we’ve heard before to imagine a future where all the prejudices people face have magically evaporated. “Wouldn’t it be so nice?”, she sings. In other places Cyrus seems more focused on shoehorning in awkward rhymes that telling the story of the song. The only writer on the project, she definitely needs some help at this point.

There isn’t really much to talk about here – the only thing that isn’t forgettable about Younger Now are Cyrus’ outlandish lyrics. Now that it has been made evident that Cyrus’ previous era was nothing more than appropriation to jump on a rising sound, too much of this project just feels similarly fake – and not even in an entertaining way anymore.

Favourite Tracks: Week Without You, Thinkin’, Malibu

Least Favourite Track: Miss You So Much

Score: 4/10

Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for demi lovato tell me you love meDemi Lovato’s sixth studio album sees the singer return to her strengths and take a new direction of creativity. After breaking free from the Disney machine and hitting her peak with 2011’s UnbrokenDEMI and Confident saw her music veer towards generic electropop and she struggled with substance abuse. Lovato was already starting to win be back by one again demonstrating the full extent of her vocal power on single “Stone Cold”, proving that she is one of the most technically skilled pop singers.

On Tell Me You Love Me, her songwriting has greatly improved, and tracks rarely sound the same. She imbues most of them with a sultry R&B flair that shows off her vocal fireworks, maintaining some poppier aspects as well but taking a more unique and experimental direction with them. The project stands as some of her best work yet.

Image result for demi lovato 2017

I knew Lovato might be turning things around as soon as I heard opening single “Sorry Not Sorry”, which might be one of the best leads of the year. Lovato channels the underlying gospel feel of Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem”, but throws some 90s R&B piano chords on top for a cool and confident send-off to an ex-boyfriend. What’s most important here is that Lovato’s vocals are back at the forefront, turning up the energy for the chorus where she once again demonstrates that full-voiced soprano belt. Where it often got lost in the mix of overproduction on her recent albums, here it sounds fuller, and much more mature than her earlier work. Not only does she have the belt, her lower range is just as passionate and intense, sounding almost like an Emeli Sande on the dramatic title track.

I always wanted more from Lovato’s breathier, more sensual side to her voice in her earlier work and it shows up in a big way here – now with the appropriate subject matter to match. She embraces her full potential as an R&B artist on tracks like “Concentrate” and “Ruin The Friendship”, complete with a trumpet solo in the chorus and bouncy walking bassline. Lovato drops into lower-tempo rhythmic grooves here that could only be carried by a very strong singer.

The album’s greatest strength it its diversity, with some kind of surprising and new sonic element thrown onto nearly every track. She masterfully switches between genres without dropping the cohesive, in-control sense that Lovato applies to all she does. This is an album where the two best tracks sound absolutely nothing alike, but both give the listener that feeling where they’re ready to take on the world, be it out of confidence or anger. I’m talking about “Daddy Issues” and “Cry Baby”, a creative standout and a massive ballad that knocks “Stone Cold” out of the water.

“Daddy Issues” is Lovato at her most bubblegum, but this sounds like it was influenced by the experimental minds over at PC Music. It’s actually Oak Felder, one half of duo Pop & Oak (Kehlani, Alessia Cara), who surprisingly contributes to almost all the instrumentals here despite their diversity. Lovato is surprisingly, but endearingly tongue-in-cheek about her complicated relationship with her late and estranged father – “Lucky for you, I’ve got all these daddy issues”, she sings over an instrumental that is sparse save for synth stabs that raise the energy so quickly they scared me a bit the first time. The track eventually settles into an uptempo pop groove.

Image result for demi lovato live

But my goodness, “Cry Baby”. “CRY BABY”. Over a swung waltz tempo, this explosive track features Lovato’s biggest and most ambitious chorus yet. Dropping into it with some great flat notes that accentuate her technical ability, Lovato is out for blood as the guitars wail in the background and the harmonized backing vocals echo. I was immediately drawn to that melody line on “Congratulations, celebration” followed by the stratospheric high harmonies on the catchy triplets that make up the bulk of the chorus. The energy just continues to build as Lovato’s runs just ascend higher up the scales and get more impossibly complex. It’s such a beautiful, brilliantly written track.

While this might not have been Lovato’s decision, the ordering of the album seems a little strange, giving prime third track placement to the album’s most formulaic song in “Sexy Dirty Love” and placing many of its best at the tail end. Pushing Lovato as a pop artist for this particular album doesn’t make much sense, and basing the album around something like “Cry Baby”, the ninth track, would organize the flow of the album better.

On an album with so many diverse standouts, a few aren’t going to stick as well. Lovato’s voice is consistently strong throughout, but the dip in energy in the instrumental of back-to-back tracks “Only Forever” and “Lonely”, which features an awkward appearance from Lil Wayne, is a low point in the album’s middle. The minimal percussion on something like “Lonely” especially doesn’t contrast well with Lovato’s growls and enraged lyrical content.

Regardless, Tell Me You Love Me is a huge step forward for an artist I was worried had fallen off a cliff. This is what happens when Lovato understands her strengths.

Favourite Tracks: Cry Baby, Daddy Issues, Hitchhiker, Ruin The Friendship, Sorry Not Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Lonely

Score: 9/10

Jhene Aiko – Trip

Trip by Jhené Aiko cover.jpgR&B/Soul singer Jhene Aiko’s sophomore album, Trip, is less of an album and more of an experience. Nearly an hour and a half in length, Aiko’s silky smooth vocals guide us through a project framed as one long drug trip. Aiko’s becomes lost in a psychedelic and sometimes scary world, addressing her relationships including her disastrous and short-lived marriage to producer Dot Da Genius and her new “soulmate” Big Sean along the way.

Aiko additionally taps into her alter-ego, Penny – a nickname her grandfather gave her that she states is her “purest, most authentic form” and dedicates the album to her brother, who died of cancer in 2012 and shows up a few times here. Aiko paints a world to get lost in while addressing some pretty heavy topics. Trip is the well thought out concept album I’ve been waiting for this year.

Image result for jhene aiko

I’ts tough to compare individual songs on this project, as they all flow together seamlessly in one concrete experience. While some have criticized the album’s length due to its similar sounding tracks, Aiko’s voice has a hypnotic quality and I barely realized how long I had been sitting there listening to the album. Aiko’s vocals stay true to her trademark breathy style, but over such a sparse and psychedelic instrumental they adopt this beautiful, almost ghostly quality, floating above the track with a calming presence. With every vocal run and harmony she draws me deeper into the world of the album.

“LSD” introduces the album as Aiko begins her trip and says “And what I saw, oh my god…”, referring to the images she comes across over the course of the album. What she talks about certainly warrants her surprise. Aiko experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, often blissfully in love, but she begins her journey by venturing into Japan’s suicide forest on “Jukai”. “Hell is not a certain evil, Hell is other people … or the lack thereof”, she sings, introducing the themes of love and loneliness. She is rescued from the forest by an unknown man who accompanies her in spoken dialogues after a few tracks here, revealing his dark side as more and more drugs are offered.

Some of my favourite projects are clearly deliberately ordered and tell one cohesive story, and Trip certainly fits the bill, as the sections of the album are demarcated with different drugs that cause Aiko to experience different things. “LSD” introduces a slew of songs that see her in a young romance, until she starts having some lingering doubts on final track “When We Love”. She suddenly instructs the male voice “Don’t hurt me, OK?” before “Sativa” introduces a longer segment full of Aiko’s ideal images of love being tormented by some darker thoughts, culminating in the chaotic “Bad Trip (Interlude)”.

Her brother makes an appearance as she addresses her struggles with addiction in the wake of his death on “Nobody”, and runs through feelings of loneliness, confusion and negative self-image. “Never Call Me” sees Aiko get uncharacteristically angry (even if her sweet tone of voice would never betray such a thing) as she criticizes the inability of her man to communicate his feelings instead of acting passive-aggressive. She references Dot Da Genius’ alimony lawsuit directly, the communication issues likely referencing his infamous series of cryptic tweets regarding his relationship with Aiko.

Image result for jhene aiko live

The story of Trip parallels Aiko’s real-life issues, as the first part of the album represents the younger, naive version of herself that rushed into a relationship with the wrong person. The resulting fallout of the divorce and doubt entering a new relationship makes up the majority of the album, while the final section, “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is more representative of her new, healthy relationship with Big Sean.

Jhene recruits some colourful collaborators here to spice up the sound just enough. She brings Sean himself in to revive their funk-infused side project Twenty88 on the upbeat “Only Lovers Left Alive”, while John Mayer’s sensual guitar riffs back her musings of newfound love on the quieter “New Balance”. Her father delivers two extended outros, while she duets with her 9 year old daughter Namiko Love on endearing track “Sing To Me”.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack here thematically, but did I mention the music is great as well? “Overstimulated” stays true to its title, as Aiko delivers an intoxicating melody over some rolling hi-hats and a very dreamy soundscape, juxtaposing a speedier rhythmic delivery with her beautiful higher notes over some soft synth chords in the chorus. “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is another standout, a nearly 8-minute monster that brings in a horn section and infectious synth pattern resembling a siren amidst some of Aiko’s best harmonies.

I love how many layers there are to this project – this review would be a lot longer if I delved into what Aiko has stated some of these symbols mean. The album is very long, but I could listen to that voice forever, especially tied to these deeper conceptual themes. On title track “Trip”, Aiko concludes the album “Love pays, but love taxes – it’s a real trip”, summing up the journey we’ve just been on. Trip is a trip indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Overstimulated, Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect), While We’re Young, OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), Never Call Me

Least Favourite Track: Oblivion (Creation)

Score: 9/10