Tate McRae – all the things i never said EP

Image result for tate mcrae all the things i never said coverLast night, Billie Eilish became only the 2nd person in history to sweep the Grammys’ “Big 4” categories and the third to even win all four of the awards over a career. Do you think it might be possible that music labels are trying desperately to find the next off-kilter teenage success story? Tate McRae is a 16-year-old from Alberta who attracted quite a bit of attention on YouTube with her covers – largely, of Eilish songs – and has now received the fast track to working with some of the best producers in the game, including Eilish’s superstar brother FINNEAS, who co-wrote one of the songs here with Billie herself. I hate to so overtly measure someone’s work up against someone else’s, but McRae’s vocal delivery and lyrical content clearly draw heavy inspiration from someone who is rapidly becoming the voice of a generation. However, while her music isn’t as groundbreakingly unique as Eilish’s, McRae proves that with an injection of her own personality the style is going to stick around for a while. With more traditional pop sensibilities applied to the dark bedroom-pop framework that’s running rampant in the industry, McRae delivers 5 pretty great pop tracks here to appeal to those who are just a little creeped out by Eilish’s horror imagery.

All you have to know about how attitudes towards pop culture are changing as the generations shift is represented in how the 2nd song on this project, “all my friends are fake,” came to be. Featuring some rather poetic lyrics in the verses about how certain people are a perfect match for handling someone else’s pain, the chorus immediately throws the flowery language out the window and bluntly repeats its title. McRae called this “title clickbait,” throwing something that everyone has felt at one point or another – that, by the way, wasn’t born from any of McRae’s actual experiences – in the middle of her personal diary. And it really does hurt when most of the music drops back and she blurts out “fake” in a pained whisper.

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Most of this project functions in the same way, dropping relatable lines in the middle of highly personal content. You’d think that hearing the ramblings of a 16-year-old would strongly appeal to that demographic, but wouldn’t be able to cross many boundaries, but the direct, confessional way McRae writes about her own experiences and what goes on in the deepest recesses of the mind of someone born to an anxiety-riddled generation in a terrifying world is endlessly fascinating. The title, after all, is all the things I never said.

The project opens with the track “stupid,” which is built around a somber acoustic guitar loop and builds up to a trap-beat drop in the chorus – pretty standard radio fare at the moment, but we haven’t heard a voice quite like McRae’s used with these traditional formulas yet. Just as lilting and vulnerable as Eilish’s, but with a bit more of a powerful punch behind it when she needs to articulate something, McRae tells the story of how she recognizes that her IQ drops a few points when she’s around a less-than-spectacular guy, but she just can’t stay away. It’ll be a tall order getting any of these choruses out of my head for weeks, but this is one of the better ones here, her syncopated vocals and the persistent guitar melody linking up to create a sneakily hidden dancehall rhythm. It’s the sound that’s been making the entire world move for years now and has become embedded in the pop consciousness. Eilish lends her pen to the track “tear myself apart,” and the rattling bass and densely layered harmonies certainly recall the dramatics and hip-hop balladry of a track like “when the party’s over.”

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The best tracks here might actually be the only two that weren’t already released beforehand, “that way” and “happy face.” “happy face” sees her reaching new heights in her vocal range with one of the most immediately memorable melodies, but “that way” is easily one of the most emotional tracks here. McRae uses her heartbreakingly specific lyrics to describe a friendship that always comes tantalizingly close to taking the next step but never does, the friendship itself on life support as it hangs around in an awkward limbo. There’s not much supporting McRae’s sorrowful vocals here than some muted percussion hits and slowly moving piano chords, but she doesn’t need it – she has enough conviction and genuine heartfelt emotion behind what she’s saying to make the listener hang onto her every word. Each chorus subtly adds a new musical element, building tension as McRae becomes increasingly exasperated, then finally drops back as she delivers the final line a cappella, her voice crumbling into a strained croak.

It’s true that McRae does draw a lot from what makes Eilish’s music so successful, but it’s successful for a reason: we all needed someone to bluntly outline was actually going on in the twisted minds of the youngest occupants of our planet, those belonging to that demographic especially. McRae tells her own stories here, and has the catchy pop instincts and sharp songwriting ability to make her fully stand out on her own. I can’t wait for a full project.

Favourite Tracks: that way, stupid, happy face

Least Favourite Track: all my friends are fake

Score: 8/10

Halsey – Manic

Image result for halsey manicAlt-pop singer-songwriter Halsey’s third studio album Manic is meant to be a journey into the way her mind works – named after her bipolar disorder, formerly referred to as manic depression. Sonically, it’s certainly a fitting title as the project dips tentatively into quite a few genres, all smoothed over with the glossy psychedelic pop sheen that some of her biggest tracks are known for. For an album with a concept and a sonic palette this interesting, it comes as a big surprise that it’s far from memorable outside of a couple of very strong singles. Halsey has always been an artist that seems like she doesn’t know exactly where she wants to go – during her last, very 90s-pop inspired era, she became offended when people referred to her as a pop singer rather than alternative. While there are some great individual tracks here and her songwriting certainly continues to improve, touching on some very powerful personal material, as a creative musical vision Manic plays it safe all too often for what it could have been.

The opening track makes it abundantly clear that we’re going to be getting a lot more emotional content about Halsey’s own life and experiences on this project – it’s titled “Ashley,” after her real name, and makes a couple lyrical references to the fact that she wasn’t being entirely honest with the stories she told on her previous works, “Halsey” essentially being a now-dead character. She honestly sounds like a mid-2000s alt-rock frontwoman on the chorus as she pushes herself to her emotional peak, something that I wish there was more of later on in the tracklisting. Halsey has too many things that make her unique to be making the relatively basic pop content that follows.

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Most of the greatest tracks here are actually the singles that had been previously released: “Graveyard” might be the most engaging of all with its combination of thunderous stomping percussion and a looping instrumental melody that shifts from folksy acoustic guitar to a watery synth line. It leads directly into latest single “You should be sad,” which is easily the most successful and admirable of all the cross-genre experiments Halsey tried to pull off here. Undeniably and unexpectedly country-tinged, Halsey takes out all of her frustrations with former flame G-Eazy’s infidelity and uses the more storytelling-driven form to disgustedly spit out some of her most acerbic lyrics on the project. With some stunning half-yodeled harmonies and a couple surprise roaring guitar flourishes, this is everything the alternative, genre-fluid Halsey wants to be. As another example of Halsey’s huge aspirations in this area, there are three interludes her named after artists that couldn’t come from more different musical worlds: R&B upstart Dominic Fike, alt-rock legend Alanis Morrissette and Korean boy-band BTS’ SUGA. Then of course there’s worldwide smash hit “Without Me,” which still refuses to leave the recesses of my brain despite its 2018 release date. In terms of the album cuts, the track “3AM” is the clear standout, a much heavier alt-rock track that legitimately features Chad Smith, the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The moments when Halsey’s sweet-sounding vocal performances are juxtaposed with chaotic instrumentals and fiery lyrics are always her best, and this is a track that makes me think she would have done much better in a different decade.

Quite a few of the other instrumentals here actually end up being the opposite, however, lingering back in a quiet, washed-out place featuring muted pianos and synths that are intended to accommodate Halsey’s softer tone. We know how fully capable she is of hitting dramatic highs and lows with her vocals and instrumental choices, but tracks like “clementine” and “killing boys” that meander along without much of a surprising peak or climax are easy to zone out to and eventually forget about. I can’t ignore how much of a ripoff of Lady Gaga’s “You & I” “Finally // beautiful stranger” is either. It’s clear that we’re meant to be focusing a lot more on what exactly Halsey is saying as she pours her heart out about her many romantic struggles and the difficulties of living with two different voices in her head, and the dynamic she presents between Halsey and Ashley struggling for power here is certainly a compelling one when you look into the lyrics after the fact, but when the tracks resemble a calming lullaby more than anything else it’s difficult to pay close attention.

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As a storytelling-based album, there are also quite a few moments that Halsey has explained are intentionally more transitional, including the entire three-song stretch from “Forever … (is a long time)” to “I HATE EVERYBODY.” It almost feels like half of the tracks on this project don’t become fully-realized ideas as a result, jumping from one idea to the next to move the narrative along but failing to create any musical moments that truly stick. SUGA and Morrissette’s interludes are placed with only a single song separating them later on in the tracklisting.

There’s almost nothing about Manic that is below average, but there’s not much that’s spectacular either. Part of me wonders if I would have received a project like this slightly better if Halsey didn’t frequently speak about how she is fulfilling her huge artistic ambitions and would like to be viewed as avant-garde and then coming out with enjoyable, yet unsurprising pop material. Halsey has so much artistic potential, she just needs to fully commit to her direction.

Favourite Tracks: You should be sad, 3am, Graveyard, Ashley

Least Favourite Track: clementine

Score: 6/10

Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By

Image result for music to be murdered byAlways one to play into the power of a good surprise, whether it be unleashing a dizzying string of syllables or a provocative bar that will get Twitter talking for months, Eminem’s 11th studio album Music To Be Murdered By came with absolutely no warning. Most people seem to agree that the majority of Eminem’s output for the last decade hasn’t quite been able to match up to the thrilling novelty of his earlier days – but Kamikaze was certainly a step up from the dismal Revival, and this one is yet another step in the right direction. Of course, there is still no shortage of corny dad jokes and subpar hooks, but in addition to his technical toolkit and wordplay – which is still nearly unmatched even as he nears 50 – quite a bit of what has been going wrong for Eminem lately is mended here, including his beat selection as he links back up with the increasingly prolific Dr. Dre, tossing aside lacklustre pop features, and finally finding a way to say something powerful about the social issues he has recently begun addressing in song. Inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock, whose voice appears throughout, even standing at over an hour in length its hard to say that this project isn’t, at least, highly entertaining.

After an intro where Eminem is still, for whatever reason, defending Revival despite essentially making an entire album doing so already, the track “Unaccommodating” is an excellent reminder of the full extent of what he is capable of to kick off the album. One of the most fun aspects of Kamikaze was hearing Eminem try his hand at modern-day flows, and this track essentially runs through every flow he knows and then some after an intro verse from Young M.A. You’d think it would get boring to hear Eminem essentially trying to turn nearly all of these songs into another “Rap God” for an hour, but it’s been said many times over – it’s almost hypnotic how well he does this stuff, switching things up at ease and running through complex rhyme schemes at warp speed. Speaking of M.A., it’s also refreshing to hear Eminem bring back so many rap features here, as legends like Q-Tip and Black Thought, classic collaborators like the Slaughterhouse gang, and new upstarts like Don Toliver and Anderson .Paak all appear. Of course, even with so much external firepower on these tracks, Eminem always saves his own show-stealing verse for last. Some say his legacy has waned, but it’s impossible to not keep him in the all-time great conversation after hearing him outmatch nearly everyone on this project.

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“This beat’s taking me back to my D12 days,” Eminem opens “Those Kinda Nights,” which sees him dial back the quicker flows for the return of the unapologetically provocative Slim Shady persona. There’s already been quite a lot of negative reaction to some of Eminem’s less politically correct bars across the project, but I’m happy he’s tapped back into what made him so interesting in the first place – if you’re separating Eminem from his characters as you should, it’s what you should come to expect, and it only makes for some disgustingly hilarious punchlines that make it feel like the old Eminem never left. Most of the beats here aren’t flashy – noticing the beat on an Eminem album isn’t usually a good thing – and give him enough space to show off his many tricks. It’s all very old-school hip-hop, and it’s a welcome return. My favourite beat on the project might be “Godzilla,” a simple but bombastic looping synth-bass melody that ultimately builds up to one of his speediest sequences ever (7.46 words/second!) to close it out. And then there’s the wordplay and puns, which always toe the line between brilliant and awful – but nobody else’s brain even works this way to come up with these lines. My favourite: “I get dough like Ed Sheeran, so call me the gingerbread man” from “Marsh.”

There’s certainly a lot of irreverent goofiness here, but lead single “Darkness” is one of the most emotionally affecting tracks he’s put out in a very long time. Told from the perspective of the Las Vegas shooter over a brilliantly repurposed Simon & Garfunkel sample, hearing Eminem return to telling a coherent and detailed story that examines all the grimy details of how something so horrible was created – especially as he calls for gun-control reform as news reports of shootings overlap and become incomprehensible due to the sheer volume – is an absolutely harrowing listen.

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If a little more quality control were exercised on this project, it honestly had the potential to be Eminem’s best album since the mid-2000s, but as it stretches into its final half some of Eminem’s worst tendencies start to become all the more evident and prevent it from being an engaging listen all the way through. Tracks like “Marsh,” “Never Love Again” and “No Regrets” continue his tradition of sung hooks that are awkward and ill-fitting, where it feels like he’s essentially waiting for them to end so he can start doing what he does best again. They really have the ability to destroy any replay potential no matter how strong the bars he’s spitting are. It’s also rather baffling that Eminem is still spinning the same tired revenge-fantasy narratives and fiery salvoes against his various parental figures at age 47 on tracks like “Leaving Heaven” and the laughable “Stepdad.”

There’s been a lot of discourse that Eminem’s brand and style doesn’t quite fit in the pop culture scene anymore, but at this point it’s part of the charm. It’s clear that he put a lot more effort into this one and returned to his roots in a lot of fantastic ways. Eminem’s an excessively strange guy, and he’s always going to be a bit rough around the edges. But 20 years in, we know what we’re getting at this point, and what we’re getting is one of the most spellbindingly impressive rappers of all time.

Favourite Tracks: Godzilla, Darkness, Unaccommodating, Yah Yah, In Too Deep

Least Favourite Track: Stepdad

Score: 7/10

Poppy – I Disagree

Image result for poppy i disagreeThe social media experiment slash performance art piece slash genuine musician that is Poppy has certainly been one of the most fascinating and consistently disorienting musical developments to follow over the past several years. Transitioning from YouTube videos featuring absurdist and satirical social commentary to music where she taps into a friendly, cheerful robot persona with lyrics steadily getting more murderously violent as her videos once did, Poppy has since broken free from her agreement with the mastermind behind it all and taken a new creative direction. After allegations rang out from around the music industry of producer and director Titanic Sinclair’s manipulative ways, Poppy has distanced herself from him and seems to have abandoned the character they created together, acting normally in interviews and getting quite personal about her dealings with him on this new project. Still, with her lyrics as apocalyptic as ever, it’s hard to be sure, and that’s part of the beauty – and terror – of Poppy.

While we’ve heard glimpses of abrasive nu-metal breaking through her cutesy aesthetics before, Poppy is now signed to a legitimate metal music label. While Poppy’s experimentation as she tries to find a perfect fusion between the two very disparate sides of her music is admirable, it seems that a lot of the excellent pop sensibilities she once had are foregone for shock value.

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The opening track “Concrete” is actually the best one here – it’s tough to make this marriage of genres last across 10 tracks, but they certainly picked the most successful experiment to start this one off. Opening with the wail of a siren as ominous whispered vocals start layering on top of each other, a full-blown nu-metal riff breaks out before immediately diving into one of the sweetest pop choruses she’s ever laid down that somehow fits perfectly over the thrash metal guitars underneath. This, of course, only lasts a couple seconds before crumbling apart into what is probably the grimmest musical segment on the entire project, the screaming backing vocals sounding absolutely tortured as the drums play out a death rattle. Alternate back and forth, with progressively more terrifying lyrics creeping into the sweeter parts. Finally, the fans chant her name as she finally flips the first growled chorus into starry-eyed arena rock, still wishing for death. Of course, the Poppy character’s imagined litany of fans – or cultlike members of her “church” – never seem to notice or care, content to idolize the perfect celebrity figure on the surface level. It’s all part of the seemingly intentional blurring together of the malevolent robot and Poppy’s real-life experiences.

After “Concrete,” the music gets less engaging, but the ideas get more. The video for the end-of-the-world anthem title track “I Disagree” features Poppy creating a giant bonfire out of the bodies of label executives, and there’s quite a bit of rebellion against the systems of the music industry through thinly veiled aggression at her former collaborator across these tracks. Tracks like “Nothing I Need” and “Sit/Stay” address Poppy’s rise to fame and realizing that the struggles that come along with the glory was nothing that she could have imagined, detailing the extensive creative controls that were put on her and ending the latter by repeating “I will not obey you.” The final two tracks seem to be hinting at a depressive state that she had to fight through when choosing to embark on this new direction in her career.

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Hearing Poppy’s angrier, screaming vocals on nearly ever track here is certainly shocking after the knowledge of just how angelic and beautiful her pop-music singing voice is, but they work best as a brief tonal contrast. The acidic and glitchy manipulations of grungy guitar strums on a track like “BLOODMONEY” while Poppy uses every bit of air in her lungs to scream a repetitive triplet flow on top is certainly a lot to take in, and has me wishing for the days when there was a bit more nuance to the more twisted ideas she presents to the audience. Of course, that was all a fabrication, and this seems to be her real life, so it can be tough to evaluate this album critically at times. Poppy goes directly for the jugular on the subsequent track “Anything Like Me,” where there can be no question that she is addressing the Titanic Sinclair drama and copyright lawsuits that came out of his modelling Poppy in an eerily similar way to his previous project with singer Mars Argo. Like most of the project, it’s more of a disturbing expression of legitimate distress than an enjoyable song.

The way ideas jump around wildly here, a motif never sticking around for more than 30 seconds, reminds me of last year’s excellent 1000 gecs from experimental duo 100 gecs, but this isn’t coming from the same place of gleeful insanity. This is more of an exorcism of demons for Poppy – or rather, Moriah Pereira, the real human behind it all – and that doesn’t always translate into great music as she is finally permitted to scream it all out into the world. It’s undeniably powerful stuff, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be returning.

Favourite Tracks: Concrete, I Disagree, Nothing I Need, Fill The Crown

Least Favourite Track: Sit/Stay

Score: 6/10

Selena Gomez – Rare

Image result for selena gomez rareSelena Gomez has described her first album since 2015 as a “diary,” and if you wanted to know exactly what’s been going through her mind during the many struggles she’s had since then, it’s essentially all here in crystal-clear detail. After some highly-publicized health struggles – both physical and mental – and a lengthy breakup with a certain Canadian pop heartthrob, she finally returns, and as one of the dual lead singles repeatedly states, “Look At Her Now.” While we can’t fault her for the many delays and restructurings this album has undergone, I certainly didn’t expect it to turn out quite this cohesive and compelling. This is an album in line with the image of the shattered, but strong, tangible and human pop star that something like thank u, next presented so well, as Gomez uses upbeat dance-pop production and lyrics centred around self-love as an opportunity to move past the pain. After all, going through trauma can’t be easy when you’re one of the world’s most-followed people on Instagram.

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The project opens with its lead single, and I’m glad that this is the next one being sent to radio – it’s a relatively minimal pop groove that fits nicely with her whispery vocal delivery, but that only makes it all the more special when the trap beat and synths suddenly drop in and support her harmonies halfway through the chorus. On an album full of somber tracks reflecting on the hurt her relationship and other issues caused her, hearing her open with three of its most confident, empowering tracks is a great start. Seeing her perform a song like “Look At Her Now” is pretty inspiring, everything considered, even if the jarring mixing levels and “mm-mm” chorus annoy me to no end. “Dance Again,” however, is one that I can certainly see growing on me. The melody didn’t instantly grab me and reminded me of some of her earlier Disney-adjacent material, but it’s set to one of the clubbiest beats here, a pulsating techno groove underscoring her celebration of finally being able to go out and have a good time again without everything weighing on her. There are a few other tracks here that don’t quite connect – on an album full of highly personal tracks that sound like they couldn’t have been delivered by anyone else, the Latin and tropical-pop trend-hopping of tracks like “Ring” and “People You Know” feel disingenuous.

The biggest strength of the project actually comes from an unexpected area – its lyricism. Gomez has forged a close friendship with songwriter extraordinaire Julia Michaels in recent years (the two even have matching tattoos!) and while she only appears in the credits of a couple songs here, it’s abundantly clear that Gomez has drawn inspiration from her writing style. Quite a few of the sadder songs here hit much harder emotionally because of their vivid lyrical specificity. She even casually drops references to her medication or other aspects of her mental health struggles in the context of more upbeat tracks like “Fun.”

“Lose You To Love Me” was a risky choice for a lead single, but it certainly paid off – it’s full of less-than-subtle shots at The Biebs. People were drawn in to the drama, and were rewarded with a fantastic ballad that is equal parts angry, heartbreaking and ultimately, reclamatory as she once again steps out confidently on her own. It’s not the only track where he draws her ire, as she makes it quite clear who she’s talking about on tracks like “Cut You Off” and “Kinda Crazy.” Laying it all out on the table and essentially making lists of all of Bieber’s questionable behaviours seems cathartic for her. When it sounds this good and we can understand exactly where the little emotional breaks in her vocals are coming from, the project is all the better for it. “Vulnerable” might be the perfect marriage of the album’s emotional content and the percussion-heavy grooves, Gomez flitting through some truly Swiftian rapid-fire vocals and Prismizer harmonies before everything the track appears to be building up to drops away to nothing as she softly sings “I’ll stay vulnerable.”

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One of the most powerful moments of all comes on the final track, where Gomez links up with an unexpected collaborator and kindred spirit in Kid Cudi, who has had his own share of mental health struggles. Much like the camaraderie and healing of Kids See Ghosts, Gomez and Cudi come together to celebrate their new senses of self-discovery. 6lack drops a pretty smooth feature onto “Crowded Room” as well – it’s surprising well much these prominent voices in the hip-hop and R&B scene fit together with Gomez, but there’s always been something soulful in the breathier, sensual side of her tone. It’s used to its full potential on this track.

We’re starting to see a shift from the larger-than-life image of the picture-perfect pop-star in a social-media dominated age. We want to know exactly what’s going on in their head, and if they’re not perfect, all the better to relate to. It’s a pretty great achievement that Gomez was able to pull an enjoyable project like this out of development hell, and like one of the tracks states, her vulnerability is the biggest reason for its success.

Favourite Tracks: Vulnerable, Lose You To Love Me, Kinda Crazy, Rare, Cut You Off

Least Favourite Track: Look At Her Now

Score: 7/10

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2019

bblogoAnother decade of music comes to a close, and here are the greatest full-length projects this year had to offer. Happy New Year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • Cage The Elephant – Social Cues
  • Cashmere Cat – PRINCESS CATGIRL
  • EARTHGANG – Mirrorland
  • Harry Styles – Fine Line
  • James Blake – Assume Form
  • Kaytranada – BUBBA
  • King Princess – Cheap Queen
  • Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding
  • Red Hearse – Red Hearse
  • Solange – When I Get Home

25. Kanye West – Jesus Is King

Image result for jesus is kingWho could have ever predicted this one? Even though his sense of an overarching creative vision seems to be gone as he embarks on a new personal journey, this is still the most talented working producer and sometimes that talent alone is enough to make a project like this one enjoyable. Despite a couple of lyrical shortcomings, we’re here for the sound of the project first and foremost. I’ve always thought Kanye would do a great job making a gospel album – it’s in his roots, and could hearken back to the soul samples of his past. Some of the choral arrangements for the Sunday Service Choir here are pretty stunning, and he can still carry tracks like “Follow God” with the strength of his charisma and personality. Even if it’s all about Jesus.

24. Hozier – Wasteland, Baby!

Image result for wasteland babyThe deep-voiced Irishman evades the sophomore jinx by taking a lengthy 5 years to come out with this one. Hozier burst onto the scene as a complete disruption to the norms in mainstream music with “Take Me To Church” and ended up with quite a few people trying to emulate him. Here, he still sounds fresh as ever in the lane he essentially created while some of those followers fail to adapt. With a bit more of a hard-rock edge than before, he runs through some pretty high-concept songs with the poetic and smartly metaphorical songwriting we’ve come to expect from him. Hozier sounds like he simultaneously celebrates love (or music, or what have you) and is a little scared of it, many of his songs giving off an eerie quality as though he dreads this powerful, all-encompassing thing about to take over his body and make him act involuntarily.

23. Slayyyter – Slayyyter

Image result for slayyyter cover artWe’ve reached the point where the people beginning to complain about being born in the wrong generation are talking about the early 2000s, when the Internet was just bursting onto the scene and the biggest artist in the world was none other than Britney Spears. Slayyyter makes it abundantly clear that she would have been front and centre at every single one of her concerts, blending the glossy and over-the-top styles of pop for the Myspace generation with futuristic modern production. She’s mentioned in interviews that she’s simply out to make “tacky songs that are just fun” and she certainly achieves that here, but at the same time prevents the songs from being disposable by adding a litany of production quirks and an injection of her wild personality that will keep listeners coming back.

22. Hobo Johnson – The Fall of Hobo Johnson

Image result for the fall of hobo johnsonIt’s often revealed to be the truth that the most gifted stand-up comedians are also some of the most depressed people around. In another universe, Hobo Johnson might have been Robin Williams. Displaying a shocking and sometimes even too personal level of vulnerability but always coating his existential sadness in some eccentric and hilarious punchlines, Johnson functions more as a spoken-word poet than anything, often caring little about the confines of musical meter or meandering away from the subject at hand for extended periods of time. It’s an absolutely fascinating look into someone’s mind and how it functions that also features an elongated skit that imagines an intelligent society of cockroaches forming and ultimately destroying themselves with nuclear warfare … after the humans destroy themselves with nuclear warfare.

21. Melanie Martinez – K-12

Image result for k-12An album so story-driven it came with its own accompanying full-length movie conceptualized and directed by Martinez herself, the eerie and soft-spoken predecessor to Billie Eilish continues the story of her devious, infantile Cry Baby character by, what else, sending her through school. Continuing to offer the most dark and twisted sides of everyday situations delivered in the sweetest possible voice, Cry Baby deals with everything from body image issues to leering teachers, almost every track addressing specific issues pertaining to the current political moment through the lens of growing up in the oftentimes terrifying place that is school. She even drops a nod to her current situation through Cry Baby’s story on “Show & Tell,” a track where Martinez addresses the rampant sexism in the music industry.

20. 2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Image result for rap or go to the leagueMr. Chainz has had quite the inconsistent career, but he always succeeds when he lets his personality shine through. As far as punchline rappers go, he’s likely the best we have barring the re-emergence of Lil Wayne in prime form, and he certainly drops quite a few outlandish and quotable lines across this project over some of the best beats he’s ever rapped on. Executive produced by LeBron James(!), Chainz actually dials back on the comedy for about half the album and addresses some more serious topics, but maintains the cartoonish personality we love, even using it to help accentuate his points. If 2 Chainz cares about this stuff, so should everyone. Across the project he reflects on gun violence in his neighbourhood in his younger days, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and his mentality that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. With features ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Ariana Grande, he also drops some serious bangers on top of all that.

19. Flume – Hi This Is Flume

Image result for hi this is flumeThe Australian DJ and future-bass pioneer has had quite a lot of influence over the sound of pop music lately, and brings it all together here with his most experimental work yet. The entire album sounds like one continuous, shifting and changing track over a magical 38-minute runtime – if you weren’t looking at the tracklist as you listen, it’d be almost impossible to discern when the songs switched over. Most of the tracks contain elements of the previous couple, with certain motifs reappearing sporadically over the course of the album. It’s easy to zone out and get lost in this world, especially when Flume keeps things engaging with his trademark complexity in his rhythmic patterns. Most of the grooves here don’t hit exactly as you expect them to, but the odd quirks are what makes it so special.

18. GoldLink – Diaspora

Image result for diaspora goldlinkAnother great concept album this year, GoldLink sets out to demonstrate his versatility in a big way by essentially taking listeners on a world tour of the many different forms of music that spawned from the African diaspora, running through genres like Afrobeat, reggae and dancehall, and good old trap music native to his hometown in the DMV. Most of the tracks feature artists more comfortable in the genre, many even speaking their native languages, which only serves to elevate the authenticity. The fun part is that he deliberately structures Diaspora so that certain sounds stick together, letting listeners spend a couple nights in one locale before being whisked halfway across the world. Of course, GoldLink himself might be one of the most underrated technical rappers in the game and deftly glides overtop of each one of these beats with his smooth and charismatic delivery. He puts forward a laid-back, understated kind of confidence that’s hard to replicate.

17. Free Nationals – Free Nationals

Image result for free nationals albumWhen word got out that Anderson .Paak’s backing band were going to be releasing an album of their own, we knew they would be bringing the funk. The band actually stated that they wanted to model this one off of Santana’s Supernatural. While using the defining retro-soul sound that helped .Paak break out onto the scene with Malibu, the band do quite a bit of work to set themselves apart by expanding that style to a wide-ranging list of features spanning from Daniel Caesar to the Griselda Records squad to the late Mac Miller. The tracks without a feature present are actually some of the best here, elevating the rhythmic complexity while keyboardist T.Nava fills in the vocal blanks through his talkbox. 40 straight minutes of head-nodding old school thrills.

16. Camila Cabello – Romance

Image result for romance camila cabelloSeems like dating Shawn Mendes is pretty great. Titling your album Romance is a pretty bold move, but it’s fair to say Cabello addresses all the ins and outs pretty comprehensively across these 14 tracks. With all the pop producers of the moment, including Louis Bell, Benny Blanco and Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas O’Connell, on your side, in addition to those seriously impressive vocal acrobatics she’s capable of pulling off, we get a compact and endlessly relistenable collection of fantastic pop tracks dealing with some subject matter that clearly touches on some pretty personal places for Cabello. Anchored by the personalized Latin flair that she adds to most of her biggest hits, all of Cabello’s hand-wringing about exactly when, where, how and who is right for a romantic night culminates in the stunning “First Man,” a slow ballad where she convinces her father that Mendes really might be the one. And oh yeah, that song that’s been in your head literally all year is here too.

15. BROCKHAMPTON – GINGER

Image result for ginger brockhamptonLeave it up to the prolific members of BROCKHAMPTON to release an album this good in the midst of an incredibly difficult situation. Written while adjusting to life without arguably the face of the group, Ameer Vann, who was removed by their own members after sexual assault allegations, there are quite a few tracks here that are a lot more subdued, sad, and even violently angry as the remaining members cope with their conflicted feelings towards their former friend. For an off-the-wall rap collective known for their upbeat and progressive hip-hop beats, this came as a surprise to most of their core audience. Still, one of the greatest things about BROCKHAMPTON has always been the interplay, camaraderie and genuine friendship that is easily felt through their fun-loving interactions on the mic – those bonds are still there, though displayed in a different way, and perhaps all the more stronger for it. And don’t worry – a couple hard-hitting rap tracks are still here too.

14. Tove Lo – Sunshine Kitty

Image result for sunshine kittyTove Lo has really been coming into her own as one of the most promising faces amidst the boundary-pushing pop crowd, and this is likely her best collection of songs yet. Self-described as an amalgamation of “dirty pop, sad bangers, and badass collabs,” Tove Lo continues to deal with any and all of her emotions on the grimiest dance floor she can find, getting rid of her pain with an innocent kiss here and there. That kind of subject matter usually makes for some compelling and downright heartbreaking material lyrically, but it’s even better when the music it’s accompanied by actually sounds more like that club setting, as she draws more influence from house music on this one and even teams up with one of its biggest faces in Jax Jones. Her vocals are pristine and soaring as always, and she and her collaborators have dreamt up some of her most instantly anthemic melodies, delivering it all through the lens of a yellow cartoon cat meant to serve as an extension of Tove Lo herself.

13. Kim Petras – Clarity

Image result for kim petras clarityIf Kim Petras isn’t absolutely ruling the world 5 years from now, something has gone very wrong. I honestly believe that she has the best ear for pure pop music melodies in the entire industry right now, and I hope to see her star rising very quickly in the coming years. While Clarity is not a full-fledged album and more of a collection of singles, there’s not a single miss amongst them. Flexing her incredible vocal range across some deliciously fizzy synthpop bangers and modern hip-hop production, what shines through the most is just how much she adores the pop music format and formulas and has a blast getting to participate. It’s why she doesn’t necessarily step into the role as a pop music mad scientist, dissecting, innovating and pushing it forward like some of her contemporaries – she simply takes existing things she loves, and does them bigger and better, putting the Kim Petras stamp on things with her goofy ad-libs and ability to almost make a caricature of herself. If you’re looking for the simple joys of music to throw your hands up in the air to, there’s no better place to look.

12. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Image result for cuz i love you2019 was Lizzo’s year. With not one, but two, massive hit songs that were actually from 2017 and earlier, everyone steadily realized this year that they’ve been completely missing out on this multitalented Prince protege. Her off-the-cuff effortless charm is hilarious across the board here and she drops quotable and fun rap lyrics while also translating her loud, unapologetic nature into passionate and impressively soulful R&B material. Lizzo’s all-out celebration of all aspects of her identity is genuinely inspiring – it’s easy to see why she has been an icon in the LGBT community for years, I’ve never heard messages of self-confidence come off like they’re the easiest, most obvious thing to follow. “If I’m shining, everybody gotta shine,” she proclaims on standout track “Juice.” Songs written for the primary purpose of being a feel-good anthem can often elicit eye-rolls, but Lizzo is both authentically herself and inclusive enough that it’ll make anyone want to join her party. She represents the perfect antithesis to the wave of sadness taking over popular music right now. The quintessential “getting ready to go out” album.

11. 100 gecs – 1000 gecs

1000 gec album.jpgThis is one of the most mind-bending and disorienting pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life, and it only gets better and better with every new listen. This is the theme song of a sleep paralysis demon. This is the nightmarish product of melting down everyone making popular music right now, combining them into a Frankenstein’s monster who wishes it had never been created and then uploading that consciousness into a robot hell-bent on destroying humanity. 100 gecs are experimental producer Dylan Brady and vocalist Laura Les, and they’re essentially making music they know is ugly. But that’s what makes it so beautiful. Throwing genre conventions out the window and directly into a giant blender waiting below, there is absolutely no predicting what sounds are going to enter your ear canal as you journey through their haunted house. Switching from hip-hop rhythms to black metal to electronic screeches to the most cheerful pop melodies to ska on a dime, there is nobody even close to pushing the limits of what music itself can represent like 100 gecs, and I’m both excited and terrified for what they come up with next.

10. Anderson .Paak – Ventura

Image result for ventura anderson paakFollowing up 2018’s rap-heavy Oxnard album only a couple months later, .Paak returns to what I believe are his absolute best strengths on the much more soulful Ventura. Filtering everything through the lens of sunny soul backtracks and his feel-good charisma that creeps into every syllable, he brings back the perfect balance of his half-sung, half-rapped bouncy cadence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, alongside some seriously impressive soul cuts featuring some absolute legends including Smokey Robinson, Andre 3000, Brandy and even the late Nate Dogg, who was clearly a huge inspiration for .Paak’s style. With a little more political undertone – he throws some pretty hilarious shade at a certain orange President and delivers a verse from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick – .Paak examines his soul roots more than ever before and tries his hand at things like “Reachin’ 2 Much,” a 6-minute neo-soul jam session that Lalah Hathaway lends her otherworldly scatting and polyphonic abilities to. Anderson .Paak is so multitalented that it seems that nobody can agree on what exactly it is that he does best. But what we do know is that every time he drops an album, it’s not going to disappoint.

9. Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeIn a viral video featuring Pharrell Williams reacting to an early version of Rogers’ song “Alaska” when she was still a music student at NYU, he compared her to the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, that is, a new and exciting mix of established forms. While it might not be the most innovative pop debut ever, the combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates that blend he was talking about. Perhaps one of my favourite things a musician can do really well, Rogers has completely mastered the art of the slow build, and she certainly has the vocals to back it up and accentuate the biggest instrumental moments with flourishes of soul and vocal acrobatics. Seeing Rogers live provides all you need to know about how rhythmically oriented she is, dancing wildly and feeling the need to move some part of her body to hit every tiny tick of her unusually complex backing tracks for her style. These are pop songs that draw out tension and release it in the most euphoric, celebratory choruses, and she got some help from some of the best producers in the business (Greg Kurstin, ROSTAM) to help add all the flourishes she needed. The most artistically sound, fully realized debut since Billie Eilish’s first mixtape.

8. Mark Ronson – Late Night Feelings

Image result for mark ronson late night feelingsSuperproducer Mark Ronson has already lent his production techniques to a variety of timeless hits over the years, but his solo albums have always been a little inaccessible until now. This is where he finally gets to flex his muscles and create a near-flawless collection of the pop and soul music that he loves so much. He brings the best out of quite a few vocalists who seem like they should be in very different places, from King Princess to Camila Cabello to Miley Cyrus to Lykke Li, and each one of the choruses here captures that Robyn vibe of dancing with tears in your eyes, submitting to the all-encompassing, cathartic groove and getting swept up in the music while the emotions flood outwards. A concept album of sorts that sees all of its protagonists uncertain about where their relationship status lies in the early hours of the morning, the transformation of their sadness into these empowering melodies is something to behold, especially when they’re handled by someone who can make them sound this good this consistently.

7. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated

Image result for dedicated carly rae jepsenIn an interview I did with Carly earlier this year (no, I still can’t believe it happened), she told me that the single word she would use to describe this album – and really, her entire career – was “longing.” The enduring appeal of Jepsen’s music is that it’s so easy to miss how profoundly sad quite a bit of it is in the upbeat 80s synthpop jams that she and her producers pull off so well. She also told me that, inspired by songs like Billie Holiday’s “My Man,” she always approaches songwriting with the aim of “milking melancholy in a way where it becomes poetic.” Jepsen couldn’t have been gifted with a better set of vocal chords for communicating exactly what she wants to – she has the ability to hide just the slightest, most devastating tiny bit of sadness in her seemingly cheerful tone, colouring all of the fantasies she dreams up about running away with her song’s subjects with the somber reminder that they are just that – fantasies. Luckily, there are also a couple of tracks that finally see her sing about full-blown romance, and the results are just as invigorating. Jepsen is one of the greatest pop songwriters out right now, and while her last project was an impossible act to follow, Dedicated shows that she can always be counted on for a good time, or at least, the appearance of one.

6. Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Image result for when we all fall asleep where do we goThe year’s biggest breakout star, it speaks to the fact that consumers are looking for something new in a world of peak trap that an album this weird was one of the year’s most successful. Written and produced entirely by Eilish and her brother Finneas – a serious anomaly in the pop world, take a look at the extensive personnel list of any other major album – the teenager’s whispery, eerie cadence is essentially designed specifically with the headphone user in mind, her vocals quiet but still giving off the impression of singing directly to you. Or, right behind you. Finneas’ layering of his sister’s vocals across the board are one of the most impressive feats in music of the year, especially on tracks like “when the party’s over.” Eilish establishes a character with “bad guy” and then sets out to envision an entire world, complete with tiny details that you really have to be paying attention to to hear, whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go.” Eilish certainly covers a lot of dark material, but she’s been embraced as the queen of generation Z, and represents the reality. An ASMR popstar, watching her career progress further should be a treat.

5. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u next album coverThe definitive soundtrack of a year that was. Apparently fully conceptualized in only a couple of weeks via a couple of drunken healing sessions with her closest friends, who also happen to be her frequent musical collaborators, Grande pours out all of her pain from her awful year into these tracks, and comes out on the other end having learned from her experiences, a much stronger person as a result. Matching a feat only achieved by The Beatles with the album’s first three singles as she occupied the entire top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100, Grande’s music was so overwhelmingly human that it managed to reach out and touch almost everyone that listened to it. Released less than a year after her celebration of finding love, Sweetenerthank u, next functions as its dark, realist cousin, shattering the image of the picture-perfect, larger-than-life pop star – and people were relieved. With this project, Grande was able to masterfully control her own narrative, jumping ahead of people’s expectations and subverting them. We all thought “thank u, next,” the song, was going to be a drama-inciting diss, not a gracious, genuine thank you. We were all expecting slower, sadder music, not the unapologetic declarations that yes, of course she’s sad, and she’s not going to fake otherwise to anyone. Being this vulnerable after everything that happened is one of the most badass things she could have done.

4. Lana Del Rey – Norman F**king Rockwell!

Image result for norman fucking rockwellNorman Rockwell was a painter famous for idealized, patriotic depictions of American life – much like most of Lana Del Rey’s subject matter before this latest, greatest album. For an album that takes these concepts and completely deconstructs them, rendering them a useless and broken ideal to strive for, what a perfect title is the emphatic Norman F**king Rockwell! – if only for the fact that its recent nomination for Album of the Year will have the Grammys fully displaying it on live TV. Del Rey’s voice is soft and psychedelic, drawing inspiration from the singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s while demonstrating that she’s one of the most incredibly poetic, evocative songwriters working at the moment. Del Rey relinquishes the fantasies that have interested her her entire life as she surveys the current state of her nation, finally giving up and dejectedly telling it like it is. Masterminded by Jack Antonoff, who loves to dive into these dense, conceptual albums and set them up like a fully-realized story – take a look at Lorde’s Melodrama – Del Rey is just as allusive as ever, drawing lyrical reference to her heroes as she sarcastically addresses all of the mess around her, pretending to be above it all, but deep down knowing that she’s just as doomed as the rest of us. Who knew that after a career of trying so hard to be as edgy as possible that dropping the facade would result in her masterpiece?

3. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

Image result for magdalene fka twigsRobert Pattinson, what did you DO??? Twigs thankfully returns to grace us with her presence after four years away from the spotlight, but she certainly had her reasons – in addition to all of the messy relationship drama, Twigs had to undergo surgery in May 2018 to remove numerous tumours from her uterus, a process that she describes in painful physical and emotional detail on a couple of occasions here, as it had an effect on her ability to be there as a participating member of the relationship as much as she would have liked to. Telling her story from the perspective of the Biblical character Mary Magdalene, one of the most traditionally villainized characters but perceived as much more misunderstood and complex than many realize in Twigs’ eyes, she sets out at subverting ancient archetypal roles placed on women through her own story of pain, heartbreak, and the strength she discovered at the centre of it all. Combining her operatic singing style with some of the most spastic, percussion-heavy instrumentals of her career, these tracks are visceral and honestly pretty unsettling at times as Twigs distorts her vocals to mirror her discomfort. She addresses her loneliness and the fragility of love, among other subjects, with indirect, flowery language, but there’s something about the way she delivers them that makes you understand exactly what she means. FKA Twigs combines avant-garde creativity with hard-hitting and frank emotion, and creates an unforgettable experience.

2. Charli XCX – Charli

Image result for charli albumCharli XCX has been making some of the most forward-thinking, futuristic pop music for a while now, and I honestly didn’t think it could get much better than 2017’s Pop 2, but here we are. Teaming up with the PC Music crew, most notably its figurehead A. G. Cook, Charli takes a look at what it means to be classified pop music and turns it on its head, and in traditional Charli fashion, takes a bit of a step back and lets her curated selection of some of the genre’s greatest minds take the spotlight in the strange and wonderful worlds she’s created. Featuring both glitchy, distorted sad love songs like “I Don’t Wanna Know” and synth-heavy dancefloor-fillers like “Click” and “Gone,” the greatest thing about the project is just how well she manages to include and play off of other people. Kim Petras steals the show with a verse. Troye Sivan and Charli sound nearly unrecognizable on “2099,” which sounds like it was written by a really, really good artificial intelligence program trying to understand how pop music works. The track “Shake It” completely alters itself multiple times to cater to featured artists like Big Freedia and CupcakKe. HAIM, Clairo and Sky Ferreira are all here. Still, the album is titled after Charli herself, and she gives us some of her most personal writing yet tackling her mental health, insecurities and her paranoia that everyone around her simply wants to leech off her fame. It’s her self-titled work, and it just might be her career’s highlight.

1. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

Image result for igorIn a world where it seems like the album format is slowly dying, nobody used it better than Tyler, the Creator. In what is probably the most compelling, focused narrative told by a deliberately sequenced set of tracks that I’ve ever heard, Tyler retreats into the monstrous character of Igor to take a deep dive into a tumultuous romantic experience he personally had while coming to terms with his sexuality, something that he had repressed all of his life as a result of the rap culture he thrives in (as told on his previous project, Flower Boy). While it’s impossible to tell just how much was embellished to fit Igor’s unhinged nature and how much was real life, Tyler tells the story of falling in love – real love – for the first time, only to have it ripped away when his interest divided his attention between him and a woman. Igor turns violent with murderous rage, ultimately realizing the error of his ways, grappling with complicated feelings towards his love interest, finding a more important self-love, and finally hoping to remain friends with the one who instilled such powerful feelings in him, not losing contact entirely with someone so important. Entirely self-produced, containing both darker spins on the sunny synths that coloured Flower Boy and definitely containing echoes of some of his musical heroes like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, who both appear on the album as features, Tyler is a master of painting the most evocative of moods with his production to match what he’s saying. Spoken-word skits from comedian Jerrod Carmichael act as a guide, transitioning from one part of the story to the next and articulating how Tyler is feeling. IGOR is a rollercoaster of emotions from beginning to end, and I can only be happy that Tyler seems to have emerged out on the other side with a happy relationship, learning from all the pain he lays down here. It was certainly an experience listening to him figure it all out. We’ll see where he goes from here.

I already have an extensive list of projects I’m looking forward to in 2020, and I’m certainly looking forward to getting back and writing some more reviews on here. I’ll see you in a week and a bit for some discussion on the first couple big albums released this year! Thanks for reading.

Bensbeat Top 50 Songs of 2019

While 2019 might have been missing the star-studded releases seemingly every week that last year provided, we witnessed the rise of quite a few promising rising stars, as well as some of the decade’s biggest trends being stretched to their breaking point. The 2020s should be an exciting time full of new sounds. Hip-hop took over from rock as the most-consumed genre in the world last year, but as far as creativity and experimentation goes, I’d go as far as saying pop music took the crown this year for the first time in a while. Here are the year’s best tracks.

Honourable Mentions:

  • BROCKHAMPTON – IF YOU PRAY RIGHT
  • Camila Cabello – This Love
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – No Drug Like Me
  • Danny Brown – Savage Nomad
  • James Blake – I’ll Come Too
  • Pusha T – Coming Home (Ft. Lauryn Hill)
  • Qveen Herby – New Bitch
  • Slowthai – Psycho (Ft. Denzel Curry)
  • Summer Walker – Body
  • Tegan & Sara – Hold My Breath Until I Die

50. Arizona Zervas – ROXANNE

Arizona Zervas - Roxanne.pngOne of the most fascinating developments in music this year was just how much power video-sharing app TikTok had in the formation of breakout stars. Aside from a certain country-rap crossover, this was easily the catchiest melody to come out of the app.

49. Slayyyter – Tattoo
Image result for slayyyter cover artMusic trends tend to be cyclical at times, and an early-2000s pop Renaissance is bubbling under the surface. With some delightfully campy and over-the-top synth stabs and vocals sounding like early Britney Spears, Slayyyter is doing nostalgia correctly.

48. Hobo Johnson – Subaru Crosstrek XV

Image result for the fall of hobo johnsonEasily one of the funniest tracks of the year, the rapper slash (spoken word poet?) flexes about being able to buy a reliable, if less-than-flashy car that can take him from Point A to Point B. He would have bought a Lambo, but he’s not quite there yet.

47. Lana Del Rey – Doin’ Time

Image result for norman fucking rockwellA cover of the hit from fellow Long Beach residents Sublime, Lana doesn’t change up too much instrumentally but sounds incredible applying her smooth, layered vocals to the hip-hop influenced rock song. A nice break from the existential crisis that is Norman F**king Rockwell.

46. Betty Who – Just Thought You Should Know

Image result for betty album coverBetty Who probably has one of the best ears for pop melodies in the industry right now. While she usually has the high-octane 90s dance tracks down, this one falls more in line with a slower, passionate boy-band cut complete with some retro percussion sounds in the mix.

45. ROSALÍA – Millionària

Image result for fucking money man coverROSALÍA exploded onto the scene as a global superstar this year with her refreshing modernization of traditional flamenco styles. Millionària is the first track she recorded in her mother tongue, Catalan, and she sounds confident and comfortable as she half-jokingly prays for endless piles of money.

44. Vampire Weekend – Harmony Hall

A hand-drawn globe against a white background, with an orange border on the left-hand side. The words "FATHER+OF+THE+BRIDE" encircle the globe, with "Vampire Weekend" and "Sony Music" printed above and below the globe respectively.Ezra Koenig and his band full of Ivy League music nerds’ approach to beautifully blending the simple and the complex was sorely missed, even if Father of the Bride didn’t quite measure up to their past works. A long track built around a great central melody that eventually winds through multiple instrumental solos, they describe the current political climate through Biblical metaphors in typical Vampire Weekend fashion.

43. Chance The Rapper – Let’s Go On The Run (Ft. Knox Fortune)

Image result for the big dayCalm down, Internet. While The Big Day was certainly a misstep in Chance’s career, it’s nowhere near as awful as many make it out to be. Try to tell me you’re not smiling when that syncopated piano beat drops for the first time and Chance starts gliding over it with his giddy, excitable cadence. The man drops a Road Runner “meep-meep.” He’s too lovable to hate.

42. Kanye West – Use This Gospel (Ft. Clipse & Kenny G)

Image result for jesus is kingKanye-left-his-car-door-open memes aside … okay, Kanye himself aside, absolutely who else in the world could have combined the disgustingly grimy cadences of Pusha T and his brother No Malice with the king of elevator music on a track about Jesus and made it sound this good? That sax solo is one of the greatest musical moments of the year.

41. Post Malone – Take What You Want (Ft. Ozzy Osbourne & Travis Scott)

Image result for hollywood's bleedingWhile we’re on the subject of unlikely collaborations, my goodness. In the middle of a bunch of relatively sanitized (but maddeningly catchy) pop tracks, Post Malone drops a scorching hard-rock banger where he and Travis Scott keep pace with an absolute legend on the kind of dark and spooky instrumental he thrives on. If you needed any more confirmation rappers are the new rockstars, here it is.

40. Red Hearse – Half Love

Image result for red hearse albumSuperproducers Jack Antonoff and Top Dawg Entertainment’s Sounwave link up with vocalist Sam Dew, who lends his soulful falsetto to Antonoff’s warm synthpop chords and Sounwave’s spastic percussion. Oh yeah, and the video features St. Vincent’s Annie Clark with a crowbar. At this point, everything Antonoff touches is gold – that’s the metal and the RIAA certification.

39. Free Nationals – Time (Ft. Kali Uchis & Mac Miller)

Image result for free nationals albumAnderson .Paak’s backing band deliver the funk grooves, releasing this track as a single earlier than they intended to get Mac Miller’s first posthumous verse out in the world. And what a verse it is – supposedly recorded shortly after his breakup with Ariana Grande, Miller sounds so alive as he plays off of Kali Uchis sweetly expressing the need for relationships to take time to grow through their many problems.

38. Charlie Heat – ALOHA (Ft. Denzel Curry)

Image result for charlie heat fireworksOne of my most played songs of the year, this one is perfect for an energy boost or mood lifter of any kind. Built around little more than a slightly menacing trumpet melody and rumbling bass, Denzel Curry demonstrates that he has one of the most commanding mic presences in the game right now as he barks his self-aggrandizements with glee.

37. Taylor Swift – Lover

Image result for lover taylor swiftThis one really took its time to grow on me. Maybe it’s the colder air outside that somehow fits the vibe of the track perfectly. In any case, Swift’s songwriting (not to mention her impressive vocal range) has always been her strongest suit, and this is one of the most earnest and genuine love songs you’ll hear all year.

36. Charli XCX – White Mercedes

Image result for charli albumOne of the most conventional pop tracks on her experimental self-titled magnum opus, I can’t complain when the emotion is so believable. Charli knows just how to construct a knockout chorus, she’s written countless #1 hits for others, and when the fireworks go off in the accompanying music video they feel completely justified as she powerfully sings about her insecurities.

35. La Roux – Gullible Fool

La Roux - Supervision.pngShe’s back for the first time in six years, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. La Roux dives into the current landscape of underground pop without hesitation and emerges on the other side with a seven-minute deliciously rhythmic synth-funk jam session of a track that builds up slowly. Pounding the keys, she criticizes herself for getting too optimistic about the future of a relationship once again.

34. BANKS – Look What You’re Doing To Me (Ft. Francis & The Lights)

Banks - III.pngIt seems like this one is pretty polarizing online – you either completely love or hate it. I certainly give props to BANKS for linking up with one of the most forward thinking artists in the game and creating something completely unique – the track essentially sounds like two playing at once to symbolize a couples’ argument, the singer’s two voices overlapping in a confusing jumble that’s anchored by steady, thunderous claps and gospel chords.

33. The Weeknd – Blinding Lights

The Weeknd - Blinding Lights.pngThe Weeknd continues to step confidently into his role as a modern-day Michael Jackson with a new wave track that sounds like it comes directly from the Stranger Things soundtrack and fits his new look (80s-inspired pimp and/or movie drug kingpin?) perfectly. Straight from the Swedish pop godfather himself, Max Martin, the man ensures that main synth lead will burrow its way deep into your cerebellum.

32. Billie Eilish – wish you were gay

Image result for when we all fall asleep where do we goThe teenage dark-pop sensation applies her whispery, paper-thin and intimate vocals to an instrumental that sounds like it pulls from doo-wop balladry, complete with some clever and hilarious lyrical twists. Whether it’s the play with numbers in the verses or the concept of the track as Eilish comes to terms with an incomprehensible rejection, it’s the powerful bridge where you feel her emotions at their peak during her quietest vocal moments that sells it.

31. TWICE – Fancy

Twice - Fancy You.pngSometimes I think they might be doing this whole pop music thing better overseas than they are here. There’s something about the infectious melodies and interplay between the members of huge K-pop groups like TWICE, and they’ve been delivering great material all year. A high-energy track with a couple fun production twists throughout, the track moves through a couple distinct musical sections like most of the best in the genre do.

30. Juice WRLD – Robbery

Image result for death race for loveIt saddens me that there’s more than one recently deceased promising young rapper on this list – he’s only been gone for 21 days. I had already tapped this track for a list like this back in February, as I was completely fascinated with what is essentially Juice’s hip-hop interpretation of an early 2000s pop-punk track. The piano melody in the beat is absolutely beautiful, and Juice’s Auto-crooned vocals really communicate his genuine distress. Hearing some of these lines now is pretty heartbreaking.

29. Maren Morris – RSVP

Image result for maren morris girlThe latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, this is one of the tracks where she really gets to unleash her vocal power. With a chorus featuring trap hi-hats and layered, harmonized vocals that show off the best parts of her high range, Morris is here to take exactly what she wants with some assertive and direct lyrics.

28. YBN Cordae – RNP (Ft. Anderson .Paak)

Image result for ybn cordae the lost boyA short but sweet collaboration with the best feature artist you can get right now, Cordae and .Paak spit some quotable bars back and forth at each other over a J. Cole-produced beat. They contemplate their problems that aren’t really problems at all due to how much fun they’re having living the lavish rapper lifestyle, .Paak taking over the track a bit (as usual) with his no-nonsense hook.

27. Mark Ronson – 2 AM (Ft. Lykke Li)

Image result for mark ronson late night feelingsMark Ronson makes music for slow dancing with tears in your eyes. He taps pretty much the best vocalist (barring Robyn) for that here in the beautifully melancholic Lykke Li – you can hear every tiny sudden intake of breath as she pleads for a late night fling to continue into the future, the production ebbing and flowing as she gets more desperate.

26. 100 gecs – stupid horse

1000 gec album.jpgI have no idea where to begin with this one……..but this absolutely SLAPS. I couldn’t tell you why. Nobody knows what 100 gecs is doing and it’s a wonderful thing – their music is nothing and everything at once and here we have a ska track with pop-punk vocal inflections and hip-hop production about losing all your money at the horse racing track.

25. FKA Twigs – home with you

Image result for magdalene fka twigsAn expansive track that alternates from a heavily distorted and angry verse to one of the most show-stopping melodies and vocal performances of the year in the chorus. FKA Twigs channels Kate Bush as she lets all the emotion loose stemming from a surgery that removed six tumors in her uterus and the effects it had on her doomed relationship and the lack of communication with a certain sparkly vampire. She mentions in the song that she’s never seen a superhero resembling her, but she more than proves her superhuman strength with this one.

24. Carly Rae Jepsen – Right Words Wrong Time

Image result for dedicated carly rae jepsenThis could be here for the layered bridge alone, the track building up to Jepsen, as usual, conflicted in her emotions as she tearfully dismisses an inconsistently affectionate but oh-so-dreamy lover with an “it’s getting late and you should go.” Over some twinkling and explosive synths, Jepsen demonstrates her ability to communicate emotion through the slightest vocal inflection like no other.

23. Ariana Grande – NASA

Image result for thank u next album coverThe track that ultimately landed itself on top of my Spotify Wrapped statistics, this track is part of what lent itself to the incredible replayability of the thank u, next album. Ariana was out here dropping philosophies on us after her tumultuous year, and that “you know I’m a staaaaaar, space” vocal line is probably one of the catchiest things she’s ever recorded in a long line of pop smash hits.

22. Kim Petras – If U Think About Me…

Image result for kim petras if you think about me coverIn a year where (hopefully) pop’s next-in-command Kim Petras dropped two albums and a bunch of other loose tracks on us, the best one of all was actually one from all the way back in January that never landed on an album at all. Although it’s a much moodier track, it uses her party-starting “woo-ah” ad lib better than ever, weaving it into the rhythms of the chorus as she flexes her stunning high notes and stresses out over her ex moving on before she does.

21. Tyler, the Creator – WHAT’S GOOD (Ft. Slowthai)

Image result for igor“Hard to believe in God when there ain’t no mirrors around” is one of the hardest bars of the year, easily. The moment in the rollercoaster Igor narrative where Tyler realizes he doesn’t truly need the guy he’s been absolutely losing his mind over – after all, he’s already got himself. The beat-switch midway through as Tyler brings in his deep-voiced delivery of times long past and British firestarter Slowthai screaming “I SEE THE LIGHT” in the background is an absolute rush.

20. Tove Lo – Sweettalk my Heart
Image result for sunshine kittySomething is clearly in the water over in Sweden, because Tove Lo has now settled into an area where she’s consistently releasing stunning pop tracks under the radar. She uses the same dancehall beat that’s been on every popular song since “One Dance” and still manages to put her own unique spin on it with some soaring vocals leading up to the chorus and the rapid-fire and blunt lyrical content she’s known for.

19. Kero Kero Bonito – When The Fires Come

Image result for civilization i kero kero bonitoClimate change banger alert. Our impending demise has never sounded quite this good as Kero Kero Bonito combine the adorable Casio-toned 8-bit J-pop musical stylings of their past with their newer forays into some much darker and more poetic lyrical content. Sarah Bonito’s chipper voice is tinged with the slightest hint of sadness as the band envisions a future where the human race is wiped out as the world’s forests burn to the ground.

18. MARINA – To Be Human

Image result for love and fear marinaI’m quite honestly still unable to listen to this song without getting a little choked up, regardless of how public the space may be. The most powerful lyrical content of the year, Marina speaks about visiting memorial sites of catastrophic historical events and feeling like the world is teetering on the edge of another. For all her life experiences, she still has a lot to learn about what being human means – but the underlying message of the track is love and connection. The final chorus hitting is when the tears start flowing.

17. 2 Chainz – Momma I Hit A Lick (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for rap or go to the leagueI’m still absolutely baffled by the hate that Kendrick Lamar got for his verse on this thing. With quirky production from Mr. Pharrell Williams himself that lends a lot of empty space for experimentation, one of rap’s biggest personalities in 2 Chainz gets to unleash the full extent of his weirdness.  He is as unhinged as possible, complete with strange voices and bars about giraffes. Lamar is nearly unrecognizable, delivering his verse in a near whisper, but this kind of mid-song character-shifting is where he thrives.

16. Lizzo – Jerome

Image result for lizzo cuz i love youAnother enormous musical personality getting to display the full extent of themselves on a track, this might be the most “Lizzo” Lizzo track of them all. A soulful ballad where she absolutely demolishes poor Jerome, God rest his soul, with lines about how he didn’t deserve to be with royalty, most of the lines are hilarious but she delivers them with deadpan seriousness and stunning vocal talent that wouldn’t normally accompany such a jokey song. The world is a better place with Lizzo’s confidence level bringing us all up.

15. Billie Eilish – bad guy

Image result for when we all fall asleep where do we goQuite possibly the biggest song of the year, we’ve all heard it enough times at this point that it’s easy to forget how mindblowingly refreshing that first listen was. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sound like they’re directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline playing off of the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s twisted character across the full accompanying project, there wasn’t a much more compelling one. “Duh.”

14. JP Saxe – If The World Was Ending (Ft. Julia Michaels)

If the World Was Ending by Saxe and Michaels.pngI love when a full track is built around a unique, singular take on a familiar song concept, and it’s no surprise that a brilliant writer like Julia Michaels is involved in doing so. A heartbreaking track that sees a separated couple’s thoughts immediately snapping to each other after a minor earthquake shook their hometown, trying to convince themselves – seemingly unsuccessfully – that if the world was truly ending tomorrow, the other would come over for one final passionate night, all their petty disagreements rendered meaningless.

13. Maggie Rogers – Say It

Image result for heard it in a past lifeWhen Rogers performs this song live, the room is washed with deep blue lights that slowly move across the room and project lapping waves on the walls, making it appear as if the whole concert venue is underwater. That’s certainly the impression that the quieter, contemplative verses of the track give off before the chorus launches into a beautifully harmonized 90s girl group section as Rogers criticizes herself for not being able to just make the move on him already – Rogers called it an ode to the “sparkly feeling of possibility” in an interview. Who knew the nerdy white girl from Maryland had so much pure soul in her voice?

12. Doja Cat – Tia Tamera (Ft. Rico Nasty)

Dojacatamala.pngIt’s abundantly clear how much Doja Cat draws inspiration from animated and quirky female rappers like Nicki Minaj, and when you combine that demeanor with a better understanding of pop culture and memes and a blazing feature verse from someone who puts everything she has into her delivery and honestly verges on trap metal at times, you get a song that’s simultaneously one of the hardest rap tracks of the year and endlessly fun at the same time – there’s “Bodak Yellow” energy in this. It’s also rather impressive that they stay on a single rhyme scheme for the entire song – it takes skills to come up with that many.

11. Normani – Motivation

Image result for normani motivationHow in the world was this not a number one hit single? To some, the Fifth Harmony alum might be the Kelly Rowland to Camila Cabello’s Beyonce, but she’s the one sounding comparable to Queen Bey’s early solo work with energetic and fun tracks like this one – complete with the marching band style trumpet hook. There are so many little things that put this song over the edge, whether it’s the little silences at the most energetic part of the choruses or the way she holds the note on an “n” syllable, the unconventional style replaying in your mind as something unique. Normani is ready to be the breakout star of 2020 with her debut album.

10. Mark Ronson – Don’t Leave Me Lonely (Ft. YEBBA)

Image result for mark ronson late night feelingsOne of the most impressive vocal showcases of the year, Mark Ronson taps someone who is usually known for much slower, emotional material in YEBBA and throws her on one of his most upbeat dance-pop instrumentals yet. Don’t worry, the vocal acrobatics don’t go anywhere. This track reminds me of something that someone like Whitney Houston would have put out in the 80s. Combine that with Ronson’s incredible pop instincts as a producer and we have a nearly gospel-sounding pop-soul masterpiece. I’ll let this video of Ronson reacting to the final chorus hitting speak for itself: https://twitter.com/MarkRonson/status/1097988082085724160

9. Anderson .Paak – Make It Better (Ft. Smokey Robinson)

Image result for ventura anderson paakI’ll say it a million times: Anderson .Paak, for all his many talents, is a much more engaging singer than a rapper. Case in point: absolutely holding his own with SMOKEY ROBINSON, who sounds just as incredible as ever at age 79 on this track. This is the kind of timeless-sounding smooth slow jam that anyone from age 8 to 80 could enjoy no matter when it came out. A seriously underrated part of .Paak’s songwriting is the winking charisma he brings to his romantic bars, sounding like the most successful pick-up artist of all time and delivering it all with the giant, goofy grin we all know he has plastered on his face.

8. BROCKHAMPTON – BOY BYE

Image result for brockhampton gingerThere might have been quite a few fans who weren’t expecting the darker, sadder material on this project as the self-professed “boy band” go through a tumultuous time and work out their issues. While that material was certainly compelling to me, this song was the saving grace on Ginger for everyone who were craving more of those off-kilter rap bangers that could only come from this weird and wonderful collective. Everyone displays their own personality in a back-to-back-to-back set of great verses all building up to vocal catalyst Merlyn Wood shutting down the track in 15 seconds. I have no idea what instrument that is featured prominently in the background, but it’s certainly a sound I’ve never heard in hip-hop.

7. Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Ft. Billy Ray Cyrus)

Image result for lil nas x 7What is there to say about this song that hasn’t already been said? Rolling Stone noted that it sounds like “centuries of American music were all building up to these 113 seconds of genius,” and I couldn’t agree more. “Old Town Road” was built off of a concept of genre-mashing so hilarious that Lil Nas X was able to harness everything he knows about the Internet and keep the joke going all year, gaming the system by releasing ridiculous remix after remix and ultimately breaking the all-time record for most weeks at #1. By the time the Walmart yodel kid hopped on a remix and absolutely killed it, I knew I was witnessing something legendary. Ride on, Lil Nas. Ride on.

6. Ariana Grande – ghostin

Image result for thank u next album coverProbably the best song of Ariana Grande’s career, and yet, I can’t bring myself to listen to it very much because of how profoundly emotionally affecting it is as someone who closely followed the careers of both her and her late boyfriend Mac Miller, who the song is dedicated to. Built around a chopped up sample of “2009,” the last song Miller ever performed live, and featuring allusions to their previous romantic duets, Grande was clearly having a very difficult time even stepping into the booth and recording this, sounding like she’s on the verge of a complete breakdown as her traditionally powerhouse vocals waver just a little. In reality, the song is about Grande feeling bad about hurting the new man in her life with her tears over Miller’s passing. This one hurts.

5. Carly Rae Jepsen – Want You In My Room

Image result for dedicated carly rae jepsenIt’s an absolute crime that this song starts fading out around the 2 minute and 12 second mark. This song needs to be 20 minutes long. I want to sit in this incredibly Antonoffian groove forever. Built around a muted, retro-sounding melody and persistent danceable percussion sounding like one of Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers tracks, Jepsen runs through a little more adult version of the sparkly-eyed and slightly obsessive girl watching from a distance scenario that she does so well. The desperation in her voice is palpable as the saxophones blare and she alternates between a full-voiced harmonized belt and the most sultry of whispers in the chorus. “Sliiiide on through my window”.

4. Tyler, the Creator – NEW MAGIC WAND (Ft. Santigold & Jessy Wilson)

Image result for igorThe dramatic climax of the Igor narrative where Tyler’s character starts casually shooting death threats at the object of his affection and the woman who he views as stealing the attention he craves, the rattling skeleton bones of the percussion and the low, rumbling synths certainly help to paint the picture of his tortured mental state. Tyler has said that this is his personal favourite song, drawing specific attention to the blaring synths of the 3rd verse and calling it “so Tyler,” a perfect amalgamation of all the sounds he’s attempted across his entire career. The technical showcase of the final verse is probably the greatest moment of one of the year’s most show-stopping albums and a thrilling point in the story of poor, poor Igor.

3. FKA Twigs – sad day

Image result for magdalene fka twigsBoy did I miss that unique musical approach Twigs has to combining her almost baroque-sounding vocals with intricate and dominating hip-hop percussion sounds while she was gone. But – what in the world did Robert Pattinson do to her to make her write these aching, beautiful songs that manage to put both him and herself in a negative, critical light in the aftermath of the end of their relationship? This is another one that addresses that most painful feeling, seeing the end coming from a long ways away and knowing there’s little you can do about it, Twigs wondering what she can do to make him see any kind of tiny spark and escape the mundane cycles of life once again. Everyone from Skrillex to Cashmere Cat to Hudson Mohawke worked on this one, and the frantic world of production they painted reflects that.

2. Charli XCX – Gone (Ft. Christine & The Queens)

Image result for charli albumCharli XCX and her many, many collaborators across this project are the future – they’ve all come together and demonstrated that they have their finger on the pulse of what pop music will sound like in 10 or even 20 years and this song is one of the greatest examples of that. Featuring production from PC Music figurehead A. G. Cook and great chemistry with French synthpop mastermind Christine & The Queens even when she drops some bars in her native language right before the explosive breakdown, Charli lays down the most immediately sticky melody of the year that disguises some pretty powerful lyrics about insecurity. The back half of the track features a pretty incredible beat switch that sees her chopping up her vocals and turning the whole thing into a 2099 robot dance party.

1. Lana Del Rey – The greatest

Image result for norman fucking rockwellSo much of what has defined Lana Del Rey’s career up to this point has been romantic, idealized depictions of a traditional, old-school brand of American patriotism and the American Dream. This is the song where it all falls apart and she readily admits all the places where the system has gone wrong. The dramatic centerpiece of her brilliantly written Norman F**king Rockwell, Del Rey returns to her acoustic guitar strums and sad piano roots. As the decade comes to a close, Lana’s disappointed but nostalgic tone as she continues to long for days of the past wraps things up pretty well as she sadly prepares to sign off, stating that for what it’s worth, she had a pretty great time. “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball,” she sings with the slightest roll of her eyes before one of her most stunning vocal moments of her career on the chorus as she mourns the loss of all she holds with high importance. As the song fades out, she drops her voice down to a whisper as she lists society’s ills in deadpan: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, reliance on technology, and even the loss of a cultural hero in Kanye West. It’s incredibly depressing, but there’s not a song that reflects our current moment better.

Stay tuned for the list of 2019’s greatest albums, and check out the list on Spotify below! Bensbeat will be back in a big way with regular weekly reviews in 2020 – I’ve been finishing my Masters of Journalism degree and it’s coming to a close in a couple months. Thanks for sticking with me.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/5s9n8s2KfBnfk8DlYmxhkX

Rapid Fire Reviews (LSD, Cage The Elephant, Lizzo)

Image result for lsd cover artLSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD

While it seems like the oddest of pairings on paper, Diplo, Labrinth and Sia have teamed up for a brief project under the name LSD. Diplo is one of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business, and adding the nearly boundless voices of these British and Australian balladeers seems like a recipe for success … except that save for the standout tracks that they pushed as singles, most of this seems like Diplo reverting back to the most basic of pop formulas that he knows so well in order to stretch this musical partnership to a full-length project. While the vocal acrobatics are always engaging and there are a couple high-octane surprises in the tracklisting, most of this project is painfully safe.

The a cappella opening of the project previews just how good it could have been, Sia and Labrinth’s voices working surprisingly well together despite how distinctive and instantly recognizable they are. I would have loved to hear a lot more tracks that fit more into this slower tempo to really hear them thrive, but Sia’s attacked uptempo EDM tracks before and still brings the energy to a couple of these tracks. One of the best on the whole project might be the first full-length song, “Angel In Your Eyes.” It’s a seriously quirky electronic track that sees Diplo introduce us to a disorienting and woozy world that the cover art and the supergroup’s moniker suggests, though it’s really the only time this theme seems to fit here. The childlike backing vocals, hyperspeed tempo and chopped up melodies that bound madly around the soulful main hook and Diplo’s bleeps and bloops really demonstrate his strength as a pop producer. The last beat switch is a great shift in energy as well.

One of the greatest aspects that keeps up throughout this project is actually the way that Sia and Labrinth frequently trade off who sings every aspect of the verses and chorus, so you always get to hear both voices on every melody the song has to offer. It’s a nice twist that you weirdly don’t hear too often on pop duets. The triumphant “Genius” is another pretty great track before the project drops off in quality. Diplo makes his synths sound absolutely orchestral as the two make grandiose claims sounding like some mad scientists. The way Sia says “he’s a genius” is something that won’t leave my head in a while, and those belted harmonies at the end only reinforce the vocal talent on display here.

The other big single “Thunderclouds” doesn’t fare quite as well. There’s not much to say about quite a few of these tracks, they’re essentially made to not stand out. The melody doesn’t jump out at me like some of the others here, Diplo distilling the dying remainders of big, happy and upbeat pop music into one last swan song by amalgamating every trend there is.

So many of these other tracks fall so quickly into these pop tropes, with repetitive lyrics and dated dance breakdowns. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it feels like this project was released so late, most of these tracks quite a few months old without many new ones coming on this release … anything new that we’re getting now really doesn’t measure up and seems like a lot less effort was put into these just to call it a full album. The track “Audio” seriously sounds like it comes from 2013, though it’s one that would have shut down the clubs back then. There must not be more than 50 words in the track, the rest taken up by one of those chill dance breakdowns that used to be in every pop song on the radio.

“Mountains” and “No New Friends” have some great elements mixed with a couple of melodic decisions which really don’t make sense, which is surprising considering the man behind the boards. The heavenly opening of “Mountains” sounds seriously promising, sounding like some kind of choral hymn as Labrinth reaches up into that famous falsetto, but then the track drops out into this tropical-house groove with some generic lyrics about moving mountains and a chaotic, badly mixed dance drop. When it tries to bring back the same choral sound for the second verse, it’s laughably out of place at that point. The carefree “la-la” chorus of “No New Friends” makes me want to get up and dance, but everything else about the track is pretty phoned in.

The project ends a little stronger with the tracks “Heaven Can Wait” and “It’s Time,” which are built to show off the strengths of the vocalists a little more. The former has a hook so perfectly tailored for Sia’s range, her playing off of Labrinth’s emotional vocals in the verses with some soaring notes that sell the chorus over some steel drums, while “It’s Time” takes a break from the frenetic pop jams for a minimal piano duet where the vocalists can really show off – it’s the kind of thing they should really be doing just about all the time.

Diplo is probably one of the greatest pop producers working right now, so it’s weird to hear what happens when his hitmaking instincts are still clearly there with a little less effort put into them. There’s a lot of great aspects to this project and I’d even love to hear the three work together in the future, but LSD is a seriously inconsistent exercise for now.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven Can Wait, Angel In Your Eyes, It’s Time, Genius

Least Favourite Track: Audio

Score: 5/10

Image result for cage the elephant new albumCage The Elephant – Social Cues

The alt-rock veterans are still going and making a huge impact in the music scene. With their fifth studio album, Social Cues, the band that’s always had the slightest bit of a hip-hop influence adapts their sound to a more modern context pretty perfectly, linking up with producer-of-the-moment John Hill, who has recently given hits to both established pop stars and indie bands looking to crossover – his biggest success being “Feel It Still.” This is a strong project from the group, combining their immediately memorable hooks and fuzzy guitar charm with some more modern percussion and compelling lyrics about mid-career contemplations in a struggling genre.

The opening 5 tracks of the project are a very impressive run, easily making a case for radio play with some seriously catchy hooks even when a lot of these tracks are driven by some almost garage-rock sensibilities instrumentally. They know it too – “People always say, ‘at least you’re on the radio’,” they sing on the title track “Social Cues” with a tinge of sadness as they sing of creative struggles and dealing with fame. The opening track might be the purest rock song of them all with some punchy guitar hooks, but tracks like “Social Cues” and “Black Madonna” remove the fuzzy filter on the vocals and make plays for arena-sized anthems. You’d think someone would have done it before, but it’s so interesting to hear a modern beat with prominent hi-hats played on a real drumset, or at least, one that can alter the sound and mute them like they do on the title track – although they go full computerized with the track “Night Running” later on to similarly great effect. “Black Madonna” is an absolute knockout of a song, continuing the themes of the previous track by sarcastically comparing the allure of fame to some kind of entrancing goddess as awe creeps into frontman Matt Shultz’s voice. It’s a pretty simple but effective instrumental, the bassline driving the track and building up to the intoxicating falsetto chorus.

“Night Running” features Beck and takes more of a dive into his darker, woozy sound with some reggae influence – quite a bit of this project actually reminds me of what made Twenty One Pilots’ recent project Trench so effective – their general sound is quite far removed from everything else on this level of popularity, but they’re not afraid to apply their trademark style to just about anything else and try out some new things. Some catchy synth piano leads us into the slow-burning “Skin and Bones,” which slowly builds up to a dramatic orchestral conclusion, but “House Of Glass” demonstrates exactly what I mean – it’s the shortest track here, but you wouldn’t realize that listening it since it goes to so many unexpected and experimental places and makes a lasting impression. Shultz’s vocals are rapped with a deadpan delivery before the chorus brings in some of the most distorted and chaotic guitars on the whole projects and some gang vocals shouting about an illusion. A virtuosic guitar solo caps the whole thing off.

Another great thing about this album is its structuring – even if there’s not a fully realized story from beginning to end, the band knows how to put tracks with similar themes together. After their discussions on fame in the first half, the way tracks like “Love’s The Only Way” and “The War Is Over” transition into each other and expand on some of the points brought up in the previous track keeps the listener engaged at all times, in this case Shultz finding a love that ends all of the negativity – or the “war” – that he sung about in the early goings of the album. The former especially is a pretty beautiful stripped-back and calming track with a great story behind it – the ode to love is intentionally written in a key higher than Shultz can sing comfortably, so that his brother who plays guitar in the band has to help him out on some of the higher notes – love’s literally the only way it can be performed. Ending the album on the absolutely heartbreaking “Goodbye” is quite the choice as well – Shultz could apparently only bring himself to sing a single take and you can seriously tell how much pain is behind his words as he sings of the end of his seven-year marriage, repeating “I won’t cry” and “it’s alright” unconvincingly.

The album is somewhat frontloaded, placing most of the best tracks in the first half as it loses a little steam towards the end, but most of these tracks have at least something to like about them. Tracks like “Dance Dance” and “Tokyo Smoke” have the same kind of enjoyable upbeat garage-rock strut that persists throughout the project, but they don’t distinguish themselves much from other tracks on the project, especially when most of them have some kind of instrumental surprise or genre-defying flourish that individualizes them.

This band has come a long way since “Ain’t No Rest for The Wicked.” Social Cues is a project that’s both surprisingly modern and true to their roots at the same time, with frequent surprises and no shortage of hooks that you’ll be absentmindedly singing along to in no time.

Favourite Tracks: Black Madonna, House Of Glass, Social Cues, Skin and Bones, Love’s The Only Way

Least Favourite Track: Dance Dance

Score: 8/10

Image result for cuz i love you album coverLizzo – Cuz I Love You

2019’s most explosive breakout star is finally ready to explode into the public eye with her third studio album, Cuz I Love You. Lizzo has already been somewhat of an icon in the LGBT community for years with her special brand of overwhelmingly self-affirming and confidence-boosting lyricism, but more and more people are realizing that the messages of inclusivity she preaches are so fun that just about anyone can get involved regardless of who they might be. Lizzo is a lot more than just a rapper, running through sparkly pop hooks, fully-belted R&B ballads and neo-soul, and even bringing her famous flute on board in a complete obliteration of genre conventions. Her off-the-cuff effortless charm is hilarious and she certainly has the talent to back it up.

Cuz I Love You is a project infused with Lizzo’s infectious personality, dropping quotable and fun rap lyrics while also translating her loud, unapologetic nature into passionate and impressively soulful R&B material. Thirty seconds into the opening title track, Lizzo has already sung a full-voiced a cappella soul belt, referenced a meme and giggled as she raps “what the f**k are f**kin’ feelings, yo.” “Cuz I Love You” is a doo-wop throwback with bouncy piano rap breaks and immediately introduces the listener to just how fun and dynamic Lizzo can be. Structured more like a series of fun dancefloor fillers than a cohesive album, the project still works because Lizzo’s all-out celebration of all aspects of her identity is genuinely inspiring – for example, she celebrates body positivity on “Tempo,” interracial love on “Better in Color” and enjoys the single life on “Soulmate.”

She puts some of her most pop-oriented tracks right up at the front and shows why she’s ready to break through to mainstream audiences. The second track “Like A Girl” sees her referencing some successful women in pop culture in her rap verses and a 90s-influened massive pop hook as she backs herself up with some shouted chants, cheering herself on in the way that only Lizzo can before a rhythmic switchup in the bridge where she takes full control, but “Juice” is the real shining centerpiece here. Lizzo’s music is essentially the perfect “getting ready to go out music”, strutting down the runway and proclaiming herself “goals” with a funky throwback instrumental and confident half-sung delivery. “Soulmate” continues the self-love theme with one of the most uplifting hooks on the whole project, a syncopated synthpop beat accentuating her flow as she sings “bad b*tch in the mirror like yeah I’m in love” with an audible smile on her face.

The most Lizzo song of all here might actually be “Jerome,” which blends together everything great about her into a song that’s simultaneously legitimately emotional and absolutely goofy, dropping into a waltz tempo as Lizzo introduces the track with a “Look, listen, shut up,” going for the Oscar and putting on her best melodramatic and theatrical voice as she instructs her man “take your ass home.” It’s so hard not to make this entire review quotes of Lizzo’s lyrics – everything she says is absolute gold, and her mixed vitriol and lingering affection for the song’s target generates some of her funniest and most relatable lines, all while demonstrating her ever-surprising talent with some seriously soulful falsetto notes at the track’s conclusion.

Lizzo’s got huge ambitions, and for someone who was dropping meme-raps like “Phone” back in the day, it’s always a shock to hear her legitimately pull them off. The next two tracks see her link up and hold her own with an idol of hers in Missy Elliot and go full Prince with the Minneapolis-funk inspired track “Crybaby,” where she completely abandons her rap persona and transitions fully into a soul diva.

The end of the project is just as strong, even if the lack of cohesion and Lizzo coasting through some of the less-organized off-the-cuff moments on sheer charm alone starts to become a little more evident as it hurtles towards its ending. “Tempo” is a great club track, but there’s not much about it that really comes together , while tracks like “Exactly How I Feel” and “Heaven Help Me” feel underwritten, just leaving a lot of space for Lizzo to show off her booming vocals without much attention paid to song structure – smooth Gucci Mane feature aside. Except for the fact that that sheer charm I mentioned is probably more powerful than just about anyone working in the game right now – you can’t possibly listen to Lizzo and not have a great time. It ends with the track “Lingerie,” a much quieter sensual track that moves through three different chord changes and leaves things off with the impression that Lizzo could seriously be a leading R&B artist if she wasn’t busy doing just about everything else as well.

Songs written for the primary purpose of being a feel-good anthem can often elicit eye-rolls, but Lizzo is both authentically herself and inclusive enough that it’ll make anyone want to join her party. She represents the perfect antithesis to the wave of sadness taking over popular music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Jerome, Juice, Soulmate, Better In Colour, Like A Girl

Least Favourite Track: Exactly How I Feel

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, Sara Bareilles, Khalid)

Image result for ventura anderson paakAnderson .Paak – Ventura

Only 5 months after his rap-heavy third studio album Oxnard, which kept a high level of quality but ultimately disappointed some fans searching for the feel-good charisma that coloured his breakout project Malibu, Anderson .Paak returns with the soul-based companion piece. Thank goodness he did. The singer, rapper and BEST teeth in the game worked on both of these projects simultaneously with executive producer Dr. Dre, originally planning to drop them as a double disc but ultimately deciding to space them out. While I still did enjoy Oxnard quite a bit, like many I thought it wasn’t making the most out of Paak’s strengths. With this project, that perfect balance of his half-sung, half-rapped bouncy cadence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics returns in a huge way, alongside some seriously impressive straight-up soul cuts featuring some absolute legends. Not just anyone can sign to Aftermath, and it’s looking more and more like Paak might follow in the footsteps of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar before him.

The opening track “Come Home” immediately takes us back to the sunny shores of Malibu Beach, Paak unleashing his raspy singing voice over a lazily strummed guitar pattern and a recurring choral break in the music that immediately sets up the entire album as something grandiose. Not only that, you know it’s going to be good when you get Andre 3000 himself to guest on your opening track. He completely shuts it down with his feature verse, running through dizzying flows and internal rhyme schemes. Paak begs his love interest to return on the track, which segues nicely into the Smokey Robinson(!!!)-featuring “Make It Better,” a smooth slow jam that sounds like it could be directly out of the 70s. This is the kind of timeless-sounding song that anyone from age 8 to 80 could enjoy no matter when it came out. A seriously underrated part of Paak’s songwriting is the winking charisma he brings to his romantic bars, sounding like the most successful pick-up artist of all time and delivering it all with the giant, goofy grin we all know he has plastered on his face. Robinson provides some supporting harmonies, sounding incredible at 79 years of age and validating Paak’s foray into classic soul.

Robinson and Three Stacks aren’t the only legends on this project – we also see Lalah Hathaway, Brandy and even the late Nate Dogg. Most appear in small supporting roles, but it works all the same to show just how well a new artist like Paak fits amongst them. It’s very reminiscent of what labelmate Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, especially as the project ends in a similar way as Paak has a conversation with a recording of Nate Dogg. Hearing the two happily trade lines on “What Can We Do?” is a very touching tribute – honestly, I had never realized before just how huge of an inspiration Nate must have been to Paak.

Paak does rap a couple times on this project, honestly sounding better over these more complex soul instrumentals than the out-of-character harder hip-hop beats on Oxnard, but his experiments venturing further than he ever has before into soul music are the true standouts here. “Reachin’ 2 Much” is a near-six-minute neo-soul monster of a track with two distinct sections and mindblowing freeform work from the bass and synths in the back. The groove never lets up, and Lalah Hathaway only enhances it with her otherworldly scatting and polyphonic abilities. The scat influence continues on the next track “Winners Circle,” a catchy main riff leading into Paak’s laid-back refrain and rap verse where he brings back that “YES LAWD!” and a hilarious shot at the President. The political undertones continue on “King James,” where Paak delivers a verse from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick and praises LeBron James’ work on using his money on change-inducing projects.

The strength of the project continues all the way through, with later tracks “Chosen One” and “Jet Black” keeping up the unbridled energy that the first track kicked off with some more fusions of Paak’s rap verses and the classic soul elements that give the entire project a nice amount of cohesion.

The somewhat unstructured and freeform nature of the jazz and funk sound that Paak pursues here can make for a couple moments where he underwrites a bit and makes for a couple sections that feel a little empty, especially on the track “Yada Yada,” but regardless it’s always engaging when you hear how much fun he’s having. The Pharrell-produced track “Twilight,” as well, is one I enjoy a lot but it seems like it might have fit better on Oxnard, which some of Williams’ classic hip-hop tendencies.

Looking at Oxnard and Ventura together, it just becomes all the more clear how much of a multitalented force in the game Anderson .Paak is. I’m sure there’s people out there with wildly differing opinions on what exactly it is that he does the best, but what he’s proven time and time again is that he’s good enough to do just about anything at all.

Favourite Tracks: Make It Better, Reachin’ 2 Much, Winners Circle, What Can We Do?, Come Home

Least Favourite Track: Yada Yada

Score: 9/10

Image result for Sara Bareilles - Amidst The ChaosSara Bareilles – Amidst The Chaos

After being nominated for Album of the Year 6 years ago and then diving straight into Broadway with her original musical, Waitress, Sara Bareilles has been rather busy over the years, but enough chaos in the world has seemingly caused her to start writing once again. She’s said that Amidst The Chaos, her fifth project, was a direct response to the political climate of the USA, with more than a couple songs on the project containing some direct references to recent events – of course, mixed together with some of her classic romantic songwriting style. Bareilles’ vocals are as impressive as ever – she was on Broadway after all – and really succeed at carrying this project past most of its shortcomings, including some awkwardly shoehorned political commentary (though some of it is very powerful!) and Bareilles not making much of an effort to fit the project into any modern musical context and spark replayability, but this project is full of some pretty breathtaking tracks.

After a couple of slower romantic tracks to kick things off, things really pick up once we get to the single “Armor,” which Bareilles put out much earlier than anticipated as a response to the Brett Kavanaugh trial. Out of all of the political commentary on this project, this song is easily the most effective at getting its point across, a fiery low piano riff leading into a defiant chorus as she finds strength in the women around her and prepares for battle. The next track “If I Can’t Have You” is even better. Co-written with R&B veteran Emily King, Bareilles demonstrates that she truly has the kind of stunning vocal capabilities to deliver some old-school soul material – why doesn’t she do this more often? The harmonized backing vocals and piano chords actually give the track an almost gospel flavor as Bareilles delivers some of her most emotionally-charged delivery on the whole project, tossing out some surprising notes effortlessly and sounding like a Motown star. “Miss Simone” is another quieter showcase for Bareilles’ voice, this time showing off her lower range in the chorus … it really is shocking how dynamic and she can be at times. The track was written with country songwriter extraordinaire Lori McKenna, who adds some vivid detail only a country artist could to the ode to Nina Simone and how her music has always been there for her.

Out of all the times to be wowed by Bareilles’ vocals, though, the best one of all comes on the track “Wicked Love.” It opens as a bouncy pop cut, but this honestly might draw the most inspiration from her Broadway days, the feel-good major key nature leading up to an aching chorus with a beautiful high harmony and a repeated vocal run that just gets more impressive as it goes along, adding a couple more notes to the end each time she sings it. The closing track, “A Safe Place To Land,’ is another powerful political message. In a duet with the incomparable John Legend, the two offer some striking words from the perspective of families affected by the border crisis trying to find a shred of hope – and sound fantastic doing it.

The run of four tracks near the project’s end, from “Orpheus” to “Saint Honesty,” is where I start to lose a little interest in the album despite the fact that all four of them are pretty fantastic ballads. Bareilles’ style is great for a single, powerful experience, but there’s not much desire for me to return to tracks like this that are all somewhat similar. She’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but that one trick is absolutely spectacular.

The track “No Such Thing”, on its surface, sounds like a great romantic ballad on the subject of struggling to get over a breakup, which really showcases Bareilles’ range as she ascends a full scale to a stunning high note in the chorus … but she’s given interviews where she’s explicitly stated that the song is about missing Barack Obama, which adds a profoundly strange contextual twist to enjoying it. I get that the world is in a bit of a crisis, but her musings on her complete devastation here are a little over the top.

There are a couple tracks that have some instrumental choices that just seem completely off to me, but maybe that’s just a product of the fact that there aren’t many people using the same kind of singer-songwriter style of live instrumentation who are still selling as well as Bareilles. One of these is actually on the opening track “Fire,” which kicks into this upbeat, almost country-sounding acoustic strumming on its prechorus that is so raw it throws off the rhythm of the song a bit as we hear the fingers squeaking over the strings. It also contrasts with Bareilles’ softer vocals, intentionally smoother to make way for the impressive moment of harmony at the chorus’ end. “Eyes On You” is another track with a very powerful concept that’s undermined by some strange instrumental decisions. Bareilles wistfully recounts the struggles of real-life people she met at a meditation class, naming each one, before the track suddenly kicks into a higher gear with a very present rock drumbeat that takes me out of its reminiscent, thoughtful nature.

Sara Bareilles is probably both one of the most impressive songwriters and the most capable voices in the game right now, so its easy to see why she has continued to stay so relevant to music consumers even after being gone for so long. This is an important project, so even if it doesn’t have much staying power, it’s still a great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Wicked Love, If I Can’t Have You, Armor, A Safe Place To Land, Miss Simone

Least Favourite Track: Eyes On You

Score: 7/10

Image result for free spirit khalidKhalid – Free Spirit

It’s clear with the current trends – the way the vast majority of people consume music is changing as a result of Spotify – and here we have the newly crowned king of streaming, Khalid, with his sophomore full-length project. Spotify’s curated algorithmic playlists to fit a certain “vibe” encourage less exciting music, music that’s designed to be played in the background and not paid attention to with nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary to draw focus and potentially incite a request to skip it. Songs that don’t force themselves to the forefront of your mind generate more streams, and the perfect embodiment of this phenomenon is Khalid. While this project is a bit of an improvement on his sluggish debut, its hour-long length still devotes quite a lot of time to slow-burn, filler tracks with cliched lyrics, fitting nicely into what sounds like a computer-generated alt-R&B algorithm. I can’t get over the fact that one of the featured artists is named, oh-so-perfectly in all caps, “SAFE.”

Any project that starts with a track called “Intro” that’s the same length as all the rest of the tracks you know is bound to get a little self-indulgent. Khalid’s voice is essentially the universal solvent of music right now, existing in a nice happy middle ground between The Weeknd, Post Malone and Auto-Tuned falsetto rappers like Swae Lee, and most of these tracks are designed to be a bit of an empty space for him to show it off. It’s definitely serviceable, it’s just that the melodies and lyrics that go along with it are all vaguely reminiscent of other big hits. I bring up another wildly popular artist in Post Malone, the two are truly equals in tapping into exactly what draws attention right now and amalgamating it into one sound – which I suppose is admirable in a way.

The thing about Khalid is most of the time listening to his music, I find myself mindlessly nodding my head along without really paying attention to it at all or trying to formulate an opinion on It’s so easy to get caught up in the trap of not paying serious attention to it, his soothing vocals essentially dropping my senses down into this lowered state. The beats are fun and engaging while they last, but there’s nothing at all memorable about most of these tracks. A song like “Bad Luck” that kicks off the project is structured like a smash hit single and is sure to soundtrack numerous high school parties to come, but most people would probably be hard-pressed to hum it or recite the words if asked. The next track, “My Bad,” is of course soundtracked by an irritatingly similar minimalist guitar riff and sparse hi-hats. Most of this project sounds like filler, Khalid slowly slinking around in his falsetto with a basic chord progression, a strong focus on a simple pop drumbeat and usually some kind of guitar-based pattern that makes it impossible to tell these tracks apart. Every so often you get a track like “Hundred,” that stands out for the wrong reasons, coasting on this creeping synth-bass and almost nothing else as it extends about two minutes too long with a repetitive hook and Khalid’s most obnoxious “suffering from success” bars.

The final three tracks on the album were clearly meant to be Khalid emotionally touching on some big picture issues of anxiety and depression, but his lyrical approach approaches Logic “1-800” levels of cliched and shallow – it’s hard to believe that Khalid is actually suffering through what he sings about. The lyrics don’t improve much elsewhere on the project, tracks like “Free Spirit” and “Twenty One” essentially coming across as teen and young adult-bait, with the same kind of Chainsmokers-esque tired messaging he had on his last project about living in the moment, man.

With 16 tracks and the definitive sound of the moment, however, a couple of these tracks were bound to stick somehow, and most of that is thanks to the collaborators Khalid invites on board. The two biggest singles here, “Better” and “Talk,” are actually some of Khalid’s best songs of his career, especially the latter produced by acclaimed deep-house duo Disclosure. Reliable hitmakers Stargate are responsible for “Better,” which drops into one of the truly memorable hooks on the project and an accompanying low-key trap groove, but “Talk” is what I’ve been hoping for all along, Khalid proving that he can thrive doing something even slightly different. Riding this fizzy 80s electronic synthpop instrumental, he finally gets to show off what he can do on a bit of a quicker tempo, delivering some great harmonies, but the tiny sparkles and quirks of the instrumental are what really gets my attention. I really enjoy that it transitions into “Right Back,” a track in a similar mindset that continues to satisfy my desires for Khalid on some more rhythmic material, speeding up his flows on a tried-and-true chord progression that brings to mind what made recent soulful hits like “Sorry Not Sorry” and “No Problem” so good. If he’s going to be derivative, at least do it like this.

“Outta My Head” welcomes John Mayer, and his guitar has a similar effect making the track rhythmically interesting, while the track “Bluffin’” veers closer to blue-eyed soul than he ever has in another successful experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if he tried things like this more often? He really does have the voice to make quite a lot of different things work.

I usually record scores of how much I enjoy each track as I listen, but Free Spirit is honestly so boring that I zoned out and forgot to do it, making giving out a score to this project more difficult. While there are a couple individual tracks that I do enjoy, as a whole Khalid represents too much of a worrying turn in the way music is consumed.

Favourite Tracks: Talk, Bluffin’, Outta My Head

Least Favourite Track: Free Spirit

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Nav, Yelawolf, Billie Eilish)

Nav - Bad Habits.pngNav – Bad Habits

A signee to The Weeknd’s XO label and one of the first Punjabi artists to make it this big with North American audiences, Nav’s Auto-crooned trap melodies have been getting more and more attention leading up to the release of his sophomore solo project, Bad Habits. Of course, there have also been no shortage of memes, whether it’s from his poorly mixed contributions to other people’s music or the fact that, at times, it appears that Nav is simply along for the XO ride and has no idea what he’s doing, seemingly zoning out during his public appearances and performances. The unfortunate part is that I’d believe it – once again, Nav is perfectly happy to simply adapt every trend he sees around him and apply his grating, nasal vocal delivery to them as he creates carbon copies of a trap sound that’s already starting to get tiresome. At 16 tracks, this project is hard to get through when he offers nothing that I haven’t already heard done better.

You forget just how much of why Nav’s music can be so unenjoyable is directly attributed to his voice and delivery – the project’s opening track, “To My Grave,” actually has a pretty great beat featuring a triumphant horn section that makes you anticipate what you’re going to get on this project immediately. Until Nav comes in with that shaky, Auto-Tuned falsetto, nasal sound and generic trap lyrics that aren’t saying much of anything and pulls all the focus away. One of the biggest criticisms of his collaborative project with Metro Boomin was that Metro wasted some of his best beats on someone like Nav, and that continues here even though most of the producers on this project are actually a lot less well-known. You really get the sense that Nav must just be a close friend of some member of the XO team, and either has delusions of grandeur or really good connections to have gotten to the spot he has. Half the time on this project it doesn’t even sound like he’s invested in being a musician, like he’s only recording these tracks for the clout and can’t wait to get out of the studio and onto Instagram where he can really make an impact.

Nav sounds bored out of his mind on tracks like “Taking Chances,” one of the many tracks here with more of a creeping, alt-R&B beat that exposes Nav’s awkward songwriting and making him sound all the more sluggish. It’s hilarious when Meek Mill hops on the next track “Tap,” because I couldn’t think of two people with more completely different energies. Meek opens the track with his spastic and excited cadence, then Nav comes on and sucks all the air out of the room, barely staying on the beat. Most of the features here aren’t even that great, but they sound incredible in comparison because it’s such a breath of fresh air to not be hearing Nav’s voice anymore – except of course for the usually reliable The Weeknd, who drops one of his worst hooks of all time onto the track “Price On My Head,” finally finding the notes that are too high for him after pushing the boundaries all these years.

The track “Tussin” with Young Thug is a decent track thanks to Thug and that fun trap-piano instrumental … though it doesn’t mean that Nav doesn’t still completely kill the energy during his verses, even if his singing is probably at its best here. The trap beat on the next track “Snap” is nothing innovative or new, but it’s upbeat and fun and present in the mix, which is enough for it to be one of the better tracks here as well. And while it’s far from an engaging song musically, hearing Nav actually earnestly expressing something that isn’t a trap cliché on “Why You Crying Mama” draws attention and is effective simply because it’s so surprising to hear that he has real emotions. “Stuck With Me” is the only hook on the project that I remembered playing through the album a second time, so again it meets the very low bar for a standout track.

Other than that, though, I really don’t have the energy to try to talk about distinguishable things about most of the other tracks in the back half of this project, everything really starts to blend together in a faceless, soulless wave of modern hip-hop trends.

I’m sure you’ve already read a lot of people criticizing this very line, but Nav saying “what’s the game without me” in a contemplative tone on the track “I’m Ready” is absolutely laughable – truly, what is Nav without the game? He’s never offered something that someone in his immediate circle hasn’t already done in his entire career.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck With Me, Snap

Least Favourite Track: Tension

Score: 1/10

Yelawolf Trunk Muzik III.pngYelawolf – Trunk Muzik III

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town r- wait, sorry, wrong country-tinged rapper. The Alabama rapper and Eminem protégé since signing to Shady Records in 2011 has always embraced elements of the country lifestyle in his work, even if his music stays pretty solidly in the hip-hop lane (with a couple diversions into heavier rock music). Now 39 years old, Yelawolf has been a huge force in the underground game for a while and has released numerous projects in the last couple years. Trunk Muzik III is the first in the series to get the full studio album treatment, and serves as his 5th While Yelawolf’s faster flow is seriously impressive and can usually elevate a track on its own, he’s frequently brought down by some awkward musical combinations of genre and the usual curse that quicker rappers fall victim to – sacrificing lyricism in the name of flow. This project is southern hip-hop through and through, and while it’s usually rather inconsistent, there are a couple highlights to remind us what caught someone like Eminem’s attention in the first place.

While I talk about country-rap making a resurgence years after Yelawolf ventured into the territory, another thing that’s huge right now that you can partially credit to Yelawolf is the resurgence of hardcore aspects in the mainstream from people like 6ix9ine – the way Yelawolf yells at the top of his voice as the album opens seriously reminds me of him. “TM3” is a pretty great opening track that really demonstrates just how great Yelawolf’s flow is over a rumbling bassline that never lets up and a crunchy electric guitar riff. It’s a nice way to get immersed in Yelawolf’s world and probably one of the most impressive technical showcases on the project. It’s been interesting to see how rappers who pride themselves more on their flows and “old-school” rap sensibilities have adapted to the omnipresence of trap music – the best ones usually find a way to incorporate the aspects of it that are undeniably fun while still offering enough variation to maintain their individual artistry, and that’s exactly what Yelawolf does on the track “Catfish Billy 2,” diving into the Migos flow a couple times but breaking away from it for a standout chorus that’s immediately memorable and very fun to rap along to due to that crazy internal rhyme scheme – I even love the way it abruptly cuts off after the final chorus, leaving it ringing in your mind.

It seems like Yelawolf puts in efforts to make his serial tracks always high quality – the piano instrumental and Pimp C sample on “Box Chevy 6” is great too. The soul sample and his calmer demeanor on “Drugs” is another great turn for Yelawolf that allows for more focus on what he’s saying alongside of that catchy fast flow, Yelawolf speaking on his complicated relationship with addiction after his family more or less introduced it to him. The heartfelt track “Addiction” takes this further as Yelawolf contemplates all that he’s lost due to it and his own struggles with beating it. Even on some of the weaker tracks here, Yelawolf’s flow is always a highlight and it’s always engaging to listen to him splice those syllables.

A huge part of Yelawolf’s music has always been more of an embrace of the “Slumerican” lifestyle and the hardcore partying tracks that go along with it, Yelawolf edging closer to his aggressive, screaming flow with less of a focus on his rapping abilities and more of a focus on getting the people who are listening absolutely ready to tear the place apart – these kinds of tracks are where the enjoyability of the project falls off a cliff for someone who’s just sitting and listening to this on the couch. He and featured artist MGK do rap quickly on a track like “Rowdy,” but it’s clear that the true focus is on that aggressive hook and there was less effort put into the structure, just using it more as a party trick than something meaningful. Other songs like generic trap cut “No Such Thing As Free” and “We Slum” are similar.

There are a couple of tracks here that are a strangely inconsistent combination of some of the best and worst aspects of what Yelawolf does that just leave me a little confused. On the chorus of “Special Kind of Bad,” Yelawolf drops into this genuinely stunning, smoky singing voice that he’s never really displayed like this before, with some engaging lyrics, but everything else about the track is pretty unlistenable … I don’t understand why this was placed on a track like this where the rest consists of Yelawolf’s awkwardly sexualized lyrics and hardcore, slower flow, and whatever that modulated effect on his voice was at the end. He actually sings for most of the next track, “Like I Love You,” as well, but the lyrics are similarly far too blunt to be effective. The structures of tracks like these are pretty incredible, they’re just let down by one strongly negative aspect that brings them way down. The hook of “Trailer Park Hollywood,” the no-name features on “All the Way Up.”

The last 5 tracks on the album are all very strong and display the natural skills that Yelawolf has. While a lot of these tracks are brought down by inconsistencies, this is a respectable effort from a veteran in this lane.

Favourite Tracks: Catfish Billy 2, Drugs, TM3, Box Chevy 6

Least Favourite Track: Special Kind of Bad

Score: 5/10

Eilish sits on the edge of a white bed, in front of a dark background. She wears white clothing, while smiling at the camera.Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Another post, another huge, culturally shifting project that I’m reviewing a couple months after the fact. Looking back on something like this after it’s remained in contention for the #1 spot on the album charts every week since it’s been released is quite the experience. Also, let it be known that I called it, giving one of my rare 10/10 scores to the then-15-year-old Eilish who had released her first EP only two weeks before. Watching her dominate pop culture has been surreal for someone who’s been there from the beginning, and Eilish has now fully arrived with her debut album that takes her eerie concepts and unsettlingly adorable vocal delivery to the next level with a series of immaculately produced tracks, thanks singlehandedly to her brother Finneas (the layering on her voice, though!). The public have spoken – they’re looking for something completely new in a world of peak trap, and this is it.

After a brief intro, the project opens with the stunning track “bad guy.” This song absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it, and now it’s a global smash hit, which is pretty incredible for a song that sounds like this. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sounds like it’s directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline interacting with the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s character across the full project, there’s not a much more perfect one. “Duh“. Eilish and Finneas’ absolute command of the best spots of her voice and how to layer them in the most haunting and effective way is a standout tactic across the whole project, and it only serves to make both the bangers and ballads much better. “when the party’s over” might actually be my favourite song on the entire project, and it’s the one that uses the layering the absolute best. Eilish’s range as she ascends during the verses is something to behold, and the ocean of her many vocal tracks supporting the whole thing is an absolute treat for the ears with every tiny nuance and new harmony. The bridge is so powerful and moving, Eilish pouring her heart out about loneliness. “i love you” is another dramatic ballad that pulls a little too strongly from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocals are strikingly beautiful in a similar way.

There are so many little details of Eilish’s music that serve to make the world she’s singing about so much more vivid, especially to a headphone user, since they’re so buried in the mix you’d miss them unless you were really paying attention – as you should be. Whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go,” (did I mention how powerful – and worrying – it is for a 17-year-old to be singing about all of this?) Eilish makes the biggest effort to make sure her tracks are a cinematic experience. The sound seems to be tailored to the headphone-based experience as well, Finneas’ basslines always at the forefront of the mix and a unique effect where Eilish’s voice rapidly cuts in and out turn her into what I can only describe as an ASMR popstar. The music is designed to give you a physically positive response.

A common criticism of Eilish’s music is how similarly she approaches each one of her tracks from a vocal standpoint, her quiet, near-whisper of a voice a constant across the project, but the way she makes it fit in on all of these different instrumentals is the truly impressive part. “all the good girls go to hell” features a beat that sounds almost as if it’s directly out of the 90s G-Funk movement, but that intense vocal centers it and turns what should be a party track into something much more sinister with her religious themes, like what Jordan Peele did with “I Got 5 On It” in the Us trailer. “wish you were gay,” on the other hand, is another favourite track with a completely different approach, opening like a doo-wop ballad from the 60s as Eilish’s smart songwriting comes into play with the wordplay centered on numbers, before the chorus brings some modern electronic aspects in. When the music cuts out in the climactic bridge and that paper-thin vocal sings “I’m so selfish,” you feel her emotions at their peak when her vocal is at its quietest.

My absolute favourite albums are always deliberately structured to tell a story, and Eilish clearly appreciates the art of creating an album in the same way, as evidenced by the closing track “goodbye.” It’s not much of a track on it’s own, but the way it takes the listener on a reverse journey of the narrative of the album as Eilish sings a line from each of them in reverse order, ending with the original and overarching proclamation, “I’m the bad guy,” is a great way to wrap it up. There are a lot of great little lyrical references to preceding tracks as well.

There are a couple decisions that prevent the project as a whole from being as perfect as her debut EP, like the baby voice on “8” and lack of variation in the slower tracks that bring the project to its end, but this is the kind of self-assured debut you could expect from an artist who’s going to be here for decades to come.

Favourite Tracks: when the party’s over, wish you were gay, bad guy, all the good girls go to hell, listen before i go

Least Favourite Track: 8

Score: 9/10