Years & Years – Palo Santo

Image result for years and years palo santoBritish electropop trio Years & Years unleash their sophomore effort Palo Santo, an endlessly danceable homage to the upbeat and explosive synthpop sounds of the 80s that features refreshingly openly gay lyrical content that dives further into the real stories of frontman Olly Alexander – often with the use of religious imagery. I wouldn’t blame any listener for missing out on the lyrics completely though – while not the most consistent or original of albums, slowing down its frenetic pace in the middle and lifting some recognizable melodies and rhythms, many of the tracks that populate Palo Santo are simply ridiculously fun, built on inescapable rhythms that reach levels of modern synthpop mastery on an equal playing field with someone like a Carly Rae Jepsen.

Alexander doubles as a theatrical actor, and the extravagance of live performance is reflected through his expressive and dynamic vocals. Quite a few of these songs veer into pretty heavy territory, Alexander speaking about his romantic experiences as a gay man, without concealing any of the giveaway pronouns in the process, with the veneer of religion. He speaks about his desires both as something inappropriate and sinful that he finds some kind of absolution in regardless, asking a man who claims to be straight to “Sanctify” him or comparing partners to a religious figure “preaching a lie”. The album first sets off its ethereal dance party on its second track, “Hallelujah”, however, Alexander finding the spiritual healing that he seeks through dance and the escape of pop music. Produced by veteran Greg Kurstin and written with help from Julia Michaels, the percussion unremitting as Alexander delivers a rapid-fire, harmonized chorus. The beat dropping for the final time as he extends his note on an ascendant repetition of the title phrase is one of the greatest moments here.

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This leads directly into “All For You”, which might be the best song on the whole project. Another Kurstin track, the chorus is one of the most immediately infectious you’re likely to find all year. The slowly swirling synths eventually build into a buzzy, syncopated rhythm that’s echoed by the vocals as Alexander gets caught up in burning desire. The delivery on that opening “you look like you’re so damn scared” is electrifying, especially when the music cuts out briefly for the final chorus. Years & Years aren’t scared to slow things down either, “Hypnotised” a quite aptly named track as Alexander’s voice is allowed to shine without the surrounding pizzazz for an aching, beautifully harmonized track where his acting talents can be clearly heard.

Palo Santo can suffer from a lack of originality at times, even if the music is so fun you’re a lot less likely to care. A track like “Karma” is so heavily inspired from late 90s-early 00s female R&B hits that you could apply certain sections of the track to individual songs. It’s a lot more similar than it should be in a world where musicians are being sued for emulating a “vibe” – remnants of Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits haunt the song, but it’s still very upbeat and fun by adding a prominent synth line that the aforementioned artists never had. “If You’re Over Me” stands out in the tracklist for all the wrong reasons as well. For the most part, this is forward-thinking pop music that seamlessly updates an older sound for modern purposes, but this song essentially copy-and-pastes the car-commercial-esque synth line from American Authors hit “Best Day of My Life”, and the surrounding track is just as dated and uninspired, produced by the increasingly bland Steve Mac, who just landed the biggest hit of his career with “Shape Of You”.

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As the tracklist reaches its end, the revelry continues, it just doesn’t reach the same levels as the early goings, one small part of the track missing before it reaches its full potential. “Preacher”, for example, is constructed out of a flashy bassline and Alexander’s falsetto ‘woohoo’s, but I feel like the chorus lags one measure behind where it should, leaving too much silence. It finds its footing once again on penultimate track “Lucky Escape”, however – the hi-hats slow things down to a more R&B leaning half-time tempo, synth-piano and falsetto harmonies driving one of the catchiest tracks here, put over the edge by Alexander’s triumphant and sassy inflections as he celebrates “dodging a bullet”.

Palo Santo certainly expands Years & Years’ musical range from their debut, in a rare feat of improving rather than falling victim to the sophomore curse. The religious themes throughout make the act of enjoying pop music feel like a kind of spiritual liberation, and the collaborators here knock it out of the park in an homage to a genre past. Even if it comes off too close to replication at times, it’s a great step forward for the trio.

Favourite Tracks: All For You, Hallelujah, Hypnotised, Lucky Escape, Sanctify

Least Favourite Track: If You’re Over Me

Score: 8/10

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Future – BEASTMODE 2

Beast Mode 2 by Future.jpgSuperstar rapper Future continues his torrid release pace with the sequel to one of his breakout mixtapes, 2015’s Beast Mode. Teaming up with the same producer as the former – innovative trap pianist Zaytoven – for the project’s entire duration, Future continues to do what he does best. While there certainly are some pretty great beats on here, Zaytoven flexing his classically trained muscles to give the run-of-the-mill trap instrumental a higher degree of musicality, it’s honestly getting increasingly difficult to get legitimately excited about Future’s brand of slurred, Auto-Tuned delivery over consistently basic hi-hats in a world where trap artists who put in more noticeable effort exist. BEASTMODE 2 is far from a bad project, the formula’s just getting boring – I heard a similarly average Future mixtape in SUPER SLIMEY only 9 months ago. Still, Future’s trap bangers get the baseline job done more consistently than most.

Most of these tracks give an immediate burst of energy as Future descends onto the track for the first time and the beat clicks together, but over the course of the whole track it manages to fizzle out completely by the end. On more than one occasion on my first listen I thought I had finally reached the first track to truly wow me on the project, only to end up getting bored of it by its ending. “WIFI LIT”, the opening track and apparent fan favourite, is nothing we haven’t heard before, featuring a woodwind instrumental and Future’s flow never deviating from the norm. It possesses the initial euphoric rush that most trap songs have, but the same kind of thing goes on for too long.

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Tracks like “RACKS BLUE” and “RED LIGHT” that prominently feature Zaytoven’s work on the keys are where the project shines more, especially the latter, the intro of the track displaying some seriously impressive rapid-fire scales up and down the keyboard. “RACKS BLUE” is one of the more memorable tracks on the project, the trap beat enhancing Zaytoven’s work up in the piano’s higher register for a contemplative and rhythmic pop-leaning sound, one of the catchiest instrumentals here. The song “DOH DOH” is the only track with a guest feature in Young Scooter, and his cleaner, more distinctly rhythmic approach was very welcome to my ears after 5 straight tracks of low-effort Future delivery. Future’s melodic hook here is him at his best as well though. The frenetic instrumental features a menacing low brass note in place of a bass line that anchors the track well, and the jumpy, high-pitched synths inject more energy into the song than most here.

For a project that’s only 31 minutes long, too much of this feels like filler. Of the two, I expect more creativity from Zaytoven, so when he resorts to more straightforward trap instrumentals the quality suffers. “31 DAYS” is one of those, and Future’s lazy lyricism and awkward flow suck most of the fun out of the ode to mutually understood brief relationships as well. Of course, Future has always been so much more about the way he says things than what he says, but he hasn’t been varying this up much recently as his release schedule gets more crowded. There’s nothing here as instantly iconic as a “Mask Off”, a “Jumpman”, a “March Madness” – 3 tracks that are great for very different reasons. “WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT” is definitely a pretty fun track, but it could have been even better – the cascading piano is inexplicably buried deep in the mix in lieu of Zaytoven doing the same “Dilemma” pitched vocal sample trick that’s shown up in quite a few popular songs recently, while “SOME MORE” is the poppiest track Future’s ever released, his muddled voice sounding out of place on the uncharacteristically pleasant instrumental.

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The high-pitched and plaintive sounds of the piano do allow Future to take things to a more personal place, however. At times, the natural vibrato his voice possesses sounds more like a waver before he breaks out into tears – and it makes closing track “HATE THE REAL ME” one of his most compelling ever. “I’m tryna get high as I can”, he repeats on the infectious hook, but he sounds more remorseful about it than anything, the faintest hint of emotion creeping into his tough-guy persona. Over the course of the track, he details his excessive drug use as a result of trying to escape his inner demons and anxieties, changing himself into someone else in the pursuit of love and the other excesses of fame. When so many huge artists sound whiny when talking about struggling from success, it’s Future of all people who sounds completely genuine, and Zaytoven’s expressive production helps to bring this out of him.

BEASTMODE 2 is pretty standard Future fare for the most part, and it’s clearly been working out well for him as his popularity continues to skyrocket. Hearing him team up with Zaytoven once again is a pleasure, even if his delivery has become more uninspired since the last time. Future has the potential to drop a knockout track on us when we least expect it – I’m just not sure it’s on this particular project.

Favourite Tracks: HATE THE REAL ME, DOH DOH, RACKS BLUE, WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT

Least Favourite Track: SOME MORE

Score: 5/10

Florence + The Machine – High As Hope

HighAsHope.pngIndie-pop band Florence + The Machine return after 3 years with their 4th studio album, their most minimal and personal yet. Standing at a concise 10 tracks, Florence Welch’s immediately distinctive vocals take the spotlight once again, especially as the instrumentals behind her calm down for the most part. The band draw on some gospel sensibilities across the board here, infusing some of these tracks with rich harmonies and powerful choral moments. Although I prefer the scarce occasions when things get a little more upbeat here, Welch’s voice the unrestrained ball of energy over the driving percussion, High as Hope is another overall solid project from the consistent group.

Opening track “June” quickly draws listeners in to the ethereal world of Florence + The Machine, Welch’s raw, fluttering and emotional vocal delivery backed by some sparse, moody piano chords and twinkling effects to further enhance the dreamscape that her vocals belong to. While the track and quite a few others here are less structured than I’d like them to be, the rhythms of the piano chord progression lining up in a slightly awkward fashion, the focus on Welch’s very personal inner monologues pull the stripped-back sound together, the surrounding instrumentals representing the chaos of the personal struggles she describes. Second single “Hunger” pulls all the great elements of the band together – Welch speaks on her struggles with an eating disorder as the gospel chords pick up and the percussion settles into a steady rhythm. The band’s greatest singles have always had this same quality of an anthemic mantra, Welch’s passion just selling the message. It’s a track that’s equal parts powerful and brilliantly catchy.

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“100 Years” is one of the only other upbeat tracks here, a prominent, fun stomp-clap rhythm backing up Welch’s empowering message of persevering despite disheartening world events – 100 years marking the length of time since women first voted in her home country of the UK. The band recruits a great list of collaborators here, and you can feel their effect – the whole album is produced with superstar indie producer Emile Haynie, but the writing credits boast unexpected names in Jamie xx, Sampha and Tobias Jesso Jr. You can hear Sampha’s influence especially on his co-written track “Grace” – the evocative piano and blunt, specific lyrics could have fit on his debut Process. The slow build of the track as Welch puts more power into the chorus each time, leading to a full-voiced, expletive-laden shout at the conclusion, is a perfect contrast to the verses where we hear the calmer, surprisingly sweet side of her voice. Quite a few of these songs capture a kind of larger than life, awestruck cosmic feeling as the deafening backing vocals roar in for the chorus. It’s the same thing we hear on their classic tracks like “Dog Days Are Over”, and it’s a truly unique thing that the band is able to bring out.

Penultimate track “The End Of Love” is the album’s greatest, featuring a chorus built on chilling layered harmonies. It’s a very minimal song, but it makes the bigger moments all the more powerful. The saxophone that briefly wails in as Welch describes a rushing river is a great touch that shows attention to detail, but that beautiful, shimmering chorus is the deserving centerpiece of the work.

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Some of the quieter tracks here fall a bit short due to the traditionally uncontrolled, warbling nature of Welch’s voice – the band doesn’t give enough to rein in and support its wilder qualities at times here, giving off the impression that she’s making up these melodies on the spot. A track like “South London Forever” has one of the safest instrumentals here, a steady, reflective pop piano loop that doesn’t mirror Welch’s shouted vocals, the hook suddenly cascading in unexpectedly without the track doing much to signify its arrival. Welch sings with reckless abandon, throwing in the squeaks and uncontrolled vocal runs that make her so unique – on tracks like “No Choir” and “Big God”, we get to focus more on all those quirks without the energetic instrumental behind. While Welch’s lyrics are still very compelling, the vocal eccentricities sound improvised and out of place when the supporting cast isn’t as dynamic and passionate as she is.

High as Hope finds Florence Welch at the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her, and the quieter contributions from the band exposing her raw vocal delivery reflect this move. Running through loss of family members, relationship struggles, religion and personal anxieties, Welch’s lyrics are the primary focus here. While the music can leave me anticipating more of the high-energy experiences Welch’s distinct instrument is more than capable of delivering, this is a very cohesive and well-thought-out project.

Favourite Tracks: The End Of Love, Hunger, Grace, 100 Years, June

Least Favourite Track: South London Forever

Score: 7/10

Drake – Scorpion

Scorpion by Drake.jpgCanadian singer, rapper, walking meme, marketing genius, and – gasp – FATHER, Drake, only 16 months removed from his previous project More Life, releases yet another bloated project where the biggest artist in the world sees fit to deliver the bare minimum, attempting to coast through on charm. Scorpion certainly has more highs than More Life did, largely thanks to the production work from primary OVO sound man Noah “40” Shebib and some experienced classic hip-hop producers that tap into an era of samples and sharp rhythms, but Drake himself is once again simply going through the motions of exactly what people expect from him. As he does, he drops the odd brilliant or terrible line or melody into the mix, often directly adjacent to each other, but for the most part Scorpion upholds Drake’s reputation as the guy who always stops at “good enough”. This is interspersed with some frustrating responses to Pusha T’s attempted career demolition where he contradicts himself – both trying to act tough and place himself above the situation on differing tracks. But, of course, it’s so hard not to like the guy when he’s on his game.

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Scorpion is divided into two equally inconsistent sides, one leaning more hip-hop and the other R&B. The hip-hop side opens with some pretty standard Drake fare, “Survival” and “Nonstop” both featuring his monotoned, disinterested voice over some dark, moody instrumentals. The latter is clearly supposed to be a hype track, but it only appears so because Drake punctuates his low-effort delivery with even sleepier ad-libs – which I think is the opposite of what an ad-lib is supposed to do. He turns into an accidental caricature of himself on the whiny “I’m Upset”, complaining about trivial issues in an uninteresting way. The first half works better when Drake combines his strengths, improving on an otherwise bland instrumental on a track “Elevate” by alternating between raps and a catchy sing-song flow.

The producers steal the show here, however. Of course, before the two camps were sending shots at each other, Drake was once a young Kanye West fan and many of these beats sound more like “Old Kanye” than ever. “Emotionless” is an absolute standout, Drake rapping over a chopped vocal sample of Mariah Carey’s classic “Emotions” and gospel piano chords from the legendary No ID, some energy creeping back into his voice as he acknowledges his son for the first time on an album clearly updated with additional discussion on the subject. Drake pulls a Taylor Swift marketing move, flipping the narrative, embracing the role he’s been given, and expanding on his position. Boi-1da drops a sample of some soulful Marvin Gaye chords onto “8 Out of 10”, Drake’s sing-song, syncopated flow sounding like it’s directly off of Graduation. Another Boi-1da beat, “Mob Ties”, despite some pretty terrible punchline bars, continues to show that Drake can excel when people other than his team of yes men come around – the eerie, high-tempo synth stabs and very prominent hi-hats are conducive to the erratic, threatening persona he presents. Never staying consistent though, tracks like “Can’t Take A Joke” and “Is There More” that close out the first side bring it back down to the basic hip-hop beats and straightforward, phoned-in delivery.

Side B is a bit less structured, and it honestly works better for him – it’s fun to hear Drake messing around a bit in the studio, his R&B vocals calling back to the endearing cheesiness of male R&B in the 90s. Single “Nice For What” has always been a great blend of Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce, and it shows that Drake’s ear for a catchy melody might be his greatest asset. The track “In My Feelings” is pretty ridiculous in concept, Drake naming a different girl in each chorus as he calls out to them “do you love me?”, but that melody never leaves your head, and eventually, it just becomes hilarious and you can’t help but love it. The genuine comedy continues on “After Dark”, a tribute to slow jams of the 90s that features a smooth feature from Ty Dolla $ign and Drake absolutely selling the sleazy ladies’ man angle over some dreamy acoustic noodling.

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The side also features some interesting new sonic directions from Drake, which is very welcomed on an album with so much filler. “Summer Games” features some of Drake’s warmest vocals over a persistent, throbbing synth line and a steadily building tribal percussion rhythm that shows the versatility of his instrument … if he so chose to use it. The side still isn’t without it’s shortcomings – tracks like “Peak” and “Ratchet Happy Birthday” don’t quite click, Drake’s meandering melodies not lining up with much, both punctuated with too-prominent annoying effects – a synth line, or Drake’s “BRRRRR”. “Jaded” is boring in comparison, while “Don’t Matter To Me” throws aside the creation of an enjoyable, coherent song for the sole purpose of proving that Drake has the money to throw at the acquisition of previously unheard Michael Jackson material.

Scorpion is Drake’s best album since he decided to go the route of bloated projects for the sole purpose of increasing his streaming numbers with 2016’s Views. The duality between the sides keeps the listener engaged as Drake steps into his fatherly role with some compelling tales. Still, the glimpses of just how much more it could have been remain pretty infuriating. Drake’s inconsistency continues, but if that scathing Pusha T diss track couldn’t deter his continued rise, I’m sure he won’t mind what I have to say.

Favourite Tracks: Nice For What, After Dark, Emotionless, Talk Up

Least Favourite Track: Is There More

Score: 6/10

Bebe Rexha – Expectations

Expectations-Bebe-Rexha.jpgPop singer Bebe Rexha, mostly known for her collaborations with others, finally releases her debut studio album riding off the success of surprise hit single “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line. Despite the interesting vocal quirks that have so many calling on Rexha for choruses, the team behind her delivers one of the most derivative and bland pop albums I’ve heard in a long time. Checking off the boxes of the many pop trends that are thankfully dying a slow death, Rexha sings some darker lyrics that harken back to her pop-punk experiments with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz over instrumentals that largely consist of minimal acoustic guitar. The tracks are mostly interchangeable, and it’s safe to say that Expectations didn’t meet mine.

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Opening track “Ferrari” is perhaps the greatest exhibition of the potential Rexha might have working with more consistent writers and producers. It’s easily the most memorable song here, Rexha displaying that surprising rock ‘n’ roll edge that sneaks into her vocal delivery at its most passionate, before a hi-hat roll drops the emotionally compelling pre-chorus back into a series of poppy whoa-ohs. Jason Evigan, whose latest hits are found on Maroon 5’s similarly uninspired Red Pill Blues, produces the track. Rexha honestly has some unique, defining aspects to her vocal delivery, but she’s stuck in the most cookie-cutter pop formula throughout this project. The next two tracks feature a chorus ripped from Meredith Brooks’ hit “Bitch” and a song which hands off half the mic time to Quavo, who just sounds so tired of being on everyone under the sun’s projects, the project eventually remembering to tack on the contractually obligated tropical house, Latin pop, triplet-flow trap and dancehall tracks as well.

The common thread uniting all of these tracks, mostly causing them to blend together, is the prominence of quiet acoustic guitar riffs, accentuated by the hip-hop percussion that dominates all genres at the moment, as if someone is trying to make us believe the “singer-songwriter” label that Wikipedia currently places beside Rexha’s name. Something like “Knees” opens beside the campfire with the telltale audible squeaks of the hands gliding along the strings, Rexha doing the bare minimum before the chorus is treated like the most casual EDM drop of all time, the percussion and swelling synths coming in to support the same acoustics. The minimalism of these tracks is presented as something much grander than it is, and this might work out fine if Rexha’s melodies were memorable, or at least catchy at all. Quite a few of these songs do sound like they could turn into SOMETHING with a bit more polish: “Sad” is one of the most energetic songs here, driven by an insistent synth-line built for the dancefloor, but the melody on top falls so flat and ends abruptly, Rexha drawing out a nasal “sahhd” and falling silent for the final bar.

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I do have to give a few tracks credit here for standing out from the monotony of the rest of the pack: “Self Control”, despite riding on the same dancehall beat that was present on every song on Drake’s More Life, sees Rexha use her vocals to their maximum theatrical potential – the delivery on that “one little kiss can turn into a thousand” pre-chorus is genuinely chilling, and the chorus is one of the most immediately sticky – the slow descent into it reminds me of what turned “Despacito” into such a phenomenon. “Don’t Get Any Closer”, as well, is a great contrast between the sweet, prettier side of her voice and the darker, aggressive capabilities hiding underneath revealed with a surprise minor twist in the song, I just wish there was a little more to it – the instrumentation simply gets steadily louder and the producers call it an effective build-up.

By the time you reach the end of the Expectations and the tonally jarring “Meant To Be” is tacked onto the end, you come to understand that this is a lot more of a commercial than a well-thought out artistic work. You can feel this at a distracting level throughout the whole project, and it distills the most interesting bits of Rexha’s artistry into the most easily consumable format possible.

Favourite Tracks: Self Control, Ferrari

Least Favourite Track: Mine

Score: 2/10

Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

Veteran pop-rock “band” Panic! at the Disco, down to its final member in multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Brendon Urie, releases its second studio album as a solo act which greatly improves on predecessor “Death of a Bachelor”. Fresh from a stint on Broadway, Urie elevates his usual flair for the dramatic here and delivers some impressively dynamic vocal lines. Most importantly though, Panic! pulls somewhat of a Paramore here and modernizes their sound, joining the current musical conversation without losing what made them unique in the first place. Their sixth studio album is potentially their poppiest, but roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s theatricality remains to ground these triumphant pop hooks in the darker, baroque atmosphere that’s always coloured their work. There are a few awkward moments of transition here and there, but Pray for the Wicked is one of their best.

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Urie immediately floors the gas pedal on his huge voice when the first anthemic chorus of opening track “(F**k A) Silver Lining” explodes in listeners’ earphones, and he doesn’t let go for the rest of the project. He’s a true rock-and-roll frontman delivering some of the most pop-oriented and melodic hooks of his career, and the result is unique and refreshing. The singles across the board are some of the strongest in their career, carried by a constant, driving energy and smartly written melodies. The fast-paced and frenetic “Silver Lining” sees Urie hitting some seriously impressive high notes over a blaring horn section and a sample from a 1950s R&B track before leading into “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”, which is quintessential Panic! material with a modern update. The guitars in the background are accompanied by a chopped-up vocal sample and clacking percussion verging on a hip-hop sound, providing the perfect backdrop of crackling energy for the chorus, delivered through layered vocals and a deafening guitar pattern that Urie somehow manages to overpower.

“High Hopes” is another great single choice – I love the melody in the pre-chorus that builds up to the marching-band percussion and yet another immediately catchy chorus from Urie, which shows just how effective it is near the end of the track when the instrumental starts to strategically drop out. Urie sells all of this perfectly – his voice is built for Broadway – it’s one of the most capable male vocals in mainstream music right now. The very strong first half continues with “Roaring 20s”, which belongs in a legitimate rock musical (that half-time breakdown!) and “Dancing’s Not A Crime”, which wraps the listener in a very full sound with some warm, old-school funk pop chords. Quite a few of these tracks are great for similar reasons: an energetic horn section, music that cuts out at just the right time, a shouted anthemic chorus, but Urie sounds like he’s having so much fun, and it’s such a welcome change from the band, that it really doesn’t matter. He nods a personal shift in character on “Old Fashioned”, believing to have been stuck in the persona of the 17-year old who initially formed the band until this album.

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Panic!’s journey crossing over into the more culturally relevant styles of pop, hip-hop and EDM production doesn’t come without a few hitches, one of which is their team-up with electronic DJ Dillon Francis on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It”. Like most featured vocalists in modern EDM tracks, Francis buries Urie’s vocals in the mix a little bit more than usual, his chopped-up horn samples dominating the poppiest song on the whole project. Urie’s voice is not something that should ever be restrain By the time a trap beat drops near the end of the project and the chanting group vocals are at their peak, it feels like we’re listening to an average Galantis track. The second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the frenetic opening 6-track run. On an album full of spectacular choruses, “One Of The Drunks” feels like it falls short, something about the sample in the back not quite clicking with the melody line. Urie’s lyrics can be periodically distracting as well, sometimes not maturing alongside the musical direction. “The Overpass” falls into clichés: we’ve heard about the “sketchy girls and lipstick boys, troubled love and high-speed noise” before. Panic! returns to familiar tropes that the audience who grew up on their pop-punk material will recognize a few times.

Pray for the Wicked is still a great return to form for a Brendon Urie who seems to be sitting comfortably on top of the world at the moment. His many successes continue with his most cohesive project yet, delivering 11 slick choruses that will be sung in arenas for years to come.

Favourite Tracks: Dancing’s Not A Crime, Say Amen (Saturday Night), Roaring 20s, (F**k A) Silver Lining, High Hopes

Least Favourite Track: The Overpass

Score: 8/10

5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood

Image result for youngblood cover 5sosI really gotta listen to this huh? Look at those sales! These 5SOS fans are ridiculously loyal. Anyway, pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer release their third studio album and first since the disbanding of OneDirection, a major component of their rise to prominen Working more closely with major producers and writers in the realm of pure pop, as the band grows older they grow out of the cringeworthy edge that coloured their earlier work, making some more polished and modern pop music. Even so, most of these tracks feel like they’re missing the soul and energy, as if they went too far in the new direction of sanitization. A few of these tracks connect surprisingly well, but for the most part they stand just on the edge of being good, each falling victim to an overused trope or a melody line that doesn’t quite line up.

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5SOS are less reliant on their unique status as a more abrasive punk band setting them apart from others here, making some pretty by-the-numbers pop music. Of course, some of the people they’re working with are absolute pros and manage to craft some pretty catchy tunes, but there isn’t much about the delivery of frontman Luke Hemmings to keep me wanting to return. The opening title track “Youngblood” is a strange juxtaposition of energy, the chorus dropping down to a minimalistic rhythmic bassline while Hemmings’ distorted vocal screams the chorus on Fellow single “Want You Back”, written by superproducer Steve Mac (who recently stuck “Shape Of You” in our heads permanently), fares slightly better, integrating the louder lead guitars of the band into the bouncy pop mix well with a decent falsetto chorus melody, but as the tracks go on, the repetition makes you realize that initial head nod wasn’t deserved – there are other people doing this kind of thing in a much more lasting and engaging way.

This is the issue with most of these tracks – they open in a promising way, and the logistics of the track slowly diminish its value to the end. A track like “Valentine” throws away its promising doo-wop intro immediately and becomes something completely different, the darker vocal tones not meshing with the bright synths and modern percussion. “Lie To Me” is a legitimately great track that shows that there is some potential here – this is classic boy band material, using the other members to create some genuinely stunning harmonies, the chorus melody line sounding like the kind of simple yet heartbreakingly expressive pop melodies of the 90s. The band’s two-track team-up with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and their frequent producer Jacob Sinclair on “Why Won’t You Love Me” and “Woke Up In Japan” yields some pretty fun results as well, Cuomo embracing the inherently cheesy nature of the band in the perfect way that only he could on the former, contributing some hilarious self-deprecating lyrics about rejection in a soaring chorus.

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The songs already start to feel obnoxiously derivative of each other around “Better Man”, track 8, which lifts the same syncopated rhythm in the main riff from most of the trop-pop hit songs that dominated the radio waves in 2017 – most of the album’s ending few tracks feel like diet versions of Ed Sheeran songs, not written as expressively as Sheeran can. The previous track “If Walls Could Talk” can’t be saved by Julia Michaels’ songwriting, falling into yet another build-up into a distorted singalong chorus as they attempt to display some kind of unique identity that can’t coordinate itself with the new sheen placed on the surrounding production. The most awkward tonal collision might come on “More”, however, a driving, buzzy and almost EDM synth line dominating most of the space of the track before a drop, also structured like an EDM song, stumbles clumsily into the most directly rock n’ roll guitars at the forefront of the mix.

Youngblood certainly sees the band grow up and better attempt to integrate themselves into the current musical landscape and conversation, but end up playing it far too safe, failing to place a distinctive mark on most of these songs. Quite a few of them could easily have been recorded by anyone else. The lyrics and Hemmings’ delivery frequently sell these mostly well-structured pop melodies just short.

Favourite Tracks: Lie To Me, Moving Along, Woke Up In Japan

Least Favourite Track: More

Score: 3/10

The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE

Image result for EVERYTHING IS LOVE coverGlobal superstar and woman of many talents Beyonce goes the route of surprise drop with no promotion once again, linking up with her famous husband Jay-Z to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the narrative of their familial drama outlined on respective projects Lemonade and 4:44. While EVERYTHING IS LOVE doesn’t quite measure up to either of their recent grand artistic statements, it comes close just coasting on how much fun the interplay between the two is. The couple celebrates emerging on the other side of a hardship having been made stronger for it with a series of boastful tracks that lean a lot closer to Jay-Z’s realm of hip-hop, with a modern trap-influenced edge. Is it any surprise that Beyonce can more than keep up with him as a rapper? Her decade-spanning career continues to impress.

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Opening track “SUMMER” feels like a continuation of Lemonade, sounding tonally similar to its closer “All Night” where Beyonce finally forgives Jay-Z. Produced by legendary hip-hop producers Cool & Dre, it’s one of the only times when Beyonce really gets to remind us just how timeless her vocal abilities are, making her runs and embellishments sound effortless while singing about summer romance over a funk bassline and reggae-influenced instrumental meant for blasting on a beach. This immediately transitions into the harder sound of the remainder of the album with the Migos-assisted “APESH*T”, wisely selected as a single. Jay-Z steps in with his speediest flow in years to deliver some clever zoological references and (accurately) assert that he’s bigger than the Grammys and the Super Bowl – “tell the NFL we playing stadiums too”, but it’s Beyonce who dominates the track’s hyperactive tempo and rapid percussion. She steps easily into the triplet flows and delivers a knockout third verse in a menacing lower tone. She gives everything she has into her delivery here.

The album’s opening run is pretty incredible, continuing with “BOSS”, translating the marching-band vibes Beyonce has been exhibiting in her live shows to horn section-assisted braggadocio over a looped choral harmony … “My great-great-grandchildren already rich” is the flex of the year. Jay-Z takes more of a starring role on the Pharrell-produced “NICE”, offering a catchy and repetitive hook over distorted piano chords while Beyonce hilariously brings back daughter Blue Ivy’s immediately iconic “ceiling” freestyle line from 4:44. Jay-Z’s full-voiced New York accent translates well to this celebration of the Carters’ excellence, belting out swaggering hooks and turning tracks like “BLACK EFFECT” into classic entries in his canon. The song is immediately arena-ready, Jay instructing hands up and inserting satisfied “hm”s when the knocking trap beat cuts out. He’s been a master at navigating around vocal samples since Kanye West was producing them for him, and the soulful background vocal complements his thunderous raps well here. The Carters additionally pay respect to their hip-hop backgrounds on the more rap-heavy album, interpolating the hooks to Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre classics on “HEARD ABOUT US” and “713” respectively.

The album sags a bit in the middle section, showing that these artists are still at their best when creating fully fleshed-out conceptual stories, less time clearly going into the creation of this project. “713” strangely places a very pronounced Auto-Tune effect on Beyonce’s vocals, the looped piano beat not containing enough nuance for Jay-Z to work his characteristically complex flows over and ending a little abruptly – that beat-switch where Beyonce starts singing backup is great though. “FRIENDS” has a great message outlining that the Carters didn’t reach this position without a lot of help from others, but their take on modern alt-R&B with a slower-paced moody instrumental and basic trap beat doesn’t have the same energy over its nearly 6-minute runtime.

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The love for each other and admiration for each others’ talents is evident across the whole project – you can hear it when Jay-Z introduces his wife with a stunned “oh my God” on “HEARD ABOUT US” – but closing track “LOVEHAPPY” is a perfect way to wrap up the whole trilogy, the two artists on the same level as they trade bars and put everything that’s transpired in the past – but not before Beyonce sends one last infuriated shot at the famous Becky that prompts a “Yo, chill” from Jay. Beyonce’s R&B vocals return on the harmonized hook where she sweetly sings “We’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other” and shows appreciation for Jay’s efforts to change.

EVERYTHING IS LOVE continues to offer us glimpses into the ups and downs in the relationship of the original power couple. Musically, they’ve been playing off of each other for 15 years now and know just what buttons to press. Beyonce is idolized to such a degree for a reason, and Jay-Z’s flows returned in a huge way ever since 4:44. It’s certainly no Lemonade, but it’s a very satisfying conclusion.

Favourite Tracks: SUMMER, APESH*T, BLACK EFFECT, BOSS, LOVEHAPPY

Least Favourite Track: FRIENDS

Score: 8/10

Jorja Smith – Lost & Found

Image result for jorja smith lost and found21-year old rising UK R&B singer Jorja Smith, more widely known after collaborations with mega-rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, releases her debut album Lost & Found, a subdued and minimal experience that shows off her unique tone. I’ve seen comparisons to everyone from Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu to Amy Winehouse, but Smith honestly reminds me most of early career Rihanna in terms of the sound of her voice. Leaving the popular garage and grime trends of her home nation that coloured her earlier music behind, Smith sounds a lot more assured of her artistic direction, even if the music isn’t as immediately exciting as it could be.

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The title track which opens the album is framed by sparse piano, lazy, chilled-out background guitar embellishments and steadily knocking R&B percussion, Smith not even descending onto the track in full for a minute and a half while she unleashes some muted falsetto vocal runs. This kind of improvisational quality is applied over the course of most of the project, Smith placing her voice front and center and showing us all of the things that it can do. It’s a smart choice – her tone is entrancing at times, she has a huge, capable range that frequently surprises and the right amount of sweetness in her delivery to balance out the sharper edges she naturally possesses with a voice lower than most popular female singers. “Teenage Fantasy” is one of the best vocal showcases here, apparently written when Smith was only 16 – it’s a smartly written chorus that lets her hit a sweet spot at an essential time, her voice at its most passionate and abrasive before dropping back to her smooth, breathy quieter delivery in a great contrast. She shows off her falsetto in the catchy chorus of “February 3rd”, explaining the concept behind the album’s title over some jazzy piano chords.

Smith’s meandering approach to the project – you always know when one of the tracks of an album is dubbed “(Freestyle)” – turns it into an intimate and engaging experience to get lost in, but it also means that none of the tracks end up sticking to the listener – I have a hard time remembering which of these tracks are which since they aren’t especially distinctive, mostly containing Smith’s vocal acrobatics over a jazzy instrumental that doesn’t want to intrude on what she’s doing in the front. A few of the choruses aren’t as structured as they should be and could have benefited from more experienced producers – something like “On Your Own” falls off the melody line before it turns into a satisfying musical phrase. Despite her vocal experimentation, she often sticks to formula here and follows about the same structure on quite a few songs here with the way she executes her delivery. For an artist with a voice so dynamic, I wish she had included some more upbeat tracks, or at least some varied instrumentation here to break up the monotony a bit.

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“The One”, for example, is a track that really benefits by standing out from the pack instrumentally, with an orchestral intro that explodes into Smith’s layered harmonies over a more tropical vibe like the ones she was introduced to us over on Drake’s “More Life”. It’s one of the fullest instrumentals here, slowly adding more and more elements as it progresses to a beautiful outro as the percussion gets more complex over the same orchestral strings. “Blue Lights” is another very unique track, the percussion more up front than most of the other tracks over a watery synth-piano line that reminds me of old Nintendo video game music, like a boom-bap “Dire Dire Docks” – it samples a song from grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal, explaining its more hip-hop sound.

Smith is a classically trained vocalist and clearly very experienced, I just wish there was more variation across this project to make me give the whole album repeated listens. The high points on this project are some of the best lo-fi R&B tracks we’re likely to receive this year, and for an artist so young there’s only up to go from here.

Favourite Tracks: Blue Lights, The One, Teenage Fantasy, February 3rd, Lifeboats (Freestyle)

Least Favourite Track: On Your Own

Score: 7/10