Tove Lo – Lady Wood

Image result for tove lo lady woodRising Swedish pop star Tove Lo’s sophomore album, Lady Wood, doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the smash hits which defined her first. Instead, she opts for a darker angle and sings over minimalistic electropop beats. Her brand of hook-based instant earworm pop music does not work as well with the style, many of them simply not being as memorable as tracks like “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body”. The production team is largely the same barring some high-profile interlocutors who provide some of the album’s best tracks; this is largely just a classic case of sophomore burnout.

The project offers a brief 10 tracks of dance-pop, but with a darker pulsating spin. These instrumentals can tend to take over the entire song at times despite the aim to be minimalistic — they are more minimalistic in structure than in sound, many of the main beats punctuated by a pounding and repetitive synth line. Production team The Struts, not to be confused with the glam-rock band, handles most of the songs here and the similarity between them is felt strongly. When things switch up due to new blood in the studio is where things get interesting. Joel Little, known for working mainly with New Zealand artists Lorde and Broods, appears for highlight “Imaginary Friend”, bringing the same creativity for alternative pop music that he brought to Broods’ fantastic Conscious earlier this year.

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Fellow Swedes Ali Payami and Ilya Salzmanzadeh, known for working with pop mastermind Max Martin on some of the decade’s biggest hits, do their best with what they’re given, experimenting with sounds that don’t fully deliver. “Keep It Simple” especially is the only attempt at something completely novel, built like an EDM song before the disappointing climax which actually might bring down the energy. Another thing that takes away from the overall strength of these tracks is that Tove Lo’s voice is honestly just not very interesting, bordering on nasal at times and failing to showcase anything that impressive technically.

One interesting aspect of the album is its division into two halves, marked by brief and mainly instrumental tracks which I suppose were meant to give an overall sense of the sound which the forthcoming 5-track section was going to provide, but the concept doesn’t appear to be fully realized. However, these introductions do contribute to some absolutely flawless transitions into the tracks that kick off each album’s half. Tove Lo appears to be turning these two tracks, “Fairy Dust” and “Fire Fade”, into short films, perhaps more meaning will be revealed later.

Some of the better musical moments appear on tracks like “Imaginary Friend”, which comes closest to the instant catchiness of her previous singles with a playful chorus over some rhythmically dense interlocking synths, and “True Disaster”, a high-tempo track in which Tove Lo’s voice is at its best in its lower register – where it really should stay at all times. Despite a Google search not returning much, Joe Janiak’s feature on “Vibes” actually provides an interesting contrast to Tove Lo’s voice — his raspy and dark tones fit the instrumental more than hers do.

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The project also contains some stunningly lazy lyrics, and Tove Lo is the primary writing credit on each: in addition to swearing so often it can disrupt the structure of the song, she actually says some things like “You’re winning at life” and “Hate on this world ’cause reality sucks” on a serious release. “Cool Girl” is a song based off of a monologue given by Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s fantastic movie “Gone Girl”, and Tove Lo succeeded in taking one of my favourite movies and turning it into an incredibly boring song — and really, everything is quite boring. Unfortunately, most of this project signifies phoned-in and uninspired pop music with the added edgy angle that so many others are doing better.

There are also some very strange musical choices here. On more than one occasion Tove Lo tries to throw some quirky vocal manipulations on the songs that just end up sounding obnoxious, as her high-pitched and distorted vocals begin to grate on the listener. The chorus of “Vibes” is based on her voice pitched up, modulated and wobbly and is quite terrible. Songs like “Flashes” are incredibly overproduced and try to cram as many ideas from different realms of music onto one song as they can.

After some great features this year like Flume’s “Say It” and Broods’ “Freak of Nature”, this project is quite disappointing. Tove Lo has proven this year that she can be a great complement to other people’s songs, but her own creative agency needs some development. She has the potential to become a genuine hitmaker, and surrounding herself with the right people could allow her to come back with a vengeance on her third project.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, True Disaster, Keep It Simple

Least Favourite Track: Flashes

Score: 4/10

Lady Gaga – Joanne

Image result for lady gaga joanneAfter a few years accompanying Tony Bennett, far removed from the mainstream consciousness in the world of jazz music, Lady Gaga returns to the public eye with her fifth studio album and first since 2013’s ARTPOP. Gaga is accompanied by many interesting and unexpected collaborators from all over the musical map, leading people to wonder what direction Joanne might be taken in — Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Beck, Father John Misty and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker are just a few.

When single “Perfect Illusion” was released with its rock-influenced sound, polarizing some fans and failing to draw mass radio appeal, we knew we were going to get something interesting. And Gaga certainly does have many new and interesting ideas on this project, but can’t shake off her past as an over-the-top performer to accompany the more toned-down and serious nature of the music here. Gaga’s voice can be very impressive at times, but she tends to get much more melodramatic than the folksy instrumentals here call for. Overall, Joanne is an admirable but inconsistent creative effort.

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Many of these collaborators appear in the writing credits, as the primary production credit on every song on Joanne goes to none other than Mark Ronson, who is fresh off of the most successful song of the decade. Ronson has always been known for more guitar-based music, and he makes his unique presence felt here. However, even with a single production team (Gaga and Bieber collaborator BloodPop round it out), the album does not have a particularly unified sound. Famed country songwriter Hillary Lindsey appears to give “A-Yo” some country-rock flair. “Dancin’ In Circles”, written by Beck, goes down the Gwen Stefani-esque reggae/ska path. “Million Reasons” is a pure folk ballad. Father John Misty’s world-weary attitude is felt on his two co-written tracks “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Come To Mama”. This is truly an amalgamation of many diverse musician’s styles, creating the inconsistency when some of these influences do not necessarily mesh as well as others. Still, there are some pretty incredible musical moments on here.

Gaga’s voice is very emotive, and as a result, some of these songs can be incredibly moving. “Million Reasons” is the true gem of the album, and interestingly enough, perhaps one of the quietest songs on the project, proving that Gaga doesn’t need to overdo it to be effectively emotional. Another Hillary Lindsey collaboration, it exhibits Gaga as a singer-songwriter over a beautiful ballad instrumental which shifts between piano and guitar effortlessly. As the song ramps up into its more powerful chorus, adding some of the only harmonies we hear on the project, Gaga delivers the lines with a voice that is just powerful enough, drawing back to deliver the emotional gut-punch: “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away/But baby, I just need one good one to stay”.

“Come To Mama” is another great track, with its jazzy and glamorous instrumental and fantastic melody that sounds like Ronson recreating one of his early Amy Winehouse tracks. Gaga sounds like a genuine soul singer here, another different direction that the project flies off into in its latter half, but a great one nonetheless. Gaga’s versatility is very impressive on the album, pulling off all these styles effortlessly, right after finding success as a jazz singer. The creativity to write a song to fit all of these styles is really something admirable. “Hey Girl”, a duet with Florence Welch, is quite enjoyable, as the two powerful ladies trade lines over a 80’s rock piano beat. However, it did make me realize that fully committing to this rock angle might not be the best idea for Gaga long-term, as Florence’s gritty voice outshines Gaga’s lighter, sweeter one here – this is her zone.

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Where the project loses points for me is that it does not feel like a complete evolution from Gaga’s old self, the application of these styles feeling more like a lens. Anthony Fantano put it fantastically in his review – Gaga is treating these musical styles like they are “Just an outfit to be put on and worn at the red carpet”. Another negative aspect is the lyricism. Now that Gaga isn’t making pop music anymore, opting instead for a genre where lyricism is championed, her weaker lines are exposed. We have no dance beat to distract us from them anymore. Especially because Gaga goes into some darker territory regarding the state of the world and politics on tracks like “Come To Mama” and “Angel Down”, she should have put in more effort here. And as I said before, on some of these quieter, folk-based instrumentals, I don’t need to hear Gaga wailing “WHERE ARE OUR LEADERS!?” in my ear.

It is interesting to see a shift in direction from a pop singer who has fallen from her previous levels of popularity, attempting to reinvent herself as a singer-songwriter type and bringing in some great musicians to help her do so. And even if some of these ideas weren’t fully developed, there are still some pretty stunning ones. Gaga is certainly a talent, she just needs to determine the most optimal ways to use it.

Favourite Tracks: Million Reasons, Come To Mama, John Wayne, A-YO

Least Favourite Track: Perfect Illusion

Score: 6/10

D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M.

Image resultVirginia rapper D.R.A.M., who burst onto the scene with infectious hits “Cha Cha”, which captured the attention of Chance the Rapper and Beyonce, and current top 5 single “Broccoli”, arrives with his debut full-length album — and it represents a very refreshing surprise in the current landscape of hip-hop music. D.R.A.M. himself is a lot more musically inclined than you might think after hearing the chilled-out ode to drugs that is “Broccoli” — his singing voice and overall ear for the technical aspect of music are actually very impressive, far beyond your average rapper. D.R.A.M. is an active member of a gospel choir, and his deep and silky voice suited for traditional R&B is showcased much more than his raps on the album.

However, both sides of D.R.A.M. are charismatic and just the right degree of over-the-top. Just like the recently released NxWorries collaboration Yes Lawd!Big Baby D.R.A.M. blends together excellent musical aspects and humour to a very successful degree. Only with D.R.A.M., it feels less like a joke, and more like his actual endearing personality. When he utters a line that might elicit an eye-roll coming from another rapper, you just smile along with the goofy grin on his album cover. It also has a puppy on it. How could you be mad at the man?

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The overall sound of the album is very soulful, which might come as a surprise to a listener who has only heard “Broccoli”. D.R.A.M. understands that the kind of voice he possesses allows him to be somewhat of a lothario, and clearly thinks this is hilarious. These tracks are backed by sounds of twinkling jazz pianos and in-your-face brass instruments, offering elements of early R&B that span the project, both in serious homages to the style on songs such as “Monticello Ave” and “Sweet VA Breeze”, and parodic on songs like “WiFi” and “Password”. The production list reads like a who’s who of hip-hop producers in demand, with contributions from The Social Experiment’s Donnie Trumpet, as well as Charlie Heat and Mike Dean who have worked extensively with Kanye West. Mainstream pop producer Ricky Reed, who is seemingly out to appear on every album this year, continues to confound me. How can the same man produce something as inane as Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” and something as brilliant as “Cash Machine”, carried by its infectious piano melody?

Big Baby D.R.A.M. has quite a few things going for it. I have revisited many of its songs out of the context of the album just to hear them again, which is something I don’t usually do before a review. The songs are just that much fun that I have to hear them. D.R.A.M. proves himself as an incredibly dynamic artist, seemingly knowing exactly the right component or feeling to put in a song at the right time — for example, the raps aren’t there very often but when the track needs a bit of an energy boost D.R.A.M. knows.

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The album’s three-pronged attack of completely legitimate R&B/Soul tracks, energetic hip-hop bangers, and hilarious amalgamations of the styles provides a song for any mood. And D.R.A.M. really is hilarious: some examples of song concepts on this album include “WiFi”, a duet with legend Erykah Badu where D.R.A.M. displays his interest in a girl due to her strong WiFi signal, “Password”, a short track running through D.R.A.M.’s panicked internal monologue as his girl checks his phone, “Cute”, where D.R.A.M. subverts a monstrous trap beat by singing in a squeaky falsetto “I think you’re cute/Oh yes I do”, and “Outta Sight/Dark Lavender Interlude”, in which D.R.A.M. implores his girl to “Just call me a little” — too much is annoying, and not at all has him worried.

At times, on songs that are more dominated by rap, D.R.A.M. doesn’t go all out with his huge voice, opting instead for the halfhearted and more gravelly singing voice you hear on the chorus of “Broccoli”. On the clear-cut hip-hop track it works, but more often it does not on the songs with more soulful instrumentation. He can also tend to get a bit self-indulgent, and I would too if I had his voice, but some songs drag on longer than they need to. Specifically, the songs where two different concepts are shoved together with a backslash: “In A Minute/In House” and “Outta Sight/Dark Lavender Interlude”. But again, D.R.A.M.’s intent is so earnest that you can’t help but applaud.

The emergence of D.R.A.M. as a hitmaker and prominent artist is going to be very interesting for the world of hip-hop music. He is fully capable of creating both a bombastic earworm, and a more R&B based urban hit. And with the famous friends he has, he should turn up in other places as well. I would be very surprised if “Broccoli” turns out to be a one-hit wonder.

Favourite Tracks: Cash Machine, Broccoli, Cute, Sweet VA Breeze, Monticello Ave

Least Favourite Track: In A Minute/In House

Score: 8/10

 

JoJo – Mad Love

Image result for jojo mad loveAfter a seven year period involving contract disputes and legal struggles, former child star JoJo returns with her first full length album in 10 years. She previously made history as the youngest person to achieve a number one hit on the pop charts – remember “Leave (Get Out)”? The album draws from a wide range of inspirations, succeeding mostly in showing that the talent is certainly still there, and possibly more so due to her more mature voice — but at times the writing falls that. The album’s credits do not display the most recognizable names (And the biggest, Rock Mafia, produced what might be the worst song, “Vibe”), but JoJo’s impressive range is sometimes enough to carry songs on its own. It’s far from perfect, but Mad Love is a pretty respectable album in the wake of JoJo’s struggles.

The sound of the the album is quite sporadic. Most of the back half is cluttered with standard pop songs with radio airplay in mind, but about half of the tracks here do have some interesting and diverse influences. Two of the songs have features from Wiz Khalifa and the suddenly relevant Remy Ma, offering coinciding hip-hop influenced beats, while a few songs show that JoJo’s voice is good enough to tackle large-scale R&B ballads effectively. The title track, “Mad Love”, is on another planet altogether, drawing some influence from doo-wop music and reminding me a lot of Rihanna’s recent “Love On The Brain”. This one is shockingly fantastic in the same way, bringing out a dimension to her voice I never would have guessed was there from the introductory songs.

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JoJo’s voice is indeed the main focus of the album, showcased prominently and rarely letting the production take over the song. This was a smart decision, imbuing most of the songs with layered vocals and great harmonies which only enhance some of the more boring pop songs. The most impressive thing about her voice is her range, comfortable in lower tones usually but shooting up into the stratosphere at emotional peaks in the music. The album is a great showcase of the potential JoJo has to continue a career past her child-star days, provided she surrounds herself with the right people. A song like “F*ck Apologies”, the first single off the album, is what happens when more of an effort is put into making a radio-based single which is unique and showcases personality. The faster-paced song and instantly catchy hook stands in stark contrast to the drowsy filler in the 2nd half. Special mention must be given as well to Alessia Cara for her feature on “I Can Only” – her quieter voice and different approach to the track’s message was a great contrast and continued a streak of exceptional things from her.

The album suffers when it meanders into its boring and generic territory. A lot of this stems from the overarching problem of bad songwriting – JoJo does have a primary writing credit on each song, but more mostly unknown writers than necessary accompany her on the list. Due to her child-star past, at times the songs fall into the same trap as many of her peers in attempting to be edgy and showcase adulthood, but squeezing too many of these references in and cluttering an otherwise good song. It also seems like JoJo is being pushed as a pop singer when she should really be anything but. Some songs, like “Vibe”, are content to default to the current trend of substituting an EDM-style dance breakdown in place of a chorus, and JoJo is really too talented to be making those type of songs. She clearly has the voice for R&B, both in the traditional sense with her huge voice, and in the more modern chilled-out sense, like she showcases on the Jhene Aiko-style “Edibles”. “High Heels” could even be more of a rock song with different production. If she finds more success with the pop route, it should be more along the lines of what someone like Tori Kelly is doing right now, rather than aiming for hits.

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The main takeaway from Mad Love is that after being away from the music industry for so long, and knowing nothing but teen pop music before, JoJo needs more time to fully establish herself as an artist. 10 years causes an artist to completely change from who they were before, and the sporadic nature of this album reflects this indecision. She is certainly talented enough to deliver knockout moments, and does on this album. The filler just needs to be trimmed for next time and we could have something special.

Favourite Tracks: Mad Love, F*ck Apologies, Edibles, Honest

Least Favourite Track: Vibe

Score: 6/10

NxWorries (Knxwledge and Anderson .Paak) – Yes Lawd!

Image result for yes lawd anderson paakQuickly rising funk sensation Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, known for his jazz and soul-sampling beats, combined their talents on this 19 track album that never feels like it overstays its welcome. Often hilarious, the album captures the era of 60s and 70s soul music in a way no other modern artists have been, continuing the vibes Anderson brought to us on his fantastic debut album earlier this year, Malibu. Knxwledge’s beats are layered with gospel vocals and brass instruments, serving as the perfect accompaniment to Anderson’s raspy, passionate and unique vocal delivery.

While the album does provide its fair share of creative and energizing musical moments, the shorter track lengths (few are longer than 3 minutes) often make the album feel more disjointed than it needs to be, frequently switching from one sound to the next instead of letting these great ideas develop further. But really, criticizing such a fun album is ridiculous.

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Having seen our fair share of collaborative projects recently, has there really been a better match than these two? Their styles, in different variations of the same realm of music, complement each other perfectly, and you can tell how much they love working together from the joy and humour in the music they create together. Anderson .Paak turns up the relatability and storytelling here, one of his greatest talents as an artist. He makes you live his experiences by pouring every inch of himself into his vocals. But instead of taking us through the streets of Compton like he did frequently on Dr. Dre’s last project, he brings us stories of romance. His diverse abilities are brought to the forefront here too: when he isn’t reviving the spirit of James Brown, he executes a pseudo-rap flow on songs like “Get Bigger/Do U Luv” and “Suede” that works perfectly on the instrumental hip-hop producer Knxwledge’s beats too.

Knxwledge most recently worked on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, bringing his retro flavour to standout track “Momma”. His ear for beats is flawless on Yes Lawd!, offering a wide and still extremely cohesive array of beats which are tailored perfectly to the vocal Anderson delivers on each track. He really does succeed at capturing the sound of an entire era, just as Bruno Mars has been doing with his recent comeback singles. Could this sound be making a welcome resurgence? “Can’t Stop” is a pretty incredible instrumental track, the only one of its kind, which offers laid-back funk sounds of prominent bass, vocoders and piano.

Some of the songs on this project are so good I could probably write a review of this length on them. Instead of writing notes on the music, I was dancing around my room. In any case, some of the highlights include “Scared Money”, which includes a perfect melodic chorus from Anderson, less raspy than usual but perfect for the specific track. The instrumental loops more of Anderson’s harmonized vocals, and a sampled disco guitar  which sounds strangely like the melody of “The Hustle”. This is a hypnotic track which transports you back a few decades. “Lyk Dis” sees Anderson lost in the moment of passion, singing blissfully about his partner over shimmering synths and a steadily swung, knocking beat. The harmony on final chorus line “Everything you do, oh when you do it” makes me scrunch up my face every time. More instantly danceable and hip-hop influenced tracks “Link Up” and “Suede” come from a previous EP by the duo, but still fit into this album perfectly. And a special mention must be given to “Jodi”, which barely exceeds a minute and is criminally short. The doo-wop influence and funk bassline are absolutely beautiful, and Anderson’s brief lines yearning for Jodi, “A friend of mine” are very real.

Image result for anderson paakAnderson .Paak is a master of soul

Another interesting aspect is the humour presented in the form of half-skit, half-songs on the project. It is rare that humour is executed well on an album without taking the listener out of the experience and interrupting the flow of the album briefly, and they manage to pull it off here. Offering something like “H.A.N.”, a gospel sermon praying for certain individuals who are of annoyance to Anderson, provides a goofy concept which is still wrapped up in the overall sound of the album, turning the humour into a complement rather than a distraction.

Certainly, some tracks could have been cut from the album – you can easily tell when Anderson is into the song, and he sounds less so on some of the tracks filling up the middle like “Khadijah” and “Starlite”. Although the album is never tiresome to listen to, songs flowing into each other perfectly, a cut down album of the very best of the best would be even more of a pleasant surprise. However, the fact that these two talents got together and worked so extensively to bring this sound back from the dead, and did it so well, is an incredible achievement in and of itself.

Yes Lawd! brings hip-hop and R&B music reliant on soul samples back in a way that hasn’t been done since Kanye West’s early work. This is an incredibly cohesive project, and if you are a fan of any style of music under the large soul umbrella I can not recommend this enough. The execution is flawless, and one can only hope this collaboration was more than a side project.

Favourite Tracks: Scared Money, Link Up, Lyk Dis, Suede, What More Can I Say

Least Favourite Track: Livvin

Score: 9/10

OneRepublic – Oh My My

Image result for onerepublic oh my myUbiquitous pop-rock band OneRepublic returns for the first time in three years with their fourth studio album. The band is fronted by superstar producer and songwriter Ryan Tedder, who has found enormous success in his contributions to the work of some of today’s biggest artists (Adele, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Ariana Grande). Unfortunately, what seems to be remaining for a OneRepublic album seems to be a staggering number of leftover songs rejected by these artists, as the album as a whole suffers from an extreme lack of personality.

These problems began with their previous effort, 2013’s NativeNative saw the release of the first OneRepublic singles I truly enjoyed in “Counting Stars” and “Love Runs Out”, which presented a heavier sound than they had before. While their first two albums may not have been particularly good, at least the band had a distinct and recognizable sound with their orchestral influence and minimalist ballads. Now, as Tedder’s stock as a producer rises, he seems to be investing much less of his artistic capabilities in OneRepublic. The album still does provide a handful of great songs, but lost among the overlong 16 tracks and general sense of mediocrity, by the end it doesn’t matter to the listener. None of these songs are actually bad — they’re all just okay, and forgettable. Having this problem might be worse than an inconsistent album of hits and misses.

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To focus on the positives first, Oh My My actually does provide a 4-song run in the middle of the album of interesting music that breaks from the formula of the rest of the album and emerges from the pack. The run from “Choke” to “Born” is a diverse and eclectic mix that runs through a wide variety of sounds, adding to the album’s overall sense of misdirection but pulling it off well in these instances.

“Choke” is buoyed by a massive singalong chorus backed by what sounds like a gospel choir, whereas it would not surprise me if you had told me “Better” was a Twenty One Pilots song, from the rapid-fire delivery, swung melodic chorus and beat that sounds like it was created in the same session as “Ride”. The mix of genres, which Twenty One Pilots also does quite well at times, reaches a fever pitch on “A.I.”, the longest and most experimental song on the tracklist, which features a pounding EDM beat, spiraling guitar solos, and vocals from none other than Peter Gabriel. And it all works. Risks like these would have paid off on the remainder of the album.

One of the biggest issues with the album is its length. Sitting through over an hour of similar-sounding, mediocre tracks gets to be a chore. Some of these songs could have easily been cut from the album, leaving a shorter and more concise project, but it makes the album an extremely boring listen. It seems like the band has drifted generally into the more rock-influenced zone that spawned their previous hits, but the influx of other strange musical choices on the album discounts this as a clearly made decision. As Tedder states on “Dream”, he “found some new innovations” — Sure, the album is different, but not in a clearly defined way. There is no artistic vision, and the making of a “different” album does not feel like a deliberate choice, simply trying and failing to emulate their more progressive hits. Tedder himself sounds rather phoned in, like he was trying to get through his own recording session because he had a meeting with Adele later in the day.

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A song like “Fingertips” stands as an example of the lack of effort put into this album. One of the longest tracks on the album, it has possibly the least to say, repeating the same mind-numbing and lethargic chorus for most of its duration. This is one of the songs that should have been cut. Further listens should have signified that the song did not reach the emotional heights they were clearly going for – instead, they saw fit to extend one of the album’s worst ideas to its breaking point. “Human” is another rather laughable song, from its misplaced breakbeat, to its ridiculous concept and mundane lyrics (Tedder goes to God for help, but God is preoccupied with a question of his own – “How does it feel to be human?”, which led to me shaking my head in disbelief upon being rhymed with “If I could for one day, I just might do it”), to its exaggerated falsetto delivery.

The biggest problem any album can suffer from is being forgettable, and this might be the most forgettable album of the year. It speaks volumes to its mediocrity when an album can give a spectacular run of four tracks, and still drown out their significance with the monotony of the rest. Perhaps OneRepublic has been nothing more than underdeveloped side project of Ryan Tedder from the very beginning.

Favourite Tracks: Choke, Better, A.I.

Least Favourite Track: Fingertips

Score: 4/10

Phantogram – Three

Image result for phantogram threeIndie-pop duo Phantogram’s third studio effort takes a turn for the uncharacteristic, leaving behind the upbeat and synth-heavy tracks for more of a rock and roll edge. This musical turn is even more unsettling in the wake of their collaborative EP with OutKast’s Big Boi, Big Grams, blending their style surprisingly well with the jazzy southern rap of the latter.

This deviation was also clearly taken in response to the unfortunate suicide of frontwoman Sarah Barthel’s sister. The event overshadows the entire album and makes for the presence of songs which are so personal and unsettling that Three becomes and extremely uncomfortable listening experience. The pain in the voices of Barthel and bandmate Josh Carter, who was very close to Barthel’s sister as well, is disturbingly real. The album is dotted with songs which are more reminiscent of their older work and are nearly on the same level of quality, but the foreboding shadow looming over the project as a whole takes away from the music.

The main issue with adopting the harsher, distorted guitar-driven rock and roll sound which persists throughout the album is that Barthel’s light and airy tone does not work incredibly well with the style, more suited to the dreampop of Phantogram’s past. To blend in with this new musical landscape, producers of the album frequently opt to distort and obscure Barthel’s voice, giving it a more muffled and distant sound. But as shown on better tracks like “Answer”, this is something which should really be allowed to shine.

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A glance at the production credits had me quite confused initially, as every single track on the project has a writing and production credit given to none other than Ricky Reed, the man behind many of the most vapid and derivative pop songs clogging the radio waves at the moment. It is interesting that he has another side to him, unexpectedly producing rather heavy-sounding rock music, but it doesn’t make it any better than his other songs. Band member Carter, after anointing himself “the producer extraordinaire” on Big Grams, is still a major contributor, and he lets his grief show in these darker arrangements. The only other major appearance comes from The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on “Run Run Blood”, representing yet another of the album’s confusing musical shifts for the R&B virtuosos.

The album’s positive elements show more similarity to the better tracks on 2014’s Voices, bringing back the more positive-sounding tracks to bring the listener back up from wallowing in the depths – although they still contain references to the death, the fun nature of tracks like “Answer” and “You’re Mine” allow us to overlook it and enjoy the music for what it is. Not a frequent singer, Josh Carter lends his vocals to a few songs and is actually a great presence for the most part. He provides a great duet partner for Barthel as they exchange lines back and forth, voices in the perfect spot of being similar yet distinct that many popular duos have.

“You’re Mine” is the most upbeat song on the album, offering speedy rhythmic synth stabs as Barthel and Carter trade lines and weave through the dominating synth lead. “Answer” is more laid-back, driven by a synth piano loop but still carried into head-nodding territory by a fantastic live drumbeat. “I can’t make you stop when you’re already gone”, the duo sings in unison before the instrumentation explodes into a bridge and the huge chorus concludes the song.

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Many tracks on Three actually do have some brief moments of greatness before being overshadowed by other aspects which distract from the song. Single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”, which has been met with some success since its release last June, is a quite interesting pop song – the harmonies on “Walk with me to the end/Stare with me into the abyss” are as beautiful as ever –before the tonal shift into the drab chorus sends the song into a darker place than it needed to be. “Cruel World” is another example, the dreampop synth line and breathy Barthel vocals which open the track sound promising before the distortion takes over the rest of the track. Other songs, like “Funeral Pyre” and “Barking Dog”, abandon structure altogether, serving more as an outpouring of grief for the band members. “Barking Dog” sees Carter alone stretching his voice to the breaking point, screaming his pain into the microphone over a cacophony of noise.

The talent for indie-pop songwriting and production Phantogram has displayed before is still clearly here, shown in brief flashes over the duration of this short album. However, an unfortunate circumstance has infiltrated their creative process and the resulting music and tone necessary to convey it does not align with their strengths as musicians. Hopefully, Phantogram will be back in full effect on their next project.

Favourite Tracks: Answer, You’re Mine, Same Old Blues

Least Favourite Track: Barking Dog

Score: 4/10

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

Image result for atrocity exhibitionAfter an extended absence, off-the-wall rapper Danny Brown returns with his third solo effort, Atrocity Exhibition, continuing to establish himself as one of the biggest risk-takers in the music industry. Brown’s uncanny ability to pick out any piece of music, regardless of the sonic world it comes from and flow on it is impressive. It makes the album an absolutely mindblowing listening experience to hear this multitude of sounds which wouldn’t appear on even the most creative rapper’s album. Only the mind of Danny Brown could produce something like this.

That being said, although I commend his risk-taking pursuits, about half of the album does not click for me personally at all, veering off the road into territory that is simply too weird. His yelping, high-pitched voice and abstract flow does not make things easier on the listener either. However, when it does, the fact that a musician exists who can make the insane concept we are hearing work is absolutely incredible.

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The album doesn’t exactly have a sound — it is more of an effort to throw everything possible at the wall of a hip-hop album, which is quite astounding because most of it is done by one man: Paul White, who has only made high-profile appearances on Brown albums. The album spans from heavy guitars, to tribal chants, to horror movie-style screeching bells and violin noises, to chilled funk, to tropical slide guitar, to what could be construed as hip-hop beats; only with the most experimental rhythmic patterns I may have ever heard.

Another strange aspect of the album is the length of the tracks, many not even breaking the 3-minute barrier. It makes the album sound like a collection of not fully fleshed-out experiments at times — and when the songs are great, they often end too abruptly. I cannot stress enough how crazy of a listen Atrocity Exhibition really is.

While capable of making interesting tracks on his own, I have always thought that Danny Brown truly shines as a complement to a larger posse track like A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train”, where the chasm of difference between him and other rappers is made evident. “Really Doe” is that track here, each rapper turning in outstanding verses and none outshining the other. Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt show up here to flex their technical muscles over a beat constructed of eerie and menacing bells from legendary producer Black Milk. Another highlight is “Ain’t It Funny”, which could be a contender for the best rap song recorded this year. Brown’s flow is furious, weaving around squawking horns blaring indiscriminately over what sounds like a marching band from hell, plodding forward with a driving and straightforward beat. As previously mentioned, the fact that this is a song which I am capable of nodding my head to is ridiculous, and the fact alone that Brown actually pulled it off puts him on another level.

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While I have seen many people mention that this album is one that takes forever to grow on you, and my opinion may change later, some tracks have good intentions but are honestly an absolute mess. While Brown displays some things we never thought could be on a hip-hop album, he also displays some things which decidedly should not be. His raps on “Golddust” are not particularly bad, but the fact that his flow is repeatedly interrupted by a repetitive sample of a crunching guitar pattern which could be found in death metal detracts completely from the song. Some tracks like opener “Downward Spiral” are mismatched with Brown’s vocals. His voice is really something indescribable that needs to be heard to be understood. If you thought Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper had weird voices, you thought wrong. The beat is introspective and uneventful, and Brown’s serious lyrics and disjointed contemplative flow come across as laughable due to his absurd timbre.

I really have no idea what to make of this album, and a more concrete opinion will surely develop upon further listens. For now, however, this is hands down the most confusing thing I have listened to all year, and the amount of creative energy that went into the project alone is something to be commended. However, I’m not sure if I really want to do any more full listens due to the headache-inducing nature of some of the messier tracks. If nothing else, Danny Brown has made an enormous statement.

Favourite Tracks: Ain’t It Funny, Really Doe, From The Ground, Rolling Stone

Least Favourite Track: Downward Spiral

Score: 5/10

Banks – The Altar

Image result for banks the altarThe alt-R&B songstress many have dubbed the female version of The Weeknd returns with a sophomore album which evades the sophomore curse in a major way, keeping up 2016’s apparent trend of improvements on previous work. The songwriting and production game is stepped up to allow The Altar to soar over her somewhat inconsistent previous album, Goddess. This album is full of snappy, razor-sharp trap-influenced rhythmic R&B bangers, turning up the energy from her past album. The only time she returns to the slow, piano-driven balladry that was a little too prominent on Goddess is on closing track “To The Hilt”, which turns out to be an appropriate way to round out the album.

Banks’ voice, simultaneously lilting and breathy and slightly menacing, is applied in many ways, and is always enjoyable. It is strange and different enough that hearing Banks sing anything at all is engaging enough, and especially so when it is one of the countless catchy choruses scattered across this project. Banks’ world has always been a little dark, and getting lost in it once again proves to be a thoroughly entertaining experience.

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Production on this album is largely handled by many of the same lesser-known team of producers who worked on Goddess, with a few notable exceptions. It is interesting that two albums so different in quality were produced by largely the same personnel. Some could certainly accuse this of being more of the same, and the minimalist, string arrangements that dominate the album do provide a lot of the same sonic palette as Goddess, but turning up the tempo and bringing some new blood into the studio to join the original team was a fantastic idea.

The new man on board is hip hop producer DJ Dahi, who has contributed to some of the most iconic rap instrumentals in recent memory — “Worst Behaviour” (Drake), “Money Trees” (Kendrick Lamar), “I Don’t F*** With You” (Big Sean), “Hell Of A Night” (ScHoolboy Q), the list goes on. The fast paced hi-hats commonly found in trap music now become more understandable, and complement Banks extraordinarily well. Another interesting addition is on Judas, where Banks brings in Danny Boy Styles, Ben Billions, and the team who worked on some of The Weeknd’s lower-key tracks on his 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness (“Acquainted”, “As You Are”). There are certainly some similarities on these songs in terms of sound and lyrical themes, but this niche Banks has found for herself is a great one.

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Speaking of Abel (his new tracks are fantastic, by the way) — while perhaps not as referential of the materialism that comes with an extravagant lifestyle, the strongest parallel between the two artists are their lyrical themes. A major part of Banks’ appeal is simply how blunt she is with her lyrics, many of which depict the pain and elation that come with relationships — all the while asserting that she is a “bad motherf**ker” who doesn’t really need one. The sadder songs tend to go to a quite dark and affecting place, whereas the self-aggrandizing ones are over the top, bombastic and confidence-boosting.

Some of the stronger songs on the project include “Trainwreck”, a song which sees Banks delivering rapid-fire and often hilariously to-the-point lyrics about her displeasure with her man over a skittering beat which serves as her best chance to break through to a mainstream audience, “Weaker Girl”, featuring a slow build to an enormous final chorus where Banks observes “I think you need a weaker girl” while looking for new love, and Mother Earth, in which Banks beckons us to her bedroom with some absolutely beautifully structured harmonies and offers the best showcase of her weird and wonderful instrument.

The Altar is a cohesive and fun experience throughout, and allows audiences to delve even deeper into this fascinating persona Banks has crafted for herself as a recording artist. While the sound can tend to get repetitive, keep in mind that it is incredibly difficult to pin down what genre this actually is, alt-R&B being a term that is seemingly slapped on anything similar enough to The Weeknd. In reality, Banks’ vocals are a bit more pop, and her instrumentals more hip-hop. In any case, Banks is asserting herself — both in the lyrical context of this album and in the shifting world of the music industry. She can stand on the same level as contemporaries like FKA Twigs and Abel creatively, and should continue to surprise us down the road.

Favourite Tracks: Trainwreck, Weaker Girl, Mother Earth, Gemini Feed, Lovesick

Least Favourite Track: Mind Games

Score: 8/10