Zara Larsson – So Good

Zara Larsson - So Good.png19-year old Swedish pop artist Zara Larsson enters the global public consciousness in a major way with her sophomore album So Good, in the wake of numerous international successes and her first US hit “Never Forget You”. Accompanied by a massive team of some of the best pop writers and producers both local and international, the album certainly offers some dynamic and engaging spins on the typical pop music formula. However, due to its dance leanings it can fall into repetitive characteristics in its song structure. This is more of a compilation of tracks that the biggest names behind the scenes have compiled rather than a Larsson album, serving as a generic voice and failing to offer much of her own personality. Still, the majority of these tracks are very enjoyable and contain unique elements that elevate them over the average pop song.

Larsson gets some big names assisting her here – the 15-track project features production credits from The Monsters & Strangerz (Fifth Harmony, Nick Jonas), Charlie Puth, Stargate (Rihanna, Katy Perry), Clean Bandit and Ed Sheeran collaborator Steve Mac, to name a few. She also receives writing efforts from Puth, Stargate, and two of the biggest pop writing successes in Julia Michaels and Ed Sheeran.

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You can really hear Sheeran’s penmanship on “Don’t Let Me Be Yours”, a track that features the only lyrical concept that made me stop to think due to the intelligent delivery of a relatively new situation in pop music – Larsson becomes emotionally attached to a one night stand, hoping that her partner didn’t regret it when they wake up the next day and the magic of the night had worn off: “Everybody makes mistakes – don’t let me be yours”. Same goes for Michaels’ brilliantly dark pop lyrics on “One Mississippi”. It’s a shame that the instrumentation lets both tracks down.

Larsson’s voice is certainly serviceable if not incredibly distinct from any vocalist who could jump on an EDM track. Many of these tracks contain engaging dance elements, raising the energy level. The project is more European sounding overall, reminding me of some of the remixes of songs by relatively unknown European DJs that become huge hits here, like Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”. Using synth pianos and rapid fire hi-hats in conjunction with her big choruses, and foregoing the typical drop structure to simply turn up the intensity of the song with the musical elements is a nice feature – “I Would Like” being a great example of this.

“So Good”, Puth’s song, is a standout track. It is driven by an electronically chopped up piano melody, complete with soaring harmonized vocals that might be the best showcase of Larsson’s talents on the album and excellent use of a Ty Dolla $ign feature that brings to mind the contrast he brought to a track like “Work From Home”. THere is a great sense of rhythm that runs through most of the album’s best tracks – “TG4M” sees Larsson’s syncopated vocals (and obscenely catchy melody) interacting with a differently syncopated beat to a surprisingly complex degree.

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The lyrics are often a detraction due to less well-known names being frequently present than in production, although I often found myself enjoying tracks with good instrumentation and bad lyrics more than the opposite. A few of these tracks were written by Larsson herself and are simply nothing new or lazily written to fit a theme – “You could be the next female president”, she says at one point on empowering track “Make That Money Girl”. The second half of the album falls into some uninspired dance music tropes, though the biggest culprit of this might be the now ubiquitous “Never Forget You”, a track in which the drop feels like a part of a different song that was tacked on as an obligation.

Tracks that focus more on the instrumental than Larsson’s voice become less interesting, while surprising background elements accompanying Larsson’s enjoyable vocals are what make some of these tracks live up to the album title. “Sundown”, a track featuring dancehall artist Wizkid who nobody had heard of before Drake’s smash hit “One Dance”, tries and fails to recreate the magic with a too-similar beat.

This is a pop album through and through, and like most middle of the road albums in the genre, contains a select few novel ideas that serve as clear standouts while about half of the tracks fall into mediocrity. Still, at only 19, Larsson has shown some serious potential here and working with the right people going forward could create some great pop music.

Favourite Tracks: TG4M, So Good, Lush Life, Symphony

Least Favourite Track: Never Forget You

Score: 6/10

Drake – More Life

Image result for more lifeSinger, rapper, OVO label boss and debatable biggest artist in the world Drake defies the typical strategy of release once again, unleashing his fourth project in about a 2-year span on his adoring fans and dubbing it a “playlist”, inventing a new category between the mixtape and the album. As the speed of his projects increases and popularity rises, More Life unfortunately only continues the trend which most recently culminated in 2016’s sprawling, overlong and unfocused Views.

I have frequently referred to Drake as the most inconsistent artist in the music industry today, capable of creating some truly great things when he actively seeks to distinguish himself and make a statement but more often than not falling into the same sonic and lyrical trends that made him famous. More Life contains even less standout moments than Views did, rarely pushes itself to the foreground of listeners’ consciousness and continue to blend global elements to a painfully awkward degree.

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Drake attempts to take listener on a world tour with the sound of this project, evidently hoping that titling it a playlist would excuse its incongruity. When we aren’t getting the classic Drake dancehall flips (the more upbeat tropical instrumental of “Madiba Riddim” actually got me excited for a second until Drake whined “I can not tell who is my friend”) or “It’s so hard being the most famous person in the world” bars over uninspired rap instrumentals, he ventures even further into getting halfway there on replicating Afrobeat and grime. Outside of relatively unknown influences from Drake’s new worldly forays, production is handled by the same OVO team which has been creating similar OVO beats since If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

The best moments on this project come when we hear new sounds that don’t come from attempts to emulate a genre, such as on the beats of “Skepta Interlude” and “Portland”, which is itself riding a recent wave of implementing flutes into trap beats. “Ice Melts” counts because it’s only the 2nd song ever that sounds like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”. Of course, you can never count out the charm that makes up the majority of Drake’s appeal showing up at least a few times on a 22-track project either, and “Gyalchester” best reflects this.

Some, but certainly not all (looking at you, Giggs) features on this project make the best of their guest spots on a high profile project. I have to mention Young Thug’s verse on “Sacrifices” here, where he sounds more coherent than ever and presents a technically impressive verse with a running motif and an off-kilter flow that only Thug could make work. UK singer Sampha gets a track all to himself, allowing his smooth vocals to steal the spotlight for a moment, and Kanye West’s appearance on “Glow” saves what is a rather disjointed track due to sounding more passionate than most tracks on Pablo.

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Drake, on the other hand, rarely sounds like he cares at all. Most of my favourite moments on this project come when Drake isn’t speaking because every other voice sounds like they want to be there more. Compare him to grime rapper Skepta, who gets an entire interlude to himself and outdoes all other tracks by virtue of his impassioned delivery alone. The entire project is watered down Drake tropes, as evidenced by the fact that single “Fake Love”, itself a less interesting “Hotline Bling”, now almost sounds good in this context.

I’m surprised that Drake’s interpolation of cultural elements that are not his own are not drawing as much negative ire as something like Iggy Azalea’s fake accent in how awkward their execution is. His now-trademark dancehall elements appear on about a third of these tracks, and his fake patois unfortunately appears on more. As a few lesser-known UK artists get prime appearances here, of course Drake had to try their style as well. On “No Long Talk”, he legitimately says “Now you man are on a diss ting” in a British accent. From now famously stealing upstart XXXTentacion’s flow on “KMT” to turning half of “Teenage Fever” into a pitched sample of ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez’s hit “If You Had My Love”, there is little originality to be found here.

As soon as fans were whipped into frenzy upon Drake’s utterance of “Running! Through the! Six! With my woes!” on 2015 track “Know Yourself”, it became far too easy to be Drake and he began to focus on quantity over quality. While he suggests an extensive break from the spotlight on More Life‘s closing track, he still asserts he will be back in 2018. For all of our sakes, take a bit longer and find your inspiration again.

Favourite Tracks: Skepta Interlude, Can’t Have Everything, Gyalchester

Least Favourite Track: Teenage Fever

Score: 4/10

Tennis – Yours Conditionally

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyHusband and wife duo Tennis release their fourth studio album, continuing their streak of consistently delivering catchy retro-pop sounds. I was introduced to this lesser-known band as the opening act for pop-rock sister trio HAIM at an event which perfectly captures their essence – an outdoor summer concert. Both acts were clearly inspired by early pop groups like Fleetwood Mac, and the tribute here is better executed than most.

The band was brought to wider attention after working with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney on their 2014 album, Ritual In Repeat, and reminds me why their live show captivated me so much on this project. Even going as far as to look and dress the part of the musical era they are so enamoured with, being immersed in the warm vocals of Alaina Moore and ethereal dream-pop instrumentals from Patrick Riley is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

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Tennis is so intriguing because they emulate a very specific style of music near-perfectly, offering a time machine to listeners with the promise of escape from the sometimes overwhelmingly hollow and vapid landscape of current popular music. We live in a time where The Chainsmokers can chart 3 songs in the Billboard top 10 simultaneously, after all. Yet, at the same time, they make it sound like any of these songs could easily fit in today, as if Tennis is filling a necessary space that has been empty for too long. If the band had wider recognition there is no doubt they could have a hit single. The sound of the album is mainly 60s-70s California surf-pop, featuring tracks driven by reverb-laden guitar hooks and layered harmonies. This blends together with some more modern features of the alternative dream-pop scene, Moore’s vocals calling to mind some of Lana Del Rey’s work at times.

Moore’s voice is absolutely magical and is the clear main attraction here, sounding great at all ends of her impressive register. Soft and unassuming yet playful and inviting, she is the perfect fit for this style of music. Opening track “In The Morning I’ll Be Better” really sets the tone for the rest of the project — Moore precedes the chorus with a beautiful low harmony (“Say you’re my baby…”) before reaching all the way up to pleadingly deliver the song’s title in the outro, drawing the listener in completely. The bass guitar riff and twinkling piano melody complete one of the year’s best tracks. The structure of “Matrimony” is very similar, and delivers once again. The pounding synth piano is brought out more here, allowing a more freeing space for Moore’s airy vocals as she reminisces about her wedding day on a “sweet summer morning early in July”.

The simplicity of some of these songs is spun into one of the album’s greatest strengths, bringing it back to the days when pop music was more about delivering a simple emotion to its most powerful degree. Revolving around musicality, rather than lyricism, first and foremost. “Fields of Blue” is built around a melody that we’d never hear today but sounds strangely familiar, as Moore sweetly sings “I really need you/Oh, what’s the use in resisting?”

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This is the band’s first album without a fully committed drummer, as band member James Barone left the group after their previous effort, and the adjustment period is felt. Not that the percussion sounds particularly bad, but it doesn’t fit as well with the mastery of the style brought forth with all other aspects of the music. It sounds much more mechanical and modern than the rest of the instrumental. Additionally, most of these tracks are short but sweet, and on both occasions where the songs extend past 4 minutes it is due to extended repetition of one motif that goes on a bit too long, briefly snapping me out of the trance they put me in.

That being said, Yours Conditionally, like the rest of Tennis’ career, is an homage which is delivered with so much clear admiration and lifelong dedication to its source material that you can’t help but applaud them for their efforts. The aspects of modernity that they apply allow them to give these tracks their own character, extending it past a cheap imitation, and the musicianship on display to accompany Moore’s refreshing voice is excellent.

Favourite Tracks: In The Morning I’ll Be Better, Fields Of Blue, Matrimony, My Emotions Are Blinding, Modern Woman

Least Favourite Track: Baby Don’t Believe

Score: 9/10

Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel

Charli XCX - Number 1 Angel.pngBurgeoning pop superstar turned experimental indie-pop darling Charli XCX continues the wave of alternative and quirky beats and melodies kickstarted by last year’s Vroom Vroom EP. Working once again with the talented producers at PC Music, she begins to swing back in the direction of commercial viability, finding a happy medium between the two styles released in the past. XCX applies her trademark sassy and confident lyrics and enormous choruses to instrumentals that sound like they might be from another planet. The 10-track Number 1 Angel ultimately becomes an opportunity to lose any preconceptions you might have about bubblegum pop music and enjoy the wild ride it takes you on.

The project is a largely collaborative effort with many artists who occupy XCX’s niche in the musical world. Fellow alternative pop artists Raye, Abra and MØ all appear to deliver verses of their own, which fit in so well with the unique world created here that they are often hard to distinguish from XCX’s. Travi$ Scott protege Starrah appears to deliver her adept autotuned flow, and in perhaps XCX’s most audacious move, the final track “Lipgloss” is dominated by rapper CupcakKe, frequently made the butt of a joke on the Internet for her outlandishly sexually explicit lyrics but coming across strangely at home here. When another female voice joins XCX on the mic to offer their own perspective on the situation at hand, it strengthens these tracks.

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The production is handled entirely by PC Music artists, giving Number 1 Angel a truly distinct sound. The beats hit harder than most pop music, giving a feel geared more towards something like hardstyle EDM. These beats are glitchy, synth-infused and percussion-heavy, recreating the atmosphere that accommodates the childlike and carefree vocals that PC Music producers are known for on their own releases. Prominent labelmates such as founder A. G. Cook, Easy FX, Danny L Harle and SOPHIE all contribute.

Number 1 Angel opens with its best song, “Dreamer”, which shows the effect that XCX’s simplistic lyrics can have. While they can certainly fall into the patterns of repeating the themes of partying, fame and money, the confidence she exudes combines with these beats to outstanding effect at times. Her vocalizations have an almost percussive quality that links directly into the trap-influenced beat provided by A. G. Cook. Her voice acts in the same way an electronic filtered swing would when it is modulated mid-chorus: “I’m a dreamer … step-step out the Beemer, bout to do it big, stretch-stretch limousine-uhh…”. Add two verses from Starrah and 19-year old Raye that harness the beat perfectly and you have the year’s best party track.

The project is quite consistent in its steady delivery of catchy hooks and energetic beats, making for a concise 10-track project that never overstays its welcome. Every track feels like it belongs here. The passion XCX sings with makes it sound like she believes she is creating a timeless pop masterpiece, and it can honestly come off this way as a result. “Emotional” feels like it’s already been a huge hit for years, and when the big chorus hits it almost feels like a wave of nostalgia. Speaking of which, “Babygirl” is another absolute standout, featuring a 90s-influenced sound. Sugary-sweet synths and percussion back XCX’s only rap verses on the album – triumphant proclamations of how great she looks, what else would they be?

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XCX’s voice is not exactly built for auto-tune, and this becomes evident when it is contrasted with someone like Starrah. Although a track like “Blame It On You” is more than saved by the innovative integration of XCX’s voice into the beat in its second half, it stands out as a weakness here due to its blander lyrics and use of the pitch correction system. It takes away from some of the power she has in her full-voiced “I’m here” belt. Since the producers here are primarily EDM artists, they tend to extend some weaker motifs for too long. SOPHIE might be PC Music’s most creative member, and he has always been hit-or-miss for me with the completely off-the-wall sounds he attempts. His one track here, “Roll With Me”, features a repetition of XCX’s voice pitched up very high that falls flat.

Despite any reservations that can come from a skeptical perspective of the artistic merits of boisterous pop music that artists like XCX are known for, it is very difficult to not have a great time listening to this project. PC Music will always provide something different to listen to, and while XCX’s lyrics are frequently rather lazy, this fits with her persona and really works at times for precisely this reason. Sometimes you just have to joyfully submit to material like this.

Favourite Tracks: Dreamer, Babygirl, Emotional, 3AM (Pull Up)

Least Favourite Track: ILY2

Score: 8/10

Khalid – American Teen

Image result for khalid american teen19 year old R&B singer Khalid, whose debut single “Location” is currently flying up the charts due to the assistance of one Ms. Kylie Jenner, drops an accompanying album that shows off his unique voice despite its lack of originality. Like the genre’s fellow upstart Texan Leon Bridges, Khalid’s vocals are deep, soulful and layered with what sounds like life experience beyond his years. This is interesting because the vast majority of American Teen is about just what it sounds like, being young in today’s America. However, on an album of above-average length, the lack of variation in instrumentation, tone and subjet matter begins to feel tiresome as it extends into its second half.

The personnel on this album is relatively unknown for the most part and gaining more experienced collaborators on future works may assist Khalid in expanding his horizons. The only immediately recognizable name on the writing or production credits outside of Khalid himself is Joel Little, known for working extensively with New Zealand acts Lorde and Broods. His signature style of upbeat pop production with a slightly dark edge is represented on a few tracks here, attempting to bring an engagement with the musical landscape around him out of Khalid that never really comes. The Arcade, famous for work on Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic and almost nothing else, inexplicably show up on derivative R&B slow jam “Cold Blooded”.

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American Teen‘s more upbeat tracks are a better environment for Khalid’s voice to shine. For so many songs about youthful irresponsibility and doing stupid things, you’d think the instrumentals would be infused more often with the bright synth lines of tracks like “American Teen”, “Young Dumb & Broke” and “Winter”. Although his voice has a mature sound and serves as a strength of the album throughout, the youthfulness of the subject matter overrides this and causes it to play well off of more danceable, upbeat instrumentals. When the title track closes with an off-key drunken mob (apparently made up of Khalid’s real-life friends) shouting the chorus, it honestly works to a powerful degree because it is the vibe we expect from him. “My youth is the foundation of me!”.

Khalid admirably wrote all of these songs, containing lyrical content which is frequently a little trite but occasionally breaks into great choruses that I’d expect from a fully established pop songwriter. While Khalid’s voice is frequently a high point, the slow trudge of the instrumentals and similarity of numerous tracks make it difficult to focus on the one positive aspect at times. I’d love to hear him do some features.

The first two tracks are infused with an energy that never really returns as the album progresses, emulating the worst tropes of the somber and moody alt-R&B that has risen to the forefront of the culture. It is hard to remember the differences between the vast majority of these songs due to the overwhelming early-Weeknd feel which dominates the majority of R&B projects today. Abel himself might have been smart to abandon the genre he created on his recent Starboy, as it has basically gone everywhere it can go at this point. When Khalid drones “I’ll be coasting, rollercoasting through my emotions” on “Coaster”, he’s practically begging to be signed to XO. Take this line from “Winter”: “You were so quick to reject me, so I’ll take my time being sad”. It’s the same kind of barely-clever line about how bad he feels that we expect from someone like Drake.

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While some of these tracks are outright copies of songs like The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games”, there are others which suffer because they really should be more fun than they end up being. Part of this is because of Khalid’s delivery. “8TEEN”, one of Little’s contributions, is a song detailing the ecstatic rush of a first love set to a high-pitched synth piano and trap hi-hats. It sounds like it was curated to whip a young festival crowd into a frenzy, but Khalid’s tone hardly varies from songs where he’s meant to be in pain. To close with this one slightly ridiculous nitpick – Khalid doesn’t often articulate his Rs, which might not be so noticeable if they weren’t so essential to his choruses. “I’m pwoud to be Amewican”, “I need your thewapy”. It irks me to no end.

If a young talent like Khalid was simply searching to put his foot in the door in the world of R&B, showing that he can stand beside his peers in his ability to release a complete and fully fleshed-out project, he achieved that, especially due to his heavy involvement in writing. However, some sense of innovation going forward is essential if he wants his career to continue. The Weeknd was a trailblazer. Now he is a worldwide star, and distinguishing between all of those who followed in his footsteps is getting increasingly difficult.

Favourite Tracks: American Teen, Young Dumb & Broke, Winter

Least Favourite Track: Therapy

Score: 3/10

Ed Sheeran – ÷

Divide cover.pngBritish singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, the man capable of selling out a stadium with nothing but a guitar and a loop pedal, firmly establishes himself as one of the leading presences at the forefront of pop music with his third studio album and first #1 hit single (“Shape Of You”). It’s been a steady rise to the top, but with the consistent quality of his work and tirelessly competitive edge that drives him to improvement, Sheeran continues to achieve the lofty goals he sets out for himself.

Outside of the tailor-made hit single that you might hear whenever a radio is switched on at the moment, ÷ certainly didn’t go full bubblegum pop like some other stars tend to when they reach this level of widespread appeal. In fact, it might have significantly less of that kind of material than 2014’s X. Taking a break from social media and travelling over the past year has seemingly opened Sheeran up to a diverse range of musical influences, and he really has the raw talent to make anything at all work.

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There are much less personnel on this album than the typical A-list pop star release, speaking volumes to the degree of Sheeran’s own input. Almost every track is produced by some combination of close friend and frequent collaborator Johnny McDaid, pop mastermind Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Justin Bieber), and Sheeran himself. Sheeran also has primary writing credit on every song, with the assistance of Blanco or one of a few well-established pop songwriters. OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, folk breakout Foy Vance and Julia Michaels, quickly establishing a solo career of her own, all appear here.

These are all mostly the trademark passionately sung, well-written and guitar-driven tracks that we know and love him for, but applied to a wide range of styles. For example, “Dive” features a beautiful foray into the doo-wop sound you never knew Sheeran could dominate in this way, while “Galway Girl” gives a modern update to what sounds like an Irish folk song, a track that is outside the norm to just the right amount – Sheeran had to fight the label to keep it on.

Right off the bat, we’re reminded Sheeran can rap on opener “Eraser” – this is usually the best display of his lyricism, and this track basically serves as an update on the status of Sheeran’s feelings towards his position in the music industry. Having at least one track like this on each album is an interesting insight to the foundation of the strong hip-hop influence in his uptempo tracks. More importantly, however, Sheeran can SING – the passion and emotional involvement he puts into the delivery of every song is the number one thing that makes him so appealing. This can manifest in the strain from putting so much feeling into the words his voice reaches its breaking point on songs like “Dive”, or quieting things down to deliver something like a touching elegy to his late grandmother on closer “Supermarket Flowers”. His actual vocal abilities, as well, especially his range, consistently surprise and put him ahead of all of his contemporaries save for maybe Bruno Mars.

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Sheeran’s lyrics can make you both laugh and cry and can be emotionally affecting like nobody else. When he describes the scene in detail on “Happier” of observing the interactions between his ex-girlfriend and her new man in a bar, before admitting he was happier with her, your heart breaks along with his struggle to accept his situation. Of course, he then turns it around on forthcoming track “New Man”, hilariously mocking the stereotypical characteristics of this bland and typically “popular” man. Some other standout tracks include “Perfect”, where Sheeran endears us to his cheesy romantic lyrics in the way only he can, and “How Would You Feel (Paean)”, another love ballad which calls back to debut album + with its acoustic guitar and piano and features a guitar solo from John Mayer.

One of the only criticisms I could possibly have about this album is that there are certain songs where connections to corresponding tracks on X could be easily drawn, but Sheeran said himself that he had these songs in mind and was trying to improve upon them, which he certainly did. “New Man” is a better “Don’t”. “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is a better “Tenerife Sea”. The only time there is a lapse in me being completely captivated by Sheeran’s many talents is perhaps “What Do I Know?”, where the repetitive guitar loop and chorus melody are still very catchy, but more basic. What it makes up for in interesting music, it makes up for in interesting lyrics acknowledging the tricky relationship between artists and controversial topics, Sheeran ultimately choosing to avoid them but offering his music as a catalyst for peaceful change.

Sheeran has improved with every album release, and makes me believe that a ginger-haired and socially awkward guy who likes to rap could fully achieve all the plans he outlines in interviews to conquer the world. The natural talent he has is in an extraordinary realm, and with the self-awareness he has to identify what didn’t work in his past and improve it, we might not have even heard Sheeran’s best yet.

Favourite Tracks: Galway Girl, Dive, Perfect, How Would You Feel (Paean), New Man

Least Favourite Track: What Do I Know?

Score: 10/10

Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkVirtuoso jazz-funk bassist Thundercat, now exposed to a wider audience due to his outstanding work on Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, unleashes his third studio effort and first since 2013. The album is sprawling, conceptual and incoherent in the best way, musical tidbits flying past you before you even have a chance to grab hold of them. Songs rarely extend past the 3-minute barrier. The title, Drunk, is intended to be as appropriate as it ends up being.

It not only feels like we are drunk ourselves, listening to the music which is equal parts woozy and frantic and getting constantly distracted by different things, but that we are listening to an hour-long diatribe given by the drunken Thundercat. He has absolutely no filter on this project to hilarious result and says any stray thought that enters his mind. The album is very difficult to make heads or tails of, but the convincing degree to which Thundercat executes the concept and the stellar musicianship on display makes Drunk more than worth your time.

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The album is an infinite loop, as the same melody from opener “Rabbot Ho” is repeated with different lyrics on closer “DUI”. “Where this ends we’ll never know”, Thundercat sings, knowing that he is going to continue to revert back to the negative thoughts and tendencies he speaks about over the course of the album. The whole album really is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole that he alludes to on the opening track.

Thundercat is accompanied on nearly every song by producer and Brainfeeder labelmate Flying Lotus, whose usually electronic work is just as experimental in sound and gels nicely here. Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave (B***h Don’t Kill My Vibe, King Kunta) appears on three tracks and offers his funk sensibilities to great effect as well. Lamar himself appears on the mic, one of three hip-hop features with Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams, who all do their best to maneuver through Thundercat’s unique soundscapes. Most interesting are the appearances on “Show You The Way” from none other than Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, clearly inspirations for Thundercat’s style of singing, who sound as at home as ever on the jazzy instrumental.

Thundercat’s work with his bass guitar is an absolute wonder to behold — “Uh Uh” introduces his skill level early on in the album with a largely instrumental track where he duels with a piano player, seemingly attempting to play the fastest while maintaining a coherent sense of melody. It all reminds me of Sebastian’s “conflict and compromise” speech in La La Land.

The lyrics are consistently a surprise, hiding some much deeper themes behind some seemingly random and mundane topics. Yes, Thundercat sings about how he doesn’t understand technology (“Thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t Tweet our thoughts?”, he sings sarcastically), skirting romantic relationships to play video games, and how he wishes he lived the carefree life of a cat (complete with meowing vocals), but the tempo frequently slows down to offer more poetically written statements on death, loss, loneliness and discrimination. It shows that tracks like “Tokyo”, where he travels to the city to “blow all [his] cash on anime”, are more of a coping mechanism with this pain. It’s all very conceptual, and will take further listens to fully understand.

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Thundercat’s voice is a beautiful falsetto, but as the focus is more on his instrument, he never takes much effort to put variation in his tone and as a result many of these songs end up sounding very similar. If it weren’t for the distinctive lyrics, this album would get incredibly boring as it reached its end.  Standing at 23 tracks, there is certainly some filler here, as some tracks touch on largely the same topics – though perhaps the ultimate meaning hasn’t clicked yet. Thundercat seems like the kind of artist who would deliberately order these tracks to communicate an overarching artistic vision.

The unique musical style displayed throughout is often too abstract to accommodate guests, and it leads to some awkward verses from Lamar, Khalifa and Williams, who all seem as surprised by the twists and turns as we are. As they are trying to deliver their verse, they tend to clash irrhythmically with the shifting, changing musical landscape behind them.

While Drunk certainly has its faults, the sheer attempt to pull off something like this and irreverent creativity and absurdism issued in Thundercat’s lyrics makes this 2017’s most interesting project thus far. Thundercat has proven himself to be a talent far beyond his manic bass playing, and it’s easy to see why a visionary like Lamar keeps calling on him.

Favourite Tracks: Show You The Way, Tokyo, A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II), Uh Uh, Friend Zone

Least Favourite Track: Where I’m Going

Score: 8/10

Little Big Town – The Breaker

Image result for little big town the breakerNow deep into their careers, harmonious country quartet Little Big Town recruit some of their genre’s best songwriters and right the wrongs of their Pharrell Williams-assisted bubblegum pop misfire of 2016, Wanderlust. While there may not be anything on the project that stands out quite like their Grammy-nominated ballad “Girl Crush”, there is more than enough solid material here from each of the band’s vocalists, and it is a more than welcome return to form. While the tracks can pick up and slow down in energy and tempo with reckless abandon, the uniting force of their outstanding harmonies ties the project together throughout and makes The Breaker a very respectable work.

Little Big Town have never fully adhered to their country label, and while their instrumentals still use many of the typical characteristics the genre is defined by, their lyricism and musical sensibilities are built more for pop, rock and R&B. They switch between them with ease here, usually based on the vocalist singing lead. Kimberley Schlapman and Phillip Sweet are more traditionally country vocalists, but they are used much less than the pop-oriented Karen Fairchild and rock-oriented Jimi Westbrook here. Fairchild’s dynamic and adaptable voice can be used effectively on almost anything, and there are many tonal shifts as the songs become quieter or more driving as the album progresses.

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The band assembles a team of some of country’s best songwriters to bolster the project, including Best Country Song Grammy winners Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush”, Tim McGraw’s “Humble And Kind”) and Hillary Lindsey (Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood), as well as Luke Laird (Kacey Musgraves, Luke Bryan) and – surprise, surprise – pop superstar Taylor Swift.

Fairchild is the best vocalist, and she is smartly used on about half of the tracks here. Her voice is unassuming yet holds its own, and her lower range stands out best when Schlapman’s higher soprano floats on top in a harmony. The harmonies are still far and away the main attraction of the band, and have the potential to save any track. There are some songs here that kept some of the more negative aspects from Wanderlust — the album opens with a robotic drum machine beat that segues into one of its most saccharine tracks, “Happy People”, but then they absolutely sell the mood they are going for with the harmonized chorus. Well-executed 4 part harmony is so hard to find and Little Big Town have been doing it for over a decade. The four vocalists are all very different, so it is surprising to the listener when one emerges from the pack after we have the knowledge of how well they all work together.

The lyrics here are frequently emotionally affecting in the simplest ways, and although members of the band themselves rarely have credit it speaks to the strength of their writers – yes, including Swift, who might actually have the best use of this simplicity here with her tale of love gone wrong. Her track, “Better Man”, was met with mainstream appeal, and for good reason. It contains the intoxicating melody of some of Swift’s greatest hits with the added musicality of a group like Little Big Town that is not present in her own work, and this works incredibly well. Calming Fairchild tracks like “Lost In California” and “Free” stand out in the early goings of the album, offering catchy choruses while refraining from overpowering the listener too much, allowing them to appreciate just how impressive those harmonies are.

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Little Big Town work at their absolute best when they are quiet and serene, giving the emotional swell of the harmonies the most room to move and grow. While most of these tracks are very good, only about half of them possess these qualities and I wish more ultimately did. Fairchild and Sweet have more soothing voices, while Schlapman’s powerful voice and Westbrook’s snarling belt especially were built for louder tracks. When the latter two take charge is can take away from the overall strength of the album at times. However, the tonal shifts of the album allow even Fairchild tracks to stand out as outliers. I don’t know what to make of a track like “Drivin’ Around”, which delivers great energy but resembles Wanderlust perhaps more than any other with its pop-rock leaning sound and somewhat awkward melody. The vocals sound like they were recorded in a stadium, while I picture the band best in a smaller, intimate setting.

Becoming the first to be reviewed on this website more than once, a simple search of my previous review for Wanderlust should reveal my relief that it was only a side experiment. This is the kind of music this band should be making, and while it may not be as sonically adventurous as 2014’s Pain Killer, I still can’t help but lose myself in their world when those harmonies hit.

Favourite Tracks: Better Man, Lost In California, Free, Rollin’, Don’t Die Young Don’t Get Old

Least Favourite Track: Drivin’ Around

Score: 8/10