BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2018

Here are the absolute best of the best full bodies of work in the chaotic year that was 2018. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
  • The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
  • Camila Cabello – Camila
  • The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
  • Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
  • The Internet – Hive Mind
  • Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
  • Mitski – Be The Cowboy
  • Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  • Vince Staples – FM!

25. Jeremih/Ty Dolla $ign – MihTy

MihTy.pngTy Dolla $ign might be my 2018 MVP – his vocals appeared on quite a few high-profile albums across a number of genres and he certainly proved his versatility. This collab project with Jeremih sees him back in his element, bouncing his characteristically raspy vocals off of Jeremih’s cleaner, higher-pitched approach to deliver a non-stop run of slow jams and upbeat melodic trap cuts. Teaming up with producer Hitmaka, the two carve out a place in 2018 for the somewhat-dated R&B womanizer figure.

24. Nao – Saturn

Image result for nao saturnNao’s sophomore project is named after the astrological phenomenon of the Saturn’s Return, a period of time around age 29 when Saturn returns to its position at one’s birth that provokes events causing drastic shifts in one’s life and signals complete maturity. Her artistic growth is evident from her debut, adding some excellent and personal songwriting to her already unique and ethereal voice. Nao feels that her personal drastic shift was the end of a long-term relationship, and she addresses her heartbreak across the album’s best tracks. Saturn is a jazzy R&B project about coping with the pains and pressures of finding your way in the world.

23. Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

PATD PFTW.jpgStratospheric and theatrical vocalist Brendon Urie’s second album carrying the Panic! at the Disco name all by himself, he delivers some of his best work yet drawing from some aspects of Broadway after making his debut in musical theatre. While it might be their poppiest, the lighter melodies are grounded by roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s flair for a darker, baroque atmosphere. Of course, the centrepiece is still Urie’s powerhouse vocal delivery, a connecting thread making every unique and melodramatic world of sound the band travels to work perfectly – the man can sell anything. These are some spectacular, arena-sized choruses across the board.

22. BROCKHAMPTON – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgThe experimental hip-hop collective’s major label debut after the well-received Saturation trilogy, as well as their first without founding member Ameer Vann after allegations against him were released, BROCKHAMPTON continues on just fine with some eclectic and electrifying new sounds here. The instrumentals often complex and abrasive, the vocalists on top all with their own off-the-wall styles, everything about this project is signals an exciting and dynamic force in the industry who aren’t afraid to throw whatever at the wall even if it doesn’t all stick – most of it does, and the seamless transitions through various genres and musical worlds, each member getting a chance to shine, is an exhilarating rush. The openly gay Kevin Abstract’s discussion of his struggles continues to be a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, as well.

21. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson Paak Oxnard.jpegThe burgeoning funk superstar recruits Dr. Dre to executive produce his album and takes more of a turn towards hip-hop and 90s-inspired G-funk than ever before. It might not be his strongest suit, but everything .Paak does is a strong suit, still elevating the project with his boundless charisma and undeniable musicality. Getting some assistance from some great features including Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Q-Tip, the spirit of the funk and .Paak’s soulful singing voice can still be found across the board here, but the best part of Oxnard is that you can tell .Paak is having fun and living his dream of making an album with one of his childhood idols. The project takes a turn for the overtly political on “6 Summers”, but for the most part this is just .Paak continuing to flash that giant smile of his in audio form.

20. J. Cole – KOD

JColeKOD.jpgOne of the most densely conceptual albums of the year, the disturbing album cover alone should tell you how deeply Cole is about to dive into some dark and emotional topics here. Embodying several characters across the project’s runtime, Cole describes his observations of his friends and others in his community’s reliance on various addictions – drugs and alcohol, technology, inconsistent sources of money, power and love – to help them cope with depression and anxiety, suppressing their feelings rather than letting them out for fear of judgment. Keeping listeners interested with his technical skills and ability to paint a vivid story, it’s when Cole breaks character and delves into his own life experiences beating these addictions that the album becomes most harrowing.

19. Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgThe alt-rock (and everything in between) duo team up to deliver one of my biggest surprises this year, finally bringing the diverse musical worlds they pull from together in a seamless fashion in a huge improvement from their past works. United by a central narrative that apparently plays into a much larger thread running across their entire careers, the songs follow the experiences of a character in the fictional city of Dema, a name that draws from religious aspects of Zoroastrianism. The questioning of faith is just one of the deeper topics the duo address here, but the most compelling are frontman Tyler Joseph’s musings on mental health and celebrity culture, and the frequent romanticization of poor mental health. Trench is enhanced by impeccable production work, every tiny element of each track in the right place.

18. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngThe unapologetic rapper who shot to fame at the end of last year drops her debut project that represents one of the most fun and confidence-inducing albums of the year. Everyone has been so drawn to Cardi because she hides nothing about herself, being completely honest and having no filter at all, and that comes across here, dropping bars that can be explicit or carefree in a completely over-the-top way. Cardi is not only absolutely hilarious, but often surprisingly technically skilled, adding to the punch she puts behind every syllable with some quicker flows. The sonic diversity here that ranges from pure hip-hop bangers to calmer, emotional R&B, to Latin pop, shows that Cardi is much more than the one-hit wonder many expected her to be and is here to stay. She has the X Factor.

17. Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverOne of the breakout stars of the year, Ella Mai sets out bringing back some more traditional R&B to the mainstream in the wake of the more spacey, chill alt-R&B trend dominating the charts. Clearly inspired by early-2000s artists, Mai’s alto range is soothing and effortless as she runs through some vocal acrobatics and clever lyrical flips. Another album with a grounding aspect of connectedness, each small section of the album is introduced by a theme, the first letters of each theme ultimately spelling Mai’s name. The production from DJ Mustard perfectly blends some recognizable old-school sounds with a more modern angle, but by the time you get to the final, stripped-back track, it’s clear that the real excitement associated with Mai is just how great of a singer she is.

16. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldOne of the most culturally significant albums of the year, it’s safe to say we can add Travis Scott to the pantheon of today’s larger-than-life rap superstars with an album that is equal parts straightforward and fun, creative and risky. The perfect summer rap album, Scott recruits guests from Pharrell to Tame Impala to Stevie Wonder to Drake and dives into a psychedelic and frequently disorienting world enhanced by his Auto-Tuned flow. The listening experience is intended to feel like you’re on an amusement park ride, as the project is dedicated to a childhood favourite park of Scott’s since closed down. Scott approaches these tracks with almost an audible sense of wonderment in his voice, and while you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, you know it’ll be a good time.

15. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes

Image result for voicenotesAnother huge surprise for me this year, Charlie Puth drops the cheesiness of his past work and moves towards a more mature, yet still distinctly nostalgic sound. His classical training is evident on the brilliantly mixed project, which he produced himself. Anchored firmly in 90s R&B, Puth reminds me a lot of early Justin Timberlake here, and even fits right in with Boyz II Men when he brings them on board for a track. Puth’s wispy falsetto is consistently enjoyable, but it’s the layering and harmonies that really sell Puth as a worthy purveyor of this throwback material, delivering on an understanding of the musicality required to pull off some more complex and interlocking aspects. The guilty pleasure success of the year?

14. Kanye West – ye

Ye album cover.jpgIt’s a wonder that one of Kanye’s least polished albums of his career is still as good as it is. While it’s certainly not without its problems, ye exists as a kind of blend of Yeezus and “Old Kanye” that sees him take some pretty interesting dives into his mental health and its effects on his personal and familial life in the wake of his hospitalization, bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. West is at his most lyrical he’s been in a while, and his singing voice has clearly improved as he runs through a number of introspective and confessional tracks backed up by the usual combination of soul samples and minimal, industrial beats. West’s advice to speak your mind freely in times of crisis, stating your thoughts out loud no matter how dark they are and thus exorcising the demons, has resonated with me all year.

13. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

Sophie - Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides.pngThe endlessly experimental electronic music producer from the PC Music camp finally delivers her debut studio album, and it’s certainly just as much of a mindbending experience as I could have expected. A distorted and beautiful 9-track journey, this is the kind of stuff that could legitimately offer a window to gaze into what the future of pop music can sound like. SOPHIE ranges from punishing, bass-heavy tracks to lengthy, ethereal dreamscapes of cascading synths and calming vocals across this project, everything coming together for a 9-minute closing track where all the sounds are addressed that ultimately just falls apart into a stretched-out hellscape where everything cascades into each other. It’s all something you’ll have to hear to believe – this is something indescribable.

12. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgEasily one of the most powerful projects of the year comes from one of my favourite producers, Dev Hynes – known as Blood Orange in his solo material. Inspired by various tales of discrimination in his younger years and a dedication to showing love despite an inability to escape being viewed as an outsider regardless of his actions, the spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock tie the project together as she speaks on perseverance and an embrace of one’s identity – “doing the most”. The sound of the project itself seems to have taken Mock’s advice, a jazzy R&B/funk album with some complex harmonies and wailing freeform solos. A producer at heart, Hynes lets a featured vocalist take over the track most of the time, and he knows just how to use artists’  greatest strengths in the right way. Hynes never beats you over the head with his more political statements here, but smartly disguises them for maximum impact, catching you off guard in the middle of his lush musical world.

11. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverWho knew we’d ever get an Ariana Grande album mostly produced by Pharrell Williams? Sweetener is easily Grande’s riskiest album, and after taking some time to grow on me, it just might be her best as well. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop production style is strangely accommodating to Grande’s powerhouse vocal capabilities, adapting her sound to the more hip-hop influenced world of modern R&B. Full of genuine, believable declarations of an intense, whirlwind love and coloured with the slightest hints of lingering pain from the Manchester tragedy, ending the album with a moment of silence, Grande sounds like she’s making the music she wanted to be making all along. With the sometimes chaotic production style, it’s the first time we’re not focused solely on her impressive vocals, but it’s her most personal work all the same.

10. Robyn – Honey

Cover of Honey by RobynThe endlessly influential Swedish pop mastermind returns with her first album in 8 years, and everything we initially loved about her is still there. So much of the modern space of electropop still owes itself to her early work, and she delivers some more upbeat, synth-driven tracks here injected with her usual degree of catharsis and escape from pain through pop music. A warm and inviting sound, every one of these tracks feels like something bigger than music, a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that Robyn invites you to join. This is an all-out pop celebration, but the only reason we’re having it is to forget about all those other not-so-fun things that happened to us. Join Robyn, and keep dancing to stop yourself from crying.

9. Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Image result for boarding house reachRock and roll music is in dire need of someone to come in and shake up the formula right now, any music driven by guitars often nowhere to be found on the top charts. With the polarizing Boarding House Reach, Jack White might be that guy. On a garage and blues rock adventure, White throws song structure out the window and hits listeners with a series of mostly instrumental, distorted tracks that represent some of the most ambitious work I’ve heard on a mainstream release in a long time. White has always had a flair for the melodramatic, and his vocals are theatrical and overly emotional here as he attacks modern capitalism and other topics. White thrives in the chaos, and the various sonic misdirections combined with White’s social commentary turns this into something like performance art.

8. Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngThe best purely pop album of the year? Sivan evokes the 80s with some refreshing and personal lyricism concerning his approaches to relationships as a gay man. Sivan’s vocals are never the flashiest, honest and raw and often kept to little more than a breathy, lower-pitched whisper, but what he doesn’t have in vocal acrobatics he more than makes up for by pouring so much emotion into every note. Most of these instrumentals are dreamy and magical, a perfect soundscape to frame the discoveries and the ventures into adulthood that Sivan speaks of across the project. Sivan’s understated melodies sneak up on you and stick in your head forever, and he ends up pulling off a perfect homage to the pop music he loved growing up without even sounding like he’s trying that hard half the time.

7. Kali Uchis – Isolation

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis recruits a seriously impressive list of collaborators and blends her classy approach to contemporary R&B with some musical aspects of her own Colombian culture, incorporating some sounds of samba and bossa nova. Isolation is an album where most of the strength comes from the dynamic instrumentals from individuals like Thundercat, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi and the Gorillaz. Uchis’ breathier vocal style is a complement to any of the wide array of genres arranged around her voice here, but when she takes more control and shows off her impressive range, or starts singing in Spanish, it’s easy to become enamoured with the rising star. The album tells a story with a deliberate sequencing of tracks as Uchis arrives in the USA and overcomes people’s perceptions of her in order to make it in the industry.

6. Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgThe Australian indie-pop singer-songwriter delivers one of the most relatable, affecting projects about relationships and loneliness I’ve ever heard, even as most of the situations she describes are vividly detailed and specific to her own personal life. Shark’s music is often a charming combination of smartly written pop melodies, acoustic strumming and trap beats, her tone and confessional songwriting reminding me of Taylor Swift at her best in a lot of ways. Shark’s voice is heartbreakingly emotive as she sings about her loneliness and her fondest memories of a great relationship down to the smallest details of locations they went to or remnants left in her house, and her desperate yearning for something real is a believable representation of something we all strive for.

5. Pusha T – Daytona

Image result for daytona album coverYeugh. The veteran rapper kicked off Kanye West’s five-album Wyoming series with a non-stop verbal assault. Long-time collaborators, the rapper and producer come together in perfect harmony and understanding of each other here, West reaching into the darker sides of his production abilities to provide a grim and menacing platform for Pusha T to exert his ruthless and dominating presence. Pusha’s wordplay and punchlines are some of the best in the game right now, and his expressive voice delivers his emotions effortlessly as he sits back on his perch and issues threats with a smile. Standing at 7 tracks, there’s no room for filler here and Push makes sure that every single word counts for something, drawing out his syllables and overpronouncing words to make absolutely certain we understand where he’s coming from. Sorry Drake.

4. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13oo“Welcome to the darkest side of Taboo”, Curry sings to kick off a section titled “Light”. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist takes us on a journey through his mind, dividing the album into sections of Light, Grey and Dark to signify the degree to which he becomes subsumed in the violence and hatred he observes in his community. The sections inevitably become hopelessly blurred, Curry backing up his paranoid and chaotic lyrics and flows with a full-voiced scream that emphasizes his mental chaos. The project ranges from grimy, distorted hardcore tracks to even some more breezy, funk-influenced instrumentals where Curry shows off his dexterous flow without the anger behind it. The final “Dark” section, however, is straight out of a nightmare. Curry addresses a wide range of taboo topics, as the title suggests, from a disturbingly realistic angle, creating a shocking and overwhelming project that completely overrides your senses. Curry is a man possessed, and has the full toolkit of a great rapper to back it up.

3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegIn stark contrast, Golden Hour is one of the most adorably happy albums I’ve ever heard. In the wake of her marriage, the previously cynical Musgraves starts to see the world from a new angle, taking some ambitious cross-genre leaps in the process. Musgraves shifts from witty criticism to a genuine admiration of the beauty the world has to offer, singing about it with her pop-country melodies and softly delivered honesty in her voice. Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting, and she convinces me completely of this shift in her outlook by injecting some asides that reminds us it’s still her, like on the track “Happy & Sad”. Her voice gives me chills every time on the slower tracks that highlight it. You’re not going to find a more affecting display of pure, essential human emotion this year.

2. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

Image result for kids see ghostsComing to expect Kanye West to reinvent the wheel with every project he delivers, I was wondering where the construction of a completely new sound was on his first two Wyoming releases. It’s all right here. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi, West incorporates his alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does here. The two embattled artists lay all their flaws on the line, then turn to each other for support and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over all that holds them back in an extremely powerful way, finding their own personal peace. Another 7-track release where every tiny aspect feels like it belongs, the sheer innovation and creativity behind the sample flips and applications of more rock-oriented work into these hip-hop tracks is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and the duo both bring the energy to match these driving and high-octane tracks. A grandiose and triumphant statement.

1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Image result for dirty computerWhy can’t all political statements sound quite this incredible? Janelle Monae combines pop and R&B to look at the judgments in our society through her familiar lens of technology, the accompanying and moving “emotion picture” associated with the album depicting aspects of minority identities as a computer virus which needs to be erased, the person carrying that virus a “dirty computer”. Each of these tracks represents a jubilant memory of self-expression that Monae’s character has “erased” by the disturbing society of the film, cleaning her up. Monae mentioned Prince as a major inspiration for the project, and his presence is clear in the funk basslines and the confidence in Monae’s rap verses. Dirty Computer is a highly sexual album, Monae putting the very essence of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality on display and inviting listeners to the party where this celebration and appreciation for these facets of her identity will take place. The project closes with a speech calling for the rights of various minority groups as gospel-tinged harmonies state plainly: “Love me baby, love me for who I am”.

That’s it for Bensbeat in 2018, and with some exciting projects already on the radar for 2019, let’s hope some more great music is on the way. I’ll be back in the new year with some projects that dropped right at the end of the year, and then the new releases will start pouring in once again. Thanks for reading this year.

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BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

Music in 2018 can be mostly defined by the continued rise in prominence of hip-hop, taking over from rock as the most listened to genre for the first time. As both a rather limitless, rule-free form creatively and a way to express protest, almost every genre drew elements from hip-hop this year. We also got a huge number of high-profile releases as the album form slowly evaporates and artists become more prolific. A Spotify playlist of this list is linked at the bottom of the article!

Here are my favourite songs from the huge tide of great music we got this year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – a lot (Ft. J. Cole)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Party For One
  • The Carters – SUMMER
  • The Decemberists – Sucker’s Prayer
  • Denzel Curry – SWITCH IT UP | ZWITCH 1T UP
  • Johnny Balik – Honey
  • Lil Wayne – Dedicate
  • Migos – Narcos
  • ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi & Kendrick Lamar – X
  • Vince Staples – FUN!

50. Mac Miller – 2009

Image result for mac miller swimmingThe last song Mac Miller ever performed live, his look back on his career and personal growth over some uplifting piano chords took on an added level of meaning after his passing.

49. Hozier – Nina Cried Power (Ft. Mavis Staples)

Hozier recruits one of the greatest to pay tribute to artists who recorded impactful protest songs throughout history, backed up by some soulful choral vocals.

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

Image result for twenty one pilots trenchThe band finally perfects their manic genre-mixing, creating a rollercoaster of a track that flawlessly shifts through eerie rap verses, an 80s pop chorus and even some tropical house elements.

47. The Internet – Hold On

Image result for the internet hive mindA 6-minute slow burn, Steve Lacy’s instantly recognizable guitar work is entrancing throughout as Syd’s soothing vocals complete the picture.

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpgSuperproducer Greg Kurstin strikes again with an exciting rising star, as Rogers blends her near-gospel sensibilities with a more traditionally structured pop track.

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

Image result for hayley kiyoko expectationsFeaturing a pretty perfectly structured pop chorus, Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals stuck with me throughout the whole year.

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

Image result for amy shark love monsterAmy Shark’s incredibly specific yet overwhelmingly relatable lyrics, in combination with her blend of hip-hop influenced beats with her softer singer/songwriter tone, reach their peak on this emotional ode to looking out at that one person across the dance floor.

43. Anderson .Paak – Cheers (Ft. Q-Tip)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardOn the closing track of  .Paak’s Oxnard, he teams up with the capable Q-Tip to reminisce on good times with their recently departed friends – Mac Miller and Phife Dawg – over some hard-hitting synth-funk chords.

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

Image result for daytona pusha tI could never get tired of the griminess in Pusha T’s vocal delivery. His energy is in top form here, dropping non-stop bars of  vivid imagery and clever wordplay.

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

Image result for joji ballads 1A complete evolution from the former absurdist comedian, Joji’s take on the current trend of moody alt-R&B features some absolutely beautiful and explosive digitized synth tones that support his emotionally charged delivery.

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

Image result for iridescenceThe rap collective opens their first major label studio album with a bang. The off-the-wall group trade some equally bombastic verses over a supercharged instrumental.

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

Image result for nao saturnRecorded after a breakup, hearing this much genuine emotion in Nao’s usually calm and collected vocal tone is incredibly moving as she sings about the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime connection.

38. Bas – Purge

Image result for bas milky wayOne of my biggest growers this year, the Dreamville rapper’s speedy flow and switch-ups are top-notch as he easily navigates through an entertaining and soulful sample flip.

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

Image result for sweetener coverWhen I saw the video for the first time I became convinced that this would slowly grow into one of Grande’s most memorable career songs years down the road. The choral ending of this track is truly transcendent.

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

Image result for kero kero bonito time n placeOne of the most similar tracks to their earlier work on the experimental pop collective’s latest, heavier project, Sarah Bonito’s adorable voice is at its best over some colourful and animated synth tones.

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

Image result for james bay album coverAn energetic retro-pop track featuring Bay’s new, more upbeat style over some crunchy guitars and a conclusion with some seriously catchy harmonized chants.

34. BTS – Paradise

Image result for bts love yourself tearWestern pop music watch out – the K-pop invasion is coming over quickly. The wildly popular boy band applies some aspects of 90s West Coast hip-hop to this track.

33. Jack White – Corporation

Image result for jack white boarding house reachA lengthy, mostly instrumental monster of a track – I was so happy to observe White doing something so  innovative and different with the rock and roll format. This is White at his most theatrical, embodying some sort of deranged preacher.

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

Image result for kids see ghosts“Keep moving forward”. The centrepiece of the spectacular Kids See Ghosts album, Kanye West and Kid Cudi lean on each other for support as they discuss their respective mental health issues.

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

Image result for dirty computerFeaturing a guitar riff produced by Prince himself, Janelle Monae proves she’s the closest living artist with this slick and sensual synth-funk track.

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

Image result for kod j coleOn an album where J. Cole talks about the dangers of giving yourself over to various addictions, love proves the strongest drug of all as Cole embodies a character struggling with fidelity – with a fun videogame-esque beat and some serious technical skill to back it up.

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

Image result for lauren jauregui expectationsThe ex-Fifth Harmony member sounds like a young Alicia Keys over a minimal beat that places the spotlight on her impressive and emotional vocal showcase. How great would her boyfriend Ty Dolla $ign sound on this soulful track??

28. Blood Orange – Saint

Image result for negro swanThe producer extraordinaire goes in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, offering a complex and jazzy musical world amplified by some great gospel-tinged harmonies – “doing the most”, as the album’s powerful theme puts it.

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

Image result for charlie puth voicenotesThe song that never left my head all year, this is just a smartly structured, bouncy 90s R&B chorus from the classically trained pop singer who really surprised me this year.

26. Mitski – Nobody

Image result for mitski be the cowboyIndie-pop singer-songwriter Mitski’s voice already sounds like it belongs to another era, and the near-disco, overly energetic flavour of the instrumental here, in stark contrast with Mitski’s lyrics nearly losing her mind due to loneliness, completes the retro-pop image.

25. Cardi B – I Like It (Ft. Bad Bunny & J Balvin)

Image result for cardi b invasion of privacyLatin trap exploded into the mainstream this year, and none harnessed it better than Cardi B, recruiting two of the genre’s biggest stars. Cardi’s aggressive flow never fails to enliven me, and that sample flip is a great added touch.

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

Image result for kim petras heart to breakAn all-out bubblegum pop extravaganza. Petras hits some seriously impressive notes on the chorus, but the whole song moves along with this irresistible driving energy that’s hard to ignore.

23. RL Grime – Take It Away (Ft. Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz)

Image result for rl grime novaI was sent to another dimension the first time I heard the drop on this track. Those deafening, steadily growing synths and well-placed silences makes it feel like someone is repeatedly firing up some kind of generator. Ty Dolla $ign is always more than capable on the mic as well.

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

Image result for golden hour kacey musgravesThe country artist’s poppiest song yet, we all know someone like this song’s subject. Musgraves blends the slightest of country aspects in the instrumental with an 80s dance beat and some sharp harmonies.

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

Image result for robyn honeyThe Swedish pop savant has always found the perfect way to encapsulate the feeling of crying on the dance floor, partying the pain away, and this track is no exception. The track feels like an escape, easy to get lost in the inviting musical world.

20. Ella Mai – Trip

Image result for ella mai album coverThe piano-heavy R&B track brings a classic sound back in a big way, Mai’s effortless and silky-smooth vocals commanding your attention. Something about that staccato phrasing in the hook makes the track irresistably catchy.

19. Anderson .Paak – Tints (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for oxnard album coverTwo of the most charismatic artists in the industry link up for this paranoid and humorous funk track where .Paak just wants some privacy. I absolutely love songwriter Tayla Parx’s contribution to the harmonized outro – her discography this year alone is incredible.

18. Janelle Monae – Screwed (Ft. Zoe Kravitz)

Image result for dirty computerA call for a final party before the bomb drops, this might be the most overtly political track on an already defiant and revolutionary album. The track’s title serves as a poignant double entendre, Monae sounding like she’s having the time of her life in the studio over some shiny guitar riffs.

17. Nas – Cops Shot The Kid (Ft. Kanye West)

Image result for nasirThe cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot-

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

Image result for dram that's a girls nameThe most lovable guy in the music industry is back to steal your girl – the one with the incredible hugs – and criticize you for letting her get away. My most listened-to song of the year, it’s the combination of ridiculousness and legitimately great musicality that only DRAM can pull off.

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

Image result for camila album coverOof. This song hit me right in the feels from the first time I heard it, a sparse piano ballad where Cabello offers some deeply personal lyrics about the end of a relationship where her trust was broken beyond repair. The orchestral version released as a single just brought the tears back in full force.

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

Image result for denzel ta13ooThe sheer force with which Denzel screams that second introductory “OKAY?!” signals just what kind of a punishing track lies ahead. Heavy bass rattles as the horrorcore rapper goes to work with his dexterous flow. Charlie Heat is one of the best rap producers in the game.

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

Image result for oil of every pearl's un-insidesI’m just now realizing that I shouldn’t have put these two tracks beside each other. Another track out to unleash a full frontal assault on the listener, the experimental producer’s work is constantly disorienting, yet connected by a recognizable, pop-influenced thread, represented here by a rhythmically spoken – and likely sarcastic – ode to materialism.

12. Troye Sivan – Dance To This (Ft. Ariana Grande)

Image result for troye sivan bloomAnother track with an unreasonable amount of plays on my personal Spotify this year, Ariana Grande tones down her usually powerhouse vocals to match the subtle yet powerful approach of Australian pop artist Troye Sivan. A perfect slow dance song straight out of the 80s, that synth hook that introduces the song makes it a grower.

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Image result for this is america artworkEven without the brilliant and viral music video associated with the track, Childish Gambino’s views on the state of the world presented through the intentionally inane and distracting lens of trap music is still one of the most important statements of the year – even if I wish the standalone song still had those gunshots in it.

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

Image result for kali uchis isolationKali Uchis has often stated that she draws heavy inspiration from Amy Winehouse, and it’s never more evident than on this track. A downtempo track that verges on dreampop, the twinkling keys and string section highlight her smooth and sensual vocal inflections.

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

Image result for pusha t daytonaI knew I was in for something mindblowing with the Daytona album when this was the opening track. Featuring some of the most quotable lines of the year and a crisp, chopped-up guitar sample from Kanye West, Pusha T is absolutely out for blood on this one and he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u nextAriana Grande has been having a horrible year – and this was the most brilliant way possible to address it in song form. Recorded only a few months after her Sweetener album, Grande speaks out about how she’s learned from the pain and come out better for it, thanking each one of her ex-lovers for the person she’s become. But of course, we still need that dismissive and cathartic “next”.

7. Travis Scott – SICKO MODE (Ft. Drake)

Image result for astroworldThe fact that this disjointed, endlessly creative track became a #1 hit single is nothing short of amazing. Most of Travis Scott’s latest work is as chaotic and disorienting as the amusement park it’s inspired by, and this endlessly fun rap track shifts through 3 completely different segments as Scott keeps things lively with an energetic flow. For all the average work he’s put out this year, Drake absolutely steals the show with his verse.

6. Kanye West – Ghost Town (Ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake)

Image result for ye album coverIt’s impossible not to feel something when new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake arrives on the outro of the track with her repeated and earnest mantra about freedom, breaking free from the pack. I can only imagine the experience singing it live with a crowd. The classic soul sample flip provides an excellent backbone to the track as well, West delivering some of the best singing he’s done in his career on his verse.

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

Image result for kacey musgraves golden hourI’ve always loved the complete purity in Kacey Musgraves’ vocals – she definitely has one of my favourite voices in the industry right now. The closer to her excellent Golden Hour is a lower-key track that highlights just how much emotion she can put into it as well, and it never fails to make me tear up just a little. A bittersweet track, Musgraves sings to someone who is incapable of seeing all the love they have around them.

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

Image result for rina sawayama cherryThe best pure pop song of the year, the always eccentric Rina Sawayama once again recruits experimental producer Clarence Clarity for an upbeat and endlessly layered track where Sawayama can’t contain her desire. Her dedication to taking the sound of early 2000s pop and modernizing it in a huge way is so engaging, those chords so familiar but twisted in such a new way as well. Every instrumental aspect of this track is a maddeningly catchy hook in and of itself.

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

Image result for kids see ghostsWhere does Kanye find these samples? One of the most creative sample flips I’ve ever heard, this was easily the standout on one of the year’s best albums as West completely refigures a Christmas song from the 1930s for his own purposes, isolating the part of the track that has the most untapped energy and applying a driving, tribal rhythm overtop. Kid Cudi doesn’t often spit a purely rap verse, but he more than keeps up with West here.

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

Image result for amy shark love monsterIt’s shocking how singer-songwriter Amy Shark can describe such a detailed, specific scenario in her songs that still comes across as so relatable, to the tune of some smartly written pop melodies. Shark keeps getting into situations where she’s forced to see her ex, simultaneously imagining a future whirlwind reconnection and frantically telling herself to just let it go. Some of my favourite lyrical content of the year, Shark’s unassuming vocal delivery fits the picture while her strummed acoustic chords are warm and easy to return to.

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

Image result for dirty computerMy favourite track off of Dirty Computer, it represents the culmination of all the powerful statements of self-assertion Monae delivers across the project. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs” might be my favourite song lyric of all time. Monae might not be for everybody, but she couldn’t care less – deviation from the norm is exactly where she belongs, and if she’s the only one on board with what she’s putting forward, then that’s perfectly fine. Monae sounds effortlessly cool on the track, delivering some impressive vocal runs and even a rap verse addressing a school bully, and the repeated backup vocal line is just the perfect set of soulful chords that keeps me returning. Keep doing what you do best, Janelle.

That’s the music that got me through this year, stay tuned for my Top 25 albums of the year on Friday, when we’ll say “thank u, next” to the music of 2018.

Check out this list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/6abpgfxueTZr6FspGVIHyE

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

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The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

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Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10

Kodak Black – Dying To Live

Kodak Black – Dying to Live.pngKodak Black delivers yet another late-year high-profile rap release with his sophomore full-length studio album Dying to Live. Last year’s Painting Pictures was easily one of my least favourite albums of the entire year, which is why it’s surprising that there are as many enjoyable tracks on this new project as there are. Kodak is still decidedly unmusical, distracting from the process with his grating and nasal voice and tending to fall off the beat at times, but he’s saved quite a few times here by some spectacular instrumentals and an embrace of his quirky and quotable side on some more fun, upbeat tracks. There’s still a plethora of misguided decisions and drawn-out introspective cuts that fall flat, as well as a few occasions where it becomes nearly impossible to separate the art from the deeply troubled artist, but at least it’s far from the complete unlistenability of his last project.

The opening run of 5 tracks are easily some of the album’s best and a seriously surprising rise in competence from his past works. Opening track “Testimony” takes a religious turn as Kodak exorcises his demons. He takes up a catchy Auto-crooned melody over an engaging and contemplative beat that introduces this unique funk-inspired synth tone halfway through – it reminds me of one of Zaytoven’s soulful piano melodies. “Identity Theft” keeps up the throwback vibes going with some seriously old-school percussion noises, a syncopated electric piano rhythm, and an Asian-inspired flute melody – it’s one of the best beats I’ve heard all year, and Kodak rises to the occasion with some funny lines here and there.

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It transitions pretty seamlessly into “Gnarly” with Lil Pump, which should be added to every New Year’s Eve party playlist with its immediately sticky hook, fun-loving delivery from both artists and hazy, ethereal synth textures. And of course, we all love the steel-drum instrumental so good it became a meme before the track’s release on “ZEZE” – Offset delivers a pretty great verse, but it’s the beat that keeps me engaged throughout. The track “This Forever”, despite an engaging spacey trap instrumental from London on da Track, emphasizes just how much Kodak is getting helped out by the beats here when it cuts out for a second and he just loses the flow completely.

Things get a lot more inconsistent after the opening run. Single “Take One” is another one where Kodak can’t quite measure up to the beat – on multiple tracks here, Kodak just sounds awkward in the moments where the heavier percussion cuts out for a second, like something’s just barely off rhythmically when it isn’t drowned out by the tempo of the hi-hats. “Transgression” is another innovative instrumental, anchored by what sounds like a pitched sample of someone shouting excitedly embellished with some soulful piano chords, but the same thing happens. When Kodak tries to divert from the formula, things get even more misguided. The track “MoshPit” essentially sees him adapt to the melodic style a featured artist Juice WRLD over a more cheerful, pop-rap oriented beat, and I just can’t listen to Kodak’s singing voice – or Juice’s ridiculous lyrics on his verse, for that matter – for the whole duration of a track when there’s not much to support him.

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The final two tracks “Needing Something” and the grammatically incorrect “Could Of Been Different” are even more inexplicable. “Needing Something” has this R&B slow jam beat, but Kodak honestly sounds like he came in a full beat early and never realized, the hi-hats hitting at the wrong time in his flow. He attempts a double-time flow on the closer and has nowhere near the level of musicality he needs to pull it off, the track just sounding like a jumbled and arrhythmic mess. However, it might be the tracks where you’re reminded of just who Kodak is that are the most off-putting. The tracks “In The Flesh” and “From The Cradle” are laden with sexual boasts, but it’s his lines on the latter about impregnating his exes so they stay with him – especially when he says they “deserve it” – that too easily bring up Kodak’s criminal charges. The track “Malcolm X.X.X”, where he actually compares deceased rapper and fellow abuser XXXTENTACION to Malcolm X, complete with interspersed Malcolm speeches, is another pretty shocking one.

I’ve still got to give credit where it’s due, however, and despite a few blatant exceptions this project is a huge step up from his last studio album. I wish I could listen to an instrumental version of it – this could be a legitimately great project with a better rapper at the helm.

Favourite Tracks: Gnarly, Identity Theft, ZEZE, Testimony

Least Favourite Track: Could Of Been Different

Score: 6/10

Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

Image result for gucci mane evil geniusAtlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s output since being relased from jail in 2016 has been so prolific that the timespan of just under a full year since his last project is an unusually long gap for him. It’s certainly given him some of his best sales in a while. He’s stated that he was trying to link up with the best personnel he could and make one of his “best projects ever”, but I’m not sure he accomplished that despite the time off. Evil Genius is one of the safest and by-the-numbers rap albums I’ve heard all year, Gucci toning down the more comical and cartoonish sides of his lyrics and delivery to fit into more of a generic trap mold. Across 17 tracks, it’s pretty difficult to tell most of them apart. One of the things that is most appealing to me about Gucci, especially on his features, is his effortless charisma and mic presence – most of that is lost here.

One of the reasons Gucci works so well as a feature is how different from most rappers his delivery actually is, adding to the variation in approaches on any given track – across this project, as usual he’s more laid back and yet possesses this kind of 21 Savage-esque coldness. One of my favourite Gucci tracks is actually his “Finesse The Plug Interlude”, where he delivers threats with a kind of cheerful shrug and high intonation. But carrying a full project by himself, his somewhat sleepy tone gets a little boring – especially when there’s no interesting instrumentals to keep him afloat.

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The two opening tracks “Off The Boat” and “By Myself” are pretty good examples of what’s wrong with this project – both of them have pretty every-day, bass-heavy and relatively empty trap instrumentals that you could hear anywhere else, and their lack of variation and relatively low energy make Gucci’s quieter flows blend in to the background and his sudden bursts of energy feel out of place. The latter ends with some comically over-enunciated words and a shouted playground chant of a flow over an incredibly minimal beat. My favourite track on here is actually “Father’s Day”, an interlude-length track with a spastic and upbeat instrumental from Metro Boomin where Gucci reaches his energetic peak on the chorus as he emphatically proclaims his status as the one who started a wave – just as I was getting into it on my first listen, it ended.

As expected, some of the features here add spice to what Gucci brings to the table and contribute to some of the better tracks. “BiPolar” is enlivened by some quicker hi-hats than usual from OG Parker, but especially Quavo’s melodic interjections on the chorus to enhance Gucci’s more static flow and keep the rhythm afloat. Kevin Gates’ in-your-face presence and quicker flow on the track “I’m Not Goin’” is a welcome addition, especially in comparison to Gucci’s awful singing voice on the chorus, and Youngboy NBA fulfills a similar role on the track “Cold Shoulder”, where Gucci actually gives a pretty great performance to match – the addition of a quick triplet at the end of a couple lines in the chorus is something that I could only expect from someone like him. This is one of the best beats on the project as well, some creeping low synth tones raising the stakes. Single “Wake Up In The Sky” with Bruno Mars and Kodak Black is Gucci’s peak aesthetic, and a fun enough track even if I wanted Mars to show off a little more. An effortlessly cool, laid-back track, all three artists dial their voice back to a too-cool-to-care, relaxed cadence and completely sell it.

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Most of these tracks feel like filler when they’re so short, Gucci rattling off one or two repetitive choruses with some low-effort verses in between before we immediately move on to another half-baked idea. The run from “On God” to “Lost Y’all Mind” gives me whiplash from how quickly these ideas are created and abandoned before anything is developed properly. Most of these tracks honestly aren’t too bad – “Lost Y’all Mind” might be my favourite track in the middle with that glitchy, melodic beat – but the fact that they sound so similar and end quickly like a couple focus groups went through a checklist and each presented their own version of a Gucci song makes me wish there was a little more variety and innovation across the board here. By the time we get to the end of the tracklisting I’m seriously tired of the excessive number of tracks with the same skillset being presented – tracks like “This the Night”, “Mad Russian”, and “Lord” are seriously uninspired and could easily have been cut.

There’s been a few average rap albums as the year comes to a close and it looks like there’s still going to be a few more – the genre’s seriously taken the year over, with high-profile releases coming almost every week. Evil Genius doesn’t do enough to make the personality of one of the most personality-driven rappers stand out from the rest, and it’s pretty disappointing as a result.

Favourite Tracks: Father’s Day, Lost Y’all Mind, Wake Up In The Sky

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

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The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

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A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, 6ix9ine, Mariah Carey)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson .Paak’s highly anticipated third studio album Oxnard, executive produced by Dr. Dre himself, sees the James Brown-esque rising funk star continue to exude charisma and mic presence like no other, even if his style is a little less immediately unique and personal. Dre spins the album more towards his own musical world of 90s G-funk, meaning the album is more hip-hop oriented than Paak has ever been as he explores some darker sounds for the first time. Part of what I loved so much about him in the past was his exuberant soulful delivery and boundless musicality – he’s far too talented to be just a rapper. So, although it took a while to grow on me, there’s still a lot to love about this project. Paak is one of the most exciting artists out right now.

Once again opening with the sounds of the beach, “The Chase” is an incredibly cinematic way to draw us into the album, continuing with Paak’s previous themes of drawing from the Blaxploitation-era sound as the mostly-instrumental track and accompanying sound effects makes you envision a car chase, some angelic and soulful backing vocals reminding us of the funk space Paak occupies. Especially as it transitions into the additionally vehicle-centric themes of the tracks “Headlow” and “Tints”, you can tell that the album is structured deliberately and it makes me especially appreciate a single like “Tints” even more in the context of the story Paak paints here. Easily one of my most listened-to songs of the year, a collaboration between Paak and Kendrick Lamar is all that I could have ever dreamed of. I love the complexity of the layered funk instrumental, especially as the chorus drops and Paak starts interlocking a couple of catchy hooks on separate vocal tracks – the harmonized female voices on the outro is such a cool moment as well. Both of these two just ooze charisma, dropping some humorous quotables.

Things take a turn for the political on “6 Summers”, a rollercoaster of a track that switches from inflammatory rapped jabs at the President to a more contemplative R&B section that sees Paak’s singing voice at its most beautiful as he wonders how to deal with the pain. He gets pretty explicit about his concerns here, dropping some lines about a lack of gun control reform. That lyrical flip is brilliant – the track will “bang” at least 6 summers, but so will the guns for the duration of the presidency. The back half is full of big-name features, one of the best coming from Pusha T on “Brother’s Keeper”, sinister as ever over some explosive bluesy guitar chords embellished with the most subtle of trap beats. The two are a surprisingly great match, Paak serving as the emotion Push would never show. “Cheers”, with Q-Tip, is a beautiful way to close the album out as well, as the two pay tribute to departed friends Mac Miller and Phife Dawg over one of the most upbeat and prominent instrumentals here – the whole track sounds like a celebration.

One of the main things I think I’m missing here from Paak is the prominence of soul samples in the mix, mostly from his collaboration project Yes Lawd! While there are still definitely elements of the genre in the mix at all times here, quite a few times it feels like it’s taking a backseat to a more West Coast hip-hop flair courtesy of Dre. “Headlow” is one of those tracks that adheres to the breezy sounds of the coast, but Paak’s lower-key approach to the track as the percussion knocks feels like he’s holding back from what he’s really capable of – he has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard (it pops up briefly on “Smile/Petty”), and maybe it’s because of the lyrical themes of the track as he tries to keep quiet, but it comes across as a little low-effort. “Mansa Musa” is a heavy rap track that features Dre himself, but it feels a lot more rhythmically straightforward than a Paak song ever should be, sticking to some rap clichés. “Who R U?” is perhaps Paak’s most through-and-through hip-hop track ever, consisting of little more than a heavy drumbeat. Still, even when the funk is the most missed, Paak manages to impress, delivering some surprisingly technical bars and saving it with his personality.

I honestly think Paak’s previous projects were so spectacular that I had set my expectations for this one far too high, disappointment being inevitable. Oxnard is far from being a bad project, it’s just not what I expected from him. Paak still has one of the most unique and diverse skillsets in the game, and a project this great being his worst is the sign of a great artist.

Favourite Tracks: Cheers, Tints, Brother’s Keeper, 6 Summers, Saviers Road

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

We weren’t sure we were actually going to get this album at all. 6ix9ine, the controversial rapper and walking meme, is still embroiled in court hearings and facing life in prison after being charged for racketeering a few days before its scheduled release. Officially his first studio album after dropping the Day69 mixtape early this year, DUMMY BOY was released without fanfare a couple days after the scheduled release date. Loaded with high-profile features, it sees 6ix9ine tone down his abrasive and energetic vocal delivery for a few tracks, venturing into a more pop and even Latin-oriented space. There’s almost nothing that can match the pure shot of energy 6ix9ine can give you when he’s on his game, and that does give him a lot of credit here, but most of these tracks seem rushed, the features inconsistent.

As much as it’s easy to hate on 6ix9ine, you can’t deny how exhilarating opening track “STOOPID” is. Over a Tay Keith beat that sounds like a ringing alarm, when it hits at the end of that line of chopped up “dumb-d-dumb”s is one of the most energetic moments of the hear. One of the main reasons 6ix9ine immediately occupied such a huge space in the public consciousness (other than his rainbow hair of course) is that there was such a void for this style of hardcore, gangsta-oriented material that 6ix9ine’s voice is so well-suited for. It’s also why so many of these tracks that see him taking the gravel out of his voice, seemingly for more pop appeal, are so disappointing – he shouldn’t be holding that machine-gun of a voice back. “FEFE”, his biggest hit so far with Nicki Minaj, feels so much emptier than a 6ix9ine song ever should, the main hook a sluggish crawl. Nicki shows up later on “MAMA” with Kanye West, a track that let me down for how much hype it’s gotten since release. The instrumental and 6ix9ine’s hook are pretty basic trap material, while the slower pace of the track isn’t quite enough to accommodate the huge personalities of the two guests. I want to hear a more powerful instrumental behind those supercharged “Maaaan, oh my god”s from Kanye!

Quite a few of these tracks are taken over by their guests, 6ix9ine almost an afterthought on his own album. “WAKA” is almost entirely dedicated to A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s awful singing voice, while the engaging guitar-driven beat of “TIC TOC” is squandered by Lil Baby’s low-effort flow. Most of the final few songs seem like they might have been manufactured last-minute, giving too much mic time to his videographer TrifeDrew’s struggle raps on “DUMMY”, while “WONDO” sounds like a track that was left off the already-messy Day69 for not being complete enough of an idea.

“KIKA”, on the other hand, is pretty incredible. Featuring a carefree hook from Tory Lanez over a steel-drum instrumental, we’re reminded that 6ix9ine is actually capable of switching up his flows and finding himself in a rhythmic pocket, which is all the more exciting when he’s nearly blowing his vocal chords out – the track reminds me of why I enjoyed previous one “KOODA” so much. At this point 6ix9ine’s mere presence on a track is enough for virality, but it actually seems like he’s trying here. Latin pop track “BEBE” is way too sugary and fun to hate as well – I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit, that synth tone is such an earworm. “KANGA”, another track with Kanye, is the peak of both of these artists’ meme potential. Featuring ridiculously over-the-top and juvenile lyrics and a playground chant of a flow, it’s one of those tracks that’s so bad it’s amazing.

If this is really the end of 6ix9ine’s musical career, it’s safe to say that he’ll be remembered more for his antics and social media presence than the actual music itself. For a one-trick pony, his one trick is pretty great and succeeded at drawing attention towards him, but so much of his material seems like an afterthought.

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

15 studio albums in and her iconic Christmas classic once again shooting up the charts, Mariah Carey’s Caution proves that she’s still got something to offer – even if it’s not quite the same thing as before. We’ve all seen the internet criticism that her voice isn’t what it used to be, and while that’s all been exaggerated it’s easy to tell that the full power of one of the greatest vocalists of all time isn’t being utilized here. Carey tones down her vocals to a more subdued purr rather than the full belt here, which works fine fitting into the modern, more chill landscape of R&B anyway. Recruiting a few excellent collaborators, Caution is a mostly engaging 10-track breeze.

Lead single “With You”, a collaboration with DJ Mustard, is easily the best song here and shows just how captivating Carey can be even with her breathier vocals here. Reminding me a lot of why we’re all so captivated with Ella Mai this year, this is the kind of music that we’ve been missing, with some classic 90s R&B piano chords and a finger-snap beat. When she drops down to her more powerful lower register in the chorus, it’s just a very warm sound overall. Her vocal technique is still pretty unmatched, running through some impressive riffs and jazzy minor notes with ease. She even delivers some of those classic Carey whistle tones briefly as the song fades to a close. Transitioning into the title track “Caution”, she taps into her hip-hop side once again with a more aggressive faster flow in the verses and a hi-hat-embellished beat. With one of the catchiest melodies here, the track settles into a solid groove, Carey her flawless and flippant self as she warns her man about disloyalty.

She links up with the always-versatile Ty Dolla $ign on “The Distance”, another pretty classic-sounding track with a prominent rubbery bassline that kicks off with a cheerleading chant that’s smartly woven into the fabric of the track by its end. Ty holds his own with a legend, his lower tone laying the foundation for Carey’s trademark vocal acrobatics as the track closes. Blood Orange’s spacey, experimental style takes over for the 6-minute “Giving Me Life”, which also somehow features lauded rapper Slick Rick. The track never feels long, Carey’s newfound tone playing off of the icy piano notes – it’s almost hypnotic. The final two tracks are a good way to close it out, “Stay Long Love You” a dynamic upbeat pop track with an explosive and bubbling synth line and “Portrait” the best showcase for Carey’s voice here, a slower ballad.

There are definitely a couple weird decisions across the board here as well – I was surprised that promo single “GTFO” was on the album at all, but it’s actually the opening track here. After “With You” came out Carey herself was proclaiming how much better it was, referring to the former as just something fun she recorded – it’s a very awkwardly structured song, the rhythmic delivery in the chorus not landing well with me and the whole song staying rather one-note and not picking up in energy for 3 and a half minutes until a fadeout. “A No No” is similarly underwritten, the tempo almost too upbeat for Carey’s calmer vocals as the strangely staccato chorus drops, Carey simply repeating “no” throughout most of the song. The lazily rapped sample and the diversion into French at the end of the track just add to the confusion. Tracks like “One Mo’ Gen” and “8th Grade” still recapture the spirit of 90s R&B well enough, but at the end of the tracklisting they sound a little too similar to counterparts earlier in the album and have me wishing Carey still had more variation in her vocal delivery.

Caution is just about the best album I could have expected from 2018 Mariah Carey, still finding ways to surprise me almost 30 years into her career. While there are certainly a few inconsistencies here and there, this is a fully enjoyable R&B project.

Favourite Tracks: With You, Caution, The Distance, Giving Me Life, Stay Long Love You

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Takeoff, Imagine Dragons, Muse)

Image result for takeoff the last rocketTakeoff – The Last Rocket

The second of three solo albums from the members of ultra-popular rap trio Migos, Takeoff’s project is thankfully shorter than most of the rap odysseys his label drops all too often and is easily more enjoyable than the preceding album from Quavo. Takeoff is perhaps the Migo with the most technical ability, but the least personality. The latter certainly shows here with some repetitive and uncreative bars at times, but getting to hear just how well Takeoff can use that rapid-fire triplet flow that we usually get as a brief cap to a Migos track across a full album and some fun instrumentals is enough to establish himself as a threat on the level of his two more well-known counterparts.

The project kicks off with “Martian” after some recordings of a literal rocket ship takeoff, a more minimal track that introduces us well to Takeoff’s rhythmic ability well early on. A surprisingly hard-hitting beat despite not being much more than a creeping, menacing bassline and traditional trap hi-hats, Takeoff’s flow doesn’t stop, and it’s exciting each time the beat hits and kicks off another run of speedy triplets. Takeoff has a great rap voice, a huskier low tone that always serves as a great counterpart to the more hyperactive members of his group, and it both fits in well with some darker instrumentals than usual here and makes it endearing when we finally get to see him inject some personality and emotion of his own onto these tracks. A track like “Vacation” is a lot of fun for the first reason, featuring a slightly orchestral minor-key instrumental and chilling piano from Murda Beatz as Takeoff’s energy is at its peak for the emphatic hook, stretching out the song’s title for hilarious effect. “Casper”, on the other hand, sees him break from the Migos tough-guy persona for a second and actually sound like he’s having fun. Hearing him deliver a line like “Decided what I’m gonna do today!” with genuine mirth and inspiration and just as much technical skill as the other tracks makes me want to return to it more, just as a break from the endless barrage of Migos material we typically get.

The closing few tracks are some of the best, demonstrating Takeoff’s consistency delivering track after track of technical trap showcases. Buddah Bless is quickly becoming one of my favourite new producers with his trademark flute style, and his “Insomnia” stands out here. “Infatuation”, though, is something completely unexpected – an energetic, upbeat fully synthpop track mostly featuring unknown singer Dayytona Fox. These poppy, bouncy tracks always accommodate the Migos flow better than you’d expect, and everything about this track comes together into a dancefloor-ready standout.

The Quavo-assisted “She Gon Wink” is one of the weaker tracks here, further demonstrating just how well Takeoff actually manages to excel on his own. Takeoff adapts more to Quavo’s slower, melodic style on the track and it just makes me wonder why it wasn’t on Quavo’s album. It’s not something I want to be hearing after waiting for Takeoff to get his opportunity to shine for a while, after being a highlight in so many Migos tracks. “None to Me” is another track where he puts a little more of a sing-song angle into his flows which doesn’t land particularly well, actually sending him off the beat a little in a few areas of the track. The purest rapper of the group, he doesn’t seem to realize that adherence to the Migos formula isn’t necessary at all times to make a good track – this should be an opportunity to exhibit his own style first and foremost, especially with the smaller number of tracks here. A track like “I Remember”, as well, is where we see him get laziest with the lyricism here, the hook, consisting only of those two words, taking up most of the space of the song.

With so much similar, uninspired content coming this year from the Quality Control label, I enjoyed The Last Rocket a lot more than I expected to, reminding me that half the reason we were all so drawn to Migos in the first place was that they can actually rap pretty well. I’m glad Takeoff finally got his time in the spotlight.

Favourite Tracks: Casper, Infatuation, Vacation, Insomnia, Lead The Wave

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Origins cover.pngImagine Dragons – Origins

For the last little while now, pop-rock band Imagine Dragons have been some of the only people who manage to score high-charting hits with any semblance of a guitar in their music. With their fourth studio album, Origins, they continue to sell well after diluting the sound into something so easily consumable that they’ve become just about the only option in the eyes of most people who aren’t completely immersed in the genre. The band exploded back onto the scene last year with “Believer” after the sales dropped off for their 2nd album, and haven’t looked back since, adhering to the same painful formulas over and over. You know how it goes: some sweeping, contemplative and slightly soul-oriented chords as Reynolds begins quietly, then throws in a complete tonal shift and suddenly starts yelling. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Origins might be even more obnoxious than their last project, Evolve.

Opening track and lead single “Natural” is honestly not too bad – much like their lead last year being one of the better songs on the album. It’s almost as if they structure an entire album around their lead single, creating 10 more imitations of it that never measure up. It’s one of the only tracks here that has a build-up to the loud part that genuinely works, Reynolds’ vocals gradually getting more intense before the chorus drops. I really do like the way they incorporate that rhythmic minor-key guitar riff that backs the quieter intro into the chorus as the song goes on as well. It’s all downhill from there.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Reynolds’ vocals – sometimes, it seems like he could be a genuine rock frontman with the rasp and passion he naturally possesses, but other times it just sounds awful and strained when he reaches up into his upper register. It might be the fact that he takes it too far for the calmer instrumentals that pop up more often than usual across this album, like on the chorus for “Boomerang”. Don’t get me started on that half-time trap hi-hat beat that shows up out of nowhere for the final chorus. Then again, from there we transition into “Machine”, a more industrial number where Reynolds uses almost exclusively his louder, angry tone that sounds like he’s painfully forcing the sounds out of him, distorting his vowels and really throwing off my enjoyment of the track. You’d think with all of the experienced pop producers they bring on board now that they would be able to find a way to hit on more catchy choruses than they actually do. Most of these sound like they’re making them up on the spot, the weird deviations in melody reminding me of something like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. “Bad Liar” is another track like this, the longest one on the album, so clearly, they thought they had something here. One of the calmest tracks the band’s ever made, it’s built on this delicate synth pattern and Reynolds’ falsetto before the energy shifts abruptly through two more phases in the chorus and pre-chorus, Reynolds drawing out his voice awkwardly on the “eye” sound of “Liar” on a strained higher note.

Imagine Dragons honestly stick a track from a movie soundtrack in the middle of their album here, not even tacked on at the end, which shows how much care went into the construction of the project as a deliberately sequenced album. Most movie soundtrack songs are clearly made with less effort into song structure with more of a general tone in mind, and this is no exception. “Zero”, from Wreck-It Ralph 2, might honestly be the worst song I’ve heard this year. An obnoxiously high-octane chorus is contrasted with a sluggish bridge where the track grinds to a halt on Reynolds’ contemplative falsetto, and immediately catapults back into the madness of the chorus. It’s pretty comical.

The rest of the back half of the album is full of ill-informed genre hopping and capitalization on long-dead trends. “West Coast” sounds like every 2011 indie-folk track, “Bullet In A Gun” a weirdly computerized EDM-esque track, “Only” oversaturated dance-pop, “Digital” is … my god … a drum ‘n’ bass pseudo-rap track … and all of them involve Reynolds yelling in my ear. There’s so much nonsense I could mention but this review is already getting way too long.

Origins is the sound of a band along for the ride, saying yes to whatever all the people who have come in to manage their immense popularity tell them to do and losing all semblance of artistic identity in the process. They’ve fully embraced their role as the new Nickelback.

Favourite Tracks: Natural, Cool Out

Least Favourite Track: Zero

Score: 2/10

A neon-coloured portrait of the members of the band in 80s-style dystopian-themed costumes, with themed electronic imagery surrounding them.Muse – Simulation Theory

Frequently evolving veteran rock band Muse undergoes yet another shift in sound from their previous harder-rock effort Drones to a more digitized electro-rock and synthpop direction. There’s always been a lot of influence from bands like Queen on frontman Matt Bellamy’s almost operatic vocal delivery, but the arena-sized ambitions of an album like Simulation Theory take it a little bit further. While Muse can often tend to go over the top into a territory of excessive cheese with their overwrought lyrical themes and melodramatics – this project being no exception – the majority of these tracks are smartly constructed pop melodies, and a more modernized sound that works a lot better for them than their last sonic experiment – all the sci-fi elements are a lot of fun too!

Opening track “Algorithm” is straight out of a Tron movie, opening with an extended instrumental featuring a driving beat that switches from a string orchestra to a fuzzy synth tone, cascading piano arpeggios and a straight-up synthesizer solo on top before Bellamy’s warm and capable vocals kick in, making everything sound immediately more intense and important in the way that only he can. This is all incredible guilty pleasure kind of stuff. “This means war – with your creator”, Bellamy emotes, because of course he does. The next track “The Dark Side” kicks the tempo up a notch, the guitar riff slightly reminiscent of their older material (think a digitized version of “Knights of Cydonia”). I really love the combinations of live drums and the more frivolous noises from a drum machine – it’s like Muse is finally learning to not take themselves so seriously. “Pressure” is a pretty incredible, dynamic track, Bellamy switching in an out of a panicked falsetto backed up by a syncopated guitar line modified to sound almost like a horn section before the track explodes into a rapid-fire melodic rock track with poppy backing vocals and a menacing, repeated whisper – “pressure building”. The band links up with Timbaland of all people for the weird and wonderful track “Propaganda”, a minimal track that sees Bellamy go full Prince with his vocal inflections over some sparse snaps, while a distorted vocal sample yelling the title fights to break into the mix. The harmonies here are fantastic.

There’s not much that measures up to the first 4 tracks in quality here, and it wouldn’t be a Muse album without a couple ambitious ideas that swing for the fence and completely fall flat. The band still insists on using the dubstep wubs they picked up when the genre exploded in popularity, and their combination with a guitar toned off-key for ominous effect on “Break It To Me” is pretty grating, especially as the track shifts through a few sections rapidly, Bellamy switching to his tender delivery for the chorus before the track turns into a Rage Against the Machine song at the end. The wubs show up to somewhat better effect on “Dig Down” later on. “Get Up and Fight” is Muse indulging their absolute worst tendencies, and while at times it’s easy to get caught up in their rousing calls to action and resistance set to a driving guitar melody, this one goes way too far into try-hard inspirational territory. This might be the most overly dramatic track they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. “Something Human”, as well, is almost too poppy, with a campfire-side folksy quality to it that doesn’t fit Bellamy’s grandiose voice.

Single “Thought Contagion” pops up later in the tracklisting, and this is the closest thing we get to a classic, impossibly catchy Muse track. The main riff and stadium-sized singalong chorus are immediately memorable, juxtaposed with verses that have an almost hip-hop angle with some skittering hi-hats and a more rhythmic, syncopated flow from Bellamy. I can already tell it’ll be incredible live.

Simulation Theory is easily one of the band’s most enjoyable albums, now that they’re just essentially making fun music and not going overboard with some political theme. The 80s nostalgia is a great sound for them, even with a few missteps here and there.

Favourite Tracks: Pressure, Propaganda, Thought Contagion, Algorithm, The Dark Side

Least Favourite Track: Break It To Me

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

One of ascendant label 88Rising’s biggest artists, Joji, drops his debut full-length studio album BALLADS 1 which exhibits his unique, lo-fi approach to modern R&B, pop and hip-hop music. A former YouTube star famous for his surreal, absurdist comedy, you can certainly still sense some of his over-the-top personality in his lyrics, but Joji has done all he can to distance himself from his past as Filthy Frank and the comedy rap alias Pink Guy. Teaming up with some diverse collaborators, this is a very wide-reaching range of sounds, some of them more adaptable to his unhinged and emotional approach than others. Joji’s vocals are very raw and often a little off-key, and there are more than a few mixing and mastering issues here, but half the time it strangely fits, the nihilistic and moody aesthetic all clicking together in the right way regardless.

The opening track “Attention” is a pretty good indication that most of the project is pretty hastily thrown together – Joji’s vocals are more off than on most of the tracks here, and you can tell due to the minimal pop-piano backing track, while the distorted bass that rumbles in halfway through is far too loud and throws off the mix completely. Still, underneath all of the mess, there’s a pretty catchy melody there. The next track “Slow Dancing In The Dark”, on the other hand, is so beautiful it seriously caught me off guard from this meme master of an artist. The explosion of those digital, 80s synths and the lighter, cascading textures as he hits the climactic note in the chorus is one of the craziest musical moments of the year – it’s a completely unique spin on the moody alt-R&B ballads that have coloured the charts recently. “Come Thru” is another great track in the same vein here, some plaintive synth piano-notes and sparse percussion knocking on the off-beat backing up an Auto-Tuned falsetto melody – everything about the song is just barely off-kilter, and it fits the emotional tone of the track for that reason.

Joji additionally attacks sounds of more traditional synthpop and trap here, and while showing he has a great command of melody and song structure, the vocals and mixing can let him down on the more minimal or derivative tracks. Joji duets with kindred spirit Trippie Redd on “R.I.P.” – the two are similar in that they sacrifice vocal performance for authentic and raw emotion, often to an extreme degree. I’m not going to argue that he sounds great on upbeat pop tracks like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun”, but the carefree nature of his vocals, especially when he starts throwing some deceptively sadder lyrics into these standout, bouncier mixes, creates something that is recognizably Joji. The aching falsetto on a track like “Why Am I Still In LA”, especially over such an arrhythmic, lurching and distorted instrumental that verges on noise rock, is a truly haunting and affecting moment, the sudden musical explosions mirroring his clearly genuine anguish. Most of this album isn’t exactly what you’d call replayable, but it’s something I’ll remember for a while.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Get Over You, No Fun, Why Am I Still In LA, Come Thru

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

Cover of Not All HeroesMetro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Trap producer extraordinaire Metro Boomin drops his first solo album after having his name attached to numerous collab projects over the past few years. Possibly the most recognizable music producer by name at the moment, you can likely credit most of the rise of trap as a popular genre to his influence, particularly his early work with Future. After threatening retirement … or at least, just a break of some sort … in the midst of his hit songs dominating the charts, Metro returns rather quickly with a collection of tracks that are a little more low-key for his style, but still play into his trademarks of murky and menacing basslines and the odd soul sample thrown into the mix. Metro is a bonafide hitmaker, but I can’t help but feel most of these tracks don’t have the same kind of immediately iconic and innovative techniques that help him spice up the genre that you can find on most of his hits. He still gets some great performances out of his collaborators – 21 Savage steals the show on every feature here – but this is the first time I’ve heard Metro beats and felt just a little bored.

People are drawn to Metro’s instrumentals because they put something unexpected into the formula – usually, something that sparks a trend that everyone else ends up following. More often than not here, it feels like he’s being safer than ever, and even following some trends himself. The first two tracks, “10AM/Save The World” and “Overdue” both have elements of soul sampling in them, but the first track is split into two distinct sections, Metro briefly showing his flipping talents after a by-the-numbers opening track featuring a sleepy Gucci Mane feature that doesn’t capture his usual charisma. “Overdue” splices a sample through the whole track, exciting me with those opening moments of that delicate and breathy vocal performance, but it continues to cut in and out after the beat drops despite being the aspect that complements it the most and saves it from a pretty average performance from Travis Scott.

As for chasing trends, Metro deviating from his sound proves to be a pretty bad idea in his attempts to make a Latin pop track with Wizkid and J Balvin on “Only You” – it’s blander than he’s ever been, and far from his area of expertise. Most of these tracks could easily blow up – those hi-hats hit as hard as Metro’s ever have, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like something only he could have made anymore. “Dreamcatcher” harnesses a great hook from Swae Lee and a fun Travis Scott verse, but it doesn’t have that same level of excitement. The back half of the album could essentially be found on any hit trap project this year.

There are still quite a few sparks of creativity across the board here. “Don’t Come Out The House” is a constantly switching-up track that sees him team up with 21 Savage and re-embrace his eerie horror-movie influenced sound, Savage hilariously leaning into his over-the-top nefarious persona with a whispered flow. 21 Savage’s other solo track “10 Freaky Girls” is the best sample flip here, taking inspiration from the 90s synth-piano textures of a lesser-known Whitney Houston track as Savage continues to deliver some hysterical punchlines and an upbeat, present flow. Those brief, weird scream sounds are such an interesting touch, and the horn section is one of those unexpected embellishments that only Metro could throw in halfway through and have work so well. “Space Cadet” is ridiculously fun, featured artist Gunna going full Young Thug with some off-the-wall vocal inflections and an audible smile on his face as he makes boasts over some shimmering synth chords and appropriately galactic bleeps and bloops.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a perfectly serviceable trap project from a man who understands the genre better than most, and in most scenarios, it’ll still enliven a room – I just have high expectations for Metro after his unstoppable run of tracks that were both wildly popular and creative.

Favourite Tracks: 10 Freaky Girls, Space Cadet, Don’t Come Out The House, Dreamcatcher

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

Iconic and influential Swedish pop singer Robyn makes her comeback – it’s been 8 years since her last solo full-length project, Body Talk, though she has dropped an EP and a brief collaboration with equally experimental electropop duo Royksopp in that time. Listening to this new project, Honey, it’s easy to see just how much of the current landscape of experimental electropop owes its existence to some of Robyn’s earlier work, discarding the pop formula at the time and injecting a new degree of emotional catharsis to some upbeat, synth-infused tracks – it’s the earliest form of what singers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tove Lo do now. The project consists of only 9 tracks, but each of them are a fully established, shimmering dance-pop world that shifts and changes with a very warm and full sound. It’s easy to think that this project is dated, and a few of these longer tracks do get slightly tiresome after a while, but Robyn is still doing some pretty incredible things in the pop music world.

Most of the emotion Robyn is able to convey is truly due to her voice, which is more than holding up. A breathy yet powerful soprano, it’s the perfect instrument to triumphantly soar over the pulsating disco-influenced synths that are frequently backing her up. The opening track “Missing U” is a pop song from another time, Robyn hitting a catchy and straightforward pop rhythm over a booming synth bassline and a quickly oscillating higher-pitched synth texture that never goes away even when it falls out of key with the rest of the track, but it works perfectly as both a driving force anchored to the thumping percussion and something that’s just out of place to line up with the lyrical themes. “Because It’s in the Music” is even more transcendent, containing what’s easily one of the greatest pop choruses of the year. Robyn slowly ascends up the scales with a huge degree of emotional conviction as she sings about defines most of her career – a song that simultaneously makes you want to move … and cry. One of the most evidently disco-influenced tracks here, Robyn’s vocals are light as air as some orchestral stabs and a persistent funk bassline build her up to her bigger moments.

Most of the project comes across in this ethereal, very full-sounding dreamscape and a lot of that is due to some pretty impressive harmonies. Even a minimal track like “Human Being” comes alive when she drops some old-school pop triads onto the chorus. The title track “Honey” is a high-octane track that sees Robyn doing a high-speed syncopated rhythm on a single note before the hi-hats kick the track into a higher gear of energy – all of these tracks are a pretty masterful exercise in the slow build that ultimately turns into an all-out pop celebration, but all the same it’s a celebration for people to exorcise their personal demons getting swept up in the driving rhythms. I love that robotic vocal sample and bongo drums on the absolutely bizarre Disclosure-esque track “Between the Lines”, and the project closes on a strong note as well with “Ever Again”, one of the most unapologetically pure pop tracks here that cycles through a few fun added instruments keeping up the driving main riffs of the backing track.

A lot of this project is straight out of a different time, and not the kind where we’re paying homage to the past by doing the slightest things to bring it into the modern world either – there are a couple times here when adjusting your 2018 ears to what’s being delivered here is a huge leap. “Beach2k20” is essentially an old-school house music track, Robyn not doing much more than spoken word over a repetitive samba instrumental that extends further than anything else here. “Baby Forgive Me”, as well, falls into more of a traditionally European-sounding area associated with an earlier time, feeling a little empty – although Robyn’s haunting vocal delivery on the track is great.

A couple diversions aside, the greatest aspects of this project are exactly what pop music was designed to be in the first place – a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that takes over and lets you escape from whatever you’re thinking about and join something bigger than yourself. There’s not much of that anymore in the instant-gratification streaming era.

Favourite Tracks: Because It’s In The Music, Between The Lines, Missing U, Honey, Human Being

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10