Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y, Avril Lavigne, Betty Who)

Image result for Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y - 2009Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y – 2009

Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has been seriously prolific coming out with projects over the past couple of years, and he’s back in a team-up with veteran rapper Curren$y. The two previously joined forces for one of the best songs on Khalifa’s last album Rolling Papers 2. The dynamic between the two still holds up here, but 2009 mostly falls victim to the curse most rap collaboration tapes do. Most of the project sounds like it was conceived rather quickly, the song lengths rather short and ending before they really get going. Khalifa is charming as ever at times and Curren$y brings a surprise amount of technical skill, but can we stop with the trend of these rushed hip-hop collaboration projects?

The project opens with the track “Garage Talk”, and I’m starting to be very convinced over the last couple projects that Wiz Khalifa is at his best when he’s pulling from older-school techniques – he drops a great, animated verse on the 90s-influenced track “The Life” as well – There’s something about his slower flow, blunt delivery, and personality-infused bars that doesn’t fit in with the pretending-not-to-care generation of new school SoundCloud rappers – though he tries to a lot more often than he should. The beat here is an endlessly fun boom-bap loop that Wiz and Curren$y both play pretty straight as they tap into that bounce. And then of course we immediately drop off a cliff into the hazy smoke clouds of “10 Piece”, Curren$y opening the slowly creeping instrumental slurring his words a little off the beat. Khalifa fares a little better, but the instrumental doesn’t fit his livelier mic presence. A lot of the project unfortunately falls into this lower-key vibe, and I guess I should come to expect it from them at this point. When the subject matter essentially revolves around one thing, can I blame the two for adapting their sound to a chilled-out smoke session? For everyone else, though, it’s not enough to be compelling or exciting. The next track, “Benz Boys”, is similar, misusing a Ty Dolla $ign feature as he fades into the background.

It’s unfortunate as well that most of the best tracks on this project are also some of the shortest. Curren$y isn’t on top of his game for most of this project, but he definitely finds his groove on the beat of “Eastside”, which livens up the contemplative synth lines with a quicker hi-hat pattern, though each rapper only drops a single, short verse. The next track “From The Start” is even shorter, and it’s easily the best instrumental on the whole project, calling back to the G-funk era with a rubbery bassline and some soulful female vocals thrown into the mix. Why did they give so much more time to their sluggish weed raps? Wiz Khalifa exists in such a strange place for me – Curren$y at least knows his role, but Khalifa’s delivery seems so much better suited for goofy rap tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously. If he doesn’t know where his true strengths lie, why does he always drop these tiny moments displaying them?

Most of the tracks at the end of the project don’t do much to surprise either – the track “Getting Loose” is probably one of the closest attempts to a modern-sounding rap track here, but the hook from Problem is delivered like he’s half-asleep, offsetting the one time across this whole project Curren$y actually sounds like he’s trying, while “Stoned Gentleman” is just as lethargic as you might expect. “First Or Last”, yet another fun old-school track that references Ricky Bobby and complements Khalifa’s best sensibilities, is the highlight as the album winds down.

I essentially stole my rating system from Anthony Fantano, and if this was one of his videos I would probably slap that huge red NOT GOOD across the screen for when there’s not even enough substance to the album that he can even bother to give it a score. Too many of these ideas don’t come together, or are simply too sleepy to be interesting. Get fun again, Wiz!

Favourite Tracks: Garage Talk, From The Start, First Or Last

Least Favourite Track: 10 Piece

Score: 3/10

Image result for avril lavigne head above water coverAvril Lavigne – Head Above Water

The quintessential Canadian pop-rock singer, Avril Lavigne has released her first album in 6 years after being absolutely memed to death for some of her past material and going through a struggle with Lyme disease. Seeing this album perform so well commercially was a nice sight to see after all that Lavigne has been through over the years, but is it any good? Lead single “Head Above Water” was met with a lot of pleasant surprise online, and most of the project follows a similar, more subdued singer-songwriter angle. While some of the lyrics relating to her real-life health struggles can be genuinely moving and emotional, past a couple particularly inspired tracks most of the album unfortunately falls back into awkward songwriting and bland and outdated instrumentation.

Let’s talk about that lead single, though! “Head Above Water” is a dramatic and emotional ballad with high stakes that Lavigne absolutely sells with her genuine delivery – it’s clear that this was written in the midst of a seriously terrifying time for her. The way the orchestral aspects swell in make the track very reminiscent of something like Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, another singer mostly written off as a joke that comes back with a knockout ballad about a difficult subject. The track found a lot of success on Christian radio, Lavigne calling out to the divine to save her from an early death. Some of those lyrics are incredibly harrowing. While most of the rest of the tracks on the album follow a similar overall vibe, many of them also introduce a lot more elements of traditional pop music and sound like they’re stuck in the past. We immediately transition to the track “Birdie” after this, which sounds similar except for the introduction of these Imagine Dragons-esque booming drums and a shimmering synth line that sounds like it’s straight out of 2009. It’s almost as if hearing what Lavigne is capable of on the opening track it feels wrong hearing her on some more dumbed down material. It sounds like the track refers to similar events, but refers to it in much more ambiguous terms and a caged bird metaphor we’ve heard in endless pop tracks.

Then of course we get to the track “Dumb Blonde” with Nicki Minaj … yikes. I have no idea how this got approved in 2019, and she even released it as a single recently. Featuring one of those obnoxious shouted chants of a chorus that was fun for a little bit 15 years ago (including Lavigne just … fully enunciating the words “I am a freaking cherry bomb”), the drumline percussion and brass section bring to mind another time entirely. Why is someone trying to remake “Hollaback Girl” in 2019? I don’t understand. I can’t help but think this might have been a lot better as an EP, especially when the back half of the project falls into older pop tropes like the “yeah-yeah”s on “Souvenir” and some seriously terrible lyrics on tracks like “Goddess” and “Bigger Wow”.

There are quite a few moments here where it’s clear that Lavigne’s producers were trying their hardest to bring back an older star and insert her into the current musical landscape as well, but those don’t quite work either, being too derivative of other works. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a pretty well-written song and should work relatively well as a doo-wop/soul pop ballad – Lavigne’s vocals are seriously soulful! – but the instrumental is just far too close to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” to ignore, and the trap beat that they shoehorned in there is pretty laughable and doesn’t fit the tone at all.

The greatest strength of this project is the constant reminders we get of how impressive a singer Lavigne actually is after the years of … whatever she was doing in the early parts of the decade. Quite a few of these tracks have this beautiful layering effect where her high notes are at the forefront, but a supporting vocal a full octave down is mixed in pretty perfectly as support. The tracl “I Fell in Love with The Devil” is a great example of the vocal showcase, and the bridge where the layers become more evident and get chopped up is one of the best moments on the project. “It Was In Me” is another track that breaks through emotionally despite its datedness – it really sounds like Lavigne’s older track “Keep Holding On”, but it really works as a kind of career retrospective, speaking about finding little fulfillment from the fame and fortune and learning to believe in herself and her musical abilities through the tough times.

A lot of these tracks really do have aspects of something great, just held back by one different misguided thing on each one of them. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Lavigne sounding so good after all this time, but in terms of the current musical conversation it doesn’t really fit.

Favourite Tracks: Head Above Water, I Fell In Love With The Devil, It Was In Me

Least Favourite Track: Dumb Blonde

Score: 4/10

BettyBettyWhoAlbumCover.pngBetty Who – Betty

Synthpop artist Betty Who’s 3rd studio album and first since departing from RCA Records, wanting to release music at a faster pace than the label deal would let her, mostly brings back the same personnel that made The Valley so great and delivers another solid project full of upbeat and sugary, if not the most innovative, pop tracks. She’s been releasing singles since January 2018, but the final product here is pretty cohesive and meets expectations of the sheer sense of fun that her pure pop approach has delivered in the past – it just sounds almost a little too similar to her previous work.

The shorter track “Old Me” kicks things off and drops us directly back into Betty Who’s world, following a tried-and-true yet undeniably joyous and funky twist on traditional pop formulas. A bouncy bassline slinks around some higher-pitched synths and Who’s harmonized and summery vocals before the 90s piano chords kick in and the synths cascade for the chorus. I wish this track was so much longer, but its an absolutely excellent way to draw listeners in as it transitions to “Do With It”, as Who finally succumbs to the trends and puts some trap hi-hats on her song. She has enough of a unique approach to make it a lot of fun though, her excellent ear for harmonies appearing again in the build-up to the chorus, the music cutting out and featuring her a cappella harmonized chords. In a world where genres are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there aren’t many artists left who are so obviously gifted for making retro-pop but Who is certainly one of them. It’s a nostalgic feeling that makes it hard to legitimately criticize since it’s almost formulaically engineered to put a carefree smile on your face.

Continuing with the strong start, “Just Thought You Should Know” sees another angle that we haven’t really seen from her – she’s got the 90s high-octane dance tracks down, but this sounds just like those slower, passionate boy band tracks that still manage to hit the same kind of pop euphoria, and she pulls it off pretty perfectly complete with the retro percussion sounds in the mix. Later in the tracklisting we get some more of the slight innovations that keep the project interesting. I really enjoy what she’s going for on “Language”, a much lower-key track that coasts on the strength of Who’s rhythmic delivery more than a sparkly, distracting instrumental, presenting a quieter tropical vibe instead. “All This Woman” is another one that easily stands out for being unique, sounding like an old Justin Timberlake track with its Spanish guitar picking and jazzier harmonies – oh yeah, and that bridge that completely rips off “Cry Me A River”. Oops. It’s a compelling track regardless, even if the Timberlake similarities are pretty impossible to ignore on later track “The One” as well. “Between You & Me” is another standout, taking a similar 90s pop chord progression but coming at it with acoustics instead, showing off the sweeter parts of Who’s voice.

There are a couple moments where it falls just slightly short of what Who achieved on The Valley – particularly a few tracks where the instrumentals start to feel tiring listening to 13 straight songs of breakneck tempos. They’re still a lot of fun, but when Who doesn’t come as hard with her vocal delivery the high-speed and energetic feel of the track doesn’t feel as earned. On “I Remember” she goes for a breathier, seductive angle but the click-clack of the percussion is going by at warp speed and it doesn’t really fit. “Marry Me” kind of feels like a filler track only 5 songs in as well, it feels like we got the same kind of syncopated piano chords on a better structured song only a few songs ago. Most of these tracks would work fantastic on their own regardless, it’s just in the album format that they fall flat. Once we get to tracks like “Ignore Me” and “Whisper” at the end, the similarities start to show.

Betty is another strong project from the Australian singer that’s only really held back by listening to all of the songs in a row. Really, there’s not many more people with a better ear for pop music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Just Thought You Should Know, Old Me, All This Woman, Language, Do With It

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Ariana Grande, Broods, Luis Fonsi)

I’ve been gone for a while but my school commitments are once again slowing down and I’ll be able to catch back up to the present with some quick posts here. I just completed my first year at journalism school and will be writing music reviews in major publications this summer! Here are my thoughts on some February albums:

Image result for ariana grande thank u next albumAriana Grande – thank u, next

It’s great to take a look at this album a couple months after its release, seeing just how much of a cultural impact it’s had. Ariana Grande is the pop star of the moment for a reason – she switched up her release schedule for a world reliant on streaming, dropping two stellar albums in the span of 6 months, and succeeded in turning the worst year of her life into so much success by shattering the fourth wall, being so human, vulnerable and incredibly specific about it and using her music as therapy for both her and her audience. Grande has flawlessly taken control of her narrative and become a pop star for the social media age – and oh yeah, the music is pretty great too.

“imagine” is a pretty perfect opening track, reminiscing on the perfection of her relationship with Mac Miller before delivering the crushing blow in the chorus – “imagine a world like that”. The track returns to her R&B roots more than almost any single she’s dropped since 2013, even bringing back her mindblowing whistle tones at the conclusion of the song. It’s a very touching tribute, but in terms of emotion that Grande was able to put into these tracks from her personal life, there’s nothing like “ghostin”. I honestly think this might be her greatest track of her career, even if I might not want to give it repeat listens because it’s just so profoundly sad. Opening with a sample of Miller’s song “2009”, the last song he ever performed live, Grande sounds like she’s on the verge of tears at all times as she sings about worrying that her grief over Miller’s death is hurting then-fiancé Pete Davidson. The track is beautifully somber and ethereal, Grande even referencing a couple of Miller’s lyrics from his love songs to her that make it all the more emotional.

The tracklisting has some of her classic upbeat, Max Martin-produced pop material as well, but a lot of it is now tinged with some depressing and self-destructive lyrics, like Sweetener’s dark cousin displaying the hidden underbelly of Ariana’s perspective on romance after her split from Davidson. “bloodline” and “bad idea” are both certified bangers, the former riding an enormous horn section in the chorus and the latter possessing a skittering trap beat and what is easily the catchiest and most radio-ready chorus here. However, both of them also see Grande at her most cynical as she throws the ideals of her previous albums away, denying the existence of true love and following through with an impulsive hook-up despite knowing it’ll likely make her even more emotionally distraught later. In between them is “fake smile”, which really sums up everything Grande is feeling perfectly – she finally puts down her façade, saying that after what she’s been through she can’t pretend that she’s feeling fine anymore. “F**k a fake smile”, she dismissively sings, the track dropping into a fantastic tropical groove as Grande once again turns her despair to a message of strength and persistence. The track “NASA”, as well, is the one that’s really been stuck in my head the most through all of this time, Grande drawing out that “staaaar, space” in one of the most powerful vocal moments here.

From the start of her career, I’ve always wanted Grande to evolve into a Whitney Houston-esque figure due to the sheer technical ability she possesses, but after hearing these back-to-back albums, this is exactly where she belongs. She’s found her voice, and even when she’s not delivering the biggest vocal moments, she sounds incredibly comfortable and at home on this new blend of laid-back trap, pop and R&B. Tracks like “needy” and “in my head” have her perfectly in her element, not being pushed into any corners and sounding incredibly natural speaking the truth of her experiences.

Then, of course, there’s the 1-2-3 punch of singles that close the project. “thank u, next” was an enormous, undeniably powerful surprise, a gracious break-up anthem that preaches learning from the pain and coming out stronger for it, and it still easily stands out here as Grande’s inspiring modus operandi. “7 Rings” is now Grande’s most successful song, an essential perfection of the trap-pop formula that is the necessary flex after the courteous “thank u, next”.

It’s tough to decide which is Grande’s best work, but making something this cohesive that catapulted Grande to the forefront of the public consciousness in only 6 months easily puts thank u, next in serious conversation. Most importantly, this is Grande at her most authentic, and you can tell. This one’s for the year end list.

Favourite Tracks: ghostin, thank u next, NASA, bad idea, fake smile

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

Image result for dont feed the pop monsterBroods – Don’t Feed The Pop Monster

Broods, the New Zealand sibling pop duo and rare recipient of a perfect score on this website, release their third studio album Don’t Feed the Pop Monster and switch up their style in the process. Staying true to the album’s title, this latest project has less of the polished, clean 80s pop shimmer that coloured their last album Conscious and instead opts for a raw, sometimes experimental sound with more distortion. Bringing back superproducer and countryman Joel Little for a couple of tracks, the siblings’ knack for sharp pop songwriting is still here, but the success of the duo’s new sound is inconsistent.

The opening track “Sucker” could have easily been mistaken for a track on their last album, with the same pulsating synthbass notes and breathy lead vocal from Georgia Nott – until it goes in a completely different sonic direction once the chorus hits. The track doesn’t explode into an immediately memorable, celebratory pop hook like you’d expect it to, the rhythms of the percussion actually getting more complex while the synth chords distort. It’s clear that they were going for something a little more immersive and psychedelic with most of this album, I’m just not sure it delivers the same thrills I’ve come to expect from the band in the past, however listenable it remains. Most of these tracks are still pretty good regardless, they just don’t play to the band’s greatest strengths. The lead single “Peach” should have let us know that the band was going to take things to a weirder place – the track rapidly switches between multiple different sections that don’t complement each other particularly well, the tempo increasing with those annoying pitched-up vocals in the pre-chorus taking me out of it every time.

The tracks “Everytime You Go” and “To Belong” demonstrate even more ambition, each stretching over 5 minutes in length. The former is actually quite engaging, Georgia’s haunting higher register echoing sparsely around a driving and upbeat interlocking percussion section that switches up enough to keep me interested, but “To Belong” is one of those repetitive songs that pick a single motif and build the instrumental out around it for far too long. A couple of these tracks actually have more of a rock edge, featuring more traditional drum patterns and guitar chords at the forefront of the mix, and although the songwriting remains the same catchy pop material, the combination with a heavier instrumental doesn’t fit as well as their more synth-oriented material. Georgia Nott’s vocals are so beautiful in their breathy subtlety, and on tracks like “Dust” and “Old Dog” the best aspects of her voice are drowned out in the mix – even if the tracks themselves are still pretty excellently structured. The dreamy, almost doo-wop sound of the closing track “Life After” hits the perfect sweet spot in showing off her vocals – it’s a perfect way to send listeners off as her voice fades into the vintage crackle and an orchestra.

“Why Do You Believe Me?” might be my favourite track here, the instrumental taking a more minimal approach as we get these computerized yet complex harmonies from Georgia over some of the most traditionally warm and welcoming synthpop chords here and huge percussion fills – it sounds like you put an entire HAIM track through Prismizer. I don’t often like voices as perfect as Georgia’s being put through so many effects but the sound somehow fits with their spacier new material, returning even stronger on a track like “Falling Apart” – the call and response section towards the end of the track is another standout on the album. “Hospitalized” is another track that I can’t help but love and perhaps the best execution of some of the duo’s quirkier tendencies that they explored on the project – the chorus is delivered in a carefree and confident rapid-fire, the walking bassline going mad in the back as Georgia sings of her self-destructive nature, her vocals fittingly getting chopped up by the end.

If the score doesn’t match the review, it’s just because Conscious has set my expectations so high that even the perfectly solid pop album in front of me feels like a bigger disappointment than it should. There’s a lot that’s still far ahead of their contemporaries here. However, it’s strange that the duo doesn’t seem to like Conscious at all, not playing it at their shows. A lot of artists treat “pop” like a dirty word – what’s wrong with feeding the monster?

Favourite Tracks: Why Do You Believe Me?, Life After, Falling Apart, Hospitalized, Everything Goes (Wow)

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

It feels strange reviewing an album with “Despacito” on it in April 2019, but here we are. As we’ve seen over the past few years, Latin music has been slowly but surely securing its placement in the trendy sounds of the mainstream. Nobody came with a more Earth-shattering hit than the veteran Luis Fonsi, who finally has a full album to back it up after becoming a household name. Fonsi doesn’t break any new ground here, “Despacito” remaining one of the better tracks on this collection, but his powerful voice certainly surprises at times especially on a couple of the ballads.

“Sola” immediately drops into a familiar reggaeton sound and minimal, tropical-sounding acoustic chords, Fonsi coasting off the strength of his vocals despite there not being much to the song itself, what’s intended to be the catchiest part of the chorus reverting to a single, repeated note and syllable. “Apaga La Luz” fares a little better, switching up a couple of the rhythmic patterns with the guitar and bringing in a little bit of an electronic edge as the chorus drops despite the same reggaeton beat as Fonsi triumphantly reaches up into his falsetto as he delivers the title – meaning “turn off the lights”. While a couple of the most generic tracks open the project, there are also a couple gems to be discovered later.

Before “Despacito”, Fonsi was actually mostly known for his emotional and passionately delivered ballads, and there’s no shortage of tracks to uphold his reputation here. “Le Pido Al Cielo” is the first one on the tracklisting, and the track honestly sounds pretty timeless, like it belongs in a Disney movie or something. Fonsi’s voice is surprisingly pretty incredible, endlessly expressive and communicating the emotions of the song to me despite the language barrier. His higher range is what really sells the song though, showing off some impressively belted harmonies mixed perfectly into the back for a solid foundation. The chorus was strong enough already, but dropping back everything but the percussion for the finale puts the track over the edge. “Dime Que No Te Iras” is another, stripped back to just the piano to put Fonsi’s voice more in the spotlight, instead displaying some of the contrasting aspects as he alternates between a breathy, almost whispered vibrato and a full-voiced knockout chorus.

Fonsi brings out a roster of pretty engaging guests as well – fellow superstar Ozuna guests on “Imposible”, which is a pretty fun duet despite sounding essentially like Despacito 2 – it’s nice to hear the interaction between the raspier Ozuna and the full-voiced Fonsi. “Echame La Culpa” with Demi Lovato is almost as old as “Despacito”, but bringing someone else with this much sheer vocal power on board was a smart move, the two combining for some great tropical harmonies. “Calypso” is another summery track that offers more of the same, but it’s interesting to hear two cultures with similar sounds come together when the Jamaican Stefflon Don appears on the track.

Most of the rest of the tracks here don’t offer much to comment on – most sounds that explode into the public consciousness quickly ultimately develop a formula that becomes easy and effective to follow and this is no exception. Tracks like “Poco A Poco” and certainly get me to nod my head, but there’s almost nothing that distinguishes them from most of the other Latin tracks that blow up. “Tanto Para Nada” might be the best of the more generic bunch, a slower-paced song that suddenly drops a trap beat and a ridiculously catchy guitar pattern onto the chorus.

VIDA is more dynamic than I expected it to be after the runaway success of a single song, as Fonsi partially succeeds in delivering something more than 11 more Despacitos. The guy has been at it for a long time and there’s certainly a lot about him to like, but most of this is too safe to truly excite.

Favourite Tracks: Le Pido Al Cielo, Dime Que No Te Iras, Despacito, Tanto Para Nada

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

James Blake – Assume Form

Image result for assume formEclectic UK experimental pop/R&B singer and producer James Blake’s 4th studio album Assume Form has been anticipated for a while, as he continues to expand his discography by appearing on the projects of just about everyone who matters, whether it’s Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Travis Scott. I was surprised to see people in hip-hop communities so ready to post their thoughts on this album – Blake’s vocals are slow-paced, chilling and emotional – but he has made a name for himself as both a counterpoint to and a legitimizer of hip-hop music as an art form to be taken seriously, even if his sound is pretty far removed from it. He brings Metro Boomin and Travis Scott aboard here, but he also brings people like acclaimed flamenco breakout star Rosalía and the powerful, cathartic vocals of Moses Sumney. It’s an album with its twists and turns, and it doesn’t all click quite perfectly, but Blake delivers an ambitious, complete project here.

The title track that kicks off the album is a disjointed, glitchy mix of some absolutely beautiful musical segments, mostly orchestral and hip-hop percussion – it sets the tone for the rest of the project pretty well. There are always these exciting motifs, but Blake might snatch them away just as fast and whisk you down some other incongruous musical corridor suggesting you should just enjoy them while they last. It’s tough to say that I’d come back to a lot of these tracks, but it’s certainly a new kind of sonic experience. Those classic James Blake withering falsetto harmonies are present across the board and stronger than ever as well.

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Up next are the back-to-back Metro Boomin tracks, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear these two pioneers from different worlds blend their styles together. “Mile High” features Travis Scott, and minus Metro’s trademark skittering hi-hats, it removes the typical dark atmosphere of a trap cut and replaces it with these vivid, glacial synths and Blake’s yearning, emotional tone. The fact he somehow made Scott sound like he fit right in is a testament to how much Scott’s sound dominates the current musical conversation – but Blake knows exactly how to warp it just enough to put his own personal spin on it. The next, “Tell Them”, is a lot more traditional trap, but it puts the incredibly natural soul and rasp of Sumney on top, inverting the genre in the complete opposite way. In a world where we’re clearly getting tired of the Migos formula, this is just what we needed to kick off 2019.

Speaking of guests, Rosalía is such an unexpected yet logical addition to Blake’s world on “Barefoot in the Park”, the two voices intertwine perfectly, similarly understated but Rosalía’s breathiness nicely supporting Blake’s more forward, nasal approach. The addition of some more traditionally flamenco production when Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish is a great touch as well.

While it’s not as mindblowingly experimental as a couple of other tracks here, there’s something to be said about the strength of Blake’s ear for a simple great pop melody as well, which he applies on more straightforward tracks like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” but perfects on the gorgeous “I’ll Come Too” later on in the tracklisting, a romantic track built on a looped sung “ooh” melody and the shimmering violins coming in quietly on top of the mix when he sings his most emotionally charged lines. “I’ve got nothing to lose with you”, he sings, throwing his voice around a little bit but sounding so blissfully happy in the process.

The second half of the project kicks off with the rhythmically off-kilter “Are You in Love?” that combines these soothing, 90s-esque synth-piano chords with this rubbery tone in the forefront that just skitters up and down the scales recklessly, the twinge of uncertainty reflecting Blake’s lyrical questioning of a partner’s authenticity.

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The experimentation goes off the rails a little bit at times here, the ambition of a couple tracks going in a different direction than I was expecting them to. He generates something completely new, but it somehow turns out different than a “something new” that I see as a logical evolution of where things are at the moment. “Into the Red” is one of these songs. It begins with some layered harmonies and orchestral production, but this abrupt cut introduces a twangy guitar melody which seems completely out of step with the rest of the track, especially as it builds back up with some absolutely stunning moments at the end as Blake just extends these high notes as these warm orchestral chords build – I just can’t get fully into it when this repeated riff that sounds like it’s from some kind of country music parody is playing on top.

“Where’s The Catch?”, a track with the inimitable Andre 3000, doesn’t really come together either, Andre delivering yet another technically spectacular verse as some upbeat production comes in behind him, but Blake’s surrounding contributions don’t match him in intensity, the repeated hook falling off the pitch and slowing down the tempo as soon as Andre finishes.

It’s easy to see why so many high-profile artists call on this guy who still hasn’t cracked the top 10 on the Billboard album charts – there’s not many who can execute a fully realized vision as well as he can. Despite a couple of off-kilter diversions, this album goes many different places but is still unapologetically James Blake.

Favourite Tracks: I’ll Come Too, Tell Them, Barefoot In The Park, Mile High, Are You In Love?

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

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There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

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“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

Bad Bunny – X 100PRE

X100pre.jpgOne of the biggest musical trends over the previous year was pop music beginning to draw from many different aspects of various Latin-American genres, perhaps none more so than Latin trap. Already a global superstar, it was Bad Bunny’s feature verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” that turned him into a household name in North America, and he shows off a diverse range of sounds from his native Puerto Rico across his first official full-length project, bridging the gap between them with his distinctively lower register and charismatic Auto-Crooned sound. The title a Spanish shorthand meaning “Por siempre”, or “Forever”, X 100PRE isn’t at all structured like your typical pop album, more like a shifting, changing playlist – many of these tracks have abrupt beat switches, and the flow of sounds from one track to the next is somewhat disjointed. While that does bring me out of the experience a bit, this is certainly a solid and wide-reaching debut.

Opener “NI BIEN NI MAL” is a pretty perfect example of the important presence Bad Bunny serves in the music industry right now, built primarily on some traditional acoustic Latin-sounding chords with the odd interspersed heavy trap beat that always complements these sounds so well, Bad Bunny sing-rapping a catchy, repetitive tune on top. The track eventually morphs into a more minimal, industrial hip-hop track and then a calming string section in its instrumental without the vocal track changing much, showing just how malleable Bad Bunny’s voice is – it’s strangely soothing even when in a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced register, and can fit over almost anything. He shows off his laid-back register at its peak on the track “Otra Noche en Miami”, the chorus a more electronic synth-based explosion as he repeats the title, sounding like he’s relaxing by the beach and taking the city in – the track reminds me of something from The Weeknd’s STARBOY.  Drake is honestly a pretty perfect guest to join him on the single “MIA” which closes the project – even as both sing in Spanish, their voices and the charismatic energy they are clearly bringing to the track match each other in a surprisingly great way.

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In the next few tracks after the opener, we get “200 MPH”, which comes with a Diplo feature, “Caro”, with surprise vocals from none other than Ricky Martin, and one of the experiments that doesn’t really work, “Tenemos Que Hablar”, which ventures into what almost sounds like a 2000s-era alternative rock territory with a watered-down guitar riff and out-of-place trap beat.

While the project does run throughout various areas of reggaeton, bachata and dembow music – that same reggaeton beat you hear on every pop track isn’t quite dead yet when Bad Bunny augments it with some of his most emotional vocals on “Si Estuviésemos Juntos” – he is at his best dropping the high-energy trap bangers we know him for. The track “¿Quien Tu Eres?” is a shorter one that packs a serious punch, the beat dropping just as he raises his voice up into this higher-pitched yelp as he celebrates his success.

There are quite a few moments on the project where it loses direction a bit with a beat switch or the track listing’s order putting some sounds that aren’t incredibly complementary beside each other in the track listing, making it tougher to rank favourite tracks since so many of the greatest musical moments here come as part of a longer track that also features a strange diversion from what the track was trying to accomplish. Ricky Martin’s appearance on “Caro” is one of these moments, the track abruptly dropping in tempo to deliver the slower ballad pace Martin is more known for before Bad Bunny closes the track with a very brief return to the original high-energy section. “Solo de Mi” is split into two very good sections with completely opposite tones, vaulting into a chaotic hip-hop beat for less than a minute after a more emotional ballad – I’m all for a good beat switch, but there has to at least be a tiny bit of a through-line.

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“La Romana” is another track that begins excellently with one of the most fun Latin trap beats over this maddeningly catchy picked mariachi guitar pattern complete with airhorns as the beat drops, but glitches out Bad Bunny’s verse early and diverts into this more straightforward, percussive ragga/riddim section delivered by El Alfa that goes on for too long. The track listing probably could have been shortened as well – as much fun as Bad Bunny always sounds like he’s having, when he’s attacking a few of these Latin trap instrumentals with more of a melodic angle to complement a beat that isn’t quite so active, on tracks like “Ser Bichote”, the language barrier loses me a bit when I don’t have lyrics to spice up a less immediately exciting instrumental.

Alongside J Balvin, Bad Bunny has emerged as one of the Latin stars poised for continued dominance in a post-Despacito world, and the range of his talents on this project is a clear indicator of why. You could throw him on any vaguely Latin track and he’d turn it into a hit. Despite some structural qualms, this is the sound of an artist just getting started.

Favourite Tracks: NI BIEN NI MAL, ¿Quien Tu Eres?, Otra Noche en Miami, La Romana, MIA

Least Favourite Track: Tenemos Que Hablar

Score: 7/10

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 (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