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

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

MØ – Forever Neverland

MØForeverNeverland.jpegNot typically an albums artist, Danish electropop singer and frequent EDM collaborator MØ releases her sophomore studio album and first since 2014, though she did drop the When I Was Young EP last year. Forever Neverland is a mostly enjoyable collection of shimmery uptempo dance-pop influenced tracks, MØ shining through with the unique vocals that make the tracks she’s featured on stand out so much. Her crackly tone always makes for an interesting listening experience, and often in collaboration with a few superstar DJs and producers across the board here, creates a selection of club-ready, fun tracks. There are a few misses here and there, but for the most part this is something to turn your brain off and enjoy.

After a brief intro, the first track “Way Down” immediately drops into the overdone dancehall beat that backs up most dance-pop songs at the moment, but almost as soon as it begins MØ overrides the sense of over-familiarity with some anthemic and layered group vocals building up to a speedy drop featuring a great, bouncy synth bassline. MØ distorts the formula just enough to create something that you can enjoy for being tried-and-true and easy to consume, with the slightest of twists. The primary writer on all of these tracks, MØ knows how to craft a catchy melody – the next track “I Want You” is instantly memorable, with some rapid-fire lyrics and a melody that’s simultaneously repetitive and impressively showing off her range. As the instrumental steadily builds up in intensity throughout the track, as she dives into that last chorus and the percussion explodes it’s a powerful and gratifying moment. There are multiple tracks here where MØ follows the Francis and the Lights model of layering her vocals with Prismizer and something about the computerized distortion fits her voice well – it’s employed well on the track “Blur” despite the more disappointingly straightforward instrumental drop afterwards.

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MØ saves all of her big-name collaborations for the album’s middle, kicking off with yet another track with Diplo titled “Sun In Our Eyes”. The dynamic duo team up for one of the most radio-friendly, by-the-numbers pop tracks here, but again, there are still some pop formulas that exist for a reason, and these two are seasoned veterans in following the greatest ones. Diplo provides some full, very summery synth chords here that really wrap MØ’s joyful, celebratory vocals here in the right kind of exuberant musical world – the guy can rarely go wrong. “Mercy”, a team up with former Flume member What So Not, is uncharacteristically low-key for the future-bass artist, built on a few piano chords that highlights a yearning, enormous chorus from MØ that works pretty well as she strains up to some higher notes – some live percussion finally kicks in for the final chorus and it becomes clear just how well-crafted a track it is when all the elements click together. And of course, the similarly sassy Charli XCX appears on “If It’s Over”, a manic and glitchy track where the two confidently kiss off some bad relationships.

Late in the tracklisting, “Imaginary Friend” might be the best track here, actually reminding me of some of Charli’s best work. The chorus instrumental immediately grabs your attention more than the other tracks here, MØ singing in her lower register as a distorted higher-pitched voice echoes her over some synth stabs that quickly cut in and out for a much more rhythmic track. The accompanying rapidly cascading noises and embellishments make it sound like you’re entering a dream sequence and continue to immerse you in the track.

There are definitely a couple tracks here where the formula begins to wear thin, usually the case when putting together a larger number of upbeat, dancier tracks into album format. “Nostalgia” is a track that stands out as being pretty unlistenable in comparison to the quality of most of its counterparts here, bringing back the generic dancehall beat but dropping into a chorus that just seems completely off with the layering and harmonies. She uses the same kind of layered group vocals but they don’t line up as perfectly here, especially when going for such a huge sound with a more percussion-based, minimal instrumental. MØ also delivers some half-rapped, half-casually spoken sections in the verses that just throw off the rhythm of the track and sound awkward. Closer “Purple Like the Summer Rain” feels a little rhythmically disjointed as well, the prominent percussion on the track feeling like it’s too fast for the vocals in front at times.

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A few songs just fall barely short of expectations as well, like the track “Beautiful Wreck” which features what might be the best build-up on the album with some Zedd-style vocal manipulations that culminates in a lackluster and low-impact drop, or “Red Wine” that features an enjoyable reggae flavour that breaks up some of the dance-pop monotony but features some stranger lyrics in the chorus that takes me out of it. These tracks are still pretty good, but it just makes it more evident that the creation of tracks like these can be low-effort at times.

Forever Neverland is a much more enjoyable collection of tracks than most in her genre – it’s never easy to put such high-octane music into an album format without it feeling exhausting after a while – and that’s a testament to her approach and personality being a lot more individual than her counterparts as well. Teaming up with some veteran hitmakers here, one of the most prominent voices in the dance scene keeps on rolling.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, I Want You, Sun In Our Eyes, Mercy, Way Down

Least Favourite Track: Nostalgia

Score: 7/10

Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgUncategorizable alternative duo Twenty One Pilots release their fifth studio album, and first after becoming household names with 2015’s uneven but hugely successful Blurryface. While I’ve often struggled with the duo’s consistency in the past, as they seemingly mashed disparate styles together for no reason other than the fact that they could, Trench sees them take better control of their more outlandish artistic impulses, combining it with the catchy pop songwriting and heart-wrenchingly descriptive and personal lyrics that made them such a success previously. While their mid-song transitions could still use some work, Trench is the best kind of wildly versatile project that somehow works cohesively, and it’s likely their best work yet.

Kicking the project off with their heaviest song in years, we’re immediately dropped into the droning guitars of single “Jumpsuit”, which introduces just how great the production across the board is going to be on the project – there are so many little details that enhance the world of the song, especially as it ties into the conceptual landscape of the fictional city of Dema that each song is tied to. Something like cutting back to just the menacing bassline for a second in the paranoid second verse works wonders. One of the most consistently engaging things here is how well they’ve fit their more commercially oriented pop choruses so well onto the darker, heavier instrumentals of their past. Writing an inescapably catchy chorus is still one of frontman Tyler Joseph’s greatest strengths, a few of these tracks drawing on 80s synthpop in their most pop-oriented moments. Not many of them stay in that mode for the whole song, but “My Blood” does, and it’s a pretty euphoric experience.

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“Chlorine” might be the catchiest hook of all here, though. A more low-key track, the cascading piano embellishments and major-key fanfare of a bassline add to its memorability. The back-to-back tracks “Nico and the Niners” and “Cut My Lip” both dive back into the subtle reggae influence the band has borrowed from in the past and do it better than ever before. The way the vocal modulations on “Nico” frame the drop into the final, speedy rap verse on the track makes my heart skip a beat every single time, while “Cut My Lip” features a final, repeated refrain built for an arena to sing along to. It’s one of the most emotionally sung tracks here as well, Joseph reaching into his upper register. “Pet Cheetah” is just … absolute madness. The glitchy, lurching synth-bass collides with in-your-face hip-hop production for a track that quickly switches back and forth between the panic-inducing hellscape (in the absolute best way!) of the former and the softer, sung sections of chorus.

As usual, Joseph addresses some pretty heavy topics across the board here as well. On the track “Neon Gravestones”, he muses on the romanticizing of celebrity suicide over a somber piano loop and skittering drumbeat, acknowledging how much more famous he’d get if he killed himself. As he’s acknowledged having these thoughts in the past, he bluntly sings that if the worst does happen, he doesn’t want his fans to feed into the culture of celebrity and move on. At the end, he switches the narrative, saying to celebrate grandparents who have lived a full and accomplished life instead – the dedication is particularly poignant due to the death of Joseph’s own grandfather, who appears on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album Vessel. The track “Legend” here is a heartfelt dedication to him, featuring a final verse where Joseph outright states that he recorded it on the day of his passing.

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In an album that goes to so many interesting and diverse places so well, a track like “The Hype” feels far too one-note, essentially just structured like an everyday pop song. The falsetto delivery almost reminds me of an older song from a band like Foster the People. As well, Joseph’s rapping has always sounded a little off to me, and while he’s certainly improved here there are a still a few moments where it sounds like it’s just not something he should be doing at the time. On tracks like “Pet Cheetah” and “Levitate” something about the places he emphasizes his syllables throws the rhythm off slightly. “Levitate”, especially, has a pretty great throwback hip-hop percussion groove with the off-kilter Twenty One Pilots edge, but Joseph’s higher-pitched delivery doesn’t fit right with the tone of the track. Follow-up track “Morph”, on the other hand, sees him settle in perfectly. Another exquisitely produced track, the emotion creeps into his delivery over the chilling synth-piano eerie carnival ride of an instrumental. I love how many different places the track goes without losing its essence – through the almost future bass swells, the falsetto pop chorus, the tropical house synths at the end … it’s boundless creativity at work.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have essentially done the best possible thing they could do here after skyrocketing to fame, taking some of the greatest elements of what the general public were drawn to and combining it with some of the greatest elements of what made them unique in the first place. I’m sure their diehard fans are getting even more enjoyment out of the complicated lore behind the project as well. Another contender for the Most Improved Award.

Favourite Tracks: Morph, Neon Gravestones, Nico And The Niners, Pet Cheetah, My Blood

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10