Fall Out Boy – M A N I A

Fall Out Boy - Mania.pngVeteran rock band Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, delayed for four months after their bassist Pete Wentz explicitly admitted the songs weren’t good enough in an interview, is certainly a lot more impressive than I’m sure most people expected. However, as evidenced by opening EDM misfire “Young & Menace” remaining on the project, M A N I A is still inconsistent and directionless at times. But standing at only 10 tracks, there is not much room for filler, and Patrick Stump’s trademark vocals and the band’s dedication to heavier instrumentals are still as powerful as they’ve ever been.

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It appears that Fall Out Boy was at least partially inspired by labelmate Paramore’s transition into retro-pop on their fantastic After Laughter, offering some similar tropical pop chords infused with their trademark style of guitar riffs on “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. The effect of someone with a voice as commanding as Stump’s transitioning to a more modern instrumental is quite powerful – he hits some huge notes in the chorus, bringing the stadium rock anthem into a new era. As the tribal drums hit in the track’s bridge and he holds that note on the final “knife” to his voice’s breaking point, I can already picture the scores of crowds singing along to that final chorus.

“The Last Of The Real Ones” brings frequent Weeknd collaborator Illangelo on board, and the track evokes the same kind of indescribable dark energy that a song like “The Hills” has. I give credit to the band for still sticking fast to emphasis on the musicality of the band, actual instruments (especially that impressive drum work!) prominent on every song here where most rock bands turn to more produced pop beats and synths – where this would frequently sound dated, Fall Out Boy bring just enough modern elements in to keep the classic idea of the heavier rock band at the forefront of pop culture alive.

The back to back tracks “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” might be the band’s best work in years, Stump channelling every ounce of soul in his voice for some more R&B influenced tracks. The latter especially features a beautiful doo-wop instrumental and Stump harmonizing with himself on some seriously impressive high notes before giving the chorus everything he has, showing restraint and emotional vulnerability at just the right moments.

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There are certainly some lyrical shortcomings on the project that bring you out of the songs for a second – especially when comparing the group to the work of some fellow surviving bands lumped together under that “emo” umbrella from the mid-2000s. Where many have grown up in their lyrical themes, there’s something a little weird about hearing a 33-year old structure a chorus around the lyric “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” on “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”. Adding a few awkwardly shoehorned pop-cultural references into the mix only exacerbates this – especially when they’re as poorly timed as their villainizing of Tonya Harding on “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”.

The juxtaposition of that track with preceding “Champion” is noticeable for the repetition of the same tired tropes of self-empowerment they already had a big hit with in “Centuries”. They do know what they’re doing though – “Champion” is much less contrived than the former, and when everything collides together at the end it is legitimately an electrifying experience despite being derivative. Stump still possesses a live wire of a voice that can break through the mediocrity. The project can’t seem to settle on a concrete direction either, jumping between dance-inspired electronic guitar effects, finger-snap poppier tracks, and even a strange feature from Nigerian artist Burna Boy that attempts to jump on the dancehall trend.

The project is at its best when Fall Out Boy adhere to what got them here in the first place, making it less blatantly obvious that they’re trying to fit in when they incorporate some more modern pop trends on tracks like “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. Still, even on such an inconsistent project, you have to give the band credit for sticking to their guns as much as they do, still capable of making some pretty great music even as the modern pop landscape starts to pass them by.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven’s Gate, Church, HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T, The Last Of The Real Ones

Least Favourite Track: Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea

Score: 6/10

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BØRNS – Blue Madonna

Borns - Blue Madonna.pngRetro-pop singer-songwriter Børns’ sophomore project continues to display his old-soul mentality, reviving the classic pop sounds of groups like the Beach Boys while infusing the style with more modern synth-based production and moody lyrical musings that attracted a prominent collaborator in Lana Del Rey to the project. Made with only a single producer in Tommy English, Blue Madonna is an exhilarating and upbeat experience, if the slightest bit inconsistent. Still, its highs are experimental pop at its best.

The album really hits its stride in its middle section of four, elevating itself from the slower nature of the first four tracks and kicking the album into a higher gear that never lets up. The track “Man” immediately snaps into a bouncy synth piano groove as Børns forms his own backup vocal trio with some harmonized embellishments and he demonstrates just how strong that falsetto belt can get. “Iceberg” might be my favourite song of all, a more laidback track that is the most sonically experimental thing here. Børns tenderly croons the title as the synths shimmer like the glow on ice behind him, each time he drops into the verse the main synth-bass hook getting stronger before everything converges for the rhythmically dramatic conclusion.

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“Second Night Of Summer” and “I Don’t Want U Back” stray closer to pop territory, but Børns’ ability to switch between his softer, indie-pop vocals and his full-voiced rock and roll wail in the chorus is what gives these tracks a truly special and individual quality that could only come from him. Those crunchy synths as he extends that note on “throwin’ me that shaaade” give the track a great electronic groove. I’m not sure if another song captures Børns’ retro aspirations better than the single “Faded Heart”, which sees him reach high up into his falsetto for the kind of lovesick, saccharine and pleading chorus that could have come straight from someone like Frankie Valli – it emphasizes the effect when a kind of muffling effect is put on his vocals later on in the track, like we’re hearing the track played on an ancient gramophone.

Many of Børns’ melodies have the kind of crunchy, surprising quirks in note choice that simply aren’t around as much anymore, evoking a different time perfectly. I also certainly wasn’t expecting this album to leave me completely heartbroken at its conclusion, but the painfully real songwriting on closing track “Bye-bye Darling” is beautifully bittersweet, reminiscing on the good times and emphasizing that nobody will ever know what they had – but of course that just makes it worse in the end.

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Opening track “God Save Our Young Blood” brings Lana Del Rey out from her backup vocals position with a full feature credit, and I’m not sure if this was recorded before her brilliant Lust For Life album, but she brings out Børns’ worst tendencies for a rare misstep. He demonstrates later on in the album how much more than this somber, swaying mood music he is, and something about the chord progression into the chorus really doesn’t sit well with me, especially as the key changes closer to the end of the track.

While his trademark falsetto is often very strong at communicating the overall feel he aims for, the real charm comes from the joyful, twinkling instrumentals that accompany them, and sometimes making an album with a single producer can create some tracks that lag behind others in this regard. A song like “Sweet Dreams” is a solid track, and we feel every word he says, but the production isn’t as rhythmic as the other tracks and as a result isn’t as immediately impactful.

We’ve certainly been hearing a lot of retro flavour in pop music recently, but not many artists are going quite this far back with such a clearly loving dedication to the style they pay homage to. Børns certainly avoids the sophomore jinx here with some smart songwriting and enticing vocal delivery.

Favourite Tracks: Iceberg, Man, Bye-bye Darling, Second Night Of Summer, Faded Heart

Least Favourite Track: God Save Our Young Blood

Score: 8/10

Camila Cabello – Camila

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngCamila Cabello’s long-delayed debut album, establishing herself as a solo artist after leaving Fifth Harmony, comes in the wake of smash hit single “Havana”, which the album was supposedly restructured around. While I can’t immediately see how this was done, as the album contains many slower ballads and more standard pop tracks, Camila is a brief glimpse at Cabello’s artistry apart from the group that is very solid, if not yet spectacular. Produced mainly by Frank Dukes, who has recently worked with numerous visionaries in Lorde, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, Cabello’s unique voice and slight Latin edge she brings to most of these tracks establishes an artist in control, even if most of her choices stay safe for now.

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“Never Be The Same”, recently released as the follow up to “Havana”, is a great example for where most of this album stands – the chorus is absolutely explosive and an earworm of the highest degree and seriously showcases Cabello’s potential as a main pop artist going forward, but the surrounding energy of the track falls slightly flat at times. The pre-chorus features her singing primarily in her upper register without much instrumental support, and she hasn’t quite figured out this area of her voice yet. As it stands, it is thin and squeaky and doesn’t convey much – but once those backing vocals swell in to support her powerful lower range on that chorus I’m immediately sold once more. The vast majority of the album showcases a select few fantastic musical moments with a single choice that holds it back from becoming truly special. “Havana” still stands out as a spectacular track due to its fully established musical direction and fuller instrumental, distinguishing from the minimalist ballad tracks that populate most of the album.

Don’t discount Cabello as a songwriter either. “Consequences” is easily the best track here. The stripped-back ballad took my breath away, and in a rare occurrence, made me stop my first listen to hear it a few times more. Cabello offers her most personal, confessional lyrics and brings some serious emotional depth to her vocal delivery as she sings of the negative effect of the end of a relationship on her mental health, losing the “steady place to let down my defenses”. The quiet piano chords backing up her softer, breathy vocals complement the track perfectly, swelling at just the right moments as Cabello hits the emotional peaks in her lyrics. This track alone gives me full confidence in Cabello’s ability to become a global pop superstar in the future – not everyone can deliver a track that affects me emotionally this much on a debut album.

I really do love the Latin, tropical flair Cabello brings to a lot of these tracks – even if something like “She Loves Control” carries elements of the dancehall craze that is dominating the radio waves at the moment, there is a greater degree of authenticity in Cabello’s delivery – this isn’t Drake with a fake patois, and an artist who can turn something like “Havana” into a hit single is very refreshing as aspects of Latin music are increasingly popularized. Those few seconds of a Spanish guitar at the end of the track are a great touch and brings the listener further into the bigger picture of what Cabello represents in today’s musical landscape.

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“Real Friends” and “Inside Out” are a couple of fun, tropical pop tracks that carry the same Frank Dukes feel over from “Havana”. While much more lyrically basic, getting inane as the track continues to its conclusion, hearing pop music based on something like the island piano loop on “Inside Out” is enough of an interesting sonic experience that the novelty of the project is enough – when she starts singing in Spanish on the bridge it just carries it even more.

Ultimately, Camila gives a brief, introductory glimpse at the picture of Cabello as her own solo artist, free to add the artistic flourishes that a more manufactured group like Fifth Harmony lacks. As a result, the project has a much greater degree of personality than her ex-bandmates’ latest effort, even if they are both solid yet unspectacular pop projects. Still, there is no filler here, these are all well-structured and catchy pop tracks that suggest Cabello is here to stay.

Favourite Tracks: Consequences, Havana, Real Friends, She Loves Control, Inside Out

Least Favourite Track: All These Years

Score: 7/10

CupcakKe – Ephorize

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Cupcakkeephorize.jpgCupcakKe, the raunchy rapper and proponent of memes, releases her third studio album and continues to establish herself as much more than a source of exaggeratedly sexual punchline raps. Ephorize, while still certainly containing some of the material you might expect, expands on CupcakKe’s persona with some more personal tracks, while the improved level of production allows her to flash more of an impressive technical skillset. Still only 20 years of age, Ephorize is the beginning of CupcakKe coming into her own as a well-rounded artist – as long as you can go along with the joke when the more nauseating side of her work kicks in.

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The project opens with two of its strongest tracks in “2 Minutes” and “Cartoons”, which immediately exceeded my expectations. Both tracks show CupcakKe’s dynamic mic presence, her lower, huskier voice and quicker flow showing full command of the instrumentals. “2 Minutes” shows her emphasizing the value of her tireless work ethic over calming piano and choral samples, while “Cartoons” is an absolute banger – the clinking pots and pans remind me of an old-school beat from Bangladesh, and she seriously displays her talent and technical skill over a very demanding beat – the thematic references to cartoons are a nice touch, and her punchlines, even the obscene ones, are often quite hilarious.

CupcakKe says whatever’s on her mind, and the result gives her music a genuine, endearing quality – we love her at her most ridiculous, and when she becomes more introspective it is legitimately affecting. She introduces “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” by explaining “I was hungry as hell writing this” before dropping into a chorus where she essentially yells the track’s title as loud as possible. I have no idea why it’s so funny.

Tracks like “Self Interview”, in which she offers a touching self-examination of how her actions and her artistry ultimately effect people’s perceptions of her and desiring to be viewed as more than a caricature making songs “about sex and killing”, and the LGBT-positive anthem “Crayons” show a more well-rounded side of her over some larger-than-life beats that let her, and the listeners, have a lot of fun while doing it. Some of the metaphorical connections she draws could only come from her mind – “Navel” sees her getting violent over a “Mask Off”-esque flute instrumental as she punctuates another impressive flow by comparing a bullet hole to the titular body part

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Although a track like “Duck Duck Goose” was clearly structured to be somewhat of a centerpiece to the album, with a pretty catchy Eurodance style instrumental reminiscent of Katy Perry’s recent “Swish Swish”, I can’t sit through these tracks where CupcakKe approaches her lyrical content with no intentions other than shock value. Her breathy delivery introducing the chorus are clearly meant to be taken as a joke, but this isn’t something I’m going to giving repeated listens to. Don’t get me wrong – CupcakKe is miles above anyone else when it comes to actually effectively communicating this shock value, and that says something in and of itself, but there’s a point where a joke goes a bit too far.

Standing at 15 tracks, the project overstays its welcome a bit as tracks closer to the tail end start to get more similar. It would be beneficial for CupcakKe to vary her delivery more, as many tracks start to simply become standard trend-riding instrumentals, her voice constantly at its most energetic level of attack, and tracks with a loosely thematic lyrical concept with the odd sexual punchlines thrown in. “Total” and “Post Pic” are pretty bland tropical-house style tracks, while an aggressive rap track like “Meet and Greet” feels rather redundant near the end of the track listing as better prototypes came before it.

Despite all of this, CupcakKe overrides just about anything with her genuine and hilarious personality, and now that she’s shown she has a lot more than meme material in the tank, it’ll be very interesting to see how the young rapper’s career progresses from here. She’s shown a lot of potential here and there’s only room to keep improving

Favourite Tracks: Cartoons, Fullest, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Self Interview, 2 Minutes

Least Favourite Track: Meet & Greet

Score: 7/10

 

Travis Scott/Quavo – Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho

Image result for huncho jack jack hunchoIn yet another rap collab that dropped as 2017 came to a close, not to be upstaged by fellow Migos member Offset, Quavo recruits a kindred spirit in Travis Scott for a solid but unsurprising effort. The two stick to exactly what they know and exactly what they’ve been doing for the rest of the year, and since they are more similar in terms of artistry than many collaborative projects over the course of the year, it seems like the album doesn’t have much to offer that we haven’t already heard before.

While I personally wanted to hear more bars and less mumbled, autotuned crooning that the two have become known for, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho shows two artists who are as understanding of their audience as they possibly could be, delivering a select few great moments in a sea of mediocrity.

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The project opens with its most immediately catchy song in “Modern Slavery”, which features a more energetic trap beat than most of the generic offerings on the rest of the project and features Quavo “shaking his demons off” and then “dipping his dreams in sauce”. The shorter length of the track, as well as the multiple delays on the project, makes me think that the logistics of the project did not come together as well as most, since this album basically exists solely due to internet hype on Twitter. I wish it had gone on for longer.

The only features on the project come from fellow Migos members Takeoff and Offset, and it really speaks volumes to how well Migos work as a trio, since the distinct voices they bring to their respective tracks really breaks up the monotony here. Scott and Quavo are almost indistinguishable here, not playing off of each other at all or complementing each others’ strengths because they essentially do very similar things on each track.

The tracks “Dubai Sh*t” and “Best Man” stand out as well, the former demonstrating the quotable, goofier side of their respective rap personas (if you can ignore the similarities to Drake’s More Life highlight “Gyalchester”) while the album closer “Best Man” offers something a little different from the trap sensibilities and rhythmic adherence to rather straightforward beats. The collaborators express their brotherhood and tell some stories of their early friendship over Young Thug producer Wheezy’s more spacey, ambient beat that accommodates their melodies better.

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Scott and Quavo’s more freeform, flowing style doesn’t contrast as well with more dynamic beats, since almost all of the energy of the track is lost when a beat calms down due to the rappers not explicitly sticking to a solid rhythmic pattern. While there is certainly appeal in the style, as evidenced by the two rappers’ enormous popularity, after a slew of collaborative projects that only served to amplify artistic aspects that weren’t as prominent on solo work, the safe approach to this project didn’t sit as well with me. Too much of the project sounds like an amalgamation of just about every track Travis and Quavo appeared on over the course of 2017, using the same flows, same beats, same adlibs and same lyrical content and even some of the same punchlines.

Quavo’s voice is the hip-hop universal solvent at this point, and Travis Scott at his most energetic can be truly invigorating, but it is clear that there wasn’t a high degree of effort put into this project, not wanting to delay its release to 2018. There are certainly moments to enjoy here – these two have exploded into the public eye recently as they continue to shape exactly what modern hip-hop sounds like, and this can be partially credited to the strength of their prolific collaborations – but usually, their presence is a welcome juxtaposition and different perspective to a track by someone with a completely different approach. These artists aren’t as one-dimensional as this project makes them seem.

Favourite Tracks: Modern Slavery, Moon Rock, Best Man

Least Favourite Track: How U Feel

Score: 4/10

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2017

Without further ado, here are my favourite projects of 2017. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • blackbear – digital druglord
  • Migos – C U L T U R E
  • Tove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]
  • Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom
  • Betty Who – The Valley
  • Kelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life
  • Bleachers – Gone Now
  • Kelela – Take Me Apart
  • Niall Horan – Flicker
  • Jay-Z – 4:44

25. Metro Boomin/Offset/21 Savage – Without Warning

Image result for without warningIn one of his many collaboration projects this year, quintessential trap producer Metro Boomin recruits two rappers who couldn’t be more different for a Halloween-themed mixtape. Court jester Offset perfectly counteracts the blunt, deadpan 21 Savage as they enter a villainous partnership through song.

24. Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesThe dreampop quintet blends genres together in an overall vintage sound, frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals possessing the quieter sensibilities of dreampop but juxtaposing this with the louder guitar instrumentals that verge on punk-rock. The project is a brief whirlwind of energy.

23. Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerThe greatest viral marketing scheme of all time? Poppy’s surreal YouTube videos prepared us perfectly for this project, where the …character…? continues to satirize our cultlike dedication to all things technological and celebrity through a series of upbeat, bubblegum pop tracks.

22. Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkThe virtuoso jazz-funk bassist, now with a wider audience after his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s work, releases a conceptual and incoherent experimental jumble of sounds that makes you feel just as the title suggests. The whole album is framed as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and the rapid bass playing and Thundercat’s comedic lyrics as his mind wanders to absurd topics complete one of the most ambitious projects of the year.

21. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyTyler drops the shock value raps of his past here for more lavish instrumentals and contemplative, confessional lyrics as he finally comes to terms with what he feels the toxic masculinity of the hip-hop industry often tried to repress – his homosexuality. Tyler’s lyrics always offered a deep journey into his consciousness, but now hearing his stories of his struggle with acceptance are truly captivating.

20. Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel

Image result for number 1 angelHer first of two mixtapes this year, Number 1 Angel excels by offering experimental spins on pop music but not getting so obscure as to lose the party-girl personality that made her music so fun in the first place. Her collaborations with PC Music producers mean the beats hit harder than most pop music, and the whole thing is just a sassy, confident snarl that’s hard not to love.

19. Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgThe versatile DJ reinvents himself on his 5th studio album, moving away from the bland pop sound of his past for a more musically complex journey into the world of funk and hip-hop. In a tweet, Harris denied that this was “feel good music”. No, he says, it’s “feel INCREDIBLE music”. He’s absolutely right, tapping into exactly what summer sounds like with a diverse roster of guests that never fails to surprise.

18. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1

Chris-stapleton-from-a-room-volume-1.jpgThe first of two albums this year in his “From A Room” duo, the seemingly limitless vocalist blends together his brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in his emotional delivery. His harmonies with his wife on most of these tracks are something to behold, but the pure emotion he puts into every note is what makes his stories stand out.

17. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Image result for masseductionThe futuristic pop artist delivers another rock-influenced album featuring her own impressive guitar playing, teaming up with producer-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff to deliver satirical takes on how easily we can be indoctrinated to advertising, religion and the like. Her voice is extremely dynamic and capable, making magic out of the minimal as much as she does the genre-defying chaos here.

16. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifeFor the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on her cover artwork, and it’s a great representation of the new direction of her music. While her tropes were getting somewhat tiresome, she switches things up on her fourth album. Adding a political edge we hadn’t really seen before, her music is made more compelling by adding an element of hope in the dismal times she sings about. Her voice is still instantly recognizable, her lyrics high-concept and darkly brilliant. Del Rey is finally coming into her own.

15. Kesha – Rainbow

Image result for kesha rainbowKesha drops the dollar sign – and the contract with an abusive producer – and flourishes in this comeback project that’s all about her own personal strength. Finally able to let loose with her musical ambitions, this project runs effortlessly through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock as Kesha displays an incredible singing voice that most people never knew was there.

14. Miguel – War & Leisure

Image result for war and leisureLike most this year, Miguel’s fourth studio album is more political than usual. He draws explicit reference to the threat of nuclear war, but like the album title suggests, is frequently trying to find ways to stay positive despite everything we see in the news. His funk-heavy R&B tracks always sound like a celebration, many songs clearly inspired by Prince here in their psychedelic reverence.

13. Kehlani – SWEETSEXYSAVAGE

Image result for sweetsexysavageBreaking the sophomore curse, Kehlani continues to establish herself as a leading voice in the R&B scene with this project. The title derived from a classic TLC album, Kehlani would have fit right in with the girl group as the project is broken up into the 3 categories the title suggests. While I prefer her lyrics when they’re at their most savage, the harmonies across the board and overall musicality here is pretty incredible.

12. Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for tell me you love meOne of the most technically skilled pop vocalists finally returns to her strengths after two albums of bland electropop, taking much more of an R&B direction with this project and demonstrating just how effortless her singing ability can be. Not only does she rediscover that dramatic soprano belt, her low register is just as passionate and intense.

11. SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlWhile my initial reaction wasn’t as immediately strong, this project grows on you like no other and you’d be hard-pressed to find another album that made as much of a cultural impact this year. SZA’s honest lyricism carries this project, finally a female in the urban scene that speaks as bluntly as the men do. Her delivery is more like a rapper’s here, replacing bigger vocal moments with lyrical smacks in the face.

10. Ed Sheeran – ÷

Image result for divide edOK, OK, maybe it’s not the perfect score I initially gave it. The project received criticism for being too safe, but I still believe that Ed Sheeran is one of the strongest male vocalists and songwriters at the moment, and he demonstrates this across the board here. His passionate rasp and immersive romantic lyrics paint a picture of something that we all strive for.

9. Tennis – Yours Conditionally

Image result for yours conditionallyA love letter to all things 70s pop, the husband-and-wife duo get minimalistic with their production and allow Alaina Moore’s calming vocals to shine through as they search to find the purest sense of human emotion. The harmonies and the earnest, joyful way Moore sings about her romantic life here never fail to put the widest smile on my face, and watching videos of the two performing together is the most wholesome thing you’ll ever see.

8. N.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Image result for no one ever really diesOne of the most experimental albums of the year, one of 2017’s greatest albums dropped in the final week of music releases. Pharrell Williams and his old bandmates return for the first time in 7 years, recruiting a diverse roster of guests to build their brand of funk production around as Williams channels his inner James Brown to deliver some rallying chants. You lose track of how many beat switches this project has – it’s something to get lost in as it never stays the same for long.

7. Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa coverThe debut album from the 21-year old DJ never takes its foot off the gas pedal. He brings a unique take on the rising tropical house style to his music, flying through a diverse array of guests but frequently connecting them all through his trademark chime patterns. Many of these tracks impress with their rhythmic complexity and layering, bringing the musical motifs all together at the end for a euphoric climax. The vocalists all sound like they’re inviting you to join them at some kind of an incredible party, and if the DJ is as competent as this rising star it should be a good time.

6. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe folk artist’s third album perfectly encapsulates all that was 2017 in his darkly comedic lyrics and satirical analysis of … just about everything, taking a more rock-influenced route than his quieter tracks of the past. Yes, the album can be crushingly depressing at times, but like he consistently reminds us over its lengthy runtime, what can we do but laugh about it? Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. This album is so dense it’s impossible to sum it up here, but it’s a very rewarding listen.

5. Jhene Aiko – Trip

Image result for trip jheneThe closest thing we got to a sprawling, interconnected concept album this year, the hour-and-a-half long Trip never feels like its length due to the hypnotic quality of Aiko’s mesmerizing and comforting vocal tone. The entire album framed as a drug trip, the hallucinations taking numerous positive and negative twists and turns as Aiko begins to envision her real personal events such as the death of her brother and her new romance with “soulmate” Big Sean, the spoken interludes here help to tell a complete story as the sound of the project is broken up into sections corresponding to different drugs. Aiko has given extensive description on deeper, personal meanings to the thematic layers she explores here, showing just how authentic the emotion she shows throughout really is. Trip is less of an album, and more of an experience.

4. Paramore – After Laughter

Image result for after laughterAnother complete reinvention, Paramore’s first album since 2013 arrives in the wake of numerous legal disputes and lineup shuffling, emerging on the other side with a brilliant 80s-pop revival nobody could have expected. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into  the band’s most fully realized album yet. A track like “Fake Happy” signifies just how far the band has come, a complete musical journey that offers about three surprising musical twists midsong that includes both their most poppy synths of all and the return of their heaviest guitars. Hayley Williams is still one of the most capable leads in the industry, her dynamic vocals guiding the band through this new direction with ease.

3. Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me

Image result for don't smile at meYes, an 8-track EP by a 15-year old is this good. The indie pop prodigy teams up with her brother, actor and producer Finneas O’Connell, Eilish’s aching, paper-thin voice serves in stark contrast to the energetic trap and EDM-flavoured instrumentals behind her and her dark and disturbing lyrical content. An artist having such a clearly established sense of artistic identity and creative vision at such a young age is hard to come by, and as she completely harnesses her brothers’ skittering and rhythmically complex beats while singing about a killing spree in the sweetest voice she could imagine, you can only imagine how bright her future will be. The capability to write a song as beautiful and affecting as “ocean eyes” at the age of 13 is something very special, and she has flawless vocals on top of that.

2. Lorde – Melodrama

Image result for melodramaJust as Lorde perfectly documented the complete experience of being a 16-year old on her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde transitions to adulthood here in a believable way. In collaboration with another great songwriter in Jack Antonoff, she details her accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world now at the age of 20. Lorde both revels in the greatest parts of youth and criticizes the romanticization of other aspects, especially with regards to partying, which most of the album revolves around. Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here and pairs it with some minimalistic and experimental pop instrumentals for one of the most well-thought out projects of the year.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” Lamar’s latest work is all about dichotomies, many of his high-concept, single-word album titles serving as direct opposites. On DAMN., the dense and conceptual rapper swings in a slightly commercial direction for the first time, turning up the pure hip-hop energy but maintaining the important messages he began delivering on his previous works. If anything, the blunt, angrier deliver that results  only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made albums like Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process. Simply put, nobody else in hip-hop has as much of a complete toolkit as Lamar does, and he shows off different parts of it on different tracks here. We hadn’t seen him make a pure pop song in “LOVE.”, but he shows us he excels at the slower, melodic rap too as the song shoots up the charts as we speak. We hadn’t really seen him go just as hard as he does on “DNA.” either. Regardless, the best part of any Lamar album is always the running themes – “Nobody praying for me”, he continues to assert, as the album continues to return to the same motifs and wraps itself up by rewinding to the beginning at its conclusion. With his incredible trilogy of albums, Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation.

BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2017

2017 saw a lot of music spin in a political direction, and while we didn’t necessarily receive the high-concept masterpiece I’d been waiting for after last year’s Lemonade and Blonde, we still bore witness to a lot of pretty incredible firsts. Here are my top 50 songs that got us through the tumultuous year:

Honourable Mentions:

  • Charli XCX – 3AM (Pull Up) [Ft. MØ]
  • Ed Sheeran – Perfect
  • Demi Lovato – Daddy Issues
  • St. Vincent – Smoking Section
  • blackbear – chateau
  • Galantis – Love On Me (Ft. Hook n Sling)
  • Bleachers – Goodmorning
  • Lil Yachty – Better (Ft. Stefflon Don)
  • Halsey – Eyes Closed
  • HAIM – Little Of Your Love

50. Gorillaz – Saturnz Barz (Ft. Popcaan)

Image result for gorillaz humanzGorillaz try their hand at dancehall, Damon Albarn’s softer tones bouncing off Popcaan’s patois over an instrumental that sounds like it’s fresh from an eerie carnival ride.

49. Bonobo – Surface (Ft. Nicole Miglis)

Image result for bonobo migrationThe downtempo EDM DJ brings Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis aboard, her beautiful, folksy voice carrying the atmospheric track.

48. Fifth Harmony – Deliver

Image result for FIFTH harmonyThe band shows they’re still capable of making great music as a quartet, imbuing this classic R&B track with a retro flair and bouncy piano instrumental.

47. 21 Savage – Bank Account

Image result for issa albumOver the course of the year I’ve come to appreciate 21 Savage as a comedic presence, and I’ll never forget the crowded bus I broke out laughing upon the first time I heard him count up how many M’s he had in his bank account in his deadpan voice.

46. Kelela – LMK

Image result for kelela take me apartKelela brings her electronic take on alt-R&B and impressive lower vocals to a more laidback track from her album.

45. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life (Ft. The Weeknd)

Image result for lust for lifeThe 2 nihilistic stars fire up their perfect collaborative partnership once again, contemplating the things that make life worthwhile as they sit perched on the edge of the Hollywood sign, deciding not to jump off.

44. Tove Lo – shivering gold

Image result for blue lipsThe Swedish songstress finally reaches the level of pop euphoria we knew she had in her, her voice soaring to new limits as the punchy synths explode behind her.

43. Kelly Clarkson – Cruel

Image result for meaning of life kellyClarkson wanted her latest project to return to her R&B/Soul roots, and no track shows more of what she’s capable of than this one. Sounding like a classic Motown record as the horns blare, she shows her impressive range, singing the chorus in 2 different octaves.

42. Miguel – City of Angels

Image result for miguel war and leisureThe most creative song concept of the year, Miguel sings this heartfelt ballad to his lost romance when LA was destroyed by bombs while he was away from his girl in Venice Beach.

41. N.E.R.D. – Lemon (Ft. Rihanna)

Image result for no one ever really diesHearing Rihanna deliver such a flawless rap verse over Neptunes-style production in the year 2017 was something never could have anticipated, but I’m so glad N.E.R.D. are back with their take on experimental hip-hop.

40. Kehlani – Piece of Mind

Image result for sweetsexysavageKehlani’s harmonies are at their absolute best on this breezy R&B track that sees her putting the negative feelings she had regarding her self-image in the past, taking some time for herself.

39. Poppy – Let’s Make A Video

Image result for poppy computer albumThe best manifestation of the mysterious Poppy character, taking on the role of a bubbly vlogger with a darker undercurrent. And oh yeah, the song is pretty good too.

38. Alvvays – Dreams Tonite

Image result for antisocialitesThe indie-pop quartet goes back in time for a vintage sound on this project, mastering the slow build with this track. Frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals progressively layer as she envisions romance with a passing stranger.

37. Camila Cabello – Havana (Ft. Young Thug)

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngI knew this would be a hit as soon as I heard it, the ex-Fifth Harmony member bringing her authentic Cuban flair to Frank Dukes’ intoxicating and sensual instrumental. The upcoming album sounds promising.

36. SZA – The Weekend

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest growers of the year, SZA brings us into relatively unexplored territory with this bluntly honest song from the position of a side girl treating romance like a timeshare.

35. ODESZA – Boy

Image result for odesza a moment apartElectronic duo ODESZA puts listeners in a trance with their shimmering instrumentals that inexplicably give off this sense of wonderment, and do so at their best on this more upbeat track from A Moment Apart.

34. Tennis – Fields Of Blue

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyAlaina Moore’s gentle, soothing vocals are irresistible on this blissful ode to romance. Her husband’s catchy guitar pattern backs her up as she harmonizes with herself perfectly.

33. Chris Stapleton – Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning

Image result for from a room volume 1The country/soul vocal powerhouse offers his stripped-back cover of a Willie Nelson song, letting the emotion in his voice tell the whole story in the most heartbreaking song of the year.

32. Kendrick Lamar – FEAR.

Image result for damnThe nearly 8-minute centerpiece of Lamar’s album DAMN. explaining the concept behind the single-word, high-concept track titles, he delivers three powerful verses here detailing his fears at ages 7, 17 and 27.

31. Harry Styles – Sign Of The Times

Image result for harry styles albumThe expansive, cinematic rock ballad from the former OneDirection member shocked the world with its quality – I love a slow build, and this is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The emotion at the end gets me every time.

30. St. Vincent – Pills

Image result for masseductionSt. Vincent calls on actress and ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne to deliver a singsong, nursery rhyme chorus about over-reliance on medication to get through the day, the distorted instrumental produced by none other than TDE’s Sounwave.

29. Paramore – Hard Times

Image result for after laughterThe first we heard of Paramore’s shift in sound, the lead single perfectly encapsulates the 80s-pop revival they mastered across the project as soon as those first tropical chords hit.

28. Jhene Aiko – Overstimulated

Image result for trip jheneWhile it’s tough to pick out individual tracks from such an interconnected musical journey like Jhene Aiko’s Trip, this track offers the most immediately memorable melody, delivered in the dreamy, psychedelic way only Aiko can.

27. Ed Sheeran – Galway Girl

Image result for divide edCreatively interpolating some traditional Irish fiddle melodies into a beat more grounded in the world of hip-hop, Sheeran’s rapid-fire delivery and constant ability to write an inescapable chorus make this a standout on ÷.

26. Kesha – Praying

Image result for rainbow keshaOne of the most powerful pieces of songwriting this year, Kesha aims this track at producer Dr. Luke, relishing in proving him wrong through her success – all while displaying the incredible vocal talent we never saw in the past.

25. Billie Eilish – my boy

Image result for don't smile at meDon’t let her playful tone fool you – this menacing track sees 15-year old Eilish telling some hapless soul to “go trip over a knife”. That initial beat switch is incredible.

24. Miguel – Pineapple Skies

Image result for miguel war and leisureDedicated to Prince, this track sees Miguel step into a long line of sensual soul men with ease, dancing across the surface of the track that samples Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”.

23. Lana Del Rey – Tomorrow Never Came (Ft. Sean Ono Lennon)

Image result for lust for lifeIn a duet with John Lennon’s son, playing the instrumental on one of his father’s vintage instruments, Lana Del Rey taps into her old soul persona and delivers a heartbreaking ballad that could easily pass for a classic Beatles song.

22. Jay-Z – 4:44

Image result for 4:44The best apology Jay-Z could have ever hoped to make. This response to the allegations of infidelity in Beyonce’s Lemonade shows Jay-Z stripping back the confident rap persona to deliver some conversational, confessional lines on just how much he messed up.

21. Lorde – Perfect Places

Image result for melodramaThe closing track to the expansive Melodrama sees Lorde continue to perfectly sum up the experience of those close to her in age, as she’s done throughout her career. The track offers a takedown of the modern party, criticizing those who see it as some kind of mystical haven where anything might happen.

20. Charli XCX – Dreamer (Ft. Starrah & Raye)

Image result for number 1 angelOne of the most confident tracks of the year, Charli XCX opens her first project of the year with a commanding strength of the trap-influenced instrumental, her vocalizations possessing a percussive quality that just helps the track as a whole hit you like a freight train.

19. Mura Masa – 1 Night (Ft. Charli XCX)

Image result for mura masa coverCharli had a great year, and here she assists one of the most promising young talents in the EDM scene with a catchy and carefree chorus over his trademark chime instrumentals and tropical flavour.

18. Jidenna – Bambi

Image result for jidenna the chiefLike if you threw a trap beat on an old standard. Jidenna embraces his Nigerian heritage by paying homage to the popular highlife genre and speaking from the perspective of a polygamous chief who really only wants one of them.

17. Kendrick Lamar – LUST.

Image result for damnOne of Lamar’s most unnerving tracks, the creeping guitar pattern and almost monotone delivery of his verses fits the track’s overarching theme well. DJ Dahi’s reversed instrumental and Lamar’s trademark shifts in perspective make this a standout on DAMN.

16. N.E.R.D. – 1000 (Ft. Future)

Image result for no one ever really diesPharrell summoned some kind of ancient, mystical energy here. This song makes me want to set something on fire. The skittering breakbeat, distorted synth bass, and frenzied rallying cries to start a riot, with a pretty great Future verse thrown into the mix, caps one of the most experimental songs of the year.

15. Future – Mask Off (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for future album coverI’ll never forget the first time I heard the beat drop on this flute instrumental – I felt like I was levitating. Producer Metro Boomin puts you in a trance with this one, and the remix featuring Kendrick Lamar just revs up the energy of the track even more with a spectacular verse where he declares “I am Prince”.

14. Demi Lovato – Cry Baby

Image result for tell me you love me album coverWith her recent, poppier output before this album dropped, I almost forgot that Lovato is one of the greatest vocalists in the music industry right now. Returning to her powerhouse R&B ballads, “Cry Baby” is the biggest vocal clinic of the year.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – Cut To The Feeling

Image result for cut to the feelingAnother year without an album release, and another of the year’s best tracks regardless. This movie-soundtrack gem was another cut from her outstanding E•MO•TION, and that soaring chorus is just another exercise in Jepsen pop escapism – it fits the formula too, LOOK IT UP, NO I’M NOT A CARLY RAE CONSPIRACY THEORIST!!!

12. SZA – Drew Barrymore

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest vocal moments on SZA’s confessional Ctrl, the chorus is introduced with some quick drum strikes before she explodes into that beautiful high note on “Warm enough for ya?” The rhythmic guitar pattern behind it never leaves your head either.

11. Tyler, the Creator – 911/Mr. Lonely (Ft. Frank Ocean & Steve Lacy)

Scum Fuck Flower Boy cover.jpgTyler continues to deal with the realization of his sexuality in the most Tyler way possible on this track – with a series of complex metaphors and tortured internal monologues. He details his compensation for his loneliness and confusion with some disheartening lines on filling the void with materialism, answered by a crowd yelling “OHHHH” like he just dropped the bar of the year. It’s a beautiful analysis of the trouble with assumptions and expectations.

10. Paramore – Rose-Colored Boy

Image result for after laughterIn addition to that infectious bassline, this song turns all the focus to Hayley Williams. Her vocal command of this track is impressive, showing just as much – if not more – power when she chooses to turn up the intensity by being quiet rather than delivering a huge note. I awarded my favourite musical second of the year to Childish Gambino last year, and this year it is the moment where Williams unexpectedly drops down to that quieter lower harmony at a crucial moment in the final chorus.

9. Julia Michaels – Issues

Image result for julia michaels nervous systemOne of the most incredible new voices of the year, I fell in love with former superstar pop songwriter Michaels’ quirky vocal inflections and surprisingly dark lyrical content. Another great slow build, that beautiful string instrumental is ultimately complemented by a distorted bassline and stratospheric harmonies. Despite its popularity, this track still gives me chills.

8. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe title track of folk artist Father John Misty’s satirical, sarcastic takedown of everything 2017 – politics, religion, reliance on technology, nothing is left unscathed by Father John Misty’s hideously dark sense of humour on this track. By the end, he proclaims the doom of humanity while laughing at the ridiculousness and irony concealed in the ways we tore our own civilization apart. He concludes “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got”. Indeed.

7. Rina Sawayama – Cyber Stockholm Syndrome

Image result for rina sawayama rinaThis brilliant callback to the sound of early 2000s pop music delivers the catchiest chorus of the year while being the most successful experiment in the experimental pop genre. Sawayama sings of the futility of romance in the digital age, while the sheer volume of producer Clarence Clarity’s twinkling, layered synths make you feel like you’ve entered another dimension where nothing matters but the sound you’ve been completely immersed in. “Flying high speed across the distant galaxy”, she sings in the most chaotic segment, and that’s basically the effect.

6. Calvin Harris – Slide (Ft. Frank Ocean & Migos)

Image result for funk wav bounces vol 1Has any song ever sounded more like summer? Calvin Harris’ latebreaking foray into funk instrumentals was a resounding success, and inviting the nonchalant delivery of Frank Ocean onto such a sunny, bright instrumental was the best feature he could have grabbed. Offset’s verse is absolutely ridiculous on here, his triplet flow at its bounciest before conceding the track back to Frank for its final chorus where Harris introduces another layer of guitar that sends it into maximum joyous overdrive. It’s even more impressive that every instrumental aspect of the track was played by Harris himself!

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

Image result for bodakThis track dropped on us like a bomb, and no end-of-year list would be complete without it. The Love and Hip Hop star’s abrasive New York accent and confident lyrics absolutely obliterating her foes are the best thing to happen to hip-hop in a long time, and she achieved the first solo number one hit by a female rapper since the inimitable Lauryn Hill. If you’ve never yelled the chorus to this song at the top of your lungs, preferably in the midst of a large crowd of people, I’m quite confident in saying you haven’t lived your life to the fullest. The best part is, Cardi B is surprisingly technically proficient – you need some serious ability to deliver that 2nd verse!

4. Lorde – Liability

Image result for melodramaThis stark piano ballad is easily the most emotional song of the year, and it doesn’t even clock in at 3 minutes. Lorde reaches all the way down to the bottom of her range, her voice breaking and crackling for maximum emotional effect as she sings of her inability to maintain relationships with others due to her fame and all that is associated with it, unable to enjoy the joy that she finds with people while it lasts because she’s already anticipating the pattern that will lead to its end. Producer Jack Antonoff knew just the right chords to capture this vulnerability, and their live performances where they sit back to back on the piano bench are something to behold.

3. Kendrick Lamar – DNA.

Image result for damnLamar’s delivery is more urgent than ever on the hardest beat he’s ever rapped over. I wish I could go back and hear the beat switch as the track shifts into its second half for the first time again – I absolutely lost my mind as his performance shifts into a second gear as his delivery speeds up and his tone becomes angrier. Partially a shot at Fox News, partially a celebration of the prestige of his kingly ancestral heritage, this song is just 3 solid minutes of Lamar demonstrating why he’s the best rapper alive with the technical performance of the year. To keep the beat over such an unconventional and sparse instrumental in the track’s second half is nothing short of superhuman.

2. Billie Eilish – idontwannabeyouanymore

Image result for don't smile at meThis is a perfect storm of things I’m a complete sucker for in a single song – the juxtaposition of innocent-sounding vocals with darker subject matter, a 3/4 time signature, soaring soprano harmonies and vocal layering – it’s all here. The emotional depth Eilish shows at 15 speaking about her personal insecurities, told with such sweet-sounding vocals as she examines the problems that make things so difficult for women in this regard, is one of the most moving listening experiences of the year. The resignation in her voice as she delivers her final lines to the mirror, “I don’t wanna be you anymore”, shows a promising future ahead for the young songwriter.

1. Tennis – In The Morning I’ll Be Better

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyThe perfect exercise in simplicity this year, lo-fi dreampop duo Tennis continue to pay homage to 70s pop music with this harmonized and softer-toned track in which Alaina Moore sings about sublimating the energy contained in romantic passion into spiritual betterment of oneself. Like their inspirations, Tennis revolves more around musicality than lyricism, delivering the purest essence of simple human emotions with just a few words, but Moore’s voice is what truly draws you into the track. Soft and unassuming yet playful and inviting, she is the perfect fit for this style of music, and she demonstrates her impressive range on this track in particular, pleadingly delivering the song’s title in the song’s climactic outro as she reaches for the higher end. The bass guitar riff and twinkling piano melody complete the year’s best song.

Check out the list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/7gvb5F1jj6tWpXsKIt2JKi

Rapid Fire Reviews (Eminem, N.E.R.D., Charli XCX)

We’ve finally reached the last review post of the year, which means it’s time for Year-End Lists! My top 50 songs and top 25 albums of the year should be out before the new year, stay tuned.

Revival by Eminem cover.jpgEminem – Revival

Best-selling hip-hop artist of all time Eminem returns after a 4-year break with his ninth studio album, Revival, concluding a trilogy that included more poorly received work in Relapse and Recovery. While Revival does give the generational talent some more space to flex his unparalleled technical muscles, the team around him contributes to the same problems that have been plaguing him for a while, reaching some pretty inexcusable levels on this project.

For every one of Eminem’s dad-joke punchlines that becomes the butt of a joke on the internet, he has about five brilliant displays of wordplay here. There’s a moment on “Chloraseptic” where he laces only words with three different “a” sounds together in a recurring pattern for about 30 seconds – nobody else can do this stuff. Revival excels when Eminem’s goofy persona cuts through all of the commercialization of his more recent efforts, embracing the cringe factor perfectly on the Joan Jett-sampling “Remind Me” with some delightfully disgusting pick-up lines. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as hilarious on the other dated Rick Rubin-produced rap-rock tracks, of which there are too many that fall flat. The final two tracks, “Castle” and “Arose” are the album’s highlight, offering the only believable emotional content on the album as Eminem revisits his overdose and near-death experience in 2007, writing to his daughter as he recounts his career and expresses his love for her in his final thoughts. “Arose” references “Castle”, rewinding to its final verse as Eminem completes it by abandoning his pills instead of taking them. It would be a beautifully fitting end to his career, if his threats of retirement are true.

Many criticized the tracklist for including so many pop features, and the final product certainly features a glossy pop-rap sheen that decreases the impact of Eminem’s vitriolic delivery technique. “Need Me” is basically a P!nk song. The mixing on this album is shocking for such a high-profile artist, tracks like “Tragic Endings” legitimately confusing me if something on my end was wrong due to how off-kilter the vocal levels were. What might be the most disappointing thing however, is Eminem trying incredibly hard to show us that he has emotional depth, all while sounding like a robot with the choppy staccato flow he insists on using lately. The same artist who gave us ruthless tracks in his Slim Shady persona opens the album with “Walk On Water”, a 5-minute track about how criticism hurts his feelings. For whatever reason, hearing Eminem care about things is disheartening. I expected Eminem to offer scathing, nihilistic takes on the world’s problems, but instead he falls back into fake-deep, baseline “inspirational” content on political tracks like “Like Home”. He follows up his 2013 apology to his mother with a copy-and-pasted apology to ex-wife Kim on “Bad Husband”, and legitimately censors himself on “Framed”. I understand why with the current wave of sexual assault stories, but this is Eminem we’re talking about. His lyrics on “Offended” aren’t as shocking anymore, what really offends me is the atrocious playground-chant chorus that completely disrupts the rhythm.

At the end of the day, Eminem is still one of the most talented artists to ever live, and the brief glimpses of that on this project are enough to save it from being unlistenable. It’s not doing much for his legacy though.

Favourite Tracks: Castle, Arose, Remind Me

Least Favourite Track: Nowhere Fast

Score: 4/10

No one ever really dies album.jpegN.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Superproducer Pharrell Williams revives his band for their first album in 7 years, delving back into his funk and hip-hop roots with one of the most sonically experimental albums of the year. Things are still based around The Neptunes’ stripped-down, percussion-heavy style, but Pharrell adapts to his many guests and builds some solid walls of sound around it, creating waves of pure hyperactive energy around his James Brownian vocal delivery.

We open strong with single “Lemon”, Pharrell immediately jumping into a frenzied, slightly off-kilter rap verse before the track breaks down and Rihanna struts onto the track and delivers an incredible, quotable and confident verse like she’s been doing it her whole career. The tracks only get more complex from there, bringing Chad Hugo’s guitars back in and frequently offering abrupt shifts mid-song. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” is a nearly 8-minute, constantly fluid masterpiece that begins with Pharrell asking his 9-year old son to sing the letter “G” – a note which he electronically extends as a recurring motif throughout. The first half sounds more like Pharrell’s more contemplative work on G I R L. We hear chirping birds and running water in the background as he sings of a universal connection, the second half breaking out into a hip-hop beat and metallic synth pattern as his peaceful prophecies are realized. The Future-featuring “1000” could easily start a riot, built on rhythmic interlocking vocal samples, distorted synth bass and Pharrell yelling “HOLY S**T IT’S WORKING”. Halfway through the track he says something about “rainbow angst” and the sound follows suit, with high pitched sugary yet distorted synths suddenly at the forefront of the track in what could only be described as rainbow angst. It’s complete madness, and it’s beautiful.

N.E.R.D.’s lyrics get political as well, sending thinly veiled accusations against “Mr. Wizard of Oz”, the President, on nearly every song and dedicating the Frank Ocean co-written track “Don’t Don’t Do It!” to victims of police brutality. Pharrell’s lyricism is still as whimsical and optimistic as ever, so hearing him talk about these issues is equally endearing and affecting. “I hope you’re just talking, man”, he emotes regarding the border wall on the frantic “Deep Down Body Thurst” before exploding into a huge breakbeat and group chanting. “Don’t Don’t Do It!” begins with this sunny funk guitar pattern, but an angrier riff starts slowly creeping in as you start to realize the darker subject matter, coming in fully as Kendrick Lamar delivers one of his most technically incredible verses of the year verbally obliterating the police force.

There are certainly times here where Pharrell’s lyrics get a little too cheesy, or the more toned-down, early Neptunes sections of the track verge on tedious and repetitive, but there are so many surprises on this project that they just fly by and you become immersed in something else. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

Favourite Tracks: 1000, Lemon, Deep Down Body Thurst, Lightning Fire Magic Prayer, Don’t Don’t Do It!

Least Favourite Track: ESP

Score: 9/10

Charli XCX - Pop 2.pngCharli XCX – Pop 2

Charli XCX’s second mixtape of the year ventures into even more experimental territory than Number 1 Angel did, bringing on a wealth of guests and taking PC Music production to another level. While some of these ideas are a little too out there for my personal tastes, Charli XCX has been triumphantly leading the way for experimental pop music this year and delivers some great tracks on this project.

Most of the production here is handled by PC Music figurehead A.G. Cook, but of course Charli had to bring the most unique producer working in SOPHIE on board for a single track once again. Her track “Out Of My Head” is a pretty flawless pop song, forming a trio with Scandinavian singers Alma and Tove Lo, reiterating the titular line in the chorus by interrupting and layering on top of each other for a truly unique and immersive listening experience. Charli declares herself a “Femmebot” on the track of the same name, an all-out sugar rush of explosive 80s synth chords and robot metaphors, and the glitchy effects on her production and vocals here can be used for some pretty brilliant effects. “Lucky” slows things down, one of the only tracks without a guest, and her vocals are shifted rapidly between notes for a Kanye West-esque emotional effect, her vocal cutting out while she sings about a connection breaking up and somehow conveying more emotion through incomprehensible autotuned mumbling than actual words.

For whatever reason, Charli turns up the autotune effect here, and for someone who already has a kind of nasal tone to their voice, the juxtaposition of these effects to the PC Music style of heavy electronic synth production can get a little grating, becoming too robotic by removing too much personality. Her long-awaited collaboration with Carly Rae Jepsen, “Backseat”, layers multiple harmonies of her heavily autotuned vocals with Carly’s more folksy, untouched vocal takes over some high-pitched background synths for a track that is much too chaotic. In the same vein, the decision to include a faint recording of Charli’s blood-curdling scream, recurring in the background of already repetitive track “Tears”, distracts too much from the experience.

Charli XCX has truly morphed from the burgeoning bubblegum popstar we envisioned in 2013 to a proponent of all things weird. This is pop music in 3017, and perhaps I just haven’t caught up to it yet. A lot of these tracks sound more like a celebration of her spectacular year than cohesive music, throwing absolutely everything at the wall because she can – and you have to have some respect for that.

Favourite Tracks: Out Of My Head, Delicious, Femmebot, Lucky, Unlock It

Least Favourite Track: Tears

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Chris Stapleton, Miguel, Big Sean)

Image result for from a room volume 2Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

Country/soul superstar Chris Stapleton releases the second half of his From A Room series, following the excellent Volume 1 early this year. Despite mostly restraining himself from the explosive moments and outlaw country lyrics on this second half, opting instead for safer, pleasant balladry, Stapleton’s vocal talent is unmatched not only in his genre, but across most of the music industry, and his ability to convey emotion in his delivery continues to ring throughout this follow-up.

Stapleton continues to bring his wife, Morgane, on board to back him up with some pretty incredible harmonies – it’s tough to match up to the vocal presence Stapleton delivers, but she’s more than up for the job. He continues to show his versatility as well, diving directly into the heavier guitars of southern rock on a track like “Hard Livin’” while stripping things back to show the soulful side of his vocals on “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”. Back to back tracks “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” are the highlights here, the former showcasing Stapleton in country storytelling mode as an impressive display of speedy guitar riffs back him up, playing a character once again as he taps into the mindset of a farmer and his undying love for the land that had been passed down for generations. The latter, however, taps into an almost doo-wop style instrumental as Stapleton does what he does best, communicating complete dejection and heartbreak though his vocal delivery. The song honestly doesn’t contain much lyrically, but when Stapleton sings the few words he does here he absolutely makes them count – “What’s love but just some confusion we don’t need?”, he sings, his voice perfectly stretched to its emotional breaking point.

While the cover song on Volume 1, “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, was perhaps its best track, the covers that begin and end Volume 2 are perhaps its weakest points, as Stapleton taps into some overly sentimental material with cheesy lyrical content that contrasts the rugged outlaw character he attempts to portray. Both tracks detail the value he places in his friendships and relationships, but lack the lyrical depth and complexity I’ve come to know him for, remaining on some baseline metaphors. Volume 2 is still a very solid collection of tracks, but most of these songs through its middle aren’t as immediately impactful as their predecessors. Still, Stapleton is at the top of his genre.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, Scarecrow In The Garden, A Simple Song, Midnight Train To Memphis

Least Favourite Track: Friendship

Score: 7/10

Image result for miguel war and leisureMiguel – War & Leisure

Miguel’s fourth studio album continues his streak of connecting on his lofty ambitions of R&B psychedelia and strong songwriting, taking a slightly more political angle than usual but maintaining that devilish grin you can feel through his delivery when falling back on the Prince-emulating sensual slow jams he is known for. Miguel’s vocals are assured and confident, the lavish instrumentals behind him contributed by established veteran R&B producers like Happy Perez and Raphael Saadiq layering on top to create a sonic world to get lost in.

After introducing us to the album with “Criminal”, a slower track featuring some laidback musings from Rick Ross, the party begins with “Pineapple Skies”, which pays homage to a long legacy of soul music that Miguel adopts flawlessly. The track borrows some instrumental elements from Marvin Gaye’s classic track “Sexual Healing” while acknowledging the legacy Prince left behind in its lyrical content detailing the purple sky above them. Miguel settles into the upbeat groove of the project, and you can almost envision him doing the suave choreography present in his live performances as he breezes through the chorus with a “backslide … everything gonna be alright”. Miguel is a master of the extended metaphor, declaring “there’s a war on love” at the start of “Banana Clip” before an impressive number of comparisons of his devotion to a soldier at war, while delivering one of the most unique song concepts of the year on “City of Angels”, imagining a post-apocalyptic future where Los Angeles was eviscerated by bombs while Miguel was out of town, as he laments not being there to die together with his girlfriend, lost to the attack. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but his tender vocals absolutely sell it.

While he’s sung in Spanish before, another interesting direction the project takes is “Caramelo Duro”, sung almost entirely in his native language – I didn’t think it was possible for Miguel to sound more at home in the sonic landscape he commands, but he is completely in his element here. “Come Through and Chill” is another excellent track, based around a calming acoustic guitar loop while Miguel shares the mic with J. Cole, returning to form with two great feature verses as the two invite the listener over with a wink. War and Leisure is easily one of the best R&B projects this year, refreshingly relying more on authentic-sounding instruments while Miguel steps comfortably and convincingly into his role as psychedelic lothario.

Favourite Tracks: Pineapple Skies, City Of Angels, Told You So, Caramelo Duro, Banana Clip

Least Favourite Track: Wolf

Score: 9/10

Image result for double or nothing big seanBig Sean & Metro Boomin – Double Or Nothing

All-star trap producer Metro Boomin releases yet another collaborative project, this time with a much more unlikely guest in Big Sean, who he slightly alters his beats for to adapt to his speedier flow. Double Or Nothing is some of Metro Boomin’s best work this year, interpolating some beautiful choral and orchestral elements, but most of the time Big Sean’s inconsistency lets the project down.

Metro Boomin opens strong on the track “Go Legend”. Regardless of the repetitive hook from Travis Scott, the track is carried by a modified trap hi-hat pattern on top of a legitimate orchestral piece complete with swelling violins and twinkling piano that accentuates Sean’s slightly deadpan delivery. The first half of the project is much stronger, Sean staying focused and showing the technical ability we know him for. Hearing Metro’s aggressive beats with a more technical, lyrically-focused rapper is an interesting exercise, even if Sean’s approaches eventually become half-baked. “Big Bidness” and “Pull Up N Wreck” are both grandiose, cinematic rap tracks, 2 Chainz and 21 Savage delivering great, lower-key verses contrasting Sean’s confident boasts, while “Who’s Stopping Me” just continues to show Metro Boomin’s versatility, sampling the guitar pattern from a Brazilian song and bringing the Spanish lyrics back in the chorus. Sean himself declares it “the best beat thus far” on the track, adapting his flow to the swung, Latin flavour and offering the kind of quotable lyrics that only Sean could come up with.

As the album goes on, Sean’s lyrical content here crosses the line past the kind of goofy punchline rap that we accept because of his confident delivery to some pretty inexcusable lines that not even his big personality could save, taking you out of the song quickly. “So Good”, regardless of being Metro Boomin’s most derivative beat, fails miserably at being the kind of sensual anthem Sean’s whispery delivery would suggest due to line after line of middle school-quality punchlines that are too egregious to be effective. You need at least some degree of metaphor there, Sean. Even his flow seems a little off on some of these filler tracks, somehow becoming more conversational when speeding up and attempting to cram as many syllables as possible into a line with a tenuous connection to the song’s rhythm.

He continues to insist on singing on “Savage Time”, a tactic which hasn’t been anywhere close to being good since his first album 6 years ago, while simply sounding checked out on tracks like “Even The Odds” and “In Tune”, extending a single lyrical concept to the entire length of a song, filling in the blanks with different bars each time to tedious effect. While Metro’s production can frequently revive the energy of these tracks, he might be better off sticking to trap artists.

Favourite Tracks: Who’s Stopping Me, Pull Up N Wreck, No Hearts No Love, Go Legend

Least Favourite Track: So Good

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (blackbear, Fabolous/Jadakiss, Cyhi The Prynce)

Image result for no dope on sundaysCyhi The Prynce – No Dope On Sundays

GOOD Music rapper Cyhi the Prynce’s debut project has been delayed for years amongst label disputes, dropping a few promising verses on label boss Kanye West’s tracks along the way. No Dope On Sundays is the sound of an artist who has been waiting to express himself in the cohesive album format for a long time, stretching long past an hour in length as Cyhi exercises his old-school style on extensive verse after verse. Cyhi is not the most dynamic or engaging rapper in the world, his delivery is very laid back – his skills are clearly there, but such a long project without much variation causes me to lose interest quickly. There are certainly highlights here, however.

Some of Cyhi’s best moments come when he is able to play off of his guests – the title track “No Dope On Sundays” has a great choral sample from a late-60s psychedelic rock track, which transitions into a second half featuring producer Lex Luger’s trademark aggressive hi-hats and pianos and a verse from Pusha T, whose style most closely mirrors Cyhi’s. At its best, No Dope On Sundays is a reminder of the style of rap Kanye West popularized in the mid-2000s, heavily based on samples and focusing on gimmick-free, straight lyricism. “Murda” is the standout here, breaking up the monotony with a reggae sample from Ini Kamoze, Cyhi capitalizing on the laidback vibes perfectly. And of course, Kanye himself shows up on “Dat Side”, delivering a perfectly … well, Kanye verse. The quotable hook has Cyhi showing more personality than the rest of the project combined. Cyhi’s storytelling excels when you’re engaged enough to pay attention, even dropping a few clever one-liners and punchlines. A few spoken-word transitions reference Biblical passages, as Cyhi describes the juxtaposition of his life in the church and on the streets of Atlanta growing up.

Many of these tracks run far too long, quite a few extending past the 5-minute mark. Listening to the same instrumental, calmer than most rap beats of today, for so long without much variation in the vocal delivery can get tedious, especially on such a lengthy album. There are quite a few beat switches mid-track to keep things interesting, but these could have been organized better, often changing the energy completely. The hooks here could have been improved as well, too frequently delivered awkwardly by an auto-tuned Cyhi in the same cadence as his raps and failing to excite. Pitchfork’s review stated perfectly that Cyhi does “too much and too little at the same time”.

Favourite Tracks: Murda, Looking For Love, Dat Side, Nu Africa

Least Favourite Track: Don’t Know Why

Score: 6/10

Image result for blackbear cybersexblackbear – cybersex

Singer, rapper and producer blackbear’s second project this year is another solid collection of energetic and electronic spins on the current alt-R&B sound, as blackbear himself takes a step back on the production and invites a slew of guests, demonstrating his solidification of a place for himself in the music industry. While there is a lot less here of blackbear focusing on his greatest strengths, the project failing to reach the heights of digital druglord, cybersex is carried by blackbear’s quotable lyrics, still ruthless and overconfident, and innovative instrumentals.

blackbear only produces two tracks here, and while the others he invites on this project succeed at emulating his style most of the time, the instrumentals on some of these tracks can tend to divert back to generic trap territory at times, especially when blackbear opts to rap instead of sing on tracks such as “bright pink tims”. You should be able to tell a song is blackbear’s – nobody else is really in his lane of blending together EDM-style instrumentals and alt-R&B vocal sensibilities, and when his producer’s ear for melodies is lost these tracks become too derivative.

blackbear makes songs you want to sing along to – the braggadocio he imbued his first hit, Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”, with likely played a huge part at transitioning him into the superstar he is today, and when you combine these confident and carefree declarations with something like the underlying guitar riff and catchy melody on a track like “playboy s**t”, blackbear’s personality sells it easily. He almost sounds like he’s laughing while delivering these lines – “woke up rich”, “shout out to my wrist”. For the most part, the guests on this project deliver, blackbear found some kindred souls here – 2 Chainz and T-Pain don’t take themselves too seriously either, while Machine Gun Kelly delivers a feature verse much more engaging than his recent pop exploits. Some older rappers like Cam’ron and Rick Ross don’t connect as well, but this is still clearly blackbear’s project despite a guest appearing on every song, his unique spin on things rising above.

The project shines at its brightest when the production veers its closest to EDM, as the combination of genres is still a breath of fresh air. Blackbear’s glitchy vocals on tracks like “anxiety” and “down 4 u” as the digitized synths bleep, bloop and swell behind him is a unique listening experience that I’d be surprised if the larger world of alt-r&b didn’t catch onto sooner. “anxiety” in particular invites close collaborator and fellow producer FRND, and his final beat switch-up is euphoric. Blackbear is all about juxtapositions – “everybody dies and love is fake as f**k”, he sings over the most cheerful acoustic instrumental he could find on the hilarious “Thursday/froze over (interlude)”. This is a rising star in the industry.

Favourite Tracks: anxiety, playboy s**t, down 4 u, e.z., i hope your whole life sux

Least Favourite Track: glo_up

Score: 7/10

Image result for fabolous jadakiss friday on elm streetFabolous/Jadakiss – Friday On Elm Street

This collaborative album between two hip-hop veterans has its share of impressive instrumentals and interplay between the two rappers, but certainly contains a lot of filler and more dated ideas. In addition, the horror movie-inspired project (Fabolous corresponding to Freddie, and Jadakiss, Jason) featuring one jovial and one sinister rapper correlates a little too much to Offset and 21 Savage’s “Without Warning” earlier this year, not executing the concept quite as well.

“F vs. J Intro” is an impressive track, the two rappers embodying their chosen horror-movie villain and delivering a verse structured like a battle-rap, the two comparing their body count and throwing in some nice punchlines over some eerie chimes and a hard-hitting beat. The theme continues more loosely for the rest of the project, the instrumentals frequently tinged with a haunting quality that someone like the gravelly-voiced Jadakiss is right at home stalking through. Some classic producers like Swizz Beatz, C-Sick and The Weeknd’s go-to man in Ben Billions appear here. These two embody the East Coast sound, and they match each other bar for bar over these energetic instrumentals. We’ve been seeing quite a few rap collaboration projects this year, and they’ve all been choosing their sparring partners well. “Soul Food” is just as its title suggests, flipping a sample nicely as the two reminisce on their longevity in the game.

A few tracks see the two stuck in the past, especially on something like the Swizz Beatz produced “Theme Music”. With the rise of trap, Swizz’s style has never seemed further from the cultural zeitgeist, basing the track over a few loose, skittering hi-hats and a repetitive, but calm Marvin Gaye sample – the rappers never really settle into a constant flow for this reason, the song having so much more empty space than we typically hear anymore. The ideas run out closer to the album’s end – French Montana collaboration “All About It” isn’t much more than a repetitive hook and an attempt to throw a trap beat on a synth instrumental that sounds like something T.I. would use in 2008. Friday On Elm Street is a pretty great listen for fans of the two older rappers, as they certainly prove they’ve still got it, but it might have been better at EP length.

Favourite Tracks: Soul Food, F vs. J Intro, Principles, Stand Up

Least Favourite Track: Theme Music

Score: 6/10