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!


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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tove Lo, Walk The Moon)

Image result for walk the moon what if nothingWalk The Moon – What If Nothing

Walk the Moon’s third studio album and first since exploding with their 2015 hit “Shut Up and Dance” is a mixed bag that sees the band attempting to both recapture lightning in a bottle and pay homage to their beginnings as a rock band, both tasks not receiving the full extent of their focus and neither being performed to their greatest effect.

I prefer the pop material on this project to some of the off-kilter decisions they make when the guitars roar back in. “Headphones” juxtaposes frontman Nicholas Petricca’s shouted rap vocals and terrible lyrics with rapid-fire guitar solos for chaos that never clicks together. The ordering of the album is very strange in this regard – the band switches back and forth between this and tracks like “One Foot”, an incredibly bland pop song that brings back the marching-band drum tempo, rapidly syncopated one-note vocals and gang vocals reminiscent of their biggest hit.

The band haven’t lost their touch entirely, however – opening track “Press Restart” is legitimately a great pop song, as the effect of the band showing restraint for once is shown, the track beginning quietly and culminating in the explosion the band is known for. The main hook is catchy, and when all the elements they introduce finally click together, we get the sense of euphoria the band is clearly trying to achieve. The harmonies on “All Night” are a surprise in new wave bliss, as the band displays their highest level of musicality, Petricca sounding engaged in the music instead of trying his hardest to create a hit song.

The main problem What if Nothing suffers from is a lack of originality. The album stretches to nearly an hour’s length, and too often I just feel like I’m listening to retreads of “Shut Up And Dance” that aren’t as immediately impactful, a band desperately trying to achieve stadium status but lacking the songwriting ability and creativity to connect on that level. All of these songs blend together – and this review is a bit shorter because it’s tough to distinguish them enough to write in specificity. They have the ability – “Sound Of Awakening” is a 6-minute shifting, changing experiment in vocal effects that actually goes over pretty well, but opted to be safe instead.

Favourite Tracks: All Night, Press Restart, Sound Of Awakening

Least Favourite Track: Headphones

Score: 4/10

Image result for tove lo blue lipsTove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]

Tove Lo’s third studio album comes shortly after last year’s largely inconsistent and disappointing Lady Wood, representing its second “phase” and a huge step up in quality. The production here is much more complex and engaging than its predecessor, as she finds all the best spots in her vocal range to move past the bland pop of last year. While the lyrical content can still leave a bit to be desired, sometimes its bluntness fits the overly sexual mold she has come to embody over the course of her career, the musical decisions here at time as bold as that album artwork.

Tove Lo works harder here to create an ambient, electronic world, frequently incorporating aspects of her own vocals into the instrumental to great effect, as it offers the quality of sonic intimacy, wrapped in her soft vocal tones, that the content of her music demands. “shivering gold” is an incredible track, building on extended, creeping low synth bass notes before exploding into a pulsating, syncopated chorus as she hits high notes I never knew she had in her between the rapid juxtaposition of synth stabs and tiny moments of silence. Some of the chord progressions here are clearly 90s inspired, slower tracks like “dont ask dont tell” offering an intoxicating piano melody straight out of a slow dance in a teen movie.

On Lady Wood, her vocals were secondary to overproduction, but the mix here is greatly improved without the instrumental getting any less bombastic – you can tell because for once, you are paying attention to her every word, her sultry vocals drawing you in. “bitches” packs so much fun into its brief 2-minute runtime, Tove Lo swinging her vocals over a prominent rock and roll drumbeat and woozy synths in the background, while closer “hey you got drugs?” is her most emotional track yet – she stated she was crying in the studio in an interview and you can tell – her harmonized, anguished repetitions about a relationship’s end – “You won’t save the night for me” – are incredibly visceral.

Even so, lead single “disco tits” is a little too ridiculous for me. The spoken, repetitive vocals are just too awkwardly phrased and overtly sexual to be enjoyable despite that pounding, inviting instrumental. The album’s second half is a little weaker, the energy letting up on tracks like “romantics” where the production drops out for the lower-tempo verses, coming back with clichéd trap hi-hat rolls.

Still, Tove Lo’s melodies themselves are so much better than Lady Wood, the album much more sonically cohesive. Blue Lips is a step in the right direction, Tove Lo coming into her own in the experimental alt-pop scene.

Favourite Tracks: shivering gold, hey you got drugs?, dont ask dont tell, bitches, struggle

Least Favourite Track: disco tits

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Maroon 5)

SamSmithThrillOfItAll.pngSam Smith – The Thrill Of It All

Sam Smith’s sophomore effort showcases his otherworldly vocal abilities from front to back, but doesn’t back them up with anything else to get excited about. Smith doesn’t change up the formula at all here, sticking to the gospel-tinged breakup slow burners that worked for him on debut album In The Lonely Hour, but on a second full album of tracks tailored to be emotionally affecting, you can predict the twists and turns in Smith’s stories beforehand here. Seriously, a gospel choir coming in to back him up is the big “surprise” on half of these songs. For someone whose hit “Stay With Me” came under a lot more fire than it needed to for sounding somewhat similar to a Tom Petty hit – “Midnight Train” being an ACTUAL blatant ripoff of Radiohead’s “Creep” makes you roll your eyes. There are some strange missteps for otherwise great producers here, as Frank Ocean’s go-to guy Malay delivers the extremely flat “Say It First” and Timbaland, coming out of hiding, sounds extremely dated on closing track “Pray”.

I’m much more drawn to the few upbeat tracks on this project, as it’s an area he hasn’t ventured into nearly as much in his solo material and brings his voice closer to the territory of soul music. “One Last Song” is a classic doo-wop ballad, backed up by R&B piano triplets and a persistent horn section around the best structured chorus here. The prominent drumbeat here gives his voice an actual punch, something for it to rise above triumphantly. While the lyrics are often cliched for Smith’s trademark love ballads here, “HIM” twists Smith’s gospel sensibilities to tell an emotionally affecting story of coming out to a priest, the chilling bass of the choir backing him up as he sings “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us, it is him I love”

The surprise of Smith’s vocal abilities can be enough to save a lot of these sleepier tracks at times – it feels even more passionate than it was on his previous effort, with more cracks and restraint in just the right places. There isn’t anybody in this lane doing the high falsetto blue-eyed soul this well in popular music right now. I just wish he took a few more risks – more often than not, they work out well for him.

Favourite Tracks: One Last Song, Baby You Make Me Crazy, Too Good At Goodbyes, HIM

Least Favourite Track: Say It First

Score: 6/10

Image result for maroon 5 red pill bluesMaroon 5 – Red Pill Blues

It surprised me that Maroon 5’s last album, V, came out in the summer of 2014 – the band is such a constant in the background of our lives with their bland and inoffensive pop music that I honestly thought the album came out last year. Now with their sixth effort, unfortunately titled Red Pill Blues as the band was apparently aware of the darker undertones to the phrase, Adam Levine and his band of, somehow, SIX other guys who used to play instruments but now stand around bored hitting a note or two on mechanical drums and keyboards during live performances, venture even further down this rabbit hole of seemingly attempting to make the most detached pop music possible, devoid of any personality or defining characteristics. Not that I’m going to come out here and say that “What Lovers Do” hasn’t been stuck in my head for the majority of this past month – Maroon 5 have assembled a pretty great team here, and they know how to make a hit – but this goes so far to sound like it was written, produced and performed by robots.

When the music attempts to achieve a bigger, more cinematic quality on tracks like “Lips On You”, Levine’s voice is so set in its ways at this point that the smallest bit of emotion he tries to put back into it just falls flat. Levine is less of a singer and more of an instrument all on its own at this point, a constant sonic texture to blend with the rest of the production. The album boasts talented guest stars in SZA, Julia Michaels and A$AP Rocky, but like Kendrick Lamar’s laughably short verse on “Don’t Wanna Know”, which appears as a bonus track here, their roles are inexplicably brief, and all of their essence is sucked out in the same way – I can’t tell, but there must be some kind of mechanical vocal effect here. You can’t subdue Julia Michaels’ vocal quirks that easily.

I wish I had a lot more room to complain, but I’ll say that “Whiskey” contains the nonsensical lyrics “I was so young ‘til she kissed me, like whiskey”, and the album concludes with an ELEVEN-minute song, 8 minutes of the same instrumental repeating with a few brief saxophone flourishes after 3 minutes of yet another bland pop song, and leave it at that.

Favourite Tracks: What Lovers Do, Wait

Least Favourite Track: Whiskey

Score: 2/10

Black-and-white image of Taylor Swift with the album's name written across itTaylor Swift – reputation

The biggest star on the planet’s sixth studio album sees her diving into a theme and embracing the “snake” image that was associated with her in the wake of the mess surrounding Kanye West’s “Famous”, maintaining that she’s above all the drama in an unconvincing way due to the sheer fact she dedicates multiple tracks to it. Regardless, with the assistance of superproducers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff, despite how much it sounds similar to a certain outspoken Chicago rapper, Swift’s ventures into heavy industrial sounds are her most interesting musical turn yet, and the production shimmers across the board. The character Swift paints here is annoying, and the situations she speaks about tedious, but some of the instrumentals and catchy choruses here make it hard to hate, as much you want to. For the most part though, reputation is an inconsistent mixed bag.

The album opens strong, the first five tracks all delivering some of those inescapable choruses Swift is known for, now set to some trap-influenced instrumentals (Future even shows up!) and some grinding, abrasive low synths that give her a perfect soundboard to act villainous over. If you can ignore her trying a little too hard on the lyrics, hearing her snarl over some bombastic synth drops and gunshot noised on “I Did Something Bad” is a captivating dynamic shift for Swift, while “Don’t Blame Me” delivers the most instantly catchy chorus and she scales her persona back on “Delicate”: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me”. The crown jewel is “Getaway Car”, an 80s-influenced track that wouldn’t be out of place on Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION, featuring a twinkling background and Taylor’s most emotional delivery with some great storytelling.

Swift uses the same, muddy vocal effects on more than one occasion here for dramatic effect, but even though she isn’t particularly known for her vocal abilities, she does have a pleasant kind of sweet and innocent tone that creates an interesting dichotomy with what she’s saying here, and I really would have loved to hear her real voice more – it’s used for the whole duration of “King Of My Heart” and ruins an already weaker chorus. Taylor and her team click for some really great moments here, but the worse end is pretty inexcusable – we know the non-starter that is “Look What You Made Me Do”, but we also have an uninspired pop track that doesn’t fit in with the sound in “Gorgeous”, and some pretty infuriating lyrics on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, where she somehow twists her powerful character into playing the victim once again and outright mocks West when she was equally in the wrong. At 15 tracks, some of the excess tracks near the conclusion are thematically similar and could have been easily cut.

Reputation has some of the best and worst musical moments this year had to offer in the same place, but what I can say about Swift is she’s a marketing genius – her place in pop culture history is firmly solidified.

Favourite Tracks: Getaway Car, Don’t Blame Me, I Did Something Bad, Dress

Least Favourite Track: King Of My Heart

Score: 5/10


I know I said I would be back at regularly scheduled times the last time I was gone, but I am now officially done with the semester and final exams and ready to catch up on everything here as quickly as possible.

I’m going to be posting quite a few more iterations of Rapid Fire Reviews for the rest of December, and since the last albums of the year are coming out TOMORROW, it will be quickly followed by my 2017 end of year countdowns.

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rap Collabs, Kelly Clarkson)

Super Slimey cover.jpgFuture/Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

On this collaborative project, two of Atlanta’s most genre-defining rappers come together to continue to assert their dominance over some good old-fashioned trap beats. Future’s straightforward approach and Young Thug’s quirky eccentricities are an interesting contrast that frequently sinks or swims as a result of the instrumental. Thug works well on Future’s hard-hitting beats, but Future has a harder time crossing over into Thug’s jovial and airy world. While the project seems rapidly thrown together at times, as there are some mixing issues present, it’s a lot of fun to hear these two superstars playing off of each other.

If nothing else, the project immediately reminds you just how punishingly hard Future can go as it drops into the first wailing siren and hi-hat roll of “No Cap”. It is one of the most disgustingly grimy instrumentals this year and producer Southside quickly brings us into his world. It’s the shortest track here and ends far too quickly, emphasizing the slapdash quality of the mixtape, but it’s an incredible shot of energy. Southside’s other two beats here, “Three” and the Offset-featuring “Patek Water” are equally impressive as he shows why is the most accomplished producer on the project.

Solo tracks here, especially Young Thug’s “Killed Before”, which is creatively built from a bass-heavy trap beat and a tropical acoustic guitar loop, are often better executed than the collaborations, as the two never quite click perfectly. Bringing together one of the most consistent and one of the most endlessly creative rappers doesn’t mesh, they are better excelling in their own lanes. At times, someone like Future sticks to his formula so much that a lower-effort project like this sees him becoming derivative as well. For two established hook men, you’d think there would be more sticky hooks here than there are – the project is more like a streamlined trap experience than clearly defined ideas. Of course, there are bound to be more than a few incredibly fun moments in that experience, and the project is still a necessary listen for a trap fan despite its shortcomings.

Favourite Tracks: Three, Patek Water, Killed Before, No Cap

Least Favourite Track: 200

Score: 6/10

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning of Life (Official Album Cover).pngKelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life

Kelly Clarkson, now on her eighth studio album and under a new label, has been speaking recently of her desire to return to her American Idol roots, straying from her pure pop sound and coming back to the realm of R&B/soul music. She certainly has the voice to do so, and Meaning Of Life has become one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Despite the first third of the album being standard pop fare that fails to excite (why does a singer of this caliber deliver a lead single in “Love So Soft” where she stays on a single note?) we soon get into Clarkson’s incredible passion projects as the album continues to get better and better through the middle.

The album doesn’t pick up until “Whole Lotta Woman”, a confident and sassy half-rapped track reminiscent of Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic. But Clarkson’s true power comes in tracks like “Medicine”, “Cruel” and “I Don’t Think About You”, where she gets to show off her technical ability and R&B sensibilities. “Cruel” especially stands out as an old-school R&B track where Clarkson demonstrates some incredible range and more soul than we’ve heard from her in years. Her reassertion of that incredible chorus an octave higher over the groove of the funk bassline shows some serious emotion as well. Her voice is dynamic and capable, running through whistle tones, more subdued and sensual tracks like “Slow Dance” and the full-voiced belt that comes up on the more upbeat piano jams and huge ballads. Clarkson compared “Medicine” to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” and dedicated the album to Aretha Franklin – these are the lofty vocal aspirations she has here, and for the most part, she delivers.

“I Don’t Think About You” is an incredibly powerful track as the instrumental is reduced to just piano chords, directing all the focus to Clarkson’s vocals. As she sings about her newfound confidence and happiness in the wake of a destructive relationship and throws some gospel harmonies on top, we build into a chorus where she progressively hits higher and higher notes at a crucial point to spine-tingling effect. The ordering of the album is slightly concerning, opening and closing with its safest tracks and misguided political angle on “Go High”, but Clarkson’s new soulful tone is a very welcome surprise and should introduce the singer to an exciting new chapter in her storied career.

Favourite Tracks: Cruel, I Don’t Think About You, Slow Dance, Medicine, Don’t You Pretend

Least Favourite Track: Heat

Score: 8/10

21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin - Without Warning.png21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin – Without Warning

21 Savage and Migos’ Offset team up with top tier trap producer Metro Boomin to deliver a horror movie-inspired project on Halloween. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to SUPER SLIMEY, but Without Warning is a much more well planned out and unique project, as Metro Boomin continues to be the only man keeping trap fresh with his constant reinventions and the diametrically opposed styles of Offset and 21 Savage complement each other surprisingly well. Where Offset brings out complex flows and those goofy ad-libs we know and love, 21 Savage’s menacing deadpan gets straight to the point. While 21 can frequently get annoyingly monotone, his ruthless and desensitized lyrics and persona are right at home over Metro Boomin’s eerie sounds here, especially with someone like Offset to play off of.

One of the best things about this project is that it clearly is not a throwaway mixtape – the transitions here are incredibly well-executed, especially as “Nightmare” is introduced by 21 closing the preceding track by repeating “It’s a nightmare on elm street”. Metro Boomin’s work here is chilling, as wolves howl in the background and he programs his synths to sound like the wind whistling through the trees or the unsettling ambiance of a horror film. Adding his trademark hi-hats makes these beats exhilarating – On “Run Up The Racks” he extends a hi-hat roll longer than I’ve ever heard, nicely accentuating 21’s simpler flows on his solo track.

While 21 is so far into his character it becomes almost hilarious, Offset displays a side of himself here we don’t really see with Migos – while it was always clear that he’s the most technically skilled of the group, his flow switches and speedy deliver here is seriously impressive. “Ric Flair Drip” is the solo track that shows he could be just as much of a superstar as Quavo, while “Mad Stalkers” shows the best contrast between the two. 21 comes in with the hook after a particularly speedy string of syllables and metaphors from Offset, not mincing his words and issuing threats in that inhuman drawl. If Offset is the Joker, 21 Savage is Bane. The combination is deadly.

Favourite Tracks: Ric Flair Drip, Mad Stalkers, My Choppa Hate N****s, Run Up The Racks, Ghostface Killers

Least Favourite Track: Darth Vader

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Pink, Niall Horan)

Apologies for being gone for so long – I’ve been writing my graduating thesis for university but now I’ll be able to get this page back up and running like normal. There’s some albums here that are long overdue for a review so to catch back up I’m going to make a few posts with rapid-fire thoughts on some of these albums from October!

Image result for pink beautiful traumaPink – Beautiful Trauma

Pink recruits some all-star collaborators for her 7th studio album, and while they frequently make their presence felt in some great and emotional musical moments, the majority of Beautiful Trauma is incredibly safe. The project alternates between a familiar mix of soaring pop ballads that exhibit Pink’s gargantuan vocals and upbeat forays into electropop that come across as well worn-out. The outlier might be “Revenge”, a quirkier track where Pink dreams of taking revenge on her ex with some painfully awkward rap lines and delivery before Eminem swoops in with a hilarious and cringe-embracing verse in the way only he can, reframing the entire track as a goofy joke to be enjoyed.

In addition to the rap superstar, Pink brings in some of the biggest names in pop music in Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Jack Antonoff and Julia Michaels. The latter two do the best work here, Michaels applying some of her trademark heartbreaking lyrics to emotional tracks “Barbies” and “For Now” and Antonoff producing the best track here in “Better Life” where we get some great harmonies over an energetic beat and subdued, jazzy piano chords and finger snaps – despite his inexplicable decisions on the title track, which contains 2 abrupt shifts in energy that fall flat.

Pink is undoubtedly a vocal powerhouse capable of conveying the emotion behind these huge pop ballads and she frequently impresses across the course of the album, but when she insists on reaching into the highest part of her register it can get annoyingly shouty – especially on closing track “You Get My Love”. Overall, Beautiful Trauma has some really great highs but is frequently too derivative to be memorable.

Favourite Tracks: Better Life, But We Lost It, For Now, Revenge

Least Favourite Track: You Get My Love

Score: 5/10

Niall Horan Flicker.pngNiall Horan – Flicker

Former OneDirection member Niall Horan continues the surprising trend of his bandmates releasing much better music than they ever did while part of the collective. As each member seemingly diverts to a different genre of music, Horan adopts the acoustic singer/songwriter angle and delivers an album of powerful pop ballads. While it may be very easy to compare him to Ed Sheeran, as he sticks to the formula the superstar adopted, Horan’s calming vocals and assistance he got from Greg Kurstin on this project ensured a solid debut.

We open with the maddeningly catchy “On the Loose”, built around a pounding beat and a pleasant sliding guitar pattern as Horan’s vocals cascade on top of each other into the chorus. These are some smartly written pop tracks – and Horan has primary credit on every one of them. Even some tracks, like single “This Town”, fall into a repetitive and unexciting territory in terms of the instrumental, Horan’s vocals are more than enough to carry these tracks. Subdued and emotional, he puts his heart into every word and truly delivers the emotion of these romance-oriented tracks. While we all know “Slow Hands” by now, the single truly took me by surprise. He sounds absolutely effortless on the track, and the underlying bassline groove distinguishes it from the rest of the album and sends the track over the top. Other highlights include a nicely harmonized duet with country singer Maren Morris on “Seeing Blind” and Kurstin’s “Since We’re Alone”.

As we get closer to the end of the album, the tracks definitely do begin to blend together a bit. The Sheeran influence is worn on Horan’s sleeve, and the slower acoustic ballads that close out the album are similar enough to get a little sleepy. Still, Flicker is easily the most consistent post-1D album yet.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Hands, On The Loose, Too Much To Ask, Since We’re Alone, Seeing Blind

Least Favourite Track: Flicker

Score: 7/10


Image result for masseductionSt. Vincent’s fifth studio album, her second since attracting widespread critical attention with her self-titled 2014 effort, is yet another quirky and ambient rock-influenced pop album with a heaping degree of sardonic social commentary to go along with it.

MASSEDUCTION is futuristic and funny, as St. Vincent thrives in the genreless chaos but always maintains enough of a musical and narrative thread to lead listeners along her examination of narratives of sensuality and stimulants. I’d call it one of the strongest pop albums of the year, but that would almost be doing a disservice to all of the many diverse and engaging places Annie Clark manages to transport us to over the course of a single album.

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The album was written and produced almost exclusively by Clark herself and superproducer Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, who has contributed to some of the greatest pop albums in recent years and certainly makes his trademark style felt all over this project. While there are not as many Antonoffian repetitions of musical motifs, certain themes continue to resurface as the album progresses, making it somewhat of a concept album with a narrative thread.

“Pills” is quintessential St. Vincent – the chorus syncopates a childlike, advertising jingle of a melody with a gargantuan beat that makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. On this chorus, none other than actress and Clark’s ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne sings a few repetitive and hypnotic lines explicating how taking pills for many ordinary facets of life can become disastrous. On the same track, we get a roaring guitar solo, Kamasi Washington’s saxophone embellishments and a beautiful gospel-tinged outro that takes the sarcastic and cynical nature of the song to the next, darkly hilarious level.

Many tracks on this album inherit this same hypnotic quality, as St. Vincent spends a lot of time criticizing how easily we are indoctrinated by advertising, religion, and the like. They are driven by fast paced beats and techno synths, but the undercurrent of Clark’s guitar sends the entropy of the album into overdrive.

A robotic voice repeats the album’s title on “Masseduction” – ultimately turning to “mass destruction” as Clark submits to the seduction of the masses, while she draws reference to her genderfluidity on “Sugarboy” as the rolling drums pound and a distorted voice repeats “Boys! Girls!” The whole song is full of ambient noise and chaos, but Clark’s mellifluous voice rises above it all to make sense of the madness. It’s all a lot to take in, but more often than not she throws in just enough of a catchy hook somewhere that you become drawn into the explosions and panic – as the album’s title would suggest.

Clark’s voice is incredibly dynamic, capable of delivering a dramatic and emotional hook on a track like “Los Ageless” or resorting to softer, almost angelic tones on stripped-back tracks like “Happy Birthday, Johnny”. The latter is one of the strongest tracks here, as Clark proves she can make magic out of the minimal just as much as the chaotic.

Adopting a theatrical tone that might be confused for Lady Gaga at her most vulnerable, she sings a rather ambiguous address to a self-destructive and displaced person with whom she had some relationship in the past over some somber and achingly beautiful piano chords. “Johnny’s just Johnny – doesn’t everyone know a Johnny?” Clark said when asked to clarify.

Image result for st vincent live 2017

Clark’s lyrics are the glue that holds all of this together. Her dark twists remind me a lot of Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy”, often blunt and sarcastic but dropping the occasional lyrical gem that makes you think about the state of the world in the same way.

Clark is not afraid to address more serious topics either, and she does it in an absolutely spine-chilling way on closing track “Smoking Section”, where she addresses her real-life suicidal thoughts. Her emotional tone really makes you picture it as she describes the gun to her head, or standing on the ledge of a building, as the voice in her head repeats “let it happen, let it happen” with the most profoundly unsettling melody. The track gives me chills every time, Clark’s lower growl contrasting with eerie piano notes and deafening synth explosions. When she reverses course at the end of the track, the album fading away as she ironically repeats “it’s not the end”, it’s an absolute relief.

The album might have benefited from a bit more concision, as some of its more redundant and less defined chaotic moments are all placed closer to its end. “New York” was written as a counterpart to “Los Ageless”, but since it is displaced from the former in the tracklisting the less dramatic, simplistic version of the similar themes feels less potent and unnecessary.

A track like “Fear The Future”, meanwhile, contains the same distortion as many of the tracks that preceded it, but as it is one of the album’s most underwritten tracks and less sticky melodies it quickly becomes easily skippable due to the difficulty of consuming the sheer wall of sound.

“Young Lover” doesn’t do a much better job at reining in the distortion either, although the track does provide some necessary continuation of the narrative of St. Vincent’s mysterious partner – likely Delevingne at this point due to her familial history with drug abuse – continuing to succumb to the world’s, well, masseduction.

MASSEDUCTION is just as much of a masterpiece in experimental pop as St. Vincent was, as Clark’s dynamic voice, intelligent lyrics and guitar shreds collide into a confusing and beautiful sonic world.

Favourite Tracks: Pills, Smoking Section, Happy Birthday Johnny, Masseduction, Los Ageless

Least Favourite Track: Fear The Future

Score: 9/10