James Blake – Assume Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

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Twenty One Pilots – Trench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgBritish producer and psychedelic pop/R&B artist Dev Hynes, better known by his alias Blood Orange, releases his fourth studio album which offers both his most accessible music yet and his most powerful message. Negro Swan is mostly inspired by tales of discrimination against Hynes, an LGBT black man, in his youth, as multiple spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock regarding confidence and perseverance tie the project together. Hynes still acts mostly as a producer here, often letting a featured vocalist take over a track when he sees that they suit the instrumental better than him, but the sound he delivers is much more cohesive and consistent than something like his last project Freetown Sound. Leaning in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, parts of this project sound like the kind of soulful, upbeat pop tracks we’re missing from the 80s revival appearing around modern music at the moment.

We immediately get what might be the album’s two best tracks in openers “Orlando” and “Saint”, which fully embrace the soulful, harmonized jazzy funk tracks that are still somewhat of a new venture for Hynes. His falsetto delivery on the opening track is aching and vulnerable as he speaks about his troubled adolescence, recalling a time when he was physically assaulted and moving past it. “First kiss was the floor”, the lyric repeats. The transitions and instrumentation across the board here are pretty flawless for how complex the backgrounds are at times, often either a completely seamless musical transition or dissolving into a frantic saxophone solo.

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Janet Mock introduces the track “Jewelry” with a monologue questioning why people criticize others for “doing the most”, stating that people who have been previously marginalized especially should embrace doing the most as they continue to slowly permeate the culture – it feels like Hynes tried to reflect these sentiments in his production work, often featuring some solos doing their own thing in the background of a track or layering vocals to an overwhelming, ethereal degree. “Saint” seriously brings to mind an almost gospel territory, featuring some great female harmonies on the chorus. The track picks up with some light gospel piano chords and an aggressive breakbeat, Hynes touching on the inescapability of discrimination with some touching vocal moments, saying he’s unable to escape his skin colour but committed to spreading love regardless. The gospel theme continues on the powerful “Holy Will”, featuring some explosive high-pitched vocals from church singer Ian Isiah as he covers a track from gospel group the Clark Sisters, Hynes bringing it into his world with some of his trademark synth textures.

Quite a lot of the album’s power comes from just how raw and unfiltered most of the vocal takes on the project are here, Hynes actually stating that he sang through most of them in one take multiple times rather than recording different sections separately, simply selecting his best take. For this reason, more experimental, sparse tracks like “Take Your Time” and “Dagenham Dream” take on an added degree of power, focusing on the pure, natural emotion in Hynes’ vocals as the chaotic instrumentation jostles about behind him.

Another element that we haven’t seen from Hynes in a while is the addition of rap and hip-hop influence to his work. He brings Diddy on board for a catchy, repeated hook on “Hope” that contrasts with a silky soprano main vocal from Colombian singer Tei Shi – Shi’s vocals and the lush piano and shuffling percussion remind me of Hynes’ Carly Rae Jepsen track “All That”. A$AP Rocky and Project Pat’s contributions to “Chewing Gum” are a lot less immediately memorable, feeling unrelated to the message Hynes is attempting to convey here, but Hynes himself actually raps on tracks like “Jewelry”. Especially on an album where Hynes attempts to embrace his identity, hearing him rap “I’m feeling myself” is encouraging. Hynes even takes a thinly veiled shot at Miley Cyrus on “Vulture Baby”, regarding her recent comments about her renouncement of hip-hop culture and going back to her roots after her appropriative Bangerz era. Hynes is completely comfortable in his element here.

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Hynes continues to hit us with some great tracks as the album winds down to its conclusion, delivering one of the catchiest hooks on the project straight out of the bouncy funk areas of Prince’s catalogue on “Nappy Wonder”, offset by a disjointed and distorted guitar solo – those high harmonies feel like they keep shimmering for a few seconds after the track ends. Another one is “Out of Your League”, in collaboration with young producer Steve Lacy. Lacy’s production style fits right in with Hynes’ here as the two essentially have a jam session on their opposing instruments, Lacy on the keys and Hynes playing bass guitar – the percussion on the track is a lot of fun, this one feeling less like a profound statement and more like two really talented dudes messing around in the studio.

Some of Hynes’ ethereal and psychedelic R&B tracks can tend to blend together a bit and make the album more one-note than its masterful instrumentation in other areas would suggest, but the real strength of Negro Swan is the degree to which Hynes expresses his message to the listener through a series of smart lyrical references that cleverly disguise lifetimes of sadness, not lingering on the past too long as he takes control of who he is in the present. The superproducer delivers some of his best production work yet here, and I’m going to remember Negro Swan at the end of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Saint, Orlando, Hope, Out Of Your League, Charcoal Baby

Least Favourite Track: Chewing Gum

Score: 8/10

Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Image result for be the cowboy mitskiOne of the most consistently critically acclaimed artists in the indie community, indie-pop and alt-rock singer-songwriter Mitski returns with her 5th studio album and first following her major-label breakthrough with Puberty 2. Be the Cowboy is a similarly eclectic and intentionally off-kilter collection of brief and often existential tracks. Blending her unassuming, indie-leaning vocal work and bleak and vulnerable lyricism with bombastic, distorted guitar instrumentals, there’s certainly nothing out there that comes even close to what Mitski is doing here. I’m all for experimentation, but it’s honestly hard to tell if I fully like the music here or I just respect it as a completely out-there idea. Although there are brief moments where things get a bit too chaotic here, for the most part the project is elevated by Mitski’s beautiful vocal moments and songwriting abilities.

Listeners are introduced to the kind of album it’s going to be pretty early on, some full, vibrant orchestral strings opening first track “Geyser” before the brief, horror-movie jumpscare type distorted noise honestly shocked me and the track eventually builds up to some underlying heavy distorted guitars as the rest of the pop elements of the track swell to their greatest cinematic peak. It’s all a little much, but it’s nothing if not ambitious. Mitksi’s use of distortion and chaos across the board is used to illustrate the mental state she describes in her lyrics, but it makes it hard to want to give a lot of these tracks repeated listens, especially when she intentionally doesn’t want to settle into a particular groove, switching things up immediately after they’ve begun.

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Mitski is at her best when she embraces the quirky indie-pop singer-songwriter angle: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” uses the guitars more sparingly, punctuating powerful moments instead of taking everything over. There are some serious 80s synthpop vibes on the song, driven by a pulsating bassline and catchy synth hook that frames the sweeter areas of her voice well. On the song, Mitski expresses disappointment that an ex doesn’t want her back, even though she’s the one that ended it in the first place, and her confused and chaotic mindstate regarding romance continues to show up as a theme here. Almost all of these songs don’t even break the 3-minute mark, making the project resemble a series of disjointed, impulsive thoughts – and her lyricism and even her melodies often reflect this. Mitski has expressed in interviews that she didn’t necessarily want everything to come together perfectly, the distress she expresses on these tracks evident through the music itself. She discusses conflicted feelings on returning to a toxic relationship out of fear of being alone on “A Pearl”, where her vocal lines fluctuate around and never really settle on a direction, and continues to return to the theme of a kind of existential loneliness that has her losing her mind on tracks like “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light”.

At the same time as this disjointedness works well for what Mitski is trying to express here though, many of my favourite moments on the album are over before they have even begun. “Lonesome Love” is one of the more instrumentally simple tracks here, Mitski adopting an almost folk/Americana cadence over little more than acoustic strumming, and the increased focus on her voice is welcome – but we don’t even hit the 2-minute mark here. “Me And My Husband” is another great moment here, the instrumental reminding me of the kind of old-school piano rock that appears on a Father John Misty project. Hearing Mitski’s vocals on an instrumental capable of turning her emotional vocal delivery into an anthemic mantra as she desperately clings on to a fading partnership.

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In the middle of all of this genre-bending madness, there’s what is essentially a perfect pop song in the single “Nobody”. Mitski’s voice already has such a Lana Del Rey-like automatic flair for the vintage, and there’s something about the chorus melody that captures it perfectly here, underscored by those low piano chords and almost disco synths. So many worlds collide on the track in the best possible way – the live percussion on the track elevates it to another level as well, and we’re catapulted into an off-kilter ethereal section of the track as it comes off the rails, Mitski’s voice becoming filtered and robotic as the song ends abruptly after a key change, repeating the title over and over to further illustrate the loneliness she outlines elsewhere. “Washing Machine Heart” is another great track where the almost too-perfect, adorable tone of Mitski’s voice is made to sound detached and robotic with the kind of childish yet eerie melody you’d hear at a carnival, the song ending with a single, terrifying second of static as the speaker becomes unhinged.

Be the Cowboy is certainly one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve had all year, but from everything I’ve heard Mitski say about the album its clear that she has a clearly defined artistic vision and she’s executing it about as well as she possibly could. There are quite a few very powerful musical moments on this album, and despite the lack of replayability, it’s a lot better listened to as a full experience than returning to single songs.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody, Washing Machine Heart, Me And My Husband, Why Didn’t You Stop Me?, Lonesome Love

Least Favourite Track: A Horse Named Cold Air

Score: 7/10

Meg Myers – Take Me To The Disco

Image result for meg myers take me to the discoPop-rock singer-songwriter Meg Myers’ sophomore album, Take Me To The Disco, sees the singer discover a middle ground between the upbeat, poppier melodic approach of her debut Sorry and the abrasive, almost grunge edge that coloured her earlier EPs. 4 years after her breakout single “Desire”, Myers still exists in her own lane as a completely unique artist and one of my personal favourite singers who is still moderately lesser-known, blending heavy guitar work and haunting, tortured rock vocal abilities with some aspects that could easily fit on pop radio. However, while still possessing the infectious qualities of songwriting and song structure that knows just how to highlight the greatest parts of her voice, Take Me To The Disco sounds more subdued than Myers ever should be. She never quite recaptures the snarl that accompanied her early delivery, or commits fully to the experimental, pop-oriented angle that appeared on Sorry. Still, Myers delivers another strong body of work.

The title track which opens the album essentially acts as an introductory preface to the explosive lead single “Numb”, one of the greatest tracks here. Myers’ voice on the opening track is featured more due to the more minimal instrumental constructed of orchestral strings and a light, poppier percussion section, but you can still hear the intensity and emotion in her every note, her voice catching and stopping up on certain notes, even if she takes her vocals to a more breathy place than usual. I always find myself wanting her to return to the full-voiced early-90s grunge scream and aggressive, disdainful tone that surprised me so much the first time I heard her – and she comes closest to it on the chorus of “Numb”. The deafening lead guitar roars in after a verse with a delightfully off-putting childlike nursery rhyme melody (“I don’t wanna grow up, la la la la la”, she sings), catching the listener off guard with some serious vocal ability with a huge slide up to an impressive note that she hits at full power, bringing back her catchy pop songwriting that she expresses in the most intense, contradictory way possible that works perfectly regardless.

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“Tear Me To Pieces” is another equally chilling track. I love how she over-enunciates each one of her words, making me feel the anger behind each. Her expletive-laden accusations of her partner’s lies remind me of her older songwriting, and the demonic, distorted lower supporting vocals and the way the song cuts out to highlight her most emotional vocal moments make it a standout. The juxtaposition of the quiet piano section before the final, screaming conclusion never fails to give me goosebumps. “The Death Of Me” reminds me of the pop half of Sorry more than anything here, a much brighter piano riff colouring the track that provides the perfect contrast to the pessimistic and anxious lyricism of the chorus that acts as the biggest artistic risk on the project. Main co-writer Leggy Langdon lends his vocals to the track as well, providing a distinctive, unique lower voice that provides great support for Myers. “Little Black Death” is another pretty flawless marriage of the two styles, the upbeat track taking on an almost disco flavour due to the syncopated rhythm of the chorus melody. It’s a lot of fun to hear a distorted guitar emulating this kind of upbeat instrumental, and Myers taking the final chorus an octave up is a pretty stunning vocal moment.

“Tourniquet”, on the other hand, feels emptier and more underwritten than anything here, the melody too quick and choppy for the quieter, acoustic guitar pattern that dominates the instrumental space, most of the chorus just involving an “ay-ay-ay” extension of the titular word – it’s missing the sharp, often terrifying songwriting that I’ve come to know Myers by over the years, and it feels like she’s trying to play into more of a marketable angle here for the first time. It’s one of her least shocking songs and easily has crossover potential.

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Looking at the larger picture, a few of these tracks do feel like older Myers tropes that just aren’t taken as far as they used to be, exhibiting a few similarities across the tracklist. “Some People” is a slower, orchestral, more introspective track that doesn’t really pick itself off the ground due to Myers relegating her vocal power until a final, explosive section that comes too late and feels repetitive after the similar structure of the preceding tracks. “I’m Not Sorry”, as well, features yet another juxtaposition of a quieter refrain, Myers repeating a strained, breathy “stay”, with a briefly abrasive section that isn’t executed as well as other tracks here.

All things considered, Myers at her least interesting is still pretty incredible and refreshing. There’s nobody else in the current musical conversation coming anywhere close to emulating the combination of sounds that she does, and her song structures are always electrifyingly clean and well thought out. Now moving forward as an independent artist, she should hopefully regain some creativity once again.

Favourite Tracks: Tear Me To Pieces, Numb, The Death Of Me, Little Black Death, Done

Least Favourite Track: I’m Not Sorry

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tinashe, J. Cole, Bishop Briggs)

Tinashe - Joyride (Official Album Cover).pngTinashe – Joyride

Joyride is a project that frequently underrated R&B artist Tinashe has been promoting since 2015, delayed multiple times as it was apparently held back by label deman 2016’s Nightride album was a catchy, ethereal teaser, but it may have ended up being better than the final product. The label intervention is evident across this project, Tinashe’s quieter style frequently offset by obvious attempts to land her another radio hit with awkward rap features (one fittingly being Offset himself) and production from pop hitmakers like Stargate. The album is a directionless mixed bag, but she still manages to shine in the few occasions where she’s allowed to do what she wants here.

Tinashe has always been at her best on more throwback production styles, rather than the more marketable and upbeat party tracks that take up most of the space on this album. Sometimes the two styles are mixed together and the juxtaposition is too much, like on title track “Joyride”, which places a loud “la-la-la” melody and huge beat overtop of the orchestral and spacey synths and strings that she is more known for, which fail to accommodate the constant high energy of the rest of the track. The pure pop tracks fare a little bit better – I’m not going to lie and say “No Drama” doesn’t get stuck in my head for days at a time – but it’s far from the artist I know she can be, she’s a better singer than this basic melody over a trap beat. “Me So Bad” is the most blatant attempt at a trend-riding track that never would have made it onto a Tinashe project with creative freedom, the lyrics doing little more than pointing to her looks with a pretty inexcusable French Montana feature and a beat that manages to take the worst elements of both the tropical and dancehall trends at the same time. The last few tracks on the album never quite come together, the scores of writers in the credits becoming evident as the commercial aspect overrides artistry, the hint of a trap hi-hat echoing on even the slowest tracks. What in the world is that disjointed Future verse??

It would be a much different story if the whole album was filled with tracks like “He Don’t Want It”, the closest thing we get to the highlights of Nightride like “C’est La Vie” and “Ghetto Boy”. Tinashe uses both ends of her vocal register, the breathy falsetto verse introducing the more powerful chorus. I love when most of the elements of the track are made of Tinashe’s dynamic vocal abilities, and the ethereal backing harmonies complete the picture here. It’s great to hear elements of a trap beat without the same rhythms we’re all familiar with from all-star hip-hop producer T-Minus as well. Follow-up “Ooh La La” is an homage to the early-2000s R&B that Tinashe would have thrived in, with a pretty fun flip of a sample from Nelly’s “Dilemma” and calmly picked guitar melody reminiscent of “Suga Suga”, while an unexpected collaboration with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a fantastic surprise, Tinashe and Yukimi Nagano’s voices occupying that perfect space of having a similar tone that’s just distinct enough to distinguish the individuals.

The way Tinashe’s career has been handled is one of the most consistently depressing things about the music in Here’s hoping she goes independent and drops some old-school R&B gems on us.

Favourite Tracks: He Don’t Want It, Stuck With Me, Ooh La La, No Drama

Least Favourite Track: Joyride

Score: 5/10

JColeKOD.jpgJ. Cole – KOD

North Carolina rapper J. Cole bounces back in a huge way after 2016’s disappointing 4 Your Eyez Only with his 5th studio album KOD, a concept album of sorts that sees him discouraging forms of substance abuse that have affected him and those he observed in the past by through some Kendrick Lamar-esque play with the embodiment of opposing characters and points of view. While Cole doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking here musically, he escapes criticism by tying it perfectly into the theme of the album, stating that the addictive, repetitive hooks and trap beats resemble the drugs he speaks of. Plus, what I was really missing from Cole was the fire in his delivery, and that’s fully returned with this more modern, upbeat style.

“There are many ways to deal with pain … Choose wisely”, echoes a voice throughout the album. The tracklist is divided about half and half, sometimes on the same song, as Cole portrays either himself making the wise choices in the present or a character addicted to or dependent on one of the many “drugs” he describes, both literal and more abstract, like money, power or love. Opening track “KOD” lets listeners know early that Cole has snapped out of the trance that dominated his previous album, offering a rapid-fire triplet flow and booming bassline. The popularized Migos flow shows up quite a bit across this project, but it’s still great to hear Cole’s take on it since his voice and delivery can be one of the most engaging in the industry when he wants it to, always with a sarcastic wink and a jovial bounce. Cole produced nearly all of the beats on this project without any assistance, raising the impressiveness again. My favourite beat of all though is attributed to T-Minus, on standout track “Kevin’s Heart”. Cole makes his dexterous flow sound easy mainly due to the chilled out, 8-bit video game-style instrumental that makes everything sound more impressive on an intoxicating half-time tempo.

Perhaps the fact that I’m so drawn to Cole’s repetitive tracks like “Motiv8” and “ATM”, where he portrays a character dependent on an unstable source of income, proves his point. These cheap thrills really are easy to turn to, rather than paying attention to what he’s saying on the more lyrical tracks. While they do veer a bit into the same sluggish tempos he employed earlier, tracks like “Brackets” and “Once an Addict” revive Cole’s elite storytelling ability to tell some tales of how his community and his own life are affected by what he describes. Cole’s advice across the board is never preachy because he is quick to acknowledge that he himself had fallen prey to it as well – he tells a heartbreaking tale of both he and his mother turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abusive stepfather that has turned up in many tracks across his career, offering genuine advice to personal friends and younger rappers on “Friends” and “1985” about falling prey to all the various drugs of life, admitting his message isn’t “the coolest” in an endearing way.

One of the main themes that frequently seem to hold a Cole album back is his singing, which he almost always relies on more than he should. It makes a few hooks here more awkward than they should be, such as on “Photograph” where he never quite clicks into the beat perfectly. His Kill Edward character’s pitch shifted delivery also muddles his words and throws the pitch off on tracks like “The Cut Off”, but it still adds to the message of the song, the addicted Edward sounding lost and troubled, out of step with the rest of reality.

KOD delivers an important message in a very smart way, Cole bringing back his relatable character and storytelling ability to spread awaren Luckily, by exploring characters Cole can do this and deliver some upbeat, fun tracks at the same time. He boasts about his versatility contributing to his longevity over trend-hoppers on closer “1985”, and KOD backs up his point.

Favourite Tracks: Kevin’s Heart, ATM, FRIENDS, KOD, BRACKETS

Least Favourite Track: The Cut Off

Score: 8/10

Image result for church of scars bishopBishop Briggs – Church of Scars

British alt-pop musician Bishop Briggs’ debut studio album Church of Scars comes in the wake of the success of her 2016 single “River” on alternative and rock radio due to her trademark growl and heavier approach to poppier melodies. Her songs have been used in commercials, also contributing to her steady rise, and this album makes it easy to see why. Her formula across these brief 10 tracks becomes incredibly evident and safe, reminding me of Imagine Dragons’ latest project Evolve in terms of the build-up to an explosive chorus over some soul chords that she employs in every song. While her vocal power is undeniable, Church of Scars loses its element of surprise immediately.

Briggs blends elements of the past and present across the whole album to varying degrees of success, mixing rock and blues instrumentation with modern trends of pop music such as electronic synthlines and hip-hop influenced percussion, a computerized water-droplet beat quickly snapping the old-soul sound of Briggs’ vocal delivery into the more modern era in opening track “Tempt My Trouble”. While this track serves as one of the most immediately catchy offerings, even it falls into the repetitive techniques that plague most of the tracklisting. Briggs’ voice really does have a lot of potential, and I could see her imbuing it with the genuine emotion that the power behind it deserves to make some powerful content, but she settles for Chainsmokers-style thematic lyricism around a seemingly randomly generated noun and melodies that stay in a safe position in order to build up to the reveal of the only trick she has – the overriding of a vaguely electronic blues-rock template with her growling, explosive vocal wails.

Her blends of styles often come across as trying too hard. I feel like I write the word “trap” in every review I write nowadays, but the plaintive acoustic background of a song like “Lyin’” sounds ridiculous with those persistent hi-hats at a time when we hear them everywhere, and whoever did the backing vocals doesn’t help the track much either, sounding too anthemic and angry for the instrumental since an explosive rendition of the chorus is apparently a necessity for each and every track regardless. “White Flag” shows that the vitriol she spits into every syllable doesn’t work as well with rapidly delivered vocals, the rhythm of the chorus lagging behind. As the album goes on, we lose any hope of being moved by Briggs’ power, since we expect her to be yelling at us by the end of every song, knowing not to trust the quieter acoustic introduction.

There really are quite a few promising elements here, such as the industrial and menacing horn section on “Wild Horses”, but an attempt at an EDM-style chorus breakdown changes the tempo in such a miniscule way that it becomes irritating, throwing off my rhythm. It all comes together best on “Hallowed Ground”, which incorporates a gospel organ and horn section breakdown that switches things up instrumentally for a break in the monotony.

Briggs has a lot of raw talent, but she relies much too heavily on a formula attempting to place her in the modern musical context that she doesn’t really need. With a better team around her, I hope she can convert the energy she possesses into more creative, well-structured song material.

Favourite Tracks: Hallowed Ground, River, Tempt My Trouble

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 4/10

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

St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

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.

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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

Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me EP

Image result for billie eilish don't smile at me15 year old indie pop prodigy Billie Eilish has released her debut collection of songs after piquing interest with the haunting single “Ocean Eyes”. With her don’t smile at me EP, Eilish quickly establishes herself as one of the most exciting new acts at the moment. It is impossible to believe that she is only 15 – not only due to her talent and fully developed artistic vision and identity, but also due to her subject matter.

Eilish’s dark and menacing lyrics, and that cold stare she stares at you from her music videos, can be genuinely terrifying. Clearly inspired by the blend of sweet sounds and disturbing thoughts recently popularized by artists like Melanie Martinez, Eilish delivers on 8 tracks with an aching, paper-thin voice and outstanding musicality.

Much of the project is actually a collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who produces every track and provides harmonies on a few. Known primarily for his acting work on Glee, his contributions to the instrumental do quite a bit to help his sister stand out.

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Many sound like an amalgamation between more creative trap beats, using elements of the genre to make more complex rhythms, and the most aggressive material to come out of the dubstep boom of the early 2010s. The creeping bass and other elements that sound like they’re from a haunted carnival really paint the picture of Eilish’s words.

Eilish’s vocals are the centerpiece of each and every song despite how much is frequently going on in the background – “COPYCAT” drops into its chorus with some skittering hi-hats and a punishingly loud bassline, but the attention is snapped right back when she first hits that three-part harmony on the chorus.

We get the first glimpse at just how dynamic here vocals can be when the song hits its bridge – after threatening “watch your back” at the copycat in question, the electronic instrumental drops out and is replaced by some sparse piano notes. Eilish reaches into the top of her range and sounds like she’s about to cry as she apologizes for being so antagonistic. Then, she whispers “sike”, and the bass drops again. Her voice does sound very similar to Martinez’s, but these songs are a lot more rhythmically driven, and perhaps even more lyrically twisted.

“idontwannabeyouanymore” drops into one of those 3/6 time signatures that hook me every time. The piano ballad adds a swinging drumbeat in the chorus as she delivers some beautiful and breathy harmonies. It’s the best melody line on the whole project, as she alternates hitting her biggest notes with the off-beat of 4 pounding piano strikes. The song’s title is spoken to Eilish’s mirror, as she sings about her insecurities.

“my boy” is even more reliant on rhythm, as she once again navigates speedy hi-hats, a beat switch, and adds a few extra syllables to words resulting in a delivery almost like a rapper’s triplet flow.

“bellyache” is the darkest song here, and the most musically upbeat and unique. Written from the perspective of a serial killer who kills all her friends and then herself, Eilish wails “Where’s my mind?” and muses on how “funny” it is that she’s “too young to go to jail” as the police close in on her house. “It’s really fun to put yourself into a character”, Eilish said in an interview. “You don’t have to kill people to write a song about killing people”.

Eilish’s songwriting is never overly wordy, but makes the most of every word she writes down to affect listeners without saying a lot. It’s the smartest and most concise pop songwriting I’ve heard since Lorde, who also got her start young. “Party Favor” is perhaps the best juxtaposition here – the sugary sweet melody and instrumental punctuated by ukulele and a children’s toy piano sounds like a bedtime lullaby, but the lyrics betray something else.

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The song’s first minute is low-fi, framed as a voicemail breaking up with an overly possessive boyfriend. “I hate to do this to you on your birthday”, she says. “Happy birthday, by the way…”. As she cheerfully cuts him from her life, she threatens to call the cops – or worse – his dad. It’s one of the only moments where we’re reminded we’re hearing a teenager’s voice.

By the time we get to “ocean eyes” at the end of the project, the warmer sounds and poppier sensibilities give us some much needed reprieve from all the dark thoughts we’ve heard. She finally starts singing about falling IN love instead. I really can’t say enough about how flawless Eilish’s vocals are – the track is less in your face with the production here and her laser-focused pitch on some difficult high notes is highlighted here.

Written when she was only 13, her confession “I’m scared … never fallen from quite this high” is very emotionally affecting due to her delivery. She sounds scared, and we were all there once at her age. Her words are all the more meaningful when placed after 6 tracks of scathing anger directed at herself and others.

It’s easy to see why Eilish is already getting attention from some very innovative artists like Marian Hill and blackbear, who have both offered remixes of her songs. Regardless of her age, this is one of the most unique and interesting debuts I’ve heard in a very long time.

I try to be stingy with my 10s and wouldn’t normally give one to an EP but Eilish’s fully realized vision completely shocked me. She deserves it, and here’s to a long career ahead.

Favourite Tracks: idontwannabeyouanymore, my boy, ocean eyes, bellyache, COPYCAT

Least Favourite Track: watch

Score: 10/10

Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP

Image result for nervous system epMassively successful pop songwriter turned solo artist Julia Michaels has finally released her first collection of songs in the wake of hit single “Issues”. Ever since I heard that track and follow-up single “Uh Huh”, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently for more of that magic we get when combining her dark and incredibly personal lyrics with that dynamic flutter of a voice. However, while Michaels does deliver 7 very solid pop songs here, I can’t help but feel like she already gave up many of her greatest songs to other artists.

The new songs here are more radio-friendly, without as much of a dimension of uniqueness and creativity that tinged the others. Still, despite being frontloaded with singles, Michaels demonstrates why she is one of the most exciting new artists to come out of 2017 on her Nervous System EP.

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Producers Mattman & Robin, who have been rather hit-or-miss this year and are known for grandiose and in-your-face pop tracks like DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself”, handle the majority of the tracks here. It’s a somewhat surprising choice even with the success of “Uh Huh” – “Issues” is handled by more proven hitmakers Benny Blanco and Stargate, and what might be the best new track here in “Don’t Wanna Think” was actually done by Michaels herself. The track is a stripped-down piano ballad where Michaels lays her emotions bare, struggling with moving on in the wake of a break-up even though she knows it would be violently destructive to both of them if she went back.

We all know “Issues” by now, and it still stands out as one of the greatest songs of the year. I love a good slow build in a song, and as we ascend from that simple melody of the pre-chorus into the dramatic conclusion, all the motifs brought up over the course of the song colliding into each other perfectly, it reminds me why I fell in love with the track in the first place.

Follow-up track “Uh Huh” is almost as good just due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like a typical pop song in the same way. The track goes to a lot of unexpected places, beginning with a neatly picked acoustic riff and then hitting us with that distorted chorus as Michaels’ voice turns into a high-pitched squeak and crams in more syllables than should ever fit into a line. The two tracks seem like the least likely of these seven to be serviced to pop radio, and yet, here we are. The refreshing nature of these tracks is quickly removed for some more standard fare.

Despite how novel an artist Michaels is, many of the new songs here fall flat on the actual structure of the song. After how dynamic her first two singles were, tracks like “Worst In Me” just sound like a boring pop song. Something about the melody in the chorus never sticks. It might be due to how upbeat the track is juxtaposed with such bleak lyrics from Michaels – it feels like with how much her voice is capable of emoting, the track should be a lot sadder. A clicking beat and some bright piano chords speed the track along, and it feels like the production drowns out her voice at times.

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“Make It Up To You” is another very upbeat and electronic track that feels strangely underwritten for a Michaels song. The instrumentals need to be giving Michaels a lot more room for her voice to breathe. It comes with enough surprises and quirks to steal the show every time. “Pink” seems like it’s trying to achieve the same effervescent and flirty quality of her first two singles, but the idea isn’t executed nearly as well. Numerous times in the track, all music cuts out to allow Michaels to deliver two lines of the chorus in a full whisper. This might have worked if they only did it once, but as it stands it kills the energy of the track.

Michaels is a songwriter at heart, and this is where she shines. Many lyrics on this project are very personal, with blunt and specific musings on relationships gone disastrous. As she told us, both of them have issues. She comes across as so much more real than most, especially when she drops lines that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and depressing. She asks if he remembers when he “could go out with [his] female friends and I’d be totally fine”, or dreads the “seven texts and three calls” she knows she’s going to send.

Many of these tracks tackle some pretty dark topics in this way, all mostly coming down to Michaels’ criticisms of her own behaviour. She realizes that most of her problems actually stem from her own attitude. Newer tracks “Don’t Wanna Think” and “Just Do It” stand out because there is the least distraction from Michaels’ delivery of these emotions in the way only a brilliant songwriter can.

Can you imagine if Michaels had kept a track she wrote like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” or Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” to herself? She’d be spectacular, and her full portfolio of work shows so much more promise than this EP has to offer. I’ll just get back to playing “Issues”.

Favourite Tracks: Issues, Uh Huh, Don’t Wanna Think

Least Favourite Track: Make It Up To You

Score: 6/10