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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

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BensBeat Top 25 albums of 2016

2016 was absolutely stacked with high-profile album releases. Somehow, it seems like everyone who matters managed to drop an album, and here are the best of the best:

Honourable mentions:

  • A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
  • DJ Khaled – Major Key
  • DJ Snake – Encore
  • Dragonette – Royal Blues
  • Fifth Harmony – 7/27
  • Logic – Bobby Tarantino
  • Savant – Vybz
  • Skylar Grey – Natural Causes
  • Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
  • The Weeknd – Starboy

25. Aphex Twin – Cheetah EP
Image result for cheetah epThe mysterious EDM producer drops the inaccessibility of his previous work, switching up his style to more closely follow the path of modern techno. 4/4 time is not something normal for Aphex Twin. Still, he imbues his boundless creativity into a few lengthy tracks.

24. Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine
Image result for the divine feminineAnother case of a complete change in style, Miller isn’t making music for parties anymore. The rapper’s influence from featured artists Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and girlfriend Ariana Grande shows here, as he delivers a jazz and soul-influenced project which is much more complex and extravagant.

23. D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M
Image result for big baby dramLook at that cover art. The album sounds just like that. The man can do anything, and the resulting project is a blend of traditional soul music, upbeat hip-hop and humour. D.R.A.M. clearly thinks his deep, silky voice is hilarious, and uses it to make fun of the form at times.

22. Bastille – Wild World
Image result for wild world bastilleThe band expands to stadium status, as they create a balance between staying true to the pulsating synthpop sound that made the band a household name, and expand their influences to continue to innovate as they’ve done in the past. Frontman Dan Smith’s voice is impressive, and buoys many huge singalong choruses.

21. NAO – For All We Know
Image result for for all we know naoThe rising R&B singer with a unique voice brings the UK sound of electro-funk to the masses with her debut album. In the wake of her work with Disclosure, the production sounds somewhat similar. However, her voice is the true star of the show.

20. Banks – The Altar
Image result for banks the altarBanks turns up the energy on her sophomore album, turning away from her slower ballads to more upbeat and trap-influenced R&B tracks. Her voice, simultaneously breathy and lilting and somewhat menacing, draws us into her dark world and blunt lyrics.

19. Alicia Keys – Here
Image result for alicia keys hereThe veteran presence in the world of R&B shows us that the voice is still there in a major way, but on this project she has something to say. Over production from husband Swizz Beatz, which gives the project more of a hip-hop edge, Keys makes many affecting political statements.

18. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Image result for malibu anderson .paakThe only artist to appear on this countdown twice, the funk mastermind who was introduced to us on Dr. Dre’s Compton album explodes into the public eye. The genre-spanning debut effort is kept afloat throughout by .Paak’s confident presence and infusion of funk and gospel sensibilities into all that he does.

17. Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
Image result for dangerous womanThe technically outstanding pop singer harnesses her own creative direction for the first time and presents a blend of innovative pop hits and returns to the old-school R&B form she showcased on her debut album. No longer is her voice buried in overproduction, and her personality shines through on the character-driven work.

16. Lindsey Stirling – Brave Enough
Image result for brave enough lindsey stirlingThe EDM violinist who became popular through YouTube is now a fully established force in the music industry. Bringing on a wealth of guests from different musical worlds, she somehow ties it all together with her unique style of violin playing and pounding electronic beats.

15. Vic Mensa – There’s Alot Going On
Image result for there's alot going onThe brief, personal and politically charged EP sees often misguided rapper Vic Mensa return to form, offering his energetic and passionate take on issues like police brutality and the Flint water crisis before explaining his defeat of personal problems with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Welcome back.

14. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Image result for awaken my loveDonald Glover takes his creativity to another level as he presents one of the biggest stylistic shifts I’ve ever seen. The project is atmospheric and beautiful, Gambino injecting his hip-hop sensibilities into soul and funk music, creating songs that mean something for the first time and displaying his impressive singing voice.

13. Lapsley – Long Way Home
Image result for long way home lapsleyThe complete grasp of artistry Lapsley has harnessed at the young age of 20 is incredible. The singer, DJ and producer combines all her talents in her debut album that sees her full and soulful Adele-style vocals accompany trippy and atmospheric production.

12. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
Image result for untitled unmasteredThis collection of B-sides that didn’t make the cut on masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly is  still better than almost all the rap releases this year. Lamar’s creativity and technical skill are through the roof, and listening to him is always a pleasure.

11. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Image result for heavn jamilaWoods’ debut album is a statement, and not necessarily a bold one – which serves as its underlying strength. The R&B vocalist adopts a stance of hope for the future and embraces her own identity on the project, creating some breezy and fun R&B numbers that answer the anger with positivity.

10. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
Image result for yes lawdThis collaboration between Anderson .Paak and soul-influenced hip-hop producer Knxwledge gives the more old-school funk side of .Paak the correct instrumental landscape to shine. A large number of shorter tracks make the album feel like a joyful exploration and homage to an era of music.

9. Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION: Side B

Image result for emotion side bAnother collection of B-Sides from a spectacular album, Carly Rae Jepsen continues her pop music renaissance with the best writers and producers in the business (Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Greg Kurstin) on her side. Side B continues the all-out sugar rush of its parent album and contains some simple but deceptively smart songwriting.

8. Solange – A Seat At The Table
Image result for a seat at the tableA more soft-spoken and understated component to her sister’s bombastic artistic statement Lemonade, Solange’s message rings true in the same way. Over hip-hop influenced beats, her observations of the state of the world are communicated through breathy and beautiful harmonized vocals.

7. Francis & The Lights – Farewell, Starlite!
Image result for farewell starliteOne of the biggest creative statements I’ve seen since Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus, Francis uses his Prismizer vocal manipulation program to create an entirely new sound. His distorted, harmonic and ambient vocal style is brief, happy and upbeat, and ties together conceptually in the story of the rise and fall of a relationship. Francis is here to stay.

6. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Image result for coloring bookChance The Rapper is quickly becoming one of the world’s greatest creative forces. Finally breaking through to widespread public consciousness, his brand of positivity and gospel-influenced hip-hop and R&B music creates an incredibly endearing album. Chance delivers track after track of fun party tracks like “No Problem” and profound messages of perseverance like “Same Drugs”.

5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Image result for the life of pabloKanye’s “living breathing changing creative expression”, an album that he continued to update and perfect months after its release, is just another way that the most forward-thinking mind in the music industry continued to prove his excellence. While not perfect in the way a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be, The Life of Pablo finds beauty in the chaos.

4. Broods – Conscious
Image result for conscious broodsNew Zealand-born indie pop brother-sister duo Broods teams up with Grammy-winning producer Joel Little to deliver the best pop album of the year. Consisting of clean-cut and punchy rhythms and anthemic choruses, Georgia Nott’s powerful vocals lend a pulsing energy to the entire project. Very cohesive in sound, Broods have found a melodic synthpop formula that works perfectly for them.

3. Bruno Mars – 24k Magic
Image result for 24k magicThis is what an artist relishing in the fact that he is at the top of his game sounds like. The boisterous and extravagant persona that came across on “Uptown Funk!” continues here, as Mars takes us through a tour of the popular sounds of 80s and 90s funk R&B, showing his mastery of the material and having a lot of fun in the process. There are so many things to love here you almost forget that he’s by far the best male singer to grace the radio waves.

2. Beyonce – Lemonade
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce is on another planet. After surprise-dropping a visual album in 2014, she took it one step further with the accompanying  Lemonade musical film, one of the greatest shows of artistry and creativity I’ve ever seen. The messages regarding the state of the world through the lens of infidelities in her marriage presented through poetry in the film carry through to her music, which spans genres and features some unexpected high-profile collaborations. Of course, Beyonce is still the star of the show – what else did you expect? Her vocals are still mindblowing, and they span 12 individual songs that each encapsulate an emotion annotated in the film perfectly.

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Image result for blonde frank oceanAfter a wait so agonizing it became an Internet joke, Ocean’s release of this sprawling and interconnected work reveals it was definitely worth it. An incredible number of genius artists join forces on this project – Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Pharrell, Kanye, James Blake, Rick Rubin… the list goes on – and the resulting music is immaculate. The majority of the album is set over minimalistic production involving acoustic guitars and synth piano, giving Frank’s dynamic and outstanding voice complete control. But while this minimalism occurs, the songs shift and change, both within themselves and in transitions to the next – sometimes incredibly jarringly and sometimes so smoothly you don’t realize the song has changed. The album was clearly ordered deliberately despite its chaos, themes presenting themselves at different areas of the album. Soon enough, the chaos begins to make sense. This is the most complete, thought-out and well-executed release since To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’ll let producer and frequent collaborator Malay close it out: “Art cannot be rushed. It’s about making sure the perfect aesthetic for the situation has been reached, to do that, takes constant tweaking, trial and error”. Take all the time you need, Frank.

And so concludes BensBeat list week 2016. It’s been a spectacular musical year, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings us.

Broods – Conscious

Indie-pop duo Broods, hailing from New Zealand and consisting of siblings Georgia and Caleb Nott, obliterate the sophomore curse with what is easily one of the best albums of the year. Working with the same personnel for the most part, multi-instrumentalist Caleb and Grammy Award-winning producer Joel Little, who also collaborates extensively with fellow New Zealand native Lorde (co-writer of standout track “Heartlines”), establish synth-based instrumentals which can be both intricate and dreamy, and absolutely huge and hard-hitting, often switching seamlessly between the two mid-song. Such a soundscape provides the perfect environment for Georgia’s vocals to shine, and shine they should.

Now with a wider audience, it would surprise me if Broods did not ultimately cross over to North American pop radio rapidly for nothing other than the strength of her voice alone. A breathy soprano with the potential to transform into an almost overpowering and emotionally laden belt at any given moment mirrors the dynamic quality of the music which accompanies it. This is a bold, confident sound to present, and it expands on the similar sound presented in their previous works mainly by raising the complexity of the instrumentals for a more creative and interesting overall product.

The music itself consists of a variety of clean-cut and punchy rhythms and anthemic choruses, lending the majority of the songs a kind of pulsing energy which one would be hard-pressed not to move to. These instrumentals are quite carefully crafted and the degree of work put into every facet of the many sounds we are hearing certainly comes across to the listener. One of the greatest examples is the layering on Georgia’s vocals on nearly every track, creating harmonies with herself and adding to the overall atmospheric, dreampop-style sound permeating the project. These pounding and frenetic instrumentals occasionally cease for a few interludes of calmer tracks, toning down most of the percussion to showcase Georgia’s marvellous instrument further. Though while it’s usually all about Georgia, the instrumentalists do get to flex their muscles a bit on closing title track “Conscious”, in which the flowing synth orchestra takes over and Georgia’s voice is chopped up over the wave of sound for a powerful and effective outro.

Many of these songs do tend to sound quite similar to each other, falling into somewhat of a formula, the formula they have going is so overwhelmingly good that I find it hard to care. However, this similarity does cause some of the slower tracks, often more experimental and unique (“All of Your Glory”), to stand out. The true appeal of Broods is the strength of the chemistry between this trifecta of musicians: Caleb, Georgia and Joel Little. Such a boundless voice combined with a very creative pop producer and talented multi-instrumentalist, plus the added brother-sister connection, is a force to be reckoned with. This is a very cohesive project, and care was clearly taken with the transitions.

Joel Little with his Song of the Year Grammy for “Royals”

“Freak of Nature”, featuring Tove Lo, is a masterpiece and perhaps the best song I’ve heard all year. Slow building songs are difficult to pull off effectively and, when done right, are my favourite kinds. The track begins at a near whisper, backed only by a minimalistic piano loop, and continues to add elements until Tove Lo and Georgia’s emotive and wailing vocals are bouncing off of each other over a massive instrumental. The kicker is that the song also contains the album’s heaviest and most meaningful lyrics depicting struggles with mental illness. And, like all great songs of this variety do, concludes at the whisper that began it once again.

Broods comes across to me like a more mature and established version of CHVRCHES, what the band could be exercising at their full potential at all times, which is a bold statement for me to make as quite a large fan of CHVRCHES especially because the bands are at essentially the same stage of their careers. The main reason this album crossed over into perfect score territory, something I intend to give out very sparingly, is because I agonized over choosing my favourite and least favourite tracks because they are all so perfect. It is an absolute wonder that an opening song as fantastic as “Free”, a somewhat sinister-sounding song which establishes the sound and serves as great preparation for what is about to come, is immediately followed by 5 straight tracks that are even better. Conscious is flawlessly melodic synthpop bliss.

Favourite Tracks: Freak of Nature, Are You Home, We Had Everything, Full Blown Love, Bedroom Door

Least Favourite Track: Worth The Fight

Score: 10/10