Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

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RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

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As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

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As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Shawn Mendes, Father John Misty, Kanye West)

Image result for shawn mendes self titled albumShawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes releases his third self-titled studio album at the age of only 19, expanding his musical influences to explore genres past his trends of safe, acoustic pop balladry. Working with a high-profile set of collaborators, Mendes delivers a solid set of pop tracks that splits about half and half with working what he knows and trying his hand at more upbeat pop tracks or venturing into more of an R&B The experimentation works out for him more often than not, the tracklisting weighed down by just a bit too much of what we’ve already heard from him – or someone like him (looking at you once again, Ryan Tedder).

Single “In My Blood” opens the album, and it’s probably the strongest single Mendes has ever released, transcending the cheesy and derivative pop tracks for a more rock-leaning song featuring live instrumentation and a nice build-up to a passionately sung chorus, his trademark crackles creeping into his delivery – those huge drums in the background are a nice break from the trap hi-hats we hear everywhere. The opening run of the album contains it’s best tracks, two of them co-written by the frequently outstanding Julia Michaels: “Nervous” is an R&B-funk adventure with a quickly delivered falsetto chorus and persistent bassline, and it’s the first time I could ever imagine a Mendes song on a dancefloor. Michaels actually sings on quiet acoustic duet “Like To Be You”, and they blend together shockingly well for two artists with very distinct voices. Mendes is surprisingly believable as an R&B vocalist, stating that he drew inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake. “Where Were You in The Morning?” is his most obvious draw from the Man of the Woods, some lazy guitar chords and the slightest hint of a trap beat framing Mendes’ smoothest vocal yet, sounding much older than his age. Ed Sheeran lends his reliable hand to “Fallin’ All In You”, which sounds like a huge hit, blending his old and new styles impressively with the hint of a doo-wop bassline and Sheeran’s tendency to pack in as many syllables as possible.

The main problems with this project come when, standing at 14 tracks, Mendes and his collaborators can’t help but exercise a few tried and true ideas that edge closer to the slower, minimalist ballads that don’t capture my attention quite as easily. Other than “Perfectly Wrong”, a track where Mendes’ songwriting shines above the less showy instrumental with some heartbreaking commentary on forcing himself out of a toxic relationship he desperately wanted to save, tracks like “Youth”, a duet with similarly minded artist Khalid, and “Because I Had You”, itself a complete rip-off of Justin Bieber’s hit “Love Yourself” never really pick themselves off the ground. The notoriously unoriginal Ryan Tedder also contributes to “Particular Taste”, which lifts a few too many elements from Prince’s catalogue – someone else has already delivered the word “particular” like that in an iconic fashion. Most of the back half of the project feels too similar to its counterparts and I feel like the tracklist easily could have been shortened. “Why” shows potential with an extravagant, dreamlike instrumental, but as Mendes reaches up into his falsetto the breaks in the instrumental reveal a few awkward transitionary places in his range.

Mendes’ steps towards risk-taking on this project easily make it his best collection of songs – still very young, he’s showing a definite upward trajectory and is beginning to understand where his greatest strengths lie. For now, Shawn Mendes exists as a pleasant surprise that shows his potential despite a few of his old ways still sticking around.

Favourite Tracks: Fallin All In You, Where Were You In The Morning?, Perfectly Wrong, Nervous

Least Favourite Track: Love Yourself, uh, I mean Because I Had You

Score: 6/10

Image result for god's favorite customerFather John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Master songwriter Father John Misty’s fourth narrows his focus on his fourth studio album, dialing back the wide range of topics he addressed on his sprawling breakthrough Pure Comedy, a satirical takedown of politics, religion and everything under the sun. While he does return to some similar musical themes across this project, his trademark blunt and darkly humorous songwriting makes his tales of his mental health and familial relations just as compelling.

“Hangout at the Gallows” introduces listeners to the kind of material that will be featured on the album well, Tillman in complete command of a piano rock instrumental that previews the darker thoughts of suicide and paranoia he brings up over the course of the project. Tillman makes this kind of thing work perfectly for him, like a modern-day, extremely cynical Elton John. “Mr. Tillman” is a hilarious track spoken from the perspective of a worker at the front desk of a hotel, observing Tillman’s clear signs of a mental breakdown while he sings in a cheerful melodic loop intended to be just a little obnoxious. It’s not the only moment where Tillman picks up another character on the album, the incredible “Please Don’t Die” being sung from the position of his wife. It’s just as bluntly, beautifully Tillman as the track suggests, as it turns into something of a country ballad, a slide guitar twanging in the background as he softens his voice and expresses concern that Tillman might kill himself with some somber, falsetto harmonies.

Tillman has one of the most poignantly expressive vocal deliveries I’ve ever heard, capable of delivering raw emotion believably even when he doesn’t have much of an instrumental to support him. “God’s Favorite Customer”, the title track, continues his troubled relationship with religion, turning back to a faith he stopped believing in long ago in his time of mental instability. His knowingly futile calls to an angel on the stark chorus is just another example of his brilliant songwriting ability.

The instrumentals on this project are largely similar to what we’ve heard from Tillman in the past, potentially even sparser and more minimal on this one than something like Pure Comedy as he shows a clear focus on the clear delivery of his lyrical content. Without issues so enormous and pressing to offer his philosophical thoughts on, a few of these tracks with little more than a slow piano accompaniment aren’t carried by Tillman’s thoughts alone. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is a pretty straightforward love song that rides on a very familiar acoustic strumming chord progression without much of the hilarious turns of phrase we’re used to, while the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is one of the first times I’ve ever felt like Tillman tried to make a huge statement and didn’t actually manage to say anything, offering baseline analysis while I wait for the twisted joke to land.

It’s clear that Tillman decided to play it safe a bit coming down from such an ambitious project released only last year, but he has the skills that even that elevates him over most singer-songwriters of his kind. He’s certainly the only person that can deliver the lyric “Last night I wrote a poem, man, I must have been in the poem zone” with as much genuine emotional weight as he does.

Favourite Tracks: Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer, Mr. Tillman, Hangout at the Gallows, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

Innovative rapper Kanye West’s eighth studio album is the second of five he plans to produce this summer, a brief 7 tracks like its predecessor DAYTONA. Supposedly completed in a matter of a couple weeks after the originally planned Love Everyone was scrapped due to controversy, ye is a journey through everything we’ve come to love about West’s music over the course of his entire career. Although I have come to expect West to completely reinvent the wheel on every project he releases, ye utilizing old themes of industrial beats and soul samples, the production is still on a level no other artist comes close to touching.

ye sees West at perhaps his most introspective and confessional in his whole career, revealing his inner thoughts on his troubled years post-Saint Pablo Tour with his bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. The album opens with “I Thought About Killing You”, West delivering a spoken-word intro over some beautiful Francis & The Lights Prismizer work where he details his need to speak his mind freely to exorcise demons, even his darkest thoughts concerning suicide, directing threats at himself in second person emphasizing his bipolarity. The first half of the project resembles Yeezus more than anything, as the opener explodes into a chilling scream and knocking industrial beat. “All Mine” is an aggressive and minimalist grinding carnal track, eerie, breathy vocal samples and crashing percussion framing West’s hilariously blunt lyrics, while “Yikes” is the most immediately commercially viable song here. Pi’erre Bourne assists with the production as West delivers his best flow on the project and a great melodic hook – “find help, sometimes I scare myself”.

The back half, on the other hand, reverts back to the soulful “Old Kanye” sound that troll song “Lift Yourself” hinted might return. “Wouldn’t Leave” is a touching track dedicated to his famous wife’s loyalty despite his many mistakes, thanking her for remaining by his side in the wake of a breakdown about her own career repercussions and West himself suggesting she leave if she needed to. Harmonized soulful backing vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, an uncharacteristically passionate PARTYNEXTDOOR hook, and somber synth-piano chords complete the emotional track. The love is affirmed with a triumphant Charlie Wilson hook on “No Mistakes”, West’s flow coming a little unhinged but coasting through on a fun, rhythmic gospel sample from Edwin Hawkins. The best track is the emotional peak of “Ghost Town”, however, featuring a shimmering, soulful organ sample and Kid Cudi getting so into the hook he falls off the pitch in his usual endearing way. West’s verse is the best singing (no Auto-Tune!) he’s done in a long time, but new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake steals the show, turning the second half into a repeated anthemic mantra, the music cutting down to an enormous stomp-clap. I can’t wait to sing it in a huge crowd. It’s great to hear more adept lyricism from West after Yeezus and Pablo as well, acting as an adorably overprotective father towards his daughters on “Violent Crimes” and delivering some of his best wordplay in a while on “Wouldn’t Leave”.

Since the project was so quickly assembled and West’s favourite subject material in his lyrics is, of course, himself, many of the current topical references to his life that happened mere weeks or days before its release makes the project feel less larger-than-life than his past albums, his quotables becoming law, or at least Instagram captions. Referencing things like G.O.O.D. Music’s war with Drake on “No Mistakes” or drawing specific attention to that fateful TMZ interview, regardless of how interesting a light he paints on the intrapersonal repercussions of his actions, on “Wouldn’t Leave” will end up sounding extremely dated in comparison to something like The College Dropout, which still resonates 14 years later.

West hasn’t made a perfect album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s getting a lot better at finding beauty in the chaos. Although the album could use a little more polish, his artistry is still unquestioned and a closer look into his psyche and personal life is appreciated for the 9-year old in me who overplayed “Gold Digger” to death.

Favourite Tracks: Ghost Town, Yikes, All Mine, Wouldn’t Leave

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2017

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

Honourable Mentions:

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

50. Gorillaz – Saturnz Barz (Ft. Popcaan)

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

49. Bonobo – Surface (Ft. Nicole Miglis)

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

48. Fifth Harmony – Deliver

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

47. 21 Savage – Bank Account

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

46. Kelela – LMK

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

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

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

44. Tove Lo – shivering gold

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

43. Kelly Clarkson – Cruel

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

42. Miguel – City of Angels

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

41. N.E.R.D. – Lemon (Ft. Rihanna)

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

40. Kehlani – Piece of Mind

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

39. Poppy – Let’s Make A Video

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

38. Alvvays – Dreams Tonite

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

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

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

36. SZA – The Weekend

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

35. ODESZA – Boy

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

34. Tennis – Fields Of Blue

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

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

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

32. Kendrick Lamar – FEAR.

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

31. Harry Styles – Sign Of The Times

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

30. St. Vincent – Pills

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

29. Paramore – Hard Times

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

28. Jhene Aiko – Overstimulated

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

27. Ed Sheeran – Galway Girl

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

26. Kesha – Praying

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

25. Billie Eilish – my boy

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

24. Miguel – Pineapple Skies

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

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

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

22. Jay-Z – 4:44

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

21. Lorde – Perfect Places

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

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

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

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

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

18. Jidenna – Bambi

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

17. Kendrick Lamar – LUST.

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

16. N.E.R.D. – 1000 (Ft. Future)

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

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

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

14. Demi Lovato – Cry Baby

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

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – Cut To The Feeling

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

12. SZA – Drew Barrymore

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

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

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

10. Paramore – Rose-Colored Boy

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

9. Julia Michaels – Issues

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

8. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

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

7. Rina Sawayama – Cyber Stockholm Syndrome

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

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

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

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

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

4. Lorde – Liability

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

3. Kendrick Lamar – DNA.

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

2. Billie Eilish – idontwannabeyouanymore

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

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

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

Check out the list on Spotify below!

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

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

SamSmithThrillOfItAll.pngSam Smith – The Thrill Of It All

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Say It First

Score: 6/10

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: What Lovers Do, Wait

Least Favourite Track: Whiskey

Score: 2/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: King Of My Heart

Score: 5/10

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.

Image result for julia michaels

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.

Image result for julia michaels live

“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