Rapid Fire Reviews (Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y, Avril Lavigne, Betty Who)

Image result for Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y - 2009Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y – 2009

Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has been seriously prolific coming out with projects over the past couple of years, and he’s back in a team-up with veteran rapper Curren$y. The two previously joined forces for one of the best songs on Khalifa’s last album Rolling Papers 2. The dynamic between the two still holds up here, but 2009 mostly falls victim to the curse most rap collaboration tapes do. Most of the project sounds like it was conceived rather quickly, the song lengths rather short and ending before they really get going. Khalifa is charming as ever at times and Curren$y brings a surprise amount of technical skill, but can we stop with the trend of these rushed hip-hop collaboration projects?

The project opens with the track “Garage Talk”, and I’m starting to be very convinced over the last couple projects that Wiz Khalifa is at his best when he’s pulling from older-school techniques – he drops a great, animated verse on the 90s-influenced track “The Life” as well – There’s something about his slower flow, blunt delivery, and personality-infused bars that doesn’t fit in with the pretending-not-to-care generation of new school SoundCloud rappers – though he tries to a lot more often than he should. The beat here is an endlessly fun boom-bap loop that Wiz and Curren$y both play pretty straight as they tap into that bounce. And then of course we immediately drop off a cliff into the hazy smoke clouds of “10 Piece”, Curren$y opening the slowly creeping instrumental slurring his words a little off the beat. Khalifa fares a little better, but the instrumental doesn’t fit his livelier mic presence. A lot of the project unfortunately falls into this lower-key vibe, and I guess I should come to expect it from them at this point. When the subject matter essentially revolves around one thing, can I blame the two for adapting their sound to a chilled-out smoke session? For everyone else, though, it’s not enough to be compelling or exciting. The next track, “Benz Boys”, is similar, misusing a Ty Dolla $ign feature as he fades into the background.

It’s unfortunate as well that most of the best tracks on this project are also some of the shortest. Curren$y isn’t on top of his game for most of this project, but he definitely finds his groove on the beat of “Eastside”, which livens up the contemplative synth lines with a quicker hi-hat pattern, though each rapper only drops a single, short verse. The next track “From The Start” is even shorter, and it’s easily the best instrumental on the whole project, calling back to the G-funk era with a rubbery bassline and some soulful female vocals thrown into the mix. Why did they give so much more time to their sluggish weed raps? Wiz Khalifa exists in such a strange place for me – Curren$y at least knows his role, but Khalifa’s delivery seems so much better suited for goofy rap tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously. If he doesn’t know where his true strengths lie, why does he always drop these tiny moments displaying them?

Most of the tracks at the end of the project don’t do much to surprise either – the track “Getting Loose” is probably one of the closest attempts to a modern-sounding rap track here, but the hook from Problem is delivered like he’s half-asleep, offsetting the one time across this whole project Curren$y actually sounds like he’s trying, while “Stoned Gentleman” is just as lethargic as you might expect. “First Or Last”, yet another fun old-school track that references Ricky Bobby and complements Khalifa’s best sensibilities, is the highlight as the album winds down.

I essentially stole my rating system from Anthony Fantano, and if this was one of his videos I would probably slap that huge red NOT GOOD across the screen for when there’s not even enough substance to the album that he can even bother to give it a score. Too many of these ideas don’t come together, or are simply too sleepy to be interesting. Get fun again, Wiz!

Favourite Tracks: Garage Talk, From The Start, First Or Last

Least Favourite Track: 10 Piece

Score: 3/10

Image result for avril lavigne head above water coverAvril Lavigne – Head Above Water

The quintessential Canadian pop-rock singer, Avril Lavigne has released her first album in 6 years after being absolutely memed to death for some of her past material and going through a struggle with Lyme disease. Seeing this album perform so well commercially was a nice sight to see after all that Lavigne has been through over the years, but is it any good? Lead single “Head Above Water” was met with a lot of pleasant surprise online, and most of the project follows a similar, more subdued singer-songwriter angle. While some of the lyrics relating to her real-life health struggles can be genuinely moving and emotional, past a couple particularly inspired tracks most of the album unfortunately falls back into awkward songwriting and bland and outdated instrumentation.

Let’s talk about that lead single, though! “Head Above Water” is a dramatic and emotional ballad with high stakes that Lavigne absolutely sells with her genuine delivery – it’s clear that this was written in the midst of a seriously terrifying time for her. The way the orchestral aspects swell in make the track very reminiscent of something like Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, another singer mostly written off as a joke that comes back with a knockout ballad about a difficult subject. The track found a lot of success on Christian radio, Lavigne calling out to the divine to save her from an early death. Some of those lyrics are incredibly harrowing. While most of the rest of the tracks on the album follow a similar overall vibe, many of them also introduce a lot more elements of traditional pop music and sound like they’re stuck in the past. We immediately transition to the track “Birdie” after this, which sounds similar except for the introduction of these Imagine Dragons-esque booming drums and a shimmering synth line that sounds like it’s straight out of 2009. It’s almost as if hearing what Lavigne is capable of on the opening track it feels wrong hearing her on some more dumbed down material. It sounds like the track refers to similar events, but refers to it in much more ambiguous terms and a caged bird metaphor we’ve heard in endless pop tracks.

Then of course we get to the track “Dumb Blonde” with Nicki Minaj … yikes. I have no idea how this got approved in 2019, and she even released it as a single recently. Featuring one of those obnoxious shouted chants of a chorus that was fun for a little bit 15 years ago (including Lavigne just … fully enunciating the words “I am a freaking cherry bomb”), the drumline percussion and brass section bring to mind another time entirely. Why is someone trying to remake “Hollaback Girl” in 2019? I don’t understand. I can’t help but think this might have been a lot better as an EP, especially when the back half of the project falls into older pop tropes like the “yeah-yeah”s on “Souvenir” and some seriously terrible lyrics on tracks like “Goddess” and “Bigger Wow”.

There are quite a few moments here where it’s clear that Lavigne’s producers were trying their hardest to bring back an older star and insert her into the current musical landscape as well, but those don’t quite work either, being too derivative of other works. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a pretty well-written song and should work relatively well as a doo-wop/soul pop ballad – Lavigne’s vocals are seriously soulful! – but the instrumental is just far too close to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” to ignore, and the trap beat that they shoehorned in there is pretty laughable and doesn’t fit the tone at all.

The greatest strength of this project is the constant reminders we get of how impressive a singer Lavigne actually is after the years of … whatever she was doing in the early parts of the decade. Quite a few of these tracks have this beautiful layering effect where her high notes are at the forefront, but a supporting vocal a full octave down is mixed in pretty perfectly as support. The tracl “I Fell in Love with The Devil” is a great example of the vocal showcase, and the bridge where the layers become more evident and get chopped up is one of the best moments on the project. “It Was In Me” is another track that breaks through emotionally despite its datedness – it really sounds like Lavigne’s older track “Keep Holding On”, but it really works as a kind of career retrospective, speaking about finding little fulfillment from the fame and fortune and learning to believe in herself and her musical abilities through the tough times.

A lot of these tracks really do have aspects of something great, just held back by one different misguided thing on each one of them. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Lavigne sounding so good after all this time, but in terms of the current musical conversation it doesn’t really fit.

Favourite Tracks: Head Above Water, I Fell In Love With The Devil, It Was In Me

Least Favourite Track: Dumb Blonde

Score: 4/10

BettyBettyWhoAlbumCover.pngBetty Who – Betty

Synthpop artist Betty Who’s 3rd studio album and first since departing from RCA Records, wanting to release music at a faster pace than the label deal would let her, mostly brings back the same personnel that made The Valley so great and delivers another solid project full of upbeat and sugary, if not the most innovative, pop tracks. She’s been releasing singles since January 2018, but the final product here is pretty cohesive and meets expectations of the sheer sense of fun that her pure pop approach has delivered in the past – it just sounds almost a little too similar to her previous work.

The shorter track “Old Me” kicks things off and drops us directly back into Betty Who’s world, following a tried-and-true yet undeniably joyous and funky twist on traditional pop formulas. A bouncy bassline slinks around some higher-pitched synths and Who’s harmonized and summery vocals before the 90s piano chords kick in and the synths cascade for the chorus. I wish this track was so much longer, but its an absolutely excellent way to draw listeners in as it transitions to “Do With It”, as Who finally succumbs to the trends and puts some trap hi-hats on her song. She has enough of a unique approach to make it a lot of fun though, her excellent ear for harmonies appearing again in the build-up to the chorus, the music cutting out and featuring her a cappella harmonized chords. In a world where genres are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there aren’t many artists left who are so obviously gifted for making retro-pop but Who is certainly one of them. It’s a nostalgic feeling that makes it hard to legitimately criticize since it’s almost formulaically engineered to put a carefree smile on your face.

Continuing with the strong start, “Just Thought You Should Know” sees another angle that we haven’t really seen from her – she’s got the 90s high-octane dance tracks down, but this sounds just like those slower, passionate boy band tracks that still manage to hit the same kind of pop euphoria, and she pulls it off pretty perfectly complete with the retro percussion sounds in the mix. Later in the tracklisting we get some more of the slight innovations that keep the project interesting. I really enjoy what she’s going for on “Language”, a much lower-key track that coasts on the strength of Who’s rhythmic delivery more than a sparkly, distracting instrumental, presenting a quieter tropical vibe instead. “All This Woman” is another one that easily stands out for being unique, sounding like an old Justin Timberlake track with its Spanish guitar picking and jazzier harmonies – oh yeah, and that bridge that completely rips off “Cry Me A River”. Oops. It’s a compelling track regardless, even if the Timberlake similarities are pretty impossible to ignore on later track “The One” as well. “Between You & Me” is another standout, taking a similar 90s pop chord progression but coming at it with acoustics instead, showing off the sweeter parts of Who’s voice.

There are a couple moments where it falls just slightly short of what Who achieved on The Valley – particularly a few tracks where the instrumentals start to feel tiring listening to 13 straight songs of breakneck tempos. They’re still a lot of fun, but when Who doesn’t come as hard with her vocal delivery the high-speed and energetic feel of the track doesn’t feel as earned. On “I Remember” she goes for a breathier, seductive angle but the click-clack of the percussion is going by at warp speed and it doesn’t really fit. “Marry Me” kind of feels like a filler track only 5 songs in as well, it feels like we got the same kind of syncopated piano chords on a better structured song only a few songs ago. Most of these tracks would work fantastic on their own regardless, it’s just in the album format that they fall flat. Once we get to tracks like “Ignore Me” and “Whisper” at the end, the similarities start to show.

Betty is another strong project from the Australian singer that’s only really held back by listening to all of the songs in a row. Really, there’s not many more people with a better ear for pop music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Just Thought You Should Know, Old Me, All This Woman, Language, Do With It

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Takeoff, Imagine Dragons, Muse)

Image result for takeoff the last rocketTakeoff – The Last Rocket

The second of three solo albums from the members of ultra-popular rap trio Migos, Takeoff’s project is thankfully shorter than most of the rap odysseys his label drops all too often and is easily more enjoyable than the preceding album from Quavo. Takeoff is perhaps the Migo with the most technical ability, but the least personality. The latter certainly shows here with some repetitive and uncreative bars at times, but getting to hear just how well Takeoff can use that rapid-fire triplet flow that we usually get as a brief cap to a Migos track across a full album and some fun instrumentals is enough to establish himself as a threat on the level of his two more well-known counterparts.

The project kicks off with “Martian” after some recordings of a literal rocket ship takeoff, a more minimal track that introduces us well to Takeoff’s rhythmic ability well early on. A surprisingly hard-hitting beat despite not being much more than a creeping, menacing bassline and traditional trap hi-hats, Takeoff’s flow doesn’t stop, and it’s exciting each time the beat hits and kicks off another run of speedy triplets. Takeoff has a great rap voice, a huskier low tone that always serves as a great counterpart to the more hyperactive members of his group, and it both fits in well with some darker instrumentals than usual here and makes it endearing when we finally get to see him inject some personality and emotion of his own onto these tracks. A track like “Vacation” is a lot of fun for the first reason, featuring a slightly orchestral minor-key instrumental and chilling piano from Murda Beatz as Takeoff’s energy is at its peak for the emphatic hook, stretching out the song’s title for hilarious effect. “Casper”, on the other hand, sees him break from the Migos tough-guy persona for a second and actually sound like he’s having fun. Hearing him deliver a line like “Decided what I’m gonna do today!” with genuine mirth and inspiration and just as much technical skill as the other tracks makes me want to return to it more, just as a break from the endless barrage of Migos material we typically get.

The closing few tracks are some of the best, demonstrating Takeoff’s consistency delivering track after track of technical trap showcases. Buddah Bless is quickly becoming one of my favourite new producers with his trademark flute style, and his “Insomnia” stands out here. “Infatuation”, though, is something completely unexpected – an energetic, upbeat fully synthpop track mostly featuring unknown singer Dayytona Fox. These poppy, bouncy tracks always accommodate the Migos flow better than you’d expect, and everything about this track comes together into a dancefloor-ready standout.

The Quavo-assisted “She Gon Wink” is one of the weaker tracks here, further demonstrating just how well Takeoff actually manages to excel on his own. Takeoff adapts more to Quavo’s slower, melodic style on the track and it just makes me wonder why it wasn’t on Quavo’s album. It’s not something I want to be hearing after waiting for Takeoff to get his opportunity to shine for a while, after being a highlight in so many Migos tracks. “None to Me” is another track where he puts a little more of a sing-song angle into his flows which doesn’t land particularly well, actually sending him off the beat a little in a few areas of the track. The purest rapper of the group, he doesn’t seem to realize that adherence to the Migos formula isn’t necessary at all times to make a good track – this should be an opportunity to exhibit his own style first and foremost, especially with the smaller number of tracks here. A track like “I Remember”, as well, is where we see him get laziest with the lyricism here, the hook, consisting only of those two words, taking up most of the space of the song.

With so much similar, uninspired content coming this year from the Quality Control label, I enjoyed The Last Rocket a lot more than I expected to, reminding me that half the reason we were all so drawn to Migos in the first place was that they can actually rap pretty well. I’m glad Takeoff finally got his time in the spotlight.

Favourite Tracks: Casper, Infatuation, Vacation, Insomnia, Lead The Wave

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Origins cover.pngImagine Dragons – Origins

For the last little while now, pop-rock band Imagine Dragons have been some of the only people who manage to score high-charting hits with any semblance of a guitar in their music. With their fourth studio album, Origins, they continue to sell well after diluting the sound into something so easily consumable that they’ve become just about the only option in the eyes of most people who aren’t completely immersed in the genre. The band exploded back onto the scene last year with “Believer” after the sales dropped off for their 2nd album, and haven’t looked back since, adhering to the same painful formulas over and over. You know how it goes: some sweeping, contemplative and slightly soul-oriented chords as Reynolds begins quietly, then throws in a complete tonal shift and suddenly starts yelling. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Origins might be even more obnoxious than their last project, Evolve.

Opening track and lead single “Natural” is honestly not too bad – much like their lead last year being one of the better songs on the album. It’s almost as if they structure an entire album around their lead single, creating 10 more imitations of it that never measure up. It’s one of the only tracks here that has a build-up to the loud part that genuinely works, Reynolds’ vocals gradually getting more intense before the chorus drops. I really do like the way they incorporate that rhythmic minor-key guitar riff that backs the quieter intro into the chorus as the song goes on as well. It’s all downhill from there.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Reynolds’ vocals – sometimes, it seems like he could be a genuine rock frontman with the rasp and passion he naturally possesses, but other times it just sounds awful and strained when he reaches up into his upper register. It might be the fact that he takes it too far for the calmer instrumentals that pop up more often than usual across this album, like on the chorus for “Boomerang”. Don’t get me started on that half-time trap hi-hat beat that shows up out of nowhere for the final chorus. Then again, from there we transition into “Machine”, a more industrial number where Reynolds uses almost exclusively his louder, angry tone that sounds like he’s painfully forcing the sounds out of him, distorting his vowels and really throwing off my enjoyment of the track. You’d think with all of the experienced pop producers they bring on board now that they would be able to find a way to hit on more catchy choruses than they actually do. Most of these sound like they’re making them up on the spot, the weird deviations in melody reminding me of something like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. “Bad Liar” is another track like this, the longest one on the album, so clearly, they thought they had something here. One of the calmest tracks the band’s ever made, it’s built on this delicate synth pattern and Reynolds’ falsetto before the energy shifts abruptly through two more phases in the chorus and pre-chorus, Reynolds drawing out his voice awkwardly on the “eye” sound of “Liar” on a strained higher note.

Imagine Dragons honestly stick a track from a movie soundtrack in the middle of their album here, not even tacked on at the end, which shows how much care went into the construction of the project as a deliberately sequenced album. Most movie soundtrack songs are clearly made with less effort into song structure with more of a general tone in mind, and this is no exception. “Zero”, from Wreck-It Ralph 2, might honestly be the worst song I’ve heard this year. An obnoxiously high-octane chorus is contrasted with a sluggish bridge where the track grinds to a halt on Reynolds’ contemplative falsetto, and immediately catapults back into the madness of the chorus. It’s pretty comical.

The rest of the back half of the album is full of ill-informed genre hopping and capitalization on long-dead trends. “West Coast” sounds like every 2011 indie-folk track, “Bullet In A Gun” a weirdly computerized EDM-esque track, “Only” oversaturated dance-pop, “Digital” is … my god … a drum ‘n’ bass pseudo-rap track … and all of them involve Reynolds yelling in my ear. There’s so much nonsense I could mention but this review is already getting way too long.

Origins is the sound of a band along for the ride, saying yes to whatever all the people who have come in to manage their immense popularity tell them to do and losing all semblance of artistic identity in the process. They’ve fully embraced their role as the new Nickelback.

Favourite Tracks: Natural, Cool Out

Least Favourite Track: Zero

Score: 2/10

A neon-coloured portrait of the members of the band in 80s-style dystopian-themed costumes, with themed electronic imagery surrounding them.Muse – Simulation Theory

Frequently evolving veteran rock band Muse undergoes yet another shift in sound from their previous harder-rock effort Drones to a more digitized electro-rock and synthpop direction. There’s always been a lot of influence from bands like Queen on frontman Matt Bellamy’s almost operatic vocal delivery, but the arena-sized ambitions of an album like Simulation Theory take it a little bit further. While Muse can often tend to go over the top into a territory of excessive cheese with their overwrought lyrical themes and melodramatics – this project being no exception – the majority of these tracks are smartly constructed pop melodies, and a more modernized sound that works a lot better for them than their last sonic experiment – all the sci-fi elements are a lot of fun too!

Opening track “Algorithm” is straight out of a Tron movie, opening with an extended instrumental featuring a driving beat that switches from a string orchestra to a fuzzy synth tone, cascading piano arpeggios and a straight-up synthesizer solo on top before Bellamy’s warm and capable vocals kick in, making everything sound immediately more intense and important in the way that only he can. This is all incredible guilty pleasure kind of stuff. “This means war – with your creator”, Bellamy emotes, because of course he does. The next track “The Dark Side” kicks the tempo up a notch, the guitar riff slightly reminiscent of their older material (think a digitized version of “Knights of Cydonia”). I really love the combinations of live drums and the more frivolous noises from a drum machine – it’s like Muse is finally learning to not take themselves so seriously. “Pressure” is a pretty incredible, dynamic track, Bellamy switching in an out of a panicked falsetto backed up by a syncopated guitar line modified to sound almost like a horn section before the track explodes into a rapid-fire melodic rock track with poppy backing vocals and a menacing, repeated whisper – “pressure building”. The band links up with Timbaland of all people for the weird and wonderful track “Propaganda”, a minimal track that sees Bellamy go full Prince with his vocal inflections over some sparse snaps, while a distorted vocal sample yelling the title fights to break into the mix. The harmonies here are fantastic.

There’s not much that measures up to the first 4 tracks in quality here, and it wouldn’t be a Muse album without a couple ambitious ideas that swing for the fence and completely fall flat. The band still insists on using the dubstep wubs they picked up when the genre exploded in popularity, and their combination with a guitar toned off-key for ominous effect on “Break It To Me” is pretty grating, especially as the track shifts through a few sections rapidly, Bellamy switching to his tender delivery for the chorus before the track turns into a Rage Against the Machine song at the end. The wubs show up to somewhat better effect on “Dig Down” later on. “Get Up and Fight” is Muse indulging their absolute worst tendencies, and while at times it’s easy to get caught up in their rousing calls to action and resistance set to a driving guitar melody, this one goes way too far into try-hard inspirational territory. This might be the most overly dramatic track they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. “Something Human”, as well, is almost too poppy, with a campfire-side folksy quality to it that doesn’t fit Bellamy’s grandiose voice.

Single “Thought Contagion” pops up later in the tracklisting, and this is the closest thing we get to a classic, impossibly catchy Muse track. The main riff and stadium-sized singalong chorus are immediately memorable, juxtaposed with verses that have an almost hip-hop angle with some skittering hi-hats and a more rhythmic, syncopated flow from Bellamy. I can already tell it’ll be incredible live.

Simulation Theory is easily one of the band’s most enjoyable albums, now that they’re just essentially making fun music and not going overboard with some political theme. The 80s nostalgia is a great sound for them, even with a few missteps here and there.

Favourite Tracks: Pressure, Propaganda, Thought Contagion, Algorithm, The Dark Side

Least Favourite Track: Break It To Me

Score: 7/10

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.

Image result for twenty one pilots 2018

“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.

Image result for twenty one pilots live

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

MAGIC! – Expectations

Image result for magic expectations coverNot much came out this week, so here’s something that’s a lot more popular in my home country of Canada: Pop/reggae band MAGIC!, fronted by prominent pop songwriter Nasri Atweh, drop their third studio album Expectations (didn’t we already have 2 other major albums with this title this year??). The group veers closer to pure pop music than ever before, offering a relatively safe and inoffensive album as their popularity in the rest of the world wanes coming down from 2013 #1 hit “Rude”. Atweh’s voice is still as impossibly smooth and enjoyable to listen to as ever, but Expectations loses a lot of its power through the songwriting and structure here.

The project opens with the title track, which immediately drops into the familiar “One Dance” watered-down dancehall groove and one of those choruses that consists of a drawn-out syncopated syllable: “Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-expectations”. One of the things that drew people to MAGIC! at the height of their popularity was the fact that their reggae fusion sound was completely unique on pop radio, and to see them immediately revert to these tired trends at this point is disappointing to open the project. Their roots aren’t gone completely though, and the reggae style reappears on tracks like single “Kiss Me”, which has a definite feel of 80s pop – the staccato jumps of the underlying guitar groove almost remind me of Toto’s classic “Africa” and the track is just as maddeningly catchy. The ending of the track is MAGIC! getting its closest to recapturing something special, Atweh ad-libbing some runs over the repeated hook as the horn section roars in.

Image result for magic band rude

Atweh’s voice is the strongest point on the album, and we get to hear it in a way we haven’t really before on the acoustic track “More Of You”, an angle the band hasn’t explored often. The strummed, minimal romantic ballad places his vocals at the forefront, and the track gets very emotional with the same kind of believable, honest delivery we’ve heard on the band’s more passionate singles and some beautiful harmonies – the piano finally comes in to sell the track as it reaches its conclusion. “Appreciate You” is another reggae-tinged track that closes out the stronger run at the beginning of the project, those classic rolling drum fills a staple of the genre but still so missed in the current landscape of music.

Atweh has been in the business a while as a successful songwriter, and he certainly has a strong sense of musicality and knows how to write a good pop song if he needs to. There are a few tracks here that do fit the bill, but fail to go the extra mile and excite, not measuring up to their previous similar works or breaking out of the mold of pleasant, safe pop songwriting or structure. “Core” is a track that drops into a fun electronic instrumental chorus after being built up by some full harmonies supporting Atweh’s lower, tender and emotional delivery that he is known for, but again it’s something that sounds like it would be more in place in the musical landscape of 3 years ago. The back half of the album is filled with more uninspired and unoriginal tracks, mostly full of awkward and cliched songwriting and strange sonic choices that signal some serious desperation and losing sight of what made the group interesting in the first place.

“Darts In The Dark” begins as a promising track with more of a rock/ska sound before dropping into an overproduced electronic chorus that completely clashes with the sound of the rest of the track and is startlingly loud in the mix. When the synth pattern continues over the drumbeat of the remainder of the song as the two elements combine in the end (in predictable pop music fashion), the two rhythms don’t come together at all and create a jumbled mess. Tracks like “Motions” and “How You Remember Me” are underwritten, repeating a single phrase for most of the chorus, while the sound of the tracks don’t do much to distinguish themselves from the stronger yet similar songs in the first half – the latter especially is another surprising misfire from someone as experienced as Atweh, the percussion dropping out for a louder, harmonized first chorus but deflating the building energy of the track in the process.

Image result for magic band rude

The sole highlight of the back half is “When The Trust Is Gone”, another complete sonic deviation into more of an R&B territory but one that really works for the band, using their funk-infused reggae sensibilities for a bouncy old-school soul instrumental like the ones we heard on Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, complete with an impressive guitar solo … and then the album closes with whatever that obnoxious pitched vocal on “A Little Bit Of Love” is.

MAGIC! was never the most innovative band, but they were a unique presence in pop music when they debuted 5 years ago. Atweh still carries a few of these tracks with his vocals, and some of that uniqueness does remain, but for the most part Expectations is far too safe to linger in my mind.

Favourite Tracks: When The Trust Is Gone, Kiss Me, Appreciate You

Least Favourite Track: Darts In The Dark

Score: 4/10

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

Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgAustralian indie-pop singer Amy Shark, after rising to prominence with her contributions to the Love, Simon soundtrack, releases her debut album Love Monster. Shark takes some clear inspiration from other rising pop artists in her home country and neighbouring New Zealand, as well as some other megastars of the day, but manages to deliver a very strong debut due to her unique vocals and specific and personal lyrical content. A few superproducers hop on board for a single song each, but for the most part, this is one of the strongest debut projects of the year based solely on Shark’s own captivatingly refreshing presence as a newcomer to the music industry.

The album opens with a minimal, acoustic chord progression on the song “I Got You”, immediately introducing us to the perfect storm of what a star on the rise should harness on their debut album as the trap beat and catchy pop melody quickly cascade in. It’s a combination of sounds that’s been done before, of course, but something about the brightness of the acoustics, the way the beat doesn’t dominate the track, and Shark’s cheery lyrics delivered by a voice with the inflections to make her sound emotional even when completely casual creates a wonderful welcome to a surefire star in the making who uses trends sparingly to display her own personal artistry on top. The most obvious parallel you can draw to Shark’s work is Taylor Swift, especially the better half of her recent reputation. The way she throws her entire emotional being into her vocal performance, as well as the smartly written pop melodies and very slight hip-hop edge to charming pop tracks mirror the megastar in the best way.

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“All Loved Up”, produced by Swift and Shark’s common collaborator Jack Antonoff, is one of the most pop radio-ready tracks here – the verses feature Shark in a kind of hurried, out-of-breath delivery of faster-paced lyrics, as if she’s barely succeeding at fitting all of the many emotions running through her mind as she takes the exciting leap of faith into a committed relationship into her verse. The chorus is just as catchy as any here, but what sells it is Shark’s likability and relatability as she lays all of her emotions out. The next track, “I Said Hi”, is pop euphoria – and Shark has said she wrote the lyrics and melodies in an impassioned 10-minute burst of creativity, hurriedly recording it after the realization it was “Grammy Award-winning”. The trap-acoustic theme is played up to its maximum power here, with an absolutely monstrous drop into one of the most pristine pop melodies I’ve heard all year and hilariously passive-aggressive lyrics aimed at her doubters – I’m excited for her future if she can assuredly make something this excellent so quickly. New Zealand pop mastermind Joel Little assists on “Never Coming Back”, a lighter track where Shark plays up the sweet, breathier side of her vocals over some shimmering synth lines that remind me of Little’s excellent work with Broods. The track features some great harmonies leading up to an explosive conclusion.

Shark’s emotional songwriting reaches its heartbreaking peak on a song like “Leave Us Alone”, describing the best memories and feelings of a past relationship in vivid detail, repeating the titular “alone” in a much quieter voice that contradicts the stronger front she tries to put up. This continues on “Don’t Turn Around”, another complete knockout of a track where Shark fantasizes about reconnecting with an ex upon seeing them at an event, internally criticizing herself for it – “You’re two rows behind me and it’s hard not to turn around”, she says, as a distorted, higher-pitched voice sends the track into pop overdrive with some quicker, rhythmic vocals that complete the sonic picture the bright trap-pop instrumental paints. Shark’s versatility across this project is quite impressive, harnessing the appropriate volume and emotional delivery of tracks with more of a louder rock edge on the Mark Hoppus (Blink-182) featuring “Psycho”, to the EDM-leaning “Middle of the Night” to the quiet indie-pop variety that makes up the majority of the tracklisting here.

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If anything, 14 tracks feels just slightly long, a few of these tracks standing as slightly less effective versions of counterparts earlier on in the tracklisting. Placing a song like “The Idiot” after the stellar “I Said Hi”, the song possessing similarly dominant guitar stabs and a knocking hip-hop beat, makes it slightly redundant despite being pretty great in its own right. Shark does wear her influences on her sleeve as well, constantly bringing to mind the lyricism of Lorde, instrumentals and harmonies of Broods or the emotion of Swift. Her own personality does shine through though, and the added variation of any future material will likely confirm this.

Love Monster is the most confident and self-assured pop debut since Billie Eilish’s don’t smile at me EP, Shark quickly establishing herself as an artist to watch by endearing herself to the audience with her honest emotional delivery and specific, smart lyricism. Meanwhile, she capitalizes on the sound of the moment to a small enough degree that it doesn’t feel like trend-hopping. I’m very excited to hear more from her.

Favourite Tracks: I Said Hi, Don’t Turn Around, All Loved Up, I Got You, Mess Her Up

Least Favourite Track: Adore

Score: 9/10

Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

Veteran pop-rock “band” Panic! at the Disco, down to its final member in multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Brendon Urie, releases its second studio album as a solo act which greatly improves on predecessor “Death of a Bachelor”. Fresh from a stint on Broadway, Urie elevates his usual flair for the dramatic here and delivers some impressively dynamic vocal lines. Most importantly though, Panic! pulls somewhat of a Paramore here and modernizes their sound, joining the current musical conversation without losing what made them unique in the first place. Their sixth studio album is potentially their poppiest, but roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s theatricality remains to ground these triumphant pop hooks in the darker, baroque atmosphere that’s always coloured their work. There are a few awkward moments of transition here and there, but Pray for the Wicked is one of their best.

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Urie immediately floors the gas pedal on his huge voice when the first anthemic chorus of opening track “(F**k A) Silver Lining” explodes in listeners’ earphones, and he doesn’t let go for the rest of the project. He’s a true rock-and-roll frontman delivering some of the most pop-oriented and melodic hooks of his career, and the result is unique and refreshing. The singles across the board are some of the strongest in their career, carried by a constant, driving energy and smartly written melodies. The fast-paced and frenetic “Silver Lining” sees Urie hitting some seriously impressive high notes over a blaring horn section and a sample from a 1950s R&B track before leading into “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”, which is quintessential Panic! material with a modern update. The guitars in the background are accompanied by a chopped-up vocal sample and clacking percussion verging on a hip-hop sound, providing the perfect backdrop of crackling energy for the chorus, delivered through layered vocals and a deafening guitar pattern that Urie somehow manages to overpower.

“High Hopes” is another great single choice – I love the melody in the pre-chorus that builds up to the marching-band percussion and yet another immediately catchy chorus from Urie, which shows just how effective it is near the end of the track when the instrumental starts to strategically drop out. Urie sells all of this perfectly – his voice is built for Broadway – it’s one of the most capable male vocals in mainstream music right now. The very strong first half continues with “Roaring 20s”, which belongs in a legitimate rock musical (that half-time breakdown!) and “Dancing’s Not A Crime”, which wraps the listener in a very full sound with some warm, old-school funk pop chords. Quite a few of these tracks are great for similar reasons: an energetic horn section, music that cuts out at just the right time, a shouted anthemic chorus, but Urie sounds like he’s having so much fun, and it’s such a welcome change from the band, that it really doesn’t matter. He nods to a personal shift in character on “Old Fashioned”, believing to have been stuck in the persona of the 17-year old who initially formed the band until this album.

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Panic!’s journey crossing over into the more culturally relevant styles of pop, hip-hop and EDM production doesn’t come without a few hitches, one of which is their team-up with electronic DJ Dillon Francis on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It”. Like most featured vocalists in modern EDM tracks, Francis buries Urie’s vocals in the mix a little bit more than usual, his chopped-up horn samples dominating the poppiest song on the whole project. Urie’s voice is not something that should ever be restrained. By the time a trap beat drops near the end of the project and the chanting group vocals are at their peak, it feels like we’re listening to an average Galantis track. The second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the frenetic opening 6-track run. On an album full of spectacular choruses, “One Of The Drunks” feels like it falls short, something about the sample in the back not quite clicking with the melody line. Urie’s lyrics can be periodically distracting as well, sometimes not maturing alongside the musical direction. “The Overpass” falls into clichés: we’ve heard about the “sketchy girls and lipstick boys, troubled love and high-speed noise” before. Panic! returns to familiar tropes that the audience who grew up on their pop-punk material will recognize a few times.

Pray for the Wicked is still a great return to form for a Brendon Urie who seems to be sitting comfortably on top of the world at the moment. His many successes continue with his most cohesive project yet, delivering 11 slick choruses that will be sung in arenas for years to come.

Favourite Tracks: Dancing’s Not A Crime, Say Amen (Saturday Night), Roaring 20s, (F**k A) Silver Lining, High Hopes

Least Favourite Track: The Overpass

Score: 8/10

5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood

Image result for youngblood cover 5sosI really gotta listen to this huh? Look at those sales! These 5SOS fans are ridiculously loyal. Anyway, pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer release their third studio album and first since the disbanding of OneDirection, a major component of their rise to prominence. Working more closely with major producers and writers in the realm of pure pop, as the band grows older they grow out of the cringeworthy edge that coloured their earlier work, making some more polished and modern pop music. Even so, most of these tracks feel like they’re missing the soul and energy, as if they went too far in the new direction of sanitization. A few of these tracks connect surprisingly well, but for the most part they stand just on the edge of being good, each falling victim to an overused trope or a melody line that doesn’t quite line up.

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5SOS are less reliant on their unique status as a more abrasive punk band setting them apart from others here, making some pretty by-the-numbers pop music. Of course, some of the people they’re working with are absolute pros and manage to craft some pretty catchy tunes, but there isn’t much about the delivery of frontman Luke Hemmings to keep me wanting to return. The opening title track “Youngblood” is a strange juxtaposition of energy, the chorus dropping down to a minimalistic rhythmic bassline while Hemmings’ distorted vocal screams the words. Fellow single “Want You Back”, written by superproducer Steve Mac (who recently stuck “Shape Of You” in our heads permanently), fares slightly better, integrating the louder lead guitars of the band into the bouncy pop mix well with a decent falsetto chorus melody, but as the tracks go on, the repetition makes you realize that initial head nod wasn’t deserved – there are other people doing this kind of thing in a much more lasting and engaging way.

This is the issue with most of these tracks – they open in a promising way, and the logistics of the track slowly diminish its value to the end. A track like “Valentine” throws away its promising doo-wop intro immediately and becomes something completely different, the darker vocal tones not meshing with the bright synths and modern percussion. “Lie To Me” is a legitimately great track that shows that there is some potential here – this is classic boy band material, using the other members to create some genuinely stunning harmonies, the chorus melody line sounding like the kind of simple yet heartbreakingly expressive pop melodies of the 90s. The band’s two-track team-up with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and their frequent producer Jacob Sinclair on “Why Won’t You Love Me” and “Woke Up In Japan” yields some pretty fun results as well, Cuomo embracing the inherently cheesy nature of the band in the perfect way that only he could on the former, contributing some hilarious self-deprecating lyrics about rejection in a soaring chorus.

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The songs already start to feel obnoxiously derivative of each other around “Better Man”, track 8, which lifts the same syncopated rhythm in the main riff from most of the trop-pop hit songs that dominated the radio waves in 2017 – most of the album’s ending few tracks feel like diet versions of Ed Sheeran songs, not written as expressively as Sheeran can. The previous track “If Walls Could Talk” can’t be saved by Julia Michaels’ songwriting, falling into yet another build-up into a distorted singalong chorus as they attempt to display some kind of unique identity that can’t coordinate itself with the new sheen placed on the surrounding production. The most awkward tonal collision might come on “More”, however, a driving, buzzy and almost EDM synth line dominating most of the space of the track before a drop, also structured like an EDM song, stumbles clumsily into the most directly rock n’ roll guitars at the forefront of the mix.

Youngblood certainly sees the band grow up and better attempt to integrate themselves into the current musical landscape and conversation, but end up playing it far too safe, failing to place a distinctive mark on most of these songs. Quite a few of them could easily have been recorded by anyone else. The lyrics and Hemmings’ delivery frequently sell these mostly well-structured pop melodies just short.

Favourite Tracks: Lie To Me, Moving Along, Woke Up In Japan

Least Favourite Track: More

Score: 3/10