The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018

The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018 live

Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

One of ascendant label 88Rising’s biggest artists, Joji, drops his debut full-length studio album BALLADS 1 which exhibits his unique, lo-fi approach to modern R&B, pop and hip-hop music. A former YouTube star famous for his surreal, absurdist comedy, you can certainly still sense some of his over-the-top personality in his lyrics, but Joji has done all he can to distance himself from his past as Filthy Frank and the comedy rap alias Pink Guy. Teaming up with some diverse collaborators, this is a very wide-reaching range of sounds, some of them more adaptable to his unhinged and emotional approach than others. Joji’s vocals are very raw and often a little off-key, and there are more than a few mixing and mastering issues here, but half the time it strangely fits, the nihilistic and moody aesthetic all clicking together in the right way regardless.

The opening track “Attention” is a pretty good indication that most of the project is pretty hastily thrown together – Joji’s vocals are more off than on most of the tracks here, and you can tell due to the minimal pop-piano backing track, while the distorted bass that rumbles in halfway through is far too loud and throws off the mix completely. Still, underneath all of the mess, there’s a pretty catchy melody there. The next track “Slow Dancing In The Dark”, on the other hand, is so beautiful it seriously caught me off guard from this meme master of an artist. The explosion of those digital, 80s synths and the lighter, cascading textures as he hits the climactic note in the chorus is one of the craziest musical moments of the year – it’s a completely unique spin on the moody alt-R&B ballads that have coloured the charts recently. “Come Thru” is another great track in the same vein here, some plaintive synth piano-notes and sparse percussion knocking on the off-beat backing up an Auto-Tuned falsetto melody – everything about the song is just barely off-kilter, and it fits the emotional tone of the track for that reason.

Joji additionally attacks sounds of more traditional synthpop and trap here, and while showing he has a great command of melody and song structure, the vocals and mixing can let him down on the more minimal or derivative tracks. Joji duets with kindred spirit Trippie Redd on “R.I.P.” – the two are similar in that they sacrifice vocal performance for authentic and raw emotion, often to an extreme degree. I’m not going to argue that he sounds great on upbeat pop tracks like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun”, but the carefree nature of his vocals, especially when he starts throwing some deceptively sadder lyrics into these standout, bouncier mixes, creates something that is recognizably Joji. The aching falsetto on a track like “Why Am I Still In LA”, especially over such an arrhythmic, lurching and distorted instrumental that verges on noise rock, is a truly haunting and affecting moment, the sudden musical explosions mirroring his clearly genuine anguish. Most of this album isn’t exactly what you’d call replayable, but it’s something I’ll remember for a while.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Get Over You, No Fun, Why Am I Still In LA, Come Thru

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

Cover of Not All HeroesMetro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Trap producer extraordinaire Metro Boomin drops his first solo album after having his name attached to numerous collab projects over the past few years. Possibly the most recognizable music producer by name at the moment, you can likely credit most of the rise of trap as a popular genre to his influence, particularly his early work with Future. After threatening retirement … or at least, just a break of some sort … in the midst of his hit songs dominating the charts, Metro returns rather quickly with a collection of tracks that are a little more low-key for his style, but still play into his trademarks of murky and menacing basslines and the odd soul sample thrown into the mix. Metro is a bonafide hitmaker, but I can’t help but feel most of these tracks don’t have the same kind of immediately iconic and innovative techniques that help him spice up the genre that you can find on most of his hits. He still gets some great performances out of his collaborators – 21 Savage steals the show on every feature here – but this is the first time I’ve heard Metro beats and felt just a little bored.

People are drawn to Metro’s instrumentals because they put something unexpected into the formula – usually, something that sparks a trend that everyone else ends up following. More often than not here, it feels like he’s being safer than ever, and even following some trends himself. The first two tracks, “10AM/Save The World” and “Overdue” both have elements of soul sampling in them, but the first track is split into two distinct sections, Metro briefly showing his flipping talents after a by-the-numbers opening track featuring a sleepy Gucci Mane feature that doesn’t capture his usual charisma. “Overdue” splices a sample through the whole track, exciting me with those opening moments of that delicate and breathy vocal performance, but it continues to cut in and out after the beat drops despite being the aspect that complements it the most and saves it from a pretty average performance from Travis Scott.

As for chasing trends, Metro deviating from his sound proves to be a pretty bad idea in his attempts to make a Latin pop track with Wizkid and J Balvin on “Only You” – it’s blander than he’s ever been, and far from his area of expertise. Most of these tracks could easily blow up – those hi-hats hit as hard as Metro’s ever have, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like something only he could have made anymore. “Dreamcatcher” harnesses a great hook from Swae Lee and a fun Travis Scott verse, but it doesn’t have that same level of excitement. The back half of the album could essentially be found on any hit trap project this year.

There are still quite a few sparks of creativity across the board here. “Don’t Come Out The House” is a constantly switching-up track that sees him team up with 21 Savage and re-embrace his eerie horror-movie influenced sound, Savage hilariously leaning into his over-the-top nefarious persona with a whispered flow. 21 Savage’s other solo track “10 Freaky Girls” is the best sample flip here, taking inspiration from the 90s synth-piano textures of a lesser-known Whitney Houston track as Savage continues to deliver some hysterical punchlines and an upbeat, present flow. Those brief, weird scream sounds are such an interesting touch, and the horn section is one of those unexpected embellishments that only Metro could throw in halfway through and have work so well. “Space Cadet” is ridiculously fun, featured artist Gunna going full Young Thug with some off-the-wall vocal inflections and an audible smile on his face as he makes boasts over some shimmering synth chords and appropriately galactic bleeps and bloops.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a perfectly serviceable trap project from a man who understands the genre better than most, and in most scenarios, it’ll still enliven a room – I just have high expectations for Metro after his unstoppable run of tracks that were both wildly popular and creative.

Favourite Tracks: 10 Freaky Girls, Space Cadet, Don’t Come Out The House, Dreamcatcher

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

Iconic and influential Swedish pop singer Robyn makes her comeback – it’s been 8 years since her last solo full-length project, Body Talk, though she has dropped an EP and a brief collaboration with equally experimental electropop duo Royksopp in that time. Listening to this new project, Honey, it’s easy to see just how much of the current landscape of experimental electropop owes its existence to some of Robyn’s earlier work, discarding the pop formula at the time and injecting a new degree of emotional catharsis to some upbeat, synth-infused tracks – it’s the earliest form of what singers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tove Lo do now. The project consists of only 9 tracks, but each of them are a fully established, shimmering dance-pop world that shifts and changes with a very warm and full sound. It’s easy to think that this project is dated, and a few of these longer tracks do get slightly tiresome after a while, but Robyn is still doing some pretty incredible things in the pop music world.

Most of the emotion Robyn is able to convey is truly due to her voice, which is more than holding up. A breathy yet powerful soprano, it’s the perfect instrument to triumphantly soar over the pulsating disco-influenced synths that are frequently backing her up. The opening track “Missing U” is a pop song from another time, Robyn hitting a catchy and straightforward pop rhythm over a booming synth bassline and a quickly oscillating higher-pitched synth texture that never goes away even when it falls out of key with the rest of the track, but it works perfectly as both a driving force anchored to the thumping percussion and something that’s just out of place to line up with the lyrical themes. “Because It’s in the Music” is even more transcendent, containing what’s easily one of the greatest pop choruses of the year. Robyn slowly ascends up the scales with a huge degree of emotional conviction as she sings about defines most of her career – a song that simultaneously makes you want to move … and cry. One of the most evidently disco-influenced tracks here, Robyn’s vocals are light as air as some orchestral stabs and a persistent funk bassline build her up to her bigger moments.

Most of the project comes across in this ethereal, very full-sounding dreamscape and a lot of that is due to some pretty impressive harmonies. Even a minimal track like “Human Being” comes alive when she drops some old-school pop triads onto the chorus. The title track “Honey” is a high-octane track that sees Robyn doing a high-speed syncopated rhythm on a single note before the hi-hats kick the track into a higher gear of energy – all of these tracks are a pretty masterful exercise in the slow build that ultimately turns into an all-out pop celebration, but all the same it’s a celebration for people to exorcise their personal demons getting swept up in the driving rhythms. I love that robotic vocal sample and bongo drums on the absolutely bizarre Disclosure-esque track “Between the Lines”, and the project closes on a strong note as well with “Ever Again”, one of the most unapologetically pure pop tracks here that cycles through a few fun added instruments keeping up the driving main riffs of the backing track.

A lot of this project is straight out of a different time, and not the kind where we’re paying homage to the past by doing the slightest things to bring it into the modern world either – there are a couple times here when adjusting your 2018 ears to what’s being delivered here is a huge leap. “Beach2k20” is essentially an old-school house music track, Robyn not doing much more than spoken word over a repetitive samba instrumental that extends further than anything else here. “Baby Forgive Me”, as well, falls into more of a traditionally European-sounding area associated with an earlier time, feeling a little empty – although Robyn’s haunting vocal delivery on the track is great.

A couple diversions aside, the greatest aspects of this project are exactly what pop music was designed to be in the first place – a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that takes over and lets you escape from whatever you’re thinking about and join something bigger than yourself. There’s not much of that anymore in the instant-gratification streaming era.

Favourite Tracks: Because It’s In The Music, Between The Lines, Missing U, Honey, Human Being

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

MØ – Forever Neverland

MØForeverNeverland.jpegNot typically an albums artist, Danish electropop singer and frequent EDM collaborator MØ releases her sophomore studio album and first since 2014, though she did drop the When I Was Young EP last year. Forever Neverland is a mostly enjoyable collection of shimmery uptempo dance-pop influenced tracks, MØ shining through with the unique vocals that make the tracks she’s featured on stand out so much. Her crackly tone always makes for an interesting listening experience, and often in collaboration with a few superstar DJs and producers across the board here, creates a selection of club-ready, fun tracks. There are a few misses here and there, but for the most part this is something to turn your brain off and enjoy.

After a brief intro, the first track “Way Down” immediately drops into the overdone dancehall beat that backs up most dance-pop songs at the moment, but almost as soon as it begins MØ overrides the sense of over-familiarity with some anthemic and layered group vocals building up to a speedy drop featuring a great, bouncy synth bassline. MØ distorts the formula just enough to create something that you can enjoy for being tried-and-true and easy to consume, with the slightest of twists. The primary writer on all of these tracks, MØ knows how to craft a catchy melody – the next track “I Want You” is instantly memorable, with some rapid-fire lyrics and a melody that’s simultaneously repetitive and impressively showing off her range. As the instrumental steadily builds up in intensity throughout the track, as she dives into that last chorus and the percussion explodes it’s a powerful and gratifying moment. There are multiple tracks here where MØ follows the Francis and the Lights model of layering her vocals with Prismizer and something about the computerized distortion fits her voice well – it’s employed well on the track “Blur” despite the more disappointingly straightforward instrumental drop afterwards.

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MØ saves all of her big-name collaborations for the album’s middle, kicking off with yet another track with Diplo titled “Sun In Our Eyes”. The dynamic duo team up for one of the most radio-friendly, by-the-numbers pop tracks here, but again, there are still some pop formulas that exist for a reason, and these two are seasoned veterans in following the greatest ones. Diplo provides some full, very summery synth chords here that really wrap MØ’s joyful, celebratory vocals here in the right kind of exuberant musical world – the guy can rarely go wrong. “Mercy”, a team up with former Flume member What So Not, is uncharacteristically low-key for the future-bass artist, built on a few piano chords that highlights a yearning, enormous chorus from MØ that works pretty well as she strains up to some higher notes – some live percussion finally kicks in for the final chorus and it becomes clear just how well-crafted a track it is when all the elements click together. And of course, the similarly sassy Charli XCX appears on “If It’s Over”, a manic and glitchy track where the two confidently kiss off some bad relationships.

Late in the tracklisting, “Imaginary Friend” might be the best track here, actually reminding me of some of Charli’s best work. The chorus instrumental immediately grabs your attention more than the other tracks here, MØ singing in her lower register as a distorted higher-pitched voice echoes her over some synth stabs that quickly cut in and out for a much more rhythmic track. The accompanying rapidly cascading noises and embellishments make it sound like you’re entering a dream sequence and continue to immerse you in the track.

There are definitely a couple tracks here where the formula begins to wear thin, usually the case when putting together a larger number of upbeat, dancier tracks into album format. “Nostalgia” is a track that stands out as being pretty unlistenable in comparison to the quality of most of its counterparts here, bringing back the generic dancehall beat but dropping into a chorus that just seems completely off with the layering and harmonies. She uses the same kind of layered group vocals but they don’t line up as perfectly here, especially when going for such a huge sound with a more percussion-based, minimal instrumental. MØ also delivers some half-rapped, half-casually spoken sections in the verses that just throw off the rhythm of the track and sound awkward. Closer “Purple Like the Summer Rain” feels a little rhythmically disjointed as well, the prominent percussion on the track feeling like it’s too fast for the vocals in front at times.

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A few songs just fall barely short of expectations as well, like the track “Beautiful Wreck” which features what might be the best build-up on the album with some Zedd-style vocal manipulations that culminates in a lackluster and low-impact drop, or “Red Wine” that features an enjoyable reggae flavour that breaks up some of the dance-pop monotony but features some stranger lyrics in the chorus that takes me out of it. These tracks are still pretty good, but it just makes it more evident that the creation of tracks like these can be low-effort at times.

Forever Neverland is a much more enjoyable collection of tracks than most in her genre – it’s never easy to put such high-octane music into an album format without it feeling exhausting after a while – and that’s a testament to her approach and personality being a lot more individual than her counterparts as well. Teaming up with some veteran hitmakers here, one of the most prominent voices in the dance scene keeps on rolling.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, I Want You, Sun In Our Eyes, Mercy, Way Down

Least Favourite Track: Nostalgia

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

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.

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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.

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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

Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngFormer YouTube sensation and retro-pop rising star Troye Sivan evades the sophomore curse with his second studio album Bloom, a celebratory and confessional look at Sivan’s powerful self-expression as he details his approaches to relationships as a gay man set to the kind of pop music that inspired him growing up. Working with some of the best writers and producers in the business right now, Sivan’s honest and raw vocal delivery sells the more minimal and understated tracks, while the rest are an energetic yet captivatingly sensual pop extravaganza.

We’re immediately transported into the kind of deeply personal lyricism we’re going to get throughout the project on opening track “Seventeen”, in which Sivan reflects – with the slightest hint of regret – on having his first romantic experience through online dating at a young age with an older man. Like most of tracks here, the instrumental isn’t comprised of much more than moody, lush and cinematic synth lines that frame Sivan’s vocals in a kind of ethereal, dreamy way – save for the briefly explosive chorus where some syncopated percussion evokes an earlier era of pop music. Sivan’s descriptions of his relationships here is often viewed through a kind of idealistic sense of wonderment and discovery, and the sound of the music itself reflects this perfectly.

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Sivan’s similar single “The Good Side” has already landed on my midyear list for 2018, and examines the other side, after a relationship has come to an end, with a similarly ambiguous outlook and minimal instrumental produced by Ariel Rechtshaid. The track is a lengthy slow-burn, Sivan’s vocals at the forefront – and he doesn’t even have to do much to sound great, pouring so much emotion into every syllable. Rechtshaid’s small instrumental embellishments that pop up throughout the track do so much to paint the atmospheric world of the song, Sivan’s lyricism at its best as he details his techniques for moving on from the end of a relationship, thankful for the life he’s able to live as a famous musician, but still reminiscing on the good times and wanting to reconcile things. Troye is feeling guilty that he got “the good side” of the breakup. Sivan’s vocals reach their emotional peak on the track “Postcard”, a somber piano ballad where he duets with Australian folk singer Gordi. Sivan vividly describes a specific instance of a failure to respond to a postcard as the first instance of doubting the longterm success of a relationship. Those tiny breaks in his voice at the bottom of his range mean so much to the overall delivery, and the harmonies on the chorus when both singers finally come together are one of the most beautiful moments on the whole project.

Sivan gets more upbeat as well, as many heralded opening single “My My My!” at the start of this year. It’s a smartly structured chorus, with a persistent bassline and immediately anthemic delivery from Sivan as his vocals are layered to sound larger than life. One of the real crown jewels of the album, however, is the Ariana Grande duet “Dance To This”. The track took a long time to grow on me, but it really sneaks up on you as one of the catchiest tracks of the year. It’s yet another instance of Sivan embracing a less-is-more mentality, not pushing his vocals on us too much but drawing the listener in with that breathy, almost whispered chorus line. Grande is always a welcome addition to any track, and the two both drop into the sensual part of their range that they’re each known for, complementing each other incredibly well. The bassline is very percussive, and brings that factor of danceability they speak of to what would otherwise exist as a pretty calm and understated track. That repeated synth hook in the background sticks in your head as well – I doubt I’ll ever get tired of listening to this one.

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“Bloom” is another track that leans fully into the late-80s dancepop sound, featuring some vibrant building synth chords and a syncopated guitar riff as Sivan harmonizes overtop, once again speaking of the excitement of a first love. So much of the strengths of this album comes from the production value, which, like Sivan’s voice, is never overly flashy or too prominent, but fits the mood of the descriptive lyrics perfectly. The driving percussion on the track mirrors the kind of building anticipation that Sivan speaks of. The album loses a bit of steam as it starts to wind down to its conclusion, but there’s still some strength to every track here. Tracks like “Plum” and “Lucky Strike” are slightly redundant in sound at that point of the album, but still possess some pretty flawless dance-pop choruses, while “Animal”, which Sivan describes as an “80s stadium love song”, is a great way to ease listeners out of the project with another slow build Rechtshaid instrumental.

Bloom is one of those rare albums for me this year where I can find something to like about every track here, making the selection of a least favourite very difficult. Sivan has a very engaging mic presence, seemingly without even trying too hard to have one, and his lyrics are some of the most compelling of the year while bringing back a great retro sound with an excellent degree of cohesion.

Favourite Tracks: The Good Side, Dance To This, Animal, Seventeen, Postcard

Least Favourite Track: My My My!

Score: 9/10

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverVirtuosic R&B-pop princess Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, Sweetener, might not be her best work yet – but it’s certainly her riskiest and most groundbreaking. With production shared between the omnipresent Pharrell Williams and old friends Max Martin and Tommy Brown, who we haven’t seen since her soulful debut, it’s the work of the former that truly distinguishes it from the rest of her work. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop beats weren’t something I could have ever foreseen working with Grande’s dynamic and powerful instrument as well as they do at times here, and while there certainly is the odd time the experimentation falls flat, Sweetener stands as Grande’s most sonically cohesive album. Along with the unashamedly joyful declarations of love in the lyrics that you can’t help but smile at, it’s an exciting step forward in her career.

While I’ve still been holding out hope for Grande to go full Whitney Houston on us and deliver some R&B power ballads, I’ll take her diverting from pop formulas and adapting more to the current hip-hop influenced state of R&B as well. The first track that truly blew me away on the project is it’s 4th song, “R.E.M”, reportedly a repurposed Beyonce demo, and Grande really does step into her role as a kind of Beyonce figure here. “You’re such a dream to me”, she sings, lowering her register and singing with what might be the calmest voice we’ve ever heard her use, getting lost in the dreamscape. She absolutely commands the instrumental, stopping it and pushing it into different sections with spoken asides and the occasional “shh”. There’s an incredible moment where Grande turns into a full a cappella group for a second, layering some notes in the middle of a verse out of nowhere. This immediately contrasts with the power of next track, “God is a woman”, which still stands out as the album’s best. The song perfectly blends Grande’s vocal power with immediately career-defining lyrical themes and the modern, upbeat sound she aims for. Her quick, confident delivery in the verses slowly builds up to some of the most impressive vocal moments of her career in its final minute, unexpectedly layering her vocals into a full choir to repeatedly proclaim the title as she riffs into the stratosphere in the forefront.

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Pharrell’s production is frequently the most interesting thing about Sweetener, pushing Grande into some unfamiliar territory where she excels all the same. Williams himself appears on “blazed”, which features a rapid-fire slap bass and quickly darting jazzy synths. For the first time, we’re not focusing completely on Grande’s voice, and she quickly proves that she can shine above a more chaotic instrumental as well, jumping out in the mix with some sudden impressive and layered harmonies and a lower-key delivery that contrasts the unique instrumental well. He and Grande both bring their more fun-loving sides to title track, “sweetener”, where Williams provides some booming percussion and synth melody reminiscent of her earlier, more cutesy work that lays the framework for a repetitive hook immediately made for dancing and a joyous, celebratory hook – it’s pure happiness in a song. Williams continues to introduce sounds I never expected on a Grande project on “successful”, built on some kind of low-pitched brass instrument, old-school hip-hop shuffling beat and a steel drum, of all things. The beat switches infuse the track with energy, and Grande sounds perfectly at home anyway as she celebrates her successes with a wink on the hook. That repeated “issa surprise” hasn’t left my head since.

It’s far from being all about Pharrell, though – “breathin” looks like a likely single candidate and is easily her most impressive purely pop track since “Into You”. Another intoxicating slow build, the first prechorus is electric as she makes some impressive vocal jumps and we wait for the track to explode. The beat drops heavy, the track cutting out at just the right moments, and we even get a roaring guitar solo overtop of it all. The combination of the two hooks at the end completely sells it. “better off” places Grande’s vocals front and centre in the mix, and it’s the closest she’s come to sounding like Yours Truly. An emotional ballad, this time Grande isn’t mourning a lost love, but standing up for herself and exiting a toxic situation. It fits in with the overall maturation displayed across the whole project. Oh yeah, and “no tears left to cry”? Still an amazing opening single.

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Of course, anyone going into a Grande album not looking primarily for her famously impressive vocals is looking in the wrong place, and there are a few times on this project where it does disappoint slightly as a specifically Grande track due to the more experimental work on the project. Single “the light is coming” never got the best reception, and while the infectious energy of the track has grown on me, the repetitive, spoken hook seems pointless for someone with so much vocal power, while Pharrell’s work on the track mirrors some of his recent N.E.R.D. work. The track “borderline”, as well, feels out of place removed from the other Pharrell cuts in the tracklisting, featuring a 20-second uninspired verse from Missy Elliott and really the only lack of an immediately catchy hook here.

By the time we close with “get well soon”, an instrumentally minimal track where Grande regathers herself mentally in the wake of the Manchester tragedy that occurred at her concert that ends with a moment of silence, it’s clear that Grande has taken time to move forward in a space that makes her happiest. The emphatic declarations of love and personal gain feel genuine, and her forays back into the genre that inspired her from the beginning are a natural step forward. Grande is still one of the most consistently impressive megastars.

Favourite Tracks: God is a woman, breathin, R.E.M, better off, sweetener

Least Favourite Track: borderline

Score: 8/10

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