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

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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

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

Years & Years – Palo Santo

Image result for years and years palo santoBritish electropop trio Years & Years unleash their sophomore effort Palo Santo, an endlessly danceable homage to the upbeat and explosive synthpop sounds of the 80s that features refreshingly openly gay lyrical content that dives further into the real stories of frontman Olly Alexander – often with the use of religious imagery. I wouldn’t blame any listener for missing out on the lyrics completely though – while not the most consistent or original of albums, slowing down its frenetic pace in the middle and lifting some recognizable melodies and rhythms, many of the tracks that populate Palo Santo are simply ridiculously fun, built on inescapable rhythms that reach levels of modern synthpop mastery on an equal playing field with someone like a Carly Rae Jepsen.

Alexander doubles as a theatrical actor, and the extravagance of live performance is reflected through his expressive and dynamic vocals. Quite a few of these songs veer into pretty heavy territory, Alexander speaking about his romantic experiences as a gay man, without concealing any of the giveaway pronouns in the process, with the veneer of religion. He speaks about his desires both as something inappropriate and sinful that he finds some kind of absolution in regardless, asking a man who claims to be straight to “Sanctify” him or comparing partners to a religious figure “preaching a lie”. The album first sets off its ethereal dance party on its second track, “Hallelujah”, however, Alexander finding the spiritual healing that he seeks through dance and the escape of pop music. Produced by veteran Greg Kurstin and written with help from Julia Michaels, the percussion unremitting as Alexander delivers a rapid-fire, harmonized chorus. The beat dropping for the final time as he extends his note on an ascendant repetition of the title phrase is one of the greatest moments here.

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This leads directly into “All For You”, which might be the best song on the whole project. Another Kurstin track, the chorus is one of the most immediately infectious you’re likely to find all year. The slowly swirling synths eventually build into a buzzy, syncopated rhythm that’s echoed by the vocals as Alexander gets caught up in burning desire. The delivery on that opening “you look like you’re so damn scared” is electrifying, especially when the music cuts out briefly for the final chorus. Years & Years aren’t scared to slow things down either, “Hypnotised” a quite aptly named track as Alexander’s voice is allowed to shine without the surrounding pizzazz for an aching, beautifully harmonized track where his acting talents can be clearly heard.

Palo Santo can suffer from a lack of originality at times, even if the music is so fun you’re a lot less likely to care. A track like “Karma” is so heavily inspired from late 90s-early 00s female R&B hits that you could apply certain sections of the track to individual songs. It’s a lot more similar than it should be in a world where musicians are being sued for emulating a “vibe” – remnants of Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits haunt the song, but it’s still very upbeat and fun by adding a prominent synth line that the aforementioned artists never had. “If You’re Over Me” stands out in the tracklist for all the wrong reasons as well. For the most part, this is forward-thinking pop music that seamlessly updates an older sound for modern purposes, but this song essentially copy-and-pastes the car-commercial-esque synth line from American Authors hit “Best Day of My Life”, and the surrounding track is just as dated and uninspired, produced by the increasingly bland Steve Mac, who just landed the biggest hit of his career with “Shape Of You”.

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As the tracklist reaches its end, the revelry continues, it just doesn’t reach the same levels as the early goings, one small part of the track missing before it reaches its full potential. “Preacher”, for example, is constructed out of a flashy bassline and Alexander’s falsetto ‘woohoo’s, but I feel like the chorus lags one measure behind where it should, leaving too much silence. It finds its footing once again on penultimate track “Lucky Escape”, however – the hi-hats slow things down to a more R&B leaning half-time tempo, synth-piano and falsetto harmonies driving one of the catchiest tracks here, put over the edge by Alexander’s triumphant and sassy inflections as he celebrates “dodging a bullet”.

Palo Santo certainly expands Years & Years’ musical range from their debut, in a rare feat of improving rather than falling victim to the sophomore curse. The religious themes throughout make the act of enjoying pop music feel like a kind of spiritual liberation, and the collaborators here knock it out of the park in an homage to a genre past. Even if it comes off too close to replication at times, it’s a great step forward for the trio.

Favourite Tracks: All For You, Hallelujah, Hypnotised, Lucky Escape, Sanctify

Least Favourite Track: If You’re Over Me

Score: 8/10

Bebe Rexha – Expectations

Expectations-Bebe-Rexha.jpgPop singer Bebe Rexha, mostly known for her collaborations with others, finally releases her debut studio album riding off the success of surprise hit single “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line. Despite the interesting vocal quirks that have so many calling on Rexha for choruses, the team behind her delivers one of the most derivative and bland pop albums I’ve heard in a long time. Checking off the boxes of the many pop trends that are thankfully dying a slow death, Rexha sings some darker lyrics that harken back to her pop-punk experiments with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz over instrumentals that largely consist of minimal acoustic guitar. The tracks are mostly interchangeable, and it’s safe to say that Expectations didn’t meet mine.

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Opening track “Ferrari” is perhaps the greatest exhibition of the potential Rexha might have working with more consistent writers and producers. It’s easily the most memorable song here, Rexha displaying that surprising rock ‘n’ roll edge that sneaks into her vocal delivery at its most passionate, before a hi-hat roll drops the emotionally compelling pre-chorus back into a series of poppy whoa-ohs. Jason Evigan, whose latest hits are found on Maroon 5’s similarly uninspired Red Pill Blues, produces the track. Rexha honestly has some unique, defining aspects to her vocal delivery, but she’s stuck in the most cookie-cutter pop formula throughout this project. The next two tracks feature a chorus ripped from Meredith Brooks’ hit “Bitch” and a song which hands off half the mic time to Quavo, who just sounds so tired of being on everyone under the sun’s projects, the project eventually remembering to tack on the contractually obligated tropical house, Latin pop, triplet-flow trap and dancehall tracks as well.

The common thread uniting all of these tracks, mostly causing them to blend together, is the prominence of quiet acoustic guitar riffs, accentuated by the hip-hop percussion that dominates all genres at the moment, as if someone is trying to make us believe the “singer-songwriter” label that Wikipedia currently places beside Rexha’s name. Something like “Knees” opens beside the campfire with the telltale audible squeaks of the hands gliding along the strings, Rexha doing the bare minimum before the chorus is treated like the most casual EDM drop of all time, the percussion and swelling synths coming in to support the same acoustics. The minimalism of these tracks is presented as something much grander than it is, and this might work out fine if Rexha’s melodies were memorable, or at least catchy at all. Quite a few of these songs do sound like they could turn into SOMETHING with a bit more polish: “Sad” is one of the most energetic songs here, driven by an insistent synth-line built for the dancefloor, but the melody on top falls so flat and ends abruptly, Rexha drawing out a nasal “sahhd” and falling silent for the final bar.

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I do have to give a few tracks credit here for standing out from the monotony of the rest of the pack: “Self Control”, despite riding on the same dancehall beat that was present on every song on Drake’s More Life, sees Rexha use her vocals to their maximum theatrical potential – the delivery on that “one little kiss can turn into a thousand” pre-chorus is genuinely chilling, and the chorus is one of the most immediately sticky – the slow descent into it reminds me of what turned “Despacito” into such a phenomenon. “Don’t Get Any Closer”, as well, is a great contrast between the sweet, prettier side of her voice and the darker, aggressive capabilities hiding underneath revealed with a surprise minor twist in the song, I just wish there was a little more to it – the instrumentation simply gets steadily louder and the producers call it an effective build-up.

By the time you reach the end of the Expectations and the tonally jarring “Meant To Be” is tacked onto the end, you come to understand that this is a lot more of a commercial than a well-thought out artistic work. You can feel this at a distracting level throughout the whole project, and it distills the most interesting bits of Rexha’s artistry into the most easily consumable format possible.

Favourite Tracks: Self Control, Ferrari

Least Favourite Track: Mine

Score: 2/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, Hayley Kiyoko)

MyDearMelancholy - album by The Weeknd.jpgThe Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,

Canadian pop/R&B superstar The Weeknd releases a 6-song EP a year and a half after the successes of Starboy that sees him return to a sound that many fans have been missing. My Dear Melancholy, is much darker than we’ve heard him get in a while. While it’s difficult for Abel to completely shed his pop sensibilities at this point, this EP is as close to Trilogy as we’re going to get, the production more open and allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine. This is the version of The Weeknd that kickstarted the entire genre of alt-R&B, and he recruits a list of great collaborators to make it happen.

Opening track “Call Out My Name” became the biggest track to come from this project, and it’s easy to see why. It rides a similar vibe as “Earned It”, a song that served as somewhat of a transitionary period from one style to the next, but the passion with which he delivers that soaring chorus, his haunting pitch-shifted and distorted vocals repeating the refrain behind him, is what sells the track. We can tell that Abel is back in that tortured emotional place that allowed him to deliver his best music. Lyrically, we’re back to the nihilistic and debaucherous artist that knowingly lives a lifestyle that is mentally and physically damaging – there’s some pretty dark content on here inspired by real life events, and the creeping, grim soundscapes of Trilogy infused with parts of the synth beats and Daft Punk-esque production on tracks like “Try Me” and “Hurt You” is an interesting place to put them. The Weeknd’s persona has always been incredibly fascinating to me, and this is him at a complete juncture of an artist, almost like a career retrospective over 6 tracks.

Abel has an impressive list of producers here – Frank Dukes and Skrillex hold things down on the pop side, while Yeezus auteur Gessafelstein and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo himself appear as well. Dukes and Skrillex’s “Wasted Times” is the poppiest instrumental here, a skittering, glitchy breakbeat that drops into an EDM-style breakdown with pitch shifted vocals – but Abel’s rhythms and state of mind are pure Trilogy, repeating “I ain’t got no business catching feelings”. The calming falsetto outro shows just how much we forget how great his vocals can be, something he displays in full on heartbreaking closer “Privilege” – the track, combined with “I Was Never There”, contains some truly compelling and deeply disturbing references to Abel’s substance abuse in dealing with pain. “Hurt You” might be my favourite track of all, a great combination of his old and new styles as Abel delivers a catchy falsetto melody over the same kind of old-school dance breakbeat as we hear on hits “Starboy” and “Pray For Me”.

There have been rumours that there will be forthcoming EPs, possibly playing off of the comma in the title of this one. If this is the case, The Weeknd knows exactly what he is doing and I’m very excited for a more commercially viable 2018 update of Trilogy.

Favourite Tracks: Hurt You, Call Out My Name, Wasted Times

Least Favourite Track: Try Me

Score: 8/10

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegKacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Critically acclaimed country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album sees her trade in her cynical and witty lyrics for an incredibly adorable celebration of her new marriage that sees the world in a much more positive light. Musgraves’ warm and inviting vocal delivery has always been one of my favourite singing voices in the entire music industry, and hearing it on some more personal material here is very affecting. Musgraves’ music has never truly been pure country, and she takes some of her most ambitious cross-genre leaps yet on this project that showcase her crossover potential. With Golden Hour, Musgraves has delivered a stunning opening trilogy of albums.

The entire album is infused with a sense of wonderment that creeps its way into Musgraves poignant lyrics, previously used for biting satire but now settling into “I’m alright with a slow burn, taking my time let the world turn” as she sings sweetly on the opening track. Backed by little more than a pop-country acoustic guitar pattern, the track eventually swells into a string section bridge and uplifting backing vocals. Musgraves accepts that she can’t maintain her previous position as a holier-than-thou sass machine and steps back to marvel at the beauty she can find in the world, and it’s amazing to witness. Musgraves’ instincts to write a great pop melody are still top notch, as emphasized by single “Butterflies” and especially standout track “Lonely Weekend” – the charming country background of most of these songs simply provides an interesting instrumental twist to these sensibilities. “Butterflies” is characterized by a mixture of twinkling, poppy piano chords and the acoustic, slide guitar patterns that appear across Same Trailer, Different Park. The softly delivered honesty in her vocal performance easily welcomes harmonies, and they strengthen her heartfelt declarations. When the music drops back and she reaches into her falsetto to deliver “You give me butterflies”, it’s too cute to handle.

Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting – it should have been tough to convince us of her belief in this completely new view of the world, but the way she pours genuine emotion into every note and word makes us feel every aspect of her love for her husband. Even when tracks like “Oh, What A World” are relatively samey, Musgraves’ awestruck persona is captivating. Her classic wordplay is still present on “Space Cowboy” – which still gives me chills, and “Happy & Sad” brings back the creeping cynicism as she anticipates the inevitable end of “the time of [her] life” through the greatest harmonies on the project– it’s still the same Kacey. The most interesting track, however, is “High Horse”, a disco-influenced track that marks a completely new direction – it’s pretty incredible that she manages to keep some country aspects in the background and pull it off so well, judging by the huge 80s dance beat, synth bassline and adorably kitschy harmonies in the forefront. Closing track “Rainbow” is such a beautiful, earnest love letter that it still almost makes me cry a month later, but this review is getting too long.

I wish I had space to talk about every single track on this album, they are all perfect in their own, tiny, personal way. Musgraves’ subject matter finally matches the extremely pleasant tone of her voice, and the result is an album that successfully blocks out all the bad in the world for 45 minutes.

Favourite Tracks: High Horse, Lonely Weekend, Rainbow, Space Cowboy, Happy & Sad

Least Favourite Track: Wonder Woman

Score: 10/10!

Hayley Kiyoko - Expectations.pngHayley Kiyoko – Expectations

Dreampop artist and outspoken LGBT activist Hayley Kiyoko finally releases her debut studio album after a string of EPs, and for the most part connects with a series of upbeat, danceable pop tracks. While her songwriting could likely benefit from the hitmaking spark of someone like a Max Martin, a few melodies and chord progressions often going a different way you expect them to, in general Expectations lives up to them, especially once single “Curious” signals a seismic shift into the much more fun second half of the project.

Quite a few of these tracks ride over energetic synth basslines and ethereal, dreampop harmonies. Despite the lack of recognizable contributors to the project, the production across the board carries the project where Kiyoko’s vocal performance lacks a distinct sense of personality and artistry. After a world-establishing overture featuring the sounds of the beach, we drop into “Feelings”, a pristine pop track that takes a central melody and plays with it in as many ways as it can, dropping into a half-time trap section and a Prismizer-esque vocoder section near its back half. It’s a very well-written and catchy track that shows just how much Kiyoko still has room to grow as she gains a more mainstream audience. This is the kind of stuff a lot of people could quickly and easily latch onto. Single “Curious” is the centrepiece and is sure to be one of the greatest pop tracks released all year despite its January release date. The synth swells leading up to the tiny pause before the infectious chorus drops electrifies the track with energy, and Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals are something to behold – that bassline reminds of a Fifth Harmony track on steroids.

The last 5 tracks of the album are pure pop magic as well, especially “Palm Dreams”, a bit of a 2000s-pop throwback perfect for summer which features pitch-shifted vocals and an almost new jack swing percussive feel, inviting listeners to an electrofunk party. “Wanna Be Missed” uses a trap hi-hat to its utmost rhythmic potential, complementing a baseline swung synth melody and earth-shattering bass as the intense chorus kicks in, while “Let It Be” is a great closer – a calm-down of sorts with a quieter instrumental that can still support a huge singalong chorus. It’s one of the best written pop melodies here, minor notes in just the right places.

Expectations can feel slightly generic at times, especially as so many of Kiyoko’s contemporaries are rapidly expanding the boundaries of just what pop music can entail – most of these tracks possess the same kind of basic structure, the same chords building up to a more explosive, percussive chorus. A track like “Sleepover” never really gets going, featuring the same synth-bass stabs as the preceding tracks without as strong or energetic of a melody. The back to back mashup tracks “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under the Blue/Take Me In” continue to lose the energy and direction of the project before “Curious” snaps us back in – there are a few weird melodic decisions and abrupt shifts between ideas across the whole saga, as we wait for the pop sugar rush that we know she can deliver to kick back in.

Expectations is a very solid debut pop project that doesn’t shy away from bringing something like a bisexual duet with Kehlani to the attention of the mainstream audience. When it connects, it’s high-octane fun – there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Favourite Tracks: Curious, Let It Be, Palm Dreams, Feelings, Wanna Be Missed

Least Favourite Track: Under the Blue/Take Me In

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (6ix9ine, MGMT, Nipsey Hussle)

Bensbeat is back for the summer and I’ll be catching back up to the present with a lot of these quicker posts.

6ix9ine – Day69

Controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine delivers a debut project infused with the unique scream-rap energy he brought to the singles that made him famous, but it lacks the lyrical content and adaptability to back him up over the course of a full-length project, even one that stands at only 29 minutes. Despite this, his production from some pretty unknown names (save for rising star Pi’erre Bourne on hit single “Gummo”) is frequently top-notch, riding a surprisingly melodic wave and adapting to a style that is distinctly 6ix9ine’s. The sheer blunt force and energy of some of these songs is hard to deny, but more often than not, there just isn’t enough here.

The album opens strong with the quick intro “Billy”, which is one of the most intense and cinematic beats on the whole project. The trap hi-hats and orchestral, almost operatic instrumental is such an interesting sonic playground to drop the unstoppable force of 6ix9ine’s vocal cords into, and it’s over before it even began. For some reason here, it works – he’s established himself as a quick jolt of energy and you can’t expect him to give much more as he pours everything into his delivery. I always preferred single “Kooda” to “Gummo” – the latter is a preview of where the remainder of the album can fall flat. Pi’erre’s beat is chilling, yet perhaps a little too reserved for 6ix9ine’s yelps. The repetitive songwriting found here persists throughout the project, some tracks like “Chocolaté” content to repeat the same lines for most of the track, and not in a fun, “Gucci Gang” way. The subject material never deviates from threats to others, references to his weaponry, and the like. When he switches up his flow on that delightfully melodic beat on Kooda – “You can talk hot on the Internet, boy!” – even that is enough of a distinct artistic choice to push the track over the edge. The track is a pure adrenaline rush. “93”, as well, features a great grinding, industrial instrumental that pummels the senses.

The tracks with features, “Rondo” and “Keke”, each try to fit three quite distinct artists into songs that barely exceed two minutes and make such a unique presence in 6ix9ine feel incredibly out of place. There’s nobody else in the realm of old-school hardcore rap he is trying to revive and artists like Young Thug and A Boogie wit da Hoodie are gone before you were even able to appreciate that they were there. The largely unrelated track names don’t help much with identifying the differences between the tracks in the back half of the project either – most of it blends together, 6ix9ine’s voice abrasive and threatening over instrumentals that never quite accommodate it.

Day69 is certainly a breath of fresh air – if 6ix9ine can incorporate more tracks like more recent single “Gotti”, where he introduces a more melodic vocal delivery, he might have a shot at outlasting his peers.

Favourite Tracks: KOODA, BILLY, 93, DOOWEE

Least Favourite Track: MOOKY

Score: 5/10

Image result for little dark ageMGMT – Little Dark Age

The indie-pop duo returns with their fourth studio album, a pretty fun, occasionally humorous and surprisingly dark set of breezy, psychedelic synthpop tracks. The band offers some critiques of modern society disguised behind some maddeningly catchy pop hooks, pointing the finger not only at others but themselves as well. Working with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, many of these tracks assert their slightly off-kilter position and somber lyrical content with the slightest uneasy twinges in the instrumental, revealing the lurking foreboding warnings underneath the shimmering pop veneer. Frontman Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice is as calm and soothing as ever.

We open with the hilarious “She Works Out Too Much”, which intersperses the happy yet disengaged voice of a workout tutorial instructor behind lyrics of a relationship not “working out”. The relationship in the song is described on the surface as legitimately failing because of the man’s disdain for exercise, but the catchy female voice delivering that hook contrasting with VanWyngarden’s existential crises in the verses reveals something else. “He didn’t work out” – his issues – “enough”. It’s a great build up to the chaotic conclusion, a frantic saxophone roaring in. These tracks are frequently driven by pulsating synth patterns, pushing themselves to the forefront ahead of the vocals. The title track delves into an area of synth-funk, snapping into a decisive minor chord at the end of the chorus as VanWyngarden delivers some confessional lyrics about depression.

I didn’t realize how dark the album really is until “When You Die”, which plays off this dichotomy perfectly. It’s genuinely shocking when you hear such a pleasant voice declare “Go f*ck yourself” in monotone, kickstarting a chorus where he contemplates suicide and happily declares “It’s permanently night” at the end. The track contains genuinely the most cheerful melody on the whole project. Later on, the band criticizes dedication to electronics and dives into political commentary with the beautiful closer “Hand It Over”, the closest thing we get to dreampop – “The joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in”, VanWyngarden sings, the track culminating in a gospel-tinged singalong repetition of the title. The band can still write a soaring chorus – a sparkly synth pad and backing vocals support the celebratory “Me and Michael”, changed from the original “my girl” for the sheer purpose of ambiguity.

The chillwave sound has died down a bit, and MGMT still proudly carries the torch. It’ll be tough to get any of these tracks out of your head. It’s a great return to form, coming closer to the joys of the late 2000s tracks that catapulted them into the mainstream.

Favourite Tracks: Hand It Over, She Works Out Too Much, Me and Michael, When You Die, Little Dark Age

Least Favourite Track: One Thing Left To Try

Score: 8/10

Image result for victory lap nipseyNipsey Hussle – Victory Lap

The veteran West Coast rapper finally drops his debut studio album, abandoning his dedication to numerous mixtapes. He continues his partial revival of the G-funk sound on this project, bridging the gap to the modern era with some more trap-oriented sounds. Spanning over an hour, Hussle clearly had a lot to say saved for a debut project of this magnitude, but not all of it connects. His delivery and lyricism are his strong suits much more than his flow, and quite a few of these tracks can slip into filler territory by extending themselves past their welcome without much of a catchy, driving rhythm to keep them going. Hussle brings out some impressive guests in fellow Californians YG and Kendrick Lamar, even getting an appearance from Sean Combs himself. It’s a lot of content, but not enough of it sticks.

Production is handled mostly by underground west coast duo Mike & Keys, who broke out with a hit in G-Eazy’s “Him & I” this year and do a great job of emulating the old-school West Coast style despite the temptation to give into trends of today. “Last Time That I Checc’d” makes up for Hussle’s disinterested delivery with a bouncy synth bass instrumental that sounds like it could be a classic E-40 track. The homage to the past continues on “Hussle & Motivate”, one of the album’s best tracks, in which Hussle settles into the flow nicely over a slowed down sample of Jay-Z’s classic “Hard Knock Life” instrumental. The ordering of the album can be confusing, most of the weaker tracks present at its beginning. The back half meets expectations pretty consistently, Hussle sounding more urgent – “Status Symbol 3” is carried by a great melodic hook from Compton rapper Buddy and a harder-than-usual beat pattern that Hussle adapts to with a faster flow. Many of these tracks take the form of a long, winding story, Hussle speaking about his tumultuous upbringing and rise to the top, hence the title “Victory Lap”, and these streams of consciousness can be quite compelling.

Hussle doesn’t develop nearly enough of a distinct personality despite the expansive runtime he had to do so. When guests appear, especially Kendrick Lamar on “Dedication”, Hussle clearly attempts to emulate their styles in order to make the track sound more cohesive, but I really wanted to hear more of his own artistry in a world quickly becoming inundated with rap as its top genre. It’s a perfectly solid project without much obviously wrong with it, there’s just not enough to make me pay attention.

Favourite Tracks: Hussle & Motivate, Status Symbol 3, Keyz 2 The City 2, Dedication

Least Favourite Track: Succa Proof

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tove Lo, Walk The Moon)

Image result for walk the moon what if nothingWalk The Moon – What If Nothing

Walk the Moon’s third studio album and first since exploding with their 2015 hit “Shut Up and Dance” is a mixed bag that sees the band attempting to both recapture lightning in a bottle and pay homage to their beginnings as a rock band, both tasks not receiving the full extent of their focus and neither being performed to their greatest effect.

I prefer the pop material on this project to some of the off-kilter decisions they make when the guitars roar back in. “Headphones” juxtaposes frontman Nicholas Petricca’s shouted rap vocals and terrible lyrics with rapid-fire guitar solos for chaos that never clicks together. The ordering of the album is very strange in this regard – the band switches back and forth between this and tracks like “One Foot”, an incredibly bland pop song that brings back the marching-band drum tempo, rapidly syncopated one-note vocals and gang vocals reminiscent of their biggest hit.

The band haven’t lost their touch entirely, however – opening track “Press Restart” is legitimately a great pop song, as the effect of the band showing restraint for once is shown, the track beginning quietly and culminating in the explosion the band is known for. The main hook is catchy, and when all the elements they introduce finally click together, we get the sense of euphoria the band is clearly trying to achieve. The harmonies on “All Night” are a surprise in new wave bliss, as the band displays their highest level of musicality, Petricca sounding engaged in the music instead of trying his hardest to create a hit song.

The main problem What if Nothing suffers from is a lack of originality. The album stretches to nearly an hour’s length, and too often I just feel like I’m listening to retreads of “Shut Up And Dance” that aren’t as immediately impactful, a band desperately trying to achieve stadium status but lacking the songwriting ability and creativity to connect on that level. All of these songs blend together – and this review is a bit shorter because it’s tough to distinguish them enough to write in specificity. They have the ability – “Sound Of Awakening” is a 6-minute shifting, changing experiment in vocal effects that actually goes over pretty well, but opted to be safe instead.

Favourite Tracks: All Night, Press Restart, Sound Of Awakening

Least Favourite Track: Headphones

Score: 4/10

Image result for tove lo blue lipsTove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]

Tove Lo’s third studio album comes shortly after last year’s largely inconsistent and disappointing Lady Wood, representing its second “phase” and a huge step up in quality. The production here is much more complex and engaging than its predecessor, as she finds all the best spots in her vocal range to move past the bland pop of last year. While the lyrical content can still leave a bit to be desired, sometimes its bluntness fits the overly sexual mold she has come to embody over the course of her career, the musical decisions here at time as bold as that album artwork.

Tove Lo works harder here to create an ambient, electronic world, frequently incorporating aspects of her own vocals into the instrumental to great effect, as it offers the quality of sonic intimacy, wrapped in her soft vocal tones, that the content of her music demands. “shivering gold” is an incredible track, building on extended, creeping low synth bass notes before exploding into a pulsating, syncopated chorus as she hits high notes I never knew she had in her between the rapid juxtaposition of synth stabs and tiny moments of silence. Some of the chord progressions here are clearly 90s inspired, slower tracks like “dont ask dont tell” offering an intoxicating piano melody straight out of a slow dance in a teen movie.

On Lady Wood, her vocals were secondary to overproduction, but the mix here is greatly improved without the instrumental getting any less bombastic – you can tell because for once, you are paying attention to her every word, her sultry vocals drawing you in. “bitches” packs so much fun into its brief 2-minute runtime, Tove Lo swinging her vocals over a prominent rock and roll drumbeat and woozy synths in the background, while closer “hey you got drugs?” is her most emotional track yet – she stated she was crying in the studio in an interview and you can tell – her harmonized, anguished repetitions about a relationship’s end – “You won’t save the night for me” – are incredibly visceral.

Even so, lead single “disco tits” is a little too ridiculous for me. The spoken, repetitive vocals are just too awkwardly phrased and overtly sexual to be enjoyable despite that pounding, inviting instrumental. The album’s second half is a little weaker, the energy letting up on tracks like “romantics” where the production drops out for the lower-tempo verses, coming back with clichéd trap hi-hat rolls.

Still, Tove Lo’s melodies themselves are so much better than Lady Wood, the album much more sonically cohesive. Blue Lips is a step in the right direction, Tove Lo coming into her own in the experimental alt-pop scene.

Favourite Tracks: shivering gold, hey you got drugs?, dont ask dont tell, bitches, struggle

Least Favourite Track: disco tits

Score: 8/10