Well, this was a lot of fun... but let's face it, any rapper who can make that face while holding an adorable puppy has a good shot with me. On a different note, NxWorries and Jimmy Eat World soon, so stay tuned!
So I may or may not have said in the past couple reviews that the mainstream Hot 100 has sucked a fair bit in 2016. Sure, it's mostly getting better now but that's a slow process and it sure as hell isn't happening all at once. But one of the unrelenting bright spots has been the inexplicable success of the breakout single 'Broccoli' by D.R.A.M., Virginia rapper and the sort of immediately recognizable presence that mainstream hip-hop has really been lacking this year. And yet despite how much Lil Yachty nearly ruined that song, D.R.A.M. managed to outshine him - and I mean that beyond just a reflection on skill and personality. No, what D.R.A.M. brought with 'Broccoli' was positivity and energy, no doubt influenced by his association with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment and especially Chance The Rapper, which is where I've been recognizing him over the past eighteen months. And while there's a part of me that wishes Chance could have gotten to the top first as a more thoughtful MC, if it takes D.R.A.M. to throw the doors open, I'm definitely on board. In other words, I didn't quite know what to expect going into Big Baby D.R.A.M., but I had the feeling it would at least be fun, something that the desaturated monotone of most modern pop could definitely use. Hell, the only other guest stars besides Lil Yachty were Erykah Badu - okay - and Young Thug, and this would be the sort of lush upbeat production that I've been looking for Young Thug to rhyme against for some time now. So no more wasting time, how was Big Baby D.R.A.M.?
Well, it couldn't last. The past few weeks on Billboard BREAKDOWN, while not perfect, have at least shown a little more potential, but this week shows that crap has its own certain inertia - even though there are some positive signs, a lot of this week feels for every two steps forward we're taking one step back.
Man, I wish I liked this album a lot more... frustrating, because I know the backlash to this episode will probably be pretty intense. Lovely. Either way, I've got D.R.A.M. and NxWorries up soon, along with Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!
I remember when it seemed like for a few brief years, Lady Gaga was the biggest person in pop. She might not have had the most hits or the most critical acclaim, but she sparked conversation by her very presence and how 'weird' and crazy she was. And here's the thing: she really wasn't all that crazy, even with all the ridiculous rhetoric and outfits. I'm going to make a comparison that at first thought might not seem to make any sense: Lady Gaga reminds me a lot of Eric Church, the maverick country artist who remained within the mainstream but in recent years also built something of a reputation on being 'weird' that's proved hit-and-miss. And again, at least to me it doesn't seem that weird or strange for either of them, mostly because I get their type: they're music nerds, the type of people who study and examine music with an obsessive intensity that tends to alienate the mainstream. Both worked insanely hard at their craft, both wanted to be larger than life and worshiped icons like Springsteen who could pull it off, both were unafraid to cross and blend genres in ways that could be famously messy but nearly always unique, and at their very worst, both made a lot of music that was self-referential to the point of disappearing up their own ass. For Eric Church it was his 2014 record The Outsiders, but for as much as I dislike that album, it wasn't all self-focused myth-making, and he alleviated a lot of that sting by following it with Mr. Misunderstood a year later. Gaga, on the other hand, made ARTPOP. And look, I don't hate that record nearly as much as some people do - all of her work has been messy, with The Fame Monster being her most consistently strong record, but there have always been some stunning songs along the way. But ARTPOP remains her weakest record, for in trying to commercialize the art aesthetic without capturing the populism or avant-garde experimentation that could have given the album flair, it wound up trying to make more of a statement with attitude than content, and it didn't really get all the way there, not helped by hooks and writing that were far from her best. And so ARTPOP disappeared down the collective memory hole of pop fans, Lady Gaga went on to American Horror Story and an album of covers with Tony Bennett and wrote a song that should have won her an Oscar, and now she's finally back with Joanne. From what I had heard of the singles and writing, I was getting the impression this could very well be her Mr. Misunderstood, a tighter refocus on her core strengths as a tremendous performer and artist in her own right. And believe me, folks, I wanted this to be good: I didn't love 'Perfect Illusion' or 'Million Reasons'but 2016 in mainstream pop has sucked so badly that I had to hope Lady Gaga would pull something powerful together, right?
Well, this is bound to be an ugly situation... but then again, I'm not sure how the Kings Of Leon fans will love this, so who knows? Next up, I need some Anderson .Paak before Lady Gaga, so stay tuned!
There's a reason I wanted to do the Blackberry Smoke review before Kings Of Leon. Mostly as an active disclaimer for those who'll say I can't like or appreciate southern or alternative rock because I'm not a Kings Of Leon fan, whereas the reality with Blackberry Smoke is that they transcended the worst tropes of the genre while embracing the best. Whereas Kings Of Leon is one of those bands that seems to have gotten a pass from the mainstream public for entirely too long for one good song, that being 'Use Somebody'. And yeah, 'Use Somebody' is a good track, but I've now listened to the entire Kings Of Leon discography and trust me when I say they don't have many more. Part of this is because they tend to fall into the bad side of southern rock tropes when it comes to the writing - namely the majority of songs they've ever written about women - and yet don't play this sleaze with the swagger or bravado or even a sense of humor to even make that tolerable. That's part of the larger problem with Kings Of Leon in that they don't really have a distinct identity or intensity as a band - they aren't grounded in roots rock or country enough to completely embrace the southern rock label, they aren't rough-edged enough for punk or hard rock, and I was never impressed by their guitarwork enough to put them up with the anthemic strains of arena rock like U2. Combine that with vocals that could be very hit-and-miss, especially on their earlier albums, their complete sincerity which made their lyrics seem at best tonally inconsistent and at worst horribly self-obsessed, and their bizarre inability to end a lot of their songs properly, and you find a rock band that's too watered down for me to really care about. Now to be a little fair, there are ingredients of a good group here, especially in the basslines and some of the fast-paced blurry guitar tones, and their 2013 album Mechanical Bull wasn't bad, mostly courtesy of some tighter melodies and a slightly better grasp of melodic songwriting, but a lot of people I otherwise respect were giving their newest album WALLS a fair amount of praise. And while I didn't have high expectations... hey, it couldn't be that bad, right?
Man, this was so needed right now - although from the looks of things nearly every record I've given a 9/10 has some link to country, go figure. On a definitely less likable note, Kings Of Leon up next, so stay tuned!
If you saw my Whiskey Myers review about a month or so ago, you knew this was coming.
Hell, even if you didn't you probably would expect that I'd cover Blackberry Smoke's newest album, especially considering how much I liked their last album Holding All The Roses early last year. The compositions and grooves were tighter, their production was better than ever courtesy of legend Brenden O'Brien, and the lyrics showed the band taking southern rock tropes into fresh new directions that were a little more high concept, especially when the instrumentation got a little more experimental along the way. In short, it was easily Blackberry Smoke's best album to date...
And it also went to #1 on the US Country album charts. This is for a band, I should remind you, with no crossover singles or big radio push, and while you could give some credit to the release not facing huge competition, it also was another sign of the sea change that's been happening in country music, especially on the album charts. And keep in mind they hit #1 after leaving Zac Brown's Southern Ground label - they did this off an independent label, and that says a lot, especially in country. So when you hear that they're planning to follow it up with a record this year that they also produced themselves... well, I'm always cautious about this sort of thing, but I wasn't going to miss it, especially if they could keep up their momentum. So how does Like An Arrow shoot?
Are we really doing this? Okay, you all asked for it... So decades ago a record executive named Sam Phillips made the statement that if he could find a white guy who sang like a black man he could make a million dollars - and he was proven all too right by discovering Elvis. And sure, Elvis was a great singer and made some great music, but let's not pretend he was doing anything that black rock and roll artists hadn't been doing for years. And let's also not pretend this sort of thing has gone away with time - hell, look at the brief moment of success Iggy Azalea got in 2014. Look at how despite Eminem's wise decision to always pay tribute to the greats and his tendency to rip into his own whiteness in hip-hop as a sick joke, there are so many white boys who still consider him one of the greatest rappers of all time - and yeah, before I delved deeper into the genre, I was one of them. All of this was on my mind a lot when I started getting requests to cover JoJo, and for all of those of you who had a brief flicker of recollection before wondering where the hell you know that artist, let's go back to the mid-2000s. Keep in mind the Billboard charts were in a weird spot in 2004-2006, especially the pop scene which was transitioning from R&B's dominance to whatever might come next. As such, we got the indie rock boom, a brief swell of mid-tempo adult alternative, and in response to this most pop starlets were allowed to develop a bit more of an edge or texture. But R&B was still mostly dominant, so into this scene comes JoJo, a girl who is my age and yet dropped her debut album in 2004, when she and I were both fourteen. And you can tell by the way she was marketed to try and snag that sweet spot between pop and R&B, the teenage white girl that sang like a black girl - hell, she was signed to Blackground Records, one of the labels behind Aaliyah - and make no mistake, it worked. JoJo's self-titled debut album sold five million copies worldwide, and it wasn't because it was good or authentic. Yeah, that's the other unfortunate surprise about revisiting this material, not just because the production and writing have aged pretty badly, but because I didn't find Jojo that interesting or potent of a singer. She had pipes, but a lot of her material felt pretty cheaply produced, which didn't help any authenticity questions. So okay, that was the mid-2000s - it's been ten years, where has JoJo been? Well, after her follow-up album couldn't produce a single after 'Too Little, Too Late', she finished high school and then spent the next several years fighting with Blackground, which later went out of business. Granted, they gave her a shot with 'Disaster' in 2011 where she went full pop... and eh, both Kelly Clarkson and Demi Lovato were doing this sound better even then, even though it sounded like she had finally grown into her voice. But JoJo was still around - she dropped two mixtapes that picked up a little traction, and when she got picked up by Atlantic she released a few EPs that somehow picked up enough traction for a third album. And you know, in a strange sense it might have helped her to sit out the past ten years of pop - she wouldn't have fit well with the flashier divas of the early 2010s, and I have to admit there's a very small part of me that wouldn't mind seeing her explosive vocals make a comeback. Furthermore, unlike her previous albums she had the main writing credits on this record, and while you wouldn't find many name producers, this was a chance for a fresh start. I'll admit right out of the gate I wasn't interested at all when I started getting a tidal wave of requests, but the research I did got me intrigued, so how is Mad Love?
So this was way too much fun. No joke, I had more fun editing the 'meme' segment of this review than any other time I've edited a video - it was weird and zany and fun, I dug it! Might see more of it if more memes chart, I could do this Fantano homage pretty regularly (and yes, he did give me permission). Next up, JoJo, and then Blackberry Smoke, so stay tuned!
So this week was weird. I'm not going to say it was a bad week - it definitely wasn't, there's enough quality coming up new that I'm not going to call this precisely bad - but there are both shifts and new arrivals that extend all the way to the top ten that deserve some investigation, so this episode might run long, for as strange as things are...
Man, I really dug this. Was considering posting this and JoJo tonight, but this album is good and underappreciated enough that I'd prefer to give it the room and appreciation it deserves. But JoJo and Billboard BREAKDOWN coming up next, so stay tuned!
I can imagine even if you're a fan of independent country you likely won't recognize this name, especially if you're newer on this channel.
And really, that's a shame, but it's also to be expected. I found Karen Jonas effectively by accident, as her album Oklahoma Lottery was picking up some buzz among critics and pretty much nowhere else. And while I remember being startled when I covered the record in 2014, I'm not all that surprised nowadays, especially given the kind of uncompromising and occasionally bleak material that Jonas wrote. It's the sort of regional, sharp songwriter-driven music that doesn't shy away from telling hard stories, less concerned with the flash you normally see around Nashville and more with the message and presence. Sparsely produced, intense without being overbearing, textured and gritty without playing it as a gimmick, there's a reason why Oklahoma Lottery was one of my favourite albums of 2014, edging out some stiff competition to snag my year end list.
So you can bet in a year full of standout women in country, Karen Jonas' newest record Country Songs was definitely on my radar. Again, I wasn't sure if it was going to be a big breakthrough for her - her sort of grassroots following can be tough to translate, even if she did look to be stepping in with a lighter touch for this album - but hell, I wasn't going to miss this. So in a banner year for country music, how did Country Songs turn out?
I dunno what to say about this one, folks - I'm a little surprised how many people seemed to agree, given how much critical acclaim this record has received, but I guess more people were dissatisfied too... Anyway, Karen Jonas and JoJo (for some reason) are next, so stay tuned!
The last time I talked about Opeth, it got complicated. And it got complicated for reasons I find more than a little amusing, because for as much as I like progressive rock and metal, to say nothing of the production and mixing talents of multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Steven Wilson, I found the overall blend of it with Opeth in progressive rock and metal to be a little less inspiring than I liked, especially when I dug into Heritage and the 2014 album I reviewed Pale Communion. Paradoxically, going back through Opeth's discography I found records like the progressive and blackened death metal - a genre of which I'm rarely a fan - of albums like Still Life, Blackwater Park, and the twin release of Deliverance and Damnation. As such, while I like Pale Communion I haven't gone back to it in the same way, especially not in comparison with Steven Wilson's amazing solo project Hand. Cannot. Erase. last year in 2015. Two great tastes that don't always work together, it happens - Steven Wilson did contribute to their more aggressive side on those early 2000s albums, maybe they should have stuck with that instead of going full retro-prog. But it seems like Opeth themselves were looking to shift things up yet again. After four albums with Roadrunner Records, they left the label for Nuclear Blast for their newest album Sorceress, which looked to be infusing more of a metal flavour back into their material. More interestingly was the fact that Steven Wilson was nowhere near the production credits of the album, which hasn't been the case for Opeth in fifteen years. And as such, the critical reviews have suggested it's one of Opeth's best albums in years too, so I wanted to ensure I gave it full consideration... even if, again, it is a little late. So okay, what did we get with Sorceress?
So this whole endeavor came together pretty quickly and pretty damn well, if I should say so myself. Definitely take the opportunity to check out Ethan's content over on The LP Club - he's a smart kid and way more articulate and informed about music than I was at his age - he brought solid game here, I'd love to see his channel grow. On a different note, I'm still refining the Opeth review, but I also have Karen Jonas here as well, so stay tuned!
Well, this was disappointing...but on some level, are you all really surprised this is only kind of mediocre and pretty far from great, more derivative than anyone could have expected? You were? Yeah, so was I, so let's move on to an album nobody expected to be good and with a special guest along the way, so stay tuned!