We return to my ongoing adventure into electronic music. Now one of the biggest conversations of this year has surrounded where electronic music is going. The EDM scene is officially mainstream, hip-hop producers are pushing boundaries for weirder and more experimental beats, often drawing upon the ground many electronic producers helped level, and some of the legends of the industry have taken steps to crystallize their own sound. Aphex Twin returned after years of working under other names to the sounds he helped define, Brian Eno worked with Karl Hyde on two wildly different records, and across the industry we've seen producers either drift towards modern popular trends or drag the mainstream kicking and screaming into all sorts of weirdness. For me as something of an outsider to the genre, it's been fascinating to watch, even if I'm not sure how long it will remain popular in the long term. So I figured I'd dip back into that wretched hive of scum and villainy - and by that I mean Pitchfork - and find a record to really challenge myself, and that's where I came across Objekt. Stage name of German producer TJ Hertz, he began making serious buzz when he started releasing singles around 2011, not so much renowned for melodic construction but for phenomenal mix balance, depth, and texture. And what immediately gripped me by singles like 'Tinderbox' was the sense of contrast: there was a warmth to the crackle of the mix and the percussion that belied the echoing chilly synthesizer leads and samples and the thick swell of the bass. It felt organic and yet almost clinically measured, and it was compelling enough that I had to check out his debut album Flatland. What did we get?
Okay, I've gone on record as being more tolerant of pop-flavoured country music than most. I've given good reviews to Keith Urban's shift towards a more pop-flavoured direction, I didn't mind the new album from Dan + Shay, and hell, Lucy Hale's Road Between is probably going to go down as one of my favourite albums of the year. But let me stress that there is a line for me, a tipping point when the pop seems to overtake the country so obviously and instead of just outright making pop music - which I would not have a problem with - they try to hide it with painfully thin country flourishes. You get fragments of acoustic instrumentation - none of it with any texture - hidden behind such obvious electronic effects that feel plastered together to disguise how thin and weightless the music really is. And believe it or not, this has happened before. The sleepy pop country of the mid-80s, the Shania Twain-driven wave in the late 90s, and today, in the era of percussion over melody, EDM, and everyone trying to wedge a rap cadence into their pop song, it's happening again. Some have called it the era of the monogenre, but I'd argue it's all just pop music that's pretending to be more than it is, which to me reflects something a lot worse. As someone who likes pop, country, and most of what's in between, it gets exasperating when pop music co-opts country aesthetics to hop on a trend instead of trying to blend the sounds in a way that feels cohesive or reflects an interesting artistic vision. And with all that, we come to Sam Hunt - and at first glance, he did show some promise, as he cowrote 'Cop Car' by Keith Urban and 'We Are Tonight' by Billy Currington, two songs I'd argue are the best of their respective albums. But early impressions of Sam Hunt from his smash single 'Leave The Night On' were not good - not because it was offensive or obnoxious, but because it screamed of the most sterile country-flavoured pop I've ever heard, complete with drum machines, a rapping cadence for the chorus, and lyrics straight out of the hook-up brand of pop-flavoured bro-country. In other words, I did not have a lot of hope for his debut album Montevallo, but when I started hearing positive remarks surrounding the album's songwriting... well, I had to take a look. What did I find?
Goddamn, this album was sweet. Seriously, get this record, it's one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. Okay, next up I'm hearing some interesting things from that Sam Hunt album, but I don't have high hopes. Besides, this Objekt album is intriguing the hell out of me, so it'll probably be next - stay tuned!
It's always a little unnerving going into album sequels - especially when those sequels aren't just to great albums, but records that I and many other critics would hold as some of the best of the year. And no, I'm not talking about Lil Wayne's Tha Carter V, which he unsurprisingly delayed, moving it to a week when it wasn't going up against the monolithic sales of Taylor Swift. I'm talking about an album from a duo that chose to leak the album for free, a rap duo whose unlikely pairing was greeted with apprehension last year and now has built to being one of the most heavily anticipated records of 2014. Yep, I'm talking about Run The Jewels 2, the followup album to the self-titled first record from El-P and Killer Mike, the former an underground producer and rapper known for rhymes as layered and complex as his beats, the latter a member of Dungeon Family know for hard-hitting wordplay and a dominant presence behind the microphone. The pairing might have seemed odd in 2013, but when Run The Jewels dropped, the pairing made too much sense and ended up being my favourite hip-hop album of last year - and I wasn't the only one giving it that acclaim. And yet I have to admit, I was concerned about Run The Jewels 2. It was a follow-up to an incredible record full of fantastic wordplay, and it set the expectations dangerously high. And coupled with a list of guest stars that included Zack De La Rocha from Rage Against The Machine, Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia, Diane Coffee known for working with Foxygen, and acclaimed drummer Travis Barker, this record looked like something special - but could it match its predecessor in terms of wordplay and production?
Can't imagine how this video will be controversial at all... Well, anyway, next up will probably be Run The Jewels on Wednesday, and maybe another review along with it. Busy tomorrow night. Either way, stay tuned!
It's hard as a critic for me to talk about Taylor Swift.
See, when she burst onto the scene in the late 2000s, I had conflicting feelings on her. On the one hand, I found her songwriting sloppy and lacking depth, I found her instrumental compositions to be a little uninspired, and she didn't exactly stun me with incredible vocals. On the other hand, she had a knack for solid hooks, a fair amount of charisma and personality, and her songs had a real sense of honest populism to them. They felt clumsy, but it was authentic and came from a place of reality for Taylor Swift and her legions of fans could identify with that. And with her album Speak Now, it seemed like she was going even further in that country-flavoured direction and her songwriting was slowly getting more refined.
And then something happened. Some have blamed her, some have blamed her label head Scott Borchetta for bringing on Max Martin and Shellback, but Red was a 180 from the depth and more mature songwriting of Speak Now, going for a flagrantly pop focus that mirrored the sell-out of her spiritual predecessor Avril Lavigne in starting in down-to-earth, detail-heavy, authentic songwriting and who had no idea how to age artistically. And I'll be blunt - I really did not like Red when I reviewed it on my blog two years ago and drew that exact same parallel. Looking back on it now... well, the album was transitional. It was partially filled with the country-flavoured songwriting I appreciated, but it was also very clear she was going to go in the pop diva direction - which on every level did not strike me as a good choice. Her greatest strengths in her songwriting was detail and relatability, and she was going to throw it out for songs that emphasized and reveled in a shallow worldview that flew in the face of any artistic growth or maturity? You don't get songs like 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together', 'The Lucky Ones', '22', and especially 'I Knew You Were Trouble' if you're maturing artistically.
But whatever, she's going for pop now - I can roll with that. But I did not know what to expect coming from her new album 1989, reportedly inspired by the pop music of that year. And having gone back to look at that year, 1989 was a terrible year for the pop charts, where the biggest artists were Chicago, Paula Abdul, Bette Midler, Milli Vanilli, Richard Marx, and plenty of others peddling easy-listening schlock. Now of course Taylor Swift is obviously saying she's drawing more of her influences from Madonna, who did have a good year in '89, but every female pop star pulls from Madonna and Taylor Swift always struck me as a lot closer to Debbie Gibson, who charted higher than Madonna that year anyway. That said, Taylor Swift said she was also drawing influence from Annie Lennox, who most people probably remember most from her work with the Eurythmics - which, okay, that's interesting. And when you start digging into the songwriters working with her, you get Max Martin and Shellback, but I also saw writing credits from Jack Antonoff, the guitarist of fun. and frontman of Bleachers, and Imogen Heap, two artists who dropped some of my favourite albums of this year. So I had to check out 1989 and I honestly hoped for the best - sure, I didn't like 'Shake It Off', but there had to be more here than that, right?
I've talked about in the past how indie rock musicians tend to have several bands and side-projects firing at once, some in the hopes that one will actually strike gold, and some because they have different musical ideas and genres they want to explore. But indie rock did not invent this phenomenon by any stretch, and if you want to look at where it's probably most prevalent, you need to look at punk. And the story of this band begins around two decades ago in the exploding punk and indie scenes of the 90s, particularly surrounding feminist-themed riot grrl. The first important band of the scene was Sleater-Kinney, the critically beloved band full of explosive energy and who were way more mature and intelligent than most punks of their scene. They released several essential albums throughout the 90s before fading away gracefully in the 2000s to go on hiatus. The second important act of the time was Helium, an alt-rock act that would come to be fronted by Mary Timony, an eclectic singer-songwriter would bounce around a fair bit, the tepid reception of Autoclave to a few solo efforts that really didn't go anywhere. And in the late 2000s, all of their careers appeared to have stalled out somewhat, at least in music. Carrie Brownstein was focusing on the cult comedy show Portlandia, Janet Weiss was doing work with Stephen Malkmus and Conor Oberst, and Mary Timony was working on one of many side projects. Yet in 2010, with keyboardist Rebecca Cole of The Minders, they managed to pull together into the supergroup Wild Flagfor a self-titled album, and it seemed like a second life had been breathed into their careers, especially considering Brownstein used her TV show to give the band visibility most indie rock acts never got. The album was critically acclaimed for damn good reason, and from there, it seemed like anything was possible. And yet the success of Wild Flag was short-lived, as it was announced that Sleater-Kinney would be reuniting for a comeback record next year. Undaunted, Mary Timony called up Laura Harris, formerly of Aquarium, and Betsy Wright, formerly of Fire Tapes and Childballads for a new group called Ex Hex, named after one of her solo albums and in record time, a debut album was ready, called Rips. And let's be fair, there were some real expectations for this band, given Mary Timony's knack for melodic riffs and deftly textured songwriting. So what did we get with this?
Forgot to post this last night, but still a solid album that's worth your consideration. Check it out! Next up... Christ, next week is bonkers. Taylor Swift, Run The Jewels, and Lil Wayne (provided he doesn't delay his album again). Either way, it's going to be nuts - stay tuned!
So here's a fun challenge: name an African musical act. (Die Antwoord) Okay, now name one that actually has charted or has a hope in hell of charting in America. If you start looking through the Billboard charts, you'll find that that list is pretty damn small. Music from around the world already has limited representation on the American charts outside of Canada and the UK, and from Africa you can change the qualifier from 'limited' to 'barely any'. And yet this year that changed with an act that burst onto the scene with eclectic instrumentation, a decidedly unique textured sound that was unlike anything else on the charts, and an uncanny knack for lodging itself in our subconscious. And of course, the act I'm talking about is KONGOS, a South African-based act that dropped their debut album in 2012 and it took well over a year and a half for their biggest hit 'Come With Me Now' to crash onto our charts, particularly in Canada where it broke the Top 10. But I can bet that was not the act the majority of you were thinking about, was it? No, if you asked what music landed on the charts that had a decidedly 'African' vibe, you would have said Nico & Vinz and their song 'Am I Wrong'... and really, you'd have been half-right. Nico Sereba is Norwegian-Ivorian and Vincent Dery is Norwegian-Ghanaian, and it's clear that they draw much of their influences from African worldbeat music, but the song has more than a few hallmarks of their Norwegian synthpop background as well, which gives it a decidedly odd vibe from a production standpoint and a song that I've been trying to make sense of for months now. In other words, I had to know more, so I made it a priority to check out their first credited album as Nico & Vinz, Black Star Elephant. What did I find?
I think if I remember 2014 for anything when it comes to my music criticism career, it'll be for two things. The first is turning me around on R&B - it was never really a genre I had embraced before, but with the rising tide of it in the mainstream and some genuinely great albums, I've come to appreciate it a lot more. And the second would be my exploration of electronic music. I suspect to some extent this will continue to be an ongoing process, as I'm still working on getting a grip on how to write at length about acts that don't really use a lot of lyrics, but with every release, it's getting easier, especially when the acts have a knack for experimentation that can drive a lot of conversation. Case in point, Flying Lotus, the stage name of L.A. producer Steven Ellison. His career originally kicked into motion with his second album Los Angeles in 2008, but his real success would come from the gleaming, eclectic, and generally pretty damn awesome Cosmogramma in 2010. And even coming from a guy who doesn't tend to love electronic music, that album gripped me immediately with its aggressively textured and detailed percussion, its masterful layered melodies on both synthesizers and classical instrumentation, and the off-kilter twists that suggested more than a passing influence of jazz fusion. Every listen revealed more fascinating twists that hid moments of genuine beauty in the details, not to mention some fantastic grooves that some artists would have elongated into entire songs alone. It's a genuinely thrilling album to listen through, and thus I'll admit I wasn't quite as gripped by his 2012 follow-up Until The Quiet Comes. It was a more restrained record, with more jazzy elements and more guests, but to me it lacked some of the flair, some of those transcendent and gorgeous moments that defined Cosmogramma so well. Plus, the more languid pace made some of the more grating moments drag on longer than they really should. But all of that wasn't going to put me off checking out Flying Lotus' newest record, You're Dead! And at first glimpse, it looked like something of a different animal, swapping out vocals from Thom Yorke for verses from Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. So what happened here?
You know, the more I think about it, the more I'm a little amazed how long T.I. has managed to sustain his clout even today. Sure, in the very beginning he delivered some star-making records and proved instrumental in defining the trap scene in southern hip-hop, playing off a dual persona that proved to be a surprisingly versatile element in sustaining his career. It helped he had a lot of sleazy yet easy-going charisma and an adaptable, elastic flow that balanced off strong, hook-driven production. Sure, lyrically he could come across as a bit of an asshole, but he was the sort of character that produced such catchy, bombastic music that along with Ludacris he soon developed a tight grip on southern hip-hop. But with the image and lifestyle came legal troubles, and T.I. was soon stuck in the position of trying to fix up his image. He dropped his most pop-friendly album ever with Paper Trail in 2008, which proved to be one of the biggest of his career but also was uneven in terms of solid quality. After a stint in jail, he came back with No Mercy, which despite some standout tracks was even more uneven in terms off quality. In retrospect, the problem seemed to be very simple: there wasn't a balance between T.I.'s personas, and whenever that balance got skewed, the albums worked less and less. So when T.I. came back near the end of 2012 with Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head, it seemed like a welcome return to form. Most the production was back on point, T.I. sounded more invested in delivering quality wordplay than ever before, and he managed to wrangle together a cohesive sound. Sure, not all of the features turned out and his subject matter hadn't really evolved, but it's not like I was expecting that either. But instead of following up with that project with its planned sequels, T.I. looked to be even more ambitious and with his new album Paperwork proclaimed it'd be the beginning of a new trilogy. And look, as much as I liked Trouble Man - not better than King or Trap Muzik but it was still solid, I wasn't exactly enthused going into this release. Sure, I still hold that Paper Trail was a decent album, but did we really need a follow-up? And with singles like 'No Mediocre' where his protege Iggy Azalea was dropping more well-structured bars than T.I. was, I didn't know what to expect from the reportedly collaborator-swollen Paperwork Did we get something of quality, or a regression?
Last year when I wrote about the excellent debut album from Savages Silence Yourself - an album that landed on my year-end list of the best albums of 2013 - I talked about my odd introduction into post-punk, which wasn't through an old music collection or friends or an angry white boy phase, but two scattered collections of punk songs, singles and deep cuts. Since then, I've had a much greater chance to delve into the subgenre over the past year in my spare time, partially through hanging out on the edges of the dwindling goth scene in Toronto and half through increasingly deep dives into obscure music that has never touched the charts and only gets acclaim on - you guessed it - sites like Pitchfork. And this time we'll be talking about Iceage, a Danish punk/post-punk act that immediately became a critical darling upon the release of their first album New Brigade in 2011. And really, it's easy to see why - not only was every member of the band younger than me, they had a knack for hard-edged melodic grooves and extremely explosive drumwork that brushed against hardcore but then was tempered with gothic lyrics that weren't so much angsty but bringing a certain brand of visceral, descriptive bleakness that was unsettling in its own right. They followed that album a year later with the more personal and much meatier record You're Nothing, which took the gothic edge of their debut and honed it much finer, striking directly at human insecurities and everything people do to conceal them, not shying away from putting themselves directly in the line of the fire. It was their first record on Matador - the same label as Savages, unsurprisingly - and it was a natural fit. That being said, I've never been a huge fan of Iceage - I sure as hell respect them, but their occasional choice to sacrifice great melodic grooves for a tempo change or out of nowhere breakdown occasionally frustrated me. Yeah, I know they're a punk act, but when the songs they do write are so strong, breaking them apart in that way kind of irked me. That said, I wasn't surprised when the critical acclaim started pouring in for their newest album Plowing Into The Field Of Love, so I made sure to give it several listens - how did it turn out?
Let's talk briefly about hip-hop magazines - I say briefly, because at this point, many of them are teetering on the point of irrelevance, especially in print. But the odd thing is that it didn't use to be like that at all - I can remember within the past ten to fifteen years when ratings from publications like XXL and The Source held influence and power and used to be the go-to for people to get hip-hop exclusive news. Hell, I remember Eminem's beef with former co-owner of The Source Benzino, where he wrote some of his most infamous diss tracks like 'Nail In The Coffin'.
But now? The Internet has blown the hip-hop conversation wide open, between established music criticism sites, blogs, and - of course - channels like yours truly. And what this means is that the 'old guard' has needed to do something to maintain a vestige of relevance and hip-hop 'cred' - and this takes us to XXL's Freshman List. Now if you're a hardcore hip-hop fan or if you have your ear to the ground, you likely consider the list a complete joke, a flailing attempt by XXL to get a handle on what new acts in hip-hop could break out and become mainstream success stories, to be the guys that called it first. But let's be honest here: I'm not really part of the readership of XXL, and for less-invested hip-hop fans, I can see a certain degree of value in the list, and it's almost always a solid signal boost for the artists in question. And while artists like A$AP Rocky have turned them down, I'm not too proud to admit that I've found MCs I might have otherwise missed that have managed to surprise me from this list.
So on that note, let's talk about one of them: Logic. He started releasing mixtapes in 2010 and built some pretty strong buzz, but he was one of those artists I've always had a bit of a hard time getting a grip on. Yes, he definitely has a solid flow and he's got good bars, but I had a hard time getting a grip on him on a unique rapper. His first Young Sinatra tape did a fair bit to show a lot of sides to his personality and some of his personal idiosyncrasies, but on following tapes he aimed to diversify his sound and draw more of a mainstream hip-hop audience and it didn't always feel as cohesive as an album whole with the more lyrical oldschool tracks. And while I didn't dislike his mixtapes, I always found them a little uneven in terms of content - although that was more of an issue with Undeniable than Welcome To Forever, which I did think was better better. But I figured, 'Hey, when he works to create a fully cohesive album', it'd probably have more cohesion or a more defined style', so I was very interested in his major label debut from Def Jam titled Under Pressure, especially considering the fact there was no credited features on the standard edition of the album - so how did it go?
I've written in the past that it's hard to discuss legends. Especially legends that have come to shape so much of modern music to the point where some critics describe revisiting their old classics as 'vintage'. And for me personally, it's even harder when the genre is electronica, an musical genre that I'm only beginning to peel into in any significant way outside of specific offshoots like trance. To go back to the source is more than a little intimidating, especially if you have the uneasy feeling that a mob with pitchforks and torches will set you on fire if you don't throw out critical acclaim. So on that oh-so-comforting note... Aphex Twin. The stage name of the man with three first names Richard David James who used the Aphex Twin name among several others, his first release was a compilation of ambient mixes he had recorded from '85 to '92 - and surprise surprise, it's excellent. Even though on that album you can hear the sounds that would come to dominate so much of modern music, Aphex Twin had the twin advantages of good melody and even better texture, taking sounds that might be considered 'vintage' now and still crafting memorable and potent songs. And yet with Selected Ambient Works Volume II, some of that texture evaporated into a set of sparse, underweight and underwritten melodies that lacked presence even for ambient music and went on a good ninety minutes longer than they should have, even though it did get a fair bit better in its second half. Fortunately, that texture came back for 1995's ...I Care Because You Do and especially for the spiky yet beautifully melodic 1996 Richard D. JamesAlbum, a record that even today has a decidedly unique sound with the blend of strings, slightly off-kilter synth tones, and drill-like percussion, and has held up incredibly well. Then came 2001's Drukqs... and here's the thing, I'd argue about half of that double album works incredibly well - experimental, drill & bass inspired production that holds up as innovative even today, and there are some phenomenal melodies that are utilized across that record that I really love. But there are also more tracks that go on longer than they should and the harpsichord interludes really did wear out some of their welcome. And from there, James decided to take a long break from using the Aphex Twin moniker until a Kickstarter campaign to reclaim the old, unreleased record Caustic Window from a record collector showed a great deal of popular interest still in his work. And to some extent that catalyzing incident is important, and was indicative of what might be on the record - we probably weren't going to be getting the insane, eclectic experimentation, but a piece that was sure to be a crowdpleaser for long-time Aphex Twin fans. Did we get that?
I haven't thought about The Game as a rapper in... damn, probably three years now, when I wrote a review of The R.E.D. Album back when I was doing these reviews on Facebook. It's been a long three years, so let's catch up, shall we? So, The Game. West Coast MC, gangsta rapper with a solid flow and some occasionally offbeat lyrics that allowed him to stand out in the crowded mid-2000s. He struck it big with two legitimately great albums in 2005 and 2006, mostly thanks to extremely solid, hook-driven production and an embarrassment of collaborating artists. In fact, if we're to consider The Game's career as a whole, one of his most distinguishing factors is his networking abilities and his Master P-inspired tendency to overload his records with guest stars - which hasn't always been the best of choices, because he frequently mishandles them or allows them to blow him off the stage, which started early with Eminem on The Documentary and has continued to happen whenever Kendrick Lamar or Common are invited on the record. But as the 2000s continued, The Game hit a serious rough patch. Between criminal charges, he released LAX in 2008 and the disastrously troubled The R.E.D. Album in 2011, the latter of which was a mess of epic proportions that only seemed to highlight The Game's inconsistencies in not only his own rhymes, but in his guest stars and his production. Thankfully, he managed to pull some consistency back together for Jesus Piece in 2012, but as an album trying to explore the dichotomy between being religious and still being a gangsta, it felt lightweight on actually reaching solid points. Because here's the thing: there's a reason I haven't really thought about The Game in three years, and that he's never really stood out to me as a rapper beyond a few great songs, some solid production, and his knack for calling everyone under the sun to guest on his records. So until I got a request for it, I had no idea The Game was dropping a new album this year, and honestly, I had no idea what to expect from Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf. I mean, there was no Kendrick Lamar verse to look forward to, but Freddie Gibbs was on the back half of the album, and surely that'd make up for the contributions from Chris Brown, Tyga, French Montana, 2 Chainz and Soulja Boy, right?
The time has come. I've been asked a number of times to weigh in one of the most 'iconic' duo in the short history of bro-country, the act most instantaneously recognizable by so many people as the main 'faces' of the genre. A duo that is responsible for the longest running #1 single on the country charts of all time, the instantly recognizable, mind-bogglingly stupid single 'Cruise'. And with the massive success of the remix of that song with Nelly, they managed to propel bro-country into the mainstream and have become singlehandedly responsible for how most of my generation perceives country music. Yep, the duo is Florida Georgia Line, loved by casual and bro-country fans and detested by pretty much everyone else, and as the only country critic on YouTube, my verdict IS... Eh, they're not bad. I've made the statement in the past that bro-country in and of itself isn't a bad thing, and there are gradations of quality within the subgenre. You get acts that do it well, and acts that screw it up, and unsurprisingly for being the biggest name in the format, Florida Georgia Line fall somewhere in the middle. Believe it or not, I didn't hate 'Cruise' when it first debuted and I still don't hate it, mostly because it's too blissfully moronic to hate. You don't always need intelligence to make good pop or country music, and 'Cruise' kind of worked for what it was. See, Florida Georgia Line had two big advantages in their favour: a ton of enthusiasm, and a certain amount of authenticity. They weren't exactly polished or had a lot of dignity, but you could tell they believed what they were selling and didn't really come across as obnoxious. That's why the remix of 'Cruise' and the Luke Bryan collaboration 'This Is How We Roll' left something of a sour taste in my mouth - they stripped away the country twang and replaced it with stiff drum machines and egregious Autotune, and while the original melodic structure of the songs held up, they lost a lot of flavour. Plus, nobody wants to hear Florida Georgia Line rap - ever. But that was last year, and you better believe I was curious to see how Florida Georgia Line would be able to translate the narrow shelf-life of bro-country into something that'd be able to last beyond the trend. And at first glimpse, it looked like the band would be able to pull it off, because the lead-off single 'Dirt' looked like it was going in a very different direction. But then I started to hear interviews from Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine and affiliated with Republic Nashville, Florida Georgia Line's label, that his comments surrounding the necessity for country to diversify was directed at everyone except Florida Georgia Line. The duo seemed to be getting a free pass to pump out more of the same, and thus I didn't know what to expect with their newest album Anything Goes - so what happened?
Ugh, I wanted this to be better too. It's what happens when your label rushes things, though, so I'm not precisely surprised. Okay, that Florida Georgia Line album has been in my sights for a while... stay tuned!
"This critic would like to begin this review with an acknowledgement that yes, he misinterpreted the song 'I Miss Her' on Jessie J's last record. It is not a song about a troubled same-sex relationship, but instead was about a family member suffering from a mental illness similar to dementia. No, he does not have the slightest idea how he could have messed that up, and he is very grateful to the many, MANY comments that felt the need to correct him on it. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming..." I honestly wish Jessie J was more famous than she is, at least on this side of the Atlantic. By now she's built an impressive stable of hit singles, most of which I've liked, and yet there's a considerable number of music critics who brand her as a Katy Perry wannabe, especially early on. And to me, it's been interesting to watch their careers in parallel on the changing landscape of the pop charts. Because let's be blunt, as the charts have shifted to more R&B than pop, it has not been a great year for Katy Perry, with 'Dark Horse', her worst single from Prism being the best performer mostly thanks to crossover airplay thanks to Juicy J's awful guest verse. Because in comparison to the arsenal of singles from Teenage Dream, 'Unconditionally', 'Birthday', and 'This Is How We Do' have not really been smash hits, both critically or commercially. But if anything, Jessie J has fared even worse. I thought Alive was a pretty decent album when I reviewed it last year, with good songwriting and performances but hampered by a lack of focus in instrumentation and production and some really sloppy guest appearances. But I'll be blunt, that record did nothing in North America, with most of the singles and chart success coming in the UK - and there's a reason for that, as the American version of the record was never released. Instead, a new album of material was thrown together in record time, featuring Jessie J's least number of writing credits to date. Now for me, that was grounds for a lot of concern - Jessie J's songwriting was one of the things I liked the most about Alive, and to see even more hands in the process for Sweet Talker was not exactly encouraging. But considering the shared opening single 'Bang Bang' with Ariana Grande has proven to be one of the strongest pop singles of the year, I figured it couldn't be that bad, right?
If any of you remember my reviews from 2013, particularly any where I talked about R&B, I may have mentioned that I didn't tend to be a huge fan of the genre, mostly tied to underwritten lyrics, songwriting topics that didn't really evolve, and - particularly in modern years - a brand of synthetic production that was really bleaker than the subject matter could support.
Well, this year seems to have been doing its best to crush my predilections towards the genre into rubble, because not only is R&B bigger than ever this year, there have been some genuinely great records in this vein. I've only warmed more to the FKA Twigs debut since I reviewed it, and Jhene Aiko's Souled Out is still one of my favourite albums of the year, mostly for proving all my preconceptions surrounding R&B nearly completely wrong in terms of songwriting, themes, and instrumentation. And considering that R&B - particularly female-fronted R&B, and especially the stuff drawing inspiration from the indie scene - has only gotten bigger this year, I figured that keeping my eye on the artists who actually land chart success could prove very interesting.
And sure enough, I started getting requests to cover Tinashe, a California-based R&B singer who I most recognized from - and I can't believe I'm going to mention this - Two And A Half Men, where she played Jake's girlfriend Celeste. Originally a member of the girl group The Stunners, she began making mixtapes from her home studio, which eventually caught the serious attention of RCA Records who signed her and overloaded her with the biggest producers in mainstream R&B and hip-hop. And with an album full of interludes and guest appearances, it looked to have a fair bit of ambition behind it too, so I gave it a couple listens - what did I find?
Let's talk about religion. As I've mentioned in the past, I'm Catholic, mostly practicing but to say my faith gets complicated from there is understating it. One thing I'm quite certain of is that my faith is my business, and nobody else's, and if religion operated on that level on a broader scale, we as a society would be much better off. And yet unsurprisingly, there's a whole subsection of the music industry devoted to music with strong Christian themes, a subsection of the industry that tends to get relentlessly snubbed, panned, or outright ignored by critics. And to some extent that's not a good thing - when you shut down the critical discourse and artistic conversation, art developed in that environment tends to develop insular tendencies without the slightest element of quality control. But to be fair to myself and other critics, it's not like we don't have good reasons for ignoring that particular subsection of music - putting aside the issue that elements of the fandom immediately perceive criticism of the music as criticism of not just the artist, but the religion as well, the production and instrumentation is often substandard, or in some cases outright derivative of other non-religious acts. And lyrically... look, religion has inspired some fantastic artists to write classic songs - Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, the list could go on - but in that particular subgenre can fall into two distinctive traps. The first is that much of the material is not willing to directly comment or criticize the faith that underlies it, which can lead to a serious lack of drama - after all, if the answer always can be provided by deus ex machina, you really undercut the tension, which tends to lead to the music coming across at best placid and at worst self-satisfied. And the second problem is evangelicalism - for a critic, it can get exasperating when the music's sole purpose is to preach or go political in a way that lacks nuance, especially when their answers loop back to a holy book that should be read allegorically and metaphorically rather than literally. What this also means is that, with rare exception, most Christian music never gets play on mainstream radio or the charts, and everyone tends to be okay with that. But at the same time, it's been a generally accepted rule that songs that are outright anti-religion don't tend to get a lot of airplay either - because let's face it, spitting in the face of people's faith without a certain degree of nuance is just as exasperating. So you can believe that I was surprised to see a song titled 'Take Me To Church' creeping up the lower half of the charts, a song fairly blunt in its 'losing my religion' metaphors when linking back to his complicated relationship. Now let me stress that this is a strong way to immediately grab my attention - strong single, intriguing content, doing something new - so I decided to check out his self-titled album. What did I find?
Man, it's nice to see Weezer pull something together. Not their best, but far from their worst. In any case, next up will probably be Hozier or Tinashe. Depends which gets the most requests over the next few hours, so stay tuned!
It's almost a cliche these days to begin a Weezer review talking about Pinkerton. Because let's be honest, it's an album that took Rivers Cuomo's band into a dark place that split critics and sent fans away in droves. Sure, the album is praised as a classic now, but it sure as hell wasn't when it was released, featuring abrasive production that some sardonic critics branded 'Pavement-lite' and lyrics that went to the uncomfortable dark recesses of Cuomo's mind, with all of its depression, absentee father figures, and myriad fears and insecurities about women. Coming off of The Blue Album, it was a massive change in focus, but keep in mind this was also 1996. Sure, the emo crowd of the time embraced Pinkerton, but the mainstream fans that came for 'Say It Ain't So' and 'Buddy Holly' and instead got 'El Scorcho' and 'Pink Triangle'? Once again, 1996 - even the Brit power pop of Oasis and Blur wasn't getting this explicit or off-kilter, and in a situation where the paradigm was shifting from Nirvana to Aqua, Pinkerton was unlike anything else. And its failure crushed Rivers Cuomo. He bared his soul to the world and the world spat in his face, so after a five year hiatus the band came back with the Green Album and the change was stark. Not only were the heavy shields of irony in place, but the loss of Matt Sharp's subtle bass harmonies and lighter than ever production meant the songs were all the more ephemeral and empty. For as good of a songwriter as Rivers Cuomo is - and let's make this clear, he can write great melody lines and is a solid songwriter in terms of lyrical poetry - but it was a mask. And nowhere was that more vivid than 'Beverly Hills', the successful Weezer comeback single that owed its airplay to the pop rock boom and nothing else because that song is one monster riff and that's it. It's a shockingly empty song - empty of ideas and soul, two things that Weezer used to have in spades. And from there, the next slew of Weezer albums fell into that mold, with only occasional flashes of brilliance to sustain the band as their output petered out at the end of the decade. And so I wasn't exactly surprised to see that Weezer was returning to the original well for their newest album Everything Will Be Alright In The End, a title making a statement to both Weezer fans and critics, the latter of whom had more than their fair share of reasons to be skeptical. And I have to admit, it was really damn hard to work up any excitement about a new Weezer record, even despite the reassurances from the band that 'No, really, it's going to be more like Pinkerton!' I hate to say this, but I'm not looking for another Pinkerton so much as I'm looking for Rivers Cuomo to actually say something that comes from some place real and not just empty artifice. Did that happen?
I haven't been looking forward to doing this review. Now some of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering, 'Wait, this is Jason Aldean, one of the biggest country stars in the industry. And not only that, he did it by not grafting himself to a major label, instead sticking with the indie label Broken Bow Records, and he's a major success for nearly a decade with massive sales!' And all of that is completely true... and yet, Jason Aldean has never really been a country star that has interested or impressed me, even at his best. Even though he's on an independent label, he uses the same Nashville songwriting machine that many of his major label counterparts do, and with his thinner voice halfway between Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert, I wasn't really immediately gripped by him as a performer, even if I did occasionally like the rougher edges of his production. It didn't help matters that he tended to have really poor choices for singles: his biggest off of his debut was 'Why' which paired a decent melody with a self-aggrandizing message of why he treats his girlfriend like garbage. He hit a stronger side with the southern-rock tinged 'Johnny Cash', but it's on that song where my other issue with a lot of Jason Aldean's work surface - his production always seemed a little flat and colourless to me. Not his melodic compositions, those were often pretty solid, but his guitar tones and compositions always felt a little dreary, especially with Aldean's lack of a real sense of humor. It definitely did not help matters that as the 2000s ended, Aldean fell into a lot of the southern pandering with songs like 'Flyover States' that always set my teeth on edge. And then came 2010's My Kinda Party, and the song that would redefine Aldean's career for the worse: 'Dirt Road Anthem', a slow-paced slog of a country rap song that featured Ludacris near the tail end of his commercial success and Jason Aldean rapping with no energy or passion whatsoever, and also managed to land on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2011. Yeah, his duet with Kelly Clarkson 'Don't You Wanna Stay' was good enough, but as Jason Aldean got bigger, his songs and public persona got less likable. 2012's Night Train brought in more aggressive and macho country-rap inspired tracks like the Luke Bryan and Eric Church collaboration 'The Only Way I Know' and the absolute atrocity '1994', and while songs like 'Night Train' felt sincere and catered well to Aldean's female fanbase, they didn't really stand out for me. And combined with a recent Billboard magazine cover story that only seemed to highlight his aggressive frustration for being one of the acts responsible for triggering all the elements of bro-country that piss me off: the macho posturing, the bad rapping, the inert 'rock-inspired' production, basically a country-flavoured brand of hair metal minus the cheesiness or shredding riffs... well, Jason Aldean did not put forward a good picture. And yet with 'Burnin' It Down', the opening single from Jason Aldean's newest album Old Boots, New Dirt, I didn't know what to expect for this new record, so while I didn't expect to like it, I figured that at least he was trying something different, right?
You know, the more you think about it, the more Blake Shelton looks like one of the luckiest guys in country music - because at first or even a second look, his career should have ended years ago. And that's not a slam against him, but as country music has evolved over the past decade, Blake Shelton has managed to ride the wave with uncanny ability. He started off the very viable 'easy listening country' mold with his debut in 2001, with the added benefit of having a few killer singles like 'Austin' to get his career going. From there, he coasted into rowdier material as the 2000s continued on, toeing the line between Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. And while he definitely racked up a fair share of hits on country radio, the mainstream didn't embrace him in the same way, and as the decade wore on, Blake Shelton seemed to fade into the background. So in a move that in all fairness should not have worked as well as it did, he signed on to be a judge on a little singing competition on NBC called The Voice. And almost overnight, Blake Shelton rocketed back into the starlight, and it's fairly easy to see why. Tim McGraw's career on Curb Records was sputtering, country had never been as ready for his brand of slick, well-produced music that could be corny as hell but was backed with real charisma, and The Voice did a lot to enhance his profile. Coupled with a marriage to the more talented and interesting Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton seemed to have all his stars aligned. Then came his 2013 album Based On A True Story... and that big hit single 'Boys 'Round Here', and it was the crossover smash for which Blake Shelton had been waiting. Even though that album really wasn't all that far removed from his typical midtempo material, Shelton latched onto the bro-country wagon for a monster single, and coupled with the fact he shot his mouth off on the subject more than he should, he seemingly became one of the biggest symbols of Nashville's embrace of bro-country overnight. But now it's 2014, the bro-country well has seemingly run dry, and while Blake Shelton was able to smoothly pivot back to his usual material, it left me curious where the hell he was going with his career. Let's face it, Blake Shelton isn't exactly a trailblazer in country, and with the country sound fragmenting even further, where did Shelton take his newest record Bringing Back The Sunshine?
Okay, when you become a music critic, you eventually realize that outside of the generally accepted musical acts that everyone is expected to know, there's also a list of critically acclaimed independent singer-songwriters that are beloved by huge chunks of the critical public, and yet your average music fan will never have heard of the majority of these acts. And in this case, there's a reason why they have never received the slightest bit of mainstream airplay - they're weird, they write uncomfortable songs with offbeat subject matter, they opt for eclectic instrumentation or production that is used to enhance the song's atmosphere over what many would deem traditionally accessible.
In other words, they fall into a category I like to call Pitchfork Approved Singer-Songwriters, or PASS for short, indicative of the common and frequently unfair response from everyone else. It might be hard for most to understand why critics love these acts, especially when they frequently display less polish, cohesion, or even visible talent in comparison with most, and thus it becomes a bit of a balancing act to sort out those who who might deserve said acclaim and those who can just play to that critical audience's sensibilities exceptionally well.
Perfume Genius definitely falls into that category. The stage name for Seattle-based singer-songwriter and baroque pop artist Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius broke into the indie scene with Learning in 2010, a gorgeously melodic record full of lo-fi fuzz, rattling pianos, and uncomfortably explicit songs that didn't shy away from controversial subject matter. And I get why he got the critical acclaim he did: despite the fact he wasn't a stellar pianist or singer, Hadreas brought a warmth and raw honesty to his material that felt authentic and real and balanced the real darkness in his songs quite well, filled with little details that really set a vivid scene and left plenty unspoken in the subtext. Now the risk with this sort of material is that the quickest way to raise the stakes is to go darker which can be an even trickier tonal balance, but Perfume Genius went in a different direction, instead exposing more vulnerability and more complicated portraits on his second album Put Your Back N 2 It, an album that wouldn't be out-of-place in today's indie scene with its cleaner production, focus on reverb, and heavier percussion - and like Lykke Li who would follow him, he made it work because of a continued focus on melody above all else even as the instrumentation got slightly more diverse. And with songs like the damn near transcendent title track, it's no surprise the album got the acclaim - it deserved it. And so now he's back with his third album Too Bright - would Perfume Genius be able to sustain his streak and sound, even as the indie scene has gotten more crowded with artists in his vein?
I'm starting to get the impression nobody in Lady Antebellum has the slightest damn clue what they're doing. Now I've talked about this band when I reviewed their album 'Golden' and much of that review was monopolized by the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac that everyone seems to place on this band. And the more I examined the comparisons, the less they seemed to fit - sure, the bands did a fair bit with the interplay between male and female singers, and yeah, they did start with a certain rough-edged authentic power before sliding towards a more pop-friendly direction. But Fleetwood Mac had a loose, rougher edge and they occasionally got weirder with albums like Tusk, a brand of off-beat weirdness that Lady Antebellum will never embrace, given their tendency for more traditional and safe subject matter and slick pop-friendly hooks and production while still staying firmly lodged in the relative security of country music acts like Little Big Town or The Band Perry. ...or at least that was what I thought was going to happen. The thing is that while Lady Antebellum have always firmly been lodged in pop country, the band has been looking more and more towards pop with every single since Golden with 'Downtown' and 'Compass', definitely a firm cry from their more reserved material like 'Need You Now'. And with the pseudo-rap delivery and very pop production of their leadoff single 'Bartender', I wasn't sure what to expect with their newest album 747, especially considering the lack of producer Paul Worley and frequent cowriter Eric Paslay, the latter being one of the biggest songwriting talents in country music right now. But I figured that Lady Antebellum has always delivered some measure of quality, so 747 was probably worth the look, right?