For our full-length debut episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN, we actually have a pretty damn busy week on our hands, as it's the start of the Christmas season - which means in addition to our usual chart circulation, we also get a deluge of Christmas songs. Now I normally, by rule, never talk about Christmas music and albums, mostly because it never evolves or changes beyond a very standard formula - until now, mostly because the highest debuting song on the list is a Christmas song - from YouTubers too!
I'm a little surprised I haven't done a full-length review of any of Pitbull's albums, or really given an opinion on him besides just in passing. Let's change that, shall we? So, Pitbull. Miami-based rapper, started off in the southern crunk scene of the mid-2000s, he really hit it big during the club boom of the late-2000s, able to transition his limited wordplay with just enough charisma to take on the role of the club VIP. And for a while, Pitbull's continued success was mystifying to me, because not only was he racking up a respectable number of hits, he was also simultaneously restarting the careers of Latin stars like Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, and even Marc Anthony. And that's not counting hits he got with T-Pain, Chris Brown, Christina Aguliera, Usher, Ne-Yo, Ke$ha, the list goes on! Pitbull was like The Game of pop and EDM-flavoured hip-hop, the majority of his hits were on collaborations. And yet his lyrical content was so thin and interchangeable between track to track that it was baffling that he had managed to stick around even despite the complete implosion of the club boom. Well here's the funny thing - I've actually been to a Pitbull show when he was on tour with Ke$ha - surprise surprise, he's actually pretty good live despite the majority of his collaborators not being with him - and I noticed something about his audience: they were usually older or European. And then his chart longevity started making a little more sense. Say what you will about Pitbull, but he does have charisma and a unique presence, and since he's so thoroughly entrenched in his own lane and is thoroughly bilingual, and one of his most distinctive lyrical traits is his love of travel, it makes sense he'd attract that kind of audience, who likely wouldn't be as fickle as a younger, more trend-following fanbase. So okay, I get why he's stuck around, but does that make his material any good? Well for me, he's hit-and-miss, as he doesn't really compose album statements beyond heaps of radio-ready singles. So with that in mind, I figured it could be interesting to check out his newest record titled Globalization. What did we get?
Well, that was a waste of time. Ugh. Next up... well, not sure. Barely anything coming out around this time of the year, so time to catch up. I mean, I could cover Pitbull if I wanted a musical lobotomy... Wait, there's an album by Dallas Smith? Okay, this might require some deeper thought. Either way, stay tuned!
It's rare that artists release two records in the same year. It's even more rare that both of the albums are good, because if they aren't both incredibly solid, or even if they're both just merely good, maybe half an album apiece of good songs, you get naysayers - like myself - who say, 'Well, why didn't you just release one excellent album of material instead of two okay ones?' And that's if the albums are good. Instead, we have Rick Ross, who can be reasonably described as to have peaked in 2010 with Teflon Don and has struggled to maintain relevance, presence, and put out a half-decent album ever since. And ever since I reviewed Mastermind back in February, I've continued to struggle with what this guy's appeal is, with the closest thing being that he picks solid enough beats with a veneer of class to rap over, a wallow in decadence and Mafiaso imagery that's paper-thin and an obvious fantasy. But go beyond that and what do you find? He's not a technically skilled rapper, he doesn't tell interesting stories with grime or texture, he doesn't have the sense of humour of a T.I. or Ludacris or the creativity of a Big K.R.I.T. or Jay-Z, and outside of a deep voice, he just doesn't come across as that convincing in that gangsta role compared to artists like Jeezy or Freddie Gibbs or Pusha T. And let's be completely honest, outside of Mastermind going to #1 on the Billboard 200, this hasn't really been a great year for Rick Ross, at least in terms of the charts. His biggest song in 2014 will likely be the verse he dropped on that only kind of decent Chris Brown/Usher collaboration 'New Flame', and outside of that, what more need do we have for another Rick Ross album? He might say that's how 'bosses' do it, but if anything it screams of desperation. But I figured I might as well give Rick Ross one last chance - did we get anything new here?
I wish I had a better feeling about this album going into it than I did.
See, when I heard Eminem was talking about launching a collaboration album, I immediately had very real concerns, because I remembered when this happened eight years ago with Eminem Presents: The Re-Up, a record that had a few pretty decent songs but really was nothing all that special. I'll reiterate what I said back in March when I reviewed the Young Money compilation project, that these sorts of records are made for three purposes: reassert the strengths of the old talent; show some cool interplay across your label; and show off the new guys.
And yet Shady Records is in a bit of an odd position. In comparison with its other rap label peers, it's proved to have a shaky track record of establishing definitive new stars. Albums from Yelawolf and Slaughterhouse proved to be non-starters even despite their very real talent, and while the Bad Meets Evil project was the biggest shot of adrenaline to Royce de 5'9'''s career possible, the last EP Hell: The Sequel hasn't exactly been a record I've really revisited outside of maybe one or two songs. That's not saying I wouldn't enjoy the wordplay of records like Shady XV, but I definitely did not have high expectations.
And there were other issues too, with the lead-off single 'Guts Over Fear' being one of the Eminem's least interesting opening singles for a project ever, and while I understood bringing on Sia and Skylar Grey for hooks, why the hell was Danny Brown, DeJ Loaf, Trick Trick, and Big Sean on this album? Sure, I get it, Detroit rappers, but wouldn't it make more sense to stick with your label if you're looking to push them? And while I get putting money behind Danny Brown and DeJ Loaf, Trick-Trick hasn't been relevant in years and Big Sean shouldn't be relevant, period. And the fact that this album was also being included with a disc of former Shady Records 'hits', most of which are from artists who are no longer signed, screamed of either Interscope's interference to guarantee their investment, or pure desperation.
But you know, this is Eminem, and even though his track record has been inconsistent, he's still got a solid group of rappers behind him, so this might be pretty solid, right?
Really excited about this turned out, and really psyched for the new series. Might mean I need to tune back the album releases a little, but cutting the chaff is always a good thing. Plus, this'll give me something to do in the slower seasons. In any case, stay tuned!
Since 1959, Billboard magazine has published a list of the top 100 songs in the United States. Many other publications have competed against them, but for decades the Billboard Hot 100 has reigned supreme, chronicling the popular songs through sales, radio airplay, and recently the rise of streaming and YouTube. These are the songs that have captured the cultural zeitgeist, for several months or for just a minute. And while a select few will rise to reach that history-defining year-end list, there's a whole load of tracks that will miss the cut or go unexamined... Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Billboard Breakdown, a new series where every week I will be taking a look at the Billboard Hot 100 chart in detail. Those of you asking for singles' reviews, here's your chance for me to grant your request. This new show will have three parts. The first will be examining the "cream" of the crop, the Top 10, where we'll be talking about what the movements in that select group. After all, it's these tracks that have the best shot of making that year end list, and I'll be talking about how and why these tracks behave the way they do. Next up is an examination of our big movers, the songs moving by increments of ten or more. These are the tracks that are building buzz and airplay, drawing a lot of attention, or the songs that are losing that traction and flying towards the recurring list, where if songs drop below 50 after twenty weeks, they will be removed from the charts. Our third segment is the one so many of you will likely enjoy the most: the new chart arrivals! This is where I will be covering the new songs debuting on the charts in detail. Whether they debut in the bottom ten or smash the charts at #1, this is where you'll get the chance to hear me discuss these songs in detail. Now if you watch my regularly scheduled album reviews, you might hear me talk about a few songs before they show up here, and vice-versa, and keep in mind opinions about said songs might differ from album review to here. That's inevitable, and honestly expected as album reviews will highlight singles in context with the rest of the album, while on Billboard Breakdown the songs must stand alone. And across the series, there might also be some random asides about other Billboard Charts, like the unavoidable fact that despite how good the American charts might be, the Canadian Hot 100 will always be better, or whatever insanity will randomly crop up on the UK Official charts. And keep this in mind: just because a song charts highly is no indication of whether or not it's a good song - certain artists have established fanbases, record labels have a vested interest in certain singles from certain artists doing well, and of course there will be fads and trends that will trigger certain odd shifts. Not to worry, there is nearly always an explanation, and I will endeavor to provide it. We begin at the tail end of the 2014 Billboard year - which began at the beginning of December, because Billboard is weird like that. The current Top 10 is a state of disorder, with Taylor Swift's 'Blank Space' rocketing to #1 on digital and airplay gains, just enough to overtake Meghan Trainor's 'All About That Bass', still holding steady at #2 thanks to massive streaming. 'Shake It Off' manages to hold onto #3, and its replacement by 'Blank Space' makes history for Taylor Swift to be the first artist to replace herself at #1. #4 is Maroon 5's 'Animals', lodged there thanks to still-growing radio airplay, and rounding it out is 'Habits (Stay High)' by Tove Lo at #5, easily the best of the top 5. Below that, the biggest news is Nick Jonas' awful song 'Jealous' breaking into the Top 10 off the back of his album, and in a just world he'd be exiting just as quickly. Curious to hear more? Stay tuned for next week, folks - and welcome to Billboard Breakdown.
Really, I didn't. If it wasn't for your requests, I would have kept on my regular schedule and found every possible excuse to pass this record by. And hell, it's not like I wouldn't have excuses - my backlog is reaching enormous proportions again as we get to the end of the year, and with year-end lists and the holidays approaching, a record like this that demanded deep, thorough analysis would take up a lot more time than I could reasonably afford.
But that's not the only reason why I didn't want to cover this album. To answer that question, we need to talk about Pink Floyd, one of the greatest and most influential progressive rock acts of all time. A band that has made records like the excellent Dark Side Of The Moon, the slightly underrated Animals, the slightly overrated but still awesome The Wall, and that's simply touching on their seminal mid-period work. And, of course, there's Wish You Were Here, a record that might not have the killer singles but stands up as the most emotionally evocative and powerful record of Pink Floyd's career. For a band that many derided throughout the 70s as detached and lacking in emotion - themes the band themselves explored on The Wall - Wish You Were Here was a deeply poignant record that holds up as one of the best albums of the 70s, hands down.
And then it all fell apart. The 80s were not a good decade for Pink Floyd, with The Final Cut being pretty good but having more than its fair share of problems, but then Roger Waters left the band. And I'll be blunt and say it - from there, some of the legendary instrumental prowess might have been there but the writing wasn't. It was breaking the rudder chain and leaving the band adrift, lacking the focus and tightness that defined the band's best work. And sure, the music might have been passable, but Pink Floyd should be better than 'passable'.
So yeah, I wasn't looking forward to The Endless River. Not just because Waters was gone - with the death of founding member and keyboardist Richard Wright, pieces of his compositions during the creation of The Division Bell in the 90s were adapted posthumously for the record, something to which I take issue with on principle. Sure, I get that the album was intended as a tribute to the late and great keyboardist, but I can't help but think Deep Purple's approach when they paid tribute to Jon Lord with the incredible 'Above & Beyond'. But putting that aside and knowing that much of this album was reportedly pulling inspiration from Wish You Were Here, I gave The Endless River a deep listen - what did we get?
We're now returning to the realm of independent country - and long time viewers know what that means, another rant about country music's lousy web presence! But you know, I wouldn't keep bringing it up if it didn't have some weight, and outside of some truly stellar country blogs and journalists I follow, tracking down independent country music is often a harrowing task. I get that it's a more 'traditional' or 'old-fashioned' brand of music, but if indie or alternative country wants to maintain its foothold or increase it, some artists need to improve online buzz and presence. Because let's face it, even very mainstream acts are suffering if they don't have that online buzz and hype - even Garth Brooks, one of the biggest names in country music even today who has gone on record calling YouTube 'the devil', has had an at best underwhelming opening week and was forced to hastily launch a web presence days later. And that's a country act who's a household name! As much as I'd like to think that my humble channel has done something to give indie country acts more exposure, the lack of a 'Pitchfork' equivalent or any sort of aggregator for indie or alternative country has left me and other country bloggers scrambling a bit at the end of the year for artists we might have missed. And here's a real glaring oversight on my part - the debut album from Canadian country artist Lucette, titled Black Is The Color. Based out of Edmonton, Lucette was originally on the path for a more mainstream brand of easy listening before she met Dave Cobb, the critically acclaimed producer who worked on Jason Isbell's Southeastern and both of Sturgill SImpson's releases - in other words, she was finally connecting with the right people. She brought an album's worth of material to Nashville to record and scrapped all of it in favour of a darker, more pitch-black Americana direction, with some comparisons made to Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. And major labels would have none of it - Black Is The Colour nearly didn't get released, but now it's finally here and earning a lot of rave reviews across the board. So while it's a little late, I made it a priority to give a few deep listens - what did I get?
Wow, this was a welcome surprise. A little late to post it tonight, but still a great album all the same. Next up... not sure, really. Need more time for TV On The Radio, but I probably could talk about Pink Floyd soon... so stay tuned!
Let's talk a little about collaboration albums. Outside of hip-hop, pop, and occasionally country, it's fairly rare to see artists from two different acts work together on an official collaboration, especially when you venture towards the more indie genres. Sure, you get your supergroups or when a member of another band jumps on a song or two to provide some additional texture, but team-ups between two distinctive bands or musical acts is a hell of a lot rarer, especially over the course of an entire album - mostly because it doesn't always tend to work. It's not like a guest rapper jumping on for verses, this is the fusion of distinctive artistic styles in songwriting and instrumentation, and most often it results in both acts meeting in the middle with watered-down blends of their own unique styles, or one group completely subsuming the other.
And yet this year one of the collaboration albums that has been high on my personal radar was this one, an enigmatic single track stretched over thirty five minutes to "album" length. The first contributing group was the all-female post-punk group Savages, who you should all remember from last year dropping one of the best records of 2013 with Silence Yourself, delivering a brutally cutting message through potent and explosive instrumentation. The second group is the Japanese acid-post-punk group Bo Ningen - and I'll admit right out of the gate that I wasn't all that familiar with them, and what I did hear was a little disconcerting and not exactly to my tastes. For one, the tone of their material was a lot more spasmodic, jerky and off-kilter between melodic and dissonant intervals that didn't seem to have the coiled intensity and grit of a band like Savages.
Now it turns out they've collaborated before - lead vocalist of Savages Jehnny Beth has contributed vocals to a few Bo Ningen songs, but their most recent collaboration 'C.C.' featured a lot more messy, noisy guitar lines and a frantically overstuffed mix that didn't flatter anyone, especially Bo Ningen lead singer Taigen Kawabe with his skittering, shrieked vocals. And considering this project was a single track, I was very concerned this could prove to be a real ordeal to sit through. But then again, Savages has earned enough goodwill with me, so I steeled myself for whatever might come and listened through Words To The Blind - what did we get?
Ugh, that should take care of the duds this week. Man, what a mess. Okay, next up... hmm, either that Savages/Bo Ningen project, that critically acclaimed Lucette debut, or that Leighton Meester album everyone keeps yammering about. Decisions, decisions. Either way, stay tuned!
I know a lot of people who hate Nickelback. And here's the thing, most of you don't get it if you don't live up here in Canada. For as much as Nickelback ruled the radio across the Bush administration, they were much more omnipresent here in Canada, where regulations require the radio play a certain amount of Canadian content. And sure, we get Metric, Marianas Trench, Serena Ryder, and a slew of other great Canadian acts, but it also means that of the many singles Nickelback charts, they all get airplay up here. And it's probably from that broader point-of-view that I can say this with certainty - trust a guy who knows, there are a lot worse bands than Nickelback. The band got hit with the 'worst band ever' label not because they were legitimately that much more terrible than their peers - when Three Days Grace, Creed, Seether, Hinder, and Theory Of A Deadman have produced far worse music - but Nickelback were everywhere in the 2000s and that's made their mediocrity a lot easier to hate. Now granted, Nickelback have written some terrible songs, especially when they were trying to go for any pretensions of depth, but there was a place for a few of them, when they catered to the lowest common denominator of hard rock debauchery and sleaze. And to be fair, it was a much better fit for Chad Kroeger's voice than the insufferable bitching of songs like 'This Is How You Remind Me' or 'Someday' or 'Saving Me' or the pretentious platitudes of 'Gonna Be Somebody', 'If Today Was Your Last Day', and especially 'If Everyone Cared'. To me, Nickelback worked best on grimy tracks about fighting, drinking, screwing, and behaving like swaggering rock star assholes, completely awash in bad taste almost analogous to Katy Perry. Now some of you are inevitably thinking, 'Wait, you rip on bro-country all the time when it gets sleazy and ignorant in much of the same formula, are you seriously giving Nickelback a pass'? And let me make this clear, I'm not doing that - catering to the lowest common denominator will only get you so far, and Nickelback can get away with more than most mostly thanks to Chad Kroeger having a lot of presence behind the mic, the band developing more of a rock edge, and some genuinely solid songs like 'This Afternoon' and 'Burn It To The Ground'. But there are huge tracts of their discography that pushes the sleaze into uncomfortable territory, and it's rarely enough fun to back it up. But most of the hatred they get isn't for that reason - no, it's not about hating Nickelback but hating the fans of Nickelback for supposedly giving them a free pass - something that rings more than a little hypocritical from some critics who have praised similar brands of vulgarity when it comes from hip-hop or metal or R&B. Say what you will about Nickelback's Dark Horse, for as gross as most of the album is, at least it's honest and knows what it is. That being said, with Nickelback's commercial decline in the 2010s, they have aimed to diversify their sound a bit. Recruiting Joey Moi to produce for their 2011 album Here And Now proved surprisingly effective in adding some punch and meat to their usual formula, although that album felt bogged down in unnecessary and really quite embarrassing ballads. In other words, I had no idea how good their newest album No Fixed Address would turn out to be - so what did we get?
Okay, let's try this again. By now most people who have watched this channel are well aware of my feelings on the British boy band One Direction when I reviewed their last album Midnight Memories. Basically, I'm not a fan, partially because I found their blatant appropriation of classic rock and hair metal songs to be in bad taste especially when they couldn't back it up, and I found their lyrical contributions to be less than savory and frequently creepy. In other words, I wasn't a fan, and I raised the question why any of their fans could like them beyond stereotypical boy band charm, especially when The Wanted and The Backstreet Boys dropped markedly better albums that same year. All of that being said, there was one legitimately great song on Midnight Memories with 'Diana' and the fact they pushed the amateurish and clumsy 'Story Of My Life' over that song is baffling to me. But now a full year has passed, and the pop landscape is in a very different place than when One Direction dropped Midnight Memories last year. The charts have made a major shift from pop towards R&B and soul, even in the UK, and while The Wanted have effectively gone nowhere, One Direction does face real competition from 5 Seconds To Summer, who I've already covered twice this year and who actually dropped a decent self-titled album. And with the band taking over significantly more writing credits, I was prepared to cut One Direction a bit of slack - mostly because I remember what happened about thirteen years ago the last time R&B took over from the boy bands, and since One Direction are signed to Simon Cowell's Syco Records, I have no illusions surrounding the band's potential shelf life. In other words, I was inclined to be charitable when I checked out their new album Four - did it surprise me?
Well, that was worth listening through. A lot of work to get there, but definitely worth it. This week... oh god, Nickelback and One Direction. Well, at least we've got Savages and TV On The Radio to look forward to, but look out, folks, this is going to be rough...
It's one of the most common stories in music. You have a young, aspiring artist, an independent spirit who makes impressive music with depth, complexity, and real emotion, doing it with skill and passion and intellect. He gathers buzz, builds up a fanbase, and is poised to smash into the mainstream. And then he finally signs to a big label... and it all falls apart. Suddenly the money gets involved and to guarantee an investment, the artist is compelled to make the same homogeneous crap we all see. Nothing changes, the artist gets dispirited, and the choices are stark: lash out and get dropped from the label; give in to the machine and lose your artistic integrity; or somehow manage to hold things together and try to maintain a balance. And to me, the artist who has managed to hold that third option reasonably well was Big K.R.I.T. He originally struck me with his early mixtapes with bringing some impressive rapping, production, and content to his material that was both tempered by real introspection and definitely had the possibility of crossover appeal thanks to his very radio-friendly production. But when he dropped that first album Live From The Underground in 2012, many - and I'd include myself in that group - were a little disappointed. I mean, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, just another radio-friendly hip-hop record featuring a great rapper delivering cliched content with occasional snippets of real brilliance. He managed to follow it up with King Remembered In Time in 2013, another mixtape that featured some more varied production, and it was pretty good, but at this point it was starting to get obvious that Big K.R.I.T. was falling towards a pattern. Not a bad pattern, mind you, but I found myself thinking he could be pushing himself harder on more thoughtful tracks or even aiming for stronger, punchier club bangers. I wouldn't quite call it a holding pattern, but it was becoming familiar and I had the feeling Big K.R.I.T. could do more. And it started looking like he would. The first promotional single was 'Mt. Olympus' and though it wouldn't show up on the standard issue of Cadillactica, it showed Big K.R.I.T. with more fire and potency than I had seen in a while with great bars. And it was enough to get me enthused to really dive into this record, which has been getting critical acclaim across the board and drawing comparisons to acts like OutKast - did he pull it off?
So here's an interesting situation: you're an technically minded musician, looking at pushing the boundaries of your craft, and you're part of a band that's on the precipice of breaking into the mainstream. And you know that if you start aiming to push for more complex progressions that are less commercially friendly, it could hold you back from that breakthrough. So what do you do - stick with simpler instrumentation that really aren't stretching you artistically, or forge a new path that will almost certainly be less commercially viable? That was the choice Ivar de Graaf made when he left symphonic metal titan Within Temptation after their critically acclaimed album Mother Earth. And to some extent, it makes complete sense - Within Temptation were always a band with a keen eye to appealing to a more pop-friendly metal crowd, and de Graaf's desire to play more complex progressions and improve his compositional skills would almost certainly fly in the face of that. He still maintained a friendly relationship with Within Temptation and would occasionally play with them on later occasions, but in 2005 he collaborated with his wife Judith Rijnveld to form the progressive symphonic metal band Kingfisher Sky. And here's the funny thing: listening through their debut album Hallway of Dreams in 2007, I definitely saw some real potential but I also was struggling to see the areas where Kingfisher Sky could stand out from the crowd. Keep in mind that not only did Within Temptation release The Heart of Everything that same year, Nightwish released Dark Passion Play in all of its folk-flavoured genre-bending might, and it's not hard to see how Kingfisher Sky might have been overshadowed simply for being quieter and having more restraint, their influences being less film scores and more Porcupine Tree, Kate Bush, and traditional folk. But I'd argue that being a little softer gave Kingfisher Sky a chance to develop their songwriting and acoustic textures, and while they did occasionally fall into cliche, they frequently were able to compensate for it. They followed that album with Skin Of The Earth in 2010, which was heavier and had tuned the songwriting a little finer, but it was at this point the lower production budget was definitely hampering the more symphonic side of the band, and while the guitars had crunch and some of the more progressive grooves were interesting, I found myself wishing that Judith Rijnveld was a more powerful vocalist or they could expand their sound into something with a little more import and scope. In other words, I wasn't sure what to expect with their crowdfunded 2014 album Arms Of Morpheus - I expected to like it, but it's been a crowded year for symphonic metal. So how is it?
Can't believe I forgot to post this last night... ah well, it's a comeback that for the most part most people outside of the country music sphere will completely miss, and while that is a shame, it's not like Brooks was helping himself in the right direction here. Okay, next up, I want to talk about Kingfisher Sky, because I still need more time with Pink Floyd and Big K.R.I.T.. Stay tuned!
It's a name that hangs over modern country music and will probably never be forgotten. An artist who is one of the great selling music acts of all time and who was probably most responsible for leading the popular resurgence of country music in 90s. For me, it's music that I didn't just grow up with, but material I'd consider formative in shaping some of my deep-seated love of country music. I grew up with his CDs in the car pretty much since I was born, and I can look back on many of his records as having some absolutely stellar songs. Yeah, you all know who I'm talking about - and yet as a music critic now, Garth Brooks is one of the more complicated acts to talk about. His most famous and iconic songs - 'Friends In Low Places', 'The Dance', and especially one of my favourites 'The Thunder Rolls' show up on his earliest albums, but throughout the early 90s he maintained a damn impressive level of quality, but as the decade wore on, things started to get shakier. Everyone looks at the fascinatingly disastrous Chris Gaines project as the breaking point, but to me the wheels were starting to come off as early as Sevens. He made a modest comeback of sorts on Scarecrow, but at that point he stopped making albums and after a few years 'retired', he went back to performing and has been consistently making a fortune doing so. See, here's the thing about Garth Brooks - many have put forward the point that he's less of the 'artist' than the professional businessman entertainer, a little analogous to Jay-Z if he had actually retired after The Black Album. Because let's be fair here, Brooks is still a pretty damn good songwriter and a powerful presence behind the microphone, and while the Chris Gaines experiment is dated and embarrassing, it's not hard to theorize that it was Garth Brooks taking a chance artistically that the public rejected en masse in favour of his material packaged through lucrative deals signed with Wal-Mart. The public didn't seem to want Garth Brooks the artist, and that bugs me - granted, it's not like he hasn't embraced the businessman mold to the point where his army of lawyers have ripped every single music video of his off of YouTube, a move where even Prince has backed off. It's gotten to the point where Brooks launched his own music distribution system rather than work with iTunes - and to me, all of this strikes me as monumentally short-sighted. Sure, I remember Garth Brooks and his older fans will remember him, but YouTube is how most of the youth across the world disseminates and remembers culture, and purposefully fighting against it is an easy way to lose a younger audience, especially when Billboard counts YouTube streams these days for chart positioning. What this means is that, for the first time in a long time, I'm not including backing music from the album, half because his lawyers would use YouTube's broken Content ID system to prosecute a case they'd lose under Section 29.1 of the Canadian Copyright Act but would still make my life hell simply because they can, and half because I want to make a point. But that's asinine business practices, we're here to talk about the actual music of this album - and I'll admit I was excited. I grew up with Garth Brooks, he made some of my favourite country songs of all time, and now he's back with his new album Man Against Machine - how is it?
While there could have been more to this album, it's still solidly enjoyable, and I still liked it. Okay, next up... hmm, either Big KRIT or Garth Brooks, because I need a little more time with Pink Floyd. Stay tuned!
You know, for as big of an act as the Foo Fighters are, I don't think I've ever, in public or private, really given a comprehensive opinion about the band. I've talked at length about many of their contemporaries, some great and some awful, but I haven't really talked about Dave Grohl's post-grunge turned arena rock band in, well, ever. I think it's time I rectify that. So, the Foo Fighters are, for me, a defining example of a pretty damn good band. Not a great one, not an all-time classic act, and it'll definitely be interesting to see how long their historical legacy lasts in comparison with their peers, but a pretty damn good rock band. There's a lot of common opinions about the Foo Fighters as well - their best material was in the late 90s, they really are more of a singles act over structuring cohesive albums, and a lot of their material sounds the same. Having revisited the entire Foo Fighters discography... well, they're not wrong, although Wasting Light was a solid step to reinvigorate the band. But tapping into the reasons why gets trickier. For one, as potent of a frontman as Dave Grohl is, some of his more serious, hyper-earnest, 'we're the last real band in rock' self-aggrandizing gets exasperating - and the sad fact is with the decline of hard rock in the mainstream, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But on the other hand, earnestness is one of the Foo Fighters' greatest strengths - you believe Grohl when he's howling or singing, and the band's knack for a melodic hook has kept them a steady draw for years. On the flip side... okay, lyricism has never been their strong point, and many, many songs fall into easy cliche and feel more broadly sketched than they really should. But once again, there's another side to this, as broadness can work well in the fist-pumping anthems the Foo Fighters can make like clockwork. So you can bet I was intrigued by their newest album Sonic Highways, reportedly recorded in eight different American studios in order to capture the unique musical vibe of each city. And not only that, with each song they brought on guests to enhance the roots-driven sound, from Joe Walsh to Ben Gibbard to Zac Brown, the last of which was the biggest draw for me being a massive Zac Brown Band fan. On the other hand, I also know the Foo Fighters - we weren't likely to see Little Big Town levels of experimentation on this record, and at the end of the day they'd still probably sound like the Foo Fighters.
Okay, normally when I get requests, it's pretty scattershot. I get a few for upcoming records I'm obviously going to cover because they're so big it'd be insane for me to ignore them, I get a few for offbeat oddities that I might check out if I find them interesting, and of course I get the requests for records that came out two years ago and weren't particularly well received even then. Let me clarify something about my schedule - with every artist I cover, I endeavour to assemble a full and fair picture, which means going through their past discography to get some historical context - which means that in addition to covering the album and listening to it multiple times, I'm also backtracking through history, either for the first time or just to get back up to speed. In other words, a lot of time and work goes into my schedule, and I can't cover everything, no matter how hard I try, and even my year-end catch-up of albums won't snag everything.
And yet, when I get a wave of requests for an album where nearly the only comments are asking for one specific debut record, I take notice. And the more they poured in, the less they made sense. I had heard the name Azealia Banks before for a strong EP and mixtape she dropped back in 2012, but since then her buzz has been less from her music and more from feuds with fellow musicians like Angel Haze and Baauer and from asinine remarks she made at tabloid fixtures like Perez Hilton. It didn't help that there had apparently been label problems that led her to getting dropped from Universal and this album being delayed extensively. So with little-to-no promotion and following in the footsteps of her idol Beyonce, Azealia Banks released her debut out of nowhere and I started getting requests to cover it. On the one hand, she probably couldn't have picked a better time - with the biggest charting names in pop rap being Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, this is a better time to be a woman in hip-hop for a long time. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly sure what I was stepping into with Broke With Expensive Taste, and I remembered what happened with Angel Haze's Dirty Gold very early this year, a record that really was a complete non-starter even though it did have songs with commercial appeal. So what are we getting from Azealia Banks?
God, I wish this was better. It's still a good record, to be sure, but it just didn't quite land with me. Ah well, it happens. Next up, I need time to get through my backlog of albums before I start the one of the heavier weeks of the year. Foo Fighters, Big KRIT, Azealia Banks, and more, so stay tuned!
And now we come to the second round of our Devin Townsend discussion, of the second disc and the one that definitely gripped more of the fans coming from Ziltoid The Omniscient. It was the sequel that so many of them had been asking for, the glorious return of Ziltoid and the madcap space insanity that had defined that album. And yet, if I'm being completely honest, the more I thought about it the more I wasn't sure a sequel to that 2007 record was a great idea. Sure, there was undoubtedly more space to be tapped in the gloriously epic and epically silly saga of Ziltoid, but that album also ended in a way that didn't exactly leave itself open for sequels in the same way. It's similar to the sense of annoyance I had when I saw Disney's live action Alice In Wonderland directed by Tim Burtonthat actually turned out to be a sequel, couldn't be bothered to call itself Through The Looking Glass, and was a total piece of shit. Not spoiling anything, but when you transform what was designed as a pure flight of fantasy or madness into something grounded in a more concrete reality - you run the risk of breaking the joke. And it seemed like Devin Townsend was running into problems too. A followup to Ziltoid was announced in 2009, and yet it took him five years to fully get the project to coalesce. He utilized the character on a satirical radio show in 2013 and bandied around the idea of a visual project, but this year he finally managed to pull things together for Z², and to placate the label he had to bundle it with a Devin Townsend Project album that actually managed to be pretty damn awesome. And even despite my serious misgivings going into this record, I have to admit I was still pretty damn excited for a new Ziltoid adventure - did we get it?
I've mentioned in the past that there are certain musical acts that have an insane work ethic, acts that will pump out distinctive, potent material that somehow manages to maintain a standard of real quality. Now from my observations, these acts tend to fall into two distinctive camps: acts that have a formula that allows them to subtly augment it with each release; and acts that simply have so many ideas that they have to let them all explode forth on project after project, with some of the ideas inspired genius, some merely inspired, and some that inspire headaches for all involved. In other words, there's a little less consistency in their output. And no, I'm not talking about Lil Wayne and his album/mixtape releases, today I'm going to talk about one of the more eclectic figures in metal, a Canadian musician who already dropped a country and blues flavoured record earlier this year and now has a full double album of progressive and extreme metal. Yes, we're talking about Devin Townsend, formerly of the extreme metal act Strapping Young Lad and the frontman of the Devin Townsend project. He's a musician with a gift for versatility, a ton of explosive presence, and sheer oddball weirdness in his lyrics that can send many of his projects spiraling into madness, or at least be difficult to take them somewhat seriously. And to be fair, I get the feeling that Townsend recognizes this to some extent, as he's made some truly hilarious metal records that still manage to kick ass. I was first introduced to him through his 2007 album Ziltoid The Omniscient, a record about a power-mad galactic overlord searching for the universe for the perfect cup of coffee and with an ending twist that really shouldn't be as much of a fun surprise as it is. Now in terms of pure Devin Townsend albums, it was his last until now, but that didn't mean he wasn't active. Instead, after quitting booze and drugs, he embarked on the Devin Townsend Project, a series of five albums that showcased five different sides of Townsend's experimentation to varied amounts of success, the last being the more pop- and hard rock-flavoured Epicloud in 2012. So when I heard that he was coming back with a double album this year, a sequel to Ziltoid The Omniscient, I honestly didn't have the slightest clue what was coming. So I took several deep breaths and plunged in - what did I get?
It's always interesting as a critic that covers pop music to take note of major trends, and the easiest way to do so is to take notes of the acts that seemingly debut from out of nowhere, with unexpected waves of buzz or just the right amount of propulsion to launch into the mainstream.
And where new bro-country releases dominated 2013, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year where R&B and soul returned en masse with a slew of debut artists from both the mainstream and independent spheres. And in a nice change of pace from the male-dominated wave of country, most of the debuting R&B acts are women, with SZA, FKA Twigs, Banks, Jhene Aiko, and Tinashe all bringing distinctly different sounds and levels of quality to the table. But what's notable is to look behind the scenes and see where these acts are coming from, as it seems like most major labels are fighting to get their R&B starlet in the spotlight to mixed degrees of success.
But the label that appears to be throwing the majority of their money into the R&B game is Def Jam - they already launched Jhene Aiko and are already looking to add to the scene with Teyana Taylor, a New York R&B singer who is most notable outside the music scene for featuring on the soul-crushing show MTV'sMy Super Sweet 16, a show where spoiled rich teenagers have ludicrously expensive sixteenth birthday parties and act like terrible people.
So okay, not a good sign, but to be fair to her, that was seven years ago - most people are terrible when they're teenagers, you grow out of it - and she's been around the music scene long enough since then to probably have developed some sense - or at least some great connections. Originally signed to Pharrell's personal label, she later connected with Kanye West and apparently hit it off so well she landed vocal pieces on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and eventually was signed to Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music, where she appeared on the compilation album Cruel Summer and now has finally dropped her debut album VII, apparently heavily inspired by 90s R&B like Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige. And coupled with Kanye West's executive producer credit on this debut, it was enough to get me curious enough to check it out - how is it?
Let's talk a bit about abrasive sounds in music. It's been a conversation ever since the beginning of recorded music, the artists who are willing to push the boundaries of what are considered traditionally 'acceptable' to the ears of the public. Forget the explosive crunch of metal or the harsh mechanical sounds of industrial or the raw edge of punk or the choppy sampling of early hip-hop, there were points where the distorted guitars of early rock or the experimentation of jazz was too much of a departure for listeners. The evolution of what has been considered traditionally listenable is a growing one, and with every year it seems to expand even further, from the raucous screams of black metal to the harsh blasts of static you get from a group like Clipping to the experimental explosive power of an act like Swans. Hell, there are acts in the power electronics genre that specifically focus on making the most explosive, abrasive, uncomfortable music possible for anyone to listen through. Now for me, abrasion for its own sake has a place, but I'll also admit that I prefer music to have melody or at least enough texture to justify the usage of the abrasion as a complete piece. Noise without cohesion for its own sake is precisely that - noise. My challenge has always been finding that cohesion within the sound, if indeed it exists - because let's make this clear, this sort of abrasive sound isn't going away any time soon. This takes us to producer Arca, most well known outside of electronic music circles as working with Kanye West on Yeezus and FKA Twigs on LP1. And going into his full-length debut, I was not precisely sure what was coming. His early work was defined by pitch shifted vocals, eerie synths, and moments that pushed the edges of what was conventionally listenable - in other words, I had a real challenge on my hands. So with a certain amount of hesitation, I checked out his debut album Xen - what did I find?
Forgot to post this last night - quite literally fell asleep with the screen to post it and I didn't click the button. Figures. Okay, next up... well, honestly I'm not sure what I'm going to do next, I still need more time before I cover Devin Townsend. Stay tuned!
As I mentioned in the past, there was a considerable amount of time in the 2000s when I didn't listen to a lot of country music - sure, I caught what was on the radio and I still appreciated the genre, but for the latter half of that decade, country music was not on my mind - which really is a shame, because there were a fair number of great country acts in that period that made great albums. And one of the biggest acts to unfairly fall under my radar was Little Big Town. One of the more unique groups in modern country, they consist of the female singers of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, and the male singers Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet, and made their first big smash in 2006 with their second album The Road To Here. Going back through that album, they remind me a lot of Lady Antebellum in their mid-tempo vibe, but that's where the similarities ended. For one, their harmonies were excellent, and they tended to have a more rollicking edge to their instrumentation, even when it was very acoustic and polished - which, of course brought the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac... and yeah, it's kind of hard to miss. From a melodic standpoint, the similarities get pretty stark, especially on their third album A Place to Land - but on the other hand, speaking as a Fleetwood Mac fan, they were never straight-up copycats and did have some very well-written songs. Unfortunately, their early career was fraught with label difficulties, as their label Equity Records went under and Little Big Town was moved over to Capitol Nashville midway through releasing singles from their third album. They pulled things together for The Reason Why in 2010, which injected some sharper texture and energy into their typical midtempo vibe and it paid big dividends. They followed it up in 2012 with Tornado, which I really like thanks to the rough-edged production of long-time Eric Church producer Jay Joyce, but by that point it was hard not to notice the shift in their songwriting and the increased number of writing credits that weren't from the band. Granted, they were working with good songwriters and let's be honest, lyrical flair was never my biggest focus with Little Big Town, but it was a warning sign. And given I wasn't a fan of their lead-off single 'Day Drinkin', or their collaboration with Miranda Lambert 'Smokin' And Drinkin' that showed up on her last album Platinum, I was a little uneasy - yeah, they were working with Jay Joyce again, but they were also six albums into their career and country music as a genre is in a weird transitory place right now - what did it mean for Little Big Town's new album Pain Killer?
I've said before that I tend to keep a healthy distance from any pop project backed by Simon Cowell and his label Syco Records. At this point, it's self-preservation, really, and it's not even that Cowell makes 'bad' pop music. If anything, his music projects fall more in the lines of intensely bland pop slurry that are riveted to following major trends instead of leading them, the sort of material guaranteed to sell to a less discerning public. And what blows my mind is that people haven't picked upon this yet - I mean, it's not like he hasn't been a major public figure in pop music and the music talent show circuit for years now. If you want to know why so many American Idol and X-Factor winners vanish off the face of the earth after dropping debut albums through Syco, it's because they aren't marketed as unique personalities, but instead just more product in the assembly line of pop stars, their personality boiled down to the broadest essentials for demographic appeal. And sure, it can make for short entertaining flashes, but longer-term careers in pop music are based off of unique personality. And if you want to know why many appear in the spotlight for a brief second before dropping off the face of the earth... well, now you know why. In other words, I wasn't exactly interested to dig into the newest record from Ella Henderson, a performer who placed sixth on the ninth season of X-Factor, despite being one of the biggest favourites to win that season. Despite that, she was picked up by Syco Records and apparently was given significantly more creative freedom - and indeed, she has writing credits on nearly every song on the album. And that hadn't stopped her from attaining a fair few well-charting hits on the UK Charts - but let's make this clear, just because an act charts in the UK doesn't mean it's anything close to good - thanks to a lack of recurring rules and a smaller population, all sorts of weird crap pops up on the UK charts all the time. But to be fair, Ella Henderson didn't seem to be a flash in the pan - the fact she didn't win X-Factor and still got signed, coupled with solid critical reviews and beating Jessie J's sales in the UK, maybe she was the real deal. So with perpetual lateness, I gave her debut album Chapter One a listen - how is it?