So here's the thing about the Billboard Hot 100 around the holidays - it's basically a crapshoot. We're right after Christmas, most people are still in the regular holiday torpor and don't give a damn about new music, or are still partying in the lead-up to New Year's, which means that the 'hits' that can cater to that impulse are given one last shot on the radio. As for artists, it means that any act dropping a record right now can net a quick buck simply because there's little to no competition beyond late album singles. And the only artist who tried to leverage this dead zone, the one so many of you have asked me to cover... yep, it's Chris Brown. Wow, not a good sign.
Well, this was fun to put together. Yeah, a few minor glitches, but it did come together in a hurry more than I'd otherwise like (mostly because I'm travelling atm and have limited Internet/computer time). Interesting to see all the controversy about my #1 pick, but you always get that sort of thing. Anyway, now to focus on the Top 50 Songs of 2015, so stay tuned!
Of all of the lists that I put together throughout the last weeks of the year, this is probably my favourite, because it's where I feel the most populist. It's the acknowledgement at listing the absolute worst hits that there is good stuff that deserves attention too, and that the mainstream public actually agreed. And 2015 really was a good year. Yeah, hip-hop and country in the mainstream struggled, but there were a lot of great pop songs pulling on rock, synthpop, funk, and even R&B. And while I wouldn't say this year's hits are quite as strong as a year like 2012 or 2011, it handily beats the last two years I've been putting together this list not just in number of great songs, but their quality. And again, the songs had to land on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 - the deep-cuts and stuff outside the mainstream, that's coming next - but this was the good stuff that got popular.
So let's start with our Honourable Mentions, shall we?
Well, it's finally here, the video so many of you have been wanting for so long. Once again, thanks for your patience - because man, this is a doozy. Stay tuned for the Best Hits of the year in a few days, but until then, have a Happy Holidays!
There are a lot of critics - myself included - who will say that 2015 was a better year for the Hot 100 than previous years. While there were a fair amount of bad songs, they don't quite dip into the seething rage that sparks when you have songs implicitly endorsing date rape like in 2013, or watching two of my favourite genres spiral into inane, offensive nonsense like in 2014. And sure, some of that did continue into 2015, it was largely overshadowed by the good songs being better and the bad songs not quite having the same staying power or cultural presence, with a few unfortunate exceptions that we will be discussing.
So let's re-establish the rules: the songs need to have debuted on the Billboard Year End Hot 100 this year, and just being obscenely boring doesn't cut it. So if you were expecting Rachel Platten's 'Fight Song' or 'Somebody' by Natalie La Rose on this list, it's not going to happen. And one other thing: just because I might have had a passionate reaction to the song on Billboard BREAKDOWN is no guarantee that the song might land on this list. As much as 'Coco' by O.T. Genasis is ridiculously incompetent, it's too stupidly earnest to be hateable so much as it is hilarious. This list is for songs that make my stomach churn, the tracks I avoid with all costs, the compositions where you wonder who in the Nine Hells greenlit for public consumption.
Of course, for some tracks you can see what they were going for, so let's start with our Dishonourable Mentions!
And there we have it, the last of the album reviews before the lists begin. Wow, that was quite a run... So, first up is the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2015, which will be dropping later today - stay tuned!
So here's something that really bugs me about the state of modern music criticism and journalism: the culture of clickbait. It's frustrating to me that lists will always be my most viewed videos, or where I display an extreme polarity of opinion, or that when I try to give an honest and thorough opinion, positive or negative, that might differ from the consensus, it gets branded as done so in order to 'draw views'. Trust me, if I wanted to game the system and draw in views, I'd keep my review videos at roughly half the length and they'd all be ranked lists of each song from least favourite to most.
And sadly nothing draws clicks faster than tragedy, and that's why I was very hesitant to open up a conversation about American sludge metal band Baroness... because inevitably, once you get past the great one-two punch that is Red Album and Blue Album and through the fascinating, if overlong double record Yellow & Green...you have to get to the bus crash. It's the point where many would be right to wonder if Baroness would survive, when three of the members were badly injured, two eventually leaving the band. And yet they would start touring again with new members and before long a new album was announced on their own independent label, reportedly a brisker affair than their last double album that was more of a return to their metal sound.
And believe me, I was optimistic. Not only is this sort of rebirth narrative always great to see, but Baroness are an impressive metal band, with an impressive skill for writing unique melodies and some thunderous tracks. What intrigued me more was that like Cage The Elephant, they had swapped out producers, John Congleton for David Fridmann, who is most well-known for working with The Flaming Lips. And while I had some very mixed feelings about this - Fridmann has been known to go overboard on the compression and loudness - I had hopes that Baroness would still deliver with a fresh lineup - was I right?
I always get the feeling that I should be a bigger fan of Pusha T than I am. Because when I reviewed his solo debut My Name Is My Name, I found myself struggling to like it. And going back to it now... well, putting aside how uneven it feels as a whole, Pusha T always struck me as a strong, technically detailed MC that didn't take his coke hustling and gangsta image beyond a wallow in darkness, almost for its own sake. And while he definitely had the voice and production for make something vividly compelling out of it, I kept looking for more of a pay-off that didn't really materialize. And it's not like Pusha T had The Game's pop sensibility or Freddie Gibbs' complicated framing or even the over-the-top gangsta iconography like Rick Ross or Jeezy - you could definitely argue that the methodical grime of Pusha T's best material simply operated as a mirror to the subject matter, nothing more, nothing less. But that's probably been the reason why I've always been a little underwhelmed by Pusha T's work over the past couple of years since Clipse broke up - for such a talented rapper, you'd like to think he'd go for more than that. And the funny thing is that Pusha T appears to have brought more ambition to the table in the lead-up to his 2016 release King Push - so much so that he dropped an entire album's worth of material as a prelude, a short, brutally dark project released just before 2015 comes to a close as one of the best years for hip-hop in recent memory. And while I remember not being all that enthused about My Name Is My Name, after relistening to it I was interested in this. After all, that album had been stuck in development hell, and now that Pusha T had a firm hand on his career - probably helped by being appointed President of G.O.O.D. Music - maybe this prelude might have real impact for me. So how did Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude turn out?
Goddamnit, this took WAY too long to get online - and really, it's entirely YouTube's fault, because I went back to the original video file and it was FINE. But apparently it glitched out at some point and because I'm a perfectionist (mostly), I fought through hell to get it reuploaded. In any case, Pusha T and Baroness to get done tonight, so stay tuned!
I'll be blunt and say it - if this week didn't have The Voice, the charts would be significantly less interesting. And if I actually took some of you up on the suggestions to just avoid covering hits from The Voice, it'd actually be a pretty short week, but considering this was another deceptive week where things do not appear all that interesting outside of it thanks to the holiday slowdown, I might as well discuss it in more detail - it's not like the other new entries appear that much better.
Oh god, this review was torture to make. Reshot it twice, had too many takes... and yeah, it was just painful. Thankfully, only two more left before the end of the year and they both look solid, so Pusha T, Baroness, and a new episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN coming up before the lists begin, so stay tuned!
So I'll be the first to admit that there are some producers that tend to rub the wrong way - and if you've watched any of my rock or country reviews, you'll know the name that leaps to the top of my list is Jay Joyce. Most well-known in the country sphere for working with Eric Church, he's got a knack for production that can have impact with chunkier riffs and rougher edges, but it can lack subtlety or finer instrumental details. The funny thing is that if you flip over to the rock side, there's also been a band he's been working with since the start of their career who have had some success on modern rock radio: Cage The Elephant.
And I've always been kind of on the fence about this group, in that I really wish I liked them more than I do. They've got a knack for melody and there's are broad strokes to their explosively messy sound I find appealing to go with the occasionally twisted lyrics, but they're also not a subtle group, and it's led to their past three records being good but not quite great - you can definitely see why Jay Joyce worked with them. Part of this was the gradual maturing of their lead singer Matthew Shultz, as his early vocals has a nasal quality that got grating, especially on their wilder, more punk-inspired second album Thank You, Happy Birthday. Things improved the most on their third record Melophobia in 2013, which was a much thicker, heavier, more bluesy and psychedelic album, but despite a fair few great songs there were a lot of instrumental flourishes and genre shifts that I wish were a little more grounded or given more room to breathe, especially considering most of them served as outros that didn't really fit with the rest of the songs. That said, it was their most diverse and well-structured and helped define their most unique sound to date, and it seemed like they had a good groove going...
So naturally it makes sense to pitch their lead guitarist, Jay Joyce and start working with frontman of the Black Keys Dan Auerbach on production for their newest album. Now in theory you could have seen this coming - Cage The Elephant toured with The Black Keys, they were moving more towards blues rock, Jay Joyce is busier than ever these days, and Dan Auerbach has handled production before. Unfortunately, the last thing I covered that he produced was Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence - not a good sign, and neither was the buzz suggesting that early singles for this album had shed some of Cage The Elephant's newly defined sound in favour of sounding like The Black Keys. But hey, this was my chance to evaluate if the compositional strength and writing could hold up in a different production environment, so I gave Tell Me I'm Pretty plenty of listens - what did we get?
So now that we're heading into the final weeks of this year, I think I can state this definitively: it was not a banner year for country music, especially for women and especially in the mainstream. Forgetting the ugly 'tomato' controversy and focusing just on the music, not only were the crossover hits fewer than ever, you'd typically have to add some heavy qualifications to calling them country at all. And the sad thing is that if you look to the indie scene, it wasn't that the records were bad so much as they were underwhelming compared to their previous work. Lindi Ortega, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, it happened to all of them, and it's not like any of them were crossing over to compete with Maddie & Tae or Carrie Underwood or Kelsea Ballerini any time soon.
Now there were two big 'exceptions' to this rule, the first being the unprecedented success of Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush', but I'm inclined to disqualify it from the conversation because Pain Killer dropped in 2014, they're a mixed-gender band, and you'd have to put some serious qualifiers on calling that country instead of folk or maybe even pop. The second is the unexpected sleeper hit of 'Burning House' by Cam, a song that I was initially not particularly impressed by when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but in retrospect have come to appreciate a fair bit. That song - which has turned out to be the highest selling country song from a female artist in 2015 - led me to dig a little more into Cam, a singer from San Francisco who got her start as a songwriter before meeting up with producers Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, the latter who in recent years has been known to work with Kanye West, Natalia Kills, fun., Beyonce, and most recently Mark Ronson on his chart-dominating smash 'Uptown Funk'. In other words, we're looking an artist who once wrote for Miley Cyrus, seemed the furthest thing from Nashville and who ended up signed to Arista Nashville, the label of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Worse still, even despite some positive critical press the label decided to release her debut album in mid-December - otherwise known as the dumping ground for album releases that labels have zero confidence will stick, because year-end lists are getting published, the charts are slowing down, and most people just don't care in the same way for new releases during the holiday season. And yet 'Burning House' continues to rise on the charts and I figured I might as well try to give Cam's debut a chance if nobody else would - so how did it turn out?
Well, this was rougher than expected. Hope for good, expect the worst, and it's a shame this turned out more of the latter. Next up, Cam, then probably Pusha T if I can get a hold of his album before two rock records to end out the year - stay tuned!
Okay, so whenever you have a big act in the mainstream blow up with tons of buzz, critical success and mainstream crossover, you tend to have acts following behind them that want to cash in. Sometimes it feels natural, a trend that was growing that finally burst through, but more often it's a tad more cynical as otherwise popular acts try to jump on the sound. And in some cases, they might not even have a choice, especially if the label is pushing them in that direction. But when you have a success story like Lorde's Pure Heroine breaking in 2013, major labels encountered an act that wasn't exactly easy to replicate. Sure, the immediate impact is a whole slew of pop acts who washed out their mixes, piled on the reverb and vocal filters, and focused more on percussion over melody, but they were never really able to capture that same vibe. Lorde's formula was more than just instrumentation, it ran in her smart songwriting and populism, and that's hard to pull off - hell, just look at Halsey's disastrous fumble with 'New Americana'. As such, I wasn't exactly surprised when I heard that Def Jam had placed a major push behind Alessia Cara, a young Canadian singer-songwriter drawing more on old-school R&B for her debut EP - as you'd expect, given its current popularity. But her lead-off single 'Here' was more reminiscent of Lorde, not just in her thin, slightly husky delivery, but in the subversion of a typical party vibe with overwritten lyrics, to the point where people were legitimately angry it didn't net the same Grammy nominations. Now I wasn't wild about 'Here' when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, and thus I was kind of reticent about covering this album, especially given the rushed production schedule by her label to push it out before Christmas, but I figured I might as well give it a chance, especially considering how many of you kept asking for it. So how did Know-It-All turn out?
Well, this happened. Pretty rough week, again, but you've got to hope that once The Voice and Bieber are off the charts, things'll get better, right? Anyway, Alessia Cara and Cam are next, so stay tuned!
Well, so much for the holiday slowdown! This was another one of those deceptive weeks on the Hot 100, where if you were only paying attention to the Top 10, you'd see a lot of stasis - but descend to the lower reaches of the charts and you'll see a whole lot of turbulence, as 2015 continues to flush away, with some pretty huge gains coming up to replace them. The Top 10 might sleep soundly now, but I expect disruption sooner rather than later.
Ugh, man, I wanted this to be a lot better - and yet writing it took so much that I couldn't get out the second review I wanted to today. We'll see if I cover - only a decent album there too... Regardless, next up is a new episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!
So while we're on the subject of Grammy nominations, let's discuss a record that I'm certain some of you are baffled that I didn't tackle nine months ago - because on the surface, the pitch for it would be right up my alley. And frankly, the more I think about it, the more I'm surprised I didn't discuss the debut album from James Bay, English singer-songwriter who drenched his recordings in a blend of Nashville Americana and soul and English folk. He didn't exactly make a critical splash, but he quickly established himself as a charting success, especially in the U.K. And believe it or not, but I've actually talked about this liquid-voiced singer before, on Billboard BREAKDOWN. More specifically, on the list of acts who were charting hits in Canada, but hadn't yet broken through in the U.S., and in this case it was easy to see why. Up here, we never really lost a workable rock scene, and that meant that indie folk developed a sizeable foothold up here. But really, James Bay's appeal is much simpler than even that: if you were looking for an acoustic singer-songwriter that played to a similar sound as Ed Sheeran but pushed the folk, country and rock sides more than pop, hip-hop, or R&B, James Bay was the artist you wanted. And yet for as much as he was very listenable, he's never really been an artist I've been inclined to explore in detail. Maybe I wasn't wild about how polished his sound seemed, maybe I wasn't as moved by his songwriting as so many others were, but until now, I hadn't really cared to dig deeper. But apparently the Grammys disagreed, because James Bay is now up for three awards, mostly in the rock category plus Best New Artist. And frankly, I'd hesitate to say he's the frontrunner for any of the categories, either by popular consensus or my own preferences. But to be fair, he's also nominated for Best Rock Album and I haven't covered this record in detail yet - and at the very least, he should be better than Muse or Slipknot, right?
You know, for as much as I say I like blues rock, I don't really cover a lot of it. And for the past few weeks I've been wondering why and I think my answer is that I've got a very specific type of blues rock I enjoy. Dark, moody but with strong hooks, dirty production but not so fuzzed out and lo-fi that you lose the deeper textures, a solid sense of groove, and writing that can rise above some of the unfortunate cliches of the genre. And when you hold so much of it to a high standard like that, you tend to find a lot of bands don't really hold up as well as you'd like. Take, for instance, Alabama Shakes - although, yes, you could definitely make the argument they're more soul than blues rock, which the band is always canny to sidestep. Now I was planning on covering Sound & Color months ago - the critical reviews were suggesting it was a great record from an upstart act with one hell of a frontwoman in Brittany Howard. But when I dug up their debut album... well, it wasn't that it was bad but I was definitely underwhelmed. Part of this was production that really could have afforded to give them a little more texture and crunch, part of it was writing I didn't think was all that stellar, and part of it was compositions that frankly weren't pushing anything. It was a reasonably solid release and again, Brittany Howard can sing her ass off, but I wouldn't go any further than that. So fast-forward to now, and Alabama Shakes' sophomore debut has apparently won so much critical acclaim it's up for a Grammy. Now it's not going to win that Grammy - all the signs speak to either Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift winning for Album of the Year - but it was enough to think that maybe I hadn't given this band a fair shake. So I decided to dig up Sound & Color and try again - what did we get?
Okay, regularly scheduled reviews will be returning soon, but I had to do this, had to say something. Next up, some old business to cover, a few more regularly scheduled reviews, and then FINALLY year-end lists, so stay tuned!
In March of 2014, the Wu-Tang Clan made an unexpected announcement: seven years after the release of their last album in 2007, they were putting together a new compilation record. Now it supposedly wasn't produced by the RZA, but it was still a double album of new Wu-Tang Clan, and what's more, the packaging was ornate: encased in a hand-crafted silver and nickel box that would tour the world through art galleries, museums, and music festivals before being sold to a single individual for an exorbitant price. Now sure, the rest of the world was still going to get a new Wu-Tang record titled A Better Tomorrow, that would be released around this time last year to mixed at best reviews, but for hardcore Wu-Tang fans, this was material that they desperately wanted to hear - and yet with the RZA's asking price in the millions, nowhere near enough money to hear it. Now there was originally going to be conditions built into a contract that the album could only be heard at listening parties and not shared or distributed, but eventually the group relaxed these terms so that the album couldn't be resold commercially, so there was a chance that one might be able to hear the album if it leaked. And yet it doesn't seem like that is likely, because only a few days ago it was announced that The Wu - Once Upon A Time In Shaolin had been sold - to Martin Shkreli, a supposedly brilliant pharmaceutical executive who became infamous online for jacking up the price of an anti-parasitic drug named Daraphim from $13.50 to well over $750 - per pill. I should also add that this is a drug that's utilized for treating AIDS. Nicknamed 'Pharma-Bro' for his obnoxious attitude and confirming abhorrent stereotypes surrounding both pharmaceutical executives and hedge fund managers, Martin Shkreli participated in the online auction for the album and got it for two millions dollars - well under most of the RZA's reported asking prices. And as for the record, Shkreli has said he hasn't listened to the album yet and is 'saving it for a rainy day', or if 'Taylor Swift wanted to hear it or something like that'.
The upload failed five times. Five times. Well, it's here now. Next up... honestly, I've got a bit of an old business before I deal with Cam, Baroness, and Cage The Elephant. I guess I might have to cover goddamn Jeremih as well, but before then... Sure, Alabama Shakes, stay tuned!
This is one of those weeks that I can imagine seems slow - the top ten barely moved, only a few new songs, and we even got the return of Christmas songs which imply that the annual winter slowdown is coming into place. But the more I delved into this week, the more I'm seeing some shifts that have real implications down the road - the 2015 charting trends seem to be fading faster than I expected, with the new ones - good and bad - creeping up to replace them.
And really, if you took a look at my review of TRYXE last year, you'd understand why. The only reason I covered that EP was because I was overloaded by requests, and even in that case I only remember fragments of that record over a year later - mostly because it took the modern percussion and reverb-heavy brand of modern pop production and paired it with broad lyrical conceits that didn't always land and a vocal performance that I would best describe as adequate. It was a perfectly harmless EP, but that also meant that outside of fragments of 'Happy Little Pill' and 'The Fault In Our Stars', I don't remember it at all.
So when I started getting requests to cover his full-length debut Blue Neighbourhood, I had no reason to care about this record. But then I noticed a few things: for one, the critics were praising this more than I would have expected, basically being described as a male cross between Lorde and Lana Del Rey. And while of course the latter comparison did not strike any confidence with me, it was the Lorde remark that actually spurred more interest, mostly because all of his collaborators on this debut are other Australian and New Zealand acts, the majority of which I've never heard before. The person I had heard of before was in the songwriting credits: while Sivan had the main writing credit for every song, the name that caught my eye was Jack Antonoff, member of fun. and frontman of Bleachers, one of my favourite indie rock acts to explode in recent years. And hell, all the buzz was suggesting this would be a more upbeat and exciting affair than the tepid slog of TRYXE, so I decided to give Troye Sivan another chance: what did we get?
Because let me give you a glimpse into my usual process when it comes to making these. The first bit tends to be written before I've given the album an in-depth listen, often providing some degree of analysis into my thoughts and research about the band before I start delving into the record in detail. And normally it's framed around some topic that I feel will correlate with the album I'm looking to explore, which can lead to some interesting shifts in perspective mid-review, but hey, it happens.
And thus when I sat down to work on this review, my plan was to start with a lengthy digression on what it means for an act to 'sell out' in today's day and age, because I get the impression that not a lot of people understand what it means. No, it's not just a genre shift towards pop - you can sell out while still making the same genre of music - but it's more focused on a band submitting to the songwriting machine to crank out hits. And hell, it's not even always a bad thing: sometimes 'selling out' provides the creative impetus to spark otherwise known skills in the artists in question. But the reason why it tends to be regarded by so many - especially critics of the older generation - as a bad thing is that it reflects a loss of artistic integrity and individuality. And for a critic who will listen to hundreds of records a year, those individual elements that stand out are worth all the more, something that might not be the case for more casual listeners.
But what happens when you get a band like Coldplay, a band who has always played for populism in broad strokes and has enjoyed consistent mainstream success because of it? Would it be even possible for them to 'sell out', especially considering their newest album A Head Full Of Dreams was intended as the upbeat resolution to the downcast, minimalist, very much underwhelming electronics of Ghost Stories? And sure, they were working with Beyonce and Tove Lo and Stargate, but they were working with pop stars as early as Mylo Xyloto and with mainstream producers like Avicii last year - this isn't anything new. And yet when I checked out their lead-off single 'Adventure Of A Lifetime', I got the impression that despite more personal themes, the change in sound might be enough to fall into that sell out lane. What did become clear is that further investigation would be required - so what did we get with A Head Full Of Dreams?
Well, about damn time I got this one out. Took way too long, but again, I wanted to make sure it was done right. Next up, probably Coldplay, but not tonight - really shitty day, need to take a breather. Stay tuned!
It's so easy to forget that not everyone listens to everything, especially when you're not on the Internet. It's a bizarre thing, especially when you live in a city like Toronto and you hang around a circle that likes to stay up to date on trends - and it's all the more pronounced online where anything and anyone can build a following. But when I was leaving a meeting at my full-time job a few months or so ago and said I was going to listen to some Kurt Vile and I got blank expressions. This guy has been a fixture in indie rock for the past decade in multiple groups, and nobody in that room knew who he was. It really throws into stark relief that so many will only listen to the radio or a few personal favourites, and that while I could brush it off by saying, 'Well, I listen to weird stuff', I bet if I played some of the music off that album, it'd be easy enough to like - it's not that inaccessible. A bit off the beaten path, but if the money or push was put behind it, I could see it gaining a little traction on the right stations.
So fast-forward to me listening to Tragedy, the debut album from Julia Holter reportedly inspired by the Euripedes play Hippolytus, an atmospheric project that utilized overlapping soundscapes with absolutely no regard to conventional song-structure or hooks - in other words, far less accessible and the antithesis to radio, the sort of music that's just as difficult to describe as it can be to enjoy, especially if you're coming from the mainstream. And yet there was something oddly beautiful about the record in its brilliant control of atmosphere and mood that I really appreciated.
And yet since tragedy, every subsequent album from Julia Holter has been stepping towards more conventional definitions of songwriting, first with the gorgeous and pretty damn excellent Ekstasis and then a year later with the even better, more intimate Loud City Song, a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood musical from 1958 Gigi. And the more I delved into the gleaming, elegant melodies and impressively textured production and impressionistic but surprisingly potent writing, I realized something that I'm sure will piss some of you off: this would be what Lana Del Rey would sound like if she was good at her job, if she avoided wallowing in her own melodrama and simply worked on polishing her vintage sound into something that brought the past to life now instead of simply revisiting it. Granted, she probably wouldn't have the same pop appeal, but with every album, Julia Holter was proving she could probably do just as well in that world. And two years later, she's coming back with Have You In My Wilderness, her longest gap between albums and another release that's won her huge critical acclaim - is it deserved?
Well, that took longer than I wanted it to... eh, I'm still getting used to the new format (that's why I made that stupid Cole Swindell mistake... gah, two weeks in a row, get your game together, dude). Next up, need to tackle some old business before dealing with Coldplay, so stay tuned!
It's the calm after the storm, the time of year where everything seems to fall back into place after frantic reshuffling to make it appear that the onslaught never really happened and all is right with the world. Why, yes, I'm talking about Adele taking back chunks of the chart from Justin Bieber, why do you ask? Okay, snark aside, while everyone predicted there'd be chunks of Adele's new album breaking onto the Hot 100, it's not as pervasive as you'd expect, and along with plenty of returning entries and chart shuffling, it's more indicative that Bieber and to a lesser extent One Direction didn't have the same staying power.
When I reviewed Arca's debut album Xen last year, I went in expecting dissonance. I was prepared for harsh blasts of abrasion and intense sounds that would push the bounds of listenability, the sort of experimental electronica that will alienate nearly everyone except the most hardened of critics and fans. But that wasn't exactly what I got. Arca's distinctive brand of electronica went in a different, yet not less dissonant direction: wild tempo changes, off-kilter melodies, awkward tunings, gorgeous atmosphere and gleaming classical instrumentation contorted through strange, warping progressions. It was the sort of the music that could easily be branded by a classicist as incompetent instead of transcendent, but somehow Arca mostly stuck the landing, even if I did wish that he could pair his bizarre melodic choices with more of a foundation in the actual beats and percussion. So fast forward to now, and Arca has a new record titled Mutant, which promised to be weirder and darker, even blending in elements of industrial noise music. Now immediately I thought this was a good idea - my favourite track off of Xen had been 'Bullet Chained' because it had managed to fuse that textured atmosphere with a clanking progression that roiled and spooled like the titular tool, and if Arca was going more in that direction, we could get something very strong here. And considering I've spent the majority of this year delving into more abrasive and experimental music than ever before, I was excited to check out Mutant - what did I get?
You know, I wish this record had turned out a bit better, but I can see myself going back to it a fair bit, especially considering how strong those hooks were - this album was a lot of real fun. Next up, Arca - stay tuned!
If we were to flash back to about eighteen months ago, before the release of the collaboration project between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib titled Pinata, there would be some that probably didn't care all that much. As much as Gibbs had accumulated respect in the underground for being a hard-edged and reasonably insightful gangsta rapper, he never really stood out as much as some of his contemporaries outside of his refusal to cater to pop tastes and his authoritative voice. And sure, Madlib was bound to give him great production, but that can only go so far - sure, the lead-off singles had been impressive, but would they be enough to put Gibbs back on the map?
Well, to the majority of critics it certainly was, because Pinata was a massive step up not just for Madlib delivering a great selection of colourful old-school production, but Gibbs as well. His wordplay and rapping technique was the strongest it had ever been, and his willingness to show more of a thoughtful picture of gangsta rap gave his pictures a ton of personality. He wasn't so much treading new ground as he was delving deeper and subverting traditional archetypes. For me, it was easily one of the best hip-hop albums of 2014, and thus set some high expectations for a follow-up.
And I'll admit that I was concerned. For one, the guest list was a lot less impressive: where Pinata had Scarface, Raekwon, Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and a host of other spitters, Shadow Of A Doubt looked a lot more sparse. Sure, there was Black Thought, and E-40 was bound to be entertaining, but Tory Lanez and Gucci Mane? As much as I like and respect Freddie Gibbs, I was concerned about a possible regression: did that happen?
Again, I have to say I'm thrilled that so many of you have continued to support me and this channel over the past few years. It's really been something special to see things grow this far, and I hope to continue making these Q&A videos every 5,000 subscribers for some time!
Man, I'm so thrilled I was able to finally cover this. Such a great record, definitely has me enthused to check out more black metal in the future, that's for damn sure. Next up, Arca and Freddie Gibbs, so stay tuned!
So one of the things I've discovered in my expanding exploration of atmospheric black metal is that while there's a pitch-black core of explosive tremolo picking and blast beat drumming to complement the the howled vocals, there have always been efforts to mutate or expand the sound. By now most people know how Deafheaven drew on shoegaze and emo, but they weren't the first to draw forth more atmospheric textures, like the ambient sounds of Wolves In The Throne Room or the more blatantly pagan and progressive touches of In The Woods... So what if I were to tell you about an American black metal project that didn't just blend in folk, but bluegrass as well?
Because in theory it's not as far removed as you might think. After all, the fast-picked tremolo melodies aren't that far from the quick picks of a banjo - the key would be finding the right subject matter. And like most, when I heard about the one-man black metal project of American musician Austin Lunn called Panopticon, I decided to dive in at the 2012 album Kentucky... and wow, I was glad I did, because this is something special. What immediately struck me about Kentucky was on a conceptual and lyrical level how much it worked - a ramshackle presentation delving into the desperate poverty and bleak devastation of backwater rural Appalachia, ravaged by a flailing and heartless coal industry, damn near perfect themes for a black metal project. Now in execution it didn't quite land as well - as much as I dug the bluegrass and country touches, especially with the vocal snippets, the transitions always felt a little clumsy and I found myself underwhelmed by some of the black metal compositions themselves. Thankfully, much of this was cleaned up two years later for the frigid and excellent Roads To The North, which brought in some symphonic touches with strings, great drumwork, and great atmosphere. What was also interesting was the shift in mood - where Kentucky was more immediately abrasive and confrontational, Roads To The North was more contemplative and wild, finding a certain tranquillity in the frozen heart of the wild. Where bands like Immortal and Satyricon wrote about Scandinavia, Austin Lunn was writing about the rugged American wilderness, with the more eclectic instrumentation only adding to the authenticity. I'll be straight with you - if I had covered Roads To The North last year when it was released - it might have had a very real shot at making my year end list. So you can bet I was going to be checking out his newest record Autumn Eternal, apparently intended as the conclusion of a trilogy with Kentucky and Roads To The North and with more straightforward black metal - what did we get?
So here's one of my favourite things about this semi-professional music critic thing: the research. There's very few things that really grab my attention than venturing into certain genres and slowly beginning to untangle their more intricate elements or finding bands that might be related to what you want to cover. After all, if I want to be considered remotely credible when I cover a band, you need to know the context where it was created. As such, when I prepared to cover Deafheaven's New Bermuda a month or so back, I knew that I had to hear more black metal than just Sunbather to build a workable opinion, so I went deeper. I found acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and In The Woods... that I'd actually argue I liked more, so I figured if I could find more black metal that brushed up against progressive metal or atmospheric folk, I'd probably find more acts that'd run up my alley. So when I heard positive buzz coming out about the sophomore record from Indonesian black metal act Vallendusk - thanks, Myke C-Town! - I figured I'd dig up their debut album Black Clouds Gathering and explore. And I'm definitely glad I did - like most Indonesian metal acts, the guitarwork was ridiculously strong, but I also found a lot in the untamed and bleak poetry to like to match with the huge melodies, with imagery that wasn't quite visceral or incredibly dark but set a fantastically creepy mood to pay it all off. In other words, it definitely had earned the critical acclaim it had received, and as such as I was curious to dig into their newest release that was dropped a few months back called Homeward Path - what did we get?
We are now beginning the second year of chronicling the Hot 100 charts in detail - starting in December because Billboard is weird like that. And even though this is the week I was prepared to unveil some new changes to the format, we also have to deal with one of the largest ever lists of new songs - because for some godawful choice to split their bases, One Direction and Justin Bieber released their new albums in the same damn week. Now sure enough a whole slew of these songs will be gone next week, but for now, given Bieber's shrewd promotional strategy to jack up streaming, we have a full list of twenty new songs. Now given that I already reviewed both new albums from Bieber and One Direction, I'll endeavour to keep these short unless it's a bonus track I hadn't otherwise covered, but strap in, folks, this'll probably be a long one.
Well, it's good, but I see this review being controversial still. Gah, whatever. Next up... oh god, Billboard BREAKDOWN and all of the Justin Bieber... hold on, folks, this is going to be a rough start to a new year...
The year was 2011. The club boom was nearing overexposure in the mainstream, and flashy electro-pop artists were ruling the airwaves. Country was awash in lightweight southern pandering that would degenerate into bro-country, the Young Money crew were ruling mainstream hip-hop, and the indie rock scene was on the precipice of exploding. It was a year in flux, with nobody quite certain what would come next... In other words, the timing was damn near perfect. People had known about Adele before - a soul singer beloved by the Grammys, known for a remarkably poised if a little tepid debut album that had given us 'Chasing Pavements' - but in 2011 she blew the pop paradigm apart. And while some would inevitably accuse her of middle-brow pandering and that her music was ultimately not as experimental or ground-breaking as many made it out to be - which in retrospect is kind of true - it's also hard to deny that 21 resonated on a deeper level with an enormous audience. And it wasn't just listeners - who made the record the best selling album of the year two years running, bringing impossible profits to Adele's indie label XL - or the Grammy wins and critical acclaim - the success of 21 marked a major shift in pop music. The club boom collapsed, old-school R&B and neo-soul surged back into the mainstream, and pop stars tried to work heavy percussion and reverb to follow the sound even if they couldn't match the emotion. And here's what I find perplexing: as much as I can see why Adele's 21 resonated with audiences - it's accessible, different without being too weird, powerfully emotive yet with enough class and restraint to get uncomfortable - the album as a whole is a harrowing listen. It's dark and heavy, furiously bitter and heartbroken, and the more you dive into Adele's subject matter the more the complicated swirl of loneliness, rage, regret, and grief becomes hard to bear. And yet even with that it's one of those albums that might work better in pieces than as a whole - there are some wild tonal shifts, a few deep cuts can't quite match the power of the singles, and there are instrumental choices that don't quite fit with the overall atmosphere. In other words, a damn good album, maybe even a great one, but I'm not sure I'd say that it would make one of my year-end lists. And now four years later, Adele is finally back with 25 - and while I was definitely excited, I had some reservations here. For one, I saw the list of producers: Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth made sense, they've been working with this brand of reverb-touched pop music for years now, and I could maybe even understand Danger Mouse and The Smeezingtons, given Adele's influences, but Max Martin and Shellback? They only show up on one song, but it was enough to suggest that Adele might be going in a very different direction... and in a sense that's probably the right choice than trying to directly imitate what she did on 21. But the larger point is that Adele is returning to a pop world that she helped shift, and while opening tracks like 'Hello' had a ton of promise, it's hard to follow-up a record that shattered the paradigm like 21 did. There was a lot riding on 25 - did Adele pull it off?
So here's a fun question for you all: you're a reasonably popular artist and you catch wind that your genre's shifting in a new direction, riding a new trend. So you hop on that trend and it goes reasonably well, but not quite as well as your earlier material, not quite resonating with your audience in the same way - what do you do?
Well, in the case of Chris Young it's arguably pretty simple: you pivot back to what you were doing originally and keep up the routine - you've arguably got the easiest transition path, especially if you take a firmer hand in the songwriting. And if you look at Chris Young's career trajectory over the past four or five years, that's exactly what he's done. Hitting it big in the latter half of the 2000s with a slew of #1 hits, he hopped onboard the bro-country trend for his 2013 album AM, hiring the best of Nashville's songwriting machine to blend his brand of neo-traditional, adult-contemporary leaning country music towards what was cresting in the mainstream. And yet even despite making what I'd deem as one of the best bro-country albums with some of my favourite country songs of 2013, it wasn't an album that produced the sorts of hits previous records like The Man I Want To Be and Neon had. And in a way that makes sense - Chris Young has always been more of a mature romantic, not the sort of guy that would play well with debauched party tracks. It definitely helped matters that he seemed like a stand-up guy, so that when rumours leaked about him being involved in Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert's divorce, Young shot them down so emphatically that I'm inclined to believe him.
So for his upcoming album, Chris Young seemed to be doing everything right: he cut his writing team down to a solid essential team, took more of a songwriting role than he had ever done in the past, and with the lead-off single and title track made it very clear he was transitioning back to modern yet neotraditional country. Hell, he even picked up Vince Gill for a duet, along with Cassadee Pope, an artist I legitimately forgot existed since I reviewed her last record two years ago. For a mainstream country release, he was doing everything right and while I didn't expect this would be better than, say, Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church, I had some hope this could turn out well. Was I right?
Well, this was a pretty quick review, but that happens when there's not a lot to it. Next up, Chris Young, and then since I forgot the album was dropping early, I'll be talking about Adele - stay tuned!
It's rare I talk about titles when I review albums. Mostly because the title of an album only occasionally operates as a picture into what the album really is, and often times not even that. But when a respected and established country hitmaker for the past twenty years drops an album titled Damn Country Music, I sit up and take a bit of notice. Not that much notice - this is Tim McGraw after all, a guy who in his entire career has never been a hellraiser, typically performing very polished, very accessible country music. And it's also not like he wrote a single song on this album - most of that at this point is being handled by the Nashville songwriting machine who have long recognized Tim McGraw as a consistently bankable star. But I have to admit I was curious regardless, but the country music industry hasn't been kind to Tim McGraw behind the scenes. To keep him locked under contract his former label Curb Records shovelled out compilations and greatest hits albums instead of fresh material, and ever since he tore away to land on Big Machine, he's been working to crank out fresh material, with a record each year for the past three years. Now I covered his album last year Sundown Heaven Town and it was fine enough, showing some steps back towards the neotraditional scene after stabs towards a more synthetic mainstream embarrassed everyone involved, but it was definitely uneven, the moments of greatness balanced out by some truly godawful songs. And I frankly expected something similar here - sure, the album was called Damn Country Music, but I didn't expect Tim McGraw to go all Hank Williams III on us. I expected it to fall in the same vein as his last album - a few stabs at the mainstream, and maybe a little more neotraditional as he steps back into his comfort zone. Was I right?
You know, there's a running joke among music critics that even if you don't like Justin Bieber, he's easy enough to ignore that you don't need to care about him. And really, if you reflect upon the past six years, even during the initial buzz, that has remained true - albeit for completely different reasons.
I should explain, and let me preface this by stating that I've never been one of those guys who really hated Justin Bieber right from the get-go. Now it wasn't because he was making quality - songs like 'One Time' and 'Eenie Meenie' really were awful, to the point where I've never understood why Usher hadn't contributed more to his creative development beyond a cosign and one okay song with 'Somebody To Love'. But even in Canada Justin Bieber could be easily ignored - it wasn't like he was racking up massive hits outside of 'Baby', which outside of a hysterically bad verse from Ludacris it was generally forgettable. That seemed to change with the release of 'Boyfriend' off of 2012's record Believe, which I actually reviewed on my blog three years ago. And it wasn't even like that record was completely bad either - sure, 'As Long As You Love Me' and 'Beauty And A Beat' were both pretty damn bad and the album really had no clear creative direction where to take Bieber's music lyrically or sonically, but it did provide one legitimately excellent song with 'Maria' that showed if Bieber brought real dramatic intensity and tightness, he could be a real pop star.
And then for the next two years Bieber proceeded to squander that potential, committing crimes, shooting his mouth off, and acting like one of the most obnoxious teen idols ever to be given a microphone. Now this didn't really surprise me - the undercurrent of petulance and ego had always leaked into his music, but I assumed he'd eventually grow into it a bit. But combined with the sloppy release strategy of the underwhelming Journals that had no singles that lasted on the charts, I had no reason to really care about Justin Bieber anymore, especially when Justin Timberlake had returned and was so much stronger. That changed this year, with the release of 'Where Are U Now' with Skrillex and Diplo and his first ever #1 hit with 'What Do You Mean?'. And while neither of these songs were precisely bad and Bieber seemed to have grown into his artistic persona, he also had shown so little personality on those songs that I had absolutely zero interest in checking out Purpose, especially as the lyrics on every single had been straying into questionable places. But hey, I might as well give the guy a fair shot, and all of you kept asking for it, so how does Purpose turn out?
To quote one of my favourite comedy groups, we had some... well, we had some times. Yeah, that's it. Times. But for real, thank you all for sticking around for the first year of this series! It was a lot of work, but I honestly think it was worth it. I've got some ideas how I might want to switch it up in the new year, but we'll see how things percolate out. Until then, I've got Bieber and a few country records, then I can finally dive into some of those black metal albums I've been dying to tackle, so stay tuned!
And now we're here - one year of Billboard BREAKDOWN is completed. Over the past fifty-plus episodes I've covered all the eccentricities of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it has been an eventful year! Between a switch in release scheduling, the chart-spanning weeks for artists too big to fail, and especially in the last quarter of this year the dominance of Canadian artists at the top that has tested my running thesis that the Canadian charts are always better. And I'll admit it's been a real learning experience for me too. Billboard BREAKDOWN has done a lot to define my channel, and though there have been many, many late nights where I swore up and down that after one year I'd be done with this, I'm going to leave that decision up to you. If you guys want me to continue with Billboard BREAKDOWN or revise the format at all, please let me know in the comments, I'm always grateful for your feedback and your support, especially as it's been the most consistent draw across my entire year.
And that's two. Between this album and One Direction, wonder which will have more contention... Okay, next up is the final episode of the first year of Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then probably discuss Bieber. Stay tuned!
So here's a quandary: you're an up-and-coming rapper who is riding a ton of buzz and you've just dropped your debut album. And while you're getting critical acclaim from some outlets, there are some critics who have come down hard about your flow's resemblance to another more acclaimed MC. And even despite the fact that your production is accessible, even mainstream friendly and your album is selling well, you're not getting radio with any recognizable hits. What do you do next?
Well, there's no easy answer to that question, and for as much as I liked Under Pressure when I reviewed it last year, I was definitely worried about this. I still think the album holds up even despite the easy Kendrick Lamar comparison in his flow, mostly because Logic's brand of smoothness and internally focused introspection does lead to a distinctive personality that I find appealing. But outside of a few songs like 'Nikki' and the criminally underrated 'Metropolis', it's not an album I've found the time to revisit, and I found myself concerned that the 'style-over-substance' criticisms that had been levelled at Logic might have some validity if it wasn't gripping me longer.
So when it came to a sophomore record, when I started hearing the buzz that it would a be a sci-fi narrative-driven concept record... well, if he was looking for a way to stand out and away from Kendrick, this would be the way to do it! Hell, this could be new territory for hip-hop as a genre - I did some research and the closest we'd get here is Deltron 3030, and even with that it hit deeply diminishing returns with the long-awaited sequel Event 2 in 2013. Sure, Big K.R.I.T. took stabs at it with Cadillactica, but not to this narrative level. But at the same time, considering that Logic was going to be handling most of the production himself, this had the feel of an overreach, the sort of ambitious project that could be make or break for a guy like Logic. But hey, I'm a sci-fi nerd and a fan of Logic, so I prayed for the best - did The Incredible True Story deliver?
This will be the third time I've reviewed One Direction. It will also probably be the last. And no, that's not because of any vendetta or grudge I have - I've accepted that their years of teen girl-baiting crap are behind them, mostly left on 2013's Midnight Memories as the guys have grown up and taken more of a role in songwriting. They've gotten older, presumably more mature... and along the way, Zayn left the group. And look, I've seen this road before. Having one of your more unique and talented singers of the group exit is never a good sign for boy bands, and the news that One Direction would be going on 'hiatus' after this album sealed it for me. In other words, One Direction were entering the Unbreakable-era of their career, the album made to convince fans that they can still hold things together even minus one member, and it almost always signifies real trouble. Now for the Backstreet Boys that eventually resulted in a more modern pop effort with This Is Us before Kevin rejoined... and yet somehow I don't see that happening. Hell, I can imagine Simon Cowell was probably planning for it too - sales figures have been dropping for each One Direction release, and with an album dropped every year he had know they were approaching burnout. So instead of giving them time off or a little more space to really refine their music, it looks like he's decided to milk the cash cow until she drops. To put it another way, I was under no expectations this record would be anything close to good. Not only were there less writing credits from the group, but none of the lead-off singles had really impressed me the same way songs like the excellent 'Night Changes' had, so I expected trouble. So how did Made In The A.M. turn out?
Well damn, I didn't expect this to be nearly as good as it was. Not complaining at all - it's a nice feeling for Eric Church to be on track again, and it's good to put one of my most contentious reviews to the back of my mind for now. But next up... oh boy, that Logic album is tempting. So let's go for it, stay tuned!
You know, I've been asked a few times what I think are my worst reviews, or any that I regret. And here's the thing: over the course of nearly doing 500 of these things, you're going to encounter reviews where you look back and just wince a bit - maybe a bad turn of phrase, maybe a slip of the tongue or error in song interpretation, or maybe just an album that has grown or cooled on you over time that makes your review not reflect your feelings now. Now here's the thing: that happens. It's only human for opinions to evolve over time with more information or with changing emotions or even just the passage of time, and reviews being a snapshot of how one feels at a specific moments only further highlights how subjective they really are. And as such, when you pair all of those factors with an album designed to court controversy with a major shift in artistic direction... well, those are the reviews that tend to spark the most vitriolic reactions... which takes us to Eric Church. I'll wholeheartedly admit my review of his 2014 album The Outsiders is not my best, and when combined with an album that showed Eric Church trying to bend country music in so many different directions, you got a mess all around. It didn't help matters that Eric Church is a contentious artist, drawing on tropes of outlaw country and some interesting songwriting ideas but playing them with little subtlety in the writing or instrumentation. Granted, if I were to reflect on the biggest miscalculation of The Outsiders, it'd be the overwrought, leaden production, courtesy of perennial frustrating producer Jay Joyce. And as such, when I heard the two had teamed up again to deliver a surprise album of all things, delivered first to registered members of his fan club with ten new tracks not even cracking forty minutes... well, I wasn't sure what to expect. When you consider the record was cut just a few months back and slipped out as a complete surprise, you could either view this is Eric Church satiating his fans with something quick, or him attempting to pull a Beyonce, which he might have been able to do if it wasn't for Chris Stapleton's huge CMA success launching his sales into the stratosphere. But I already reviewed Stapleton's Traveller months ago, so what do we get with Mr. Misunderstood?