So one of the biggest journeys I've taken throughout the creation of this blog is through modern R&B. I didn't used to care for the genre all that much a few years ago and have found myself really coming to love more and more of it as the years have passed. And one of the artists that I've always found myself a little fascinated with along the way is Frank Ocean - and by that, I mean Miguel.
Okay, that might not make a lot of sense, but it's bizarre how much Miguel seems to be overlooked in terms of hype and critical success. Maybe it was just bad timing, but for as colourful and genuinely fun as Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream was in 2012, it was overshadowed by Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE and everybody seemed to forget Miguel existed beyond 'Adorn' and a few guest spots. And while I'm not going to say Kaleidoscope Dream was better than channel ORANGE - it's not - I've always felt that Miguel is an underrated R&B star, in the indie scene and especially in the mainstream. I mean, was it just a chance collaboration with Ariana Grande that allowed The Weeknd nearly a half-dozen top 40 spots while Miguel has to struggle to even get there?
But in a way it makes sense, because as a composer, Miguel is kind of weird. Lyrically, he doesn't often stray from typical R&B territory - arguably the biggest facet that held him back from challenging Frank Ocean in 2012 - but his personality and sound are much more eclectic, bleeding across genres in a way that reminds me more of Prince than most modern R&B histrionics. But the element that crept up on me about Miguel is a understated charisma that's genuinely charming - he's often just as explicit, but he makes it sound fun and has some class about it. Now as I said I didn't love Kaleidoscope Dream, mostly because the lyrics occasionally got silly and the production was a little overdone at points, not confident enough to let Miguel coast on a great groove. But as I said on Billboard BREAKDOWN, with the lead-off single 'Coffee' for his newest album Wildheart he got me really excited for this album - how did it turn out?
This review took WAY too damn long to get out, but I'm happy I did finally get a chance to do it before the midyear - which I'm steadily polishing up, btw. But next up, Miguel, Vince Staples, Czarface, Tyga, King Los... whoa boy, lots of hip-hop and R&B, so stay tuned!
Back when I first got into metal in high school, I remember having a conversation with a fellow student who was a year or two older than me who was also into metal. I told him that I was listening to a fair amount of power metal and symphonic metal, and I remember him snickering and saying, "What, like Kamelot?" At that time, I was only just getting into the genre, so I had never heard of the band, so I went home and picked up what few tracks I could find, most of which were off of the band's 2003 album Epica. And I remember thinking that while there were a few songs I dug, the band just didn't impress me in the same way that Nightwish or Blind Guardian ever did. Sure, they weren't bad, but they didn't seem all that special to me. And just like my abortive attempt to get into the band Epica around that time, I put the band aside for nearly a decade. Fast forward to, well, now, and I started getting requests whether I would cover the newest album from Kamelot titled Haven. And at this point, I was in the mood to hear some good power metal and I figured the band deserved a more complete re-evaluation, so I began working my way through the extensive discography of Kamelot and their almost dozen albums of material across line-up changes and nearly twenty years of existence. To me, the band started hitting more of their mark on their second album Dominion, with much tighter and cohesive tracks than their debut Eternity, which featured great guitar work from their one consistent member Thomas Youngblood but definitely needed work in putting together cohesive tracks, instrumentally and lyrically. But it wouldn't be until the replacement of their drummer and lead vocalist with longtime powerhouse Roy Khan that things would materialize more, with the next two records giving them a chance to get their bearings before the absolutely stellar three punch that was Karma in 2001, Epica in 2003, and The Black Halo in 2005. And let's make this clear, if I was looking for records to win a metal fan over on Kamelot, it'd be those. After that, Kamelot went in a more aggressively heavy direction with their next two records... unfortunately to diminishing returns, with their 2010 release Poetry For The Poisoned probably being their weakest in over a decade. But that wasn't the only issue, as singer Roy Khan left the band due to burnout, something this critic can believe given how his vocals sounded on that last record. He was replaced Tommy Karevik for their 2012 album and their third concept record Silverthorn, which actually turned out to be a pretty damn solid return to form, even if it wasn't quite at their best. So, extremely late to the punch, I decided to dig into their follow-up three years later with Haven - how does it measure up?
You ever see one of those charts on which not a lot really seemed to happen, but still gives you a feeling of foreboding regardless? Believe it or not, I got that feeling pretty strongly this week, because despite the fact very few new songs dropped or impacted the charts in any largely significant ways, I can see things are coming up for change across the board as the summer settles in.
Well, this turned out way better than expected. Who'd have known? Okay, Billboard BREAKDOWN tomorrow, and then finally I'll get that Kamelot review done... that is, if Vince Staples and Miguel don't get in the way. Stay tuned!
I didn't like 'Call Me Maybe'. And believe it or not, I wasn't miserable during the summer of 2012 because of that fact - mostly because 2012 was a great year for pop music and I had plenty of other great songs to keep me busy across pretty much the entire year - even in Canada, where that song's ubiquity was even harder to escape. But yeah, 'Call Me Maybe' did very little for me and the overblown hype behind it made things worse: I talked a little about dramatic stakes when I reviewed Kacey Musgraves' Pageant Material a few days ago, and the complete lack of them made the overly cutesy immaturity of 'Call Me Maybe' a little too precious, even for me, and the fact that Carly Rae was deliberately playing up adolescence in her image despite being twenty-six in 2012. So why the hell am I reviewing her newest album? Well, despite not being a fan of 'Call Me Maybe', I do like Carly Rae Jepsen and think she's a pretty decent pop starlet, especially for her knack in crafting a sticky melodic hook, and when she's on her game, she can really deliver. Hell, I placed 'Good Time', the duet she did with Owl City, as an Honourable Mention of my top hit songs of 2012, and I stand by it. Coupled with the fact she does have some relatably attractive charisma and works with producers like Marianas Trench frontman Josh Ramsey, and she does have primary writing credits on all of her own songs means I will give her a fair amount of credit, even if I do find her technical songwriting to be the biggest point where she can slip up. And look, even though 'I Really Like You' might have one of the most completely asinine choruses in recent pop music, I can't help but find more things to like about that song every time I listen through it, so I said what the hell and picked up E.MO.TION - is it any good?
Man, I don't expect the reception to this review to be great, but you get those on occasion. Next up... well, I was going to do Kamelot, but I really should deal with Carly Rae Jepsen or Vince Staples or Miguel. And then Tyga decided to drop an album out of fucking nowhere to the general indifference of everyone, so there's that too. Eh, we'll see - stay tuned!
So I've mentioned a number of times, mostly on Billboard BREAKDOWN, that rock radio is basically irrelevant to the mainstream pop charts, at least in terms of defining larger trends. Yes, there are rock songs that are big that might even do well on the charts, but rock music doesn't tend to go viral in the same way a hip-hop track or pop song can, or mutate at the same rate that country currently is. And part of that is because rock doesn't grip the popular consciousness in the same way it has throughout other decades, to the point where the rock songs that take the charts are so wildly different that it's hard to pin down a distinctive sound. When I look at the top ten 'rock' songs on the charts right now, three are folk with the barest hint of rock, three are outright pop rock, one is closer to soul or blues than actual rock music - doesn't make Hozier any less awesome, but it's true - and 'Shut Up And Dance' would have been called new wave synthpop thirty years ago. Of the two remaining, one is Muse's 'Dead Inside' and I'd be stretching to say its sour brand of electronic rock with emo lyrics is quality, and the other is 'Believe' by Mumford & Sons and is just terrible. And that's it - no metal, no punk, nothing close to grunge or hardcore, and god help you if you're looking for one of the subgenres.
What I see when I look at the rock charts is no clear direction and nothing resembling hierarchies or leaders except maybe The Foo Fighters out of sheer longevity - mostly because 'rock' is becoming a catch-all for whatever has a guitar and is too rough-edged for pop or too heavy for country. And I'm not saying I want rock to be monochromatic or dominated by one sound - I lived through post-grunge and I don't want that again - but I get no sense of defined identity when I look at rock radio, and this has been an issue for a good few years now. It looks a lot less like diversity and more like throwing whatever they've got at the wall until something sticks - and this is an American issue. Us Canadians never really marginalized rock radio in the same way, and the indie folk rock boom is solidly entrenched up here.
And honestly, it doesn't seem like a bad direction for the US to go either - at least indie rock is more colourful and interesting, and there's plenty of upstart acts looking to break in. Case in point: Wolf Alice, a UK-based band that started off in the poppier side of indie folk before drifting towards heavier, grunge-inspired instrumentation and signing to the same label as The 1975. Like Misterwives, they spent last year building buzz and now have dropped a debut album that has come highly recommended from a few other critics, so I took a look at My Love Is Cool - do we have our new indie rock leaders?
When I first heard Same Trailer, Different Park in 2013, the major label debut from Kacey Musgraves, I was blown out of the water. Here was a woman whose love and knowledge for old-school classic country allowed her to load her songs with grounded, honest maturity and progressive tendencies that were anathema to country radio, even now. Coupled with just being a damn great songwriter both in terms of technical craftsmanship and selling it with real emotive presence, she won the hearts of a ton of critics, and scooped up some well-deserved Grammys in one of the few examples of that show getting it right. But despite great sales, Kacey Musgraves is not a radio star, and in an era screaming out for women in country music, Kacey's lack of mainstream success frustrated a lot of people, including some of the critics who supported her. They could easily point the finger at the fact her brand of country is not the type that gets airplay, especially considering the consolidation of country radio places more of it in the hands of petulant assholes like Bobby Bones, who Kacey refused to give the time of day and paid the price for it, but they decided to go deeper. They wanted the tone and writing and instrumentation to be more modern or strident or at the very least less girlish or presumably immature. In short, they wanted Kacey Musgraves to be country music's new feminist savior in the vein of a 'Beyonce' or something, be more transformative and drive away the analysts who don't know the difference between correlation and causation and that say women are the tomatoes in country music's salad. And from the beginning, I've never bought that was what Kacey Musgraves wanted, and I'd argue such aspirations took away from the greatest part of her appeal: populism. Sure, she loved decidedly uncool classic country, but her writing style and content was always grounded in the fact she was part of the same crushing system as her audience, not trying to lead it. Her material could be girlish in tone and writing, but it only emphasized by contrast wisdom beyond her years, and disguise how deeply her words could cut in a country where 'Girl Crush' by Little Big Town was nearly forced off the radio because it supposedly promoted a lesbian relationship. And by framing her material as more matter-of-fact and accepted, I'd argue her material worked in a subtler and more effective way than any amount of incendiary firespitting - anthems are nice, but they need humanity and nuance to have real punch. So when I heard that Kacey Musgraves' newest release would be called Pageant Material, I was actually really excited. Taking her brand of progressive views to traditional southern views of femininity might require she play things with more subtlety, but it didn't mean the punch wouldn't be there... or at least I hoped that was the case. Was I right?
I've talked a little about artistic team-ups before in this series, when two distinctive groups merge together to create a distinctly unique musical project. Sometimes the clash between the bands becomes the underlying arc of the album, like on the stunning performance art collaboration between Savages and Bo Ningen last year Words To The Blind. More commonly, one act tends to eclipse the others, especially when the styles of the two bands overlap. And with rare exception, that tends to be the older, more experienced act that takes dominance. So on some level, when I heard about the planned collaboration between acclaimed, genre-bending cult band Sparks and indie rock group Franz Ferdinand, it almost seemed too obvious. Sparks had been a player in the first wave of glam, disco and synthpop, Franz Ferdinand had been one of the main frontrunners during the indie rock revival of the genres in the mid-2000s. Both featured frontmen who had a knack for overwritten, too clever by half lyricism that was always a little too hyperbolic and ridiculous for its own good and yet still manages to maintain its cool. Now Sparks has done everything as an act from changing genres about eight different times to releasing full on rock operas, and while the quality has been wildly uneven depending on the era, they've got nothing to prove. Hell, when Franz Ferdinand approached Sparks about the idea a decade, Sparks frontman Ron Mael sent Franz Ferdinand a demo titled 'Piss Off'. But a decade later, with Franz Ferdinand maturing as a band and Sparks not having dropped any new material in about six years, they joined together into the supergroup FFS and dropped a self-titled record. And really, why not? For Sparks, it's a shot to introduce themselves to an audience who might never have heard of them, especially given the massive discography going back to the beginning of the 70s. And for Franz Ferdinand, it's a chance to work with long-time veterans and personal heroes and give them an excuse to get weird again. And while I absolutely adored Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action - which totally holds up as one of my favourite records of 2013 - Sparks might be able to add more focus to Franz Ferdinand's off-kilter experimentation. So, did FFS deliver?
You know, for a week that was pretty lightweight all things considered, this review was absolute hell to make. Between so many reshoots and that damned video glitch... ugh, I'm just happy it's over. Next up, I think I'm about ready to talk about FFS or Kamelot before Kacey Musgraves comes through - stay tuned!
So here's the mixed blessing of a week like this one. You look at the charts, see that very little actually happened across the board with perhaps one of the smallest numbers of songs new or returning to the Hot 100, and it allows you to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, something that's pretty light across the board. But then it's the creeping question of whether I'll be able to keep all of this interesting on a week where - gasp - there's little to actually complain about!
Okay, confession time: I used to be a huge fan of Hilary Duff. No, really. Back about a decade ago when I was a teenager and I was listening to Eminem and symphonic metal, I still listened to her. I watched the Lizzie McGuireShow, which on some level has not aged well at all. I watched the movie based off of the show. And perhaps most embarrassingly for a music critic, I listened to her music - and I was a fan too, to the point where I actually saw her live in concert. And going back to those albums in the early-to-mid-2000s, most of the material is okay at best. Let's be honest, Hilary Duff was riding a wave where young starlets who could pull off a veneer of acoustic pop authenticity could rack up a fair number of hits. And considering Hilary was being backed by Disney and was signed to Hollywood Records, it was clear her handlers were aiming to capitalize on whatever residual buzz she had from Lizzie McGuire to turn out over-produced schlock that frankly Brie Larson was doing better anyway. The funny thing is going back to it, which she does have some real duds - that self-titled album is mediocre at best - her 2007 record Dignity saw her move in more of a electronic dancepop direction and it worked pretty well for her, as she had writing credits across the board. For me, I always got the impression she was a better writer than actual singer - she didn't have a ton of presence as a vocalist, and unlike Britney Spears, she wasn't about to pile on effects to compensate for it. And yet as dancepop was set to blow up with the club boom in the late 2000s, Hilary Duff left pop music entirely for a good eight years. She got married and divorced, had a baby, and did a lot of acting for TV and independent films, mostly in an effort to ditch the more wholesome Lizzie McGuire image. The interesting thing is that while her career hasn't been stellar by any stretch, she also hasn't had the stage of running wild and flaming out that hit other teen stars of her era like Amanda Bynes and Lindsey Lohan, which gave me the impression that the down-to-earth elements of Hilary's writing actually had some authenticity. But at the same time, until the requests started pouring in, I had no interest in looking into her most recent album. For one, she only had writing credits on a third of the record, and for another, it looked a bit like a cash-in, to rope back old fans who want to recapture those glory days almost a decade ago. Hell, that's why I'm here, so I took at look at Breathe In, Breathe Out - is it any good?
There are some genre fusions that sound so insane that you'd never expect to see them work. Ambient music and country, for instance, two genres that rarely have ever crossed... until Devin Townsend created Casualtiesof Cool, one of the best albums of 2014. Or take, say, the entire genre-mashing careers of twenty one pilots, and they put together Blurryface, one of my favourite records of this year. My point is that oddball genre fusions can blow up in your face, but they can create something special and defiantly unique, especially in a world where the internet has proven anyone will try anything once.
But then there are the genre fusions that the second I heard about it, it made way too much sense, the sort of material that made me sigh and wish that I had thought of it first. Algiers falls into that category, an American band from Atlanta reportedly fusing post-punk, gospel, and industrial sounds for a distinctly unique debut to be released through Matador Records, the same label that's been responsible for giving us Savages and Iceage. And really, considering how much post-punk and goth culture crossed over in the late 70s and 80s, with the latter incorporating so much religious iconography it's not surprising Algiers might take a stab at pushing through a less classical and more gospel-inspired take. And given how strong the critical reception has been, I decided to give it a look - was it worth it?
Eh, I do wish this was better, and I'm not sure how long it's going to stick with me, but still damn solid. Okay, Algiers, FFS, and Sun Kil Moon for sure, but there's this Hilary Duff album that a part of me really wants to cover... eh, we'll see. Stay tuned!
I didn't expect to get as many requests to cover this album as I have. And on some level, that's exciting, because it meant that Icelandic band Of Monsters And Men had somehow managed to make an impact in popular culture beyond just 'Little Talks', the song that somehow managed to chart just high enough to lodge a place on the pop charts in 2013, two years after it was released. And I'll admit, it was off of that song that I dug into their pretty damn solid debut album My Head Is An Animal. Now to put things in perspective, the reason 'Little Talks' did as well as it did was because Of Monsters And Men had fortuitous timing - the folk boom was kicking into gear, and they had the benefit of a horns section, potent melodic grooves, and interweaving male and female vocals to stand out from the crowd and especially from Mumford & Sons. Of course, the huge benefit that Of Monsters And Men also had was a wind-swept haunted swell to the production, some noisier electric guitars that never compromised the texture, and pretty damn solid songwriting that wasn't afraid to get weird in terms of a more feral brand of poetry. Or to put it another way, there's a reason why 'Little Talks' ran away as my favourite hit song of 2013 - because it's goddamn amazing. So why haven't I been jumping all over their sophomore release? Well, part of it was a certain amount of trepidation: I wasn't initially wild about their opening singles, and early buzz wasn't great, especially emphasizing that the album reportedly had more filler. This was a concern for me, because if I were to level one big complaint with their debut, it'd be that their sound can have a certain uniformity to it if the songwriting or melodies don't stand out. It's not a bad sound by any stretch of the mind, but it can get a little repetitive. But look, I still like this band, so I dug into their sophomore album Beneath The Skin - was it better than expected?
Oh, I've been getting a lot of requests for this one. And I'm not surprised either, because if we're looking for rappers who many have asked that I cover in some way, shape or form, Chance The Rapper would be near the top of that list. With an off-kilter, free-flowing style and wordplay that seemed to skitter across rhymes and concepts with effortless ease, Chance built a ton of buzz with his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap in 2013, and while I didn't love that tape, I did appreciate his boundless personality and off-kilter brand of wordplay. The odd thing is that Chance The Rapper tends to get in the way of his best material - either it would come from his production being a little overmixed or his actual content not always adding up to as much as I had hoped. But then again, when I heard he was teaming up with Donnie Trumpet and several of the producers he had worked with on Acid Rap to create the collective The Social Experiment and they were going to be dropping a record called Surf, I figured it might be a interesting experiment, especially considering this is really Chance The Rapper's first official "album". Something lightweight, fun, and with a frankly stupefying list of guest stars that spanned from Big Sean and Jeremih to Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu, I knew I had to give this record my due consideration. So how did it turn out?
know, after the past few weeks – and somehow falling behind again in my reviews
– it’s nice to actually have a new Hot 100 that’s actually fairly lightweight
in terms of new songs, most of which I’ve already heard before in some
capacity. It’s one of the breather moments you get as summer starts to settle
into gear and the album release schedule eases back a bit, at least for the pop
Man, I'm glad I managed to get this out when I did - although as expected, RL prevented me from getting this post up earlier. Eh, it happens. Okay, next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then Surf, so stay tuned!
Let's talk a little about the whole concept of the 'summer album'. Believe it or not, it's a fairly new thing, along with the whole conceit of a 'song of the summer' - sure, music critics who cover the pop charts mention it, but the concept of mass culture talking about it or marketing it can be traced to the internet making the conversation easier. And sure, there has always been lightweight sunny 'summer' albums forever, but the concept of an artist purposefully releasing a record of that material specifically at that time to capitalize on that vibe is a little different. And as a critic, they're surprisingly difficult to talk about. On the one hand, the content tends to be pretty lightweight which means reviewing them doesn't tend to require a lot of digging, but on the other hand, evaluating the record becomes trickier, because the purpose of these records is to be lightweight, ephemeral, and fun in the broadest way possible. They're designed to be enjoyed for a season over pool parties and barbecues, and you can bet by the end of the year most people will forget the songs ever existed. So on some level, evaluating what's considered 'good' summer music is the stuff that persists beyond one season - and that can be hard to pinpoint if you're covering the record before the season has really kicked into gear. As such, I had a certain amount of pause before covering the newest record from Billy Currington, a country star I've liked but never quite loved. He broke in the mid-2000s, started consistently racking up #1 hits on the country charts thanks to his hangdog, generally affable delivery and for recruiting songwriters that could consistently pump out decent songs. And yet in 2013, he jettisoned the few writing credits he had for We Are Tonight, a pivot towards bro-country that was actually pretty good but wasn't anything I was really interested in revisiting either. It was lightweight, inoffensive, and had just enough personality to stand out - in other words, if it hadn't been dropped in mid-September, it'd be the perfect summer record, the sort of smash that bro-country often seems weaponized to create. And with that in mind - and with the addition of a single writing credit from Currington himself - I figured it might not be bad for me to check out Summer Forever, which buzz was suggesting was even more in that vein. Hell, it could be fun, right?
Well, this was better received than I expected it'd be. Hmm, interesting. Okay, tomorrow I'm going to try to get the Billy Currington review out, but RL might get in the way, so no promises. Stay tuned!
There's no easy way to talk about Muse. Fans of the band love them for their genre-pushing style, their imagination, their technically potent melodic construction, and Matt Bellamy's uniquely powerful voice. Non-fans hate them for their lyrical pretentiousness or outright absurdity, their self-serious appropriation of progressive, alternative and arena rock tropes without getting the substance, their hyperbolic presentation, and Matt Bellamy's shameless caterwauling, especially in his high falsetto range. In other words, they're a polarizing group - and unlike most, I tend to fall in the middle, in that they're not a bad group by any stretch of the mind, but they are definitely uneven for me. The odd issue for me across their first four records is that outside of the few songs they have on every album that are just goddamn amazing across the board, they tend to fall into an agreeable confort zone that can start to run together a little. This started to change around the mid-2000s, with the broader embrace of styles on records like Black Holes and Revelations, but it was also where my opinion on Muse tends to get more mixed. Yes, I can appreciate the genre-bending and the worship of progressive rock and especially Queen, but lyrically it often felt Muse was spiralling into a rabbit hole that was interestingly sketched but increasingly incoherent, and the band took themselves way too damn seriously to realize it. In other words, it's the exact same path that so much progressive rock took in its heyday, especially around the tail end of the 70s. Credit to Muse for always maintaining a distinctive sound in the face of going over the top in a half-dozen different genres, but by the time we hit The 2nd Law, I worried that I'd lose my ability to take the band remotely seriously, especially when they got political with the subtlety of a tactic air strike. And on that topic, I can't tell you how sceptical I was about their upcoming record called Drones. On the one hand, I was a little fascinated that Muse was going for a 'back-to-basics' approach of all things, but I wasn't sure grabbing producer Mutt Lange, most known for producing albums from AC/DC's Highway To Hell and The Cars' Heartbeat City to Shania Twain's Come On Over and Nickelback's Dark Horse was the best way to do it. And let's be blunt, Muse does not do subtle or complex when in comes to their political material, and while I dug their populism, drone warfare and modern geopolitics are kind of hard to boil down into anthems for monstrous live sets. So did Muse pull it off?
Dear god, this was a disappointment. I wanted this to be so much better than it was... Anyway, next up... holy shit, Muse, Of Monsters And Men, Algiers, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Billy Currington, so many albums I want to cover... anyway, stay tuned!
I did not know this album was dropping until a few days ago. And to be fair, I don't think that unless you follow the band anybody knew. There was no single on the radio, American or Canadian, no major review sites south of the border seemed to mention it much, the hype has been nonexistent. And on some level it's a damn shame and another example of people not giving the Barenaked Ladies enough credit. Breaking out in the mid-90s with an album that's a borderline classic with Gordon, they did consistently well up here until Stunt and Maroon broke them in the U.S.. And then without warning, everything seemed to fall apart. Their 2003 album didn't land them traction in the rougher, darker rock scene of the early 2000s, and pop rock acts that actually had a sense of humour were marginalized. So the Barenaked Ladies did the next best thing - they went independent and continued to put out albums of reasonable quality... until the second blow hit and frontman Steven Page left the band. It was a shadow that hung over the otherwise excellent All In Good Time that was released in 2010 as the Barenaked Ladies grappled with the loss. Fortunately, by 2013 things had recovered and while I didn't love their 2013 record Grinning Streak, longtime fans of this channel might remember I included 'Odds Are' as my favourite song of 2013 across the board. And I stand by that choice - 'Odds Are' is damn near a perfect pop rock song and the music video made with Rooster Teeth was all kinds of wonderful. But what gave me hope coming out of Grinning Streak was that the band was starting to construct a new identity minus Page, and while the lyrics weren't quite as biting or obscenely clever, there was still a sense of whimsy and underdog charm that was impossible to take away. Sure, there were cracks in the production and writing, but they could refine that going forward, right? And so of course I was going to cover Silverball, and I had high hopes. These guys are Canadian pop rock veterans, and what meagre buzz I could find suggested that this album was even better than Grinning Streak - so did they pull it off?
Well, that didn't last long. Almost as quickly as it took the top slot, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were elbowed off the top, and it's not exactly surprising that happened either. Once again, the fight over the top will likely be the biggest story this week, but it obscures what happened below, where a whole load of songs surged up the charts and we got another well-sized crop of new songs - and in a nice change of pace from last week, most of them are actually decent!
Goddamn it, this took WAY too long to get online. Stupid Google + messing with my YouTube connectivity with my editing software... although on the plus side it did give me a chance to consolidate some other connections which proved quite handy. Next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN, which'll hopefully be a reasonable week given my busy day tomorrow, but you never know. Stay tuned!
I remember when I reviewed Tattoos, Jason Derulo's last record in 2013. I remembered being flabbergasted at the choices on display. I was barely able to articulate what the hell Jason Derulo was trying to do, with one foot in Bobby Brown-esque R&B and the other in his typical brand of overly slick dance-pop. And I remembered thinking that this couldn't possibly be a hit. Sure, 'The Other Side' was a fine enough opening single, but there was no way that any record executive would release singles like 'Talk Dirty' to mainstream radio, with lyrics as bad as they were. Because no public in their right mind would let him get away with songs as asinine as 'Trumpets', right?
In hindsight, the more I've covered the Billboard Hot 100 the less I've had any faith in the listening public, but 2014 was a year of success stories for Jason Derulo, to the point where songs like 'Talk Dirty' weren't just massive hit, but were influential and have spawned multiple rip-offs. And on some level I get it: in a year where pop music seemed to be taking itself more seriously, Jason Derulo being awash in bad taste at least gave him a personality. It wasn't exactly indicative of quality, as the consistently mixed critical consensus proved, and it didn't stop songs like 'Wiggle' from the Talk Dirty rerelease being absolutely atrocious, but it was at least interesting.
But here's the thing: between Tattoos and Talk Dirty, Jason Derulo actually managed to sell some records in the United States, something which he really didn't do even in his first wave of success in 2010. Now if you're a label executive and you see a record in the 'So Bad It's Good' vein like this, records that should not be successful and yet somehow are, you've got a tricky choice to make. On the one hand, you could try to keep a tight leash on him to repeat the formula, or you could give him more money, more creative control, and tell him to go nuts. And from the look of the guest stars on this list, it looks like the executives at Atlantic went in the second direction - I understand maybe getting K. Michelle or even Jennifer Lopez, but Stevie Wonder? Meghan Trainor? Keith Urban of all people? Furthermore, there's not a single rap guest verse? What the hell was Jason Derulo making with Everything Was 4?
Man, another record I really wanted to like more than I did... guess I'll go back to listening to more Jamie xx (although I was going to do that anyways... Next up... hmm, not sure yet, because I'm going to need some time with Sun Kil Moon or that Surf album. I might talk about Billy Currington first, see if my goodwill doesn't run out. Stay tuned!
Well, I'm pretty much obliged to cover this. Not because I've been getting requests - although I have - but more because I think every girlfriend I've ever had is a fan of Florence + The Machine, and if I didn't say something, I'd probably hear something. And really, I can't blame them, because Florence + The Machine is one of those acts I always thought deserved to get a lot bigger than they have. When they smashed onto the scene in 2009 with the album Lungs and anthemic songs like 'Dog Days Are Over', a lot of critics drew comparisons with artists like Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, and especially Kate Bush. Now I would not go that far - especially on the last one - but there was often a raw desperate power behind Florence's vocals that lacked subtlety but had a ton of presence and power, which was often enough to allow you to overlook the fact that the lyricism could occasionally stray into clumsiness and that the instrumentation wasn't really as raw as it could have been. Hell, you could make the argument that without Florence + The Machine, you wouldn't have so many acts hammering the percussion-groove-over-melody as has been popular over the past few days, although they did do plenty to make it sound pretty damn pretty along the way. So with that in mind, why the hell isn't Florence + The Machine more popular, like on the charts? Well, I'd argue part of it is the fact that they've never really played the 'pop' game, especially in the lightweight silliness of the beginning of the club boom in 2009. Some of it might tie to the fact that Florence + The Machine fall into a similar area where most power pop ends up - too heavy and loud for pop radio, yet not quite rough-edged enough to rock harder. And part of it might just be that Florence Welch's intensity and rawness can be a hard sell - granted, I'm not sure I buy that, given the recent success of acts like Sia or Tove Lo. Hell, even Florence landed on the charts thanks to goddamn Calvin Harris making everything worse as he usually does. Or maybe some of it was just bad timing - their follow-up record Ceremonies dropped in 2011, and yet had the misfortune of going against 21 by Adele, which took Florence + The Machine's percussion-heavy formula and one of their main producers Paul Epworth and brought a level of tightness in the writing that Florence had never quite mastered. Yes, I get that a voice like Florence's doesn't exactly need subtlety to make impact, but eventually cranking every chorus to eleven loses impact when you don't have adequate melodic crescendos or stronger lyrical punch, especially when she goes for such self-serious gravitas. But after four years away, Florence + The Machine are back, apparently after Florence went through one of the most difficult points in her life, having a 'bit of a nervous breakdown' according to her, which places this record as her most personal. Did it pay off?
Holy shit, I was not expecting this album to be as good as it was. But with every listen, I find more to unpack in this production, and the emotional beats hit me like a ton of bricks every time. Next up... whoo boy, might as well pry open the fangirl hole and discuss Florence + The Machine. Wish me luck!
So first let's talk a little about remix albums. Believe it or not, even despite being in an era where electronic music is bigger than ever, outright remix albums don't seem to be as popular as they used to be ten years ago. Sure, you'll see a few of them in pop, especially from acts who are more on the electronic side and want to push the success of their albums a little longer by enlisting various DJs to remix their material, but the concept of one producer remixing an entire project from another artist is a lot less common. Granted, we live in the era of the internet, where you can find dozens of remixes of entire projects on Soundcloud or YouTube within hours of the song dropping, but to be able to infuse the entire project with a distinctive and unique personality is a different matter entirely. And thus you can kind of see how big of a deal it was when Jamie xx, producer and remix artist known for working with the critically acclaimed indie pop group The xx teamed up with Gil-Scott Heron to make We're New Here, a full remix album of Gil-Scott Heron's album that had dropped the previous year after sixteen years of absence from the music industry. And while Jamie xx's personality had been visible with The xx, his glassy, edged synths, subtle beats, and crisp percussion paired with Gil-Scott Heron's aged vocals were much more striking. Of course, one of his beats ended up being sampled by Rihanna and Drake for 'Take Care', which was a massive hit in 2012, but honestly, I've always liked Jamie xx's original version more for its greater texture and edge, and thus I was anticipating his upcoming debut with a fair amount of excitement, even though I found the second album from The xx album underwhelming and lacking some of the melodic tightness I dug on their debut. So did Jamie xx manage to deliver on his own with In Colour?