Well, this was certainly fun to make - genuinely curious if it ends up blowing up as much as it did last year, given how wonky this year was, so we'll see! Next up, working on that big top 50 list, so stay tuned!
This was the sort of week I didn't expect - on the one hand it's the aftermath of J. Cole's big debut so inevitably there was going to be a pretty major course correction... but that wasn't the only thing that happened, because Christmas music came back in force to compete with a pileup of hip-hop that I don't think anyone was asking for. And yet that's not the biggest story of this week... because we have a new #1.
So for those of you who saw my last list, you might have caught my general assertion that 2016 was not good for the Hot 100. And here's the deeper truth: the bad songs, while there were more of them, they weren't the sort of atrocious that keeps you up at night, at least not as a whole. Despite how angry I got, I can think back to a few other years that had far more contemptible songs that would inspire a lot more rage - I think society as a whole has pretty much forgotten that in 2013 Rick Ross teamed up with Rocko and Future to release a song with a verse endorsing date rape - yeah, that was a thing.
No, the bigger problem with the year-end Hot 100 in 2016 is that there was a lot less good songs - we always get a lot of mediocrity but this was a year where the pickings were very slim. On the one hand, it makes this list pretty easy - very little to cut - but at the same time in stronger years, like 2012 or even 2015, I'm not sure how much of this list would have measured up. Many people made that same observation back in 2014 - I didn't, mostly because I genuinely found a lot to like about my list that year - but I'm not denying it for 2016, especially because the majority of songs that will make this list were originally released in 2015 and only became hits this year. If that's not the most glaring indictment on pop in 2016, I don't know what is, and what gets all the more infuriating is that the mediocrity clogging the arteries of this year kept otherwise great songs from catching on, especially in country music which despite big improvements even on the Hot 100 practically disappeared for the year end.
But again, it had to land on that list, and it's a thin list indeed... but still, it wouldn't have made this list if I couldn't defend it being here, so let's start with our Honourable Mentions!
Nearly forgot to post this, but this was a surprisingly decent record - definitely check this out if you're interested in electronic music. Anyway, year-end lists have started, and the worst has been posted - stay tuned for more!
I'm going to try and maintain a level composure for as long as possible with this list. I know so many of you will want me to get good and furious - after all, it's the Worst Hits of 2016, this is when you're supposed to deliver the killing blow with righteous fury. This is your chance to exile the dregs to whatever just punishment they deserve, take a blowtorch to the rectum of a year that so many music critics have already branded as one of the worst in recent memory, certainly this decade. And if you look at the year-end Hot 100...
Well, here's the thing: due to my stipulation that I can only choose songs from that list, and the fact that I have my weekly show Billboard BREAKDOWN discussing all of these changes in detail, I've been acutely aware of this disaster for months now - I've seen it happen in slow motion. The calls of '2016 is the worst' picked up in the summer and exploded this fall - not helped by cultural forces beyond the charts themselves - but it becomes disheartening when you've been coping with it week after week and you can explain in excruciating detail why this happened. What it reminds me of most are the charts in the very early 90s - replacing Paula Abdul ripoffs for Rihanna ripoffs, an embrace of tepid tropical or adult contemporary sounds in pop that stank of non-effort, and when there were new acts on the horizon they looked to have no sustainable future in sight - or at the very least you hoped they didn't. Hell, even country in the early 90s was on the upswing thanks to the neotraditional sound like the Americana revival today, but whereas we could look to shifting trends in hip-hop and rock to revitalize that decade going forward... well, in rap we somehow managed to get the dregs of an otherwise promising year and the most 'rock' getting airplay was twenty one pilots and X Ambassadors. As I said, every critic has already told you this year was dreck, now it's time to go deeper and count out the worst of the worst. Fair warning, this is going to get ugly, so let's start with Dishonourable Mentions!
It's almost poetic that we end 2016 like this - not with a huge smash hit album, not with a critically beloved indie darling... but an album from one of you guys, one of my Patrons. I sincerely hope he sticks around now that his album has inched its way up the list organically to land in front of me, especially considering the gloves have never been on - I'm treating this with the same critical I treat everything else, as I've clearly warned many times. So, Shane The Crane is an electronic music producer that you'd mostly likely find on Soundcloud, but unlike many of those guys he appears to have the backing of a record label Beatdek Records, and from what I can tell this doesn't appear to be a vanity label, it actually has a few artists behind it. From a lot of the blurbs it looked to be skirting the edges of modern popular trends in electronic music with a slightly weirder twist on top - so okay, I'm kind of on board, this could be interesting, so I took a look at his debut project STC - how is it?
It's often considered one of the great contradictions of American popular culture that for as much it worships at the altar of violence and the military industrial complex - and Canada isn't that far removed, I'm not kidding myself here - everyone tends to get skittish around sexuality. You can have plenty of gore in your movie in your movies and still walk away with the PG-13, but show exposed breasts and you can expect the R, to say nothing of if you want to show a penis or vagina. Kind of amusing how parts of the entertainment industry gives a free pass to plenty of penis extensions that deliver death yet get antsy when confronted with the real thing. Now music is a little different, mostly because you're not dealing with the image outside of the album art... but not that different. Let's get real, with rare exception the majority of modern music is a lot more comfortable talking about male sexuality than female, and even then it's often masked in innuendos or played as a tease. To actively dig into the fleshy, messy side of things, peel back the sensuality and bravado to get to something more primal but no less real, that's explored far, far less. And that's no surprise: for as much as some artists threw open the doors to openly embrace sexuality in their music, it's usually paired with a desire to make it sound accessible to an audience who isn't as comfortable, entice rather than get into the explicit details. And then there's Jenny Hval - Norwegian singer-songwriter and experimental musician, while much of her music has been characterized by droning, oddly structured soundscapes full of weird experimental shifts - to say nothing of an odd pop sensibility that keeps creeping through - what's always caught my ear are the lyrics. And the best way to describe them is something akin to the inverted metaphor of the film Shortbus - usage of plainly sexual acts and language in order to say something more, rather than the other way around saying or doing something to imply sex. Of course, her themes and abstract writing have gone further than sex, but at the end of the day her music approaches the flesh-driven reality of sex with the sort of unrestrained frankness and language that for certain can startle and shock even the most sexually-comfortable and well-adjusted person. As such, her music for me has always required a concerted effort to fully contextualize and understand - one of the reasons this review is so late - but I have to say I was really looking forward to digging into Blood Bitch. Blending elements of 70s exploitation films, timetravelling and genderbending vampire iconography, and an acute focus on menstrual blood - seriously - into an experimental pop framework partially inspired by the drones of Norwegian black metal and produced by noise musician Lasse Marhaug, this was going to be the sort of trip that I expected to be challenging, but hopefully hugely rewarding. Was I right?
So this was a strange review. A lot of fun to make, and a surprisingly quick one to put together, but strange all the same. Huh. Anyway, probably only two reviews left - at best - as I try to put together my year-end lists - stay tuned!
I feel like I should like Ab-Soul so much more than I do. Okay, that's a misleading statement, because for the most part I do like this guy. His breakthrough project Control System was a great record, with the sort of creativity and ideas that made for thought-provoking listens and could compensate for wordplay that either slid towards corniness or revealed more flaws than can really be excused. I had a lot of hope that on future projects he'd be able to refine his ideas and sound into something that was sharper and harder and more cohesive... And then he released These Days. I'll be blunt, I was probably too easy on that record when I reviewed it, trying to search for deeper themes or satirical elements that didn't coalesce, and when the hooks just weren't there to match the production or slew of guest verses that were really all over the place, I found myself looking for reasons to like it and coming up short. And ever since then, I've heard plenty of guest verses from him, from collaborations with The Game to Jay Rock to Danny Brown and while so many have praised him, I've been consistently underwhelmed. I don't what to tell you, he's slipped towards corniness more often I'd really excuse and he's still not a consistently strong wordsmith in terms of constructing his bars. Hell, that's one of the reasons why I'm not all that surprised that it took so long for my Patreon voters to push this to the top of the schedule, maybe some of that spark had died out in comparison to his peers who had been more consistent or who had pushed out more interesting projects. But there was a part of me that still had real hope Ab-Soul could pull this off, although his list of guest stars was certainly different than I was expecting. I was more surprised than I probably should be that there was no Kendrick verse - he's consistently shown up Ab-Soul every time he's been on one of his records - but outside of ScHoolboy Q, Punch, and SZA, Ab-Soul seemed to be pulling from outside of TDE for this. I expected Mac Miller, they've worked together before, but Rapsody, Bas from Dreamville, Da$h from the A$AP Mob, and even Kokane, an oldschool veteran who started his career with Eazy-E? So yeah, I was curious - what did we get from Do What Thou Wilt.?
So do you want to know what can lead to real weirdness on the Hot 100? Not just one big debut - it'll have a ripple effect, but if you want to cause absolute havoc, drop two, and keep them within a few weeks of each other. And you might call me crazy for saying 'well, that rarely ever happens'... and this is the week where J. Cole followed in The Weeknd's wake with every single songs from 4 Your Eyez Only hitting the Hot 100 - I swear, why do I even bother to review the albums when this nonsense happens? This was the equivalent of a knockout punch for a lot of music, leading to what I think might be the most number of losses I've ever seen on the Hot 100 and sixteen new songs - because no, the stream of new arrivals wasn't really stopping either. And note that when I say impact, I'm not saying any of this was good - folks who saw that J. Cole review remember I wasn't fond of it... but then again, it's also featuring songs from The Voice and Post Malone, so we'll see what we get in contrast?
Well, this was a pleasant surprise - may have overshared a bit here, but eh, it happens. Next up, though... all of the J. Cole wound up on the Hot 100, which is just fantastic... after that is probably Ab-Soul, so stay tuned!
So here's the unfortunate truth of being a critic and a human being: like it or not, sometimes it's not just the art that overrules your critical faculties, but circumstances and memories that are linked to that art. It might not just be the sound or a particular turn of phrase that sparks an emotion, it's the memories and people associated with that sound or lyric that renders fragile objectivity all the more precarious.
Case in point, about four years ago I was dating a girl who was very fond of Regina Spektor and encouraged me to check out her album What We Saw From The Cheap Seats. And while I had something of a mixed opinion on that record as a whole, when she and I broke up later that year it became a bit difficult to go back to Regina Spektor without pulling up old memories - not all bad or good memories, mind you, but fragments that place her music in an awkward context. And it's not helped by my frustrating relationship with Spektor's peculiar brand of anti-folk itself: earnest, frequently clever with some striking melodies, but brimming at the edges with an off-kilter quirk that added personality but could occasionally undercut the dramatic tension some otherwise potent songs. I've said it in the past that I've got a very limited tolerance for 'twee', and while it didn't compromise her early 2000s work up to 2004's Soviet Kitsch, after that it got dicier. And what's frustrating is that it didn't happen all at once or consistently. Begin To Hope actually had some emotionally poignant moments - especially the closer track - but Far started to push it for me, especially if you started getting into the lyrics. And that awkward dichotomy between heartfelt power and utterly garish quirk manifested most on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats - on the one hand you get powerhouse tracks like 'All The Rowboats', but on the other hand... well, let's just say besides that song I haven't had much of an impulse to go back to it. But hey, maybe this new record - which was supposedly bigger and a little darker, it might hit a more satisfying point for me, and I've always thought Regina Spektor is an interesting songwriter, if not always a good one - she's got a penchant for random noises that drives me off the way - but whatever, how is Remember Us To Life?
Yes, I know I'm late to the party with this one, but my god, I'm so happy I got to it regardless, so smart and well-written, I just wish I dug the hardcore parts more. Eh, whatever, and now following it with another great record... well, stay tuned!
So I've mentioned a number of times throughout the three years I've done this series that I'm not the biggest fan of nihilistic artwork - not because I find the themes morally repugnant so much as they just get tedious after a while. You can wallow in your own depravity and debauched hedonism all you want, but at least switch it up once and a while or try to say something interesting about your condition - looking at you, Future.
But that's not to say music with dark or depressing themes doesn't work for me, especially if the writing or instrumentation twists in interesting directions. Enter Jeff Rosenstock, a name you're probably most familiar with from the New York punk and ska scene, namely as the frontman of Arrogant Sons of Bitches, the DIY ska-punk collective Bomb The Music Industry!, and the indie rock group Kudrow. But where I started to take more notice was his solo work, and when I say that I mean that my notice was driven by a bunch of music critics I otherwise respect telling me insistently that I need to hear this guy. And sure enough, they were right, because Jeff Rosenstock's music was right up my alley. A punk smart enough to temper his anthems in the sort of overwritten but self-deprecating material to temper the bite, with a frankly astonishing level of detail to paint the pictures, both instrumentally and lyrically, his music reminded me a bit of Frank Turner in a weird way in the maturity of their punk mindset and a commitment to ridiculously catchy music. But I think Rosenstock squeezed more instrumental styles and tones into his first two solo records, aptly titled I Look Like Shit and We Cool?, grabbing from ska and garage rock and lo-fi and even synthpunk to form a raucous, utterly unpredictable sound that really stuck with me, I really dug those records. As such, while again it has been a long time coming, I really wanted to check out his newest release this year WORRY. - did it hold up to the hype?
You know, for as much effort as this review was to write, it couldn't have been for a record that I've forgotten so quickly... stunning, really. Anyway, next up is something much more memorable, so stay tuned!
I think it's time that some of the illusions should be broken surrounding J. Cole.
And let me make this clear, this was a long time coming, but the release of 'False Prophets' and the pretty blatant diss directed at Kanye West - well, as blatant as not having the courage to put names on wax is these days - pretty much cemented it in my mind. In that song, J. Cole expressed his disappointment that Kanye, one of his idols, was falling from grace and his art was suffering for it, and that his "friend" Wale was stewing in his own bitterness and depression given the mixed critical response to his work. So let's put aside that he just put one of his own 'friends' on blast about his depression, he also chose to release this song right as Kanye has been going through what appears to be a full-on mental breakdown, and not just attack his character, but his art. And look, if J. Cole is disappointed with Kanye, he can join the goddamn club - I've been frustrated with his work since I think 2009 - but to me this stank of some opportunistic sucker shit, taking cheap shots at artists who aren't a position to directly fire back as a way to get hype for an upcoming album that doesn't even feature that song! But after all, it's not like J. Cole is lying, right? He plainly cares, this is his way of showing his concern - after all, he's such a nice guy.
And make no mistake, I'm definitely using the 'nice guy' qualifier as a pejorative here, because for a while now it has seemed to ring true for J. Cole - a guy who on the surface might seem to have sincere intentions but when you rip away the veneer he's just like so many of the A-listers that he derides. And while to some 'False Prophets' was the first clue, this has been something I've noticed since at least 2014Forest HillsDrive, especially in his songs about women. Hell, you could probably trace it back further, but what I've always found galling is the framing: he doesn't frame his disses as such, but just 'disappointment' - the actual content rarely matches how it is presented, and that's where things can get ugly. And if that disingenuous presentation was the only problem that'd be one thing, but when you combine it with content and bars that are nowhere near as deep or complex as J. Cole plainly thinks they are, it tends to make for records that I don't like nearly as much as so many. But whatever, now that I've probably alienated a fair chunk of you, how is that new album for which he was building this hype, 4 Your Eyez Only?
Man, it took way too long to cover this record, but I'm happy I did, another fascinating example of what country had to offer in a banner year, fascinating record. Next up... okay fine, J. Cole next, stay tuned!
I have a complicated relationship with retro music. Now that might seem a little strange coming from me, given how much the country indie scene loves to pull from old school classic country to update it with a modern touch. And if you look at the stuff I love from the genre over the past few years, the key word is 'update'. Don't get me wrong, I like my country standards, but I can always go back to those sounds, and my interest tends to wane if all I'm hearing is a recreation, not something otherwise fresh - draw on the past, not repeat it. Now this has meant I've tended to be a little skeptical of the smooth jazz and rockabilly-inspired country that's grown popular over the past couple of years. I'm not saying it can't work - look at Lindi Ortega's Cigarettes And Truckstops for a prime example of co-opting the image and style to something far more compelling in blending its glam with grit - but at its most trying it can come across a little 'stagey', for lack of better words. Furthermore, if you've been listening to indie country for a while, this is ground that's been trod before - hell, that was one of my frustrations with Angel Olsen's MY WOMAN, even though in that case it was more blowback from all the hype. But it was that review I was thinking about while gearing up to cover Cheryl Desere'e's self-titled debut. I had heard some of the buzz from this California artist and I had liked what I had initially heard going in, but I could definitely see some being taken more by her image and not the writing. And yet this wasn't an album of covers - we're dealing with original songs she wrote, and reportedly with a greater horn section to boot, so I was prepared to take this very seriously - so what did Cheryl Desere'e deliver?
So yeah, not really a great week, per se, but still one I can respect to some extent with a welcome surprise. Not bad, overall. Next up, an artist that I should have tackled a while ago, then J. Cole (he was just one vote short of taking the top spot on this list, tsk tsk). Stay tuned!
If I was going to describe this week of the Hot 100 for posterity - and I have no idea why anyone would bother with any week, let alone this one, it'd be 'muted chaos'. Oh, make no mistake, a fair amount actually happened, especially with the expected dropoff for The Weeknd, but none of it was at the volume where it would cause significant change or a bout of huge new arrivals. And of course a big part of that is Christmas music making its expected return, whether you wanted it or not. Of course, the big thing that I noticed is that despite a huge debut on the Billboard 200 and despite me making a bold prediction otherwise, not a single song from The Hamilton Mixtape crossed over to the Hot 100, which means that our new arrivals... well, we'll get to them.
I honestly thought this review would do a little better, given how dedicated the Hamilton fanbase is... eh, it happens, I guess, I'm guessing more people are looking forward to year-end lists or a J. Cole review. In the mean time, though... Billboard BREAKDOWN up next, so stay tuned!
Let's talk about one of my biggest mistakes last year, or at least one that has weighed on me pretty heavily: I didn't talk about Hamilton. Oh, I considered it, a lot: I like hip-hop, I like musical theater, and I like Lin-Manuel Miranda. I might not have loved his debut In The Heights but it had a lot of charm and potential, so when he took the world by storm in 2015 with his musical chronicling the fascinating and tumultuous life of Alexander Hamilton... I didn't cover it. I don't really remember what my reasoning was for it either - the musical, while having its flaws in pacing and historical context, is indeed pretty awesome, with some of the most immediately catchy songs you'll ever hear. And hell, I even knew Daveed Diggs from clipping., I had an obvious inroad here! And yet even with that Hamilton became the sort of Broadway crossover into popular culture that you so rarely see. Forget that it cleaned up at the Tony Awards, it was the sort of show where you'd probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting tickets. As such, the vast majority of us made do with the soundtrack, which wound up on a surprising number of year-end lists from professional music critics and as of now has crossed over a billion streams on Spotify, which does say a lot. Would it have landed on mine? Well, it would have had a shot, and that is saying a lot, especially given how strong 2015 was, especially for rap music. And then we all got word about the mixtape... and if you've seen the list of huge names that have signed on for it, it's more than a little mindblowing! I would have gotten it for Usher covering 'Wait For It', but when you have Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz, and Nate Ruess doing 'My Shot', Kelly Clarkson doing 'It's Quiet Uptown', John Legend doing 'History Has Its Eyes On You', Chance The Rapper working on the reprise of 'Dear Theodosia', Regina Spektor and Ben Folds covering the regular 'Dear Theodosia', Ashanti doing 'Helpless' - which is such an obvious choice it's not even funny - Nas, Dave East, and Aloe Blacc working on 'Wrote My Way Out', Common and Ingrid Michaelson handling 'Who Tells Your Story' with The Roots - and The Roots are all over this project - and then add in a bonus track like 'Congratulations' with Dessa on it... at some point, you might as well give this project a spot on my year end list! I was primed to love this, and that meant I came in with the highest of expectations - were they paid off?
...honestly, for as much time as I gave this record, I wish it was better, but eh, it happens. Next up, though... man, I've been waiting to talk about this for a minute, really looking forward to this. Stay tuned!
So this has been entirely too long in coming... and yet it's almost fitting that we'd round out the end of the year with a record I had every expectation would be great. Hell, in a year full of strong country, especially in the indie scene, especially leaning towards folk, and especially coming from incredibly sharp female singer-songwriters, it's almost karmic that we circle back to a record like this for the end of the year.
And I had every expectation that this album would be great. In my research I couldn't find copies of Courtney Marie Andrews' entire discography, but what I did find was heartfelt, organic, melodic, and with a plainspoken power that was hard to deny... and yet the most some would every recognize her for was background work she did with Ryan Adams and Jimmy Eat World of all people. Of course, her voice is distinctive enough that she'd be recognizable even there - a lilting, slightly deeper and huskier voice that reminded me a little of Joni Mitchell or maybe Joanna Newsom early on before her tones got richer with age. And with this being her first record since 2013 and with the considerable amount of critical acclaim it has received, I had every expectation and hope that this album would be excellent at the very least - so was I right?
And this record was a ton of fun. Man, it's not smart at all, but at some point it doesn't need to be to kick ass, and this is a prime example. Next up... probably Courtney Marie Andrews if my schedule holds, so we'll see here. Stay tuned!
So it's been a while since I've talked about Canadian country music - which yes, is a thing and I'm still a little bewildered why people act so surprised when I mention that. Folks, we have open plains, the Boots N' Hearts festival and the Calgary stampede - it might be a very regional thing up here, but we do have a big market for country music. But just like the rest of Canadian music, Canadian country is a little different. It's probably best to see it as a similar ecosystem to Texas country in comparison with Nashville - we might import a fair bit, but there are some unique traditions and sounds that we've cultivated up here. For one, there's more of a balance, as Canadian country didn't just embrace bro-country outside of a few artists. We kept something of our neotraditional scene alive, the country rock scene flourishes about as much as the rest of rock in Canada - in other words, better than you'd expect - and of course we've got our own indie country material. Hell, I reviewed Lucette back in 2014, and her last album was a prime example of that sort of folk-touched sound that we also saw with the excellent case/lang/veirs project this year - in comparison with more American folk it's a little more atmospheric and spacious and rough-edged. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, and that takes us to High Valley, a duo of brothers from Blumenort, Alberta, and I've actually talked about them before when I discussed their breakout single 'Make You Mine' in my roundup of the Canadian Hot 100 last year. Now they've actually been active since the late 2000s on independent labels, but the success of that single - featuring Ricky Skaggs and which has been tacked onto the American release of this album, which I'll be covering - was enough to land them on Atlantic, with the majority of the songs cowritten by the duo themselves. And look, it's hard not to see labels preparing to pitch them as an earthier, less-polished version of Florida Georgia Line, but I had hope these guys could clean up with some great harmonies to boot, especially given how good 'Make You Mine' is. So was I right?
I can't help but think Fantano was somewhat right in how mature this record is, but normally maturity feels a bit more grounded than I think this album is, which is a tad disappointing. Eh, it's got a few choice cuts, but not much. Next up, though... whoo boy, this was fun. Stay tuned!
I have to admit, when voters on Patreon asked for this record in particular, I was a little stunned that there was any interest. And I think that's on me, really, mostly because I've never really been incredibly interesting in Alicia Keys. I tend to know her more for her singles than her albums - although her first two records Songs In A Minor and The Diary Of Alicia Keys really are quite strong - and from those singles, she never struck me as the sort of artist that would really captivate me. Don't get me wrong, she has an incredible voice and is a good melodic composer, but that's where a lot of my praise tends to end, mostly because her midperiod work showed exactly where things could slip off the rails. As I Am slid towards some frustrating writing tropes that alternated between clunky and juvenile, The Element Of Freedom really felt overproduced - even if I do have a soft spot for 'Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart' - and Girl On Fire, while having a few good moments did ultimately suffer from both problems albeit to a slightly lesser extent. And this is all ignoring the biggest issue, namely that for as good of a singer as she is, I've never been wowed by the songwriting, which never seems to take the chances that she could and can definitely slip towards cliche. And at this point in her career going into her sixth album fifteen years in, I had to hope there'd be a little more experimentation - was I right?
So this record was a trip... not precisely great, I really do wish I liked it more, but still interesting, that's for damn sure. Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN and then an album that I would have ignored if not for Patreon... so stay tuned!
I called it last week, and now here it is. Folks, this is the week of The Weeknd, because of at this moment, every single song from his album Starboy either entered, re-entered, or rose up the Hot 100 this week. That's a total of eighteen songs - and what's all the more crazy is that he didn't encompass every debut this week, thank you so very much Disney. And what concerns me more than anything is overexposure - that's one of the biggest factors that lies at the roots of how much I turned on Drake throughout this last year... so let's hope this doesn't hit The Weeknd as badly as I might expect.
I feel like I have a complicated relationship with Childish Gambino. Hell, I get the feeling a lot of critics do, mostly because it's so damn rare to see an artist leap so fully formed and relentlessly talented across genres and indeed entire mediums. Whether you know him from his comedy sketches to his writing work on 30 Rock to the cult classic Community to his soon-to-be classic show Atlanta, he's a man of extraordinary talent, and that's before we get to his stand-up or his work as a musician and songwriter. But if I'm also being brutally honest, I feel I should like his music a lot more than I do. The odd blend of styles and production - most outside of his mixtapes which are done in-house with producer Ludwig Goransson - that are present in his music often juxtapose with lyrics that often feel intensely personal or eclectic. There's an defined artistic style and voice that's always been present, that will then veer in unexpected directions made from a pastiche of indie music, southern hip-hop, and bizarre pop culture references, all amidst a creative mind that's incredibly ambitious but also painfully self-aware. Relistening to his debut Camp and his much-lauded follow-up Because The Internet will give you plenty of evidence why Childish Gambino is a compelling presence behind the microphone as a charismatic rapper and singer... but between his cartoonish exaggerations that occasionally slide towards campiness, often masking deeper wells of rage and self-loathing, and a genuine feeling of earnestness that can either hit transcendence or deeply felt awkwardness, he comes across as the sort of precocious yet driven creator who is not afraid to aim high, overshare, hit big and miss hard. And those sorts of chances and effort are inspiring and powerful stuff, something I can relate to on a certain level - I just wish his aesthetic and craftsmanship of his sound and narratives worked better for me. And that was my big concern going into "Awaken, My Love!" - mostly because while I admired his lead-off singles, I didn't love the sound or artistic choices. But again, I was only seeing fragments of the story, I had to hope the whole project - his shortest in some time - would have the focus and clarity to work - was I right?
I'm happy I finally got the chance to cover this one. Entirely too late, of course, but still, it really was something solid, I enjoyed this. Of course, it's not the only record I'm covering tonight, so stay tuned!
So if you've been following my spiraling journey through black metal, one thing you've probably noticed is that I tend towards the more melodic and atmospheric brand of it - honestly, probably what I would recommend for most listeners trying to get into the genre. At the end of the day, I'm a junkie for great melody and tunes, and the black metal I tend to like falls in this vein. And thus, it was only a matter of time before I had to talk about Alcest, the French experimental metal project that many consider one of the pioneering bands of the 'blackgaze' scene, blending black metal textures with shoegaze. And I'll admit while I'm not a huge shoegaze fan, early on I liked a lot of what I heard from Alcest. Even though in comparison with so many of their peers they weren't writing incredibly dark or bleak songs, there was a knack for melodic composition that I just found stunning, especially their debut album Souvenirs d'un autre monde - hell, I actually liked it more than their follow-up Ecailles de Lune. But it has always seemed like Alcest was much more drawn to the more ethereal, soaring tones that came with post-rock or shoegaze, and with each successive album the black metal tones receded more and more, before their 2014 album Shelter discarded them altogether. in other words, there was a significant part of me that wasn't really interested in hearing more - I saw what happened when Opeth left black and death metal for old school progressive rock, and that was at least a genre I knew and understood more. And yet when I heard that Alcest's Kodama this year was actually pivoting back to black metal, reportedly inspired by the Hayao Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, I was intrigued. As much as their shift in sound could frustrate me, they did write interesting material, so I wanted to check this out - and thanks to Patreon votes, I now can. So what did we get from Kodama?
Well, this took way too long to get to... but I'm happy I did. Who knows if it would have clicked better before the election, but honestly, I doubt it - the sound has to hold up. Beyond that, though... well, the schedule can shift any time, but I've got another long-overdue project next, so I'll be covering that. Stay tuned!
I say every year that I hope to cover more electronic music... and yet somehow, in the last few months of the year, I find myself catching up with the acts that I really should have covered months ago - hence why it has taken so long to get to this review. And it's not like this album hasn't been on my schedule for some time. I may not have been talking much about music when Nicolas Jaar's critically adored debut album Space Is Only Noise dropped in 2011, but when I did start getting requests to cover him as early as 2015, where he reentered the spotlight courtesy of a few EPs and soundtrack albums. And when I went back to Space Is Only Noise, I actually really liked it. The slightly askew melodies, the vocal snippets against scant flutters of glitch, the intense intimacy of every bit of percussion, the haunted vocals, the odd sense of groove it had, it was a weird as hell record, but it had the sort of ridiculous poise and confidence that made Jaar seem like a veteran effortlessly crossing and blending styles. Again, like most electronica I cover, I will not say it's for everyone - too slow and diffuse to really dance to, not nearly as abrasive as more experimental producers tend to fly, not as melodic to build to consistent vibes, but not so spacious where it slips towards ambient music. This is music at the intersection of a lot of ideas, a fair few of them weird, and while they didn't all quite work for me on Space Is Only Noise - some of those melodic shifts and vocal samples were something else - I was definitely curious to check out Sirens, especially given how much critical acclaim was dumped on it. And thanks to consistent Patreon votes, it's now finally got its chance to shine - is it worth it?
Well, it took WAY too long to get to this, but I'm happy I got a chance to talk about it regardless, one of the fascinating cases that I wish I liked more than I did. Sort of like Radiohead, in a weird way... And on the topic of electronica... well, stay tuned!
Well, it's about time I talk about this. In fact, I'm a little bewildered why it has taken me this long. Sure, I've been busy and there's been no shortage at all of more records that are flooding the last few weeks of the year, but I have to admit a certain disinterest in this record. Part of this is because I covered Phantogram's last album Voices in 2014 and didn't really care for it - but even that's not really true, from what I remember. And that's the bigger problem, I had to go back to my last review to recall anything about that record, and even a quick relisten didn't stick much with me, mostly because it felt like the poppier nature of the writing didn't really fit well with the darker, fuzzier electronic production and didn't flatter their stronger melodies. And yet despite everything, the critical reviews have been mixed to positive on this album, including from some people I respect a great deal. They said it went louder and heavier and brought in more bombast - which okay, that could be promising if the writing and delivery picked up the slack - so I left on my schedule. And thus thanks to voting on Patreon, it somehow wound up on top of said schedule, so what the hell - how did Three by Phantogramturn out?
So this video was longer than usual... and actually really great, I dug the hell out of this! Two good weeks in a row... man, if only I had any hope we could keep this up, 2017 has some real potential to be a damn good year. In the mean time, let's take care of old business next, shall we? Stay tuned!
So this week was a little weird. Not just because we started getting tracks from The Weeknd earlier than expected - I'm imagining next week to be just overloaded - but we got some big surprises all over the place, including a few artists I have not thought about or talked about in years. That, at the very least promised to make things interesting - note that I didn't precisely say good, although there really was some promise here.
Well, this happened... my god, I wish this was so much better, especially as their first independent release. Instead, we got an only decent record combining the most frustrating elements from their last two records and none of the justifications. Joy. Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!
This will be a bit of a weird review - and not just because I have a history with this band, but also because hindsight is one of those things that can shift one's opinion on an act pretty dramatically.
And as much as I don't like to admit it, Icon For Hire often falls into that camp for me, mostly because they can be a difficult band to really categorize. Many people thought when they signed to Tooth & Nail - a Christian label - that they'd fall into that disreputable subgenre of badly produced crap, but Icon For Hire actually rose a fair bit above their contemporaries to make some pretty solid alternative rock and metal, with a knack for solid writing, good hooks, and the tremendous talents of frontwoman Ariel. They infused a lot more pop and hip-hop elements into their self-titled - basically to satirize all of them - and I liked that record so much in 2013 that it ended up on my top 25 albums of that year. In retrospect... I'm not at all certain I could justify it on that list now, mostly because the production the label gave them was pretty flat. Their producer Mike Green had worked with Pierce The Veil and Paramore - which has been a comparison that has been made with Icon For Hire their entire careers and not exactly a promising one - but it did not help that record and it has aged pretty poorly.
And then everything went to shit. They ran into serious conflicts with their label - probably because they've always kept Christian subject matter at arm's length, which was probably smart - went independent, and dropped an EP back in 2015... that got some polarized reactions for 'Now You Know', which railed hard against music industry sexism. And yeah, I appreciate the bluntness of the message and the deeper attempts at subtext, but the delivery did not work - Ariel's less-melodic rapped delivery, the grating synths, the flat production, it did no service to an important message. And when you hear they funded their new album through Kickstarter, raising over a hundred thousand dollars to get Mike Green back and pull it together... look, deep down I still like this group, and they've written strong hooks and smart songs, I wanted to really like this. Did You Can't Kill Us deliver?
Well, this took entirely too long to finish - go figure, when you have a double album that's ninety minutes and feels twice as long, but still, I had more hopes for this. Next up... whoo boy, stay tuned!
There's no way to get into this record without talking about the expected controversy. And don't pretend like you didn't know it was coming - hell, I bet a significant chunk of country listeners will pick up this project solely because they want to get to the roots of it all, hear the other side of the story that was only mentioned in passing on her ex-husband's record earlier this year. For me, it ran a little deeper. I've gone on the record about being a Miranda Lambert fan for some time, and while her last record Platinum in 2014 was an overlong and frustrating listen, I knew in my gut The Weight Of These Wings would be something else entirely. Let's face it, we've heard plenty of albums from the person getting cheated on, but outside of very specific songs in R&B, you don't get many from the 'cheater', especially if it's well-framed to explore the consequences. And yeah, that leaves the very open question of what Miranda did or did not do that triggered the divorce, but from the lead-off single 'Vice' it made things clear that moral ambiguity would be the biggest story behind The Weight Of These Wings. And even that is saying something, given that it was a double album of twenty-four songs - always a risky proposition - and that her direction was taking her closer to the exploding indie country scene than the mainstream - hell, her appearance on Southern Family was evidence in and of itself where she wanted to take her sound. And in a banner year for women in country music, I wanted to make sure I gave this album all the time it needed to really sink in? So what did we get with The Weight Of These Wings?
...so yeah, I definitely wish this was a lot better. It's not bad - 'False Alarm' pretty much redeems this record on its merit alone - but I was hoping for more in that vein or at least some sharper, more interesting writing and we didn't get that. And on a similar topic... well, stay tuned!
I get the strong impression The Weeknd never thought he'd become famous. Admittedly, all of this is guesswork, but if you go back through his early records, it became clear that despite how influential his sound was becoming and the cosigns behind him, he had his own sound, style, and distinctive lane, and considering how bleak and graphic that lane was, he probably never expected to crossover. Sure, you could make arguments that he was trending towards more of a pop sound on Beauty Behind The Madness, but also keep in mind that despite having two songs go to #1, the biggest hit of that record wasn't 'Can't Feel My Face' but 'The Hills'. Not the song where he embraced his inner Michael Jackson, but the track where he ripped away the veneer to reveal the toxic, self-destructive self-loathing that lurked at the base of it. In comparison to obvious singles like 'Can't Feel My Face' or even the stronger 'In The Night', it was a hard left turn... and as of now, it's his biggest hit. And I get the feeling this wasn't lost on The Weeknd, and if we were going to reward his dark impulses, that seemed to be enough of an endorsement for him to plow into even weirder and more experimental territory - hell, everyone who has watched Billboard BREAKDOWN has seen how much praise I gave 'False Alarm' for its manic, darkwave-inspired sound and style. And when The Weeknd cited his inspirations were The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, and Prince... well, my only surprise is that he didn't cite more gothic acts, given how obvious the influence has been for years. But at the same time, I didn't expect the album to completely fly into left field - credits from Kendrick Lamar, Future, Daft Punk, and Lana Del Rey proved he was keeping his feet pretty close to the mainstream, and that's before you dig into the production credits. In short, The Weeknd has an institution of modern pop songwriters and producers behind him, this was not going to be allowed to get that weird. Still, I had liked 'Starboy' and I had loved 'False Alarm', this record was easily one of my most anticipated in 2016 - so did it deliver?
Well, Patreon votes got it up first, so here we go. Man, this was great - again, I know I didn't like this more than De La Soul, but it still has a ton to offer... so good. And on the note of double albums... stay tuned!
I've said a number of times before that it's difficult to tackle legends... and hell, with as many comebacks as we've seen recently, it's made my job all the more complicated. And I guess I should have known as soon as De La Soul made their big return with ...and the anonymous nobody this year - which I absolutely loved, for the record - it would only be a matter of time before I had to talk about their Native Tongues contemporaries, A Tribe Called Quest. And truth be told, I'm not really sure what there is to say here. I went back through their entire discography, and while I wouldn't quite say I loved it as much as De La Soul, I definitely get and appreciate Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, and the late Phife Dawg's work here. In terms of smooth yet conscious jazz rap, these guys were pioneers, and their albums have held up ridiculously well in terms of tones and textures decades later, and while I might prefer De La Soul's more experimental flourishes in production and wordplay, I can't deny that A Tribe Called Quest had a knack for stronger and accessible hooks, and they were plenty experimental all the same. And thus when they broke up at the end of the 90s thanks to label frustrations, it stood to reason that we'd probably never get another album, especially when Phife Dawg died entirely too soon earlier this year. But somehow they had pulled together enough verses to make one last record, to pass the torch to the next generation. And just like with De La Soul, the list of collaborators on this project was extensive and often surprising, from old friends like Consequence, Busta Rhymes, and Talib Kweli to the new generation in Kendrick and Anderson .Paak to surprises like Kanye West, Andre 3000, Elton John and Jack White. All of this in another double album... man, I had to hear this. So I dug into We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - did it deserve all of the critical acclaim?
Well, this is a damn good way to start a year, I most certainly approve. More of this, less all of 2016, please? Next up, though, after the Patreon reshuffling of the schedule last night... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!
Well, here we are, folks: welcome to the third year of Billboard BREAKDOWN! Year three, covering the Billboard year of 2017, and man alive, I'm hoping that it'll be be better than the disaster of mediocrity that was 2016. We'll be covering more that near the end of December during the year-end end lists, but until then, let's focus on 2017... and I have to say, if we're going to start off like this, I've got a really good feeling going forward. Not perfect by any stretch, but overall... yeah, there's a lot to get excited about.
Oh man... I have no idea how this is ultimately going to be received, but man, I wish I had liked this as much as I liked their 80s material. Eh, it happens, I guess... but moving on from that, we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN and the first round of voting, which starts tonight - stay tuned!
They are a name that is in the public consciousness synonymous with metal. Of the big four in thrash, they are the one that probably leaps to mind the most. The most recognizable, arguably one of the most successful, and one that I've never really talked about in great detail... mostly because the band has not released a lot of quality throughout my entire lifetime. Yeah, we're talking about Metallica, the second of the big four that I've covered this year. And even though I'm no big fan of thrash metal - which probably didn't help that Megadeth review, I do tend to take a more forgiving picture of Metallica. For one, on a pure compositional and writing level I found them a more consistent and enjoyable group for a longer period of time than Megadeth. And even though I do have some individual issues with their 80s output, I can definitely hold up records like Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and ...And Justice For All as iconic in the genre, with Ride The Lightning probably being my favourite. But here's the unfortunate truth of it: those were all in the 80s. I don't have the aversion to The Black Album that some Metallica fans do, but it really was a sign of the records to come. On some level I appreciated Metallica venturing out of thrash for Load and Reload, but they seemed to lose a lot of the interesting virtuoso musicianship and melodic chops that helped their 80s work stand out. And St. Anger was even worse - plagued with production issues, sloppy writing, and no solos, it just hit a really sour note with me. Death Magnetic was a return to form on some level in 2008 - there were still production issues, courtesy of an abuse of compression, which did nothing to highlight the melodies, but it was a Metallica sound I could get behind. But they followed that by working with Lou Reed on Lulu... and really, that album is a video in and of itself, but let me say this: it's not a good record, at all, but especially lyrically it's the sort of fascinating failure that's extremely entertaining to dissect. But the broader point of all of this is that since I was born in 1990, the vast majority of music Metallica has released has been decent at best, and that's dispiriting going into a new record. And really, I had no clue what to expect: Metallica has been all over the map throughout their career, and given they had now put together a double album of material with no songwriting contributions from Kirk Hammett - and I hadn't heard any new singles - I figured this would be my big chance to dig in deep - so what did we get?
Pop is artificial. But you all knew that - and I bet the majority of you don't even care. Now the first part of that statement, every good music critic has known for decades, and the great music critics have never cared. Sure, a bunch of us will probably end up gravitating to genres that are branded more 'real', but there's admiration for pop's artifice and construction, the sleekness of its melody and production for capturing the sound of the moment, the fact that it could synthesize emotion so effectively, and at its very best perhaps even capture something transcendent. Now immediately by saying this, I've made the inherent assertion that pop is often much less than more authentic genres, which I don't even believe - hell, two years ago I made a Special Comment in defense of the genre asserting how the assembly of a truly great pop song is often far more difficult than anyone realizes. Otherwise, people would have figured out the formula by now. But when I think about Bruno Mars, the songwriter who started off behind the scenes before constructing his own pop persona with Doowops & Hooligans in late 2010, some of that rock snob feeling comes back. Especially more recently, there's an odd distance I have to a lot of his material... and if I were to guess, he had an artistic identity with an established sound, and he threw most of it away. Maybe it was bad choices of singles and promotion early on - why 'The Other Side' was never pushed instead of 'The Lazy Song' is beyond human comprehension - but there seemed like a point where Bruno Mars abandoned sincerity. Instead, he put on the shades, leaned into his vast pool of pop knowledge from the past and amped up the showmanship and natural charisma - and what was alarming is that his music for the most part got better - catchier, cooler, he didn't have to care! It's always felt a bit like a facsimile to me, though, which seems to be why most critics have been appreciative but reticent to get closer. But it hasn't stopped the success - the public knows and just hasn't cared that he's shamelessly strip-mining the past for his sound with just enough of a modern flair to keep the audience engaged. Hell, you could argue that's what's burned away some of the lustre for everyone in modern pop - in the aftermath of poptimism where critics are expected to treat pop as art, instead of elevating the ideal too many critics just dulled the illusion and lowered standards to cater to an audience who never cared to dig deeper - and with how little some of the pop artists themselves seem to care in 2016, it's come full circle. Ugh, this is sounding more melancholic than it should, because Bruno Mars on the surface should be an artist I like a lot more: he's naturally charismatic, he knows pop history, he's an interesting songwriter, his production is often on-point... he can be wildly uneven in terms of song quality, that being my biggest issue with Unorthodox Jukebox, but that can't be it, right? So to finally get some closure here, I decided to check out 24K Magic by Bruno Mars, his big return album four years after his last release and almost two years since the explosion of 'Uptown Funk' with Mark Ronson- so what did we get?
Hi folks, welcome to Spectrum Pulse, where we talk about music, movies, art and culture - and this time, the conversation is about you.
No, not like that, or like that either. For those of you who are not aware, my name is Mark Grondin, I'm the host of this series, which includes critical reviews, year-end rankings of songs and records, Special Comments, and of course my weekly series Billboard BREAKDOWN, where I dig into the twisted and often chaotic mess of the Billboard Hot 100. And over the past three to four years, it's been astounding to watch this community of over twenty-three thousand people grow, developing friendships, collaborations, and even memes - and while there have been some contentious moments, I'd like to think that we as a community have helped forge something special. And this... now it's time to take a step I've been considering for nearly two years, a chance to open up the floodgates to you, an experiment I've seen refined and tested in so many quarters.
I speak, of course, of Patreon. Founded in 2013, this was a service designed at its core to better connect artists with their fans and audiences, cut out the middlemen to build the symbiotic relationship, inspired by the old concept of 'patron of the arts'. At a deepeIt r level this was forging a connection, allowing the audience insight into the process or even direction of the art created. It's enabling talent, allowing great things to grow...
And yet, I don't really fit into the traditional definition of 'artist'. Yes, I'm a published author, but I fall more in line as a critic leaning even towards journalism, and while there is indeed value in sparking that conversation, I'm convinced it needs to be treated in a different way. YouTube, in a way, has already started to change this critical dichotomy, harkening back to an older tradition of individual men and women describing, analyzing, and critiquing art, not corporate entities with a brand delivered from on high. For the most part, over six hundred reviews have given you evidence, you know where I stand - and this means the next step is bringing the conversation to you.
As such, the principle of this Patreon experiment is going to be different than most - smaller, more flexible, more ready and able to connect at the base level so that your voices can be heard, and you can have real insight into my process. As such, the three tiers of involvement are intended to be accessible while still maintaining a clear understanding and control of things, so I don't totally lose my mind in this experience. Probably will anyway, but hey, you never know. And, like any journalist, I need to be accountable to my audience, which is why any Patreon contribution is set per video that I produce - you know where I stand, you get what you pay for, and if the content isn't there, you don't get charged.
And that's why, in this spirit of this accountability, the first level, at one dollar, is visibility: you get to see my schedule, my upcoming plans, and maybe even a rough timeline of when future projects are to be reviewed in detail, all on a handy Google doc. Now certain things are inevitable: Billboard BREAKDOWN is a weekly series and is not going anywhere, subscriber and channel anniversaries pretty much supersede everything, and year-end lists will of course stick around, but between those, the remaining 75% of my content, this will give you a chance to see where I'm planning on taking my show next.
Now many of you are probably thinking that's pretty innocuous, nothing all that revolutionary, it's just a schedule, it probably doesn't change that much... and yet at that same level, three times a week - Tuesday and Thursday evening around 7-9 pm EST and Saturday afternoon 1-3 pm EST - you will have access to that schedule and an opportunity to vote on entries. Each contributor gets one vote, and depending on the vote tallies, I will move entries up and down my schedule to meet your popular demand. And while there are times of year where one record will supersede everything else in the conversation, I know for a fact you guys and girls are a diverse group who watch for many different things and genres, from pop fans to metalheads, country fans to hip-hop heads, I can foresee some contentious voting. Now there are rules here - for one, I have a vote as well, and this doesn't stipulate a specific timeline for me to cover the projects, only the order in which I'll cover them - of course, with the added condition that the project needs to be out commercially as well (and not just leaked) - I have no problem if you put upcoming projects on the list, but if it's not out by the time I get to it, I might cover something else on the schedule first. And that also means that if an artist has a massive back catalog to get through ahead of time that I haven't previously examined, I may move some things around this schedule if absolutely necessary. I'm dearly hoping this won't be necessary, but again, it's sanity protection for me, and I will always be very straightforward about it if and when that needs to happen.
But wait, you might ask, what if the album I want you to cover isn't on that schedule? Well, this is where we get the second level, at $2, once a week during the Saturday afternoon voting, you have the option instead of voting to change the schedule order, to add an album to my schedule. Of course, there are rules: the album has to be from the year in which I'm currently - in 2016 I cover 2016 albums - the lyrics must be available online in full, I cover full-length albums not EPs or mixtapes or compilations, and there is zero guarantee that adding the record to the list will get you a positive or negative review. The album will start at the bottom of the schedule, and yes, I do have the final say if I'm going to cover it. Independent artists, this is your chance to get in at the ground floor.
But isn't there something else in my tagline that doesn't tend to get enough attention? Well, at the highest tier - $5, one a week during the Saturday afternoon voting, you have the option instead of voting on the schedule order to add a movie. Now like with the albums there are some big stipulations here: the film needs to be from the same year and widely distributed - I need to be able to see it either in a theater or on video - I cover studio-backed films, and again, no guarantee of positive or negative review. Again, it starts off at the bottom of the schedule, but can be voted upon by everyone within the general process. After all, I say I cover music, movies, art and culture - this way, the truth in that tagline gets to be emphasized. And that's pretty much it - again, this is an experiment of interactivity. I want to get you more involved in the process while maintaining my usual standard of quality. I'm not gating off content or releasing things early for patrons - that's not something I believe in on a fundamental level - and if you don't want or can't afford to be part of this, there's no ill will from me. And sure, there's a far off dream of doing this full-time, but even that won't come without you. But until that comes to a reality, I'd be very grateful to welcome you to this team so we can have some fun. Until then, I'm Mark, welcome to Spectrum Pulse, and I'll see you all on Tuesday - voting starts then, the experiment starts now.