Sunday, March 17, 2019

video review: 'GREY area' by little simz

Yeah, this review probably should have been out last week if not earlier - real struggle with how I felt on it, to be honest.

But while I'm on the subject of hip-hop...

album review: 'GREY area' by little simz

I always feel a little out of my element talking about UK hip-hop, be it grime or otherwise. Now I'm fairly certain some of that is obvious in the few reviews where I've discussed the genre, but I'll freely admit some of it comes from just not having the same connections or context to speak on an artist who is building serious traction, and so when I started hearing that Little Simz was racking up some serious critical acclaim for her third album, I was dejectedly preparing myself for another act I'd appreciate but likely not love to the same degree as fans across the pond.

And that didn't happen with Islington MC Little Simz. Yeah, colour me intrigued, but in checking out her 2015 debut album A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons, I found a lot that really gripped me, from her strident and assertive delivery, a commitment to real hooks and bars that managed to bring in a lot of striking insight, and production that hit the balance between icy and catchy as sin to pull me in. And while I was a little less enthused with 2016's Stillness In Wonderland - despite a fantastic stretch of great tunes midway through it does meander a little more than it should and not all the experimentation connects - hearing that GREY Area was her most focused and hard-hitting project to date and seeing real acclaim from hip-hop heads from both the U.K. and stateside alike made me want to find time to check this out, so what did we get?

Friday, March 15, 2019

video review: 'girl with basket of fruit' by xiu xiu

So apparently I need to really step up my game when it comes to cross-posting, because apparently the algorithm cares about that... /sigh

Anyway, this album didn't really wow me as much as I was hoping - eh, it happens, but what to cover next...

album review: 'girl with basket of fruit' by xiu xiu

Well, it's about time I finally got to this. And here's where we also need some backstory - at the start of February on Twitter I participated in a writing exercise called, appropriately, Music Writing Exercise, or #MWE. And for me it was a cute little side project for me to knock out some quips surrounding back catalogs I was covering alongside my regular reviews, and I figured that given that Xiu Xiu had been one of the most glaring holes in my musical knowledge, I'd listen to their entire discography for #MWE and so I could review their newest, critically divisive project. And...

Well, it's complicated - but also not nearly as much as I was expecting, because Xiu Xiu has put out a lot of wiry, abrasive provocation for its time. Now there are some absolutely great albums and you can definitely hear their influence across plenty of experimental acts, especially the ones with more of a focus on queer sexuality and especially Perfume Genius, but in hearing the discography as a whole it's easy to get burned out on shock tactics, or notice when the group isn't playing to their strengths. For one, I've always been convinced that they've had a knack for striking pop melodies and high concept ideas that rarely get the credit or analysis they deserve - mostly because it's way easier to focus on the profanity and explicit content and sheer noise - but at the same time there are stretches in that discography that seem to be coasting on airs, especially when they bring in a delicacy that feels undercomposed, and that's not counting when the great ideas don't quite stick the landing. And while singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart is a potent mastermind behind the project, if you have a keen ear you can very much tell how and where his sound is inspired and shaped, which can put a damper both on the provocation and the "unique, boundary-pushing experimentation", and that's not getting to the points where Xiu Xiu recycles old material and ideas a little too readily. But still, they ditched John Congleton's production this time around and with the subject matter surrounding female martyrdom... well, why not dive headfirst into some transgressive art, so what did we get from Girl With Basket Of Fruit?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

video review: 'sucker punch' by sigrid

Okay, this was a lot of fun... really enjoyed it, glad y'all pointed me to it.

But now onto a much uglier conversation - stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

album review: 'sucker punch' by sigrid

You know, sometimes I get the feeling that some of you pay a little too much attention to my content. And of course I'm not going to complain that much - appreciate the attention, turn on notifications and all that, would prefer to hear it from you than plenty of others - sometimes you're attentive enough that I wind up eating my words.

So Sigrid: young Norwegian pop singer-songwriter signed to Island, and much to my surprise, I had talked about her song 'Strangers' last year around this time on a slow week of Billboard BREAKDOWN as one of my World Hits. And I liked what I heard: some blaring synthpop with a fair bit of intensity and smart songwriting, it was the sort of song that was very easy for me to like as a critic, to the point where I said when her debut album dropped, I'd be happy to cover it... and then like most episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, I promptly forgot all about it until you guys started reminding me. And this isn't anything against her, let me stress this - I listen to a ton of music, stuff falls through the cracks, and for pop, you can definitely tell Sigrid is relying more on good writing and sharp composition than flash, and an unfortunate side effect of that is you can lose track of songs and artists. More to the point - and this is a warning sign that labels especially in the U.K. are trying to milk as many singles as possible without a ton of faith in the album - the first Sigrid songs packaged onto Sucker Punch were released as early as February 2017. That was concerning to me... but I did say I was going to cover this and I'm a man of my word, even as I'm still struggling to put my finger on why that Little Simz album isn't quite clicking the way it should. So okay, what did I get from Sucker Punch?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - march 16, 2019 (VIDEO)

Okay, a little late, but here we go - think this turned out rather well, still trying to fiddle with the lights (not sure I quite got the blue the way I waned on camera, but trial and error).

Anyway, the Little Simz album might require a bit more time to properly digest, so I've got something in the mean time - stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - march 16, 2019

So look, it's hard for me to get that enthused for whatever's here this week, I'll be straight with you. Even despite how hard I panned the album, I'd put money that Juice WRLD is coming for an album bomb next week with streaming alone, and that means I can't guarantee what in this week will actually hold traction. And given that outside of new arrivals this week seems fairly steady, that question feels more wide open than ever.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

video review: 'GIRL' by maren morris

You know, there's a part of me that wants to say that this was disappointing... but that's a lie, I had no expectations this would be that good to begin with, and sadly I was proven right.

Eh, Billboard BREAKDOWN next, and then hopefully onto something more promising - stay tuned!

Monday, March 11, 2019

album review: 'GIRL' by maren morris

So here's a fun question: what genre of music does Maren Morris make?

Here's a fun follow-up: does anyone really care? Well, I'd argue it's at least relevant, because a lot of people sure as hell got heated when I made a point of it in reviewing her debut album HERO three years ago, mostly in noting how much her sound and songwriting felt distinctive in country and didn't stand out nearly as effectively in pop, and when you couple it with neither writing or production being as strong as it should be, it led to a messy debut. But what I've noticed is that the conversation surrounding exactly how Maren Morris is straddling both worlds has been much more contentious than her music: leveraging Nashville for streaming placements and promotion, but given that country radio doesn't promote women her most prominent successes have come on pop songs. 

And on some level I'm not going to disparage her for the pop pivot - the poisoned well of Nashville radio is only going to get worse before it gets better - except for two things: one, how much she continues to swipe up country promotion when it's abundantly clear she'd rather be anywhere else, which absolutely takes from the precious few slots for which other women are forced to compete; and more importantly, as a pure pop artist her work has been underwhelming in establishing an audience. Hell, if you look outside of 'The Middle', she's retreated to the easy push of country playlist placement when her solo material has underperformed - Bebe Rexha has done the same thing only coming from pop, and it's a cheap shortcut that only highlights the weaknesses of their music.

And thus I had no idea where her second album would go - I had no expectations that anything close to 'My Church' would be here, but would she bring enough country tones to hit that sweet spot in both markets - which for the record can work for acts like Kelsea Ballerini or Carrie Underwood when the music fits - or would this be a pure pop effort to drop her in the mid-tier and give her real competition? So yeah, what did we get from GIRL?

video review: 'stay tuned!' by dominique fils-aimé

Well damn, I'm really happy I finally got to talking about this one - great low-key R&B, absolutely worth your attention!

Next up... something a fair bit less interesting, so stay tuned!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

video review: 'death race for love' by juice WRLD

So this was a lot of fun to put together... a terrible album, but hey.

But onto something much better...

album review: 'stay tuned!' by dominique fils-aimé

I was preparing for this to be a difficult review.

And at first that might not make a lot of sense: sure, another little-known artist that I found off Bandcamp, but the ones I often choose to cover have colour and personality that leap off the page and deserve more attention... but Dominique Fils-Aimé was different. For one, instead of a swathe of indie rock, we're dealing with tones that owe a fair bit more to R&B and jazz and explicitly rely on a brand of minimalism in their arrangements that are tasteful and mature... but occasionally can come across as a little too understated and classy for their own good, the sort of mature music folks tend to wind up appreciating more than outright loving. Now that's not saying I didn't like her debut album Nameless from early 2018 - spare but potent as all hell thanks to her striking vocals and subtle, textured grooves, it was a short but rewarding listen - but I was hoping her follow-up here would amp things up just a bit, add a little more texture, tension, and richness to match the vocal arrangements that were such a terrific highlight. So alright, what did we find on Stay Tuned!?

album review: 'death race for love' by juice WRLD

So some of you might be a little confused why I'm reviewing this. If you've been following my series Billboard BREAKDOWN you might remember Juice WRLD as a perennial frustration for me, and that the reviews of this solo sophomore project haven't been good to start with even from the critics inclined to give him a pass - and I'm not one of those people. So why do this to myself? Why listen to a project that is comfortably over a hour long in a blatant stream trolling maneuver by Interscope who is well-aware this guy might not last too long?

Well, part of this is a matter of deeper investigation, because in the wake of the deaths of XXXTENTACION and Lil Peep, two of the biggest personalities within the new breed of emo rap left considerable voids, and Juice WRLD could well fill them - he's certainly more accessible than both acts thanks to his ability to construct a hook, and there's absolutely a market for what he delivers. So yeah, part of this comes from me keeping my ear to the ground especially if this kid might stick around - and while thanks to his terrible singles choices he seems committed to burning out fast, I do think he has some talent on a technical level. Yeah, his autotuned caterwauling is annoying, but he can structure bars and construct a hook. And if I'm going to be humiliatingly honest, I do get Juice WRLD's appeal to a specific demographic... mostly because fifteen years ago I was in that demo, and there's a way to make music that appeals to that group and not suck. I didn't expect it would happen with Juice WRLD, but I figured I'd give him a chance... so what did we find on Death Race For Love?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

video review: 'when i get home' by solange

So this happened... I wish I had liked this more, but I do think I grasped it.

Next up... hmm, I've got some ideas, so we'll see - stay tuned!

video review: 'wasteland, baby!' by hozier

Ugh, this was exasperating... still has its moments here, though.

And yet on the topic of disappointments...

Friday, March 8, 2019

album review: 'when i get home' by solange

So I'm going to start this review with two neutral statements that nevertheless are bound to be controversial. The first is this: we primarily experience art emotionally - we might analyze or come to appreciate something intellectually later, but ultimately if we're giving an honest opinion on what moves us and what we'll revisit, it's emotional. And to follow that, #2: when the statement is made, 'it's not for you', that's a statement presumably made to speak to the emotional, lived-in experiences that is assumed to be held by someone who likes the art and how said experiences probably aren't held by someone for whom the art isn't clicking.

So why mention any of this? Well, it has to do with the larger discourse around Solange's critical acclaim in the past couple of years, especially surrounding her breakthough A Seat At The Table, a project I liked and understood but didn't love. And I even said in that review that it's not for me - I can certainly respect its appeal and thoughtfulness and I understand the text and subtext on display, but I was very much aware that it was marketed at an audience to which I don't belong. And let me stress this: that's fine! There's absolutely a place and market for that, and while I might make the argument the most powerful art can transcend emotive boundaries should it be heard by everyone, I'm also aware of the material that resonates most with me won't be to the tastes of everyone: that's why my favourite albums of the past five years have spanned an indie country compilation, a pop rock opera, multiple underground hip-hop tapes, and a twisted slice of jazzy adult-alternative blended with goth rock! 

Now where I take the most issue with the whole 'it's not for you' statement is when it's used as a defense mechanism to shield a project from criticism of the text or subtext, which of course hits the blurry line of whether the person understands it and that art is subject to multiple interpretations, but that's a conversation of nuance and detail, not defense. And with A Seat At The Table, it didn't really come up, mostly because the album was critically acclaimed across the board - more degrees of quality being disputed if anything. But the conversation surrounding the surprise release When I Get Home has been more mixed, and outside of the outlets that have a mandate to support it, I've seen the 'it's not for you' argument pushed more as a deflection surrounding the project's quality, coupled with the presumed lack of understanding. To me that was alarming, so I did proceed with both caution and curiosity into this listen... so what did I find?

Thursday, March 7, 2019

album review: 'wasteland, baby!' by hozier

I remember vividly covering Hozier in 2014.

I remember knowing him only for 'Take Me To Church', a swampy soul song with a prominent overwritten gothic streak to match his massive, howling voice, owing obvious debts to blues and soul but also showing an intuitive grasp of the texture to make it stick. In other words, there was no way he wasn't going to become a one-hit wonder, especially in the mid-2010s where the mainstream was caught in transition between garage rock duos and rollicking indie flair and the over-polished pop rock that dominates now, but I had some hope that his self-titled debut would connect, especially as his songwriting had too much unique flair to be discounted. I went in with middling expectations...

And left blown out of the water - and indeed, Hozier set such a high bar for his brand of blues rock and soul that it's not surprising few even tried to follow him. Not only was that self-titled debut one of the best albums of 2014, but it also produced 'Jackie & Wilson', which to this day remains my favourite song of that year. And going back to that album years later I find myself awestruck how well it holds up - the huge low-end smolder balancing terrific melodic hooks, the rich diversity of tones, and that's before you got Hozier's brand of overwritten but understated melodrama, drenched in the iconography of the past but refreshingly modern in its sentiments. I place that self-titled project in the same category as an album like Dolls Of Highland by Kyle Craft in a fusion of textured, old-school rock with contemporary ideas, but where Craft was able to crank out a strong follow-up last year with Full Circle Nightmare, Hozier was more deliberate - mostly because he had the flexibility to rely on a monster hit and the frankly stunning number albums he sold in an era where albums don't sell. So while I was cooler than most on his EP follow-up last year Nina Cried Power - really damn good, just not quite great - I had high hopes for this one. I was a little less enthused to discover that he included a few songs from that EP on this project - and yet not my favourite from that project 'Moment's Silence (Common Tongue)', which was on my short list of songs that nearly made my top 50 songs of 2018 - but hey, we've been waiting five damn years for this, so what did we get from Wasteland, Baby!?

video review: 'phantoms' by marianas trench

So yeah, little disappointing here, but still pretty great all the same.

If you want the larger disappointment... well, stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

album review: 'phantoms' by marianas trench

So I won't mince words: I was nervous about covering this album.

And I'm not sure why - Marianas Trench is the sort of stridently Canadian pop rock act that has never let me down, with two albums under their belt that are damn near classics: 2009's Masterpiece Theater and 2015's Astoria, which if you all remember the latter was my top album of that year! And I'll admit part of it was just nervous jitters that aren't all that rational: frontman Josh Ramsay is one of the most powerful vocalists working today and a terrific technical songwriter, he's one of the big reasons most of you know who Carly Rae Jepsen even is, and you'd think that would be enough for me to have faith this would be incredible.

But I'll admit I was nervous regardless - it had been four years since Astoria, and pop rock has changed a lot since 2015. Too many promising acts in their lane have either gone pure pop to diminishing returns or outright collapsed, and while Marianas Trench have been unafraid to chase their own lanes before, the few moments I didn't like on Astoria did come through succumbing to questionable modern trends. And more to the point, Astoria had felt like a culmination of larger stories that had run through Masterpiece Theater and Ever After, a semi-autobiographical narrative put to bed for new beginnings ahead, and I just had no idea what to expect. I hadn't checked out any of the singles, I was going in cold to take in the full album experience - for as relentlessly catchy as the singles can be I still hold Marianas Trench as an album act - so what did we get off of Phantoms?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - march 9, 2019 (VIDEO)

And here we go - not nearly as many copyright complaints as I expected to battle through, but it's alright.

Next up... let's finally get to Marianas Trench, so stay tuned!

video review: 'distance over time' by dream theater

So this was a lot better than Weezer, but I wish I could have loved this one. Good, not great.

Next we're going to Billboard BREAKDOWN - enjoy!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - march 9, 2019

The only way to describe this week is a mess - and not an especially good one either. And some of this I could predict - I knew Gunna, Lil Pump and Offset would hit the charts with some force, but they honestly didn't seem to register the larger impact I was expecting, and we got a flood of other singles that hit the charts as well from other genres - whether any of it will last is an open question, we'll have to see.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Monday, March 4, 2019

the top ten best hit songs of 2009 (VIDEO)

Yeah, about time I got this done - enjoy!

album review: 'distance over time' by dream theater

Am I the only one who feels like something weird is going on with the hype cycle for Dream Theater this time around?

Seriously - I know the band has been long-running and many could make the argument their last truly transcendent album was over ten years ago and that they've just not been the same since Portnoy left and the vastly overpolished but kind of underwhelming 2016 project The Astonishing had pushed many of the casual fans away... but even with that, a new Dream Theater album didn't use to feel like a surprise from out of nowhere!

And yet here we are: maybe I'm just not attuned to the hype cycle but Dream Theater has released their fourteenth album and it's their shortest since 1992's Images And Words. They have described it as a stream-lined release clocking under an hour with only nine songs - which for a band like Dream Theater who will release EPs longer than some bands' albums is indeed a thing. And when you see the amount of critical acclaim the band has received - which absolutely surprised me, given Dream Theater can be a polarizing act in certain substrata of progressive metal - mostly surrounding how accessible the album is... well, maybe the benefit of lowered expectations had won people over? Honestly, I didn't know what to expect with Distance Over Time - a cute way to say 'speed', although the lack of direction means we're not getting velocity - but enough bad jokes, what did we get?

album review: 'weezer (the black album)' by weezer

So I'll say it: Weezer should not have gotten famous off the Blue Album.

Now if this sounds insane, let me qualify that I'm not saying the album is bad - it's a great listen, arguably one of their best. I'm also not saying that they didn't deserve a cult following or that album shouldn't become a cult classic with time - again, given what it represented in the mid-90s to a swathe of kids looking for the middleground between power pop, indie rock, and grunge, that album fits a role. But with the benefit of hindsight, it was a project that put Weezer on the very top and it's been abundantly clear that Rivers Cuomo has reacted badly to the fame brought on by that project. First you had Pinkerton, an album that won its critical acclaim decades later from those who understood what it meant in emo but was savaged by fans and the critical press alike - and considering Pinkerton was written in a moment of great but ugly vulnerability, it slammed the door on such material for years to come, not helped by the growth of mainstream-accessible emo in the years to come. And so Weezer retreated into self-aware irony, a hermetic vacuum seal of detachment that allowed them become increasingly cynical with every passing year and even mine a real hit out of it... but the returns were diminishing. It wouldn't be until 2014 where the band 'returned to their roots' with Everything Will Be All Right In The End to regain some acclaim from the fans and critics... but what then? Again, it's hard to ignore how much of Weezer's work reads as responses to a long-splintered and impossible-to-please fanbase that can't comprehend the emotional turmoil that spawned a project like Pinkerton - to say nothing of the explosive and immediate backlash it faced - and thus going back through both the White album and Pacific Daydream, it's not hard to place them in the context of Rivers Cuomo's arrested development, with no clear idea where to turn. You want to hope that there's a little more emotional maturity and insight... until you realize through interviews and annotations that it's not coming, and why in the Nine Hells would he want to grow up anyway, if that's all the fans want? So why not put out a cheap and mostly embarrassing album of covers in the Teal Album - people seem to like the adolescent shitposting, why not give them what they want?

Well, to get the answer to that, it looked like we had to go to the Black album, the second project Weezer is releasing in 2019, framed as one of their darkest albums to date and one that is polarizing critics and fans alike - mostly because it's reportedly framed as a response to them. Now if you've been reading most of Weezer's extended discography as a response to their opening success, especially in recent years, this shouldn't come as a surprise - a tension where the center cannot hold - but can we at least get some decent music along the way?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

the top ten best hit songs of 2009

So I'll admit to being surprised that this, of all things, is the next top ten people want me to cover. You'd think folks would want me to finish off the 2010s proper before going back to 2009, but there you have it.

But I get it, because while I'd struggle to call it the best of the 2000s, 2009 was a pretty glorious year. Not only did it showcase the birth of YouTube chart criticism, but it was such a potent year to cover! 2009 is widely accepted by most as the birth of the club boom, where the kinetic, rock-tinged pop of the mid-2000s picked up more layers of glitter and went to party hard, picking up a grabbag of whatever hip-hop had survived the ringtone era, whatever rock that was willing to party, and basically lock the placid country scene out of the clubhouse entirely. More to the point, it was impossible to not see 2009 as a year of reckless abandon: the economy had crashed, most of my generation was broke, and if we we didn't have money, we were going to party as if we did - it might have seemed bleak, but I think a lot of us were riding the contact high that came from a new president and a desperate desire to believe in hope... even if that contact high would lead to incoherent silliness and a hangover we'd only halfheartedly regret. But I'll say this: even if I've slowed down a little bit, it's hard not to miss the manic fun of this year, especially when there were so many great hits, so let's get things started with...

Friday, March 1, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #014 - 'the psycho-social, chemical, biological & electro-magnetic manipulation of human consciousness' by jedi mind tricks (VIDEO)

So yeah, the backlash hasn't quite hit this video yet, but I know it's just a matter of time... eh, I stand by it. Tough to review, but worth it.

Next up... do I want to get Dream Theater out of the way before I cover the onslaught of quality coming? Let's see... stay tuned!

video review: '-' by jetty bones

Yeah, it's a short one, but I'm really happy I found time to get to it - great stuff!

Next up... well, Resonators, but what to follow... stay tuned!

resonators 2019 - episode #014 - 'the psycho-social, chemical, biological & electro-magnetic manipulation of human consciousness' by jedi mind tricks

You know, you'd think with my background I'd be an easier sell on nerdier music.

Because I do describe myself as a nerd - I own and have read hundreds of fantasy and science fiction novels, I've been playing video games and tabletop games for decades, I regularly go to conventions, I still play Magic: The Gathering... for god's sake, I've got a small collection of swords! Even my educational background outside of my career both on-and-offline is in physics, which thanks to the ubiquity of The Big Bang Theory has been branded the 'nerdiest' of scientific disciplines, at least in popular culture. And thus you'd think that "nerdier" art would be an easy sell for me on relatability alone... but most of the time it just doesn't click, and I've struggled to pin down why.

Well, okay, on some level it has to do with the fact that just common reference points doesn't win me over automatically - it'd be nice if people actually said something with said points rather than just for a cheap pop. The larger and more troublesome issues might come with the fact that the "outcast-but-ahead-of-the-curve" veneer of nerdy spaces is just that: a veneer, and more often than not it would reflect many of the same cultural values as non-nerds do, just with an increased lack of social skills. And that's not even getting into how certain nerds have made the concentrated effort to rewrite history and erase the forward-thinking progressive values that did bubble forth in some intellectual spaces, especially if those nerds didn't fit a very specific caricature or demographic... which takes us to underground hip-hop. We already saw with Company Flow and El-P that even though all those guys were plainly nerds it wasn't like they were immune to trends in hip-hop and larger culture at the time, and so when I started digging into the debut of Jedi Mind Tricks, a Philadelphia-based group who released their debut the same year in 1997 and their content was framed as 'forward-thinking' and 'progressive' and also emphasized their points of reference in astronomy, physics, and history, cranking up that nerd cred... look, I'll admit I was cautious. But okay, this won the popular vote very comfortably, so what did we get from The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological & Electro-magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness, which I'm just going to call The Psycho-Social CD for short?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

album review: '-' by jetty bones

Yeah, we're going back into Bandcamp for this one - and yet before we begin, here's a quick observation. One thing I've noticed about a site where indie artists can literally upload damn near anything is that you don't especially find a massive pileup of undiscovered quality, even among the promoted material. If anything, it becomes all the more proof that's there's a normal curve to the quality: a metric ton of stuff that is decent or passable, not a lot of outright trash but also not a lot of immediate standouts. And more to the point, it becomes all the more rare you find talent that's immediately magnetic in front of the microphone - especially in indie pop where desaturated non-effort is the norm, not the exception.

Enter Jetty Bones, the project of an Ohio singer-songwriter Kelc Galluzzo who approaches indie pop rock with what I'd call a mid-2000s sensibility: strident vocals, a focus on hooks over vibes, and the sort of overwritten but biting lyrics that owe a noticeable debt to Paramore and the left-of-center emo that broke in the waves of Say Anything. Yeah, her debut Crucial States in 2016 had a rough case of what I'd describe as 'theater girl voice' and I thought the album could have afforded to be a bit longer - similar concerns I've got about this project here as well and the EP she put out in 2017 - but the writing and her knack for hooks was enough to get me on board, so screw it - what did we get from '-'?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - march 2, 2019 okay, I was wrong. I made the assumption that given its heavy reliance on streaming I expected Ariana Grande to suffer some major losses... and while nearly every song lost by a considerable margin, she didn't actually have any dropouts this week. And yet beyond that, this week did seem to go through a pretty standard rotation, and given what they turned out to be, it implies that Ariana didn't exactly see huge competition this week and may be in more dicey territory when we get impact from Lil Pump, Gunna, and especially Offset next week - again, we'll see.

video review: 'moonglow' by avantasia

So yeah, I really do wish I liked this more... eh, it happens, I guess?

Next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN and Resonators will be coming soon, but I might venture off into something strange... stay tuned!

Monday, February 25, 2019

album review: 'moonglow' by avantasia

So when I reviewed the newest Saor project, I made the statement it was one of my most anticipated metal releases of 2019... and funnily enough, the other one was released on the same day, and we're going to talk about it now. 

So, Avantasia - symphonic power metal project by mastermind Tobias Sammet, it was something that took a while to truly grip me. Unlike their progressive metal peer in Ayreon, the production wasn't always would it should be - especially early on - and while the projects could trigger some immediate standout tracks, I struggled to love the larger albums as a whole, all the more frustrating given they were intended to stand as album statements. More often they were uneven albums, good but not precisely great, and while I was initially high on their 2016 album Ghostlights as reaching that pinnacle, I expected it to fade on me... and I was dead wrong, because that album wound up making my year-end list and one of its songs cracking my top five favourite songs of 2016! And discovering how and why that album and the band's highlights in their larger discography have risen in my estimations in comparison with other acts has been a little fascinating, especially as my early opinions was that the project could trend toward overwrought cheesiness and being derivative, but with so many of those acts underwhelming in the 2010s with Avantasia only picking up steam with better production, more potent melodies, and better writing, I found myself really looking forward to this album! And like with all Avantasia projects, the guest vocalist lineup was stacked: Jorn Lande, Geoff Tate, Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, Candice Night of Blackmore's Night, Michael Kiske of Helloween, it was another stacked lineup and I was all ready for a gloriously theatrical release, which was exactly what Tobias Sammet was promising - and after the disappointment with Within Temptation, I needed that! So, enough fussing around: what did we get with Moonglow?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 23, 2019 (VIDEO)

So yeah, I know it's a bit of a wild prediction that thank u, next won't quite last on the Hot 100... but I've seen enough album bombs to see exactly how Ariana Grande will fade, especially in the face of the projects in the wings coming.

Next up, we're talking Avantasia - stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 23, 2019

So everyone and their mother was going to predict that Ariana Grande would have an album bomb this week. That's not surprising, and I'm fully aware that me saying it last week was not blowing anyone's mind. I will say I'm a bit surprised that she broke through so high in the top 40, with only one song from the album not placing there. And what I find interesting here is that when you combine a relatively modest track length - we're only talking new songs from Ariana here - and only a few other breakthroughs around it, it leads to a week that didn't quite feel as disrupted as I expected. More just at the top than anything, and that gives me the impression that thank u, next as an album might suffer a steeper dropoff than Ariana's people are prepared to acknowledge. Hey, you make an album custom-built for streaming, you suffer the consequences!

video review: 'anima mysterium' by yugen blakrok

You know, I get the funny feeling I'll be going back to this one a lot over the course of 2019 - meditative and alien and hard-hitting, this was fun.

But after Billboard BREAKDOWN we're going back to metal, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

video review: 'can't say i ain't country' by florida georgia line

And this was not good - man, I'm surprised I just had so much content out of it.

But heading for something of more quality...

video review: 'forgotten paths' by saor

Just catching up on a few posts here - and this is a fantastic album. One of the best of 2019, definitely worth it!

album review: 'anima mysterium' by yugen blakrok

So I never reviewed the Black Panther soundtrack proper last year - hell, I reviewed the movie, most of the soundtrack wound up on Billboard BREAKDOWN anyway, and most of what I heard hadn't exactly blown me away. And sure, I think some of that might have been rooted in inflated expectations - it was curated by Kendrick Lamar, for god's sake - but my general impressions were more that it was solid but lacking immediate distinctive standouts, at least when it came to complete songs. And I make that distinction because if you dig into individual verses, you can find some real gems, and I do credit Kendrick for digging outside of the box for MCs who could fit the vibe of the project rather than just big names.

And if you want one of the most stark examples, we need to talk about Yugen Blakrok, a South African MC featured on the song 'Opps' opposite Vince Staples and Kendrick himself... and let's not mince words, she stole the show, with the sort of ruthless, tangled verse full of sci-fi references that seemed to owe more to Wu-Tang than anything else. And that was definitely an impression that continued when I dug up her 2013 debut Return Of The Astro-Goth, the sort of thorny but layered and atmospheric underground hip-hop that fell at the intersection of Company Flow, Deltron 3030 and maybe a splash of CZARFACE. But where CZARFACE has always felt like a bit of an exaggerated goof-off, Yugen Blakrok was playing all of this deadly straight, and the sample-rich, dusty beats and her relentless flows proved she could absolutely sell it - yeah, there weren't many hooks, but when the rhymes and flows were as hard-hitting as they were, who could care? In any case, I had the feeling that with the boost from the Black Panther soundtrack she might parlay her sound into something tighter and maybe even more accessible - to a point, I didn't see the sci-fi stuff going anywhere on an album called Anima Mysterium - so what did we get?

Monday, February 18, 2019

album review: 'can't say I ain't country' by florida georgia line

You know, on some level I've always thought it was a cheap thing to judge an act like Florida Georgia Line by their album titles, especially when they're a solid five years past their prime in terms of relevance and seem to be fighting tooth and nail to preserve whatever's left. Their first two albums were called Here's To The Good Times and Anything Goes, bro-country projects that reflected a shallow, tossed off vibe that didn't really invite a lot of deeper thought, and while I'd call neither album precisely good, for what they were I couldn't exactly get angry or all that annoyed with them. No, where that manifested was on their third album in 2016, Dig Your Roots, not their first attempt to say they were going back to their core but arguably their most revealing of what that core could be, the project where they wanted to settle down and get 'mature'... but did so against some of the most lifeless pop-leaning production to date. And that did feel a bit telling... because for as much as these guys have referenced the pop of their youth, this album could have indeed referenced their roots directly - they're just not really all that country.

But you can tell Florida Georgia Line has taken this as a slight, and from the lead-off single 'Simple' that sounds like a mash-up of High Valley and Edward Sharpe to the defensive album title, this looked to be a lot of posturing and maybe even some hurt feelings at being so effectively sidelined by the pop-country of Dan + Shay or the heavier smolder of Brothers Osborne. So I'll admit a little concern when I saw their newest album was described by them as a tribute to 90s country - and then stacked with features from Jason Aldean and Jason Derulo, not to mention all still produced by Joey Moi! That said, I was willing to give this project a chance, mostly because Florida Georgia Line have a weird habit of sneaking at least one single through that's pretty good - I liked 'Dirt' back in 2014, I liked 'Simple' last year, I had the hopes there'd be something more on what looked to be their longest album to date... so what did I get, can Florida Georgia Like prove that I can't say they ain't country?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

album review: 'forgotten paths' by saor

So when I covered Astronoid a week or so ago, I mentioned that in my exploration of black metal I tended to gravitate towards more of the atmospheric side and the stuff that was blending in sounds from other genres, adding a little more familiar colour and texture to ease me in. And in 2016, after a draining year where I had again not covered enough black metal and I desperately wanted to hear more, I found an album by an English band called Saor, where they were taking atmospheric black metal textures and blending them with Celtic folk...

And the rest is history. That album Guardians wound up as one of my favourites of 2016, a windswept, textured experience balancing out acoustics, strings, and even bagpipes against the surging tremolo guitar lines and guttural vocals for a wild, cacophonous experience rich with huge melodies, and absolutely keeping them as a band to watch going forward. And for me, it was those layered melodies that sealed the deal - almost a visceral, borderline power metal appeal at its root, it was a band striving to sound epic and they absolutely nailed it, so you can bet I was interesting in their newest project. Four massive songs, with Neige of Alcest contributing vocals to the title track, this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2019 - so what did Saor bring with Forgotten Paths?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

video review: 'into the blue' by alice wallace

Okay, I know I'm late to the party with this one, but it's really something special, especially if you're into indie country - definitely check it out!

Next up... you know, I feel like some dense underground hip-hop, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

album review: 'into the blue' by alice wallace

So I've said a number of times before one of the biggest problems with indie country is how it can really struggle to get the word out surrounding new acts - internet-driven groundswell has started to take more shape over the 2010s, but it's been scattered at best, and too often I find myself going back to dig up acts where if they hadn't slipped below the radar I'd have given them a ton of acclaim.

And Alice Wallace is a pretty striking example of this - a California-based singer-songwriter, she's been putting out albums since the beginning of the 2010s with a pretty damn striking voice and a fondness for yodeling, but what really captured my interesting was her 2015 album Memories, Music & Pride, where the songwriting took a measurable step up along with production that picked up more detail, refinement, and muscle. And it's tough to nail down an easy comparison for her sound - a little more stately and neotraditional than Karen Jonas' gritty early material but not as inclined towards pop as Caitlyn Smith or cutesy as Kacey Musgraves, as observational as Brandy Clark but not quite as wise just yet. But hey, that comes with time, and Memories, Music & Pride probably deserved a solid review back in 2015, it's a great album, so you can bet I was curious about her follow-up this year with Into The Blue - so what did we get?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 16, 2019 (VIDEO)

A short week, but a pretty solid one. Enjoy!

video review: 'thank u, next' by ariana grande

...sigh, I really wish I didn't feel like I was going out on a ledge with calling out the issues of this project, but whatever.

Anyway, next up is something a LOT more indie, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 16, 2019

You know, in the four-plus years I've been doing this series, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a week this slow. We only have two new songs, not a lot of change elsewhere, and while I'm sure next week's Ariana Grande album bomb will change that, I'm going to enjoy having a short episode on Billboard BREAKDOWN - it's a rare occurrence to be savoured, that's all I'm saying!

album review: 'thank u, next' by ariana grande

So as some of you know, I'm currently working on an extended video essay surrounding the separation of art and artist and how especially in the modern social media/tabloid landscape it's a theory that's increasingly unfeasible. Of course, my larger point will be that it was never that feasible to begin with, but you'll have to wait until I release that project in... I'd like to say a month or so before I explain further - just something to think about.

But really, if you're looking for a project that might as well prove my point in block capitals across every fiber of its being, it was the rushed creation and release of the album thank u, next by Ariana Grande, and yes, before even getting into the album directly I'm calling this a rushed job. Not only was sweetener released midway through last year, singles were still in charting circulation. And this was not a case like Taylor Swift's reputation where the album was tanking upon arrival - the singles had staying power and top 10 presence, and the reviews were solid. But like reputation, it was hard to avoid the feeling that thank u, next was being presented as a slice of spin control in the tumult of Ariana Grande's public life, with both the collapse of her engagement to Pete Davidson - which in going back to sweetener and especially the song she titled after him it was so easy to predict - and the tragic passing of Mac Miller, where in both cases Ariana Grande faced the sort of toxic social media backlash that would be hell for anyone. 

Now as I said last year when the song 'thank u, next' was first released, Ariana Grande had a few advantages over Taylor Swift in that she didn't have the insane weight of cultural expectations placed upon her, and that allowed the song and response to be so breezy and magnanimous, a moment of well-timed spin control that seemed to work in her favor. But that is what it was, especially with the inclusion of names which gives the song additional emotional impact and intensity - pull back from that, separate the art from the artist, and the entire track seems flighty and disposable, an underweight fusion of pop, R&B and trap that for an outside observer would make no sense to sit on the top of the Hot 100 for weeks, only made to feel more because Republic is throwing more money than they probably should to make it stick. And if 'imagine' increased those suspicions, '7 rings' confirmed it, along with the cheap, controversy-laden rollout that for an artist and her team so measured and big-budget over the past three albums that felt alarmingly slapdash. Combined with such a quick turnaround time - she's bragged that this album was written in a week and recorded in not much longer - that is actively cannibalizing singles from the previous project... yeah, I'll freely admit I was worried this would be a rush job and not nearly reflect the potential shown on sweetener for the sort of experimentation and emotional maturity that gave that project such promise - was I wrong?

Friday, February 8, 2019

video review: 'astronoid' by astronoid

Well, this was a thing... a pretty good thing, but not one I see myself revisiting a ton, sadly.

Next up, though... yeah, let's get Ariana out of the way. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

album review: 'astronoid' by astronoid

So as all of you have seen in the past few years, most of my discovery and embrace of black metal has followed what I'd describe the 'hipster-path' into the genre. Yeah, I was listening to prog metal and power metal ahead of time that laid some of the groundwork, but it was the more atmospheric stuff that hooked me and even then, it was never 'pure' black metal that truly won me over, instead more material in the vein of Panopticon or Saor that was crossbred with other genres. 

But hey, that happens - you start building up your lexicon of what you like in the genre, you revisit the classics when you can, you do your best to avoid the more obnoxious of the fandom... and yet when I was prepping to review Astronoid and going back to revisit their 2016 breakthrough Air, I had a real sinking feeling, mostly because this is exactly the sort of accessible 'crossover' project that could have grabbed me three years ago, but leaves me colder now. The most common comparisons have been Devin Townsend and atmospheric black metal acts like Deafheaven and Alcest, grabbing the clean production and vocals of the former and the furious blast beats and tremolo picking of the latter... but there was something that felt oddly anodyne and calculated about Air, capturing the tones to serve as one of those bridge acts, but little of the instrumental dynamics or hooks that made their inspirations so special. And while its tones meant I was inclined to like Air - certainly explains the critical acclaim - it wasn't one that really stood out to me, or stepped into the realm of greatness.

So was this just a case of me only gravitating to the heavier, more visceral acts in black metal these days, or was Astronoid just not one of those acts that could resonate with me? Well, for further evidence I checked out their self-titled follow-up this year, which somehow is getting even more critical acclaim - did it deliver?

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 9, 2019 (VIDEO)

So this was a pretty reasonable episode, generally liked this fine enough...

Anyway, next up... hmm, I've got some time ahead, let's see where this goes - stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 9, 2019

There's a part of me that wants to invest this cooldown week with a bit more significance than it probably deserves. Sure, none of the debuts seem all that big and the song rising to the top ten isn't all that interesting and more of the story seems to come in the returns than the new arrivals or dropouts, but I get the impression that the current relative stasis is more unstable than it appears, especially with the number of 2018 songs that are lingering a bit longer than expected.

video review: 'wiaca' by SUNDAYS

Yeah, I'm not sure if this just hit my joy receptors on melody alone, but hell, when the writing is this good too, I have to believe I hit gold with this debut. DEFINITELY give this release more attention, it's a beauty.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I'm back into a Bandcamp dive - stay tuned!

Monday, February 4, 2019

album review: 'wiaca' by SUNDAYS

So one thing I've started doing far more in 2019 is at least once a day, I do a dive into whatever random acts crop up on the front page of Bandcamp, which has allowed me to build up a hefty list of albums I'll cover that are a bit off the beaten path but could attract real attention all the same. And while I'm most focused on metal and underground hip-hop - more on that in the coming weeks - something you find a song from an act that surprises you out of nowhere, with the sort of structure and refinement to suggest a band with compositional chops that can sometimes feel rare or at least underrated on Bandcamp.

So, enter SUNDAYS. They're a Danish band on a pretty small indie label, Wiaca is their debut project - an acronym for 'Where It All Comes Alive' - and what immediately grabbed me was their lead-off song 'Shade Of The Pines', which in bring the harmonized vocals and a real hook really caught my attention. And I figured if they could deliver another half-dozen of those across ten songs, we could have something really pleasant and special, so what did we get with Wiaca?

video review: 'resist' by within temptation

Damn, this one hurt. But hey, they tried something that didn't work, it happens. Let's hope the turnaround isn't another five years, let's just say that.

Next up... ooh, this'll take the bad taste out of your mouths quick, this is something unexpected and special, so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

album review: 'resist' by within temptation

Well, this has been long-overdue.

And I do get the feeling that I'm not the only one who thinks this - it has been about five years since we last heard from Within Temptation, and coming off of a somewhat controversial release, that did strike me as surprising. And yes, I do consider Hydra a little polarizing, especially in comparison with the massive but relatively straightforward symphonic metal Within Temptation released beforehand. Maybe some of it was incidental and linked to the album of covers they released close to it, but it was also their cleanest, most electronic, and most accessible project to date coming from arguably symphonic metal's most accessible act still working - hell, they had a song with Xzibit on it that was later released as a single, and I don't think anyone was expecting that! And while I did like Hydra a great deal back in 2014, I will admit the more streamlined and uniform tone didn't always match their more experimental work in the 2000s, or hit with the huge punch of 2011's The Unforgiving.

So after several extended tours, the band opted to take some time off - frontwoman Sharon den Adel cited exhaustion and writer's block, and the material she did compose translated into an indie pop solo project released last year - which didn't surprise me, I expected that solo project to come a decade ago. The band also switched labels from Nuclear Blast to Vertigo and Spinefarm, which didn't prompt much concern until I heard the band was opting not only for even more electronic elements, but also were taking more of a political angle in their writing. And look, I've been a Within Temptation fan for comfortably over a decade, and yet I can say this was the sort of direction that raised some concern - this is a band that's never been all that deep, and while they've been more willing to play to a mainstream audience, there is a part of me that wishes Within Temptation had taken the Nightwish route with more creative, off-beat experimentation. But since we're not getting another Nightwish album until at least 2020, what did we get off of Resist?

Friday, February 1, 2019

video review: 'everything's for sale' by boogie

So this was a pretty easy conversation, and overall seems in line with most consensus (for once), so... enjoy?

Anyway, next up is Within Temptation and WHOO BOY that'll get messy, so stay tuned!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

album review: 'everything's for sale' by boogie

So I'll admit I was a little surprised how much hype this project was getting.

And to explain why, we need to talk a bit about hype cycles. I've mentioned this before but when an artist gets a single or a project with momentum, ideally the label signing or backing them wants to have a project waiting in the wings to truly take off, best capitalize on that momentum. And about three years back, it seemed like Compton MC Boogie was one of those guys. Three reasonably well-received mixtapes that showed a progression of improvement, a lot of bars, some surprisingly well-structured melodies and content that was at least trying to be a bit introspective, it would seem like any major label could make a killing pushing him, especially given how trap was moving the next few years.

So perhaps it was the worst possible luck that Boogie signed to Shady Records and Interscope, which if we've been observing the career path of nearly every act under them for the past decade seems to have a bad habit of not being able to kickstart momentum, and that's before you consider the increasingly questionable Eminem factor in the past two years. And if I was Boogie, I'd be furious about how despite his last mixtape coming out in 2016, we're only getting a full album now, with a lot of the conversation seemingly monopolized by Eminem putting one of his most humiliating verses yet on it. So yeah, on some level I kind of wanted to give this a proper review if only to change the narrative a bit, give a promising talent some insight his label seems to be fumbling, so what did we get from Everything's For Sale?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #013 - 'funcrusher plus' by company flow (s02e01) (VIDEO)

So to be very honest, this is the season of Resonators for which I'm most worried, especially given how many self-proclaimed 'hip-hop historians' would love to jump down my throat, especially given the fact that I was slightly critical here... but hey, honesty is more important.

Next up... hey, another rap album, so stay tuned!

resonators 2019 - episode #013 - 'funcrusher plus' by company flow (s02e01)

There's a tendency among music historians and critics to say that after certain moments, nothing would ever be the same - and in the 1990s, many would agree there were two concrete moments where this would be the closest to being true. The first was in 1991 with the release of Nevermind by Nirvana, an album that would redefine rock music in a fundamental way. The second seemed more gradual but its ripple effects would shake the foundations of a different genre: the twin deaths of two of the greatest hip-hop legends of the era, Tupac Shakur in September of 1996, and The Notorious B.I.G. in March of 1997. It was a moment that shook gangsta rap to its core, and in the mainstream would prompt a hard shift towards brighter, glitzier subject matter on both coasts.

But true historians of that era would tell you it's never that simple. You could easily make the argument that Puff Daddy was laying the foundation in the last months of 1996 with Ma$e for a more polished and opulent sound, coupled with the signing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 that would enable radio companies to buy up local stations and deliver nationally syndicated programs, which bucked against the regionality and feuds of the time. And that's not ignore the pushback building against the monopolistic presence of gangsta rap in the mid-90s, which had marginalized pop rap and the more conscious artists who had seen their momentum short-circuited after 93. But in 1997, with pop rap quickly gaining ascendancy, there was no incentive for national radio conglomerates to play the conscious, forward-thinking, or outright weird hip-hop that was starting to bubble forth again, especially given its instrumental palette seemed stuck in the past on a surface listen. And the rap industry began enforcing a divide, where major label success and hits were deemed worthy of critical acclaim while smaller, underground shops were disdained for not having the same maximalist appeal and sound and budget. And while there would be outliers like DMX and Eminem to keep the anger alive, to some extent they served a different audience and purpose, and even at the time rap publications like The Source would not always give them their due. 

But we're not even talking about them. No, for this year we're staying strictly underground - only indie hip-hop for 2019, many albums of which would garner critical acclaim from those in the know, but rarely accumulate the same praise or commercial success as even a few of them could have seen but a few years earlier. Marginalized as backpackers, weirdos, hipsters, and freaks, they would nevertheless keep a flame of lyrical and experimental hip-hop burning against an industry that would ignore them at best and spurn them at worst... and yet you could make the argument their influence lingers far more powerfully to this day. And there's really only one place where we can start: that's right, folks, for 2019 we're talking late-90s/early-to-mid 2000s underground hip-hop and we have to start with Funcrusher Plus by Company Flow - and this is Resonators!