Monday, November 30, 2015

video review: 'mutant' by arca

And that's two. Whew, glad I can get these out of the way before Billboard BREAKDOWN tomorrow - stay tuned!

album review: 'mutant' by arca

When I reviewed Arca's debut album Xen last year, I went in expecting dissonance. I was prepared for harsh blasts of abrasion and intense sounds that would push the bounds of listenability, the sort of experimental electronica that will alienate nearly everyone except the most hardened of critics and fans.

But that wasn't exactly what I got. Arca's distinctive brand of electronica went in a different, yet not less dissonant direction: wild tempo changes, off-kilter melodies, awkward tunings, gorgeous atmosphere and gleaming classical instrumentation contorted through strange, warping progressions. It was the sort of the music that could easily be branded by a classicist as incompetent instead of transcendent, but somehow Arca mostly stuck the landing, even if I did wish that he could pair his bizarre melodic choices with more of a foundation in the actual beats and percussion.

So fast forward to now, and Arca has a new record titled Mutant, which promised to be weirder and darker, even blending in elements of industrial noise music. Now immediately I thought this was a good idea - my favourite track off of Xen had been 'Bullet Chained' because it had managed to fuse that textured atmosphere with a clanking progression that roiled and spooled like the titular tool, and if Arca was going more in that direction, we could get something very strong here. And considering I've spent the majority of this year delving into more abrasive and experimental music than ever before, I was excited to check out Mutant - what did I get?

video review: 'shadow of a doubt' by freddie gibbs

You know, I wish this record had turned out a bit better, but I can see myself going back to it a fair bit, especially considering how strong those hooks were - this album was a lot of real fun.

Next up, Arca - stay tuned!

album review: 'shadow of a doubt' by freddie gibbs

If we were to flash back to about eighteen months ago, before the release of the collaboration project between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib titled Pinata, there would be some that probably didn't care all that much. As much as Gibbs had accumulated respect in the underground for being a hard-edged and reasonably insightful gangsta rapper, he never really stood out as much as some of his contemporaries outside of his refusal to cater to pop tastes and his authoritative voice. And sure, Madlib was bound to give him great production, but that can only go so far - sure, the lead-off singles had been impressive, but would they be enough to put Gibbs back on the map?

Well, to the majority of critics it certainly was, because Pinata was a massive step up not just for Madlib delivering a great selection of colourful old-school production, but Gibbs as well. His wordplay and rapping technique was the strongest it had ever been, and his willingness to show more of a thoughtful picture of gangsta rap gave his pictures a ton of personality. He wasn't so much treading new ground as he was delving deeper and subverting traditional archetypes. For me, it was easily one of the best hip-hop albums of 2014, and thus set some high expectations for a follow-up.

And I'll admit that I was concerned. For one, the guest list was a lot less impressive: where Pinata had Scarface, Raekwon, Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and a host of other spitters, Shadow Of A Doubt looked a lot more sparse. Sure, there was Black Thought, and E-40 was bound to be entertaining, but Tory Lanez and Gucci Mane? As much as I like and respect Freddie Gibbs, I was concerned about a possible regression: did that happen?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

special comment: 15,000 subscriber Q&A (VIDEO)

Again, I have to say I'm thrilled that so many of you have continued to support me and this channel over the past few years. It's really been something special to see things grow this far, and I hope to continue making these Q&A videos every 5,000 subscribers for some time!

video review: 'autumn eternal' by panopticon

Man, I'm so thrilled I was able to finally cover this. Such a great record, definitely has me enthused to check out more black metal in the future, that's for damn sure.

Next up, Arca and Freddie Gibbs, so stay tuned!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

album review: 'autumn eternal' by panopticon

So one of the things I've discovered in my expanding exploration of atmospheric black metal is that while there's a pitch-black core of explosive tremolo picking and blast beat drumming to complement the the howled vocals, there have always been efforts to mutate or expand the sound. By now most people know how Deafheaven drew on shoegaze and emo, but they weren't the first to draw forth more atmospheric textures, like the ambient sounds of Wolves In The Throne Room or the more blatantly pagan and progressive touches of In The Woods... So what if I were to tell you about an American black metal project that didn't just blend in folk, but bluegrass as well?

Because in theory it's not as far removed as you might think. After all, the fast-picked tremolo melodies aren't that far from the quick picks of a banjo - the key would be finding the right subject matter. And like most, when I heard about the one-man black metal project of American musician Austin Lunn called Panopticon, I decided to dive in at the 2012 album Kentucky... and wow, I was glad I did, because this is something special. What immediately struck me about Kentucky was on a conceptual and lyrical level how much it worked - a ramshackle presentation delving into the desperate poverty and bleak devastation of backwater rural Appalachia, ravaged by a flailing and heartless coal industry, damn near perfect themes for a black metal project. Now in execution it didn't quite land as well - as much as I dug the bluegrass and country touches, especially with the vocal snippets, the transitions always felt a little clumsy and I found myself underwhelmed by some of the black metal compositions themselves. Thankfully, much of this was cleaned up two years later for the frigid and excellent Roads To The North, which brought in some symphonic touches with strings, great drumwork, and great atmosphere. What was also interesting was the shift in mood - where Kentucky was more immediately abrasive and confrontational, Roads To The North was more contemplative and wild, finding a certain tranquillity in the frozen heart of the wild. Where bands like Immortal and Satyricon wrote about Scandinavia, Austin Lunn was writing about the rugged American wilderness, with the more eclectic instrumentation only adding to the authenticity. I'll be straight with you - if I had covered Roads To The North last year when it was released - it might have had a very real shot at making my year end list.

So you can bet I was going to be checking out his newest record Autumn Eternal, apparently intended as the conclusion of a trilogy with Kentucky and Roads To The North and with more straightforward black metal - what did we get?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

video review: 'homeward path' by vallendusk

Goddamn, I'm happy that I was able to do this. Next up, Panopticon - and yes, then I'm going to be covering Arca, Alessia Cara, and Freddie Gibbs, so stay tuned!

album review: 'homeward path' by vallendusk

So here's one of my favourite things about this semi-professional music critic thing: the research. There's very few things that really grab my attention than venturing into certain genres and slowly beginning to untangle their more intricate elements or finding bands that might be related to what you want to cover. After all, if I want to be considered remotely credible when I cover a band, you need to know the context where it was created.

As such, when I prepared to cover Deafheaven's New Bermuda a month or so back, I knew that I had to hear more black metal than just Sunbather to build a workable opinion, so I went deeper. I found acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and In The Woods... that I'd actually argue I liked more, so I figured if I could find more black metal that brushed up against progressive metal or atmospheric folk, I'd probably find more acts that'd run up my alley. So when I heard positive buzz coming out about the sophomore record from Indonesian black metal act Vallendusk - thanks, Myke C-Town! - I figured I'd dig up their debut album Black Clouds Gathering and explore. And I'm definitely glad I did - like most Indonesian metal acts, the guitarwork was ridiculously strong, but I also found a lot in the untamed and bleak poetry to like to match with the huge melodies, with imagery that wasn't quite visceral or incredibly dark but set a fantastically creepy mood to pay it all off. In other words, it definitely had earned the critical acclaim it had received, and as such as I was curious to dig into their newest release that was dropped a few months back called Homeward Path - what did we get?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 5, 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, this took way too long to finish.

So, now for a complete change of pace, that black metal that I said I was going to be talking about - stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 5, 2015

We are now beginning the second year of chronicling the Hot 100 charts in detail - starting in December because Billboard is weird like that. And even though this is the week I was prepared to unveil some new changes to the format, we also have to deal with one of the largest ever lists of new songs - because for some godawful choice to split their bases, One Direction and Justin Bieber released their new albums in the same damn week. Now sure enough a whole slew of these songs will be gone next week, but for now, given Bieber's shrewd promotional strategy to jack up streaming, we have a full list of twenty new songs. Now given that I already reviewed both new albums from Bieber and One Direction, I'll endeavour to keep these short unless it's a bonus track I hadn't otherwise covered, but strap in, folks, this'll probably be a long one.

video review: '25' by adele

Well, it's good, but I see this review being controversial still. Gah, whatever.

Next up... oh god, Billboard BREAKDOWN and all of the Justin Bieber... hold on, folks, this is going to be a rough start to a new year...

Monday, November 23, 2015

album review: '25' by adele

The year was 2011. The club boom was nearing overexposure in the mainstream, and flashy electro-pop artists were ruling the airwaves. Country was awash in lightweight southern pandering that would degenerate into bro-country, the Young Money crew were ruling mainstream hip-hop, and the indie rock scene was on the precipice of exploding. It was a year in flux, with nobody quite certain what would come next...

In other words, the timing was damn near perfect. People had known about Adele before - a soul singer beloved by the Grammys, known for a remarkably poised if a little tepid debut album that had given us 'Chasing Pavements' - but in 2011 she blew the pop paradigm apart. And while some would inevitably accuse her of middle-brow pandering and that her music was ultimately not as experimental or ground-breaking as many made it out to be - which in retrospect is kind of true - it's also hard to deny that 21 resonated on a deeper level with an enormous audience. And it wasn't just listeners - who made the record the best selling album of the year two years running, bringing impossible profits to Adele's indie label XL - or the Grammy wins and critical acclaim - the success of 21 marked a major shift in pop music. The club boom collapsed, old-school R&B and neo-soul surged back into the mainstream, and pop stars tried to work heavy percussion and reverb to follow the sound even if they couldn't match the emotion.

And here's what I find perplexing: as much as I can see why Adele's 21 resonated with audiences - it's accessible, different without being too weird, powerfully emotive yet with enough class and restraint to get uncomfortable - the album as a whole is a harrowing listen. It's dark and heavy, furiously bitter and heartbroken, and the more you dive into Adele's subject matter the more the complicated swirl of loneliness, rage, regret, and grief becomes hard to bear. And yet even with that it's one of those albums that might work better in pieces than as a whole - there are some wild tonal shifts, a few deep cuts can't quite match the power of the singles, and there are instrumental choices that don't quite fit with the overall atmosphere. In other words, a damn good album, maybe even a great one, but I'm not sure I'd say that it would make one of my year-end lists.

And now four years later, Adele is finally back with 25 - and while I was definitely excited, I had some reservations here. For one, I saw the list of producers: Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth made sense, they've been working with this brand of reverb-touched pop music for years now, and I could maybe even understand Danger Mouse and The Smeezingtons, given Adele's influences, but Max Martin and Shellback? They only show up on one song, but it was enough to suggest that Adele might be going in a very different direction... and in a sense that's probably the right choice than trying to directly imitate what she did on 21. But the larger point is that Adele is returning to a pop world that she helped shift, and while opening tracks like 'Hello' had a ton of promise, it's hard to follow-up a record that shattered the paradigm like 21 did. There was a lot riding on 25 - did Adele pull it off?

Friday, November 20, 2015

video review: 'i'm comin' over' by chris young

This one hurt a lot. Really wished it was better, but eh, it happens even to our favourites.

Next up, Adele - stay tuned!

album review: 'i'm comin' over' by chris young

So here's a fun question for you all: you're a reasonably popular artist and you catch wind that your genre's shifting in a new direction, riding a new trend. So you hop on that trend and it goes reasonably well, but not quite as well as your earlier material, not quite resonating with your audience in the same way - what do you do?

Well, in the case of Chris Young it's arguably pretty simple: you pivot back to what you were doing originally and keep up the routine - you've arguably got the easiest transition path, especially if you take a firmer hand in the songwriting. And if you look at Chris Young's career trajectory over the past four or five years, that's exactly what he's done. Hitting it big in the latter half of the 2000s with a slew of #1 hits, he hopped onboard the bro-country trend for his 2013 album AM, hiring the best of Nashville's songwriting machine to blend his brand of neo-traditional, adult-contemporary leaning country music towards what was cresting in the mainstream. And yet even despite making what I'd deem as one of the best bro-country albums with some of my favourite country songs of 2013, it wasn't an album that produced the sorts of hits previous records like The Man I Want To Be and Neon had. And in a way that makes sense - Chris Young has always been more of a mature romantic, not the sort of guy that would play well with debauched party tracks. It definitely helped matters that he seemed like a stand-up guy, so that when rumours leaked about him being involved in Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert's divorce, Young shot them down so emphatically that I'm inclined to believe him.

So for his upcoming album, Chris Young seemed to be doing everything right: he cut his writing team down to a solid essential team, took more of a songwriting role than he had ever done in the past, and with the lead-off single and title track made it very clear he was transitioning back to modern yet neotraditional country. Hell, he even picked up Vince Gill for a duet, along with Cassadee Pope, an artist I legitimately forgot existed since I reviewed her last record two years ago. For a mainstream country release, he was doing everything right and while I didn't expect this would be better than, say, Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church, I had some hope this could turn out well. Was I right?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

video review: 'damn country music' by tim mcgraw

Well, this was a pretty quick review, but that happens when there's not a lot to it.

Next up, Chris Young, and then since I forgot the album was dropping early, I'll be talking about Adele - stay tuned!

album review: 'damn country music' by tim mcgraw

It's rare I talk about titles when I review albums. Mostly because the title of an album only occasionally operates as a picture into what the album really is, and often times not even that.

But when a respected and established country hitmaker for the past twenty years drops an album titled Damn Country Music, I sit up and take a bit of notice. Not that much notice - this is Tim McGraw after all, a guy who in his entire career has never been a hellraiser, typically performing very polished, very accessible country music. And it's also not like he wrote a single song on this album - most of that at this point is being handled by the Nashville songwriting machine who have long recognized Tim McGraw as a consistently bankable star.

But I have to admit I was curious regardless, but the country music industry hasn't been kind to Tim McGraw behind the scenes. To keep him locked under contract his former label Curb Records shovelled out compilations and greatest hits albums instead of fresh material, and ever since he tore away to land on Big Machine, he's been working to crank out fresh material, with a record each year for the past three years. Now I covered his album last year Sundown Heaven Town and it was fine enough, showing some steps back towards the neotraditional scene after stabs towards a more synthetic mainstream embarrassed everyone involved, but it was definitely uneven, the moments of greatness balanced out by some truly godawful songs. And I frankly expected something similar here - sure, the album was called Damn Country Music, but I didn't expect Tim McGraw to go all Hank Williams III on us. I expected it to fall in the same vein as his last album - a few stabs at the mainstream, and maybe a little more neotraditional as he steps back into his comfort zone. Was I right?

video review: 'purpose' by justin bieber

I need a break from pop for a bit. Next up will be a few country reviews and then I want to talk Arca and some black metal (FINALLY)... well, at least before Adele comes sweeping in.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

album review: 'purpose' by justin bieber

You know, there's a running joke among music critics that even if you don't like Justin Bieber, he's easy enough to ignore that you don't need to care about him. And really, if you reflect upon the past six years, even during the initial buzz, that has remained true - albeit for completely different reasons.

I should explain, and let me preface this by stating that I've never been one of those guys who really hated Justin Bieber right from the get-go. Now it wasn't because he was making quality - songs like 'One Time' and 'Eenie Meenie' really were awful, to the point where I've never understood why Usher hadn't contributed more to his creative development beyond a cosign and one okay song with 'Somebody To Love'. But even in Canada Justin Bieber could be easily ignored - it wasn't like he was racking up massive hits outside of 'Baby', which outside of a hysterically bad verse from Ludacris it was generally forgettable. That seemed to change with the release of 'Boyfriend' off of 2012's record Believe, which I actually reviewed on my blog three years ago. And it wasn't even like that record was completely bad either - sure, 'As Long As You Love Me' and 'Beauty And A Beat' were both pretty damn bad and the album really had no clear creative direction where to take Bieber's music lyrically or sonically, but it did provide one legitimately excellent song with 'Maria' that showed if Bieber brought real dramatic intensity and tightness, he could be a real pop star. 

And then for the next two years Bieber proceeded to squander that potential, committing crimes, shooting his mouth off, and acting like one of the most obnoxious teen idols ever to be given a microphone. Now this didn't really surprise me - the undercurrent of petulance and ego had always leaked into his music, but I assumed he'd eventually grow into it a bit. But combined with the sloppy release strategy of the underwhelming Journals that had no singles that lasted on the charts, I had no reason to really care about Justin Bieber anymore, especially when Justin Timberlake had returned and was so much stronger. That changed this year, with the release of 'Where Are U Now' with Skrillex and Diplo and his first ever #1 hit with 'What Do You Mean?'. And while neither of these songs were precisely bad and Bieber seemed to have grown into his artistic persona, he also had shown so little personality on those songs that I had absolutely zero interest in checking out Purpose, especially as the lyrics on every single had been straying into questionable places. But hey, I might as well give the guy a fair shot, and all of you kept asking for it, so how does Purpose turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 28, 2015 (VIDEO)

To quote one of my favourite comedy groups, we had some... well, we had some times. Yeah, that's it. Times.

But for real, thank you all for sticking around for the first year of this series! It was a lot of work, but I honestly think it was worth it. I've got some ideas how I might want to switch it up in the new year, but we'll see how things percolate out. Until then, I've got Bieber and a few country records, then I can finally dive into some of those black metal albums I've been dying to tackle, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 28, 2015

And now we're here - one year of Billboard BREAKDOWN is completed. Over the past fifty-plus episodes I've covered all the eccentricities of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it has been an eventful year! Between a switch in release scheduling, the chart-spanning weeks for artists too big to fail, and especially in the last quarter of this year the dominance of Canadian artists at the top that has tested my running thesis that the Canadian charts are always better. And I'll admit it's been a real learning experience for me too. Billboard BREAKDOWN has done a lot to define my channel, and though there have been many, many late nights where I swore up and down that after one year I'd be done with this, I'm going to leave that decision up to you. If you guys want me to continue with Billboard BREAKDOWN or revise the format at all, please let me know in the comments, I'm always grateful for your feedback and your support, especially as it's been the most consistent draw across my entire year.

Monday, November 16, 2015

video review: 'the incredible true story' by logic

And that's two. Between this album and One Direction, wonder which will have more contention...

Okay, next up is the final episode of the first year of Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then probably discuss Bieber. Stay tuned!

album review: 'the incredible true story' by logic

So here's a quandary: you're an up-and-coming rapper who is riding a ton of buzz and you've just dropped your debut album. And while you're getting critical acclaim from some outlets, there are some critics who have come down hard about your flow's resemblance to another more acclaimed MC. And even despite the fact that your production is accessible, even mainstream friendly and your album is selling well, you're not getting radio with any recognizable hits. What do you do next?

Well, there's no easy answer to that question, and for as much as I liked Under Pressure when I reviewed it last year, I was definitely worried about this. I still think the album holds up even despite the easy Kendrick Lamar comparison in his flow, mostly because Logic's brand of smoothness and internally focused introspection does lead to a distinctive personality that I find appealing. But outside of a few songs like 'Nikki' and the criminally underrated 'Metropolis', it's not an album I've found the time to revisit, and I found myself concerned that the 'style-over-substance' criticisms that had been levelled at Logic might have some validity if it wasn't gripping me longer.

So when it came to a sophomore record, when I started hearing the buzz that it would a be a sci-fi narrative-driven concept record... well, if he was looking for a way to stand out and away from Kendrick, this would be the way to do it! Hell, this could be new territory for hip-hop as a genre - I did some research and the closest we'd get here is Deltron 3030, and even with that it hit deeply diminishing returns with the long-awaited sequel Event 2 in 2013. Sure, Big K.R.I.T. took stabs at it with Cadillactica, but not to this narrative level. But at the same time, considering that Logic was going to be handling most of the production himself, this had the feel of an overreach, the sort of ambitious project that could be make or break for a guy like Logic. But hey, I'm a sci-fi nerd and a fan of Logic, so I prayed for the best - did The Incredible True Story deliver?

video review: 'made in the a.m.' by one direction

I'd hate to say 'I told you so'... but truth be told I wasn't even going to do this record until you asked for it, so keep that in mind.

Next up, Logic - stay tuned!

album review: 'made in the a.m.' by one direction

This will be the third time I've reviewed One Direction. It will also probably be the last.

And no, that's not because of any vendetta or grudge I have - I've accepted that their years of teen girl-baiting crap are behind them, mostly left on 2013's Midnight Memories as the guys have grown up and taken more of a role in songwriting. They've gotten older, presumably more mature... and along the way, Zayn left the group. 

And look, I've seen this road before. Having one of your more unique and talented singers of the group exit is never a good sign for boy bands, and the news that One Direction would be going on 'hiatus' after this album sealed it for me. In other words, One Direction were entering the Unbreakable-era of their career, the album made to convince fans that they can still hold things together even minus one member, and it almost always signifies real trouble. Now for the Backstreet Boys that eventually resulted in a more modern pop effort with This Is Us before Kevin rejoined... and yet somehow I don't see that happening. Hell, I can imagine Simon Cowell was probably planning for it too - sales figures have been dropping for each One Direction release, and with an album dropped every year he had know they were approaching burnout. So instead of giving them time off or a little more space to really refine their music, it looks like he's decided to milk the cash cow until she drops.

To put it another way, I was under no expectations this record would be anything close to good. Not only were there less writing credits from the group, but none of the lead-off singles had really impressed me the same way songs like the excellent 'Night Changes' had, so I expected trouble. So how did Made In The A.M. turn out?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

video review: 'mr. misunderstood' by eric church

Well damn, I didn't expect this to be nearly as good as it was. Not complaining at all - it's a nice feeling for Eric Church to be on track again, and it's good to put one of my most contentious reviews to the back of my mind for now.

But next up... oh boy, that Logic album is tempting. So let's go for it, stay tuned!

album review: 'mr. misunderstood' by eric church

You know, I've been asked a few times what I think are my worst reviews, or any that I regret. And here's the thing: over the course of nearly doing 500 of these things, you're going to encounter reviews where you look back and just wince a bit - maybe a bad turn of phrase, maybe a slip of the tongue or error in song interpretation, or maybe just an album that has grown or cooled on you over time that makes your review not reflect your feelings now. Now here's the thing: that happens. It's only human for opinions to evolve over time with more information or with changing emotions or even just the passage of time, and reviews being a snapshot of how one feels at a specific moments only further highlights how subjective they really are.

And as such, when you pair all of those factors with an album designed to court controversy with a major shift in artistic direction... well, those are the reviews that tend to spark the most vitriolic reactions... which takes us to Eric Church. I'll wholeheartedly admit my review of his 2014 album The Outsiders is not my best, and when combined with an album that showed Eric Church trying to bend country music in so many different directions, you got a mess all around. It didn't help matters that Eric Church is a contentious artist, drawing on tropes of outlaw country and some interesting songwriting ideas but playing them with little subtlety in the writing or instrumentation. Granted, if I were to reflect on the biggest miscalculation of The Outsiders, it'd be the overwrought, leaden production, courtesy of perennial frustrating producer Jay Joyce.

And as such, when I heard the two had teamed up again to deliver a surprise album of all things, delivered first to registered members of his fan club with ten new tracks not even cracking forty minutes... well, I wasn't sure what to expect. When you consider the record was cut just a few months back and slipped out as a complete surprise, you could either view this is Eric Church satiating his fans with something quick, or him attempting to pull a Beyonce, which he might have been able to do if it wasn't for Chris Stapleton's huge CMA success launching his sales into the stratosphere. But I already reviewed Stapleton's Traveller months ago, so what do we get with Mr. Misunderstood?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

video review: 'art angels' by grimes

Well, this was a hard one to crack. Lot of listens, but I think I finally got it.

Next up, it's about time I revisit Eric Church. Brace yourself, folks, and stay tuned!

album review: 'art angels' by grimes

You ever encounter one of those artists that seems to operate so much on their own wavelength that it's difficult to get a clear inroad to how to perceive or understand their art? As a critic, these are always some of the most frustrating acts to discuss - and for the longest time, Canadian electronic artist Grimes seemed to fall into that lane for me. 

Now I've been aware of her existence for years now - I first heard fragments of her music in university when I was going through my darkwave phase, and I've made several attempts over the past five years to try and untangle her artistic persona. On the surface, it might be easy to slot her into the spacious, airy side of dream pop with sparse beats and lots of dark misty atmosphere, somewhere between Enya with a splash of the more eclectic electronic percussion that some have compared to Bjork. But Grimes was more lo-fi and ragged in her presentation, the sort of Garageband-produced material that seemed so fresh online in the late 2000s before everyone started doing it, and the half-heard nature of her vocals and lyrics made things even tougher. I still find her debut record Geidi Primes perversely fascinating, mostly because the deeper reference points to Dune feel simultaneously incomprehensible and yet perfect all the same, the sort of deeply eccentric passion project that you can tell she had zero expectations would catch on. And I'm still trying to make heads or tails out of Halfaxa, which felt less esoteric and alien than her debut but no less impenetrable. I could sketch out reference points to the weirder edges of synthpop, electronica, and indie R&B, but Grimes seemed to exist in her own universe and my grip on it felt tenuous at best. I mean, I liked it, but I had the feeling if I understood it more, I'd like it that much more.

So did things get better with Visions, the first album she released under indie label 4AD? Well, while it might have cleared away some of the lo-fi blur to focus more on the distinctive ghostly electronic scratch paired with more textured percussion, but it seemed like some of the sense of alien mystique was missing. I'm not going to deny that Grimes could handle electro-pop, but the atmosphere wasn't quite as potent. Don't get me wrong, the mid-section of that record comes close to recapturing that feel, but it couldn't help but feel a little individuality had been lost - especially considering that it didn't translate into more of her work being comprehensible! So when I heard things had been cleaned up even more for her newest release after she had scrapped an album that was too dark and negative, I was curious to see where she'd take Art Angels - what did we find?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 21, 2015 (VIDEO)

And just think of it, the day after I try to edit a video down just below fifteen minutes, the copyright strike is retracted. GAH.

Anyway, next up is Grimes, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 21, 2015

No time for introductions this week - busy week, we'll get to more details surrounding the influx of new country when we get to it, if I want to keep this episode under fifteen minutes because of this goddamn copyright strike, gonna have to go fast!

Monday, November 9, 2015

video review: 'delirium' by ellie goulding

Man, this was a drag. I really wanted this album to be better... but no. No.

Next up, probably Grimes, but if I'm in the mood for a bit of black metal, I might tackle Vallendusk or Panopticon. Stay tuned!

album review: 'delirium' by ellie goulding

Let's go back to 2012 for a second. The pop charts are in a state of upheaval as throughout the majority of the year they've been dominated by indie rock and pop that flagrantly dodged the club material that had been dominating for the past few years. Sure, established stars still have hits, but it's a time where anything can happen, and it leads to one of the most musically fertile years for the pop charts of the decade. And into this time comes a little unassuming song from an indie pop unknown from the UK that seems to be too stripped back and restrained to become huge... and yet rises up to #2.

That song was 'Lights', the artist was Ellie Goulding, and like most hits from the UK, the song had dropped over a year earlier from her reasonably well-received debut album. It was one of those songs that seemed to come from a different universe than mainstream pop, all restraint and atmosphere and esoteric lyricism... and yet it didn't seem to take long for Ellie to jettison most of that for her second album Halcyon, which was bigger, broader, and showed she was just as comfortable playing in more conventional pop too. On the one hand, I can see why some people would take issue with her ditching her more acoustic touches for heavier, more symphonic electropop, especially considering singles like 'I Need Your Love' had her working with Calvin Harris who could run against David Guetta for the least interesting producer working in EDM. On the other hand, though, 'Lights' has always been one of those songs I respect more than I actually like, whereas 'Burn' remains one of my favourite songs of 2014, with Ellie's willowy tones and the bells show exactly how to make a simple pop tune so much more. 

That said, when I heard that Delirium was going to be even more of a pop-centric record, recruiting songwriters like Max Martin, I was a bit uneasy. One of the reasons that I thought Ellie was a good fit for airy, more sweeping electropop or even EDM is her ethereal vocal tone and her more abstract writing - getting her to make more modern pop tracks just struck me as an awkward experiment. That said, 'On My Mind' has grown on me a fair bit, and I figured I might as well give this a chance. How did it go?

video review: 'get weird' by little mix

Well, you all wanted it, you got it.

Next up we've got a fair amount of pop with Ellie Goulding and Grimes, but also country with Eric Church's surprise record and Tim McGraw's new album and holy god this week is going to be so damn busy - so stay tuned!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

album review: 'get weird' by little mix

Let's return to the subject of competition.

Now those of you who've been watching since earlier this year know that I opened up my review of Fifth Harmony with the same topic - and that's not a coincidence, because if we're looking for a classic example of Simon Cowell playing labelmates against each other in order to spark up lucrative controversy, it's here. After all, it's a proven formula: the younger, more American-accessible group going against the older, more refined group that's achieved worldwide success. It's N'Sync vs. The Backstreet Boys all over again... and as such, it shouldn't be a surprise which one I'd consider as the better one.

And this shouldn't be that much of a surprise: when I covered Little Mix's Salute early last year, I was startled how much I ended up liking it, with the girls having solid chemistry, pretty decent vocal arrangements and real talent and working with good writers while having a solid writing presence themselves. Hell, their song 'Competition' was exceptionally close to landing on my year-end list for my favourite songs of 2014 - why it wasn't a single, I have absolutely no idea, especially considering that it would have wiped the floor with Fifth Harmony's 'Worth It', a song that for some ungodly reason became a hit playing in a more derivative template. Now I don't want to oversell Salute, because it had its fair share of problems, most notably in production and instrumentation, which tried to retrace 90s pop R&B with mixed results. It really could have benefited from a real budget or a cohesive production team like Girls Aloud had with Xenomania - which might as well be the tagline reviewing any album from Syco Music, so thanks for that, Simon Cowell.

As such, I had slightly mixed emotions going into Get Weird, Little Mix's third album. On the one hand, giving them a guest appearance from Jason Derulo smacked of desperation for a US crossover, and I had no faith whatsoever Simon Cowell was going to give them production to be really stand out; as much as the album title promised that they'd Get Weird, I didn't buy it for a second. On the other hand, I found some writers when digging through the liner notes that were promising, and there still was a core of real talent behind this group. So I gave Get Weird a chance - how does it hold up?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

video review: 'bad neighbor' by med, blu & madlib

Man, this record was disappointing, especially given the real talent behind it. Eh, you can't win them all.

Okay, as I said at the end of the video, next up is Little Mix, so stay tuned!

album review: 'bad neighbor' by med, blu & madlib

You ever hear about projects that sound like easy wins in theory but don't end up sticking the landing quite as well as you'd like in reality, perhaps tripped up by their own ambition or artistic choices? Well, if we're looking for two rappers where that might well be the case, M.E.D. and Blu are two examples. Now I've talked about Blu in the past when I reviewed his pretty damn great record Good To Be Home last year, and there's been rumours he had put something together with Madlib as early as 2012, when Blu released the project UCLA for a short time before pulling it when Madlib denied any involvement. But putting that aside, Blu's brand of pseudo-conscious and layered bars would probably be a solid as hell fit against Madlib's more soulful and eccentric production. 

Believe it or not, I was more worried about M.E.D., who had actually worked with Madlib on previous albums as a fellow member of Stones Throw Records, but had run into diminishing returns when his bars didn't quite rise to the level of the excellent production he was getting from producers like Oh No, Just Blaze, and even Dilla. And it wasn't like his monotone was bad - I listen to LMNO and Evidence, that sort of flow and delivery can work - but his rhymes could just feel more awkward than they should against that production, and his content wasn't anything all that special to me.

So when I heard that M.E.D., Blu, and Madlib were teaming up for a collaborative record, with features from MF Doom, Anderson .Paak, Aloe Blacc, Hodgy Beats, Oh No, and even Mayer Hawthorne of all people, I was interested but a little concerned. I expected Blu to fit right at home against Madlib's production - providing, of course, he didn't get lazy, and brought the lyricism that worked so well on Good To Be Home - but had M.E.D. improved enough as an MC to stand out? And would it even matter if he had - most collaboration albums like this feel more like an excuse to sit back, chill, and trade bars, so with the understanding the content was probably going to be nothing groundbreaking, what did we get?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

video review: 'ambrosia' by illusive realm

Promised I'd cover it, glad I finally got the chance to get this out. Not a lot to say, but I wanted to say it anyway.

Next up... goddamn it, this MED, Blu and Madlib tape gives me a headache every time I listen through it, so I have no idea what's coming next. Either way, stay tuned!

album review: 'ambrosia' by illusive realms

So we're reaching the time of year when I get a little more time in my schedule, where I can dig into records that I might have missed and venture outside my comfort zone. And inevitably, just like last year, that means there's going to be some electronica records that passed me by and that I'm going to delve into to increase my growing knowledge of the format. 

And like with last year, this time we're going to be venturing deep into the indie set to Illusive Realms, an artist that actually approached me back in the early months of this year. We connected on Twitter, I took a listen to some of the stuff that he created, and after liking most of it and passing on my commentary, I made the promise that when he got a full-length record together, I'd sit down and give him a full review. And after some unfortunate delays, that record was finally released on Bandcamp and Soundcloud... right in the middle of the busiest two months of my year. Yeah, September and October have been absolutely bonkers in 2015, and this album unfortunately slipped past my notice. But I did make a promise and the snippets I had heard were promising, and considering that the album was pretty short, I figured I'd make the time and dig in - what did we get?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

video review: 'divers' by joanna newsom

Man, this album took a lot to untangle, but it was definitely worth it. Highly recommended.

Next up... you know, that M.E.D., Blu, and Madlib record looks interesting, but I still have a bit of old business I want to handle... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'divers' by joanna newsom

I've been hesitant to cover this record.

Hell, I've been hesitant to cover Joanna Newsom in general, who I knew more by reputation than anything else before I started doing my research for this review. I knew she had one of the most idiosyncratic voices in folk music - a bit like a cross between Bjork and Sia but more rounded and warm - and I knew she had amassed a lot of critical acclaim for her vibrantly detailed, excellently witty songwriting that probably runs as close to twee as I'd ever tolerate... except for the fact that she also happens to be an incredibly gifted composer utilizing her harp and a lot of gorgeously rich instrumentation to compose layered, gorgeously polyrhythmic songs drenched in English and Celtic folk.

Now the majority of this is right up my alley, and thus when I finally started listening through The Milk-Eyed Mender, I did find a lot to like, even despite a few minor missteps when it came to instrumental tones that clashes Newsom's unique vocals. Then came Ys... and on the one hand, I liked the more opulent orchestration for how well it could match the dramatic swell of the writing and Newsom's more strident tones, but there was a part of me that missed the quieter, funnier witticisms that ran through her more stripped back material. The album started to pick up the feel of meandering pastoral indulgence, focusing more on intricate detail instead of the overall whole, which seemed to reach critical mass on the triple album Have One On Me that she released in 2010. And here's the thing: yes, over two hours of music can be long, but it's one of those releases that really works better considering each disc as an individual release with its own musical motifs and underlying themes, and really, they don't feel as long as you'd think, especially if you're poring through the lyrics at the same time. That said, I do understand why some think the quieter second disc can drag a bit, especially compared to the more elaborate instrumentation of the first and the slightly brighter tones of the third. And when I heard that Joanna Newsom was pursuing even more elaborate, layered instrumentation on her newest album this year... well, I was interested. At the very least, it'd probably sound beautiful and be a rewarding exercise in poetry, so I dove into Divers - what did I find?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 14, 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, this was late, but eh, it happens.

Okay, we've got a lot coming, let's see if I can handle some old business quickly. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 14, 2015

Well, I'd like to say that I called it... but let me be honest here: I didn't call all of it. And really, if you had seen any of the sales data or streams or just simply checked YouTube, you could have predicted this. What caught me a bit off guard wasn't just that we got our new #1, but that we got a new #2 right behind it, a one-two punch we haven't seen this year!

Monday, November 2, 2015

video review: 'return to the moon' by EL VY

Oh, I can imagine this review will be controversial - mostly because from the reviews I've seen this record is pretty controversial among critics. I personally think it really works and absolutely love it, but I can see the other side for SURE.

Next up I want to talk about Joanna Newsom, but I've got one bit of old business to finish first. But of course we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN coming, so stay tuned!

album review: 'return to the moon' by EL VY

You ever have those albums that the first time you hear about the idea, you wonder why on earth nobody has ever thought of it before?

Yes, I know, I've used that tagline before when I've talked about Casualties of Cool and FFS and Algiers, but when I heard about the team-up of frontman of The National Matt Berninger with former Menomena member and current Ramona Falls frontman Brett Knopf... well, the thought didn't come immediately. The National might be one of the most stable and acclaimed groups in modern indie rock - for good reason, they're awesome - but Menomena was something different altogether, an experimental group specializing in looped progressions and an oddly democratic and programmed composition process that sparked enough curiosity for me to dig into their early albums. And holy God, I'm glad I did, because while it was experimental in an oddly regimented way, this group had a knack for fantastic melodic loops and progressions that if married to the crescendos and intricate lyricism that had made The National a favourite of mine, we could have something special. And just for curiosity - and to check to see if Menomena hadn't been an amazing fluke - I also checked out Ramona Falls, and while they're a looser act, the great melodies are still here along with a slightly more eclectic and theatrical presentation that also happens to be pretty damn awesome. 

So, okay, two great tastes coming together to make an album that Berninger described as his most personal and inspired by a blend of the musical Grease and the punk band Minutemen - and you should know them because they're awesome and Double Nickels On The Dime is a goddamn classic... look, this was bound to be interesting at least. Was I right?