Thursday, July 28, 2016

album review: 'HEAVN' by jamila woods

Let's talk a bit about Chicago and hip-hop. A city that in the past has given us Kanye West, Common, and Lupe Fiasco, but if you know anything about it recently it's a much darker territory. Gang warfare and ever escalating violence has led to some of the darkest and most aggressive hip-hop to emerge from its South Side, from the now mostly ignored Chief Keef to the emergent drill scene. This is hard music made by young artists who have seen far too much too young, and while she's more adjacent to it than a part of it directly, the rapper Dreezy whose debut I covered yesterday comes with the scars of that sound.

But there's another side to hip-hop in Chicago, a side that is just as touched by the violence but has rebelled with an unrelenting, socially-conscious optimism that seeks to mine some good out of The Windy City. Chance The Rapper is by far the most well-known name, but you also have Donnie Trumpet and Saba and maybe even Vic Mensa in a pinch. And then there's Jamila Woods, an artist who straddles the line of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and spoken word poetry and who has worked with Chance and even Macklemore. And though I wasn't really familiar with any of her solo work, I liked her contributions to songs like 'Sunday Candy', 'Blessings', and 'White Privilege II', and with the critical acclaim her debut album HEAVN has received, I figured it might be worth a look. Was I right?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

video review: 'no hard feelings' by dreezy

I expected this record was going to be good, but I have to admit not quite this good. Solid record, genuinely enjoyable, I'd definitely dig in more and I hope Dreezy gets some momentum to compensate for her crap first week of sales...

In any case, let's stay in Chicago for our next review and talk about Jamila Woods, so stay tuned!

album review: 'no hard feelings' by dreezy

You know, I feel I've made the exasperated speech about why there aren't more women in hip-hop a half-dozen times and pretty much before I cover any artists in this vein, and frankly, I'm sick of making it. I'm also coming to the realization that a lot of promising female rappers are fighting their way through an industry that's cutting them no favours and that the only way we're going to see more of them is if more critics like me start giving attention. 

In other words, instead of giving any attention to another dime-a-dozen Gucci Mane project that's only going to give me a headache anyway, let's talk about Chicago MC Dreezy. I've actually mentioned her before a few times in the series, once when she dropped some authoritative bars on Common's Nobody's Smiling back in 2014, and once when she released her pop crossover song 'Body' with Jeremih earlier this year that actually had a bit of success on Billboard BREAKDOWN. What most of this told me is that while Dreezy could play to the mainstream pop charts, she was also a solid MC in her own right, not quite part of the drill scene but still capable of hard bars and good flows, certainly more than what I'd seen from DeJ Loaf out of Detroit. So I figured why not dig into her debut album under Interscope No Hard Feelings, which reportedly was pushing with some real narrative ambition and had guest appearances from Jeremih, Wale, T-Pain, and - unfortunately - Gucci Mane. Looks like I'm not going to be able to get away from this guy this week, but whatever - how's the album?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 6, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was an interesting week. I wouldn't quite call it a great one, but overall pretty solid.

Next up, we hit Chicago with Dreezy and Jamila Woods, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 6, 2016

And just like that, the summer lull gets burst wide open, and there's a part of me that couldn't be happier. Yeah, I could definitely raise questions about why - to say nothing of the viability of both the new songs and the new #1 that did it - but I have to admit, the past few weeks have been so stagnant that there's a part of me that's thrilled there's change at all!

video review: 'autonomy music' by short fuze & uncommon nasa

Well, this was pretty damn awesome too. Definitely dig into this, it deserves a lot of attention.

Next up... hmm, not quite sure yet, we'll see. I'm curious about that Dreezy album, to be honest, but I should probably talk about Relient K too, so stay tuned!

Monday, July 25, 2016

album review: 'autonomy music' by short fuze & uncommon nasa

Let's talk a bit about cosigns.

Because as a critic, I'm always pretty wary of them. You get plenty of artists who will pitch themselves as being 'like' a specific act, or being loosely affiliated with them, or using that one guest verse that was super tight to build a bridge of association that they'd never be able to hold again under tighter scrutiny. I tend to be a fair bit more forgiving when the act that I like outright endorses them, but again, I've always got a bit of skepticism. Sure, maybe this producer I really like helped cowrite or add verses to a project and he believes in its artistic intentions... or he's trying to give a friend a leg-up or use his status to elevate someone not ready for primetime.

And yet my skepticism was sorely tested when Uncommon Nasa reached out to me about this project. Given how much I absolutely loved his last album Halfway last year, I was pretty damn optimistic when he said that he contributed both verses and all the production to Chicago MC Short Fuze, who worked with Nasa back in 2010 for his debut Lobotomy Music and who showed up for a pretty good guest verse on Halfway. And from what I know of Nasa, he isn't about to cosign or work with artists he wouldn't fully support, so I had some faith that this project could really hit home, especially as it was just under thirty five minutes, the sort of ruthlessly tight project that left no room for error. So I made sure to dig into Autonomy Music - did it stick the landing and meet expectations?

video review: 'tradition lives' by mark chesnutt

Well, this turned out a fair bit better than I expected. Seriously, give this guy some support, Chesnutt is delivering real quality here in a great country year.

But he's not the only great record I'm covering tonight - stay tuned!

album review: 'tradition lives' by mark chesnutt

Let's go back about thirty years in country music - and one could make the argument that it was bleak indeed. Country had never sounded so polished and sterile, plainly trying to play for pop radio instead of doubling down on what made the genre good in the first place - sound familiar? But that was about to change with the rise of what would become one of the biggest and most celebrated movements in country music: the neotraditional sound. Led initially by George Strait and country pop defector Reba McEntire in the mid-80s, by the late 80s it would explode thanks to a burst of terrific talent talent seldom seen before in the genre. In 1989 alone we got the debut records from Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson. And these weren't just bursts of talent from the indie scene - they were hitmakers and tremendously popular, pushing one of my favourite genres with the neotraditional sound into a creative boom that would last for nearly ten years.

But let's go back a year to 1988, where the artist we're going to talk about today, Texas country artist Mark Chesnutt, began his career on an indie label before heading mainstream. His name doesn't tend to come up as much in the neotraditional movement, but he was definitely there in the early 90s with a string of real hits. I'm honestly not sure why he isn't remembered more - I still remember most of his 90s hits, and most of them are pretty decent, if occasionally a little too slick for their own good. Maybe it was because he didn't take more of an active role writing his own songs, especially early on, but a larger factor was a cover he made of Aerosmith's 'I Don't Want A Miss a Thing', a song that was a pop sellout for both acts and that he actually regrets to this day. I'm not about to blame him for it - pop country made a massive comeback in the late 90s, it's understandable his label might have pushed him in that direction, but then his label was dissolved and for a few years he kind of got stuck in the lurch. So when country had shifted into the rougher sounds of the early 2000s, Chesnutt probably did the best thing he could have done - he went back to the indie scene and his roots with the honky tonk sound in Texas. And since then, while he hasn't been writing a lot, he's been putting out a series of critically acclaimed records - sure, he doesn't write many of the songs, but he's always had a knack for finding smart songwriters with a knack for nuance, ever since the 90s. Now this album Tradition Lives is his first since Outlaw in 2010, and it's been getting a lot of critical acclaim, especially from the indie country set, so I figured I'd give it a listen - was it worth it?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

video review: 'love & hate' by michael kiwanuka

So believe it or not, I'm expecting to get a ton of hatred for this review. This is, after all, one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year... and I think it's just solid, not great. Eh, we'll see.

Next up, Uncommon Nasa and Short Fuze, and then I can finally dig into that Mark Chesnutt record, so stay tuned!

album review: 'love & hate' by michael kiwanuka

So there's a term that's become popular in the online music critic scene, particularly on YouTube. Coined by one Todd Nathanson, it's one that's attracted a fair amount of attention, expansion, and detractors, one that I've even coined myself: the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' genre. It's a bit of a nebulous term - because obviously not all white guys with acoustic guitars make bad music, look at Mark Kozalek or James McMurtry - but it typically is used to describe a certain sort of gutless, edgeless, artless pretension that's perfect for scoring your average listless summer barbecue that wouldn't dare to threaten or challenge anybody. And given that most of this music tends to make my skin crawl, I have no problem whatsoever disparaging this type of music, not just for the often below-average songwriting and guitarwork, but more for the attitudes beneath the music - I elevate artists like Kozalek and McMurtry above this term because they're trying to make artistic statements, whereas stereotypical white guys with acoustic guitars make music in order to pick up chicks or put up a forefront of depth that isn't there.

But I'll also admit it's a narrow term, and it's by no means limited to white guys, so what about black guys with acoustic guitars? Well, you're going to find far fewer examples in this subgenre, but there are a few - Darius Rucker, former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish immediately springs to mind, and it's definitely a fair comparison. But when you consider Michael Kiwanuka, I would definitely hesitate to assign that label, mostly because he seems to play in an entirely different ballpark, even if on the surface some people might be inclined to use the label. For those who don't know, Kiwanuka is a British singer-songwriter who got his start as a session player before his breakthrough in 2012 with his debut album Home Again, which definitely had its warm folk touches and a fair amount of acoustic guitar, but tended to play more towards old school soul touches with the organ and slightly rougher production. But at the same time, as much as I liked his delivery the writing wasn't always stellar - and to be fair, good soul doesn't always need brilliant lyrics, but it feel thin at points, enough that I could see why people at first glance might assign that the label, or at least consider him a bit of a throwback. But he didn't seem willing to accept that, so recruiting Danger Mouse and fellow UK producer Inflo, he dropped his sophomore album Love & Hate that on the surface looked to be getting more conscious and develop more lyrical bite. So after I caught some strong singles, I figured I dig into this: was it worth it?

video review: 'theories of flight' by fates warning

Well, this took me WAY too long to get out - and I also apparently bungled the publishing process, so I don't think anyone has seen much of it. Gah, one click could have made it all work...

In any case, I've got Michael Kiwanuka and Uncommon Nasa/Short Fuze coming up soon, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

album review: 'theories of flight' by fates warning

It's widely understood that there were four bands who really 'broke' progressive metal towards more mainstream acceptance - well, as mainstream as prog metal gets. I've talked about Dream Theater twice and they probably stand out as my favourites, although I can definitely say that early Queensryche gets up there too. And then there's Tool... look, I'll save that discussion for if they ever actually release another album, I'm not sure I want to deal with the dumpster fire that conversation will be.

Then there's the last group, the one that gets mentioned in the same sentence and came up around the same time but never seems to get the same attention or critical acclaim. That group is Fates Warning, a group that for the past few weeks I've been exploring in detail to try and understand why exactly they never get the same attention. And I think there are a number of reasons: they never really had a huge crossover into the mainstream, they weren't active throughout a significant chunk of the 2000s, and they also weren't really as good. I'm not saying the group was bad, but the group definitely suffered through some pretty rough production throughout the 80s that would only start to turn around in earnest by the turn of the decade with Perfect Symmetry and Parallels. And yet from there... it's hard to tell what it is, beyond the unfair comparisons to stronger peers. They wrote good music, but I'm not sure I could point to that standout classic record the same way I could with Operation: Mindcrime or Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. I don't think they were helped by trying to stick with production trends of the time rather than carve out their own route - it definitely dates both Disconnected and FWX as albums, even if I do think Disconnected is probably underrated. In any case, when the band went on hiatus and then came back in 2013 with Darkness In A Different Light, I actually quite liked that record - the band sounded fresh and invigorated, and the writing and production felt as fresh as anyone could have expected. So you can bet when I heard that Theories Of Flight was even better, hailed as one of Fates Warning's best albums, I was excited to dig in, so despite being a week or two late with this review, how did the album turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 30, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was an interesting episode to make. Took a little longer than I expected, but overall a better week, I think, especially before Britney and Katy make their big returns.

Next up, I think it's finally time I talk about Fates Warning, so stay tuned!

special comment: #kimexposedtaylor & pop culture authenticity (VIDEO)

I'm actually a little amazed I got this out on time, but I'm definitely happy I did - fair amount to deconstruct her, and it did lead to a nifty little punchline at the end about our role in enabling this sort of drama. A little less dramatic now, thanks to the legality of it all being stripped out the picture, but eh, it happens.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 30, 2016

I have mixed feelings about the Hot 100 this week. On the one hand, our new entries look pretty promising for the first time in a while, and I have to hope that a few of these tracks will actually stick around for a bit... but on the other hand, I also have to take a look at our gains and realize that even they start to gain traction, they've got a ways to go to overtake the tidal wave of garbage that's ascending up the charts when the summer lull blocks out most competition. Joy.

video review: 'the maze' by a:j

Well, this was an interesting record to untangle. Pretty interesting, to be sure.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I've really got a ton of records to tackle - stay tuned!

special comment: #kimexposedtaylor and pop culture authenticity

I started to feel physically ill when I started drafting this Special Comment. It's the same sinking feeling that happens whenever I have to even mention the Kardashians in anything I create, acknowledge how so many people find their utterly brainless TMZ-baiting trash so damn captivating. Even though anyone with a functioning brain stem can tell you that none of it is remotely close to real or has produced anything beyond cheap gossip and ruining the lives of people who should rightly know better at this point. Oh, don't get me wrong, I get the attraction to it - people like vapid drama, especially when it seemingly comes at the expense of the rich and famous - but even without seeing a single episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and contributing to the downward slide of humanity towards Idiocracy, at this point it should be blatantly obvious to everyone that they're more shrewd than that and are making millions off of the public not knowing any better - or caring, which is arguably even worse.

Monday, July 18, 2016

album review: 'the maze' by a:j

Let's flash back to the end of 2013. I'm a mostly fresh-faced music critic coming up on my hundredth or so album review on YouTube, trying to ensure I've covered everything I need before the end of the year. And then, almost by accident, I find a record that's been languishing in my inbox for a few months, a hip-hop release by Cousin Ayjay, a relative unknown who still managed to capture my attention for some impressively layered production and an ambitious narrative framework exploring the listless day in the life of a perpetual stoner. Now if that's seems like an oxymoron, it's because this record falls into a weird spot for me: plenty of detail in creating the characters and world around him, but as a rapper Cousin Ayjay could feel a little sloppy. The production was lush and off-kilter, but it rarely developed any sort of momentum to drive the story. In other words, it did have many of the hallmarks of an indie hip-hop passion project: lush and expansive with little to no pop appeal, but also self-indulgent and overlong, not quite coming together as strongly as it could.

And yet say what you will about A:J - he dropped the 'Cousin' from his name a few years back - he's the sort of artist I like seeing in indie hip-hop, and thus when he approached me with his newest album, I was definitely intrigued to see where he was going next. So steeling myself for another complicated listen, I dove into The Maze - what did I find?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

video review: 'nothing's real' by shura

Wow, this record caught me off-guard by how much I dug it. So tight, so distinctly memorable... great record, bound to be underrated, definitely check this out!

Next up... think I might get that indie record out the door along with Fates Warning, and after that... not sure, really, so stay tuned!

Friday, July 15, 2016

album review: 'nothing's real' by shura

I don't know what the hell is happening with synthpop this year.

See, in 2015 it seemed like every other week I was covering another band drawing from various points in the 80s to update their sound, for better or worse. 2016, though... I don't know if I just haven't covered as much of it, but that quick spurt of tight, synth-driven and accessible music seems to have faded almost as quickly as it arrived, either splitting towards the more immediately danceable electronic scene or towards different eras of retro sound. And that's a bit dispiriting in my books - as much as the 80s has felt like a well-trod ground when it comes to musical nostalgia, I still feel there's more that could be done to balance old and new in the modern age if given the chance.

As such, I was definitely curious to cover Shura, a British producer and singer-songwriter who built some groundswell on YouTube with a string of singles and got signed to Polydor for her first record,  starting her first ever headlining tour this year with Tegan & Sara. To me, a lot of that is a good sign, because even if this record's rollout has seen nearly every song on it become a 'single' - which you would kind of expect, given her YouTube roots - it seemed like there was some serious attention given to her as a songwriter who aimed for a more confessional and detailed side of writing you don't often see in synthpop. So I figured what the hell and I checked out her debut album Nothing's Real - how did that go?

video review: 'wildflower' by the avalanches

Been waiting to get to this one. I really do wish I loved it more, but it is definitely solid.

Next up... hmm, I think Shura, Fates Warning, and then maybe that indie record... stay tuned!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

album review: 'wildflower' by the avalanches

So let's talk a little about sampling.

Now if you've been listening to hip-hop - or really mainstream music at all throughout the past twenty years - you're well aware of this practice, taking a piece of music or sound and using it to build a different song, often warping or flipping it into something brand new in the process. But let's take this a step further, because normally when a hip-hop producer samples something, he adds to it with backbeats and a rapper to flow over it - the sample is not the only part of the composition.

Enter plunderphonics, a fantastic word that describes a narrow subgenre of music where the compositions are entirely composed to samples merged and twisted together so that the fragments barely resemble the original piece and come together for a brand new whole. And what's all the more surprising is that there is often so many samples in these compositions that many are often uncleared, which can lead to a legal nightmare and is the big reason why we don't really see many plunderphonic records, or when we do the samples are often innocuous, from out-of-print videos or music from decades past, long forgotten by everyone else. This takes us to The Avalanches, an Australian electronic group who released a plunderphonic record in 2000 called Since I Left You that would become critically acclaimed for its fusion of samples into a cinematic, world-crossing retro-disco experience. Now going back to relisten to this record... yes, for sure it's a very good record that demands a lot of attention, but I wouldn't say I quite loved it - I appreciated the emotive scope and real earnest power, but it does have its moments that drag and you'd like to think that The Avalanches would have a little more ambition in the final product to make more than 'string section disco', to paraphrase Robert Christgau. And yet from that point it has taken sixteen years to follow it with a new album called Wildflower, which was reportedly created to thematically recapture the euphoric feeling of summer roadtrips, mostly pushed through 60s psychedelic pop. Okay, bit of a smaller scale, but I was definitely intrigued - so did The Avalanches manage to deliver?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

video review: 'blank face lp' by schoolboy q

I literally have no idea how this review is going to be received. Seriously no clue. Eh, we'll see what happens.

Next up, let's dig into this Avalanches record, and then maybe Fates Warning and an indie surprise. Stay tuned!

album review: 'blank face lp' by schoolboy q

Man, Schoolboy Q is a frustrating artist for me.

See, I covered him back in 2014 with Oxymoron and while I found that record a slight step away from the genuinely excellent Habits And Contradictions, I still liked Schoolboy Q as an artist. On the tracks where his lyrics can feel stale or formulaic he brings a lot of personality, and when he wants to he can definitely bring a smarter brand of writing to his material, with subtext and insight. He definitely has a place in the Top Dawg stable of MCs, more cutting than Jay Rock's bruising style and grittier than someone like Ab-Soul or Kendrick. In other words, when we consider West Coast gangsta rap, he's probably one of the more accessible artists coming from TDE, and between his collaborations and charting singles, there's proof of that. My problem with Schoolboy Q has always been consistency, balancing out that mainstream appeal with stronger content or production that doesn't drag back his impressive personality.

And yet in the lead-up to this release, I haven't received many requests to cover this album, and I have no idea why. Granted, there hasn't been the huge single like 'Studio' to push this record, and I've already mentioned that I wasn't wild about his collaboration with Kanye West 'That Part', but he's never had great luck with singles anyway and from all accounts this record to be his longest and more elaborate to date. And his list of guest stars was pretty impressive - forget Kanye, when you get Kurrupt, Vince Staples, E-40, Jadakiss, Anderson .Paak, Miguel, and Kendrick contributing hooks, you've got a pretty impressive lineup of quality behind you, most of which deserve to be a lot more famous than they are - which would probably be one of the best ways to describe Schoolboy Q, come to think of it. So I decided to dig into Blank Face LP - how did it turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 23, 2016 (VIDEO)

Another slow week on the Hot 100. Eh, it happens - at least Logic finally debuted, and I didn't hate that new Fergie song quite as much as I thought I would, which I count as a net positive.

But enough wasting time: ScHoolboy Q is up next, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 23, 2016

...well folks, it's the summer lull. High temperatures and vacation means that the charts have fallen into a torpor, with nary a major shift in sight. In other words, we got another slow week - and no guarantee that it's going to be any better.

Monday, July 11, 2016

video review: 'dopamine' by BØRNS

Thank you all for your support, folks - pretty happy how this review turned out too!

Next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN and Schoolboy Q, so stay tuned!

album review: 'dopamine' by BØRNS

I have to admit, I'm surprised this album got the top pick. Sure, it was a narrow three-way race, but I had expected the support behind those two records. After all, Kamasi Washington's The Epic had won a ton of critical acclaim as a behemoth of modern jazz, and Love Stuff by Elle King probably got the request thanks to how many people went back to rediscover her after 'Ex's And Oh's'. This guy, on the other hand...

Okay, from what I can glean, Garrett Borns is a Michigan-based singer-songwriter that's had some success on the rock and alternative charts after getting signed to Interscope. Apparently much of his work was inspired by retro-cool Americana, like the Beach Boys and Playboy magazines from the 60s and 70s. That's got some promise, and his collaborating producers also seemed interesting, most notably Tommy English, a guy who has worked for both 5 Seconds Of Summer and Black Veil Brides... and yet buzz was suggesting BØRNS was more retro-disco and glam rock. At the very least I like glam rock, and even though Kyle Craft set the genre an incredibly high bar this year with Dolls Of Highland, that's no reason why BØRNS couldn't also match six months earlier. And besides, you all recommended I take a look at this and I have to trust you guys have an idea of what I'd otherwise like, so how did Dopamine turn out?

video review: 'fma' by grace

I'm absolutely stunned this review has been received as well as it has - took me a while to get out properly, so I'm happy with the results, but still, I expected a bit of a backlash here that hasn't happened. Huh.

Next up is my 3-year anniversary and a very special video you all voted for, so stay tuned!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

album review: 'fma' by grace

Oh, I've been looking forward to this review.

See, a few months back I covered a song as a World Hit for Billboard BREAKDOWN called 'You Don't Own Me', which was a remake of a classic Lesley Gore song from the mid-60s and was actually updated well for the modern era. And ever since then, with the song crossing over into the States, I've been trying to keep an eye on Grace Sewell, known mononymously as Grace. If you recognize that last name, it might be because her brother Conrad has also had some major world success as the vocalist on Kygo's 'Firestone' or his breakout solo hit 'Start Again', thus being the first pair of siblings to hit #1 on the Australian charts with different songs. 

And I'll have to admit I was intrigued - with 'You Don't Own Me' it looked like Grace was able to tap into the smoky side of vintage soul that leans more towards Amy Winehouse than Meghan Trainor, and the fact she brought on Quincy Jones himself to update the production is all the more evidence that she might be a formidable artist in her own right. And while some of that would come from being part of a family of musicians going back to her grandparents who toured with the Bee Gees, there did seem to be formidable talent here, so I checked out her debut FMA, which stands for Forgive My Attitude - what did we get?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

video review: 'weval' by weval

Overall, pretty decent listen, I dug this. Not sure how much replay it has, but I did appreciate it.

Next up, Grace, Schoolboy Q, and that third year anniversary... what album did I get? Stay tuned to find out!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

album review: 'weval' by weval

I always feel like I'm behind the times when I talk about electronic music.

And look, I'm trying to keep up, but it's only getting more and more tricky when it feels like for every electronic record I cover I end up missing five. Which is kind of weird because I don't tend to get a lot of requests for electronic music outside of the mainstream crossover stuff, but I'm still trying to dig into the genre and find more stuff I like, and if strip-mining Pitchfork's critically acclaimed section helps me get to the stuff that might pick up more traction, I'll take it.

So let's talk about a record that dropped a week or so back and seemingly fell under everyone's radar, the self-titled debut album from electronic duo Weval. A pair of Dutch friends, they don't really identify under any specific electronic music subgenre but from I was able to dredge up you could probably put them close to the spacier, more wiry side of deep house, or at least that was what I picked up when I took a look at their 2013 Half Age EP. It certainly isn't the most experimental electronic music I've ever heard, but there was a melodic consistency and chill sandy vibe that I quite enjoyed. So while I doubted this record might replace Jamie xx's In Colour as my go-to summer electronic album, I gave their self-titled debut a try - what did I find?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 16, 2016 (VIDEO)

This was... well, an interesting week to say the least. I genuinely hope we get a shakeup instead of a summer lull, because I don't have much patience for the rest of this. In the mean time, though, I've got Weval, then probably Grace and a few others coming soon, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 16, 2016

So here's the thing about the summer lull period with the charts: you get out of it basically what you put in. If you have good songs primed to go live in May or June that'll have some momentum, you'll basically have your summer lineup providing there's no big shakeup or surprises. But if you don't... well, basically you're left with most of the Hot 100 right now, which isn't so much outright awful but full of tracks that engender barely a reaction at all. Fellow music critic Todd In The Shadows described these tracks as fragments, but I'd prefer the term hollow: they fill time on the radio, but you're left feeling like nothing sticks in the way some years have, which is bad even for pop.

video review: 'what we live for' by american authors

Well, this happened. Overall a decent record, but I can't help feeling they could have done a fair bit more. Eh, it happens.

Next up... well, Billboard BREAKDOWN for one, but then I want to get to this Weval record, as well as Grace and maybe Bat For Lashes too... stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

album review: 'what we live for' by american authors

So let's talk about surprises.

It's a sad fact of being a critic is that it's rare that you get surprised by an album. Sure, sometimes you'll get something insane coming out of the woodwork that blows your mind - which is why critics tend to shower praise on oddball records that are unlike anything they've ever heard before, and I'll admit I can succumb to this as well. But more often than not, it can be tough to go into every single record with the expectation that every album is someone's first, to try and capture that emotion of genuine awe.

And that's probably why I've got a fond spot in my heart for American Authors, something that'll probably surprise most of you if you only remember them for their sort-of hit 'Best Day Of My Life' that rapidly became a commercial product more than an actual song. And from that single it was widely thought that they were just another soulless rip-off of Imagine Dragons before that band fell off the deep end. Hell, that's what I expected when I covered their debut album Oh, What A Life - and it wasn't anything close to what I got. They were far closer to the power pop of acts like Semisonic or Fountains Of Wayne, just pressed through modern genre sounds of the time. It all lead to a weirdly likable record that didn't quite manage to work all the way through, mostly courtesy of some by-the-numbers songwriting and a frustrating inability for anyone to know what they were doing behind the production boards, but was still better than most would expect. And thus I had an interest in digging into their sophomore follow-up, which promised to continue and expand upon many of the same sounds - and hell, it's been a while since anyone cared about Imagine Dragons, so maybe American Authors might sound more fresh. So how did What We Live For turn out?

Monday, July 4, 2016

video review: 'freetown sound' by blood orange

I'm genuinely curious to see how fans of this guy respond to this review. I'm expecting it to be inflammatory, but hey, who knows. In the mean time, the lead-up to the third year anniversary has begun, so get your votes in!

Beyond that, Billboard BREAKDOWN, Weval, and American Authors coming up soon, so stay tuned!

album review: 'freetown sound' by blood orange

Let's talk about sex.

Specifically, what one would consider 'sexy' within the context of music - and unsurprisingly, there's a range when it comes to this sort of thing - what one person might consider sexy or racy or even kinky another might tedious or overdone or even offensive. And of course such ideas tend to evolve over time, but if you want to flip to an instantly recognizable period where 'sexy' music was dominant, an easy place to start would be 80s pop and R&B. This was the era of Prince and Madonna, artists testing the limits of explicit content and good taste, but doing it with enough sensuality and tightness to make some killer music out of it before most the 90s hammered much of it into a brick wall - I might like grunge, adult alternative, punk, and gangsta rap, but most of it wouldn't fall into what the popular conscious considers 'sexy music'.

As such, if you're on the fringe of R&B in the modern era, it tends to be an easy instrumental shorthand to call back to the 80s, which was the first big impression I got from Blood Orange, the stage name for Devonte Hynes. Now he's been around the indie scene for well over a decade, starting with a few indie folk records under the ridiculous name Lightspeed Champion, but in 2011 he'd reinvent himself into a smooth crooner trying to blend liquid indie guitar tones with the tight beats you'd remember from Prince. And yet I've never quite been impressed with him - instrumentally he gets most of the way there, even if I do think the tones aren't quite as tight as they could be, but Hynes himself never impressed me as a singer. Hate to say it but he's nowhere close to matching his instrumentation when it comes to personality, less Prince than El DeBarge or maybe even Eddie Murphy. And that's a problem when the writing isn't particularly interesting either, especially on that first album. So for his follow-up he called in all his indie connections for an even more lavish slice of 80s revival music on Cupid Deluxe... and yet somehow it was even worse. Maybe it's my fault for relistening to Prince after he passed away a few months ago and then coming to this expecting something with tightness or greater punch in the melodies to build to a real hook, or a vocal performance that can make any impact at all, or guest performances that remotely fit with this style of music, but this record fell incredibly flat for me. And yeah, I can appreciate the exploration of queer themes, but they sure as hell deserved better presentation than this - I might have issues when The Weeknd pulls from this era, but he at least can get the groove and atmosphere of this material a lot better.

But it didn't look like Blood Orange was done yet, so out of nowhere he dropped a surprise album called Freetown Sound, which in following the grand 80s tradition of R&B goes straight into politics. And immediately I had justifiable concerns - I can point to a string of bad political albums and songs out of the mid-to-late 80s and a lot fewer success stories - and also because of his guest stars to help define his black queer vision, he pulls on icons of that community like Carly Rae Jepsen, lead singer of Blonde Debbie Harry, and Nelly Furtado. Okay, yeah, that's not fair - he's worked with Carly Rae Jepsen before and he also got Zuri Marley, spoken word artist Ta-Nehisi Coates, slam poet Ashlee Hayes - but as someone who hasn't really liked the last two Blood Orange records or their attempts at sensuality, I didn't have high expectations here. But that means it can only get better, so what did we get with Freetown Sound?

Sunday, July 3, 2016

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this video was a ton of fun to make. Took me less time than I expected too, but it's always one of my favourites every year.

Next up... look, I've never had any interest in Blink-182, so I kind of want to cover the Weval record or Blood Orange... but we are coming up to my third year anniversary, and you all should remember what that means, so stay tuned!

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2016

There will be a lot of headlines that suggest that 2016 has not been a good year for music - and if you follow the mainstream between the losses of several legends and a haphazard set of releases that slide between underwhelming and disappointing, that's easy to believe.

Of course, that view is not really reflective of reality, because if you look away from the Billboard Hot 100 - which I would advise, it's been a rough six months there - there is quality here. I think the big issue comes in that there have been fewer than normal outright smashes and instant classics as there were at the midyear of 2015, which was really frontloaded with incredible records. 2016 has been more scattershot, with a lot of great records that don't quite rise to the level of immediate classics, and also a fair bit more diverse. Country and folk, for one, have been a great year across subgenres, underground hip-hop has been pretty solid, and there's some great R&B, metal, and rock music that I've liked a fair bit. And that's before you get the genre-bending stuff that sticks the landing incredibly well, and I'd argue we've seen a lot of that thus far.

What this means is that it's been excruciating trying to narrow this down to my usual top twelve, in that the top half was very straightforward but the bottom half is a lot harder to cut. So while I almost chose to open things up to a top fifteen albums of the mid year, I figured I might as well stick with tradition and keep it at twelve, which meant some painful cuts - some of which I think will surprise you. So without further ado, let's start with...