Wednesday, November 30, 2016

video review: 'three' by phantogram

Well, it took WAY too long to get to this, but I'm happy I got a chance to talk about it regardless, one of the fascinating cases that I wish I liked more than I did. Sort of like Radiohead, in a weird way...

And on the topic of electronica... well, stay tuned!

album review: 'three' by phantogram

Well, it's about time I talk about this.

In fact, I'm a little bewildered why it has taken me this long. Sure, I've been busy and there's been no shortage at all of more records that are flooding the last few weeks of the year, but I have to admit a certain disinterest in this record. Part of this is because I covered Phantogram's last album Voices in 2014 and didn't really care for it - but even that's not really true, from what I remember. And that's the bigger problem, I had to go back to my last review to recall anything about that record, and even a quick relisten didn't stick much with me, mostly because it felt like the poppier nature of the writing didn't really fit well with the darker, fuzzier electronic production and didn't flatter their stronger melodies.

And yet despite everything, the critical reviews have been mixed to positive on this album, including from some people I respect a great deal. They said it went louder and heavier and brought in more bombast - which okay, that could be promising if the writing and delivery picked up the slack - so I left on my schedule. And thus thanks to voting on Patreon, it somehow wound up on top of said schedule, so what the hell - how did Three by Phantogram turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 10, 2016 (VIDEO)

So this video was longer than usual... and actually really great, I dug the hell out of this! Two good weeks in a row... man, if only I had any hope we could keep this up, 2017 has some real potential to be a damn good year.

In the mean time, let's take care of old business next, shall we? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 10, 2016

So this week was a little weird. Not just because we started getting tracks from The Weeknd earlier than expected - I'm imagining next week to be just overloaded - but we got some big surprises all over the place, including a few artists I have not thought about or talked about in years. That, at the very least promised to make things interesting - note that I didn't precisely say good, although there really was some promise here.

Monday, November 28, 2016

video review: 'you can't kill us' by icon for hire

Well, this happened... my god, I wish this was so much better, especially as their first independent release. Instead, we got an only decent record combining the most frustrating elements from their last two records and none of the justifications. Joy.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

album review: 'you can't kill us' by icon for hire

This will be a bit of a weird review - and not just because I have a history with this band, but also because hindsight is one of those things that can shift one's opinion on an act pretty dramatically. 

And as much as I don't like to admit it, Icon For Hire often falls into that camp for me, mostly because they can be a difficult band to really categorize. Many people thought when they signed to Tooth & Nail - a Christian label - that they'd fall into that disreputable subgenre of badly produced crap, but Icon For Hire actually rose a fair bit above their contemporaries to make some pretty solid alternative rock and metal, with a knack for solid writing, good hooks, and the tremendous talents of frontwoman Ariel. They infused a lot more pop and hip-hop elements into their self-titled - basically to satirize all of them - and I liked that record so much in 2013 that it ended up on my top 25 albums of that year. In retrospect... I'm not at all certain I could justify it on that list now, mostly because the production the label gave them was pretty flat. Their producer Mike Green had worked with Pierce The Veil and Paramore - which has been a comparison that has been made with Icon For Hire their entire careers and not exactly a promising one - but it did not help that record and it has aged pretty poorly.

And then everything went to shit. They ran into serious conflicts with their label - probably because they've always kept Christian subject matter at arm's length, which was probably smart - went independent, and dropped an EP back in 2015... that got some polarized reactions for 'Now You Know', which railed hard against music industry sexism. And yeah, I appreciate the bluntness of the message and the deeper attempts at subtext, but the delivery did not work - Ariel's less-melodic rapped delivery, the grating synths, the flat production, it did no service to an important message. And when you hear they funded their new album through Kickstarter, raising over a hundred thousand dollars to get Mike Green back and pull it together... look, deep down I still like this group, and they've written strong hooks and smart songs, I wanted to really like this. Did You Can't Kill Us deliver?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

video review: 'the weight of these wings' by miranda lambert

Well, this took entirely too long to finish - go figure, when you have a double album that's ninety minutes and feels twice as long, but still, I had more hopes for this.

Next up... whoo boy, stay tuned!

album review: 'the weight of these wings' by miranda lambert

There's no way to get into this record without talking about the expected controversy. And don't pretend like you didn't know it was coming - hell, I bet a significant chunk of country listeners will pick up this project solely because they want to get to the roots of it all, hear the other side of the story that was only mentioned in passing on her ex-husband's record earlier this year.

For me, it ran a little deeper. I've gone on the record about being a Miranda Lambert fan for some time, and while her last record Platinum in 2014 was an overlong and frustrating listen, I knew in my gut The Weight Of These Wings would be something else entirely. Let's face it, we've heard plenty of albums from the person getting cheated on, but outside of very specific songs in R&B, you don't get many from the 'cheater', especially if it's well-framed to explore the consequences. And yeah, that leaves the very open question of what Miranda did or did not do that triggered the divorce, but from the lead-off single 'Vice' it made things clear that moral ambiguity would be the biggest story behind The Weight Of These Wings. And even that is saying something, given that it was a double album of twenty-four songs - always a risky proposition - and that her direction was taking her closer to the exploding indie country scene than the mainstream - hell, her appearance on Southern Family  was evidence in and of itself where she wanted to take her sound. And in a banner year for women in country music, I wanted to make sure I gave this album all the time it needed to really sink in? So what did we get with The Weight Of These Wings?

Friday, November 25, 2016

video review: 'starboy' by the weeknd yeah, I definitely wish this was a lot better. It's not bad - 'False Alarm' pretty much redeems this record on its merit alone - but I was hoping for more in that vein or at least some sharper, more interesting writing and we didn't get that.

And on a similar topic... well, stay tuned!

album review: 'starboy' by the weeknd

I get the strong impression The Weeknd never thought he'd become famous.

Admittedly, all of this is guesswork, but if you go back through his early records, it became clear that despite how influential his sound was becoming and the cosigns behind him, he had his own sound, style, and distinctive lane, and considering how bleak and graphic that lane was, he probably never expected to crossover. Sure, you could make arguments that he was trending towards more of a pop sound on Beauty Behind The Madness, but also keep in mind that despite having two songs go to #1, the biggest hit of that record wasn't 'Can't Feel My Face' but 'The Hills'. Not the song where he embraced his inner Michael Jackson, but the track where he ripped away the veneer to reveal the toxic, self-destructive self-loathing that lurked at the base of it. In comparison to obvious singles like 'Can't Feel My Face' or even the stronger 'In The Night', it was a hard left turn... and as of now, it's his biggest hit.

And I get the feeling this wasn't lost on The Weeknd, and if we were going to reward his dark impulses, that seemed to be enough of an endorsement for him to plow into even weirder and more experimental territory - hell, everyone who has watched Billboard BREAKDOWN has seen how much praise I gave 'False Alarm' for its manic, darkwave-inspired sound and style. And when The Weeknd cited his inspirations were The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, and Prince... well, my only surprise is that he didn't cite more gothic acts, given how obvious the influence has been for years. But at the same time, I didn't expect the album to completely fly into left field - credits from Kendrick Lamar, Future, Daft Punk, and Lana Del Rey proved he was keeping his feet pretty close to the mainstream, and that's before you dig into the production credits. In short, The Weeknd has an institution of modern pop songwriters and producers behind him, this was not going to be allowed to get that weird. Still, I had liked 'Starboy' and I had loved 'False Alarm', this record was easily one of my most anticipated in 2016 - so did it deliver?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

video review: 'we got it from here... thank you 4 your service' by a tribe called quest

Well, Patreon votes got it up first, so here we go. Man, this was great - again, I know I didn't like this more than De La Soul, but it still has a ton to offer... so good.

And on the note of double albums... stay tuned!

album review: 'we got it from here... thank you 4 your service' by a tribe called quest

I've said a number of times before that it's difficult to tackle legends... and hell, with as many comebacks as we've seen recently, it's made my job all the more complicated. And I guess I should have known as soon as De La Soul made their big return with ...and the anonymous nobody this year - which I absolutely loved, for the record - it would only be a matter of time before I had to talk about their Native Tongues contemporaries, A Tribe Called Quest.

And truth be told, I'm not really sure what there is to say here. I went back through their entire discography, and while I wouldn't quite say I loved it as much as De La Soul, I definitely get and appreciate Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, and the late Phife Dawg's work here. In terms of smooth yet conscious jazz rap, these guys were pioneers, and their albums have held up ridiculously well in terms of tones and textures decades later, and while I might prefer De La Soul's more experimental flourishes in production and wordplay, I can't deny that A Tribe Called Quest had a knack for stronger and accessible hooks, and they were plenty experimental all the same.

And thus when they broke up at the end of the 90s thanks to label frustrations, it stood to reason that we'd probably never get another album, especially when Phife Dawg died entirely too soon earlier this year. But somehow they had pulled together enough verses to make one last record, to pass the torch to the next generation. And just like with De La Soul, the list of collaborators on this project was extensive and often surprising, from old friends like Consequence, Busta Rhymes, and Talib Kweli to the new generation in Kendrick and Anderson .Paak to surprises like Kanye West, Andre 3000, Elton John and Jack White. All of this in another double album... man, I had to hear this. So I dug into We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - did it deserve all of the critical acclaim?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 3, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this is a damn good way to start a year, I most certainly approve. More of this, less all of 2016, please?

Next up, though, after the Patreon reshuffling of the schedule last night... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 3, 2016

Well, here we are, folks: welcome to the third year of Billboard BREAKDOWN! Year three, covering the Billboard year of 2017, and man alive, I'm hoping that it'll be be better than the disaster of mediocrity that was 2016. We'll be covering more that near the end of December during the year-end end lists, but until then, let's focus on 2017... and I have to say, if we're going to start off like this, I've got a really good feeling going forward. Not perfect by any stretch, but overall... yeah, there's a lot to get excited about.

Monday, November 21, 2016

video review: 'hardwired... to self-destruct' by metallica

Oh man... I have no idea how this is ultimately going to be received, but man, I wish I had liked this as much as I liked their 80s material. Eh, it happens, I guess... but moving on from that, we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN and the first round of voting, which starts tonight - stay tuned!

album review: 'hardwired... to self destruct' by metallica

They are a name that is in the public consciousness synonymous with metal. Of the big four in thrash, they are the one that probably leaps to mind the most. The most recognizable, arguably one of the most successful, and one that I've never really talked about in great detail... mostly because the band has not released a lot of quality throughout my entire lifetime.

Yeah, we're talking about Metallica, the second of the big four that I've covered this year. And even though I'm no big fan of thrash metal - which probably didn't help that Megadeth review, I do tend to take a more forgiving picture of Metallica. For one, on a pure compositional and writing level I found them a more consistent and enjoyable group for a longer period of time than Megadeth. And even though I do have some individual issues with their 80s output, I can definitely hold up records like Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and ...And Justice For All as iconic in the genre, with Ride The Lightning probably being my favourite.

But here's the unfortunate truth of it: those were all in the 80s. I don't have the aversion to The Black Album that some Metallica fans do, but it really was a sign of the records to come. On some level I appreciated Metallica venturing out of thrash for Load and Reload, but they seemed to lose a lot of the interesting virtuoso musicianship and melodic chops that helped their 80s work stand out. And St. Anger was even worse - plagued with production issues, sloppy writing, and no solos, it just hit a really sour note with me. Death Magnetic was a return to form on some level in 2008 - there were still production issues, courtesy of an abuse of compression, which did nothing to highlight the melodies, but it was a Metallica sound I could get behind. But they followed that by working with Lou Reed on Lulu... and really, that album is a video in and of itself, but let me say this: it's not a good record, at all, but especially lyrically it's the sort of fascinating failure that's extremely entertaining to dissect. But the broader point of all of this is that since I was born in 1990, the vast majority of music Metallica has released has been decent at best, and that's dispiriting going into a new record. And really, I had no clue what to expect: Metallica has been all over the map throughout their career, and given they had now put together a double album of material with no songwriting contributions from Kirk Hammett - and I hadn't heard any new singles - I figured this would be my big chance to dig in deep - so what did we get?

video review: '24k magic' by bruno mars this happened. Man, I wish I could connect with this more, but it just fell kind of flat for me. Eh, it happens.

Next up, my big review 666 - and you all know what that means...

album review: '24k magic' by bruno mars

Pop is artificial. But you all knew that - and I bet the majority of you don't even care.

Now the first part of that statement, every good music critic has known for decades, and the great music critics have never cared. Sure, a bunch of us will probably end up gravitating to genres that are branded more 'real', but there's admiration for pop's artifice and construction, the sleekness of its melody and production for capturing the sound of the moment, the fact that it could synthesize emotion so effectively, and at its very best perhaps even capture something transcendent. Now immediately by saying this, I've made the inherent assertion that pop is often much less than more authentic genres, which I don't even believe - hell, two years ago I made a Special Comment in defense of the genre asserting how the assembly of a truly great pop song is often far more difficult than anyone realizes. Otherwise, people would have figured out the formula by now.

But when I think about Bruno Mars, the songwriter who started off behind the scenes before constructing his own pop persona with Doowops & Hooligans in late 2010, some of that rock snob feeling comes back. Especially more recently, there's an odd distance I have to a lot of his material... and if I were to guess, he had an artistic identity with an established sound, and he threw most of it away. Maybe it was bad choices of singles and promotion early on - why 'The Other Side' was never pushed instead of 'The Lazy Song' is beyond human comprehension - but there seemed like a point where Bruno Mars abandoned sincerity. Instead, he put on the shades, leaned into his vast pool of pop knowledge from the past and amped up the showmanship and natural charisma - and what was alarming is that his music for the most part got better - catchier, cooler, he didn't have to care! It's always felt a bit like a facsimile to me, though, which seems to be why most critics have been appreciative but reticent to get closer. But it hasn't stopped the success - the public knows and just hasn't cared that he's shamelessly strip-mining the past for his sound with just enough of a modern flair to keep the audience engaged. Hell, you could argue that's what's burned away some of the lustre for everyone in modern pop - in the aftermath of poptimism where critics are expected to treat pop as art, instead of elevating the ideal too many critics just dulled the illusion and lowered standards to cater to an audience who never cared to dig deeper - and with how little some of the pop artists themselves seem to care in 2016, it's come full circle.

Ugh, this is sounding more melancholic than it should, because Bruno Mars on the surface should be an artist I like a lot more: he's naturally charismatic, he knows pop history, he's an interesting songwriter, his production is often on-point... he can be wildly uneven in terms of song quality, that being my biggest issue with Unorthodox Jukebox, but that can't be it, right? So to finally get some closure here, I decided to check out 24K Magic by Bruno Mars, his big return album four years after his last release and almost two years since the explosion of 'Uptown Funk' with Mark Ronson- so what did we get?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

patreon announcement - it starts with you...

Hi folks, welcome to Spectrum Pulse, where we talk about music, movies, art and culture - and this time, the conversation is about you.

No, not like that, or like that either. For those of you who are not aware, my name is Mark Grondin, I'm the host of this series, which includes critical reviews, year-end rankings of songs and records, Special Comments, and of course my weekly series Billboard BREAKDOWN, where I dig into the twisted and often chaotic mess of the Billboard Hot 100. And over the past three to four years, it's been astounding to watch this community of over twenty-three thousand people grow, developing friendships, collaborations, and even memes - and while there have been some contentious moments, I'd like to think that we as a community have helped forge something special. And this... now it's time to take a step I've been considering for nearly two years, a chance to open up the floodgates to you, an experiment I've seen refined and tested in so many quarters.

I speak, of course, of Patreon. Founded in 2013, this was a service designed at its core to better connect artists with their fans and audiences, cut out the middlemen to build the symbiotic relationship, inspired by the old concept of 'patron of the arts'. At a deepeIt r level this was forging a connection, allowing the audience insight into the process or even direction of the art created. It's enabling talent, allowing great things to grow...

And yet, I don't really fit into the traditional definition of 'artist'. Yes, I'm a published author, but I fall more in line as a critic leaning even towards journalism, and while there is indeed value in sparking that conversation, I'm convinced it needs to be treated in a different way. YouTube, in a way, has already started to change this critical dichotomy, harkening back to an older tradition of individual men and women describing, analyzing, and critiquing art, not corporate entities with a brand delivered from on high. For the most part, over six hundred reviews have given you evidence, you know where I stand - and this means the next step is bringing the conversation to you. 

As such, the principle of this Patreon experiment is going to be different than most - smaller, more flexible, more ready and able to connect at the base level so that your voices can be heard, and you can have real insight into my process. As such, the three tiers of involvement are intended to be accessible while still maintaining a clear understanding and control of things, so I don't totally lose my mind in this experience. Probably will anyway, but hey, you never know. And, like any journalist, I need to be accountable to my audience, which is why any Patreon contribution is set per video that I produce - you know where I stand, you get what you pay for, and if the content isn't there, you don't get charged. 

And that's why, in this spirit of this accountability, the first level, at one dollar, is visibility: you get to see my schedule, my upcoming plans, and maybe even a rough timeline of when future projects are to be reviewed in detail, all on a handy Google doc. Now certain things are inevitable: Billboard BREAKDOWN is a weekly series and is not going anywhere, subscriber and channel anniversaries pretty much supersede everything, and year-end lists will of course stick around, but between those, the remaining 75% of my content, this will give you a chance to see where I'm planning on taking my show next.

Now many of you are probably thinking that's pretty innocuous, nothing all that revolutionary, it's just a schedule, it probably doesn't change that much... and yet at that same level, three times a week - Tuesday and Thursday evening around 7-9 pm EST and Saturday afternoon 1-3 pm EST - you will have access to that schedule and an opportunity to vote on entries. Each contributor gets one vote, and depending on the vote tallies, I will move entries up and down my schedule to meet your popular demand. And while there are times of year where one record will supersede everything else in the conversation, I know for a fact you guys and girls are a diverse group who watch for many different things and genres, from pop fans to metalheads, country fans to hip-hop heads, I can foresee some contentious voting. Now there are rules here - for one, I have a vote as well, and this doesn't stipulate a specific timeline for me to cover the projects, only the order in which I'll cover them - of course, with the added condition that the project needs to be out commercially as well (and not just leaked) - I have no problem if you put upcoming projects on the list, but if it's not out by the time I get to it, I might cover something else on the schedule first. And that also means that if an artist has a massive back catalog to get through ahead of time that I haven't previously examined, I may move some things around this schedule if absolutely necessary. I'm dearly hoping this won't be necessary, but again, it's sanity protection for me, and I will always be very straightforward about it if and when that needs to happen.

But wait, you might ask, what if the album I want you to cover isn't on that schedule? Well, this is where we get the second level, at $2, once a week during the Saturday afternoon voting, you have the option instead of voting to change the schedule order, to add an album to my schedule. Of course, there are rules: the album has to be from the year in which I'm currently - in 2016 I cover 2016 albums - the lyrics must be available online in full, I cover full-length albums not EPs or mixtapes or compilations, and there is zero guarantee that adding the record to the list will get you a positive or negative review. The album will start at the bottom of the schedule, and yes, I do have the final say if I'm going to cover it. Independent artists, this is your chance to get in at the ground floor. 

But isn't there something else in my tagline that doesn't tend to get enough attention? Well, at the highest tier - $5, one a week during the Saturday afternoon voting, you have the option instead of voting on the schedule order to add a movie. Now like with the albums there are some big stipulations here: the film needs to be from the same year and widely distributed - I need to be able to see it either in a theater or on video - I cover studio-backed films, and again, no guarantee of positive or negative review. Again, it starts off at the bottom of the schedule, but can be voted upon by everyone within the general process. After all, I say I cover music, movies, art and culture - this way, the truth in that tagline gets to be emphasized.

And that's pretty much it - again, this is an experiment of interactivity. I want to get you more involved in the process while maintaining my usual standard of quality. I'm not gating off content or releasing things early for patrons - that's not something I believe in on a fundamental level - and if you don't want or can't afford to be part of this, there's no ill will from me. And sure, there's a far off dream of doing this full-time, but even that won't come without you. But until that comes to a reality, I'd be very grateful to welcome you to this team so we can have some fun. Until then, I'm Mark, welcome to Spectrum Pulse, and I'll see you all on Tuesday - voting starts then, the experiment starts now.

Friday, November 18, 2016

video review: 'glory days' by little mix

Well, this was unexpected - again, as I said in the review, I had a real sinking feeling going into this... turns out it actually delivered pretty damn well, I was impressed by this. 

Let's keep up with pop, though, so I've got Bruno Mars coming. But first... stay tuned!

album review: 'glory days' by little mix

I was worried about this album - and man, I didn't want to be.

Because if you've been following the continuing saga of the Syco Music girl groups Fifth Harmony and Little Mix - of which I've covered two records apiece from both band - I've been coming to the stark realization that the groups really are being mismanaged across the board, from production all the way up to marketing. For some ungodly reason Fifth Harmony was pushed towards R&B on their first record and added more tropical touches for their second - and it became all the more apparent they should be making pop music, and certainly not pop/R&B. They barely wrote their own music or actually harmonized, their most pitchy and frustrating singer Camila was pushing her own pop career in a Nicole Scherzinger sort of way, and their best songs off of 7/27 were when they were making pop music, like that tropical collaboration with Fetty Wap 'All In My Head (Flex)'!

Little Mix, on the other hand... well, Salute was the first clue that they could easily step into a pop/R&B mold and do just fine. They harmonized, they had great chemistry, they started taking a much more active role in writing the songs... and yet Syco - backed by Simon Cowell - insisted on pushing them as the plastic pop group, with all of the bottom shelf production that their label deigned to give them. Sure, it's led to international success and a string of #1 hits in the U.K., but it's almost meant that any effort to break them in the United States has been token, whereas if they had been packaged as the next Destiny's Child they'd probably be competitive in the U.S., especially over the past few years where R&B has been a lot bigger. And yes, Get Weird was a good pop album, but Salute was the evidence for me that they could do more... provided, of course, they had a budget or producers and guest stars who didn't suck. And that's why I had reservations about Glory Days, because it looked like it was going even more pop, and I had zero faith Syco would actually give them the production to make great pop music in the mold of Girls Aloud or even The Spice Girls. To put it another way, there was cowriting credits from Meghan Trainor and their only guest star on this record was Charlie Puth. All of that gave me a real sinking feeling, but hey, 'Shout Out To My Ex' was good, this could turn out well, right?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

video review: 'layers' by kungs

Well... okay, I was expecting more from this, but overall, it's decent. Breezy to a fault, but like with Kygo, it doesn't really stick with you, and probably would have benefited a late-summer release.

Eh, whatever - next up is Little Mix and then I've got a BIG announcement over the weekend - so stay tuned!

album review: 'layers' by kungs

So it's been fairly well established that the flavour of electronic dance music that was popular this year was tropical house. Reggae lilts in the guitars, hollow synths, textured percussion, a very breezy, languid vibe, it was all over the place this year. And since most of it seemed to forget that adding some actual colour to your instrumental tones help them stand out, it also led to a listless haze that did nothing for me for the majority of the year.

Now it wasn't all bad, especially if you drifted away from the United States where brighter tones managed to seep through - hell, look at Kygo - but there was one song that fell into interesting territory: 'This Girl', a collaboration with French DJ Kungs with an Australian funk band called Cookin' On 3 Burners. And while I definitely liked the song, one thing I noticed is that it really was on the border of tropical if that - despite sandy percussion, the guitar rollick, the soulful vocals and blend of horns reminded me more of the house trends that crossed over throughout the 90s. Some have called it a leftover of the deep house that dominated 2014, but the tones here were nowhere as saturated and dark. In other words, it was a good song, and it really should have done better on the Hot 100, but it seems like nobody wanted flair in their music in 2016, so other EDM songs that should have done well, it had momentum and then crashed pretty hard.

But I was still curious - after all, Kungs hadn't even reached twenty yet and he had a hit that had been huge worldwide, I was curious if he had more up his sleeve. So I checked out his full-length debut album Layers - what did we get?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

video review: 'guardians' by saor

So this record was goddamn amazing - seriously, I'm so happy I got a chance to cover this early, SO damn great.

In the mean time though... I'm thinking Kungs and Phantogram before the big week we've got ahead, so stay tuned!

album review: 'guardians' by saor

Okay, the last time I was aiming to talk about black metal with In The Woods..., I got thrown a curveball, namely by the fact that record only barely stuck its toes in that genre while instead embracing more progressive and doom metal touches. But that didn't mean I was going to stop looking, and thanks to you all, I got a wealth of suggestions to work with to catch up for 2016.

So on that note, let's talk about Saor, a Scottish black metal project that erupted out of the highlands in 2013 with their debut Roots, reportedly aiming for a blend of atmospheric black metal with touches reminiscent of Celtic folk. And hell, that seemed like the easiest way to get me on board since Panopticon brought in elements of country and bluegrass for that last trilogy of records, the last of which Autumn Eternal landed on my list of my favourite albums of 2015. So I was all set to like Saor... and unsurprisingly, I really did come to enjoy a lot of what I heard from both Roots and their 2014 album Aura, which balanced the relentless blur of tremolo picking with flutes, brighter acoustics, and a defiant soaring Celtic flavor in the melody lines. Now let me stress that I don't really think either record is better than Panopticon's trilogy - for as much as I loved the melody lines, the actual mixing of the black metal riffing and blast beats could feel a little sloppy, not quite always supporting the dramatic swell the way I'd like - but hey, this is a sound I'd like to see expand and if fine-tuning the details could get there, I had hope that Saor could really bring it on their release this year Guardians - was I right?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 26, 2016 (VIDEO)

And that's two years of Billboard BREAKDOWN... and we end with a Rae Sremmurd song at #1. Oh... oh boy.

Now odds are I'll continue this series - I'd be a fool not to - but I've got some plans over the course of the next week that'll play out, so we'll see where this goes next. Until then, though, I've got Saor and Kungs coming up soon, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 26, 2016

Seems like the end of a Billboard year can still surprise you, eh? If you had asked me six months or a year ago if I had wanted 2016's godawful year on the Hot 100 to end like this, I would have justifiably called you crazy. But here we are... seems like a lot of things have changed in this past week, and this Hot 100 is a prime example - the sort of week with a lot of change, including a new #1... and yet we had more returning entries than new arrivals. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Monday, November 14, 2016

video review: 'a fistful of peril' by czarface

So I really should have gotten to this sooner... and by sooner, I mean earlier this weekend, which was a long one for me but frankly I needed some time to decompress and take a break... hell, given the week we all just had, I needed it.

Coming up next, though... man, this Saor album looks interesting, but Billboard BREAKDOWN is too... stay tuned!

album review: 'a fistful of peril' by czarface

Sometimes I've got a lengthy diatribe to open up these reviews... and sometimes I really don't. Sometimes the formula is so strong, so well-refined, so deceptively simple then complicated then simple again at its core that you don't really need to say a lot. Sometimes, if you're a fan of the genre and sound, you just get it.

And for me, Czarface, the collaboration project between underground duo 7L and Esoteric and Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck, is that project for me. On the surface, it's over-the-top, old-school hip-hop that goes hard as hell in terms of bars, but peel beneath the surface and you find the meticulous construction in interweaving, explosive samples and interconnected rhyme schemes. And yet at the end of the day, it's not a record that's aiming to do anything beyond bringing back some old-fashioned, hard-hitting lyricism back into the game, and for the most part that's all you really need. As such, even though there's a lot of fantastic punchlines crammed into each Czarface record, especially the excellent sophomore project Every Hero Needs A Villain that was inches away from my top 25 albums of 2015, it's also a record that I don't feel the need to dig into in detail, half because the punchlines speak for themselves and half because so many of the grooves and flows give the album an easy-going charm that's hard to replicate.

But while of course I was going to cover A Fistful Of Peril - cute reference there - I was a little perplexed by what I had heard about it. For one, it swapped out guest stars like GZA, R.A. The Rugged Man and Method Man- the latter who featured on 'Nightcrawler', a song that very nearly made my list of my top 50 songs of 2015 - for artists who might not have the same name recognition. Sure, we got Psycho Les of the Beatnuts, but then when you throw in Conway and Blacastan and Meyhem Lauren - the last of whon I wasn't all that impressed with on the last record - I was a bit concerned, especially considering this project was a lot shorter than the last, down from nearly an hour to around thirty-five minutes. So okay, maybe trimming off the fat would help, how is A Fistful Of Peril?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

video review: 'nightride' by tinashe

Well, this was a nice surprise. In a day where we somehow lost Leonard Cohen, I needed something more positive all the more... my god, FUCK this year.

In the mean time, Czarface is coming up - stay tuned!

album review: 'nightride' by tinashe

The last time I covered Tinashe in 2014, it didn't go well.

And there are a number of factors to consider as of why that is. Part of it was overexposure: the competition for debuting female R&B acts in 2014 was pretty fierce, between Jhene Aiko, FKA Twigs, Kehlani, Teyana Taylor and SZA, and that's before you add in Banks, Ariana Grande, or the long-awaited but tepid return from Mariah Carey. Tinashe's lane was catering to more towards commercial R&B and hip-hop, but even then it was a record spread thin, with more ideas than it could conceivably execute, more breadth than depth, not helped by some frustratingly inconsistent production. And when you combine all of that with it not being one of my better reviews from a writing standpoint, I can definitely understand why people got mad.

But from there, Tinashe didn't seem to have the staying power and momentum that you'd expect coming from '2 On'. Sure, she was touring heavily in 2015, but her self-released mixtape didn't cross over to the mainstream outside of her fanbase, albeit with some intriguing visuals. And while I've never really been wild about her singing, I did think she did a solid job on her collaboration with Snakehips and Chance The Rapper much earlier this year - that song really should have been a bigger hit, let me tell you. So I figured I'd give Tinashe another chance... and then without much warning, she released Nightride as a digital album, the first part of a two part project with Joyride in 2017, similar to what reportedly Tove Lo did with Lady Wood earlier this year. Now I've got mixed opinions on this: I get the appeal, as the digital visual project Endless did drive the anticipation for Frank Ocean's Blonde not days later... but on the other hand you risk flooding the market, or delivering half a project that might not hold as well on its own without the second piece - and since Tinashe doesn't really make succinct projects, creating a two-part project that could have been trimmed down. But regardless, I figured I'd give NIghtride a chance - how was it?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

video review: 'black america again' by common

Believe it or not, I cut a good two minutes of politics out of this review. They may come again, friendly warning, depending on what I cover over the next few years, but politics are a part of culture, and if punk and hip-hop react the way I think they will, we're going to hear something we haven't heard in a long time.

In the mean time, Tinashe and Czarface, so stay tuned!

album review: 'black america again' by common

It's easy for people like me to speak messages of encouragement and hope, given what has just happened in the United States. Hell, I'm in Canada, I'm further insulated from all of it. And what can I do with my platform and audience - who is primarily in the United States - that will make a difference, especially considering what is to come? Odds are over twenty million of people are going to lose their health insurance overnight, and providing Obama doesn't pull a fast one and somehow fill that Supreme Court vacancy, abortion and gay marriage rights will probably be going away too - look at that VP and tell me otherwise. The balance has once again shifted back to protect those who discriminate rather than those who are discriminated, punching down instead of punching up, and while I could blame the Democrats for a sloppily run campaign and third parties for asinine voter deflection and the FBI for violating the Hatch Act in the eleventh hour and Republicans for disseminating blatant lies and active voter suppression and the media for feeding into all of it, normalizing lunacy and abandoning any civic responsibility to the public... at the end of the day, America, particularly white America, brought this on herself. They bought into a con, and if there's any proof that 'greatest country in the world' label has been sorely tested indeed and will face even greater challenges in the years ahead, it's here. And given that the president-elect's policy challenges include revising trade deals that affect my home country and non-existent or outright fraudulent environmental policies that impact the planet, you can bet I'm can feel the urge to say or do something, in even the smallest way.

So of course I'm reviewing Common, what else could I do? Common, the conscious rapper who may not always have the most consistent discography but in modern years has seen a creative reawakening in some of the most political material he's ever created. His 2014 album Nobody's Smiling, while not at the level of his best material, was easily the best record he had made in a decade, and in this polarized, burned out shell of a year in 2016, you can bet I was looking to Black America Again to connect, to say something. It dropped before the election, so it was inevitable it wouldn't have the titanic revolutionary fury an album like Run The Jewels 3 was bound to have, but it would have to have something, right?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 19, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was precisely what I needed on an awful political day, a whole lot of shallow shouting in my ears. Just fucking perfect.

On that note, there might be a political tinge that'll creep into upcoming reviews where appropriate. Just felt that it's important to warn you if you get turned off by that sort of thing, but culture matters, and even if I'm insulated by a border from the president-elect's new administration, he still has the capacity to do damage, and I'm not taking this laying down. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 19, 2016

First, a bit of housekeeping. As some fans are probably very much aware, the episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN from last week is blocked in all countries because Sony decided they didn't like my usage of Little Mix, even though I gave it Best of the Week. I was tempted to drop and reupload it, but at the moment I also have the entire script and attached videos on my blog for that episode, so you can head over to, check it out there, and just imagine my dulcet tones saying all of it.

Monday, November 7, 2016

video review: 'more than ever' by sims

Well, this fucking ruled. You think Danny Brown went hard... Sims can give him some serious competition, with arguably even stronger lyrics!

Beyond that, I think I'm going to go for something lighter with this Tinashe release... then Common and Czarface and of course, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

album review: 'more than ever' by sims

So, here's a story for you: I saw Doomtree in Toronto twice last year. Once was at Riot Fest - it was awesome, they put on a terrific show, and I was able to leave to see Frank Turner before Tyler The Creator showed up - and the second time was in a small venue downtown. I actually ran into an old university friend there completely by accident, and afterwards we hit up a bar and talked about the show. And I remember a big part of the conversation being which Doomtree MC was our favourite... because let's face it, there's five of them, they're all ridiculously good, but there's always a hierarchy to these things. Obviously Dessa topped both of our lists, but that should be no surprise to anyone - Dessa would make my top five of all time, and the fact that she's now featured on the Hamilton mixtape is all the more deserved.

But after that, the ranking was a little more mixed. For me, I tended to gravitate to Cecil Otter, more because of his production work and because I had heard a lot of his solo material and work with Strange Famous. My friend consistently brought up Sims as her second favourite, and while she was making her entirely justified case, I realized I had never listened to Sims' solo work. I had heard P.O.S.'s albums - I can't say I'm the biggest fan, but I appreciate his distinct lane - but Sims... I had a hard time evaluating his material outside of Doomtree, especially going back to his breakthrough record in 2011 Bad Time Zoo. On the one hand, his unconventional rhyming patterns could definitely get frustrating, but he was also probably the most eccentric and borderline odd rapper of the Doomtree collective. Unlike Dessa, whose material tended to be more conventionally tasteful - as well as intricate, gorgeously performed, ridiculously intelligent, I could go on - Sims was the guy who would take more risks, in his content, wordplay, and especially his instrumentation. He had a flair for theatrical bombast and some really great hooks, but there was an off-kilter edge to Bad Time Zoo that in retrospect really feels ahead of its time. It was experimental and weird courtesy of Lazerbeak's eclectic production, almost certainly underappreciated in 2011 - and I include myself in that category. Even as a fan of Doomtree, the collective that along with of Run The Jewels is everything I want to hear in modern hip-hop, I probably didn't give Sims enough credit.

So I wasn't going to be making that mistake again, and even if nobody else cares to cover this record - which is likely, as I'm not sure he's got the immediate name recognition as Dessa or P.O.S. or even Cecil Otter - I wanted to get to this first, before Common or Czarface or anything else this week. So what did I get?

video review: 'pure' by in the woods...

Took me entirely too long to get to this, but man, definitely glad I did, this thing is a powerhouse... albeit not quite the same powerhouse as our next album on the docket, so stay tuned!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

album review: 'pure' by in the woods...

You know, it's kind of funny, when I was working on my Avenged Sevenfold review and discussing the path towards metal I had taken, I came to the realization that for as much talk as I've put forward about exploring black metal, I really hadn't done as much as I would have liked this year. And that's almost entirely on me: there were a lot of black metal records that dropped this year, and I haven't done my due diligence in covering them. Now to be fair I also haven't gotten many requests for them either - black metal is a niche genre, and the brand of it I tend to like that's more melodic and atmospheric is more niche still - and I'm coming close to putting out more reviews in 2016 than I did last year, so it's not like I haven't been busy...

But still, there have been black metal records I've wanted to cover and haven't yet had time to do so, so let's make up for lost time a bit and discuss one that's been on my radar for some time: In The Woods... Now immediately out of the gate, you have to make some qualifications: when In The Woods... began releasing records in the 90s, they may have started in black metal but they didn't stay there, venturing into progressive metal and blending intricate instrumentals with some impressive melodic song structures and remarkably solid songwriting. I probably hold their sophomore album Omnio as their strongest release, but even though I'm not exactly wild about Strange In Stereo, it was still disheartening when I was rediscovering the band last year and discovering that they hadn't released any full-length records since. Thankfully, In The Woods... actually did reform with new vocalist James Fogerty, and they actually released a full-length record this year. And I really wasn't sure what to expect - progressive metal, black metal, either way the pedigree of this group is strong enough to warrant one hell of a comeback. So, while I'm entirely too late to the punch here, how was Pure?

video review: 'collage' by the chainsmokers

Well, this was junk - but to be fair, I wasn't expecting this to be good. But on the other hand, I wasn't expecting something this cynically mediocre, so I'm not exactly surprised here...

Next up, though, something great that I missed from earlier this year, so stay tuned!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

album review: 'collage' by the chainsmokers

There will be no way to talk about pop music in 2016 without talking about The Chainsmokers - even if you desperately don't want to talk about The Chainsmokers.

And here's the funny thing: I'm starting to get the impression that the people who don't want you talking about The Chainsmokers in deeper detail includes the duo themselves. They'd probably prefer that you don't reference their atrocious faux-ironic sketch comedy beginnings, or the fact they were responsible for inflicting that viral marketing trash 'hit' '#SELFIE' on the world in 2014. In other words, right from the start I had a certain distaste for these guys, especially in their attitudes towards pop music, which can be aptly summed up in a quote they made in an interview with Billboard: 'even before success, pussy was number one'. Fantastic, all the proof that the attitudes typically associated with the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' stereotype can cross over: the guys who never made music out of any sort of artistic impulse, just to pick up chicks. Follow it up with an awful live performance with Halsey at the VMAs, their slagging of the band Weezer as 'thirsty', and their much-covered insults at Lady Gaga and Rihanna for either sucking or having 'no work ethic', and you can see why legitimate artists both in and outside of EDM treat The Chainsmokers with at best disinterest and at worst outright contempt.

But look, we've had assholes in music forever, I'm not holding The Chainsmokers to any sort of moral standard. No, what I find more corrosive is how it feels like so much of their music feels like an extended con run on the mainstream public, abusing the pass that's now common for pop in the cultural conversation to make some of the most cynical and hollow music imaginable. You might not like Lady Gaga's artifice or The Weeknd's nhilism, you might think Taylor Swift is thin-skinned and vindictive and Drake is overexposed and creatively stagnating, that Meghan Trainor can't back up her ego and Shawn Mendes is way over his head, but when I listen to their music, there's an artistic impulse that I might not like but is at least there. Even, who I used to loathe for his 'music-as-marketing savant' approach at least took the music with artistic integrity - even if he couldn't always execute, there was at least something. The Chainsmokers, meanwhile, freely admit in public to being inspired by Jeremy Piven's character from Entourage and seem to treat music more as a marketing gimmick to enable hedonism rather than any sort of art - so no wonder they've said they've never considered releasing a full-length debut album, because that would enable critics to drag them into a serious conversation they aren't prepared or willing to have. And that's the reason why I'm covering their second EP Collage in detail - call it a review, call it an expose, what did this Collage deliver?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

video review: 'the stage' by avenged sevenfold

Well, this happened. Wow, did not expect to find anything to like here, but hey, it happens.

Next up... look, I'd like to say that new "solo" album from The Game is worth talking about, but I really want to knock something out of my backlog first... so stay tuned!

album review: 'the stage' by avenged sevenfold

Oh, I am the wrong person to be covering this record.

See, I think I've gone on record that I never really had an 'angry white boy' phase, and since I was such a massive nerd growing up, when I did start getting into metal in the mid-2000s, I kind of skipped hard rock radio entirely and dove straight into fantasy-inspired symphonic and power metal. Sure, I heard some of it in passing if it ever crossed over to pop radio, but my musical evolution was taking me in precisely the opposite direction of rock radio: I was listening to progressive rock and metal and later the more anthemic strains of hair metal and thrash, or getting into punk and post-punk that would drag me into experimental and noise rock, all of which would culminate in my continuing exploration of even more abrasive genres like black metal which continues to this day.

But going back to relisten to some of that mid-2000s material now... wow, I can't tell you how lucky I feel about this. I avoided the dregs of nu-metal, the post-grunge imitators, so much of the meat-headed metalcore scene... look, I doubted I would have gotten into this when I was a teenager anyway, but it's very telling that going back to this now how badly so much of it has aged. That's what makes a look back at Avenged Sevenfold kind of fascinating to me, a band that gets dumped on by metal fans for not being heavier and the sort of theatrics that they've rarely if ever been able to pull off convincingly. Yeah, okay, the guitar work and solos did have a certain charm on City Of Evil, but the band followed it with a self-titled release in 2007 that tried to add elements of symphonic rock and fell ridiculously flat. And yes, for the most part I'm going to blame frontman M. Shadows for this - his songwriting has always been hilariously overwrought and his more nasal delivery has never had swell or impact for me. 

Now granted, things have improved: after the unfortunate passing of their drummer The Rev, they pivoted into heavier material like their 2010 album Nightmare, which was a decent if unremarkable slice of heavy metal. But by the time they released Hail To The King in 2013, it became apparent that even if Avenged Sevenfold had started to evolve past adolescent whinging, I was struggling to find anything fresh or interesting about their material. I get making a tribute to the past, but when the influences are so blatant without fresher content, I can lose interest. And it looks like Avenged Sevenfold have reportedly taken that to heart: without warning they released their longest album to date, apparently drawing on progressive metal, thrash, and even hints of their metalcore sound they left behind years ago. Now I still wasn't a fan of this band, but this looked to potentially be their most experimental work to date, one of their more 'conceptual' and perhaps even their heaviest, and that looked interesting at least, so I dug into The Stage. Did Avenged Sevenfold redeem themselves?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 12, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was a diverse week. Not precisely a great week, but definitely an interesting one. Only three weeks of the Billboard year, though, so anything could happen...

Next up, though - well, you'll see, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 12, 2016

This was a weird week on the Hot 100. All of a sudden the chart shifting momentum seemed to dry up, and yet we got a whole pile of new arrivals and returning entries spanning every genre except country. It was a lumpy, misshapen sort of week that would normally be fascinating to talk about...