Wednesday, May 31, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 10, 2017

So it looks like the charts have settled down for a bit heading into the summer months, and that means for me, things seem fairly normal. Hell, even the big shifts I expected coming off of records that I thought had a chance to cross over... well, it didn't happen. Instead, for once, things almost look straightforward or at the very least a little predictable, especially when we get to our new arrivals.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

video review: 'teenage emotions' by lil yachty

You know, I was expecting to pull a Rae Sremmurd on this project... but no, it actually has a few decent moments. Points where they're due.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and we'll see from there - stay tuned!

album review: 'teenage emotions' by lil yachty

I think there is a misconception surrounding why certain critics - particularly those who like oldschool hip-hop - are a little... let's say reticent towards Lil Yachty and the mumble rap crowd, often surrounding comments like 'oh, you don't get it, it's music for the kids, it's more about the vibe and flow than the actual words that are being said - after all, it's upbeat, it's happy!'

And yet here's why it doesn't really fly with me surrounding Lil Yachty: maybe it's because I've become accustomed to this sort of flow and style, or that I've been listening to rappers who flow with more speed and intensity for years now, but he's always been very understandable for me. And while I've never really liked his flow or delivery or the fact that he's a sloppy MC who clearly has the potential to be a better rapper and just doesn't care, that's never been at the core of my issues with him. No, it's something that's far more common and jarring than many people have given credit: for as much as Lil Yachty wants to project a dualistic nature between his rapping and sensitive crooning side, the issue has always been tonal dissonance between his delivery and approach and his content. Let's put aside the fact that instrumentally hip-hop is slowly becoming less dreary and bleak and that sonically Lil Yachty isn't breaking down barriers, but when you combine it with how he's still rapping about many of the same bargain barrel subject matter I've been hearing for decades, I'm not impressed! Because yes, I went back to listen through Lil Boat, and aside from being too long, the best thing I could say about it were some decent melodic hooks and a few cute samples - in terms of content, it wasn't interesting or subversive, and it certainly wasn't well-constructed. And even with all of that, I had a bad feeling going into his upcoming record Teenage Emotions, where with his lead-off single with Migos it looked be trending towards tones and sounds that pivoted towards the mainstream and removed the few things that made Lil Yachty sound somewhat different! But hey, surely there'd be something on this twenty-one track seventy minute record, right?

Monday, May 29, 2017

video review: 'all the beauty in this whole life' by brother ali

Well, this happened... I'm honestly not sure how the response is going to be to this, but we'll see... anyway, it's undoubtedly going to be better than what's up next, so stay tuned!

album review: 'all the beauty in this whole life' by brother ali

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one - because sometimes when you listen through an extended backlog in preparation for a review, it can be strenuous or exasperating or just plain exhausting even if there was a lot of quality in just huge volumes... whereas in this case, it was fun.

So yeah, Brother Ali - I've been hearing praise for this guy for years now, as a populist political MC hailing from Minnesota who has the wit and insight to back it up and who also has the skills of a battle rapper. And what initially caught my attention were the comparisons to Sage Francis, in terms of his origin and initially a fair amount of his content in balancing the intensely personal with fearsome skills - hell, they even battled once. But their trajectories broke in very different directions, with Brother Ali's material shifting to a much more political direction working alongside Atmosphere producer Ant - and this is the political hip-hop I like to hear. It's nuanced and detailed with a lot of great storytelling and framing, but it has the passion and populism to keep it grounded and human, and when you pair it with remarkably solid groove and punch, it leads to relentlessly enjoyable records with rare slip-ups - there's no serious dud in his discography.

Granted, he hasn't always worked with Ant - he switched things up for Jake One on 2012's Mourning In America And Living In Color, which was pretty damn solid - but it has been five years since Brother Ali put out a full-length solo project, and if I was looking for a political rapper to speak definitively on our current situation, I'm not sure I could ask for many more better candidates, and a reunion with Ant could only be a good thing, his production work was easily the best thing about that most recent Atmosphere project I covered on vacation last year. So what does Brother Ali have to say on All The Beauty In This Whole Life?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

video review: 'united states of horror' by ho99o9

Man, I wish I liked this more. It's not bad, per se, but it's so inconsistent and lacking in impact lyrically... eh, it happens.

But on the topic of tackling old business, let's move onto a record I'm really excited to discuss, so stay tuned!

album review: 'united states of horror' by ho99o9

There's a part of me that's surprised by this... but it's counterbalanced by the part of me that has known this was kind of inevitable - it just might have taken more time to get there. After all, when you have a group like Death Grips who quite literally pioneered a distinct sound and style in modern hip-hop, eventually it's going to inspire people to jump towards their lane.

But there haven't been many to try. Obviously the most prominent person to try noise rap was Kanye West on Yeezus four years ago, but even though I do mostly like that album, it really is the pale mainstream imitation of a sound and style that Death Grips landed better, and it wasn't long before they themselves went in a more punk and noise rock-inspired direction on a record like Jenny Death. Hell, even clipping, a noise rap group who I gravitated to the most, they went into high-concept space opera territory, they weren't exactly interested in following Death Grips towards punk. Hell, even if you take a look at the current crop of distorted Soundcloud rappers like XXXTENTACION they aren't really punk so much as they want to blow out your speakers.

Enter Ho99o9, a hip-hop duo from New Jersey who have attained some buzz for absolutely manic live performances, stabs at gruesome horrorcore, and a significant punk influence - in fact, some would argue they're closer to the punk scene than hip-hop, given how many hardcore and metalcore bands they've supported on tour. They've put out a few singles and EPs, but now they've got a full-length debut ready to go, so what did Ho99o9 bring to the table?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

video review: 'black origami' by jlin

Well, this happened... man, I wish I liked this album more. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad, and I think if it's your thing you're going to really like it... but I'm just kind of meh on it overall.

Up next, though... oh boy. Stay tuned!

album review: 'black origami' by jlin

So I've always been very upfront with the fact that when it comes to me and electronic music, I can feel a little out of my depth, especially on the more experimental fringes where the compositions push into twisted, visceral territory. Now this is less true than when I was first stepping into the genre in 2015, but there's a part of me that's always a little unnerved and yet thrilled venturing into the weirder subgenres, that touch upon tones and sounds that never really touched the mainstream.

And so you can all imagine how much a record like Jlin's Dark Energy had on me a few years ago. Wrenching the tempos and intensity of footwork into twisted yet razor-tight atmosphere full of fragmented samples, industrial muscle, and African textured percussion, it was an experience unlike any other electronic record I had heard in recent memory, and while I did take some time to delve into footwork after hearing Dark Energy, it's a record that has lingered in my mind even years later. Hell, a record that experimental, strident and confrontational and yet willfully abstract and opaque can be easy to respect for how much it sticks in your head, even if going back I still find parts uneven enough to like but not love.

So when I heard that Jlin was doubling down to produce something even more challenging, aggressive, and imposing for her sophomore release, I was definitely on board, even if there was a part of me that was a little terrified where the album could take us. So where does Black Origami go?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

video review: 'no shape' by perfume genius

Man alive, I enjoyed the hell out of this record, and I really do think this is one of my better reviews too. So thrilled I finally got to it, definitely will land on year-end lists.

The next record, though, is even more critically acclaimed... well, stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 3, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, this was an interesting week at least... eh, fun stuff all around, enjoy! 

Next up, though... whoo boy, I've been waiting for this one!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 3, 2017

So this is one of those weeks where I expected a lot of activity... and I didn't get it. This was supposed to be a week where Harry Styles and to a lesser extent Paramore impacted the charts... and it didn't happen. In fact, if we're looking at a week where summer grooves seems to be settling into gear, it's here, which led to a little more stability than I expected.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

video review: 'connect the dots' by misterwives

So this was a ridiculously fun record. Not a huge amount to say about it, and a pretty simple record to discuss, but man, what a great one.

Next up, though, time to tackle some old business, so stay tuned!

album review: 'connect the dots' by misterwives

So I've talked before about the idea of a 'silent majority' act, groups that critics tend to treat indifferently or ignore for being bland, but attract a huge mainstream following for being just accessible enough to get airplay or a lot of sales, even if the buzz for the group is never that big. But there's a flipside to this, and I'm struggling to come up with the right term. Maybe you all could help me with this: this is a group that typically sits near the underground, never really builds up enough buzz to break through, and while critics tend to like them a decent bit when they release new material, they also tend to get lost in the shuffle a bit, never really getting a tremendous amount of attention.

Such was the case for MisterWives, a group I actually caught live opening for Bleachers in 2014 before I actually reviewed their debut album a year later. And for the most part, I really quite liked that album - there were points that were uneven or overstated, but the energy and vibrancy made it clear this was a group that you should hear. Hell, I even put the excellent closing track off that album on my top 50 songs of 2015... and yet before this week, I wasn't even aware MisterWives had a sophomore album ready to go, or that people on Patreon were so eager for me to cover it. That, to me, was encouraging - I didn't have huge expectations, but if they had managed to refine some of the ideas and writing on their debut while keeping those big hooks and real momentum, this could be really fun. So what did we find on Connect The Dots?

album review: 'no shape' by perfume genius

So there's a critical preconception about singer-songwriters that the more layers of instrumentation they add, the less intimate their music is perceived. Now this is more observed on the flipside - that when artists strip things down they're working to intensify the closeness of their music - but I've always found it to be a bit of a misconception, and not really taking into account the music as a whole. Sure, when you strip things back to place all the emphasis on the singer, you can get that intimacy for sure, but just because the instrumentation becomes lush or more expansive doesn't mean the focus has to necessarily change - you just need a performer who can captivate with bigger emotions.

Enter Mike Hadreas, who sings under the moniker Perfume Genius. If you remember when I covered his absolutely incredible third record Too Bright back in 2014, I highlighted that despite being his most expansive record to date, he still managed to leverage his incredible intensity and charisma into a powerfully intimate experience - which is stunning considering how much that album held a mirror to the audience to confront discomfort with Hadreas' open sexuality while actively confronting the insecurities projected upon him. It was a powerful step that might have eschewed the direct storytelling of his previous records, but the combination of rich themes, potent vulnerability, and an incredible lead performance certainly won me over.

But what fascinated me was that instead of returning to raw, quieter material, Hadreas was going bigger. Buzz was suggesting that it was a more baroque record, with grander opulence in its tones and aiming for high decadence in its romance, and the second I started hearing comparisons to Kate Bush I knew I had to find some way to muscle this up the schedule so I could talk about it. So no more wasting time, considering this review is late already, what did we get with No Shape?

Friday, May 19, 2017

video review: 'one more light' by linkin park

So this happened... eh, from the looks of the early response most people are coming down even harder, but that doesn't quite surprise me, given the change in sound.

But next up... ooh, this'll be fun, so stay tuned!

album review: 'one more light' by linkin park

So recently Linkin Park made some headlines in probably the worst way possible: telling their fans to 'move the fuck on' from their debut album Hybrid Theory

And I want to unpack why this was possibly the last thing you want to say going into the release cycle and promotion of a new record - because on some level I get it. Credit where it is due, Linkin Park have shown themselves willing to evolve and push their sound - not exactly in a way that's revolutionary, but it takes a band with some stones to follow Minutes to Midnight with A Thousand Suns - which, for the record, I'm still on the record liking probably a lot more than many Linkin Park fans. Fans that probably discovered you thanks to Hybrid Theory selling millions of copies and being a permanent staple in many people's collections. And even though I think that album has aged pretty badly, I get why people love it, and it does have its moments.

So while I get that Linkin Park wants to move on and I completely understand their frustration with entitled fans who want them to make another version of it, maybe it's not the best marketing decision to call that out right before you want them to slap down money and buy your newest record! And this is not Linkin Park at their strongest either: rock radio has changed dramatically and downsized considerably, hip-hop and electronic music has moved into wildly different territory, and their lead-off single hoping to cross over to pop radio 'Heavy' with Kiiara has not exactly been well-received, especially by those Hybrid Theory-era fans that will be your most guaranteed source of income! Worse still it comes across less like Linkin Park are pushing into new territory sonically and more just trying to keep up with the mainstream, even if it's not an intentional artistic choice - which to some extent I get after their 2014 album The Hunting Party failed to cross over to the Hot 100, but they're at the point where they could easily headline festivals for the next thirty years and not give a damn about mainstream radio! Either way, it was not a good sign going into the new album One More Light, and despite only being a casual Linkin Park fan, I was nervous. So how did it turn out?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

video review: 'bloom' by machine gun kelly

So this blew - but thus far the reception to the review has implied that everyone already expected this. Eh, no surprise there.

Next up... ooh, this'll be a big one, so stay tuned!

album review: 'bloom' by machine gun kelly

So let's talk about selling out, because while I've opened up reviews with this topic before, I think a refresher is in order. To make this abundantly clear, going 'pop' or changing your genre and style isn't in and of itself 'selling out' - just because an act goes for what be deemed is a more accessible sound isn't inherently bad if the core of what makes a specific act unique and special remains, instead of just nakedly following commercial trends less because you're going to do anything interesting with them and more because it's guaranteed to produce a hit of dubious quality. And even then, it's not inherently a bad thing for an artist to want to cash in and make money, and some acts only discover their pop appeal when they try this. My point is that 'selling out' is often a misused term, it's not always a bad thing.

With Machine Gun Kelly, it was a bad thing. Look, I'll admit right now I was never a huge fan of this Cleveland MC: I always tended to slot him in the Tech N9ne mold of cranking out impressive flows and delivery but saddled with production that was too thin or flimsy to back up its pretensions to bombast, and could also slide towards corniness or some utterly wack bars. But even then, I was a sucker for a good flow, and while his full-length debut album Lace Up was pretty far from great - it's was overlong, his reliance on crass party bangers that he didn't have the personality or wordplay to back up - there were definitely moments of flow and energy I could appreciate. Most of this went out the window for his second album General Admission, which aimed to play darker and more personal but also did so by compromising the delivery and much of the intensity that made his early work at least likable. There are a few choice tracks and stories being told, but when you factored in the production, he wasn't doing anything any number of more aggressive, insightful, and honest MCs didn't do already, and that's before you get to the Kid Rock collaboration!

Then 'Bad Things' happened - which is apt in referring to both the godawful duet with Camila Cabello and the likely trajectory of Machine Gun Kelly's career. Because thanks to 2016 giving a pass to entirely too many boring white rappers in the mainstream, MGK got his breakthrough with his most pop-accessible flows and least interesting content to date. In other words, I was expecting Bloom to suck, and I'm only covering it because at least it looks shorter than his last two albums and because I need it off my schedule on Patreon so I can cover Perfume Genius. So on that promising note, what did I find off of Bloom?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

video review: 'welcome home' by zac brown band

So yeah, pivot back to comfortable territory, I just wish I liked it more. Oh well, it happens.

Next up, though... it's gonna be bad, folks, strap in!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 27, 2017 (VIDEO)

Yeah, pretty short week overall, but not a bad one in my books.

Next up, Zac Brown Band and followed by one of the worst records I've covered thus far this year - stay tuned!

album review: 'welcome home' by zac brown band

To explain why this album exists, we need to go back a few years. It's 2015, and anticipation was high for the newest album from the Zac Brown Band - but of course there were concerns. Everyone knew the band was capable of delivering quality - even if they had a penchant for laid-back beach fare they had still put out three remarkably solid records with great melodies and harmonies and lyrics that, while not exactly great, could hit some real potent emotions. And for me, they had been responsible for some of the best mainstream country songs in recent years, a beacon of real talent in an increasingly oversaturated bro-country scene. But the lead-off singles here seemed different, increasingly stepping outside of country in favor of rock...

And yet little did we expect what Jekyll + Hyde turned out to be. Putting it simply, despite how much I liked the record it was a mess, full of stylistic pivots into rock, metal, reggae, EDM, and even occasionally country music! And again, there were great moments - Zac Brown has a knack for hooks like few in mainstream country - but the pileup of genres alienated a lot of the group's fans, especially those who had followed from their loose, jam-band roots. And again, even though I did like that project and think their experimentation did occasionally stick the landing - I hold 'Tomorrow Never Comes' is as close to a country/EDM mix that actually works that has ever been made, and the rock-leaning tracks definitely have their fans - for a lot of country fans it was a step too far.

And so in the lead-up to Welcome Home, you can tell they were doing everything they could to re-establish their country credentials. Zac Brown himself contributed to a song on Dave Cobb's Southern Family compilation - which I still hold is the best album of 2016 - and apparently they connected so well Dave Cobb was pulled on to produce the entire new record. And despite this reassuring step, I was still a little concerned - I wasn't against Zac Brown experimenting, he had stuck the landing a fair few times, I just wanted the cohesion to be there and the songwriting to connect. But hey, if we're going to get a solid, grounded country record, this is something the Zac Brown Band can do well, so what did we get?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 27, 2017

So we're now at the halfway point of the Billboard year - and wow, 2017 has been something, that's for damn sure. I'm still not quite sure how to evaluate it as a whole. One thing's for sure is that it's been a turbulent year thus far - Ed Sheeran might have held the top for a measurable time, but ever since then it has been song after song seizing the #1, showing the sort of turnover that you'd more expect on the UK charts than the United States.

Monday, May 15, 2017

video review: 'after laughter' by paramore

Look, maybe the group just isn't for me at this point... but still, I had hopes for this and am a little dispirited they didn't materialize.

But on the topic of failed hopes... well, after Billboard BREAKDOWN, stay tuned!

album review: 'after laughter' by paramore

I think somebody needs to explain to me what is the hype behind Paramore - because the more I listen to their material, the less I'm seeing it.

That's not saying they're bad - their first three records are a respectable slice of emo-leaning pop rock, with Riot! probably being the best of them, but even then I was never really wowed by the writing or the performances or the production - good music, sure, but nothing I'd actively seek out or that I thought stood out against the rest of the pop rock boom. Then there was the self-titled album in 2013 that I actually reviewed for a year-end anniversary, an album released after the lead guitarist and drummer quit... and again, for mid-2010s pop rock released on Fueled by Ramen, it certainly checked off the boxes, but I did not understand all the critical acclaim that was piled on that record. There were a few catchy singles, sure, and Hayley Williams' brand of colorful theatrics had its moments - helped by self-aware songwriting that was getting better - but at the end of the day I was lukewarm on the project at best, and I have not had any inclination to revisit that album since.

So I wasn't remotely surprised when they decided to pivot towards retro-new wave for their newest record - sure, their bassist was now gone, but producer Justin Mendel-Johnsen was filling in and they actually got their old drummer Zac Farro back. Hell, I wasn't even surprised by the change in direction - punk acts have gone new wave to stay relevant since the late 70s, this is not new. What did catch my attention was the emphasis on how trying this recording session apparently was, and how much that struggle had translated into the rather dark themes contrasting with the brighter instrumentation - again, this isn't new, but as a more polished spin on their emo-leaning lyrics in the past it could make for an interesting listen, so how does After Laughter turn out?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

video review: 'harry styles' by harry styles

So yeah, this happened. Actually pretty good all things considered, which kind of caught me off-guard, but hey, might as well enjoy it!

Next up, Paramore - stay tuned!

album review: 'harry styles' by harry styles

I think it's worth mentioning how we got to this point, and I think it's also worth mentioning that there's no real way to discuss this debut record without placing it context of the other One Direction debut projects that have been released or are launching as we speak. Because when I reviewed Mind Of Mine by Zayn, I made the commentary that it hard to ignore how much history was repeating itself, a boy band breakaway making a sleek, sexy R&B project that was already eclipsing the band in terms of success...

But this is where things get complicated, because while Zayn may have gotten that #1, the critics were not exactly kind to him, and he spent the rest of 2016 with steadily diminishing returns. But the larger surprise was that unlike previous boy band projects, the other members were splitting off in wildly different directions. Louis split towards modern pop, a direction that seems to be echoed by Liam given his upcoming single release in a week with a feature from Quavo - kind of fascinating, given that for as much as these two were the main 'songwriter' types in One Direction, the one who pivoted towards the acoustic folk version of that type was Niall Horan, who has been making music I'd argue is way better than it's been given credit.

And then there's Harry Styles, who many people thought would be the breakout star as the face of the band and easily its most popular and recognizable member - even though, unlike Justin Timberlake, he wasn't one of the bigger contributing songwriters in One Direction. So I think everyone was blindsided when he released 'Sign Of The TImes', which was a direct callback to 70s classic rock - and it also was really good! Granted, if you look behind the scenes, it's not that surprising - Styles had pulled Jeff Bhasker on board, along with Tyler Johnson, who was the main producer behind the criminally underrated pop country debut from Cam in 2015. This is a team of producers and writers who know how to put together a strong album, even if it probably would feel like a shameless throwback. Still, while he might have won over the critics who have been desperately looking for reasons to praise something connected to One Direction, I was a lot more skeptical, because if you're going for that brand of rock, eventually the edge would have to materialize and I hadn't heard it yet. So okay, what did this self-titled record deliver?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

video review: 'brutalism' by idles

Yes, I know I'm very much late to the punch with this one, but man, I'm happy I got to it all the same. 

Next up... I honestly have no idea, it'll depend where Patreon scheduling goes. Stay tuned!

album review: 'brutalism' by idles

I did not know what to expect going into this one. Seriously, I know I'm months late covering this album, it took a while to get up my schedule on Patreon, but even with that time to research I had the feeling like I was going in cold. I knew a few critics I respect liked this debut, but beyond that? Not a damn clue what I was getting into, outside of the fact that these guys were from Bristol in the UK and that they made some raw, furious music, dropping their full-length debut this year after a few EPs.

And you know what? I might not cover a lot of righteously angry music, but that doesn't mean I don't have my days where I crank some explosive stuff and go in hard, and I am a post-punk fan. A little less of a hardcore punk fan - a scene I'm still trying to get my handle on and work my way through the backlog of essential records - but that doesn't mean a really potent debut might not grab my attention. So what did Idles deliver with Brutalism?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

video review: 'everybody' by logic

Well, it looks like some people are already in their feelings about this review... can't say I'm surprised, I really went in on this one.

Maybe it's time to take a step back and knock something off the top of my schedule that's been in my backlog for a while... so stay tuned!

album review: 'everybody' by logic

So before we begin in earnest, let's talk about race in mainstream hip-hop.

Actually, let's not, mostly because the comments on this are already going to be a small minefield anyway and more importantly because it's a more complicated question than I think I'm equipped to answer. Suffice to say that with hip-hop being a primarily black artform with a predication towards social commentary that still sells a lot of records to white audiences, it comes up - and then it faces a backlash from often predominantly white fans who just want to hear bars instead of content that speaks to the culture, but that's a bigger issue. But given that hip-hop often sits at a major intersection point of popular culture - especially for younger audiences - inevitably you're going to find rappers who are bi- or multiracial, which can present its own set of questions surrounding where they fall on the racial divide should they choose to engage with the conversation. And there's more of them than you might think - Drake, J. Cole, Slug from Atmosphere, Kid Cudi, I could go on - but when it comes to the artist who was aiming to target this directly in his music or at least reference it a fair bit more, you need to talk about Logic. Now I've reviewed him twice before - Under Pressure being a damn great major label debut, his followup a year later with The Incredible True Story aiming to pull off a sci-fi narrative that couldn't quite back up its ambitions but was still quite solid - but I had heard some odd things going into Everybody this year. For one, it was reportedly going to be another concept album following off of The Incredible True Story, and for another, one of the major underlying plot ideas was going to be a utopian post-racial society looking back upon modern Earth - and given that at one point Logic was going to title the album AfricAryaN didn't help matters. And considering his guest list included heavyweights in conscious hip-hop like Killer Mike, Chuck D, and Black Thought opposite tracks with Juicy J, Khalid, Alessia Cara and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the record was also running about seventy minutes... well, it was going to be something, I knew that, even if the singles seemed to indicate similar issues with conceptual consistency and narrative that plagued The Incredible True Story. But again, Logic is a really good rapper and I do respect this kind of ambition, so does he have something for Everybody?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 20, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, this episode got a LOT of conversation... huh, a little surprised, to be honest, especially with so many mediocre tracks. Oh well.

Next up... ooh boy, it's Logic. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 20, 2017

So I think it's fairly obvious that we live in uncertain times, and while music critics and cultural anthropologists will debate how much the music that charts will reflect the world around us, I think you could make a case for the Hot 100 being the most unsettled it's been in some time. Because while you could make a story about Katy Perry collaborating with Migos, or the fight for dominance between One Direction members, or that Gorillaz for no discernable reason failed to sell enough to chart this week, the big story is for the third time in three weeks, we have a new #1... and like with the others, there's no clear indication of how long it'll last.

Monday, May 8, 2017

video review: 'from a room: volume 1' by chris stapleton

Well, this will... actually, I'm expecting this to be more controversial than it'll probably end up being overall, but who knows.

But after this... folks, it's Logic after Billboard BREAKDOWN, it's going to get nuts. Stay tuned!

album review: 'from a room: volume 1' by chris stapleton

I remember reviewing Chris Stapleton before he got famous.

And yeah, I know that sounds like such a music critic hipster thing to say, but there is validity to at least mentioning it, because his rise over the past few years has been meteoric and to some extent unprecedented in modern country. Here was a guy - who thanks to a performance with Justin Timberlake - got the sort of commercial boom that led to his debut record Traveler selling millions of albums, spawning commercial copycats on reality TV shows, and helped galvanize an entire indie boom... and he did it without country radio. And sure, this happens in other genres all the time, but country has been tethered to the radio for years, the fact that Stapleton got as big as quickly as he did is nothing short of miraculous, and has been heralded by so many critics as a tremendous achievement. 

And yes, the majority of this is fantastic news... but I can't be the only one who is a little amused that the whole question of Traveler's quality kind of got lost in the shuffle - because again, I reviewed the record months before that starmaking performance, and while it is a very good record, it's not a great one. Sure, there were great songs on it, but it also felt uneven, overlong, and showing some of the hesitant steps that characterize a major label debut. In retrospect, a lot of critics probably wouldn't have put together such a review if they had heard the album in the headlong rush of Stapleton's popularity - especially nowadays - but I stand by it and it led to some interesting questions going into his follow: From A Room: Vol 1, with the second part reportedly coming later this year. Now I was excited for this record - it was reportedly leaner, I liked the song 'Broken Halos' released before the album - although not the single - a lot, but I had the feeling this record was going to face a very different response than Traveler. For one, Mercury Nashville has had no idea how to handle Stapleton's insurgent popularity, so the commercial rollout of this record has been embarrassing and terrible, but for another, now that Stapleton is big, I'm curious how many indie country and mainstream fans will start to push Stapleton towards the backlash zone, even if he's working with Dave Cobb again. So where does this album take Chris Stapleton?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

video review: 'a crow looked at me' by mount eerie

This got a way better response than I was expecting... hell, truth be told, I have no idea what I was expecting with this one, but I do think I stuck the landing with the analysis, even if I have no idea if I'll regret the scoring. Eh, fascinating all the same.

Next up, something a LOT more conventional, so stay tuned!

album review: 'a crow looked at me' by mount eerie

There's been a part of me that's been putting off this review. It's been on my schedule for a while, but there was a part of me deep down that was dreading this - and at first glimpse, that shouldn't make sense. This is one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2017 thus far, it's racked up comparisons to Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell and David Bowie's Blackstar and Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree, all records that I love and actually own on vinyl to this day.

But if you watched my reviews of those albums, you'll know that they are records about processing and dealing with death in a way that was uncomfortable intimate, which was only further intensified for me because I've been a fan of Nick Cave and Sufjan Stevens and Bowie and have had the experience even further enriched by my history with the artist. So with Mount Eerie, the project of Phil Elverum, I was gearing up for the same sort of emotion and feeling by steadily working my way through his back catalog to process and understand him...

And I just don't have the same connection that I do with those artists. I tried, folks, believe me, that's another reason this review took so long to come out, I listened through his discography over and over and I'm not sure what to tell you, except that Mount Eerie might not just be my thing. I can recognize the quality in the writing which is clever and understated, even if I do find his black metal experiments a little odd because the production never quite clicked for me, especially against his vocals... but it never got deeper than appreciation, I probably wouldn't call myself a fan. As such, when you hear his newest album is a very raw record about dealing with the loss of his wife Genevieve to cancer, I had a feeling like I was walking into a funeral for someone I only vaguely know, and I was genuinely worried I wouldn't feel the impact - all the more disconcerting when again, it's one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2017. But I've stalled long enough - how did A Crow Looked At Me turn out?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

video review: 'love and war' by brad paisley

So this was a solid release. Not a great one - I wish it was - but a solid one all the same.

Next up, though, time to tackle some old business and it's bound to be controversial, so stay tuned!

album review: 'love and war' by brad paisley

I've been anticipating this album a fair bit more than even I expected. Hell, up until a few weeks ago I wasn't even aware Brad Paisley had a new project put together outside of a few scattered singles.

But the more I thought about it, the more I got intrigued by the possibilities Love & War represented for Brad Paisley, because I do like him a lot as an artist. He's got natural charisma and a sense of humor, he can write great hooks and shred like nobody's business, but most importantly, he's willing to take creative risks when it comes to the direction and subject matter of his material. People rag on albums like Wheelhouse and songs like 'Accidental Racist' for being thoroughly misconceived, but there's a part of me that prefers him taking big swings for the fences, because more often than not he can actually stick the landing. 'Southern Comfort Zone', 'Those Crazy Christians', 'Officially Alive', the collaboration with Eric Idle of all people 'Harvey Bodine', and especially the knockout deep cut 'Karate' show a real sense of wit and humor that might tilt silly, but remain endearing regardless. And when you realize how creatively stifled he felt on the otherwise solid Moonshine In The Trunk - even though for a chilled-out party album he had a fair share of great songs, especially 'American Flag On The Moon' - I was all for Brad Paisley taking time off and coming back hard. Because despite the deep state of confusion afflicting mainstream country, I'm sure he's been carefully listening to the indie scene acts taking big risks and taking copious notes. In other words, even despite being pretty lukewarm on the lead-off single 'Today', I had high hopes for Love Abd War - so what did we get?

Friday, May 5, 2017

video review: 'the source' by ayreon

Honestly have no idea how this is going to be received... the album was great but it really should have been better, so much potential if the writing came through... eh, we'll see if it grows on me.

Next up, though, should be interesting... stay tuned!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

album review: 'the source' by ayreon

And now it's time for the big one, folks. The record I've arguably been anticipating the most in 2017, the newest collaboration album from a musical genius and a veteran of progressive metal for the past twenty years. The sort of project that has pulled from dozens of acclaimed metal acts and inspired at least three albums that would chalk as progressive metal stalwarts and one that's a genuine 10/10 classic.

And you all know who it is. Yes, folks, it's Ayreon, the project of Arjen Van Lucassen, who I last discussed in detail when I talked about his side project The Gentle Storm in 2015, and before then when I discussed the Ayreon album The Theory Of Everything in 2013 - which for the record nearly topped my list of the best albums of that year! Now that album did turn out to be a little contentious among some Ayreon fans - the story that felt distinctly separate from the Ayreon universe, the choice to structure the track listing in four mammoth songs each extending over twenty minutes, and a narrative that may have been a tad too abstract for its own good, especially with the ambiguous ending. Now I personally didn't care, but that might have been more because the narrative connected on a deeply emotional level that short-circuited most of my critical analysis: a young man with a neurological condition and complicated relationship with family finds new agency and a quest against a backdrop of theoretical physics, it hit a few too many close notes for me.

But that didn't mean I was inherently skeptical going into The Source - for one, look at that lineup! James LaBrie of Dream Theater, fresh off his own extended progressive metal epic The Astonishing, Tommy Karevik of Kamelot, Tommy Rodgers of Between The Buried And Me, Russell Allen of Symphony X, Floor Jansen of Nightwish, Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, Mike Mills of Toehider, Simone Simons of Epica, Paul Gilbert formerly of Racer X and Mr. Big, and even Tobias Sammet of the symphonic metal super-project Avantasia, who the music press has loved to paint as a rival to Arjen before they buried the hatchet in 2008. I haven't seen a murderer's row of talent that loaded since Dave Cobb brought together Southern Family. But The Source was promising more: a prequel album to the acclaimed 01011001 from 2008, telling the haunting story behind the collapse of the civilization behind the mysterious Forevers who have lurked behind so much of Ayreon's narrative. So on the one hand, it made plenty of sense for Arjen to cast the record with so many artists he's already worked with to deepen thematic parallels - or from what I could tell, maybe even play the same character again with Hansi Kursch and Floor Jansen - but on the other hand, prequels are always such a dangerous proposition, especially in a universe like Ayreon's with nine records stuffed full of interweaving continuity, with time travel to boot. But as always, my expectations were incredibly high, especially with buzz suggesting this could very well be Ayreon's best project since The Human Equation - does it live up to those expectations?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

video review: 'the navigator' by hurray for the riff raff

Yes, I'm way too late to talk about this, but still, I'm happy it got up the schedule because it was most certainly worth it.

And yet, in something more timely... well, I'm excited. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 13, 2017 (VIDEO)

I think people who were a lot higher on the Paramore song probably enjoyed this week a lot more than I did... meh, it happens.

But next up, we've got something that's waited FAR too long... stay tuned!

album review: 'the navigator' by hurray for the riff raff

I always feel a little at a loss when talking about Hurray For The Riff Raff. The main project of Puerto Rican-American Alynda Segarra, I was first asked to cover her way back in 2014, and after an extended delay I finally got to dig into the back catalog and their debut on ATO Small Town Heroes, which I may have miscategorized as a major label instead of just being one of the larger indie labels. But to some extent it wasn't an unfair categorization - before Small Town Heroes there was a much more ragged and disheveled character to the production that I found powerfully organic and really charming, the sort of rougher tones that felt potent and authentic in the best possible way, something that the smoother, cleaner pickups didn't quite flatter. And what got frustrating is that it wasn't the ballads that suffered, but the more upbeat songs with greater rollick - which of course wasn't a terrible thing, as the restraint allowed the really strong songwriting to shine through, but it also meant that many of my fonder memories of Small Town Heroes are slower and more melancholic rather than of the real edge Segarra could bring.

And yet that looked to be changing in a big way on The Navigator, an album that has won Hurray For The Riff Raff real critical acclaim for venturing back to the roots - and when I say that I mean Segarra's Puerto Rican roots on a full-fledged two part concept album, both in the sound and writing. Which yes, is a bold step for a record barely over forty minutes, but that could reflect a level of rough tightness that I missed from before she signed with ATO. And when I heard this record was digging more deeply into the social themes that colored 'The Body Electric' and 'Small Town Heroes', I was all the more intrigued... but just like last time, I'm late to the punch with this one. But given that I'm the only person who has ever reviewed this group on YouTube, what did we find on The Navigator?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 13, 2017

So I was expecting this week to feel dispiriting. Kendrick falls off the top spot, the aftermath of DAMN. as the chart naturally corrects to a less promising state... but here's the honest truth: despite some absolute trash on the Hot 100 right now, I'm generally pretty pleased with the current state of affairs. Good songs have held enough traction to make a serious shot at the year-end list, I'm seeing promising continuity into the summer, and while there are problems, they feel isolated in comparison with the larger trends. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

video review: 'humanz' by gorillaz

Ohh boy, I can only imagine how things are going to go down with this video... but hey, you never know.

Next up, though - well, an old request finally got to the top and then an album I've been looking forward to all year, so stay tuned!

album review: 'humanz' by gorillaz

Okay, so when I was around my second and third year in university, I hung around a crowd that organized and went to a lot of raves - what can I tell you, I had a trance and acid house phase. Anyway, even though I'd prefer to stick to bourbon and beer instead of pot or ex or psychedelics, I did have several extended conversations with these folks surrounding the culture. And I remember one evening and one statement distinctly: 'if you ever choose to get into drugs, you'll wind up liking a lot of electronic music or a lot of hip-hop - and eventually, you're going to listen to a lot of Gorillaz'. 

Yeah, probably not a fair label to stick to Damon Albarn's most successful side project after Blur by a mile, but there was some truth to it, as the repetitive song structures, deep rhythmic grooves, and ever so slightly off-kilter vibe would probably seem profound to a chemically-enhanced mind. And throw in the trippy cartoon visuals and the sort of extended, convoluted backstory, and I could see the appeal. And even though I didn't and still don't do drugs - shut up, it's allergies - I did get into Gorillaz a fair bit that year. I liked their albums, I really dug the grooves, and once I decoded the message a lot of the post-apocalyptic environmental themes did resonate.

But around the end of 2010, around the time that The Fall was released - although not explicitly because of that record, though it didn't help - I kind of fell out with Gorillaz. Never to the point where I hated them - their singles are still karaoke staples for me, and it's great vibe music that has aged ridiculously well - but I'm not really passionate about the band the same I used to be. Part of it is linked to memories of old friends I haven't spoken to in years due to me unfortunately burning some bridges, but it goes beyond that. Even from the beginning, I was never really impressed with the songwriting - and lord knows the years of post-apocalyptic art has not helped the themes feel any more original or less heavy-handed - but I also had the impression Albarn occasionally was trying for swell and bombast that were just a poor fit for his cast of characters. And again, I long ago stopped caring about the 'narrative' - as I've always said, if you need peripheral materials to explain your album, you haven't exactly succeeded as a storyteller!

But hey, now we're in 2017 and there's a new Gorillaz record, reportedly inspired by pulling thematic suggestions out of a hat and coming up with... a certain someone winning the presidency in the United States - hey, remember when that seemed so impossible? Albarn to his credit scrubbed all mention of him from the record in the lyrics - which I agree with, for the record, it'll extend the album's shelf-life - but it seems like he was going for a repeat of Plastic Beach, with tons of guest stars for the grand comeback. So, what do we get out of Humanz?