Friday, June 30, 2017

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2017 (VIDEO)

And there is THAT weight off my shoulder. Whew, ton of work to get that out... and yet it's not over, as I've got another special video dropping soon, so stay tuned!

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2017

There have been a lot of people who have said that 2017 has not been a good year for music, on the charts or otherwise... and from a certain point of view I can see it. Hip-hop in particular has had a really rough past few months, and between pop stars flopping, mainstream country continuing to spiral, and entirely too many records from established acts not living up to their potential, indie or mainstream, I can see why people are calling 2017 a disappointment.

I can also say that I don't buy it for a second, because for me, 2017 has been awesome. I already have plenty of songs to line my list of the best hits, and going into this point at the midyear, I have more records that I've scored 9/10 than ever before. Granted, it also seems like one of those years where the critical darlings aren't quite crossing over in the same way, and if you haven't heard of most of my favourites, that would be why - and that's not even counting the stuff I had to cut, and man, there were a few rough choices there. I think part of this comes from Patreon helping to shape my requests - once the scheduling got figured out as part of this experiment, things began to click and I started covering a lot of stuff I really loved. 

So you all know the drill by this point: twelve albums in order - an order that could shuffle by the end of 2017 - twenty-four songs in chronological order of my reviewing them (yes, I'm expanding the list, it's that kind of year), and keep in mind that if they don't make this list they've still got a real shot for the list at the end of the year, so let's get this started with...

video review: 'grateful' by dj khaled

So yeah, this was a struggle to get through. Wish it was better, not surprised that it's not.

Next up is the midyear review, dropping in minutes - stay tuned!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

album review: 'grateful' by dj khaled

Let's talk about collaboration, which if you're looking to crossover in mainstream radio these days, it's kind of essential. Now this to some extent has always been true when it comes to pop music - especially in hip-hop with the omnipresent featuring credit - but when you consider how many of the acts in the top ten right now are group acts where cohesion becomes a question? Well, I can tell you: as of now, you're looking at 7/10 of them, and that's ignoring the Stormzy remix of 'Shape Of You' while counting that Kendrick remix of 'Mask Off' that really makes the song work, for me at least.

And while I've been quick to highlight how these collaborations have paid stunning dividends for a DJ like Calvin Harris... let's get the real, the act that has always stood as marketer and hype man over producer has always been DJ Khaled, who with two singles in the top five right now is pretty much at the top of his fame, and with the release of the album probably will have a shot at sending one to #1, despite only producing just over half the song on said album. An album, which at last count, has over thirty collaborating artists and stretches nearly ninety minutes. Now the problem with overloaded and overlong collaboration records is that there is nearly always bloat and just not enough high points to obscure gaping flaws - it was one of the biggest problems with Major Key last year, and if anything I expected it to get worse without any Kendrick Lamar verse to save any songs. But with all of that... what did we get from Grateful?

video review: 'the underside of power' by algiers

Well, this was awesome... but let's be honest, we all kind of expected that going in, right? Beyond that... yeah, I think maybe one more review before the midyear roundup, and whoo boy, it's a fun one!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

album review: 'the underside of power' by algiers

I remember covering Algiers' self-titled debut two years ago, and I remember the most prominent thought running through my head: since the dawn of post-punk and noise rock in the late 70s, it should not have taken this long to get a record like this. I think part of this was inevitable thanks to the internet and the rampant cross-pollination of genres, but still, it's not like there weren't common throughlines that could have enabled more of this fusion of the noisy grind of post-punk with a raw blend of gospel, soul and blues. Sure, there had been those who brought in more of a gothic or symphonic sound to the scene, but this was different, black Southern gothic in a much different but no less potent tradition, backed by the utterly fearsome vocals and writing of Franklin James Fisher. And it was the sort of fully formed debut that of course landed a spot on multiple of my year lists for songs and albums, but really the potential represented by this band was far more thrilling, and not just because when hip-hop looking to sample gospel finds out this exists, it's going to cause a sea change.

No, what drew more of my attention was knowing that their sophomore project The Underside Of Power was going to necessarily get political, and this should not surprise anybody. Much of their debut painted them as harbingers of doom and a brand of violence that only even perceived between the lines of those not willing to look - and that's before we even get the exceedingly well-framed and frighteningly relevant racial commentary - but given what happened last year... yeah, I had the feeling gloves were coming off. And considering the mountains of critical acclaim this record has received already, I was really excited for this. So what did we find in The Underside of Power?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 8, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, this was interesting enough of a week... not exactly a great one, but still kind of fascinating how it split down the middle between solid to great songs and absolute shit.

Anyway, think I'm about ready for Algiers, and after that... well, we'll see, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 8, 2017

In retrospect, maybe I expected way too much from the American public. Granted, I think I've been saying that for most of the past two years, but in this case it's particularly - and for the most part confined to the United States, I should. Because when I made the prediction that Lorde topping the sales charts with Melodrama on the Billboard 200 album charts meant that she'd have something that'd cross over... well, even despite the lack of an obvious pop single, it's not like anything on Pure Heroine was an easy crossover either. And yet, not a single new song from Lorde on the Hot 100, and only one on the Bubbling Under charts - for perspective, Canada had four, and do I even need to say the catchphrase anymore before I decide to get it printed on merch?

Monday, June 26, 2017

video review: 'saturation' by BROCKHAMPTON

So yeah, I'm not quite as crazy on this as I want to be, but overall it's still very likable, so check it out!

Next up... I'm going to see if I can squeeze both a review and Billboard BREAKDOWN in tomorrow, so stay tuned!

album review: 'saturation' by BROCKHAMPTON

So I think it's safe to say that music criticism is heading into a new era - and no, I'm not talking about the poptimism movement or the rise of awful thinkpiece criticism, I'm looking more at a shift in influence and power. Because if you go back to the mid-60s, there were names of music critics that stood out and helped to break acts, at least before the rise of major zines and music publications, where the individual critic got subsumed or in some cases actively de-emphasized.

That seems to be changing, and to be fair with the rise of the blogosphere you could have seen it coming. The Internet led to the democratization of music criticism but with the rise of YouTube and the critical personality it almost seems like we've come full circle. But whereas plenty of people can make an album review and a much smaller group can develop with the right persistence to make it something lucrative, we're now seeing the rise of critics with enough of a following that they can break acts through their reviews much in the way Pitchfork or the Village Voice or Rolling Stone used to.

Because let's be brutally honest: you guys wouldn't have asked for me to cover Saturation by BROCKHAMPTON, this Texas hip-hop collective with only one mixtape dropped last year that flew under the majority of radars, if it hadn't been for Anthony Fantano's effusive praise. Now to me that's not a bad thing - beyond the whole #TeamInternet thing it's a really great thing to see Anthony succeed and set benchmarks for where music critics can be on YouTube, but it's also good because we tend to share somewhat similar tastes in hip-hop. And while I wasn't really all that impressed by what I heard from BROCKHAMPTON's first project All-American Trash last year, I found their structure as a 'boy band collective' - their words not mine - to be at least interesting, so I figured I'd give Saturation a listen. What did I find?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

video review: 'crack-up' by fleet foxes

Warned you all this'd be controversial, and I wasn't kidding. Ah well, the music industry cycle moves fast, people will get over it.

As for what's next... honestly, no clue, so stay tuned!

album review: 'crack up' by fleet foxes

I'm surprised I haven't gotten more requests for this record.

Okay, there's a part of me that isn't that surprised - indie folk always falls into a weird category when it comes to how much people want me to cover it, but Fleet Foxes is a fascinating case in their own right. For one, I wouldn't quite define them as straightforward folk music, given how much they pulled on sunny 60s pop, alternative country, and some of the hollower Celtic elements that enriched their vocal harmonies on their first two records. And while the impressionistic lyrics could make for a complicated listening experience to decode, a lot of people were just content to let the words and richly organic instrumentation wash over them, from a star-making self-titled debut to the darker yet no less compelling Helplessness Blues a few years later.

And yet there's a part of me that feels like Fleet Foxes might have been forgotten a bit - between the years between records in an increasingly quick hype cycle, even in the indie scene, to say nothing of the rise of one-time drummer for the group Josh Tillman to dominance under the moniker Father John Misty, it might have been easy for Fleet Foxes to get forgotten, especially given as their very earnest and heartfelt brand of folk was later copied ad nauseum in the early 2010s by far less complex or interesting acts. And yet six years after Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes are back after an extended hiatus, minus Tillman and on a new label with their longest record to date. And if only to soak in those harmonies, I really wanted to check this out, so what did I find on Crack Up?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

video review: 'melodrama' by lorde

So yeah, this is great - but let's be real, you all already knew that.

Next up, though... something where the greatness might be questioned a little more. Stay tuned!

album review: 'melodrama' by lorde

So here's a hidden truth about critics: as much as there should be a certain self-awareness that the vast majority of the mainstream won't care enough about your opinion whether to buy something, deep down critics love to think they can shape the pop culture conversation by their praise of certain art. And I'm not immune to this - I'd love to think that through my reviews I'm helping enshrine some albums with the historical weight and importance they'd deserve.

And yet with Lorde... going back to my review of Pure Heroine, I think I might have blown it. Yes, part of this comes with context - I was in my first year of seriously covering records, there is a learning curve, and even then I'll admit that I may have missed the mark there. Going back to Pure Heroine I criticized it for being able to categorize the frustration behind the sound without proposing a solution, or on some level catering to similar populist power fantasies as the party artists she criticized, just with different framing. And while these are somewhat salient points, they're countered by the acknowledgement that Lorde was still a teenager, and Pure Heroine in retrospect does bear some of the marks of that adolescence - not in the writing, but the framing, and even then Lorde was self-aware enough to realize that even if she had a grand vision of change, it's not like she had the cultural power to make it happen.

And thus I can't help but notice the irony in the fact that Lorde's Pure Heroine hasn't just been elevated to critical acclaim, but also became alarmingly influential - and I say alarming because for as much as I missed the message, other critics and pop stars missed it harder. The monochromatic production with greater percussion emphasis may have felt a little drab at the time, but fast-forward to so many modern pop stars seizing it as a method to be taken seriously and it's led to years of utterly forgettable tunes. Sure, abuse of autotune was eased back, but it was replaced by a crop of husky-voiced starlets who had nowhere near the charisma or intensity of emotion that always coursed through Lorde's best work, to say nothing of far weaker writing. And then there's Lorde herself: people were drawn to her charisma and seemingly vast wells of potential as an artist, but it also seemed like so few people knew how to contextualize her music or her distinct writing and presentation, which seemed to culminate in a connection to Taylor Swift who in recent years has piled up layers of artifice to reflect an increasingly artificial persona, which flew in contrast to Lorde's more raw, almost unnerving edge - earnest and heartfelt, but with the poise and confidence to pivot wildly and stick the landing. Hell, it's one of the reasons why so many critics, including myself, were convinced that Lorde wouldn't be long for pop at all, and that she'd join indie acts in the vein of Bjork or Swans where she'd have more artistic freedom to harness and refine that intensity... and yet she didn't do that. She's too much of a populist, instead enlisting Jack Antonoff as a cowriter and producer - which if you saw my last Bleachers review you'll know makes way too much sense - and calling her newest record Melodrama and describing the loose thematic ties as a breakup at a house party... well, shit, when you think about it in context it makes way too much sense, and yet I'm stunned that I missed it. But you've all waited long enough here: how is Melodrama?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 1, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, look at that, a pretty damn good week on the show - and with Lorde coming up, it looks to be even better.

And speaking of Lorde... well, stay tuned! 

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 1, 2017

This week surprised me. In more ways than one actually, and for the most part they seem to be good surprises, where songs I was not looking forward to didn't show up, and a few that I never dared to dream would chart actually cracked through. To me, this is the sort of good news I've been conditioned not to expect going into the summer slowdown, and considering next week we'll probably get a big push for Lorde... yeah, maybe things are looking up?

Monday, June 19, 2017

video review: 'the nashville sound' by jason isbell & the 400 unit

Well, this was amazing. One of the best of the year... although everyone saying this is challenging for the best of the year may need to consider the other Jason who dropped a country record in 2017, just for reference...

Beyond that, it's Billboard BREAKDOWN and Lorde up next, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the nashville sound' by jason isbell & the 400 unit

So as a general rule, I try to read a lot of music reviews after I finish mine, try to get a sense of the general discourse around a record and maybe for a little passive acknowledgement that I was at least on the right track when it came to my interpretations. And yet in 2015, I don’t think I read a review that missed the point harder than that of Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell – and if you know anything about that record’s critical reception, you all know exactly what publication put it out. Now on some level every critic is entitled to their opinion, and it's not like Jason Isbell makes easy music, especially in alternative country, so you can expect misinterpretations, but what I found a lot more exasperating was the assertion that since he was a left-leaning alternative country songwriter and a longtime veteran of a number of acts that his record should be speaking more to the social ills and issues of the time to have any sort of relevance, especially if it was as forward-looking as it was.

Now if you’ve heard Something More Than Free – and I highly recommend you do, it’s easily in my top five of the best records of 2015 – you’d know that wouldn’t remotely fit with the complicated and deeply personal thematic arcs underscoring the project, and that said projection was pretty damn short-sighted and ignorant. But then again, it’s not like said publication is known for its well-considered or well-articulated points on country music - and yet despite that, I get the impression Jason Isbell might have been listening. Granted, considering the current American political climate and the fact that Isbell was looking to kick some of the rock elements back in with the 400 Unit, that might have been inevitable, but he’s a canny enough artist to pivot when he needs to, or to make a point. Which, of course, said publication then called this album an one-note backslide in their review and called him more of a pop songwriter, even despite him doing exactly what they wanted, so maybe he shouldn’t have cared. Or maybe he doesn’t care at all and I shouldn’t either, and after all this is probably one of my most anticipated records of 2017, so fuck it: what did we get from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on The Nashville Sound?

video review: 'ctrl' by sza

By the Nine Hells, I should have had this review out and ready on Saturday... but again, SZA is one of those artists that's just difficult for me to cover well, apparently. GAH.

Okay, Jason Isbell is up next, and then Lorde - stay tuned!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

album review: 'ctrl' by sza

So I'll admit when I covered SZA's debut EP Z three years ago - although this looks like it was retroactively called a EP for branding purposes, given I remember considering it as a full-length debut as it was about forty minutes long - it was far from one of my best reviews. Part of the issue is that I wasn't really all that strong on it one way or the other - I really dug parts of the concept and the writing, but SZA's delivery and the oddly wonky and synth-heavy production left me feeling underwhelmed. And going back to the record now... you know, I might appreciate it a little more given my greater familiarity with alternative R&B, but that doesn't mean my issues with the fragmented and cavernous production or the guest stars that frequently eclipsed SZA had gone away. At the end of the day I was left feeling SZA was a compelling writer, but maybe a little more focus and refinement in the execution could bring things together better on a future project...

A project that didn't seem to be coming. Again, Z came out in 2014, and while SZA had contributed guest verses here and there - the most notable probably coming opposite RIhanna on ANTI last year, although she'd grace plenty of fellow TDE records - I was initially surprised that the follow-up took this long to get released. Maybe it had to deal with the fact that she was now signed to RCA, and when you factor in a major label you immediately lengthen timelines, but it also seemed like there was more rebranding going on: instead of being called A as advertised, it was retitled to Ctrl. And hey, that's not a bad thing, and if she had taken the time to get the production and execution issues worked out, I was curious how her writing would translate. So, given that this is her major label debut, what do we get from Ctrl?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

video review: 'heart break' by lady antebellum

So yeah, this happened... overall not a bad record, there are a couple good songs, but as I said in the review, if I remember most of this record, it's going to be surprising.

Anyway, next up I've got SZA and then a crop of reviews that I'm really excited about, so stay tuned!

album review: 'heart break' by lady antebellum

So I'm going to say something pretty controversial here, and I want you all to understand this is not coming from a place of disrespect. Long time fans know that while I've been critical of Lady Antebellum, it's more because I see tons of potential that just doesn't materialize as often as it should. And you should also all know that when Charles Kelley put out his solo record last year, two songs from that album made my year-end list of the best songs of 2016 - and one song, 'Leaving Nashville', topped that list, it was my favourite song of last year, across the board.

So now that you all have that context, let me say this: going into this record, I was convinced Lady Antebellum should have stayed on hiatus, or maybe just broken up entirely. As a group together, they always felt uneven to me, hitting some tremendous high points that balance emotional maturity and great harmonies, but it's always felt imbalanced to me, skewed towards Hillary Scott instead of an even balance between her and Kelley. And with that more middle-aged approach to country, catering a little more to the adult alternative crowd, I've expected the writing to build to a level of sophistication that just hasn't materialized in the same way. I know they're in their thirties and they're not Little Big Town - who are all in their forties and their music is starting to sound like it - but I started to get uneasy when I saw the main producer behind Heart Break is busbee. And don't get me wrong, he can be tolerable with the right people, but nearly always more on the younger, trendier pop country mold, which just struck me as the wrong fit for Lady Antebellum, and lead-off single 'You Look Good' didn't help my feelings. But hey, I was willing to give this something of a chance, so what did I find on Heart Break?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

video review: 'wolves' by rise against

Hoping to like this a little more, but eh, it's still pretty solid all the same.

Next up, some country (if you can even call it that...), so stay tuned!

album review: 'wolves' by rise against

I'll admit I came to Rise Against late.

I mean, I knew their singles, I knew they had a few really strong early records before one of a few 'sell-out' moments, depending who you talk to. I remember there was discussion surrounding how much you could take their very earnest political material, especially when they tended to paint broad strokes, or how as years wore on and the band seemed to fade from relevance with the rest of rock radio. Most of this I only discovered years after the fact... and yeah, while I have no qualms bucking against popular consensus, this tended to be true, with their first two records holding up to this day and while I've always admired their pop sensibility, you can't deny that it did starting coming through on records like Siren Song Of The Counter Culture and especially by Appeal To Reason.

That said, when I covered The Black Market with Jon over at ARTV back in 2014, I actually really liked it, more than I expected. It was an older, slower, more weary-feeling record, but it used that time to refine the compositions and writing to cut more deeply, and I stand by it being underrated to this day. Hell, I put 'People Live Here' on my year-end list of the best songs of 2014, and if that song showcases what can happen when Rise Against focus their material, I had some hopes going into their record this year called Wolves. And obviously it was going to be touching on the election last year - they're a political band, that was happening regardless - but what caught more of my interest is that they had parted ways with long-time producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, thanks to a move to a new label. On this album they were working with Nick Raskulinecz, who has been behind records from Mastodon, Deftones, Korn, and that Ghost record before Meliora that nobody cares about - so okay, what did this mean for Rise Against?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 24, 2017

So yeah, another pretty rough week here... but on the plus side, I've got an interesting record on the docket next (in fact, a fair few of them) so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 24, 2017

Do you ever have the feeling looking at the Hot 100 that no matter what happens, it's not going to be a good week? Yeah, that was my gut feel going through the Hot 100 this week - which yes, did slow down a bit as things settle in for the summer with no major releases, but at the same time, looking at some of these new arrivals... well, we'll get to it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

video review: 'witness' by katy perry

So this was lousy - actually a bit worse than I was expecting too, more because it's just a slog. Eh, it happens...

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and I have no clue what'll come after- stay tuned!

album review: 'witness' by katy perry

Does anyone else think that Katy Perry is trying way too hard?

Now that's a pretty harsh statement to make about any artist, but I've been considering the adage of while a good artist pushes their artistic boundaries, a truly great artist pushes while understanding their strengths and limitations, and I'm not sure Katy Perry does. I might have issues with One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream, but they worked for shallow, frequently ridiculous and and stupid pop music - and I don't mean that to denigrate it, believe it or not. Great pop doesn't necessarily need a lot of brains if the melody, color, and charisma is there, and while I'd make the argument Perry has always had more volume and presence than actual charisma or sex appeal, looking back there are some singles I can appreciate around the turn of the decade.

Then Prism happened, and while it was one of my very early reviews in 2013, I mostly stand by it. Katy Perry was trying to split the difference between tasteless sex appeal that forced way too many double entendres, and heartfelt power ballads where she just did not have the presence or intensity to compensate for weak writing. And when she split the difference... the most we got were mid-80s inspired synthpop grooves that Tegan & Sara had already done better earlier in the year. What was disheartening about the whole affair is that Katy Perry was very plainly trying, there was effort on display, and to see her repeatedly stumble was tough to hear.

So after taking some time to collect herself, tour with Kacey Musgraves to refine her writing chops, and connect with Hillary Clinton's political campaign to attempt to add weight to increasingly hollow anthems, we have a new album from Katy Perry. And I'll be blunt: I did not expect this to be good. 'Chained To The Rhythm' has only felt more myopic and self-serving with every listen, 'Swish Swish' has nowhere close to the impact it thinks it has, and 'Bon Appetit' was staggeringly misconceived in every way - and Katy Perry is a singles artist, so if this is what she's leading with, I was genuinely worried this would suck - does it?

video review: 'wrangled' by angaleena presley

About damn time I got to this one... and not the only review dropping tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'wrangled' by angaleena presley

So as I've said a number of times recently, country is at a bit of a crossroads moment right now. Between the generally inoffensive pop country, the neotraditional and Texas tones picking up market share, the insurgent indie scene, and whatever sterile garbage Nashville is churning out to try and recapture a bro-country audience that has mostly stopped listening, the mainstream could tilt in many different directions and there hasn't been a lot of clarity where the chips will fall. But in the aftermath of bro-country's collapse, there is something that needs to be addressed: if you're looking for women on mainstream radio, you're going to be left in the cold. It's not saying that there aren't a few mainstream success stories - Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina and Maren Morris playing to the pop crowd, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert continuing to mostly chalk up hits as veterans - but especially when you look at the indie crossovers, I'm a little perplexed why we haven't seen that woman who can stand up with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, or Sturgill Simpson. Because these indie acts definitely exist - hell, I've covered a fair few of them, along with the artists who have a mainstream sound and could easily have radio presence if given the chance.

Take, say, Angaleena Presley. A member of the Pistol Annies along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, with her 2014 solo debut American Middle Class she won over critics in droves. And I dearly wish that I had covered it three years ago, because of the Pistol Annies while Miranda Lambert sanded back her edge for the mainstream and Ashley Monroe played to restraint, Angaleena Presley didn't have any compunctions embracing her inner hellraiser, her production more ramshackle and grimy to match writing that didn't mince words in its cutting approach to small town Americana. Kacey Musgraves might get cute about it, and Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna might showcase complicated melancholy, but there was intelligent fury and venom from Presley that was willing to get nastier. And let's be real, despite good connections conservative country radio tends to get very skittish with this sort of content, especially considering Presley never played as broad and accessible as Lambert or Carrie Underwood in her delivery or writing. And yet fast-forward to 2017: with the indie doors broken open these days for mainstream crossover, I have to admit I was a little surprised her second album Wrangled wasn't inspiring more conversation beyond the indie critical set, especially if it was at all comparable in quality to American Middle Class. So despite being late to the punch, I dug in - what did I find?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

video review: 'planetarium' by sufjan stevens, nico muhly, bryce dessner & james mcalister

My lord, this was a weird listen, but eh, it happens.

Next up, hoping to knock out two reviews tomorrow, so stay tuned!

album review: 'planetarium' by sufjan stevens, james mcalister, bryce dessner & nico muhly

I don't even know where to start with this one. When I saw that this album had not only been requested early, but had received by far the most votes on my schedule thanks to Patreon, I was blown away. Not for Katy Perry, not for Rise Against, this - but hey, I was curious too, these sorts of supergroup collaborations don't come around every day.

So background here: apparently this started as a commissioned orchestra piece that was performed live back in 2012, but never properly recorded, so Sufjan Stevens rounded up a murder's row of talent to take this score into fresh territory. And we've got heavyweights here: Sufjan is a powerhouse in his own right, but when you add in the guitarist of The National Bryce Dessner, classical composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAllister, you've got a stacked lineup of talent. And considering these are all songs written about space and our solar system... look, we don't get enough good music celebrating space, I'll just say that right now. Now on the one hand I was really excited to dig into this, but I also know that this could very well play like that Lights & Motion record I covered months ago, a potent piece of music that can feel a little unengaging or abstract to the point of frustration. But still, I was fascinated by what this quartet could do with this material - it's too odd and distinct of a concept to ignore, so what did we find in Planetarium?

video review: 'renaissance' by the underachievers

Damn, I'm really getting bad at posting these on time... well, anyway, here's the episode that dropped back on Thursday, as Sufjan Stevens and crew come later tonight, stay tuned!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

album review: 'renaissance' by the underachievers

I can't be the only one who feels that hip-hop hasn't exactly had a banner year, am I?

Obviously I'm not saying it's a bad year - we got solid records from Kendrick and Joey Bada$$, and that Quelle Chris record was an underappreciated gem, but at the same time, it's kind of telling that my favourite rap record thus far in 2017 has come from an album that was surprise early-released on Christmas of 2016, that being Run The Jewels - and yes, I'm going to count it as a 2017 release for year-end list purposes, just deal with it.

But maybe it's just the hip-hop I've covered in the first half of 2017, but there's been a lot of underwhelming to flat out crap records that I've covered, and I'd like to think I'm not missing anything big here out of the mainstream or underground. So you can bet I was happy that there was a new record from The Underachievers coming up my schedule to cover, seemingly with little-to-no actual buzz! And that kind of blows my mind: sure, I wasn't really crazy about that It Happened In Flatbush mixtape last year, but Evermore: The Art Of Duality was a really damn solid sophomore album that tackles big ideas with really solid bars and some fascinating dualistic production, so I was hoping that Renaissance might be the shot of life hip-hop has needed in 2017 - was I right?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

video review: 'dua lipa' by dua lipa

Not really a tremendous amount to say about htis one - it's a good pop record, generally enjoyable, it connected for me.

But next... whoo boy, I've been looking forward to this one, stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 17, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, this was a rough week. But eh, I got through it. Next up... well, it's Dua Lipa, but after that, I need to tackle some old business - enjoy!

album review: 'dua lipa' by dua lipa

Well, it's about time this got released - and while I don't often claim to be ahead of the curve when it comes to pop music, I can definitely say I was in this case. I was covering Dua Lipa on World Hit months if not over a year ago on Billboard BREAKDOWN, and while I knew her throatier tones and poise would make her a natural fit for the Europop markets, I wasn't really expecting her to cross over to the United States. But then 'Blow Your Mind (Mwah)' hit the Hot 100, and Martin Garrix brought her on for 'Scared To Be Lonely', and the clock was set on that major label debut, which has been in development since early 2015. 

And I have to be honest, I had a hard time setting expectations - 'Be The One' is a terrific pop song, but it's one of six singles that Dua Lipa released trying to give this some traction, and from the nearly two dozen producers and songwriters backing her, I had the uneasy feeling that this was a record that's long been in development, maybe even overworked. Props to Dua Lipa for having writing credits on every song except 'Be The One', but at the same time, would this be the jump-off point for crossover success, or would Dua Lipa fall into the list of so many good but not great pop debuts that often become forgotten months later, especially on this side of the Atlantic?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 17, 2017

So I was predicting that this week would actually be a little slower going in - after all, it didn't look like the top ten was shifting at all, there wasn't any major album releases on the horizon, we'd have another week in a holding pattern... and yet that's not what we got, pretty much thanks to the record that never hit my schedule and that I would have had no interest in covering if it had. Yep, folks: this is the week of Bryson Tiller, accounting for half of the new arrivals... joy.

Monday, June 5, 2017

video review: 'gone now' by bleachers

And that's two... whew. Good record too - wish it was great, but it happens.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN and probably All Time Low next, but you never know - stay tuned!

album review: 'gone now' by bleachers

I distinctly remember not expecting to love Bleachers' debut album Strange Desire as much as I did in 2014. Hell, I remember watching and reading the other reviews, which gave it some token appreciation for 'I Wanna Get Better' and then proceeded to tear into it.

And here's the thing: I completely understand where the majority of those criticisms came from. Is it a shameless 80s pastiche with a frontman who doesn't have the range and presence he thinks he has, relentlessly overwritten with an earnestness that pushes it between aggressively corny and embarrassing? Yeah, absolutely - and yet to some extent the overwritten earnestness, when paired with Jack Antonoff's uncanny knack for huge hooks and a deceptively potent album concept lurking beneath the surface, it lead to a record that hit me like a tidal wave and I still return to fairly regularly, even moreso since I got it on vinyl. And since then, he's popped up all over the place as a behind-the-scenes songwriter for Sara Bareilles, Lorde, the best song Rachel Platten has ever made, and a little someone called Taylor Swift. Yeah, you want to know the reason so many of you idolize 1989 as a pop record beyond the singles, most of the thanks you can direct here.

So you can bet I was looking forward to this - I hadn't listened to any of the lead-off singles, I was excited to go in cold and just take it all in, especially considering he brought on board both Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen to back him up. So what did we get for Gone Now?

video review: 'relaxer' by alt-J

Hey, this was a request, so to some extent you all were asking for this (well, probably not for this review specifically, but I had to set my cards straight, and it'll be fascinating how many subs I lose in the end here).

Anyway, not the only review dropping tonight - Bleachers coming up next, stay tuned!

album review: 'relaxer' by alt-j

Oh, I'm not going to make any fans with this review. Mostly because there is very much a reason I've avoided talking about alt-j, a breakthrough UK indie pop group that I've found a fair bit more frustrating than actually likable, not helped by comparisons to Radiohead I never thought we deserved.

See, I've listened to An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours, and to some extent I see the appeal - they can take some obtuse methods of hitting melody, they have a liquid approach to guitar grooves that I'd normally like, they have a frontman with a distinct voice and writing that on the surface seems somewhat approachable, they dabble in other subgenres adjacent to rock... yeah, note the word 'dabble', because every listen to alt-J gives me the impression there is nothing all that striking or compelling beneath all the 'weird' indie pop pivots. The biggest consistent criticism with their first two records are that they're overstuffed messes, but that can be redeemed if they add up to something with an edge or something to say, whereas every listen I've given to alt-j just finds it all the more hollow to me. I can tolerate weirdness for its own sake, but frankly, this doesn't feel alien or imposing or challenging, just obtuse and sterile and sexless, the music marketers think the lowest common denominator of hipsters like. Sure, there are a few pretty vocal harmonies, especially on This Is All Yours, but that doesn't disguise the fact the records are dreary slogs that think they are a lot more interesting than they actually are. And it's not helped by the fact that I find Joe Newman a particularly unengaging and unlikable frontman, especially when you dig into the lyrics - it's one of the reasons I've never found the Radiohead comparison made any sense, because even though I'm not really a fan, Yorke's writing and intensity was far more compelling than this, and he certainly aims higher.

But hey, you guys wanted me to talk about Relaxer thanks to Patreon, so maybe three records in alt-j will have found something workable?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

video review: 'wonder woman'

Well, this was interesting... again, I think this'll ultimately tilt into greatness for me overall thanks to a tremendous lead and some great chemistry, even if the third act does frustrate me. But still, for so many audiences, this is a film they've waited their whole lives to see, and the fact they stuck the landing this well is worth noting. 

Next up, Bleachers, and (sigh) probably alt-j, so stay tuned!

video review: 'hopeless fountain kingdom' by halsey (ft. ARTV)

Well, this was a fun conversation. You'll want to check out the full video on Jon's channel, we go in depth there, but beyond that... yeah, this was solid.

Next up, though, I've got another movie on my docket, so stay tuned!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

video review: 'goths' by the mountain goats

Man, this record... it just cut deep in the best possible way. Holy shit, I loved this.

What's coming up next, though... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 10, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, this episode generated a lot of backlash... eh, it happens. Overall, pretty happy with it, all things considered. 

Next up, though... really excited, have to say, so stay tuned!

album review: 'goths' by mountain goats

Before we get into this review, I think there need to be two things placed in context: my relationship with the goth subculture; and my relationship with the music of The Mountain Goats - and in both cases, it gets complicated in a hurry.

See, if you've seen me rambling on Twitter at some point late at night, I'll typically have wandered into one of my favourite goth club haunts for some music that actually has an edge and to soak in the atmosphere, but whether I'd call myself a goth... well, people have been arguing about that qualifier for decades now, but I'd probably say it's not really a label that fits me exactly. I like a lot of gothic music and fashion and it's easy for me to feel comfortable in goth clubs - you're not going to find a crew as openly accepting of oddballs like myself despite appearances as that subculture, along with markedly more likable music - but for me there's a time and place for it, never quite a scene I've completely embraced.

And here's the funny thing: I get the impression John Darnielle might feel the same, which leads us to the Mountain Goats. Full disclosure, while I may have been introduced to them through Nash over at Radio Dead Air - check him out, he broadcasts online live on Monday evenings, his content is excellent - I've never really done a deep dive, and thus I've spent the past three or four weeks exploring all fifteen full-length records in their backlog, from their roughscrabble early days in the 90s to their slightly more polished indie folk side in the 2000s to the steps towards indie rock that has come in recent years. And while I would definitely call myself a fan, I wouldn't really say I'm a big one, mostly tied to the energy and strength of the melodies along with Darnielle sticking with more defined stories instead of some of the abstract pieces that sometimes can feel a tad scattered. It's also one of the reasons I have a hard time citing a favourite Mountain Goats record or ranking them - for me, unless they've got a unified thematic arc I tend to like bits and pieces, although if I had covered Beat The Champ back in 2015, it would have had a serious shot to make my year-end list, that record hits so many of the same moments that made Darren Aronofsky's movie The Wrestler click so deeply for me, it's startling. But their album this year Goths... well, with the comparisons to the writing of Nick Cave of course I was on board, but I was a little concerned that Darnielle had opted to abandon his guitar entirely for the record, which could lead to a very different sound and one sure to piss off the diehard lo-fi Mountain Goats fans. But hey, what did we get out of Goths?