23 December 2013

top 25 traxx of 2013

Honorable Mention:

"Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger) (Chromeo & Oliver Remix)" by Donna Summer

Certainly the song I danced most to in 2013, this Chromeo reworking of a 1982 Donna Summer single is pure genius. Great remixes expand upon what was great about what the original and use the new elements to accentuate what's already there; that is exactly what's been done here. Donna used a vocoder in the hook of the original, so Chromeo and their talkbox were a perfect fit. The brilliant original structure is now lain in the cradle of a 2013 dancefloor beat, and we may all happily shake our asses.

25. "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus

Miley's album was a few decent-yet-half-assed pop songs peppered into some odd attempts at southern hip hop. This lead single, however, stood out this summer as a unique banger to hear out in bars or on the dancefloor. If I'm able to look past her obnoxious persona and enjoy the song, you can too.

24. "Everything Is Embarrassing" by Sky Ferreira

This was a great year for female vocalists and synthpop. Ferreira's album will please most fans of the genre. It features mellow, glowing synths over her appropriately matched voice, with the occasional 2013 oddity thrown in (like the baritone backing vocal in this track) to remind us what year it is. Listen carefully: There's an excellent bassline that develops in the final third of the song.

23. "Hey Porsche" by Nelly

This track would not be a musical stretch for most pop artists, but it is for Nelly. This deserved to be just as big a hit as 2010's "Just A Dream," but I didn't hear it get one single radio spin. I've been a fan since "Country Grammar" and I genuinely respect that, 13 years later, he's still putting out singles that I'm into.

22. "Wishes" by Beach House

Beach House are a duo from Baltimore who are keeping alive the "dream pop" sound popularized in the late '80s by acts like Cocteau Twins and Black Tape For A Blue Girl, and boy do they do it well. This track is as light as a feather, yet it manages to linger in the mind. A freaky video starring Leland Palmer helps.

21. "Dope" by Lady Gaga

This is Lady Gaga's first truly great ballad since "Brown Eyes," from her 2008 debut The Fame. She first performed it at the opening show of the iTunes Festival ("Swinefest" as her fans called it) back in September under its original title, "I Wanna Be With You." Fans instantly connected with the song, and upon its release as a promo single the following month, it sold so well that it debuted at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The very scant yet carefully placed synth bass added in the studio version gave the track a much-needed bottom end, making it feel like the full, looming, hefty presentation that it truly is.

20. "Hold On, We're Going Home" by Drake

Finally, I love a Drake song! This recalls smooth mid-'80s r&b and at times even Michael Jackson, but is very much a 2013 single in style and substance.

19. "Eden" by Sara Bareilles

Bareilles' album The Blessed Unrest doesn't branch out too much instrumentally, but this track is the exception. It takes her AC radio soft rock sound and gives it an almost new wave flair, and the result is a definite standout that deserves single status.

18. "I Could Be The One" by Avicii ft. Nicky Romero

A fun dance track, sure, but this was absolutely my favorite music video of the year. Avicii Is a masterful producer and he seems to be leading the next wave of great dance music creators. Guetta and Harris could learn a thing or two from his structuring and melodies.

17. "Latch" by Disclosure

Another track that just seems so '90s, and I say that positively. Disclosure is a progressive house duo from the UK who have had several hits back home, but this garage track was a hit in several countries. The abrupt beat change and octave increase at the chorus is just to die for.

16. "Bubble Butt" by Major Lazer

I don't even care that Bruno Mars (who I find immensely overrated) is involved; whenever I was on a dance floor this summer and this track spun, I went nuts. If there were any justice in the music industry, we'd hear this instead every time someone felt the need to turn on "Baby Got Back."

15. "Gentleman" by Psy

This track is so much cooler than his big hit last year, so it's kind of a shame that no one will remember it in five years. Psy is great at showing off the beauty of his hometown via shots of its commonplace activities in his music videos.

14. "What About Love" by Austin Mahone

I'd never have heard this track if it hadn't shown up on YouTube's homepage one day, so hooray Internet targeted marketing. I'm glad it was shoved in my face, though, as it's a well-produced delightful throwback to boy band pop of the late '90s. The very full bass and electronic drums are countered by a sawtooth synth sound that's so distorted it almost just sounds like a downed power line. Listen for one particular synth voice in the bridge that's exceptionally '90s - you'll know it when you hear it. Mahone isn't a particularly strong vocalist, but he sounds just fine here.

13. "Lightning Bolt" by Jake Bugg

The low-fi style of Jake Bugg's debut single (and album, really) seems very matched to his personality. He's not trying to change the world with his guitar; "I play music because I enjoy to play music. I'm not looking to be any savior," he said in one interview. He writes about what he likes to do and how the people who surround him and his little environment make him feel. You can't ask for simpler songwriting than that, and when it's paired with his high, powerful voice and quality, bouncing melodies, the result is pretty damn awesome.

12. "Same Love" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Yeah, "Thrift Shop" has a better hook and was a much bigger chart success, but the historical importance of this track was unparalleled by any artist in 2013. The LGBT community thankfully has many, many straight allies, but it's very rare to see support from such a genuine, heartfelt place. "Born This Way" became an anthem two years ago for loving yourself and being uncompromising in who you are; this song has blazed further down the trail in a very direct demand for marriage equality. What can I say? I have a soft spot for songs of political import, and they're rare when a Democrat is in office.

11. "Like A Stranger" by Kitten

I don't know anything about Kitten vocalist Chloe Chaidez's childhood, but this outstanding EP would suggest that she grew up listening to Taylor Dayne, Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode, maybe even Stacey Q (I can dream), etc. as she has perfected the late-'80s pop sheen in both her production and her sultry vocals. This song is such a sexy, breathy come-on that I feel weird listening to it in public. My research indicates that the group is going through some lineup changes, so I hope it doesn't impede future excellence, but since Chaidez seems to be the band's core and remains its only consistent member, I am optimistic.

10. "Cups" by Anna Kendrick

I love every single thing about this song. I love that it was originally recorded in 1931 and that this version isn't that much different than the original. I love that it's barely two minutes long. I love that it's a very sweet sentiment wrapped in such snark that the compliment is almost lost. I love that it's sung by a woman who was already a respected actress and that this is her only offical single and that it wasn't milked into an album. I love how perfectly the video is cast, especially the oh-so-perfect group of three musical theater kids that show up at the 2:50 mark. Yeah, great tune.

9. "Acapella" by Karmin

Karmin has perfected the art of the song that is just annoying enough to be memorable, but not annoying enough to dislike. Sure, they may be the band that you dance like a doofus to around your apartment rather than throwing them on at a party (for fear of your friends telling you to have a seat), but doesn't that make them amazingly cool? This track will be on my party playlists for years to come, but I won't tell anyone that it's "that 'Brokenhearted' group" unless asked.

8. "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk

In my post reviewing this album, I referred to this track as a "modern classic," and I stand by that. While it's certainly an homage to disco, it stood out against its peers on the dancefloor this summer. It's rare to see a track this universally acclaimed and liked by folks of all walks, and in this case I must agree that it's justified. So glad these guys finally learned how to write songs!

7. "American Girl" by Bonnie McKee

Bonnie McKee has been hiding in the shadows of pop music for a few years, writing hits for Taio Cruz, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and even Britney Spears, plus many more. This is her first solo single, and I don't think she could have picked a more perfect tune to keep for herself. It has a very modern sound and sticks to pop conventions, yet still retains uniqueness through a smartly-played keyboard riff (the third chord hits a half-beat after you think it's going to), some popcorn synth voices, and very well-written lyrics. I maintain that "I was raised by a television / Every day is a competition" is the most true-to-life lyric that millenials will hear in 2013's musical offerings.

6. "Play The Game Boy" by A*M*E

Get ready for some globetrotting: A*M*E is from Sierra Leone but now lives in Britain, and her music is inspired by Korean pop. The result is this incredible, synth-driven R&B electropop track that sticks in your head like peanut butter from the first listen. Once it's on your iPod, you'll have it on repeat for an entire day. This would be a HUGE hit in the US if she'd just release it over here already!

5. "Royals" by Lorde

A well-deserved hit, some music critics even credit Lorde with inventing a genre they're calling "chillwave." The track's snapping beat and minimalist structure create an undeniably unique sound, and Lorde's thick, sweet voice dribbles like honey right down over it. The idea of embracing your middle-class existence yet fantasizing about wealth has universal appeal. Lorde is a smart, smart girl and I look forward to her next move.

4. "High Society" by Betty Who

Until now, I hadn't heard a song that I'd describe as "sophisti-pop" since Swing Out Sister's 1989 hit "Breakout." These songs are characterized by flawless, shiny vocals, and an undulating synth-bass line under spry, warm keyboard chords. This is Betty Who's first EP, and while the other three tracks have a much more modern sound, I was immediately drawn into the uptempo brightness of this adorable track that playfully suggests the singer and her lover pretend to be much wealthier than they are.

3. "I Love It" by Icona Pop

This is a perfect pop song. Not even three minutes long, a chorus that's instantly repeatable, and accessible lyrics. Don't think for a minute that they're just pretty faces with decent-enough voices, either.

2. "Do What U Want (With My Body)" by Lady Gaga ft. R. Kelly

My favorite single she's released since 2010's "Alejandro," this song is Gaga's polite middle finger to an entertainment media that always seems to focus on the wrong things. With that idea in mind, it's easy to understand why she asked Kelly to guest on the track, but it feels a bit tongue-in-cheek, doesn't it? Gaga is surely in on the joke. It certainly doesn't detract from her point, though, and musically the song is flawless. By the end she's yelling like Pat Benatar, and you're feeling every bit of her frustration.

1. "The Mother We Share" by CHVRCHES

I think I knew when I heard this back in March that it would end up being my favorite track of the year. It would have been pretty impossible to top, as it has nearly element that I love: synthpop, flawless female vocals, danceable retro electronic drums, and ambiguous lyrics. I love that the band hasn't commented on the song's meaning, but I'm sticking with my interpretation: It's about loving our Mother Earth and how being good to it is being good to your fellow human. I'm such a bleeding heart, I know, but goddamn this song rules.

15 December 2013

the heist || macklemore & ryan lews || 2013

Macklemore is in a very interesting position. He's been welcomed into the world of hip hop, but his white privilege allows him to take risks that other rappers can't and send his messages to places where they may not otherwise be received. He and Ryan Lewis have also achieved their success independent of a record label (only the second independent artists ever to have a Hot 100 #1; the first was Lisa Loeb in 1995), allowing them to retain creative control that most artists will never have. This resulting, very self-aware album takes advantage of both and doesn't hold back a bit.

"Ten Thousand Hours" falls a little bit short as an opening track, and I think it's the music to blame, not Macklemore's rapping or his lyrics. The melody is based on the oldest pop music chord progression in music history, and I found myself a little annoyed and exhausted with it.

I simply do not care for "Can't Hold Us." I find it droning and boring, and think Ray Dalton's vocals in the chorus sound listless.

"Thrift Shop" is really where the album picks up. It's simply a brilliant pop rap single that millenials will have no trouble whatsoever relating to. Self deprecation is always a surefire laugh, but this song amazingly manages to be self-deprecating AND aggrandizing all at once. It's truly a feat, and the beat is just delightful.

In a previous post, I used the term "modern classic" to refer to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," and it feels right to use it in reference to "Same Love" as well. Macklemore goes beyond a superficial support of LGBT equality and humanizes the struggles that many more privileged individuals don't consider, even though they're a reality for many folks here and abroad. He also takes aim at the rampant homophobia in the hip hop community, but not in a way that shuns it -- it's a place he very much feels a part of and he wants to make it better.

Allen Stone's vocals are the best part of the otherwise unremarkable "Neon Cathedral," which is followed by the odd instrumental choice "BomBom." This is a bit of a mid-album slump.

The beat on "White Walls" is fantastic, and it meshes perfectly with Hollis' vocals in the hook. Is that an accordion I hear? Who the fuck cares? This track is awesome.

Macklemore shows off his rap chops on "Jimmy Iovine," which is quite un-obtusely about meeting with suits at the record label and his decision to remain independent. Serving to show off Macklemore's apparent fearlessness and "let the cards fall where they may" attitude, it's the closest to the mainstream gangsta rap sound that the album comes.

The heaviest material on the album is found in "A Wake." He starts by taking jabs at his fans, whom he refers to as "cynical hipsters with long hair and cocaine problems," and notes that "25-year-olds seem 10," a very honest critique of most millenials. He then rips into conservative soccer moms who laud him for being a clean rapper, accusing Americans of sanitizing the realities of the world. The song concludes with a very heartfelt and honest tackling of white privilege, noting that he didn't tweet about Trayvon Martin because he doesn't want to be "that white dude." He also notes the Internet's role in normalizing violent tragedies like Rodney King's beating, with literally thousands of similar videos available for viewing, wondering if this has halted progress. This is a perfectly delivered message and a great example of him using his aforementioned white privilege to send a message to an audience that other rappers aren't in a position to reach.

"Starting Over" deals with the struggle of addiction and sobriety, particularly how hard it is to stay sober without help. The twist of added pressure from being a celebrity who got sober temporarily and is now a public example of sobriety while not having actually dealt with the addiction is very interesting.

This a very impressive debut, and it's such an interesting listen because of Macklemore's unique position. I hope he chooses to remain independent so that his voice can remain as loud as is necessary, as he's in a position to use it to bring quite a bit of good into the world.


12 December 2013

the blessed unrest || sara bareilles || 2013

From pain often comes great art. I've never read anything about Sara Bareilles' personal life, but it certainly seems the songs on this album are a window into it. After all, you can't write genuine songs about heartbreak if you've never experienced it.

So many empowerment anthems are inwardly focused, and what makes "Brave" so interesting is that it's not. Bareilles focuses her encouragement to an unnamed stranger (or strangers) and challenges them to find their inner strength. This compassion seems like a fairly rare emotion, and it made me smile. Musically, it works because it doesn't stray too far from pop conventions, but undeniably has Bareilles' touch.

The theme of bravery continues into "Chasing The Sun," which is about the courage to move out of a town that you've gotten comfortable in and head toward new adventures. I love the metaphor of distant skyscrapers resembling tombstones.

"Manhattan" deals with the horrible post-breakup awkwardness of what to do about favorite places that were once shared. Bareilles backs down, singing "you can have Manhattan, cause I can't have you," offering a sense of relief to both the ex and herself. The acoustic instrumentation of just Bareilles' voice and the piano for the majority of the song was a great choice.

The instrumentation on "Little Black Dress" recalls early '60s Motown, e.g. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The lyrics aren't too memorable, but it's a nice song about the self-confidence one can find simply by tossing on a nice outfit (especially post-breakup).

"Eden" begins with both an acoustic and synthesized drum track and a very cool chorusing effect that reminds me of Imogen Heap's "Hide And Seek." The electronics stick around, but so do the acoustic instruments with which Bareilles is most comfortable, and the result is the most interesting track on the album. Lyrically, it deals with the best way to cope with an irreversible life event - to admit that "life in Eden has changed," a very eloquent way of putting it. Bareilles challenges us to welcome the change head-on, instead of trying to revert.

This is a great collection of songs about inner strength and peace. Bareilles no doubt wrote them after a life-changing event (or two or three), but she maintains accessibility and compassion instead of diving into self-aggrandizing motivational pop. I can't think of a better gift to her listeners.


08 December 2013

good kid, m.a.a.d. city || kendrick lamar || 2013

It's difficult to make a deeply personal album without seeming narcissistic, but Kendrick Lamar nailed it. His second album begins when he's 17 and takes the listener through romantic, friendship, family, and personal struggles without making it seem like Lamar is elevating himself for having had these experiences. It's a straightforward, honest portrayal of how he became his adult self.

In "Sherane," Lamar tells us about a romantic tryst with a girl that he had as a junior in high school. This goes beyond a standard tale of puppy love, though. Lamar is candid with us about his typical 17-year-old urges but not in a way that is without romance; it's clear he genuinely liked this girl. "Who could imagine, maybe my actions would end up wifing her / Love or lust, regardless we'll fuck cause the trife in us" is such a brilliantly concise example of the confusing dichotomy one experiences while being in love at 17. The song ends ambiguously, and we're left with a sudden voicemail to transition to "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," but it's safe to assume that the girl's "family history of gang banging" caught up to her unexpectedly.

"Backseat Freestyle" is further exploration of the straight 17-year-old male mindset. You're obsessed with your penis and the world is yours for the taking. He even sports an Eminem-style growl at certain points.

I love the lyric "usually I'm drug free, but shit, I'm with the homies" in "The Art Of Peer Pressure." The title is blunt and and so is the content - here we hear tales of regrettably getting into trouble because friendship means more than individualism (or possibly worse). It's easy to make heat-of-the-moment poor decisions when everyone else around you is making them too.

"Poetic Justice" is understandably one of the album's most critically acclaimed songs. It's a tribute to the 1993 film of the same title and samples Janet Jackson's track "Any Time, Any Place" from its soundtrack. It's a delightful, relaxed groove.

We return to heavier subject matter on "Good Kid," a tale of frustration and imprisonment, both mental and physical. Lamar expresses vaguely his experiences being profiled and harassed by police officers, feeling helpless to overcome their preconceptions about him. The final verse is particularly interesting, referring to various drugs as "grown-up candy for pain" and alluding to a neverending cycle and the unavoidable outcome of addiction. The narrative continues right into "m.a.a.d. city," where Lamar's gang activity becomes more serious. A few tracks ago he was stealing video games from cars, but now he asks if we'd believe he's killed someone. He and his friends(?) now run the block.

"Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" mark a grand shift in tone. Lamar starts by reflecting on his grandfather's drinking, then acknowledges his own alcohol intake, and mentions Sherane for the first time in a few tracks. We hear from his conscience, whose words don't seem to have much effect at this point as Lamar resigns himself to drinking and seemingly rejoins his friends. It feels like he's alone again by the time the introspective "Sing About Me" begins, lamenting about his life in a low-income neighborhood, of friends and relatives sucked into lives of drug abuse and prostitution.

The last two tracks serve as the conclusion - sort of - to the tale. In "Real" we hear Lamar profess to be his own person, but acknowledge how hard it is to shake the baggage that comes from family and surroundings. The final track, "Compton," features Dr. Dre and seemingly re-glorifies the booze and gangbanging lifestyle that Lamar just rejected in the last few tracks. Maybe it's a tongue-in-cheek way of accusing gangster rap of perpetuating those things, or maybe it's just a "fuck it, this is who I am and I'm not changing" song, though both options seem equally confusing considering the album's deeply personal and introspective nature to this point.

Musically, the album is fantastic. There's an interesting tinge of jazz added to the already fairly soft hip-hop beats that give the album a very calming feel, which makes it stand out among the usually aggressive nature of other music dealing with this subject matter.

Aside from its abrupt and confusing conclusion, this is a well-produced, well-written, carefully planned album that serves its purpose of telling us about Lamar's formative years. His music clearly resonates with many, which I'd credit to his blunt yet not overly crass lyrics.


07 December 2013

red || taylor swift || 2013

Working in country radio from 2008 to 2010 versed me well in Taylor Swift's music. She rose to fame as an impressive young songwriter, penning honest songs that teenage girls could feel to their core, while their moms likely sat silently and empathized with Swift's emotions as well. Now on her fourth album and well into her 20s, it's pretty obvious that Swift was ready to shake that image and break some new ground.

She uses the title track to remind us that she knows her roots by slipping a banjo into the instrumentation a few times. It doesn't really sound out of place, but it did make me roll my eyes a bit because it seemed forced. It's almost like she felt like she had to stick a banjo into a song as a metaphorical foot to keep the door to the world of country from closing, but why? If you're exploring new genre territory, slam the door and walk all the way into the next room.

"I Knew You Were Trouble" would be a fine pop song if it weren't for two things. First, the chord progression is probably the most overused in pop music history. Secondly, her high "ooohhs" and the effected "TROUBLE, TROUBLE" in the chorus are stilted and the result is jarring. The concept is fine, but the execution just didn't cut it.

"22" is the first time we hear Swift at her best. Ridiculously simple, relatable, self-aware lyrics, a cutesy chorus, and a radio-friendly hook. The lyrics are certainly true to what a 22-year-old feels, though I'm not sure what it means to be "lonely in the best way." This is where the album finally charges all the way into the pop album that it's trying to be, and it's the first moment of it that I took her seriously.

"I Almost Do" is the first ballad on the album that doesn't feel like it's trying to double as both a pop and country song. It sticks to the classic pop ballad instrumentation of acoustic guitar and drums, with a little kiss of twinkly Spanish guitar in the bridge. The lyrics are on point in their depiction of post-breakup communication woes.

The same credit I gave to "22" has to also go to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." It's pretty easy to write it off as a dreadfully annoying song (I could do without the "oooh, ooooOOOOOhhh oooh" crap), but you'd be remiss to say you didn't understand what she's talking about. Much like her previous hits, it's accessible and believable. I absolutely love the deadpan bridge.

"Stay Stay Stay" is a deliberate country crossover, but there is something very smart about it. The twang comes not from a banjo or a pedal steel guitar or any other traditionally "country" instrument, but a ukulele. The result sounds like every single song you've heard in a commercial in the last year.

I would enjoy "Sad Beautiful Tragic" a lot more if it were about a minute and a half shorter.

Neither of the two ballads is particularly memorable, though I did enjoy "Everything Has Changed" with Ed Sheeran a bit more than Gary Lightbody's. These were probably intended to show Swift's range, but it didn't quite connect. She certainly sounds more comfortable singing with Sheeran than Lightbody (who is 13 years her senior).

My favorite instrumentation on the album is in "Starlight." It's a period song that Swift says she wrote after seeing a photo of young RFK and Ethel Kennedy. Even though she's singing through someone else's eyes, it's a very genuine and cheerful song that remains consistent in both its narrative and style. I love the idea of imagining young lovers from the '40s having a night out to a tune that's reminiscent of late-'80s pop rock.

Swift's crossover into pop feels more like a cautious embarking than a full-blown foray. It's like she got invited by a friend to a party at a stranger's house, which she was promised would be super-duper awesome, but she knew she wouldn't know anyone there, and instead of walking up to strangers and introducing herself, she spends the first 30 minutes awkwardly walking around looking for her friend, who eventually finds her, puts her at ease and helps her make some new friends. Something like that.


random access memories || daft punk || 2013

This album was my personal proof that, with each release of new material, every band deserves another chance. Throughout Daft Punk's lengthy career (yet surprisingly tiny discography - I couldn't believe this was only their fourth studio album), I'd nodded my head to a few songs here and there, but I've always had the same complaint: Most of their tracks feel like 20-second loops that have been stretched into 4-minute songs. I got bored with their music about a third of the way through any of their songs.

To be perfectly honest, back when this album dropped, I had no interest in listening to it, but I was convinced by a friend that it was different - "musical" was the word he used - and fired it up. Halfway through the first song I already understood what he meant. They amassed a few more musicians and brought in some vocal talent, but the best way I can describe the real improvement is that they learned how to write a song.

We're tossed right into the band's signature disco groove with "Give Life Back To Music." It was wise not to include any external vocal talent here, because it sets the tone for the rest of the album without tainting it with the flavor of a voice we won't hear again. It goes without saying that Nile Rodgers guitar playing is both welcome and brilliant.

"The Game Of Love" is somewhere between what I like to call "nightdrive" music and the "quiet storm" R&B music of the early '80s. It's morose, but the sad lyrics are overshadowed by gorgeous, glowing, dripping synths and an unfaltering bass groove.

"Giorgio By Moroder" feels like a gift, and not just one from this band to the public. The fellas of Daft Punk no doubt grew up listening to Moroder's genius productions (e.g. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", which was at least 15 years ahead of its time), so it's quite touching to hear them give Moroder a platform to tell his life story over the medium of the synths with which he is practically one.

Julian Casablancas was a perfect guest on this album. Thanks to his adorable 2010 release "11th Dimension", we know he's into music that blends synths with other genres. "Instant Crush" actually does come out a fairly straightforward synthpop song, save a short guitar solo in the bridge.

It's unsurprising (if not a little disappointing to Daft Punk's hardcore fans, I'm sure) that "Lose Yourself To Dance" didn't achieve the same hit status as "Get Lucky." It fits somewhere between a dance song and a nod-your-head-while-driving pop song, but not comfortably. The BPM is in too awkward a place for dancing (somewhere between grinding and line dancing), which is probably why its big brother single was the dancefloor dominator all summer, even after it was released.

"Touch" feels like the album paused for an intermission and you're forced to sit through a musical theater number from a bizarre interpretation of Starlight Express set in the wild west. I think the band was trying to break new musical ground by beginning in the cosmos before introducing horns and jangling piano, but it's just not for me.

"Get Lucky" will be remembered as a modern classic. It's retro but not cliché, and uses a chord progression that's familiar, but far from overplayed, especially in dance music. Williams' voice is perfect for this fare. The boys were also smart to throw their signature vocals into the bridge to remind everyone that this is their song!

The highlight of the album for me is "Doin' It Right." It's just kooky enough to be memorable without being offputting, and the hook is pure brilliance; you'll sing it all day after hearing it once.

Thanks for this album, Daft Punk, and I'm sorry for unfairly prejudging and doubting you. This is a truly awesome listening experience for fans of any genre.


04 December 2013

just desserts: the complete waitresses || the waitresses || 2013

Why review a compilation? Because this is a special one. The Waitresses were a punkish new wave band from Akron, OH that are most well known for the undeniably unique 1982 single "I Know What Boys Like." Their catalog is only two albums deep, but their second album, 1983's Bruiseology, has never been released in a digital format until now. The inclusion of several b-sides and a couple of alternate versions make this a truly comprehensive compilation.

"No Guilt" is probably my favorite Waitresses song, because it exemplifies everything that is truly great about this band. The lyrics find a woman who's just been dumped putting on her best coat of confidence to tell her ex how awesome her life has been in his absence. Her assertions are terse and stilted, like, "I've been reading more and looking up the hard words," "I've been reading more and looking up the hard words," and "Did you know I own some valuable records?" It's just the right amount of awkwardness to let you know that she hasn't quite spread her wings, but damn it, she's trying. I love the line, "I got a trick to get them to deliver." Who is "them"? It doesn't matter, and that's just amazingly cool. Conversational, relatable lyrics over the band's trademark sort-of-ska-but-mostly-new-wave sound.

"I Know What Boys Like" is the band's magnum opus for a good reason: Patty Donahue's unique delivery is paramount and at its best use here. Guys are chasing her left and right, but rather than a loud, catty, defensive approach, she just sounds bored. She's so exhausted with their lame attempts to pick her up that it's crossed the line from amusing to draining. Quality sass like that is rare and, for me, in very high demand.

The title track of the second album is fantastic, and I'm so glad that the original version of it was included on this compilation. The band experienced some tension during this album's recording, and Donahue left the band temporarily, during which time the title track was recorded with bassist Tracy Wormworth on lead vocals. No disrespect to Donahue, but I actually much prefer Wormworth's version. I think her voice is better suited to the required delivery.

I'm completely in love with the song "Everything's Wrong If My Hair Is Wrong." Donahue's frustrated vocals and guitarist Chris Butler's brilliant songwriting mesh so well in this self-deprecating tale of not wanting to leave your place for fear of a drab appearance.

I know I said at the top of this article that "No Guilt" is my favorite of their songs, but I think it actually takes a very close backseat to "Christmas Wrapping." This truly is the greatest pop Christmas song ever recorded. Frustration with everyone else's irritating, overzealous cheerfulness, romantic faltering, and stressing over cooking -- it truly combines everything crappy about the month of December into five minutes of misanthropic ska-pop. It's the perfect amount of cynicism such that listeners who truly do love the holiday season will hear it as an amusing novelty and not an affront to Christmas.

"Quit," "Pussy Strut," and "Make The Weather" are other highlights, and the inclusion of the band's theme song for the TV show "Square Pegs" was a very welcome addition. This is a solid compilation and I encourage you to further explore this very underrated band's goofy little discography.


13 November 2013

artpop || lady gaga || 2013

It's been a long, emotional wait for we Little Monsters to finally get our paws on this album. Much of the publicity leading its release seemed to divide or confuse part of Gaga's fanbase while also being a tad lofty to reach out to new audiences. At the dawn of the launch of her new album, it seems that Gaga knows who's listening to her and isn't interested in impressing the general pop audience - or anyone, really - but her integrity as an artist has solidified.

"Aura" was the first of two tracks from the album to leak, and one wonders if this propelled it to the front of both her iTunes Festival performance and the album itself. I'd say that's not likely, though, as it seems like the most logical opener of the fifteen songs. We're immediately enticed by a lone stringed instrument being strummed, before Gaga begins calmly explaining the murder she's just committed. The track launches from there into a techno sound that sticks around for the majority of the rest of the album.

The first time I heard "Venus," I immediately thought of Ace Of Base's first album Happy Nation, especially the track "Young & Proud." The arrangement will seem bizarre on the first few listens, which is to be expected as this is Gaga's first solo production, but stick with it. It'll grow on you and you'll be pounding your steering wheel to it in no time.

"G.U.Y." is a brilliant tribute to power bottoms and codependents alike. The early-'90s techno production is compounded by Super Mario synth noises and effects.

Perhaps it was the wig she had on the first time we all heard her perform it, but I can't help but compare "Sexxx Dreams" to earlier Mariah Carey music. Gaga's delivery reminds me of the choruses of "Dreamlover" and "Honey." This is a very likely candidate for a third single and it should be a massive hit. I can't be the only one who was hoping for a collab with Rihanna on this one, though.

Speaking of likely future singles, "MANiCURE" is almost certainly on the list. Structured like an '80s powerpop song but delivered like a Gwen Stefani hit, it doesn't let up until about the 2:45 mark, when a high school marching band snare drum (à la every 2002 hip hop song) introduces a breakdown that takes us to half speed for the song's final 30 seconds. Brilliant production.

"Do What U Want (With My Body)" is the highlight of the album for me. It's the best single she's released since "Born This Way" and should eventually dominate radio, in spite of a few awkward edits for the airplay version. R. Kelly doesn't overstay his welcome or overshadow Gaga in any way, even if his lyrics don't do much to contribute to the song's message of media mistreatment (a topic you'd think he'd have something to say about).

Gaga has yet to disappoint with a title track, and this album's is no exception. She's great at allowing her title tracks to speak the thesis of her album, and in no obtuse terms: "Doin' it for the fame" / "Baby, I was born this way" / "My ARTPOP could mean anything." This track may also be the most obviously influenced by '90s techno and eurohouse, a motif that seems to flow as the lifeblood through the other tracks.

"Fashion" sounds like an Old Navy commercial from 1999. A better testament to Gaga's love of cheap fashion I couldn't possibly conceive.

The softer "Dope" and "Gypsy" will undoubtedly be the hardcore fan favorites, as they're where we hear Gaga at her most personal and most directly speaking to her fanbase. Wise production choices were made on both, "Dope" especially, as the biggest complaint from Born This Way's ballad "You And I" was that much of its sweetness was lost in Mutt Lange's loud production. (For the record, I thought his version of it was fantastic and I love it just as much if not more than Gaga's live version, but full disclosure: I am a Shania Twain fan.) "Gypsy" is such a well-done piano rock song that it almost sounds like it belonged on the previous album.

If Gaga indeed intends to perform this album front to back at each stop of her tour, "Applause" is certainly a logical closer. A direct thanks to her fans presented in perfect pop form.

Lady Gaga has planted her feet. Her roots aren't moving, and the blossoms of this artist are blooming. Even if her future products continue to appeal to an increasingly esoteric fan base, her place in the music industry is hers to keep forever.


23 October 2013

prism || katy perry || 2013

Katy Perry has a very loud voice. Why her producers feel the need to make it even louder by using chorusing effects, I do not know, but it made this album very difficult to listen to through in-ear headphones.

Having said that, it absolutely has its high points. Perry is the reigning goddess of PG-pop. Her music is so saccharine that I sometimes feel the need to seek insulin after sitting through one of her album-deep cuts. While this creates the plus for her 12-year-old girl fans that they can safely play the album in the car with their mom and no one will be offended, it creates the trap of writing forgettable, fluffy music - a trap that Perry is not great at avoiding.

After five or six listens to "Roar," I think I actually do enjoy it. I think. It's a song about picking yourself back up after experiencing some sort of setback. In Perry's case, safe to say that we're talking about a relationship, but the lyrics easily apply to other situations and will no doubt provide comfort to the right listener. Something very noteworthy: The song denounces the singer's oppressor without actually insulting him/her, which is actually kind of cool.

"Legendary Lovers" begins with interesting phrasing in first verse, which gave me hope for the direction of the track, but it quickly delves into a repetitive melody that drones on for the rest of the song.

"Birthday" is, I guess, her attempt at a Hot AC radio version of Rihanna's "Birthday Cake," relying on the same set of metaphors without being quite so graphic. Again we hear this straight-up disco sound that's been so popular on pop radio this year (thanks mostly to Daft Punk). It's pretty forgettable, aside from the atrocious lyric about "birthday suit" and "big balloons." GET IT?! LOLOL

"Walking On Air" is one of the album's high points. Excellent production that perfectly recalls early '90s house music, but Perry just doesn't quite have the vocal chops of Martha Wash or even CeCe Peniston to pull it off, so it falls a little short of paralleling that era perfectly. This track is funky, spunky, and one of my favorites on the album.

"This Is How We Do" sounds like a bad viral video, à la "Friday" or "Chinese Food." Perry sings two notes for 95% of the song.

"International Smile" sounds derivative of 2001 Kylie Minogue, but has kind of a fun beat nonetheless, I guess.

Perry gets a little philosophical in "This Moment," but the awkward phrasing makes it hard to take her seriously. "Do you ever think that / We're just chasing our tails? / Like life is one big fast treadmill / And we pop what is prescribed / If it gets us first prize / But you know who I, who I think will win / Are the ones that let love in" Yikes. I predict, though, that if you're in a school sports organization, this song will probably be played over the video that recaps the year at your closing ceremony.

Perry's voice is by far the most pleasant on "Double Rainbow," which is sung and not yelled. It's a forced metaphor, yes, but the synths are neat and it's a cute song.

"Spiritual" has a unique drum track and a comparatively interesting melody, and excellent use of piano in the bridge.

I swear the final piano notes of "It Takes Two" are directly lifted from "The Final Countdown."

No risks whatsoever are taken with the chord progressions in these songs, but I don't think anyone expects differently from Perry. Classic pop melodies are her schtick, and she'll keep churning it out for her adoring fans. As an outsider of her fan base but a lover of pop music, this album absolutely has its bright spots ("Walking On Air," "Double Rainbow," and "Spiritual" for me), but I think pop fans looking for edge should be looking elsewhere.

A final note: "Eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer" gets my award for Most Cringeworthy Lyric of 2013, but "I faced my demons / I paid my dues / I had to grow up / I wish you could too" ALMOST makes up for it. Almost.


16 October 2013

the movement || betty who || 2013

This delightful EP accomplishes something that many other works in today's scene fail to: It's clearly inspired by mid-'80s synthpop without sounding like a derivative replica of it. The tracks aren't crafted to trick the listener into thinking they're undiscovered '80s tracks (only one song has ever pulled that off). They are undoubtedly modern and in tune to the desires of the ears of 2013, but with a glowy sheen that is radically retro.

Though I love all four tracks, I go right to "High Society" as my favorite. Musically, I'm reminded of Simple Minds, Level 42, even Scritti Politti: A mid-tempo drum-driven track with supporting warm synth lines and flawless vocals. The infectious refrain of "chardonnay / through the day / 'cause we say so" will pierce your brain on the first listen and will remain with you for some time.

"Somebody Loves You" was apparently the breakout hit thanks to a viral video of a wedding proposal, but I actually learned of that after hearing this EP in its entirety. With its radio-friendly length of three and a half minutes and its relatable, saccharine subject matter, it's easy to see why this was chosen as the single.

As a lover of '80s music and modern retro alike, I can say with some conviction that Betty Who nails a sound that very few acts have over the last several years. This EP should appeal to all pop music fans, and probably most indie rockers too.


12 October 2013

pure heroine || lorde || 2013

I remember when Alanis Morissette's brilliant album Jagged Little Pill was released, and my dad complained when her songs came on the radio because she was singing about material that he felt was too lofty for her 21-year-old mind to fully grasp. The ire of relationships, frustration with the apathy of one's friends and relatives -- though my dad thought these topics were out of Morissette's league, I was much too young to understand his frustration, and I assumed that one day I'd share his sentiment. In retrospect, I think one's early 20s are a perfect time to write about such things, and that my dad was full of it for downplaying her (but I love him anyway).

I mention Alanis because I've heard similar complaints about Lorde. At just 16, she's already topped the Hot 100 with a song that I've heard described as "preachy," "a lecture," and "condescending." I, however, find it to be none of those.

Put yourself in the place of a kid who grows up with parents who aren't rich. They don't even have to be poor, just not wealthy. Now imagine absorbing the media of a foreign country where opulence is idolized. The feelings of confusion and contentment are delivered in no obscure terms in the album's lead single, "Royals." The language isn't the least bit lofty, yet the message is communicated without the slightest hint of adolescent awkwardness. This is why many are rightfully seeing Lorde as mature for her age.

"Tennis Court" is a perfect follow-up to "Royals." Whereas in the first song we heard about all the things that Lorde and her friends don't do, we find out how they do indeed spend their time in "Tennis Court." The lyrics of the verse beginning "pretty soon I'll be getting on my first plane" tell us that she knows her life is about to change, that new adventures await, but that she is not without reservations.

"Ribs" and "Team" are both magnificent portraits of youth. Formulating inside jokes with your friends and then beating them into the ground until you're all laughing so hard that it feels like your insides are bleeding -- who hasn't done this? "Ribs" also reminds us that before we're even adults that it's easy to long for younger days. "Team" is the ultimate frenemies anthem. It's about that feeling that you can be in a room full of people and still somehow feel alone. How close are you to the people who you call your friends?

After several listens, I'm still not quite sure what to make of "White Teeth Teens," but I sense that she's using that term in the same way I used the word "preppie" in middle school: The rich kids who clique up and don't associate with anyone else. The Amy-Winehouse style instrumentation on this track is also worth noting. I only see Lorde's music getting more interesting as her career advances. Her tales of life as a 16-year-old kiwi have already captured the world's attention, so let's hope that success doesn't change this girl's wonderful spirit.


11 October 2013

bangerz || miley cyrus || 2013

Through the last several months of both mass and social media hype, I've remained largely ambivalent to Miley Cyrus. I see her as a young woman who is denigrated by a society that is not welcoming to empowered women who take charge of their own sexuality.

After her response to Sinead O'Connor's open letter, I also see her as immature and insensitive to mental health issues. Compared to everything I've seen written and heard spoken about her since her VMA performance (and, really, well before then), that's a considerably clear window through which to view her and this album.

 Drawing from what I knew about Cyrus' roots and her current interests, I expected influences of hedonist hip-hop, slack-jawed southern rock, and cringeworthy country, and my expectations were certainly met, though not in the individual ratios that I had assumed. "We Can't Stop" was a clear choice for the first single because it's by far the most radio friendly song on the album; the rest feels like something to listen to at a small but cramped house party or during a bathroom pot-smoking session.

 "Adore You" was a very pleasant way to start the album. It's a soft, personal slow jam about the feelings of insecurity and excitement when one realizes that a relationship is becoming serious. It feels wrong to point out the triteness of the lyrics considering her audience, so I'll just use this sentence as an excuse to subtly do so. Also worth noting: For some reason, this track really reminds me of Bardeux's 1988 single "When We Kiss."

"SMS (Bangerz)," which features Britney Spears, is surprisingly tame considering its clientele, but a very enjoyable track nonetheless. I expect to hear this in clubs in no time, but probably just the vocal track mixed over a more interesting beat.

 "4x4" is easily the lowest point of the album. Full disclosure: I couldn't make it all the way through the song. It reminded me of some shady honky tonks that I've been to with friends, and those excursions lasted no longer than my time with this song. Blech.

 "My Darlin'" is made interesting only by the involvement of Future, whose sampling of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me" makes the song (especially the outro) glow. This will be the track to spin while night driving.

 I found the next several tracks quite forgettable, until I got to "FU," which crashes out of the gate with a powerful note from Cyrus, and the emotion stays strong as Cyrus berates an ex over instrumentation that is equal parts club and Broadway musical.

 The only other worthwhile track on the album for me was "On My Own," which is noticeably more upbeat than the other tracks. Its arrangement recalls late '70s Nile-Rodgers style disco, a sound that seems to be popular on Top 40 radio this year.

 If southern or "dirty" hip-hop is your thing, you will surely enjoy this album more than I did. Not to say that I thought it was terrible; far from it -- the production is solid through and through, and Cyrus no doubt made an album that accomplished exactly what she wanted, and I'm sure she's thrilled with the final product. This album is decidedly more interesting than 2010's Can't Be Tamed, so it'll be interesting to see where this energetic woman moves next with her career.