Charli XCX – Pop 2

18 Jan

Pop 2 is a pleasantly experimental mixtape from the now huge Charli XCX. This willingness to experiment is what got me interested in her debut album True Romance and what was missing in both SUCKER and Number 1 Angel.

It could use a real banger however. None of the songs are up to the standard of her best such as her also recent and absolutely fantastic “Boys”. “Femmebot” is close, but doesn’t quite have the energy it needs. It, like a couple of other songs in the album, is unfortunately let down by the feature. Tommy Cash does very well in “Delicious” though, and Charli herself is more than able to carry the album anyway. Songs like “Out Of My Head” are just really good pop and I love the bubblegum in “Unlock It”. The album’s production is relentlessly innovative and Charli effortlessly pushes it further still to the extent of there being literal screeching in the background of “Tears”, a move as unexpected as it is excellent, an epithet as apt for the album as for the song.

@murthynikhil

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Eminem – Revival

11 Jan

Like most people of my age, much of the first music that I really listened to was Eminem’s. Unlike much of the other stuff I heard, Em’s early stuff still holds up amazingly today. It is astounding how good he was at his peak. Revival however is unfortunately nowhere near that peak.

This album continues a now decades long trend of mediocre Eminem albums and two facts are to blame. The first is that Eminem seems to be the only true practitioner of stadium rap. Interpolating “I Love Rock n Roll” for “Remind Me” would be fun to chant in a full stadium, but doesn’t work when listening to it by yourself. Similarly, aren’t we all tired of the “Zombies” sample he uses in “In Your Head” by now?

This problem has roots deep in his history. He always liked stadium rock more than the average rapper and it used to work. The “Dream On” hook does so much for “Sing For The Moment”, but here the sound just feels banal. It makes sense given the circumstances. Eminem is one of the few rappers able to pack a stadium and his audience is probably a little less conversant with rap than that of, say, Kendrick Lamar. This music feels built for a specific circumstance. It’s just not very good anywhere else.

This is quite a shame given that Eminem is probably the greatest student of the game there ever was. There is some irony in how the success he built through his skill has now kept him from fully exercising that same skill. Even so, the skill does show. His ability to pick up other people’s flows here is impressive, even if the resulting song is mediocre and his ability to chop words into whatever he wants remains unparalleled. However, all of this technique just feels empty, which leads us to the second problem.

Em just really has nothing left to say. I had really hoped that his new political stance would result in some depth from him. After all, his early stuff was always ready to take shots at Bush. Yet in Revival, for all that I wish “Untouchable” was solid commentary, it is actually just unlistenable. He gets moments in “Bad Husband” as he mines his familiar emotional seams of fatherhood and his ex-wife and the more mature angle is a little fresh, but the old magic is gone and it’s probably time to accept that it’s not coming back. He’s just too successful.

Additionally, people are just harder to shock now than they were in his prime. Talking about throwing Ivanka Trump into the back of a trunk just doesn’t have the punch it would have had 20 years ago. The world has turned.

Eminem’s legacy will undoubtedly be that of one of the greatest rappers of all time and his success is commensurate. It’s becoming impossible though to deny that same success is going to keep him from ever adding anything new to his legacy. This album certainly isn’t worth remembering.

@murthynikhil

Ivan Ave – Helping Hands

3 Jan

Jazz rap, or even music close to it, is rare enough that any solid release is worth taking note of and Helping Hands is a reasonable addition to an under-served genre. The rap unfortunately lacks the punch to break through the jazzier beats in the way that something like Bop Alloy manages and so the album, while good, is rarely outstanding. It does make for a very relaxing sound however. The album comes together in a way that is almost ambient to the extent that the titular song lacks any rap at all, but doesn’t feel in the least out of place.

This is an album worth looking into for any fans of the sadly far too small subgenre and “Circles” is actually a standout track. It is honestly skippable for most music fans, but while the highs aren’t too high, the lows are never that low and it’s an album that I’m happy to have spent the time listening to.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2017

1 Jan

2017 has been a good year for returning legends and young upstarts alike. On the former front, Jay-Z released his side of the story behind the infamous elevator fight in 2014, following albums by his wife and sister-in-law in 2016. Spoon released yet another great album, and indie darlings LCD Soundsystem came back from self-imposed retirement with a surprise album.

As for the upstarts: we got some amazing debut albums from buzzy artists like Moses Sumney and Sampha, but we were also graced with surprisingly strong follow-up records from Lorde and Vince Staples. And of course, there was Kendrick Lamar, who simultaneously fits both categories (and, really, all categories) with his third major-label full-length album.

Read on for our take on the top five albums of the year past.

5. The OOZ – King Krule

the ooz_king krule

According to King Krule (the stage name of 23-year-old Archy Marshall), the “ooz” mentioned in the album’s title is an homage to the various solids and liquids that ooze out of the human body – the primordial “creations” that we make and refine to fit into society. The vowel is lopped off at the end as a tip of the hat to the backwards-form of Marshall’s previous avatar, Zoo Kid.

If all of this seems strange and circuitous, then we’ve given you an apt welcome to the world of King Krule. The OOZ lies somewhere along the spectrum between jazz, punk and grunge, and Marshall’s brilliance lies in elevating this sonic kaleidoscope into a seamless new genre.

“Dum Surfer” opens like a menacing surf-rock song, crisp guitar bouying Marshall’s half-remembered boozy stories. About a third of the way through, the song segues into a skillful jazz guitar solo, complete with backing brass, but the beat never changes – it’s the same song. “Czech One” is a heart-breaking jazz-R&B song, complete with melancholic saxophone. Two songs later, “Vidual” is the hypothetical output of the Libertines penning a ska song.

Aside from his obvious musical aptitude, King Krule also happens to be a pretty good writer. Specifically, his allure lies in his ability to shuttle between precise anecdotes and profound reflection without losing the overall plot. For example, on album opener “Biscuit Town”, Marshall transitions from plaintive young-adult angst (“I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar / In fact, we made a pact, but now I think it’s over”) to name-dropping Coca-Cola and Chelsea player Zola in the same verse. Somehow, this mishmash of story structures deepens your investment in Marshall’s emotions – with the effect that you are left feeling sorrier for him than deserved for what is essentially a yearning post-break-up tune.

The OOZ is a unique, woozy picture of Archy Marshall’s wide-eyed sadness. If there is a flaw, it’s that 19 tracks is a bit too long, but that’s just our opinion. File this one next to Mac DeMarco, early Nirvana, jazz classics, or pretty much anywhere else on your shelf – it’ll work.

Best tracks: “Dum Surfer”, “Biscuit Town”, “The Locomotive”

4. Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

Vince-Staples-Big-Fish-Theory-Album-cover-art

In direct contrast to current radio-reigning rap stars, Vince Staples is not boujee at all. He does have a lot of new money, but he certainly isn’t wasting it on stupid shit. In fact (just like a great man once warned), more money brought Vince more problems, in the way of an inability to be happy despite achieving everything he’s ever wanted. Vince battles the ennui by making more music, which in turn brings more money and – you guessed it – more problems. It’s a vicious cycle, but happily for us, it results in great music from Vince Staples.

Don’t get us wrong – Big Fish Theory is no sob-fest. Vince Staples’ lyrics may speak of an inner tedium (“Human issues too strong for tissues”) but damn, can he lay a strong boast over a sick beat when he needs to. On “Big Fish”, Vince describes his bad-ass self-control over a club-ready trap beat – not only is he good at getting rich, but he is damn good at staying rich. On “Yeah Right”, Vince sneers at the priorities of today’s rap stars – money, women and then musical fame – all over a sludgy, sexy beat that could replace any one of these stars on the charts.

Full review here.

(If you’re wondering where you’ve heard his music before, it’s probably “BagBak” on the soundtrack for the Black Panther trailers.)

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “BagBak”

3. Hot Thoughts – Spoon

Hot thoughts

There’s a certain consistency to Spoon. The beats are always crisp; the guitars alternate expertly between nervy energy and rock-star confidence; the lyrics are slightly peculiar, matched by Britt Daniels’ idiosyncrasies. That may sound like formulaic, but Spoon is anything but. The essence of the band remains constant – the Austin-y quirkiness especially – but Spoon is actually very adept at updating the rest of their sound with each subsequent album.

Hot Thoughts, the band’s ninth (!) album since their formation in the mid-90s, is no exception. Keeping with the times, the album gets an almost hip-hop treatment, most audible on the sly overconfidence of “Can I Sit Next to You”. Hot Thoughts also benefits from the guiding hand of Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, resulting in the sonic dreamscapes on “Pink Up” and the free-jazz masterpiece of album closer “Us”.

The best tracks, though, are still the Spooniest ones. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is all big drums and Daniels confidence, and “Shotgun” could soundtrack a bar fight in your early 20s. It’s the kind of music that makes the Strokes seem frumpy.

Full review here.

Best tracks: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

2. Melodrama – Lorde

Melodrama

Lorde started working on her debut album, Pure Heroine, when she was a 13-year-old in small-town New Zealand. The album, which released a few months before her 17th birthday, was set in suburbia, with a close set of friends and nothing really to do, and it was so good because the songs reflected those circumstances so well.

Melodrama is very different, because Lorde herself is very different. In between the two albums, Lorde became extremely famous, originally through her break-out track “Royals” but later supported by a slew of well-received singles. She moved from New Zealand; she made new friends. Fortunately, Lorde’s skill at transcribing the moods and phases of her life into song have grown with her. Melodrama is the result of spending an already melodramatic period of life – late teens – under the auspice of immense fame.

Every song on the album is a standalone story; a slice of Lorde’s life, shuttling between New York and New Zealand and everywhere else in the middle. On the whole, Melodrama is a break-up album – in a very real sense, from her New Zealand boyfriend James Lowe, and in a deeper sense, from the starry-eyed naivety of her late-teens.

Melodrama is a near-perfect, infinitely enjoyable pop album, and you’re losing out on a real musical treat if you haven’t given it a full listen.

Full review here.

Best songs: “Homemade Dynamite”, “Sober”, “Perfect Places”

1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick-Lamar-DAMN-album-cover-featured-827x620

As we speculated in May, it has basically become an assumption that a new Kendrick Lamar album will be the best album of the year. For the remaining seven months, we looked far and wide – from post-rock to punk-jazz, from hip-hop to pure pop – but nothing comes close.

Like its predecessors, DAMN. is a masterpiece because Kendrick Lamar is bigger than life. He is a born-again Christian, and genuinely believes that he has been put on this Earth with a greater purpose. His literally godlike self-confidence lets him do things that others simply cannot do. On “DNA.”, he explores black heritage from a blinding barrage of angles (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA”). Like many rap songs, “HUMBLE.” is boastful (“I blow cool from AC / Obama just paged me”); but by masterfully balancing the brags with too-real pictures of the very recent past, Kendrick keeps himself humble. “FEEL.” is a free-fall through Kendrick’s complex feelings on his newfound fame, delivered in a flow so fluid that the words almost become beats.

The hundreds of words in Kendrick’s verses are so full of wordplay, imagery and thematic elements that each song basically needs its own Cliffnotes. Kendrick Lamar is a masterful poet and storyteller who just happens to have the lucrative gift of making chart-topping hits. DAMN. is not even the best album of his career, but it’s still the best album of 2017.

Best songs: “HUMBLE.”, “ELEMENT.”, “DNA.”

 

The Top Five Songs of 2017: Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

It’s been a good year for music and culling contenders for this list needed a fair bit of soul-searching. There were both big name releases and stunning debuts that, while fantastic, just could not find a place on this list. It took some tricky filtering, but these are our top five songs of 2017.

5. Chanel

I’m truly grateful for this new phase in Frank Ocean’s career. First of all, getting singles from him so soon after he released a pair of albums feels almost like excess after his long quiet period. Secondly, this more subdued sound works really well. He’s never been the most overstated of singers, but “Chanel” is stripped down like nothing before.

This focus pays off. It’s a very evocative song. It is both dense and wandering and so listening becomes an almost pointillist experience as you pick phrases and words from the stream. It is trademark Frank Ocean that it works so well. No one can make creating the future look as cool as he does.

4. Spice Girl

It wasn’t that long ago that you would need to go pretty far left-field to find someone like Aminé, and even further to find a song like “Spice Girl”. A love letter to the Spice Girls is just not what rappers were doing back then. Aminé actually not only got all five of the actual Spice Girls to sign off on this, but literally went to a Spice Girls show at age 5 and got a Sporty Spice Barbie right after.

The result of all of this dedication is an almost bubblegum pop-rap ode to his perfect girl. It’s just incredibly catchy. Interpolating the earworm of a hook from “Wannabe” to list out what he’s looking for is both clever and effective. Like its inspirations, this song is neither deep nor profound. It feels thrown together quickly, and justly so. However, it is also a lot of fun and something unique in a year which pushed all the boundaries of rap.

3. Mask Off

Rap has been the new rock for years, but this may have been the year where it begins to vie with pop for dominance. If so, “Mask Off” is one of the reasons for the shift. This is one of the defining sounds of 2017. Trap has come to stay.

That grimy, submerged beat is some of Metro Boomin’s best work. That flute lick is insistent and endlessly listenable. Future’s viscous flow is the star of the song though. That central boast of “Mask on / Fuck it mask off” could have very easily come off as empty, but Future keeps far too dark and heavy for that. This is the rare song that’s better without the Kendrick remix.

2. Rican Beach

Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album, The Navigator, is a lot of things at once. A folk-rock concept album is already out of place in 2017, but a Nuyorican one is unique anywhere. These layers and more come in to play in “Rican Beach”, which somehow keeps them all moving together at once. It benefits from a really strong folky spine and wraps it with idea after idea.

It’s a complex piece with huge swathes of fascinating sounds and human for all of that. It’s a singular achievement and a compelling statement. It’s quite easily one of the best songs of the year.

1. XO TOUR Llif3

I remember the first time that I heard this song. I was in a fairly crowded office and just trying to keep my head down and get some work done. I don’t think I actually did anything that day but listen to this song. I played it on repeat for the next couple of days. Just this song and nothing else. There was no question for me that this was going to be the song of the year.

This is the year of trap and that’s proved divisive. Mumble rap has been used as a pejorative more than a descriptor. In a way, this is understandable. Lyricism has long been a hallmark of rap and the seeming repudiation of that by some of the newer rappers was naturally going to meet a backlash. However, rap is more than lyricism and to judge a genre by a single lens can only ever be limiting. “XO TOUR Llif3” shows why.

Taking the hook of “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” and making an anthem of it just to slur it past comprehensibility is the cleverest thing that I have seen all year. The space this song has to be raw and emotional feels unprecedented in the genre and it fills it completely with Uzi’s story of his ex and substance abuse.

This is the song that I’m going to keep coming back to. There are a few songs that I return to over and over again, because while situations change, and while I change, these songs remain true. Coltrane, Kanye, Joy Division and now Uzi. These are the songs that make me.

@murthynikhil

L.A. Witch – L.A. Witch

21 Dec

L.A. Witch

The entirety of L.A. Witch, the eponymous debut album from this Los Angeles all-women trio, sounds like it should soundtrack the impossibly steep cliffhanger of an addictive drama series. The fuzzed-out guitars clash alluringly against the reckless vocals: a carefully-pruned discord that hints at mysterious backstories and exciting future plots. (Excuse us as we write an email to Better Call Saul.)

According to L.A. Witch, the “witch” part of their moniker stems from their ability to conjure up the sounds and vibes of yesteryear Los Angeles – a promised land with impossibly good weather that attracted eager future residents from all over the country. And certainly, the weather plays an element in L.A. Witch’s sound. Sade Sanchez’s woozy drawl elicits the nearby desert – dusty and sultry – while her jangly guitar and Irita Pai’s surfer-rock bass paint the other side of the picture. The music sounds like Jefferson Airplane featuring a very drugged-out Jim Morrison, so L.A. Witch definitely deliver on their sound as well. (Perhaps the best showcase of their aesthetic is the music video for “Drive Your Car”, which features the three women driving vintage cars through the desert while dressed head-to-toe in black clothing.)

L.A. Witch exudes a dreamy yet chaotic vibe, like a bokeh photograph of a highway crash, and the lyrics paint half-pictures that intrigue more than explain. Album opener “Kill My Baby Tonight” is an atmospheric meditation to kill one’s lover if he’s late again. What’s the full story? Is he cheating on her? We never find out. “Baby in Blue Jeans”, a sultry dream of a love song, has a slow-burning intensity that suggests there’s more than meets eye to this relationship. On “You Love Nothing”, the reverb-heavy guitars and distant tambourine trick you into thinking it’s sunny times at the beach, but Sanchez dampens the mood by singing about doomed love (“You love nothing, you want nothing / Why do I want you? Why do I need you?”).

Earlier this year, the band played at Joshua Tree as part of the Desert Daze music festival. In our opinion, the festival should just ask the band to curate the entire event, because no other artist better exemplifies the term “desert daze” than these three women. L.A. Witch’s debut album is a moody, jealous album that enthralls with its half-completed stories and 60s psychedelia vibes.

Best songs: “Kill My Baby Tonight”, “Baby in Blue Jeans”, “Drive Your Car”

 

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference

20 Dec

Harmony of Difference is that strangest of creatures, a jazz album of intermediate difficulty. As a genre, it tends to high difficulty naturally. There are also plenty of approachable works, from the more friendly Louis Armstrong stuff to even the smooth jazz of Kenny G. Finding an album in the middle is very unusual and this album is quite the valuable find if you’re looking for something of its nature.

The centerpiece of the album is actually the closing piece. At thirteen and a half minutes, “Truth” is close to half of the length of the album and is good enough to justify the length. It’s challenging and shifting and takes full advantage of the space that it’s given to explore. It is also surprisingly gentle. The vibraphone playing around a couple of minutes in is the aural equivalent of a warm bath. It is somewhat undercut by the honestly overwrought vocals though, but not enough to severely mar a great jazz piece.

The other half of the album is similarly variable, but mostly good. “Desire” starts things off in a gentle manner and sets the stage perfectly for the opening descent and fiery solos of “Humility”, and then both are mirrored by “Knowledge” and “Perspective”. These are all acceptable songs and they each have their moments, but they also lean a little too hard on sounds established both by the work of other people and by the songs themselves. While they are well done, they would have greatly benefited from a few more ideas each. Even “Integrity” suffers from the same flaw, despite the initial promise of a South American tinge.

This is not an album for raw beginners however. Some knowledge of jazz is requisite to experience Harmony of Difference. However, I can’t fully recommend it for the experienced listener either due to a very slight paucity of ideas. If you’re somewhere in the middle though, this is the perfect album for you, and even if you tend to either extreme, the sheer ability of the musicians may be enough to justify the listen anyway.

@murthynikhil

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