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Monthly Playlist: Nov. 2020

1 Dec

This month has been a big one for music-related news, from the AMAs to the GRAMMY nominations. While there were certainly moments to celebrate (see: Dua Lipa bagging wins and nominations galore), there were also some notable let-downs (see: the GRAMMYs’ radio silence on Rina Sawayama and the Weeknd!). Awards shows aside, though, there were some great tracks this month. Read on for our top five picks from November 2020.

5. “505 (Live)” by Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys return in December with a studio album – but before you get excited, it’s not new content. In the mythical past known as 2018, the Monkeys performed at the vaunted Royal Albert Music Hall with a set-list drawn partially from Tranquility Base and mostly from their older material (i.e. a palatable ratio). The proceeds from this album, recorded that evening, will go toward War Child, a non-profit focused on helping children from war-torn nations. As a promo for this live album, the band has released the live version of their classic “505”, and we must admit that it sounds great. The acoustics of the famous Hall lend new depths to the song, as do Alex Turner’s vocals – which have unmistakably changed in style since this song’s original version in the mid-aughts. If you can, get this one on vinyl.

4. “Man’s World” by Marina

Marina, formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds, has been a favorite of ours for many years. We’ve always loved the way she does pop – with all the bubblegum sex appeal of Selena Gomez and the like, yet imbued with biting self-awareness that is rare in the genre. With “Man’s World”, the multi-faceted popstar takes on the male-driven world (as the title suggests) with a good measure of COVID- and climate-change-reckoning thrown in. “Don’t underestimate the making of life / The planet has a funny way of stopping a fight,” she warns. The weirdest part of the song is her long interlude about the noted homophobe Sheikh of Brunei buying an LA hotel overtaken by the gays – but hey, she knows her audience.

3. “Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish delivers the ultimate snide cold-shoulder with catchy new single “Therefore I Am”. She delivers the line “Stop, what the hell are you talking about? Ha” with all the iciness of the high school queen giving you a sneering look, and quotes (of all people) Rene Descartes in the chorus: “You think you’re the man, I think, therefore I am”. As with most Billie songs, the magic lies in her brother Finneas’ precise, inimitable production values; we especially loved when the heavy, layered chorus occasionally breaks into Billie’s crystal-clear voice. Reading between the lines, the song seems to be about someone she has been linked with (she mentions being asked about them in interviews and articles) – let us know if you’ve cracked the code.

2. “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)” by Miley Cyrus feat. Stevie Nicks

Maverick pop star Miley Cyrus has released her latest album Plastic Hearts earlier this month. Probably the most innovative track off the album is “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)”, a mash-up of Cyrus’ own recent hit “Midnight Sky” with Stevie Nicks’ legendary 80s banger “Edge of Seventeen”. And what’s more – Nicks herself performs on the track! “Edge of Midnight” is an electrifying mix of these two ladies’ instantly recognizable voices. Expect to get goosebumps the first time Cyrus sings the famous “Just like the white-winged dove” line in her deep, powerful voice.

1. “HOLIDAY” by Lil Nas X

There is honestly no justification to why Lil Nas X should continue to churn out impossibly catchy songs with no real changes to his formula. “HOLIDAY” follows the same ingredient list as the mega-platinum hit “Old Town Road” – the minor scale, a simple and repetitive beat, his silky-smooth and slightly anachronistic voice; and yet we fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Move over, Mariah – this is our holiday song from now on. (Side note: This song got us talking about a literal “Holiday” playlist, so keep an eye out for that!)

The Killers – Imploding the Mirage

24 Nov

As we mentioned in our review of IDLES’ Ultra Mono, we will be covering a few albums that we missed out on over the course of the year. The next on our list is Imploding the Mirage, the sixth studio album from The Killers.

“I threw caution ’cause something about that yin and the yang / Was pushing my boundaries out beyond my imagining,” says Brandon Flowers on the eponymous song from the Killers’ sixth studio album, Imploding the Mirage. Although it comes at the very end of the album, the song defines the major themes at play on this record – primarily about choosing between the boundless imagination and existing boundaries that exist in all of our lives. Most importantly, Imploding the Mirage is an homage to the bravest decision you can take: to throw caution to the wind and finally accept yourself for what you really are.

If all of that sounds a bit like psychobabble, it may be worth it to paint the picture of the Killers’ backstory – and specifically, that of its lead singer/songwriter Brandon Flowers. Famously, the high-wire indie rock band hails from the larger-than-life adult playground known as Las Vegas. Interestingly, however, Flowers also grew up as a Mormon – a sect that is equally famous for its conservative orthodox lean.

In the early part of their career, the Killers strongly expressed that first half: a Las Vegas band with all the extravagance and gall that you would expect from growing up next to the glitzy, Technicolor Las Vegas Strip. (Their sophomore album was literally called Sam’s Town, named after the casino Sam’s Town which was itself named after casino tycoon Sam Boyd. Sin City, with all of its tacky, materialistic and larger-than-life trappings, was embedded into the Killers’ DNA.) With the latter three albums, the Killers shifted course toward the Mormon side of Flowers’ background, resulting in a more standard heartland rock vibe.

All this backstory serves to highlight the dichotomy at play on Imploding the Mirage, which Flowers himself has noted stems from his own dual-life upbringing as a Las Vegas Mormon. On this album, the Killers seem to have come to terms with their two halves – the yin and the yang – and have finally started to accept the complexities in their personalities.

Lyrically, the Killers have always been at their best when they tell stories that they have been lucky enough to witness: behind-the-scenes look at showgirls, magicians, performers and all those who labor to entertain America and the world in Las Vegas. That’s no different on Imploding the Mirage.

Radio-friendly single “Caution” paints a picture of a local beauty with Hollywood eyes and dancer mother: “’cause when you live in the desert, that’s what pretty girls do.” The chorus hook is best-of Killers, full of synths and Flowers’ resounding vocals that will one day, when COVID abates, rightly fill up stadia all over the world. The girl in the story wants to break out of the town and throw caution to the wind, a theme reprised in the catchy folk-rock of “Blowback”. “Born into poor white trash and always typecast / But she’s gonna break out, boy, you’d better know that,” croons Flowers. Speaking of typecast, you may recognize this type of girl – poor, young, directionless – in many a Flowers song, including the uber-hit  “When You Were Young”.

A few other songs stand out on the album. “Dying Breed” is likeable with a driving beat that plays beautifully against Flowers’ emotive, delicate vocals – and then the arena-sized synths and drums kick in for the chorus. Album opener “My Own Soul’s Warning” is a Springsteen-esque throwback to the 80s, peppered with Flowers’ trademark beguiling lyrics: “What kind of words would cut through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days?” he asks the listener.

One last note: In case you were wondering about the title, it’s a dual reference. One, to the mirage of having to choose between the dichotomy between head and heart that the band – and indeed, most humans – face. The other, more cleverer, is about the literal implosion of casinos like The Mirage, a sudden and unstoppable blow to jobs and livelihoods that Flowers and co no doubt have witnessed numerous times in their childhood.

All in all, Imploding the Mirage features their best set of singles this side of Sam’s Town (and weaker tracks that make up the rest of the playtime). As always, the Killers are at their best when they make the sort of hyperbolic, Vegas-tinged hits that work everywhere from radio to arena to your favorite workout mix. Although Imploding the Mirage is not endlessly listenable in its entirety – does tend to lag a bit outside of the singles – it’s certainly more notable than anything they’ve released in the past decade.

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “Caution”, “Dying Breed”, “My Own Soul’s Warning”

IDLES – Ultra Mono

16 Nov

With 2020 coming to an end (thankfully), we are looking back at a few albums that we couldn’t quite cover in time over the course of the year. The first of these is Ultra Mono by British post-punk bank IDLES.

IDLES, along with their fellow upstarts Fontaines DC, are one of the bands at the forefront of the United Kingdom’s nouveau punk rock movement. Traditionally, punk has always political, but this latest wave feels different. This new, post-punk wave doesn’t dabble in non-specific references to the anti-establishment message. Instead, they’re laser-focused on a working-class, often leftist sentiment that’s rather in line with today’s sociopolitical environment, especially in the Western hemisphere.

IDLES have walked this path for a while now. Their debut album Brutalism (2017) explored themes of loss and grief through the lens of raw anger – in other words, a perfect concoction for a great punk album. The band’s sophomore album Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018) performed similar feats, topping BBC Radio 6’s top 10 albums list that year. Although the albums were focused on inward feelings – grief, rage, and so on – there are numerous references to austerity, right-wing and anti-poor rule in today’s UK, and so on.

With Ultra Mono, the band is more resolutely political than ever before. The album kicks off with the firecracker single “War”, which we’ve covered in our Sep. 2020 Monthly Playlist on Top Five Records. As the name suggests, the song is a cynical look at war and the lives it takes – from the enemy but from the fighting party, too. “Mr Motivator”, the first single, is laced with references to bellicose boxers to underline its message of self-organization to fight back and seize the day (against fascists, we’d assume, with the positive reference to noted communist Frida Kahlo). “Grounds” can be used to soundtrack populist political campaigns, with resounding lines like “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers”.

Looking beyond the overt populist lyrics, Ultra Mono is oftentimes just catchy as hell, plain and simple. We’ve already lauded “War” with its relentless drums and driving riffs that essentially amount to musical adrenaline. The aforementioned “Grounds” also impresses with a stripped-down, jagged sound that is well-served by lead singer Joe Talbot’s sing-song vocals. “Model Village” is ostensibly about the tabloid-consuming “I’m not racist but…” types from rural Britain, akin to their Fox News-consuming cousins on the other side of the pond, but IDLES manages to thumb their noses at them with hilarious, memorable lines like “I beg your pardon / I don’t care about your rose garden”.

All told, Ultra Mono is a memorable addition to the post-punk discography emerging in the post-Brexit British landscape. File this one next to the equally irreverent Nothing Great about Britain by rapper (and, apparently, IDLES’ friend) Slowthai.

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “War”, “Grounds”, “Model Village”

Monthly Playlist: Oct. 2020

2 Nov

As 2020 draws to a close, and we start making the first drafts of our end of year lists, we took a look back at some of the best songs in October 2020. Read on for a quick spin through everything from dance-rock to synth-pop – to whatever Gorillaz is…

5. “I Love It” by Kylie Minogue

The firs of our big-name artists to feature on the list this month is Aussie pop legend Kylie Minogue, who blessed us this month with the 1970s disco-throwback gem called “I Love It”. Readers of Top Five Records will note that this particular aesthetic is rather chic among female pop singers this year, whether it’s Dua Lipa or Jessie Ware or Gaga herself. Kylie carries forward this year’s trend with this bouncy, Technicolor soundtrack to all the parties you wish you’d had this year.

4. “Straight to the Morning” by Hot Chip feat. Jarvis Cocker

Dovetailing right into Kylie’s above track is “Straight to the Morning” by British dance/synth-pop outfit Hot Chip, featuring none other than Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. As you may expect from this combination of artists, “Straight to the Morning” is a classic heartbeat-speed of a dance track, supported by Cocker’s irreverent drawl. Hot Chip are, of course, famously known for making great music videos, so be sure to check out the one for this track.

3. “Intercontinental Radio Waves” by TRAAMS

British indie rock three-piece TRAAMS is #3 on our list this with their catchy jam, “Intercontinental Radio Waves”. You simply can’t ignore the bluesy, sludgy bassline that hits you right at the start – and before you know it, you’re nodding along to lead singer Stuart Hopkins’ sharp, staccato pronouncements. The band last released an album a few years ago (2015’s Modern Dancing), so perhaps this is a sign of new music to come. If so, they’ve got new fans here at Top Five Records.

1. (Tie) “The Valley of the Pagans” by Gorillaz feat. Beck & “The Pink Phantom” by Gorillaz feat. Elton John and 6LACK

Over the course of this year, Gorillaz have been releasing a song every few months, including the recent ScHoolboy Q collab that we covered here at Top Five. All this new music from the virtual band was a lead-up to October’s Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. All tracks on this perfectly-titled album (for, after all, these are indeed strange timez) are collaborations between Gorillaz and an eclectic mix of artists, from niche (e.g. CHAI) to arena-filling (e.g. Elton John). Naturally, such a mix has resulted in a number of possible picks for a stand-out track this month, but we decided to go with two, both of which we’d rank as some of the best songs this month.

With its slick, dance-rock embellishments and playful pacing, “The Valley of the Pagans” is reminiscent of the golden Demon Dayz-era Gorillaz. “The Pink Phantom” features the one and only Elton John, whose vocals shine on this slowed-down, melancholy track. Elton’s voice is impressively – and surprisingly – complemented by American rapper 6LACK’s Auto-tuned, R&B-tinged verses. Props to Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn for putting all the pieces together!

Have you started thinking about your Albums of the Year and Songs of the Year? Let us know in the comments below!

Monthly Playlist: Sep. 2020

3 Oct

September 2020 saw the release of a surprise Fleet Foxes album, a much-awaited IDLES follow-up, emphatic returns from the likes of Alicia Keys and Sufjan Stevens, and lots more. Read on for our picks of the top five songs from the month that was.

5. “Love’s Gone Bad” from the Jaded Hearts Club

The Jaded Hearts Club is a supergroup featuring the who’s who of early aughts indie rock. Nic Crester from Jet and Miles Kane from the Last Shadow Puppets share vocal duties, with instrumentation from Muse’s Matt Bellamy (bass), Blur’s Graham Coxon (guitar) and a few other friends. Their music, as the obvious reference to Sgt. Pepper’s suggests, is a mix of these members’ indie rock sensibilities essentially converging into a Beatles tribute band. “Love’s Gone Bad” from early September features classic rock riffs and an energetic Lennon-esque presence from Kane. If you liked the Beatles and/or any of these gentlemen’s bands, it’s likely you’ll like this tune. Incidentally, the Jaded Hearts Club released their debut album You’ve Always Been Here just today, so be sure to check that out if you liked this track.

4. “FRANCHISE” by Travis Scott, feat. Young Thug and M.I.A.

You can recognize a Travis Scott beat anywhere. The dull boom of a thick bass line, paired with hypnotic notes and his lilting flow, became a signature on the well-received Astroworld, and it’s no different here. “FRANCHISE” sucks you right in – not just because of this things, but also because of a fantastic early chime-in from the one-and-only M.I.A. The British-Sri Lankan rapper holds her own with Scott and Young Thug, especially on her onomatopoeic turns with Sheck Wes (yes, he’s on here too). All in all, this is a slick and talent-heavy single from Travis Scott and friends – give it a spin.

3. “War” by IDLES

IDLES, much like their Irish counterparts Fontaines D.C., are key drivers of the rock scene across the pond these days. The British punk band has enjoyed widespread acclaim with striking debut Brutalism and equally-hard-hitting sophomore album Joy As An Act of Resistance. They returned this month with third album Ultra Mono, of which “War” is the opener. And open it does. The song hits like a shot of adrenaline, with brutal drumming that’s inter-cut with relentless guitar riffs. Despite lasting just about three minutes, “War” gives you a feel for senseless battle, from the mentions of Johnny and Sally being sent to their deaths right down to the explicit sound of a sword going in.

2. “Turntables” by Janelle Monae

We didn’t know this before, but apparently Amazon has funded an election-year, straight-to-Prime documentary called All In: The Fight For Democracy. While the thought of a Jeff Bezos vehicle talking about the fight for democracy in the context of billionaire-ridden modern-day America is a dubious proposition (to say the least), we can’t ignore this great track from multi-faceted legend Janelle Monae. The actress-singer-LGBTQ-icon here serves a rousing, patriotic ode to civil rights, liberties and all that the America-of-yore stood for: “I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world ’bout to testify”. Her lines work especially well on the music video that features striking visuals of the ongoing civil rights demonstrations in the US; check it out above.

1. “Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood

Royal Blood are a two(!)-piece rock band from Brighton, consisting simply of Mike Kerr on vocals / bass guitar and Ben Thatcher on drums. Their self-titled debut album blew us away with the sheer volume and breadth of sound that these two people can produce, as did their sophomore album How Did We Get So Dark?. Now, ahead of their third album next year, The band has released “Trouble’s Coming” – a searing ride through familiar Royal Blood territory. The song of course features all the Royal Blood trademarks (Thatcher’s relentless drums, Kerr’s sneering vocals), but what we found most interesting was its dance-rock undertones, especially on the earworm of a chorus (“I hear trouble coming, over and over again”). Beware while listening, though: this is the kind of song that will make you dearly miss live performances.

Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

28 Sep

Fontaines DC burst onto the scene in 2019 with their rambunctious, near-perfect debut album Dogrel. The album’s mix of sneering punk, clever literary references and mesmerizing vocals won over many early fans, including us (as you might recall from our end-of-year lists). This summer, the Irish punk quarter returned with an engrossing, worthy follow-up called A Hero’s Death.

On the sophomore album, Fontaines DC keep their trademark self-confidence, but have somewhat smoothed out the edges. Fewer are the pub-fight-friendly tracks like “Big”; largely gone are the spoken-word punk bangers like “Hurricane Laughter”. A Hero’s Death was largely written on a massive global tour for Dogrel, and one can somewhat see the results. This album is more introspective, more cognizant of their growing fame, and perhaps a little dialed-down on the inimitable Irish-ness. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on the listener.

If you’ve heard Dogrel, you’d have recognized the frequent mentions of America within lead singer Grian Chatten’s lyrics. The centuries-long migration pattern from Ireland to the United States seems to have made the latter a part of the Irish identity – not just for those who’ve left, but for those who stayed behind, too. Dogrel’s hit “Boys in the Better Land” centered on America as the titular “better land” that some folks in the old country still keep talking about.

On A Hero’s Death, “Living in America” adds another wrinkle to the Irish relationship to America: namely, the band’s own extensive tour through America and how it fits into the almost mythic Irish idea of the place. “We were kind of fascinated by that and fascinated by when we actually got to America and you travel across it, you do see that there is really a lot of inequality in a real way,” Chatten said on a recent interview. Fittingly, the track has the same kind of manic yet droning energy of a lot of hard-scrabble, dying American cities.

In fact, the band channels that same dissonance – between reality and imagination, between pre-fame life and post-fame life – on a few other tracks here. The album opener “I Don’t Belong” is a defiant rejection of the post-fame life, where Grian Chatten hypnotically repeats the phrase “I don’t belong to anyone” until all the layers stick with you. Screw you: they don’t want to belong to anyone. Too bad: they can’t belong to anyone. Mind yourself: they shouldn’t belong to anyone. Sadly: they don’t belong to anyone. “I Was Not Born” sounds like a song version of what the band may have precociously said to their tour managers; “I was not born into this world / To do another man’s bidding,” Chatten shouts in an echoing voice over incessant drums and guitars.

Although it’s just eleven songs long, A Hero’s Death takes the listener through many different moods and concepts. Right after the aforementioned brash “I Was Not Born” comes the wistful, sad-pop “Sunny” and the beautiful and gentle album closer “No”. Elsewhere, “Televised Mind” is a hypnotic extension of Dogrel’s “Television Screens” – a favorite theme of Fontaines DC regarding the decay of human thought in today’s consumerist society. “A Lucid Dream”, as the name suggests, is filled with trippy lines (“I was there / When the rain changed direction and fled to play tricks with your hair”) made tripper still with unpredictable volume modulations across verses and chorus.

Perhaps the best song on the album is, appropriately, the title track, which we’ve already spoken about extensively. Grian Chatten’s lyrics are intended to be satire on hypocritical, consumerist preaching, but they’ve accidentally come up with enough do-good edicts to start a small cult (we’re personally ready to sign up just with the line “Never let a clock tell you what you have time for”).

We had good things to say about all of the singles, and thankfully the rest of the album holds up too. A Hero’s Death may not be exactly similar to Dogrel, but it’s more multi-faceted and a little more grown-up in its outlook. Most importantly, it proves that there’s much more to Fontaines DC, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Best tracks: “A Hero’s Death”, “Televised Mind”, “A Lucid Dream”

Rating: 8.5/10

Fresh New Voice: A Chat with Arham Fulfagar

22 Sep

“Make It Alright” by young singer-songwriter Arham Fulfagar really caught our eyes and ears this August. The gentle, lilting guitar melody syncs well with Arham’s mellow voice, from the stark chorus into the jangly verses. We took a spin through the rest of his discography, and couldn’t wait to find out more about him. Read on for a short interview with the Guwahati musician about his influences, his musical awakening, and his upcoming EP!

Top Five Records: Hi Arham! Thanks for meeting with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Arham Fulfagar: I am a singer-songwriter born and brought up in Guwahati, and I also have been working as a freelancer video editor during this lockdown. I have been writing this way for about a couple of years, and I also write poetry and make spoken-word videos besides making music. I love to travel and explore just as much as I love to explore new and underrated music from the corners of YouTube and Spotify.

I also love to show magic tricks to people and I’m also quite good at it! I love doing and learning new things. I’m not really a “talker” in a group, but I love to talk about things like the universe, life, popular conspiracy theories, and of course, music. I’m a believer of “everything happens for a reason” and that every little decision I’ve made has lead me here – and I’m proud of it!

I believe that sometimes things fall apart, but it’s only to make way for better things. I’ve come a long way when I look back and I have a long way to go, but I’m more excited than scared, as the universe works in its magical ways.

TFR: Quite multi-faceted! You mentioned you’re from Guwahati… How much does the North East shape your music and your art?

AF: The North East defines who I am and how I’ve grown over the years. But on the other hand, traveling and moving cities is what has given me experiences of a lifetime without which my art wouldn’t exist the way it does. There are obviously more than one influence that has lead me here. My music and my art has absolutely a lot to do with my life most of which I’ve spent here in Guwahati, Assam.

The North East is a beautiful place with lots of positive vibes and people who have an incredible love for things like music and art; and thus it has a major role in shaping me as a musician, too. At the same time, living away from my parents and family, on my own and blending in with people from different cities has also influenced my art and my style of music.

TFR: We loved your recent jangly, poppy new single “Make It Alright”. Talk to us about the story behind the song! What’s the idea behind it?

AF: “Make it Alright” is an experiment to make a sad song sort of groovy (or poppy). When I was writing it for the first time, I had a thousand things messing with my head, and I had recently started having some anxiety attacks. This was when I was in college back in Bangalore, and I was living with my friends. I remember sitting in my bed and just strumming these basic four chords until I had this image in my head of a boy sitting in the corner of my room, sobbing. That’s when these words came out of my mouth, “I know what you’re crying about, just hold my hand let me make it alright” – and that’s how the song started! Later, I just started sort of blabbering and throwing out random words and recorded them on my phone’s recorder.

TFR: Very interesting. Coming to your musical influences: We hear snippets of everything from Jason Mraz to Ed Sheeran in your vocal and instrumental style. Who are your big influences, musically or otherwise?

AF: There’s this one musician that I look up to the most and want to be able to write and perform like some day. His name is Damien Rice and he is a major influence to the way I write my songs and perform them. Besides that I am also inspired by lots of underrated musicians like Anson Seabra, Roo Panes, Ray LaMontagne, Gert Taberner, and more. I listen to a lot of artists including Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz, and keep looking to get inspired. Besides these, there are artists that I see around me who also influence me as an artist, such as Raghav Meatle, Anuv Jain, Osho Jain, and my artist friends – most of whom I’ve met in this lockdown.

TFR: Another track we love is “Waiting For You / Intezaar”, especially in the seamless way you switch between English and Hindi. Do you have a preference in either language? Do you relate different emotions or feelings to the two languages?

AF:Waiting for You / Intezaar” was a beautiful experience for me. It was the second single that I put out and the only single as of now to have crossed 10,000 and even 25,000 streams on Spotify. The lyrics are very honest and simple, and there’s no instruments in the song other than an acoustic guitar and very light keyboard.

Talking about language and what I prefer, I think it’s a lot easier for me to write in English but my listeners and even I love it when I write something in Hindi. I’m liking this mix that I have and I’m grateful to be able to use both the languages for my songs. Lately I’ve been trying to write more in Hindi as well. A song I wrote during the lockdown called “The Kabootar Song” is a Hindi song that has received the most love compared to all other songs, even though it hasn’t even been released.

I don’t always relate different emotions to the two languages, although I must say that lately I’ve been finding it easier to write happier songs in Hindi. But these are only phases and I’m pretty sure it’s all in my head.

TFR: It looks like you’ve been steadily releasing new songs all year, with “Red Wine” in February, “Waiting for You” in April, “Victim in Love” in June, and now this latest song in August. What are you leading up to? Is there an album in the works?

AF: I performed for the first time in October 2019 and it was the performance that changed my life. It was a DIY festival called The Yellow Festival and it took place in a place called Pulga in Himachal Pradesh. None of my songs were out and I performed my songs for the first time and it was so beautiful that I decided to start releasing music in 2020, which I did. I was living in Mumbai and I found an amazing studio and producer who helped me.

Thus, indeed I’ve been steadily releasing new songs this year and I am releasing my last single this year (in September) before I start working on my debut EP. The single is called “A Little More” and is one of the songs that I recorded back in November 2019 in Mumbai. I think it’s also one of the best tracks from that time!

The EP is going to be called Ham Chalein and it’ll be a Hindi EP with about five songs, and I’m super excited about it! I can’t wait to record them and get them produced and release them. I still have lots of original songs that I’m yet to record and put out. Moreover I’m writing new stuff almost regularly.

TFR: As a young, upcoming artist, how have you worked on building your fanbase at a time when the entire world is on lockdown?

AF: As you keep putting out newer stuff, you also build an audience for your past stuff, which is sort of what I’ve been doing. Moreover, I have been making friends by attending live events and shows. I have also been putting out poetry related content and even videos to reach more people. I have also joined some popular IG Lives such as that of Ehsaan Noorani, Armaan Malik and Remo D’Souza to reach more people with my talent. Staying connected with people who support you is also very important so it’s important to show my followers that I really am grateful for them, time to time.

TFR: If there’s one Indian musical artist you’d like to collaborate with, who would it be? And what about one non-Indian musical artist?

AF: I would love to collaborate with a lot of Indie musicians in the future and it’s really tough to pick one but if I had to, I’d go with Prateek Kuhad. As clichéd as it might sound, Prateek Kuhad is someone that has taken the independent music scene to another level, and a lot of us artist do look up to him. Moreover, his songwriting is so honest and simple and relatable.

If I’m to choose one non-Indian musical artists that I would like to collaborate with, it has to be Damien Rice. My admiration for Damien Rice is on another level, it’s almost like a crush. My friends have even started calling me “the long lost son of Damien Rice” because of how much I’m inspired by his style of writing and performing.

TFR: Haha, that’s funny. Thanks so much, Arham, for chatting with us! And best of luck for the release of your new track and the upcoming EP, too!

Listen to Arham wherever you get your music. And be sure to keep your eyes open for his new single this week!

Back with a Bang: The Lightyears Explode

13 Sep
Photo Credit: Omar Iyer

The Lightyears Explode are an indie dance-pop / rock band from Mumbai, India. The band was formed in 2009 and quickly developed a following with an early win at the Channel[V] Launchpad in 2011. A short eponymous EP followed later that year, and later a full-length album – The Revenge of Kalicharan (2013). We at Top Five Records are great fans of this album, especially the unmistakeable Franz Ferdinand vibes on the dance-rock gem “I Am A Disco Dancer” and the debut-era Arctic Monkeys feels on “Diet Coke“.

After a long hiatus (save for the much poppier “Drunk Loser” in 2018), the Lightyears Explode are, thankfully, back. Their funk-drenched single “Satire” was released on September 4th, and has been on our daily playlists since. Our writer Madhoo took the opportunity to chat with the band about their origin story, influences, newfound appreciation for pop, and much more. Read on below!

Top Five Records: Tell me about the band! How did you guys start off? What’s your story?

Saurabh: We started around 2010 when we were still in college. At that point, we were more of a fast rock sort of band.

Jeremy: Yeah, like kind of punk, you know?

Saurabh: I’d say like more of an Arctic Monkeys-punk sound. And then we played a bunch of shows, released an album, The Revenge Of Kalicharan, and then we took a bit of a break for a while. I went to England for a while to study music production. When we came back, Jeremy joined us and here we are now!

Jeremy: 2015 was when we started up again, and now we’re working on new music.

TFR: Tell me about the name of your band. What’s behind the name?

Saurabh: First we were just called the Lightyears. I was a huge Toy Story fan. But it turns out that there was a band in England using that name already, and they sent us a message on MySpace.

Shalom: Haha, and it wasn’t a very polite message at that, it was very firm.

Saurabh: Yeah it was a British-polite. Like, it wasn’t an option, it was “Just change it!” If we’d known about them, we wouldn’t have tried to nick their name, you know? So we added in the ‘explode’ and it just sounded cool to us.

Jeremy: There was another option though. We considered being called The Mighty Scoundrels for a bit!

Saurabh: It’s good that we didn’t go with that. Actually, for just for a moment there, I was really into a genre of rock called psychobilly and I thought we should lean into that, and go with a gothic sort of name.

Shalom: Yeah, we even wore eyeliner for a day… but it was just for a shoot. (laughs)

Saurabh: Yeah, for a shoot, we tried to portray the whole look. You did the clown look, right?

Shalom: Yeah, I had the orange wig and makeup all over. The only good thing is that no one could tell it was me, unless I told them. It was a good disguise.

TFR: What would you guys say are your major influences? What were you guys listening to around the time you started the band?

Saurabh: Well, when we started the band, our influences were pretty different. I was really into Arctic Monkeys and Green Day mainly.

TFR: Yeah I definitely hear that in your early stuff!

Shalom: And Operation Ivy!

Saurabh: And the Fratellis, and the Beatles, obviously. Recently though, we’ve been really into HAIM, Jack Antonoff and his band the Bleachers, some Fleetwood Mac (especially Tango In The Night). And Jackson 5, stuff like that. I’d say we’ve really mellowed out recently.

TFR: We’re really obsessed with your first album, and we’ve always got a strong Franz Ferdinand vibe from it!

Shalom: Yeah definitely, we always did listen to a lot of Franz Ferdinand.

Saurabh: Yeah, we all grew up listening to a lot of this stuff – bands like the White Stripes, the Fratellis and all that. I guess you can really hear that.

TFR: So you mentioned that your music has become mellower over time. Any particular trigger?

Saurabh: So we were always playing, except for that brief hiatus. The new sound… it just sort of happened.

Jeremy: I’d say we kind of worked our way towards a more pop sound.

Shalom: Also, all of us really started listening to a lot more pop than we used to.

Saurabh: We started to re-establish music that we grew up listening to. For example, growing up, I personally really liked the Backstreet Boys.

Jeremy: Come on, everyone liked the Backstreet Boys!

Saurabh: But there was a point where we kind of had to stop and say “Uhh, no… we’re punk now.” But now, we’re just going back to it that stuff and we’re thinking, “Man, this is just awesome!” Amazing songwriting, well-produced, well-sung. And I see those songs in a different light now. Like Shania Twain, for example. (Proceeds to sing a snippet of “That Don’t Impress Me Much“)

TFR: With this pivot to a new sound, how has your process of songwriting changed? Compared to your process of making music for your last album, I mean.

Saurabh: [On the first album,] I’d write songs all over the place, sometimes in college, even. There was one song I wrote in class which was about me being in class and wanting it to just end already. That was really early on, though. So there was no process as such. This time, too, there wasn’t really a process in terms of songwriting. We worked until it sounded good to us and sent it off for mixing and the next steps.

Jeremy: This time, though, I’d say there’s a lot more production that’s done before we get into the jam room. It’s a bit more planned out- there’s an idea that we work out together. I wasn’t around for the first album, but I think it sounded a little like it was worked out together in the jam room.

Shalom: We also did a lot of demos for the newer stuff. We demoed it at Saurabh’s place and really thought about how it’d sound on an album, and how we’d replicate that song when we play it live. We paid more attention to that aspect of it, and I think it helped us look at our songwriting with a slightly different perspective. We really had to think of how the end product of this song would sound, while we were writing it.

Saurabh: I mean, we also demoed our first album, but it’s definitely different this time.

Shalom: Yeah, there’s definitely more production this time, and we’ve been a lot more serious with the demos as well.

Saurabh: Well, I had to get my money’s worth out of production school. It was so expensive!

Teaser for “Satire” released in early September 2020

TFR: Can you tell me about the direction you guys are taking with the new album?

Saurabh: So we’ve been separately writing a lot during lockdown. It sounds really saccharine, kind of retro. I feel like the more I write and the more we perform live, we get more and more comfortable with pop. It’s really easy for all of us – at least for me, growing up, it was – to make fun of pop music. But once you start doing it, it’s really not easy! The people who do it are really good at what they do. The appreciation of pop songwriting that we gained while writing this album is something we’re working towards. We’re trying to get more comfortable with being there.

TFR: You’re onto something there! I think pop has always been dismissed as something exclusively for teenage girls, and isn’t taken seriously much. I think it’s quite interesting to see this sort of reclamation of the pop genre, in a way.

Saurabh: I don’t know if pop needed reclamation, but for us personally, it definitely did.

TFR: How’s the coordination been during this pandemic? Has it been tough to work around that?

Saurabh: We were talking about that just now, about how difficult but adventurous it’s been to get a photo for our release. We’ve had to do a lot of stuff like this.

Jeremy: There’s definitely a lot more planning involved. Less trial-and-error when it comes to organisation!

Saurabh: Our album was mixed in Australia though. Since their lockdown rules were a bit more toned down, they were able to work on it while we were in lockdown. The writing took place over two years, but we’ve been finishing up now.

TFR: In a usual album release cycle, you’d probably go on tour and do shows. How does this work out for you in a situation like this?

Saurabh: So we’re working on putting out some videos. We’re also working on doing some live-streamed gigs, especially from some smaller studios around the city.

Shalom: There are a bunch of musicians doing that, right now.

Saurabh: I think artists are getting better at adapting to this new medium and we just have to get the hang of it.

TFR: Sounds great! I’ve seen a lot more artists adapting to Instagram for this age, and it feels like a lot of live music has become more accessible. What are your thoughts on this?

Saurabh: I’ve definitely seen a lot more shows and artists that I wouldn’t have been able to. I’d obviously have liked to see them in a gig, but now i can check these artists out at a later date. It’s easy to knock it because it might not sound or look as good as a live show. But something is better than nothing at all, you know?

I myself have discovered at least three or four new artists in this lockdown, just through their live streams. Though it’s not a physical gig, you still get to hear their work and interact with them. They’re putting their content out there for new people to enjoy, so I personally like it.

Shalom: Yeah, like Saurabh said, if you end up stumbling upon a new artist through live streams, you kind of go on a whole journey of looking them up, following them, checking them out on Spotify. Another cool thing is that you end up looking at an artist’s older work in this process, stuff you probably would’ve missed out on otherwise.

Jeremy: That brings in the feeling of a gig, in a way.

Shalom: Obviously I love live music, but this is the best we can do right now, you know?

Jeremy: There’s also something really nice about being able to attend gigs from all over the world, right on your couch. (laughs)

TFR: Speaking of gigs, what’s the best gig you guys have done?

Jeremy: Ooh, that’s a hard one.

Saurabh: Every gig is slightly different. In our most recent one, we got to play a lot of our newer stuff so that was fun!

Jeremy: But I think the gig we did at The Habitat was possibly the most fun.

Saurabh: The Koniac Net album release one!

Album art by Harmeet Rahal

TFR: What’s the next month looking like for you guys, in terms of releases and content?

Saurabh: We’re releasing our new song “Satire” on Sept 4th. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted just before the song release.] We’re also working on some videos right now!

Shalom: We’re trying to put out songs consistently. As things start to open up, we’re also working on some videos and new content.

Saurabh: That’s something we’ve actually really enjoyed this time: working with other people. We were very insular before. Now with the artwork, the videos, and everything, we’ve really enjoyed this collaborative aspect.

TFR: Anyone you want to shout out from your team?

Saurabh: Our whole team: Achyint for producing, Ganesh for mixing, Richard for mastering, Harmeet for doing the artwork, Deepthi and Saket for working on the video!

Rapid Fire Round

TFR: Dream collab?

Saurabh: Danger Mouse

Shalom: Jack Antonoff

TFR: What are you listening to right now?

Saurabh: The last solo Brandon Flowers album, the new Killers album, and the new Taylor Swift album.

Shalom: The new HAIM album, King Princess and the first Yuck album – that’s a really good one. [Ed. Note: It is, indeed.]

Jeremy: I listen to a lot of electronic- jungle drum, bass, footwork. So SqaurePusher, Aphex Twin, that sort of stuff. They were way ahead of their time.

TFR: Desert island record?

Saurabh: In the Airplane Over the Sea [Neutral Milk Hotel]

Shalom: Any Beatles album – can’t go wrong with that!

Jeremy: Ultravisitor by SquarePusher

TFR: Describe your sound in three words!

Saurabh: Saccharine, dancey, poppy

Shalom: Poppy, jumpy, energetic

Jeremy: You guys pretty much covered it!

Listen to “Satire” by the Lightyears Explode wherever you get your music. And do give The Revenge of Kalicharan a spin – you won’t regret it!

Top Five Deep Cuts: Arctic Monkeys Edition

11 Sep

In the fifteen years since Arctic Monkeys emerged on the music scene, they’ve donned a dozen different hats. From their garage rock-style energetic debut album to their most recent space-themed lounge rock album, their sound is incredibly hard to pin down.

They’ve been described as the distilled-down sounds of the Strokes, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (arguably, three of the most influential rock outfits of the 2000s), but they’re somehow much more than that. With frontman Alex Turner’s expertly written and clever lyrics, and the band’s undeniable musical prowess, the Arctic Monkeys have rightfully dominated the rock scene for years now.

They hit mainstream fame with their 2013 album AM and became a household name, with tracks like “R U Mine” and “Arabella”. These tracks are, no doubt, incredible (and make you feel cool and suave for listening to them), but there are some truly hidden gems in their body of work that showcase a different side of the Arctic Monkeys.

If you’re keeping score, it’s been almost exactly seven years to the day since the release of AM in September 2013. (Note: We at TFR prefer to forget the existence of Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.) Given the hellscape that is 2020, we thought it was a good time to take a quick, refreshing flashback into the early aughts. Without further ado, here are our picks for the top five Arctic Monkeys deep cuts!

5. “Piledriver Waltz” from the Submarine soundtrack

If anyone should be commissioned to write the soundtrack to a British coming-of-age drama, it’s Alex Turner. He’s incredibly skilled at finding the balance between deeply poignant and casually whimsical: which about sums up the teenage experience for most, we suppose. And how many musicians can write an upbeat heartbreak song with references to Elvis, circuses, Jesus and traffic lights, all while adhering to the incredibly difficult ¾ time signature?

Piledriver Waltz is the least mopey breakup song. It’s certainly wistful in tone, but has a warm fuzziness that leaves you hopeful for the future. The layered instrumental production on this version adds more depth to a starkly three-dimensional portrait of a broken relationship. Though a slightly different version was later released on Suck It and See, this version holds a special place in our hearts and in those of other true-blue Turner fans. Nothing changed too considerably between the two versions: the lyrics and the melody are identical, yet somehow, this one is just a little more cinematic and melancholic than the album version.

4. “Mad Sounds” from AM

Somewhere in the early 2010s, Alex Turner seemingly dropped his Suck It and See-era softboy persona and dove headfirst into a vat of hair gel and leather jackets. The band emerged fully reinvented, as a Proper Rock Band™ that played heavier rock with the catchiest riffs and hooks. It’s no surprise that they blew up with AM; it appealed to fans of rock, hip-hop, pop and R&B all at once. Tracks like “Do I Wanna Know” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” have permanently changed the face of the 2010s indie rock landscape and have quickly become modern classics.

“Mad Sounds”, though, is a sharp deviation from the rest of the album’s British-James-Dean feel. Nestled right in the middle of the album, the track is a gentle, lilting reminder that the Arctic Monkeys are more than a rock and roll band that writes about one night stands and pub culture. “Mad Sounds” feels, instead, like a spiritual sequel to Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. If the Velvet Underground were still together, this is what they’d have sounded like in 2012.

Turner’s vocals ring sharp and crystal-clear, and though the lyrics aren’t saying much, it’s a much-needed respite from the verbal barrage of the rest of the album. The lines “And out of nowhere, somebody comes and hits you with an ‘ooh-la-la-la-la’” essentially sum up this track’s place in the album, and in their discography.

3. “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend” feat. Dizzee Rascal

Possibly the deepest of deep cuts; even most hardcore fans don’t know about this B-Side to “Brianstorm”. The track features British rapper Dizzee Rascal who, at the time, was at the peak of his rap career. Arctic Monkeys have always cited rap and hip-hop as one of their primary influences growing up, but that’s usually a very subtle contextual layer to their music. This track is unique for a number of reasons. The band almost never features any other artist on their tracks, and they never mix genres to this degree. But somehow, they did it for this track, and somehow, it works.

It’s tough to produce art that transports the listener to an exact time and place, but this track does exactly that. The raw energy of the song makes you feel like you’re a frustrated British teen in the 2000s, which is probably exactly what they were going for (and until recently, were themselves). Turner’s lyrics are, of course, beautifully minimal (“The only roads are cul-de-sacs/ The only ends are dead”) and his voice still has the boyish charm of the band’s early work. The strong riff line and the syncopated drums are a perfect match to Dizzee Rascal’s grime-style rap bridge. “Temptation” might be an anomaly as far as AM’s music goes, but it’s a refreshing reminder that the band can dominate in just about any genre.

Bonus: Amazing live version with Dizzee from Glastonbury 2007. Ah, 2007.

2. “Secret Door” from Humbug

Humbug is, in many ways, a transition album for the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, where the line blurs between upbeat post-punk and romantic indie rock. Consequently, it’s one of their most divisive albums. “Secret Door” is the perfect example of this in-between space. While the verses have that classic high-energy style of the older Arctic Monkeys, the chorus and the outro are haunting,  cinematic and beautiful.

Alex Turner’s lyrics have always been good, but with Humbug, he began to write what was essentially poetry set to music (“Fools on parade cavort and carry on / For waiting eyes” ), yet somehow he manages to avoid sounding cloying in the process.

‘Secret Door” is probably frequently overlooked because it’s just such a shock to the system. As the opening track on Humbug, fans expected a huge, over-the-top audio explosion, like “Brianstorm” on Favourite Worst Nightmare. What they got, instead, was this mish-mash track that sounded like the background score to a sentimental scene in a John Hughes movie. But still, the raw talent of Turner’s vocals, combined with drummer Matt Helders’ impressive percussion make this one of the most engaging and musically interesting tracks on Humbug.

1. “She’s Thunderstorms” from Suck It And See

Alex Turner knows how to write a love song. He knows how to turn a phrase that’s romantic but never cheesy, and it shows on this track. Nobody in human history has ever described their love interest as “thunderstorms”, and yet, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Suck It And See, Arctic Monkeys’ fourth studio album, is another one that’s heavily debated amongst fans: they either hate it with a burning passion or think it’s their best work. There’s no in-between. SIAS, the incredibly stripped down, softpop follow-up to Humbug, begins with the minor-key sinister opening riff on “She’s Thunderstorms”. Immediately, though, the warm vocals and lead guitars kick in, and you immediately feel cheery and comfortable; like you’re in 500 Days Of Summer.

The track showcases an amount of restraint that the band had never demonstrated before. The lyrics are minimalist, the production isn’t heavy-handed, and the instrumental arrangement is just enough. It’s clear that this is a grown-up version of the angry teenage Arctic Monkeys from the first two albums, but it’s mature in a quiet, self-confident way. They’re comfortable enough to tone it down a notch and still get their point across.

Honorable mentions:

Cornerstone” from Humbug

This may be a personal bias, but it’s our opinion at TFR that this is the best love song ever written. Paired with a hilariously low budget music video, this track really shows the Arctic Monkeys at their best.

Mardy Bum” from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

This is a simple song from their debut about a tiff between a couple, narrated in a ridiculously strong Sheffield accent. The band comes through with a surprisingly strong guitar solo, about midway, that changes the tone of the song entirely.

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala (cover)

It’s tough to improve on a Tame Impala track, but if anyone can do it, it’s Alex Turner. The band has a way to make the song sound soulful and complex, seemingly effortlessly.

The Bakery“, B-Side to “Fluorescent Adolescent”

Very similar in theme to “Cornerstone”, but relayed in a British dialect so strong that you probably don’t know what they’re talking about, exactly. (What is a “tatty settee”?) Turner’s voice is delightfully laid back, and the production is so sparse that it feels like you’re watching your college band run through a practice. Its simplicity is what wins you over. 

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020

2 Sep

We certainly had an overload of great tunes this month, with new releases from the likes of Cardi B, billie eilish and more. Below is a run-down of our top five picks for the month that was. Take a look and let us know if you agree!

5. “30 People” by Token

Clocking in at #5 is “30 People” from Boston rapper Token. The song features deep, mysterious bass tones that syncs perfectly with Token’s confident flow. Although he’s just 21, Token (born Ben Goldberg) has had literally a decade of experience, having started writing raps at age 10. It’s impossible to downplay the smoothness of his non-stop, clear lyrics – and he writes well, too. The entire song is essentially a diss track for all those who secretly wish for the talented rapper to fail. “Congratulation messages always blowing my cell / But I can name you thirty people who hoping I fail,” he says on the main hook, and you don’t doubt it for a second.

4. “my future” by billie eilish

Technically, this was released at the very end of July, and we missed it in that month’s playlist – but we absolutely couldn’t let this song pass by. Vibe-wise, “my future” differs greatly from billie’s chart-busting debut album, with notable focus on the vulnerable side of billie’s angelic voice. The song starts off bare, with just her ethereal notes floating across gentle guitar strums. Halfway though, a smartly-produced beat changes the pace to a lovely, light pop song. The pace change is symbolic too, with the poppier back half featuring some rare self-love from the gothic billie (“I’m in love with my future / and you don’t know her”). Props to billie’s brother (and multi-Grammy-award-winner) Finneas for pulling off yet another seamless production.

3. “Vampire” by Dominic Fike

“Vampire” sounds like the Song of the Summer™ had this been a normal summer. Creating such content isn’t new to 24-year-old singer-songwriter-rapper Dominic Fike, who was the subject of a bidding war after six-song EP a few years ago. What those labels saw in him then can be seen on “Vampire”; essentially, Fike innately understands how to mix the best bits of genres together into a catchy track. The track meshes pleasant guitar strums with Fike’s easy-going bars and chorus, with tons of little lilts and details that make it surprisingly repeatable.

2. “Tangerine” by Glass Animals

As our readers know, we didn’t rate the new Glass Animals too highly (and we certainly heard from some of you about that!). Overall, Dreamland is made up of fantastic singles that have been out in the public eye for months (think “Tokyo Drifting” or “Your Love”), interspersed between so-so new tracks. However, one of the great new tracks that came out with the August release of the album was “Tangerine”, a light, summery track that’s as well-produced as anything in the Glass Animals repertoire. And no, you’re not the only one who thought the beach-y intro sounds like Drake’s “Hotline Bling”.

1. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan thee Stallion

In truth, the August 2020 Monthly Playlist was really an exercise in figuring out positions 5 through 2, because it was unlikely that anything could beat the phenomenon that is “WAP”. Not a full month has passed since this Cardi B / Megan thee Stallion collab landed, but the song has already cemented an iconic status in the annals of female rap (and really, rap in general). In case you have been living in an Internet-free deep quarantine, here’s a quick rundown. Cardi and Megan (arguably the two biggest female rappers of our times; sorry, Nicki) trade line after line of raunchy boasts and sexual requirements, all in their signature whip-smart rap styles. In that way, they completely flip the script on the sexual power equation, especially in rap, simply by specifying exactly what they want as women.

Naturally, the song has drawn the ire of sexually-repressed right-wing halfwits everywhere, but Cardi and Megan are not writing this song for any man’s pleasure, sexual or otherwise. Men will mansplain to you that “WAP” isn’t about female empowerment, but take it from women everywhere: “WAP” is fun, powerful, and just a damn good track.

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