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Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2021

2 Mar

We are two months into the Year After. Cases are declining worldwide and vaccines are on the way. However, the cultural issues that rose to boiling point in the turbulence of 2020 are still at a steady roil. It’s a strange, bittersweet time in the world, and in that context, we took a look at the five best songs from this past month.

5. “So Pretty” by Reyanna Maria

Our first reaction to Reyanna Maria’s tinny beat and sultry, swaggering rap on “So Pretty” was vibes of fellow Aussie Iggy Azalea. “So Pretty” was the flavor of the month on TikTok this month – which means this song is already more popular than you can possibly fathom. With all the outright mentions to lady parts on recent cultural phenoms like “WAP”, it’s almost coy to hear Maria talk about her “kitty cat” and all the way it makes her man feel. Even if you’re not listening to the lyrics, though, this one’s a bop. If clubs come back sometime this year, expect this one to be on the playlist – until it’s inevitably dethroned by yet another TikTok super-hit.

4. “Spirals” by Django Django

British band Django Django occupies a strange space in the experimental-mainstream music divide. Although their music is decidedly art rock – strange textures, unpredictable speeds, all that jazz – they also manage to feature regularly on everything from the FIFA 13 soundtrack to, well, the FIFA 18 soundtrack. “Spirals”, from their fourth album Glowing in the Dark (out in February), is a psychedelic romp through what we assume is a timeshare in Kevin Parker’s head. In here you’ll find strong basslines, echoey vocals, punctuating cymbal crashes, and so on. If you like Tame Impala, especially “Elephant”, you would likely like this track.

3. “you were right” by Bass Drum of Death

Bass Drum of Death mixes the lean-and-mean tones of Royal Blood with the bombastic rock of Queens of the Stone Age; so if that sounds like your jam, then read on. If you can believe it, the “band” has even fewer members than two-piece band Royal Blood; for Bass Drum of Death is simply the moniker of one-man drummer/guitarist/singer John Barrett. (There are a few others who join on tour, but it’s all mostly from Barrett’s head.) “you were right” is a tight, bluesy jam with an unmissable bass line, emphatic vocals and some excellent licks – and it’s all from one dude!

2. “CANCELLED” by slowthai feat. Skepta

Reader, if you are a regular on Top Five Records, then you know that we write quite frequently about the reigning British troublemaker known as slowthai. The London rapper is brilliant, funny, incisive, and more than a little problematic. We’ve already written about his fiasco at last year’s NME Awards (which produced a great track called, of course, “ENEMY”) but he wasn’t done being cancelled at that point. After a year of being in the public’s grinder, slowthai reacts by coming out with a song titled (what else?) “CANCELLED”, featuring the inimitable grime legend Skepta.

These two gentleman have collaborated before – on our 2019 Song of the Year “Inglorious” – and the fireworks are in full flow again here. Skepta readies the stage for slowthai with his opening verse (“How you gonna cancel me? Twenty awards on the mantelpiece / Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury / Girls in the crowd got their hands on me,”). And slowthai does manage to get one more in against the pearl-clutchers at NME: “See you throwing stones in your glass house / Evidently nothing is going the way that you said it would be / Middle finger to my enemy.” Classic.

1. “Rainforest” by Noname

As we wrote about in our review of Noname’s debut album Room 25 (2018), the Chicago rapper’s music is really like nothing else out there. Noname (real name Fatimah Warner) is exceedingly literate and blessed with a natural, soulful flow; in fact, she began her career in slam poetry. On “Rainforest”, she centers her thoughts around the damage being done to rainforests and works her way up from there. What causes human beings to trade nature for profit? What makes them believe that that’s a fair trade? What causes that sort of cognitive dissonance?

Through deft turns of phrase, she follows the chain: from exploitation (“They turned a natural resource into a bundle of cash / Made the world anti-Black, then divided the class,”) to forced rehabilitation (“How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?”) and all the way to her own full-blown reaction (“Dyin’ on stolen land for a dollar like that ain’t fucked up / It’s fuck they money, I’ma say it every song / Until the revolution come and all the feds start runnin’”). Noname lies at the intersection of rap and spoken-word poetry, and this song is a great example of her output and talent.

Celeste – Not Your Muse

24 Feb

This review is for the 12-track international edition of Celeste’s Not Your Muse. The international deluxe edition features an additional nine songs that we highly recommend you check out.

British pop singer Celeste’s star has been on the up-and-up for the past couple of years. Starting off her career providing vocals for the likes of Avicii, Celeste built a name for herself in the British music press with a pair of well-received EPs – The Milk & the Honey (2017) and Lately (2019).

By the time Lately made its rounds around the world, the singer pretty much became an unstoppable force. Tastemakers of all swathes, from GQ to the prestigious BBC Sound of… poll, named Celeste as a breakthrough act for 2020, and she didn’t miss.

In January last year, she released “Stop This Flame”, a rambunctious jazz-pop number centered on her powerful and impassioned vocals. Her second single of the year, “Strange”, is a beautiful, downcast ballad that falls somewhere between an emotive Paul McCartney-penned Beatles track and – on the modern end of the scale – the whispered stylings of one Billie Eilish. And we’re not the only ones who thought that, for the track seemed to have brought in the talents of Billie’s Grammy-winning producer brother Finneas on the next single “I Can See the Change”.

If you thought that was the extent of Celeste’s star-making year, then you would be wrong. She then went on to perform three songs for The Trial of Chicago 7, a star-studded Aaron Sorkin-directed venture focused on the tumultuous anti-Vietnam war years. One of those three songs – “Hear My Voice” – is now nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Celeste closed off the year with a duet on the latest Pixar film Soul (“It’s Alright”) for which her soulful, playful vocals are perfectly suited.

So, yeah, Celeste has had one hell of a breakthrough year.

With so many well-known singles that have had their time in the sun, there was always a risk that Celeste’s Jan. 2021 debut album Not Your Muse would not hold up in its entirety. Luckily, that’s not at all the case. We’ve already spoken about the alluring “Tonight Tonight”, a poppy-yet-pensive track that sounds like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” set to an alt-rock drum beat. Another stand-out track is “Beloved”, where Celeste’s deft vocals and the romantic strings bring to mind a dramatically broken heart in, say, snow-covered Christmastime Paris. (Or something equally bittersweet.) The more rock-infused “Love is Back” sounds like it could be a hidden B-side to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” – and really, could there be a greater achievement for a young British jazz-soul singer?

As we wrote in our song review for “Tonight Tonight”, Celeste feels like an artist who’s just on the precipice of household status – think Adele the year before 21 was released, or Lizzo right before “Juice” came out. Not Your Muse is an ode primarily to Celeste’s magnificent voice; but also to her genre-bending sensibilities across jazz, soul, R&B, pop and even rock. It’s early, but we can see this being one of the best debuts of 2021.

Rating: 8/10

Best songs: “Love is Back”, “Tonight Tonight”, “Stop This Flame”

Monthly Playlist: Jan. 2021

31 Jan

A new year, a new hope and – depending on where you live – the same old lockdown. One thing keeping us going is of course the music, and so without further ado, here are the top five tracks of this month.

 5. “Vintage” by Blu DeTiger

Blu DeTiger (unbelievably her real name) is a 21-year-old NYC DJ whose added color is that she also plays a mean bass. She released two songs in 2020 (but don’t let the low rate fool you – as a Gen Z DJ-slash-female-bassist, DeTiger is, as you would imagine, big on TikTok). Last week, she followed those up with the expectedly bass-heavy track “Vintage”. The gist of the song is that DeTiger is stuck in a love/hate equation with a throwback boy who loves all things 00s and 90s (which, for someone born in 2000 like herself, is vintage I suppose). Overall, the Tame Impala-esque bass line paired with DeTiger’s slightly aloof vocals makes for a cool, fresh track.

4. “Typhoons” by Royal Blood

After the massive thumping hit that was last October’s “Trouble’s Coming“, Royal Blood have finally expounded further on said trouble. The two-member rock band’s third album Typhoons will be out on April 30th, and the title track was released earlier this month. “Typhoons” is classic Royal Blood from start to finish: a dense, hard-hitting production between Mike Kerr’s bass/guitar gymnastics and Ben Thatcher’s simply tireless drums. Also notable were the Foals-like jagged elements on the chorus vocals, as well as the more layered sounds in the pre-chorus and outro portions. At this point, these two are such a ruthlessly efficient sound machine that any audible change implies significant experimentation, so this is a promising taste of the upcoming Typhoons.   

3. “Tonight Tonight” by Celeste

Almost exactly a year ago, Celeste was named as the BBC’s Sound of 2020 – an annual poll of the most likely new act to breakthrough to the mainstream. The prediction was echoed by everyone from GQ to Gucci, and by all measures, they were correct. The British singer-songwriter has had a glamorous year (despite everything), including an Oscar-nominated song for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and an end-credits duet with Jon Batiste on the new Pixar movie. Earlier this month, Celeste released her hotly-anticipated debut album Not Your Muse, from which “Tonight Tonight” is a standout new track. On this song, Celeste’s nostalgic, slightly melancholic vocals meld seamlessly with brisk, modern jazz instrumentals – something that has been done before, for sure, but there’s a certain undeniable freshness that she brings to the table. Keep your eye on Celeste – she’s on her way to household-name status, if she isn’t there already.

2. “No One Knows” by The Vaccines

“No One Knows” from the Queens of the Stone Age’s landmark 2002 record Songs For the Deaf ranks among the best songs of the decade. It’s no easy feat to cover the track in a refreshing manner that’s also respectful of the original’s relentless, raw energy – but The Vaccines have done more than alright here. “No One Knows” takes QOTSA’s hard-hitting LA-cool-meets-leather-jacket vibes and turns it into a dream-pop, mellow track with a pared-back version of that famous beat. This one-off cover is apparently from their upcoming Cozy Karaoke EP and a prelude to the fifth album that they’re seemingly set to release in 2021 – good stuff so far!

1. “Don’t Be Dumb” by Dizzee Rascal feat. Ocean Wisdom

There isn’t much breathing room on the new track “Don’t Be Dumb”, a collab between UK grime legend Dizzee Rascal and compatriot rapper Ocean Wisdom. The entire track is structured like a no-holds-barred cypher, with Dizzee and Ocean Wisdom exchanging zingers and brags at speeds that your brain can just barely process. And as if that wasn’t enough, the track is loaded with Dizzee’s trademark deep, bouncy grime beats. This is the kind of track that makes you (rightly) wonder why you don’t listen more to UK rap. Our pick of the year’s tracks so far.

Top Five Songs of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As a complement to my Top Five Albums of 2020 list, here are the songs whose endless replays helped me get through this year.

Honorable mentions

And now for my top five songs of the year:

5. “Your Love (Déjà vu)” by Glass Animals

Clocking in at #5 is this early single from British pop band Glass Animals’ Dreamland album that was released this year. As we talked about in our review of the album, the singles from Dreamland were really good and everything else was so-so. Well, “Your Love (Déjà vu)” is one of those ridiculously good songs in the first category, featuring crisp hip-hop like beats, electric vocals from singer Dave Bayley and an all-around fun vibe. This is as catchy as the Glass Animals get – don’t miss this one.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020 edition.

4. “The Adults Are Talking” by the Strokes

Over the year, we’ve highlighted “Bad Decisions” and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” from the Strokes’ The New Abnormal (2020) album on our Monthly Playlists; but as we come to the close of the year, it’s the album opener “The Adults Are Talking” that most stands out to me. The Strokes get your feet tapping and your head bopping along from the first seconds of the classic, clean drum line, and it only gets better from there. The icing on the cake is a particularly good vocal effort from Julian Casablancas, especially in the sky-high falsetto at the end. As the first sound you hear on The New Abnormal, “The Adults Are Talking” provided a symbolic sigh of relief to Strokes fans everywhere that the band is alive, well and perhaps better than ever.

Read our full album review here.

3. “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year (which, let’s admit, not a bad plan for 2020), you would have heard Dua Lipa’s mega-hit “Don’t Start Now” at some point. The irrepressible dance-pop number has graced radio stations, talk shows, award shows and all other COVID-ready media; in any other year, it would have likely been on the playlist of every club in the world. Dua Lipa’s entire Future Nostalgia album is an homage to the fun and vivacity of 1970s and 1980s music. And “Don’t Start Now” is the album’s shining disco ball of a crown jewel, with its pulsing bass line, Dua’s staccato vocals, random cowbell, handclaps and so on.

Read our full album review here.

2. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Perhaps the most talked-about song of the year – for one reason or the other – is “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The powerhouse song by the two reigning queens of rap instantly shot to fame with its sexually-explicit lyrics, inciting the wrath of right-wing ghouls everywhere. I consider “WAP” to be iconic, unapologetic and more feminist than most things that claim to be. Cardi and Megan spend the entire song detailing exactly what men should do to please them. The reverse has been covered in songs by men about women ad infinitum; so why should boys have all the fun?

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020 edition.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

As I mentioned on my AOTY list, Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was undoubtedly the best debut album of the year, and the brightest star on the tracklist is the gaudy, poppy “XS”. Rina’s whole vibe is a cool mixture of 90s / early 00s music across all genres, and this song follows that make-up too. Her breathy, slightly nasal vocals – reminiscent of Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears – sync perfectly with the rock-tinged instrumentals brings to mind the early 00s pop-rock acts (Good Charlotte, Simple Plan) which were all the rage back in the day. Lyrically, too, “XS” does well. As the name cleverly suggests, is a critique on the excesses of capitalism (“Cartiers and Tesla X’s, Calabasas, I deserve it / Call me crazy, call me selfish, I’m the baddest and I’m worth it”) – to which Rina cleverly alludes in the song’s music video. All in all, a great effort and – for me – the song of the year.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Apr. 2020 edition.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

End-of-year introspection has an entirely new depth in 2020. There was profound sadness, disappointment, discomfort, dismay – but also hope. Hope in the vaccines that have arrived at breakneck speed, hope in the stronger relationships that emerged out of quarantine, and hope in continuing to keep up whatever gave you joy in this hellish year. For me, the year was made better by the presence of the following five albums, plus a few others that I’ve highlighted below. Read on for my take of the Top Five Albums of 2020.

Honorable mentions

  • What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware: Ridiculously fun, dance-worthy disco jam. (Full review here)
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels: Powerful, well-penned and a perfect soundtrack to the racial turmoil this year. (Full review here)

5. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. debuted in 2019 with the spectacular Dogrel (which also made it to my list last year), and followed it up in 2020 with a deeper sophomore album – A Hero’s Death. The album was written while the band was on a whirlwind global tour for Dogrel, and consequently highlights their thoughts on fame, identity, America and so much more. With mainstream success comes mainstream expectations; A Hero’s Death sees the band rebelling on tracks like “I Don’t Belong” and “I Was Not Born”. “Living in America” dissects the reality of the United States of America from the mythical land-of-the-free in Irish minds while “Televised Mind” comes back to the theme of the stilted thoughts in today’s consumerist world – a favorite theme of Fontaines D.C. (and punk rock bands everywhere). All in all, this is a great record that proves there’s a lot more to come from Fontaines D.C.

Read our full review here.

4. The New Abnormal by The Strokes

Few records have ever been as perfectly titled as The Strokes’ sixth studio album The New Abnormal. The album was announced in February – pre-pandemic – and by the time it came out in April, the whole world was in an entirely different place. In the wilderness years between their fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) and this one, the band released a sum total of three songs (plus a remix). Most of the members used the seven years to work on side projects and there were rumors that the Strokes were done for. Happily though, the situation now seems as far from that as it has ever been, because The New Abnormal sounds like a perfectly-curated playlist of the Strokes’ creative output – together and apart. There are of course the classic “Strokes-y” songs like “The Adults Are Talking” that could do pretty well on their earlier records; but there’s also tracks like the melancholy “At The Door” with its clear Voidz edge and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” with its touches of Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo work. On The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound like they’re working well together and having fun again, and that shows in the music.

Read our full review here.

3. Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

If you’re a pop / R&B star not named Billie Eilish, chances are you’ve tried your hand at dance-pop / disco this year. We had 80s-inspired music from Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and so many others, but none can come close to the disco perfection on Future Nostalgia. The album is pretty much just straight hits from top to bottom. The metaphorical strobe lights start flashing right from the opening beats of the bouncy, irrepressible title track; and it’s a full-blown dance party by the time we get to the massive hit singles like “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical” and “Break My Heart”. Dua has also excelled in live shows this year (of all years), taking and running with any opportunity she gets – see her stripped-back Tiny Desk session or her magnetic AMAs performance of “Levitating”. Future Nostalgia is fresh, fun, timeless and an instant mood booster at a time when we all needed it the most.

Read our full review here.

2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

SAWAYAMA by Japanese-English singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is, in my mind, undoubtedly the debut album of the year. Imagine a mixtape of all the music you illegally downloaded off Napster in the 90s and early 00s; but somehow all the tracks have magically mashed up across genre lines – that’s more or less what SAWAYAMA is. For example, “STFU!” sounds exactly like a Britney Spears cover of a Korn song, while “Dynasty” has all the harmonized pop extravagance of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, with a hint of Evanescence-style elven vocals. If those come off as odd mash-ups, it’s purely a testament to how well this album has been visualized, produced, mixed and implemented. Songs like “XS” and “Comme des Garcons” are crisp, campy, catchy and everything that good pop music ought to be. Rina’s confidence and integrity of artistic vision belie her discography length, and a legion of fans now eagerly await her next move.

Read our full review here.

1. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz

Until about late November, when we in the music review hobby start charting out our end-of-year lists, I honestly did not think of the new Gorillaz album on this list. Indeed, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez was just released a few weeks ago, and although they have been steadily releasing great singles all year, I didn’t think the combined package would hold up. However, the more I started running through Song Machine, the more I was certain that this was the album of the year.

On Song Machine, Damon Albarn has turned the traditional album-single release tradition on its head. Every song is a single in its own right, and has been more or less treated as such, each with a separate release date, music video, accompanying snippets and so on. Release mechanics aside, the music holds up too: every single song on the 11-track album is worthy of the listener’s attention. Moreover, one must applaud the sheer audacity of throwing together musicians across genres – for example, Elton John with rapper 6LACK on “Pink Phantom” – and creating something totally unique and magical. From the opening notes of the otherworldly title track (“Strange Timez” feat. The Cure’s Robert Smith) to the high-energy closing track (“Momentary Bliss” feat. British rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves), Song Machine is the closest we’ll get to an eclectic and electric music festival this year. Virtually of course – what else could it be in 2020?

Read our full review here.

A Quite Literal Holiday Playlist

26 Dec

It’s that time of year again: the twilight week between Christmas and New Years’ Day. Most people are off work or school, staying warm (or cool, depending on your hemisphere) and stuffing themselves silly with every combination of carbs and sugars. As you’re lying there in your food coma trying to block out all thoughts of January 4th, take a whirl through our Quite Literal holiday playlist. Happy holidays and stay tuned for our end-of-year content!

5. “Holiday” by Little Mix

First off is the tune by British girl group Little Mix. The pop song’s saccharine notes coupled with the ladies’ perfectly synced vocals make this the perfect tune to soundtrack an impromptu tipsy dance party. (You know you’re almost there.)

4. “Holiday” by Green Day

Next up is a blast from the past – the tune from alternative rock band Green Day. This song was all the rage when it was released as a single from the landmark American Idiot (2004) album, and is still catchy enough to strike nostalgia in the entire millennial cohort. The “holiday” that Billie Joel Armstrong and the gang are talking about alludes to the apathy that the average American felt at the Bush-era Middle East wars, so that’s always a fun talking point at your holiday event with the broader family.

3. “Holiday” by Vampire Weekend

Once you’ve brought up the anti-war sentiments on the previous track, be sure to flip to this tune from New England indie rock band Vampire Weekend to lighten the mood. With an irrepressible beat and Ezra Koenig’s lackadaisical vocals, this song is the stuff of catchy advertisement music – and indeed, it was aptly featured on ads for the classic-prep fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. One of the best tracks from their overall-great Contra (2010) album.

2. “Holiday” by Madonna

Going back several decades from all of these songs is this tune from Madonna’s eponymous debut album in 1983. The synths and handclaps are simply peak ‘80s, and Madge’s voice is carefree as she sings about the entire world coming together for a holiday. “If we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate / Just one day out of life, it would be so nice” she suggests, and that’s exactly the energy we need to be taking with us out of this hellscape of a year.

1. “HOLIDAY” by Lil Nas X

And now the song that inspired us to create this playlist – this tune from rapper and pop culture icon Lil Nas X. We’ve already lauded the track on our last Monthly Playlist and we admit we haven’t stopped playing it on loop since then. Lil Nas X’s smooth vocals layer over a tight, catchy beat for a new, alt-classic holiday standard. Bonus: Check out his recent performance for Amazon’s live holiday show!

Victoria Monet – JAGUAR

22 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard the handiwork of singer-songwriter Victoria Monet even if you’ve never heard of her before. The prolific pop creator has had her hand in recent hits such as “Ice Cream” by BLACKPINK and Selena Gomez and “Do It” by breakout sibling duo Chloe x Halle. Most notably, Monet has been a direct contributor to most of Ariana Grande’s recent output of singles, from “7 Rings” to “NASA” to “Thank U Next“. (Indeed, Monet was herself one of the recipients of Ari’s seven rings – apparently the song is based on a real story.)

On debut album JAGUAR, Victoria Monet finally steps out of the shadows of the Arianas and Selenas of the world, and comes into her own. The result is one of the smoothest, best-produced pop albums of the year.

JAGUAR spans a mere 25 minutes, but covers a lot of ground on its seven crisp songs (and two sub-minute interludes). Album opener “Moment” is a pop-R&B track with dramatic string flourishes and chillwave beats – in short, the track could easily appear on an Ariana Grande project. One listen through the track, however, is enough to make one realize that Monet plays a giant role in Ariana’s sound – because she owns this song. “Aye, this your motherfuckin’ moment / Yeah (That you manifested slowly),” she says on the chorus, presumably to her lover, but the words could easily apply to Victoria herself on JAGUAR.

First single “Ass Like That” strips away the R&B for a more hip-hop sound. Lyrically, Monet somewhat subverts expectations by talking not just about how her posterior makes men go crazy, but also about how she got, well, an ass like that. “Treat my calories like weed, yeah, I burn that shit / Shout out to my trainer ’cause he crack that whip,” she explains, rather helpfully. In a way, it’s a subtle indication of Monet as a behind-the-scenes that has had to work hard for her position in life – and also, it’s just an interesting pop songwriting choice.

A few other songs on the album work especially well too. “Go There With You” has a much stronger pop-funk sound that sees Monet suggesting intimacy instead of a late-night fight. On lines like “I don’t wanna go there with you / Let’s end the night on a good time / I can find a better way to be all in your face,” the simplicity in her lyrics make clear just why Ariana’s last two albums felt relatable yet well-written – like a heartfelt Instagram post. The title track “Jaguar” is an echoey, catchy ode to her own well-maintained sex appeal (“Supersonic pussycat / Just like a jaguar, silky black”) with slick beats for days.

JAGUAR is a strong offering from a seasoned player in the modern pop industry, and we’ve loved seeing Monet coming into her own, well-deserved spotlight. Although the album overall is too short and perhaps not endlessly playable, it was a great addition to the year’s debut albums. JAGUAR is apparently just the starting point of what’s to come from Ms. Monet – she notably calls it a project and not an album – so we are definitely staying tuned for more.

Best tracks: “Moment”, “Jaguar”, “Ass Like That”

Rating: 7/10

Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

9 Dec

The music industry has suffered dreadfully in 2020. Artists new and old have been forced to forego their primary resource of revenue from gigs and events, and a locked-down world’s unparalleled dependence on social media means that great music doesn’t always get enough of the public’s mindshare. 2020 has also ruined the culture of the music festival – where you can walk a hundred feet and be transported from rock to hip-hop to EDM, where you can witness exciting musical connections in real-life, where you can truly get absorbed into the sounds around you.

Of course, no one can make music festivals happen again, for some time now. But Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez – the latest album from Gorillaz – comes close to approximating the music festival experience on its eleven-song tracklist. 

If you’re new to the Gorillaz world, you should know that it primarily consists of musician Damon Albarn of Blur fame and artist Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz is a virtual band, with four virtual, animated band members – and they have been for 20 years (talk about being ahead of the curve!). Albarn and Hewlett craft the storylines and artwork of each album to match and often augment the music, usually with the help of carefully-curated featured artists. 

Song Machine is billed as an audiovisual webseries project – which, in 2020, could not have been more apt. What that means, realistically, is that Gorillaz has completely upended old-fashioned concepts such as albums and lead singles. Song Machine began way back in January 2020 with a theme song, the first “Machine Bitez” (short teaser snippet) and the first song from the album – “Momentary Bliss” feat. Slowthai and Slaves. Since then, the band has periodically released almost all of its eleven songs as a separate single, each with teasers, snippets and enough space to grow in the listener’s mind. Why should songs be delivered as an album, all at once? Why should some songs be “leads” and others be fillers? These are the questions that seem to have driven Gorillaz on Song Machine, and frankly, the results are remarkable.

Every track on the album features one or more selections from an eclectic collection of guest artists. Elton John shows up on a song with an Atlanta-based rapper. The anti-establishment British hip-hop star Slowthai shows up with his compatriot punk rock band Slaves. French-Malian folk star Fatoumata Diawara shines on her feature, as does The Cure frontman Robert Smith. The entire experience, start to finish, is exhilarating in its sheer mix of genres, artists, tones, styles and so much more – with the underlying thread of Albarn and Hewlett’s creativity running through. (If you are interested in that thread, we highly recommend watching the episodic webseries on YouTube.)

Of course, fantastic features don’t automatically make fantastic songs, but in this case, there are no weak links in the entire eleven-song run. We’ve already spoken at length about the sparky “Pac-Man” feat. ScHoolboy Q (song review), the joyous trip of “The Valley of the Pagans” feat. Beck (song review), and the perfect vocal mash-up that is “The Pink Phantom” feat. Elton John and 6LACK (song review) – but there’s so much more to unpack on Song Machine

For example, the opening track “Strange Timez” with Smith takes an ethereal look at our planet and the strange times it begets (“Spinnin’ around until the Sun comes up / Strange time to see the light”); truer words have never been spoken, in hindsight. “Aries” featuring Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and English dance-pop producer Georgia is reminiscent of the “On Melancholy Hill”-era Gorillaz in all its smoothness and subtle beauty. “The Lost Chord”, featuring British soul singer Leee Jones, is the song that Arctic Monkeys wish they made on Tranquility Base: ethereal yet packed with rock-infused drums and bass. And we admit we haven’t heard much of Fatou before this, but her powerful vocals on the groovy, beautiful “Desole” has suddenly made us want to learn a lot more about Malian music. 

Simply put, Song Machine is a near-perfect album of eleven songs that all deserve single-worthy status. Gorillaz has rethought the entire album concept into a collection of equally-good songs that are all equally-deserving of their own time to shine. With Song Machine, Gorillaz has provided the fun and exhilaration that has been amiss in our 2020 lives, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. We’ll be listening to this album for years to come, and cannot wait to experience the upcoming Season Two.

Note: This review is for the Standard verison of Song Machine Episode One: Strange Timez, which consists of 11 tracks. There is, happily, a deluxe version with six extra tracks, of which we particularly recommend “MLS”, featuring rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese all-girl rock group CHAI.

Best tracks: “The Valley of the Pagans”, “Desole”, “The Pink Phantom”

Rating: 9.5/10

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”

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