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Monthly Playlist: Mar. 2020

31 Mar

March 2020 will forever be known in the history books as the month that COVID-19 really stuck its hypothetical flag into Earth. Over a billion people are now in quarantine, leading to stranger-than-fiction outcomes like kindergarten classes over Zoom. There is, however, one silver lining to this whole scenario: humanity’s ability to find artistic outlets seems to have gotten sharper. Either that, or this was just independently a really good month for music. Read on for our top five tracks this month – and stay safe!

“just a boy” by Alaina Castillo

Houston, Texas-based Alaina Castillo has been making her moves for a while now. Castillo shot to fame the new-school way, by racking up a massive YouTube following, before transitioning into her first traditional EP (2019’s antisocial butterfly). Three months into the year, the English-Spanish bilingual singer has already released five singles but it’s “just a boy” that may just give her the mainstream break-out she deserves. The song features Alaina’s silky smooth, pitch-perfect vocals that can give Ariana Grande a run for her money, layered over stripped-down guitar work. It’s the best of pop: sugary-sweet vocals, relatable lyrics, and heartfelt emotion.

“Ooh LA LA” by Run The Jewels (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)

Rap duo Run The Jewels, consisting of Killer Mike and El-P, are back with a new jam called “Ooh LA LA”. The track has a laid-back, 90s rap vibe that perfectly complements the comfortable-brag lyrics. In particular, Killer Mike’s “First of all, fuck the fucking law, we is fucking raw / Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar” is a standout, but really, the whole song is filled with such lines. What’s more, the song is well-served by a catchy-AF chorus. Run The Jewels are scheduled to release a new album this year, and had an amazing double-bill tour with Rage Against the Machine (titled, appropriately, “Public Service Announcement”) planned for 2020 – time will tell how much of that tour they are actually able to embark upon.

“P2” by Lil Uzi Vert

In 2017, Lil Uzi Vert shook up the world with, of all things, an emo rap song, entitled “XO Tour Llif3”. “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead,” says Uzi on the chorus , throwing in side-note one-liners like “I might blow my brain out / Xanny numb the pain, yeah”. Late 90s emo rock bands probably ate their hearts out – here was a genuine and successful emo song, parceled in talented rap no less. In 2020, Lil Uzi Vert released his much-awaited (and much-lauded) album called Eternal Atake (read our review here). “P2”, coming in just before the end of the behemoth one-hour 18-track album, is in essence the follow-up to “XO Tour Llif3”, both lyrically and musically. Uzi retains the hypnotic, slightly-off kilter minor beats, and his lyrics take on an after-the-fact vibe: “I don’t really care ‘cause I’m done”. Great song, and great album.

“Faith” by The Weeknd

“Faith” is an atmospheric, textured track from The Weeknd’s new album, After Hours (read our review here). While most of the spotlight right now is on the lead singles – “Blinding Lights”, “Heartless” – it’s really “Faith” that finds The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) at his most genuine, fractured self. Set on heavy choir-like synths, “Faith” really explores the various pieces of Abel’s self-destructive tendencies. He goes sober for his new love, but threatens to go back to his old ways if she leaves him. When given a choice between Heaven or Las Vegas (a reference to a previous song, btw), he chooses Sin City. And if he ODs? “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me,” he requests. “Faith” is almost a psychological study of a chronic drug abuser and what makes one stuck that way. Good music too – check it out.

“Break My Heart” by Dua Lipa

Technically, British-Albanian rising star Dua Lipa’s new album has been in the public sphere for a few months already. Unless you live under a rock, you must have heard her massive global hit, “Don’t Start Now”. The next single, “Physical”, did the rounds well too. This month, the new album Future Nostalgia was finally released, and it proved to be on par with both of those bangers. In particular, “Break My Heart” really encapsulates the vibe of the whole album: nostalgia for the early 2000s (when Dua was a teeny-bopper) masked in the touchpoints of today’s pop hits. Synth-pop beats and her signature husky voice bring back memories of Titanic-era Cher, perhaps, with some busy Gwen Stefani-esque attitude – but it’s all done in a way that feels modern, not retro. The perfectly-titled Future Nostalgia as a whole is a great ride, and “Break My Heart” is a good place to start.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

12 Mar

Nearly five years after mainstream-breaking Currents (2015), Australian psychedelic rock act Tame Impala is back with a new album. With a fuller ethos and nods to a wider palette, The Slow Rush finds Kevin Parker, the one-man driving force behind the act, at his most accessible – and the jury is out on whether that’s necessarily a good thing.

Comparisons to Currents are of course expected. That album was packed to the brim with endlessly-playable mega-hits, interspersed with wisps of ethereal fillers (see: “Gossip”, “Nangs“). It had instant classics like “The Less I Know the Better” and “Let It Happen” that redefined what a mainstream psychedelic rock song could sound like, taking back the mantle from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. You knew Currents was a magical ride from the first song – no matter how many times you heard it all the way through.

On The Slow Rush, there are definitely a few such stand-out moments. One of our first tastes of the album was “Borderline”, released almost a year ago to high praise. The song see-saws constantly between cautious synth-rock verses and a feverish chorus, as do the lyrics – “We’re on the borderline / Caught between the tides of pain and rapture,” he says. Accentuated by Parker’s signature Doppler-effect fades, the result is almost a Moebius strip of sound – happy, sad, pained, rapturous all at once – coiled inside one “loner in L.A.”. And even better than “Borderline” is “Breathe Deeper”, a dreamy gem hidden halfway into the album. We’ve already lauded this song, but it honestly deserves all that and more – an intoxicating mix of R&B, house and cool indie pop filtered through the distorted mess of Kevin Parker’s mind.

Beyond these two tracks, though, the roster varies quite a bit. There are tunes like “Instant Destiny”, where Parker comes across, well, boring. “This traffic doesn’t seem quite as annoying / quite alright, quite alright, sittin’ here,” he intones, on what’s essentially a fuzzed-out pop song about L.A.’s I-405. “Tomorrow’s Dust” sounds like he dialed it in with a generic falsetto over a borrowed Vampire Weekend guitar layer. “It Might Be Time” has some neat drums on the eponymous sections, but largely sounds like it could be filler music on an 80s-themed sci-fi show (we’re thinking Stranger Things?).

So what changed? Domestic bliss, we surmise. In the inter-album five-year-stretch, Parker has gotten married; with that change, he seems to have welcomed some much-needed contentment with life. Unfortunately, his music is best when the tension between his anxiety and genius is at near-snap tautness – and some of that has perhaps slackened with the arrival of Mrs. Kevin Parker.

The Slow Rush finds Parker at a personal best but a professional middle. He’s figured out some of the bigger pieces in his core psychological struggles, and the end-product is, with some exceptions, somewhat staid (for Tame Impala). And it doesn’t help that this comes after Currents, one of the best albums this side of 2000. All in all, give The Slow Rush a whirl – but this one’s probably for the fans.

Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020

2 Mar

We are back in the new(ish) year with our Monthly Playlist feature! Read on for the five songs that caught our ears this past month.

5. “Cars in Space” by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

We last covered the uniquely named Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever in a Monthly Playlist about a year ago, and we’ve had our eye on them ever since. “Cars in Space” is a jangly, upbeat tune from the Aussie indie pop-rock band. It’s funny – some songs don’t necessarily have a hook but earworm their way into the listener’s mind nonetheless. “Cars in Space”, with its memorable phrasings and high energy, is definitely one of those songs.

4. “Corduroy” by Monks

Liverpool-based Monks are, as of yet, quite the undiscovered gem, so we feel grateful that we’ve come across their diamond-in-the-rough of a track, “Corduroy”. The song starts off with the lead singer’s melancholy, chill-wave vocals – with a reverb that Kevin Parker might want to nick – before quickly transitioning into a chaotic-good riff that seems to pay homage to “Take Five”. Psychedelia with a jazzy temperament – what’s not to love?

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

Image result for your love glass animals

Our readers will be well-aware that Glass Animals scored the top honor for our best songs of 2019, and we are happy to let you know they are already back with a banger this year. “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” starts off with an instantly-danceable beat that might have come out of the Justin Timberlake-Timbaland in the Futuresex heyday. The “déjà vu” here is ostensibly about avoiding a needy ex that the main character is still torn about; a stretch, for sure but it is a banger from start to end.    

2. “Bad Decisions” by The Strokes

In 2020, one of the savviest ways to see the who’s-who of today’s music is by simply livestreaming the opening acts of Bernie Sanders rallies. So far this year, the Sanders campaign has welcomed everyone from Soccer Mommy to Vampire Weekend as rally-opening acts, but on Feb. 10, Bernie himself opened for famed NYC quintet, the Strokes. Over their hour-long set, we found out many things: that they do know how to play songs from Comedown Machine; that their new album is releasing on April 10th; and that new track “Bad Decisions” could really be one of the greats.

Bad Decisions” is essentially a back-to-roots track that would fit quite well on Is This It. It also takes inspiration – apparently with full intention – from Billy Idol; an on-brand nod to the band’s turn to ‘80s nostalgia over their previous two albums. If you’re a Strokes fan, you’ll love the song; even if you aren’t, chances are high that you’ll like it. All in all, “Bad Decisions” gives us great hope for the upcoming Album No. 6.

1. “Breathe Deeper” by Tame Impala

After an almost five-year hiatus, psych-rock mainstay Tame Impala is back with a new album, The Slow Rush. The Australian act, comprising primarily of singer / songwriter / madcap-genius Kevin Parker, hits it out of the park with the entire album (our review incoming shortly!) but probably the best track on the album is the hypnotic bop, “Breathe Deeper”.

The track essentially sounds like someone – Parker, we suppose – applied a gauzy psych filter to an old-school R&B song. The result is a track that somehow sounds like a fresh remix of a classic track, even though it’s all original. If you’re familiar with Tame Impala, you’ll recognize the lyrical content: Parker’s lifelong struggle between anxiety and success, and his notes-to-self about how to survive that chasm (in this case, to breathe deeper).

Although the entire song is a sonic treat, the best part comes on at about the five-minute mark, when the R&B elements are suddenly stripped off to reveal the Daft Punk-esque acid house underneath. It’s magical, and definitely one of the best moments on the entire album.

The Top Five Albums of 2019

31 Dec

Another year of great music closes out today. Read on to see our editor’s picks for the best albums of the year – and be sure to let us know if you agree!

5. Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

Delhi’s own Peter Cat Recording Company has been a mainstay of Indian music for a while now, but it’s with new album Bismillah – and a new record label – that they have started receiving the praise they deserve. Bismillah is, in its way, a slice of Indian life, from the glitz and glamor to the corruption and chaos, set to a dizzying array of musical styles. The album is packed with biting criticism of Modi’s India; the band personally encouraged Delhiites earlier this year to vote for an opposition party, on a music video release note no less. But even beyond the political, Bismillah is truly, wholly Indian.

Read our full review here.

4. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Some art – whether it’s movies, music, and so on – truly captures the ethos of a specific place, time and people to a tee; a zeitgeist, in short. For 2019’s United Kingdom, roiling through a nation-splitting Brexit crisis, that zeitgeist is the debut album from a 25-year-old Northampton rapper, called, succinctly, Nothing Great About Britain. The album is intense, personal, and nearly flawless – a perfect slice-of-life from the wrong side of the tracks of today’s UK.

Read our full review here.

3. Fontaines DC – Dogrel

Dogrel, the debut album from Irish band Fontaines DC, is a middle-finger to those who think rock – and punk rock in particular – is dead. Over a tight, 40-minute runtime, the lads take us through Dublin life like only locals can. There’s anti-British sentiment (“He spits out, ‘Brits out’, only smokes Carrolls”); Irish legends (“With a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel”); tales of cabbie woes – and that’s all on just one song. Dogrel is almost a perfect package from start to finish, and we are heartened to hear that there’s already more incoming from Fontaines DC.

Read our full review here.

2. Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

2019 may have officially been the Year of the Pig, but for us it was the year of Foals. With two astounding, back-to-back albums over the course of seven months, the Oxford lads knocked it out of the park this year. Although Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 had some great hits – “Exits” being chief among them – Foals really stuck their landing with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2. The entire double album is built around the idea of an apocalypse: the emotions and the music that would come out in that not-so-far-away scenario. One thing’s for sure: when that day comes, we’ll be sure to have this record handy to soundtrack us there.

Read our full review here.

1. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

At this point, Ariana Grande is pretty much pop’s reigning queen. More importantly, she rules for all the right reasons. It’s an understatement to say that she has the voice for it; but she also offers a playful and positive view of the world despite the tragedies in her life. Like any savvy pop star, she of course sells the idea of herself to her legions of fans – the high ponytail, the thigh-high boots, the oversized sweatshirts – but unlike many others, she sells something else too: self-love. Amazingly, that self-love seems to come from within – not manufactured by some marketing execs over at her record label. With thank u, next, Ariana Grande finally takes over as her authentic, spirited, wholesome self – and turns out, a lot of people dig it. Oh, and it helps that the music is just pop gold, too.

Read our full review here.

-NP

The Top Five Songs of 2019

31 Dec

If making a great album is one unique combination of skills, making a great song is another – sometimes complementary, sometimes not – skillset. Below is a look at the top five songs that defined our editor’s year. Let us know if you agree!

5. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

“Tokyo Drifting”, an unlikely collaboration between British psych rockers Glass Animals and Southern rapper Denzel Curry, is – even more improbably – the best trap song this year. Hazy beats and Curry’s swaggering verse make this the perfect soundtrack to a nighttime chase through a city that never sleeps – just as the title suggests.

This song also appears on our Nov. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

4. “Exits” by Foals

With its slightly off-kilter beats and the lead singer’s enigmatic vocals, “Exits” casts a hypnotic spell on the listener’s mind. This lead single from Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 also offers a trippy synth solo, cryptic music video, and much more. Don’t miss out!

This song also appears on our Mar. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

Much like Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” last year, this opening track from British band Elbow’s eighth studio album is actually several songs in one, stitched together by impeccable production quality. Over six minutes, “Dexter & Sinister” skips from bass-heavy alt-rock, to ethereal pop, to meditative guitar – apparently as a musical metaphor to Brexit.

This song also appears on our Oct. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

2. “Inglorious (feat. Skepta)” by slowthai

If there is a zeitgeist for the political minefield that is today’s United Kingdom, it is slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. And the core of that album – the zeitgeist of the zeitgeist – is this track, featuring another UK man-of-the-moment, Skepta. “Inglorious” is about what it means to be poor and overlooked, and how that feeling sticks with you whether your fortunes change or not. This is the essence that informs and guides the rest of the album, which sees slowthai peeling apart the layers to Brexit with snark and irreverence. Rap with the spirit of punk.

This song also appears on our May 2019 Monthly Playlist.

1. “The Runner” by Foals

 “The Runner” is Foals at their finest: cryptic lyrics, heavy-hitting riffs and sharp production turned up to the max. It’s also just great music: endlessly listenable in all moods, whether it’s on the radio or on a superfan’s 500th spin. Foals have had a great year, but this song may be their best work ever.

This song also appears on our Sep. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

Honorable mentions: “CHARLIE” by Malfnktion feat. Shayan Roy; “Juice” by Lizzo; “7 rings” by Ariana Grande

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

31 Dec

There are few double-whammies quite like the one that Foals dealt us this year. They released a career-defining album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1, in March of this year. The conspicuous “Pt 1” in the title left many wondering when the next part would be released. Little did we know that it would be a mere seven months later, with October’s Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Pt 2.

If Pt 1 produced fantastic hits like “Exits” and “Café d’Athens”, Pt 2 takes it one step further. Here, practically every song is a bonafide hit. The album opens with an atmospheric, one-minute intro called “Red Desert” – a palette of echoing synths that conjures up a mystical Marrakesh adventure, perhaps. But the atmospherics immediately segue into Foals’ best song of the year, “The Runner”. Heady, heavy and more than a little apocalyptic, “The Runner” is probably the best arena rock this year – with a killer chorus to boot (“When I, when I fall down, fall down / then I know to keep on running”).

Rather than just being the star of the first half, “The Runner” is actually the first of four absolute beastly tracks. “Wash Off”, is a powerhouse of drums and guitars that goes from frenetic to downright crazy – before all the layers convalesce into a blissful 30-second ending. “Black Bull” is a maddening, murky blitz that lends total credence to the song title (also: see music video). And finally, “Like Lightning” is almost reminiscent of the Black Keys, with Dan Auerbach-esque vocals and a sluggish, bluesy feel – but a banger nonetheless.

It’s not until the slower-paced “Dreaming Of” that the listener is allowed to catch her breath. After the brief piano interlude (“Ikaria”), we are led into the final stretch of the album, and that’s when things really pick up to an unexpected level.

10,000 Feet” is a dramatic, rock-opera version of the myth of Icarus. “Into the Surf” is a dreamy track that highlights Yannis Philippakis’ vocals and a spindly piano. But Foals have saved the best for last, with the complete masterpiece of an album closer, “Neptune”.

At ten minutes and eighteen seconds, “Neptune” is no radio-friendly hit (unlike most of the rest of the album). From start to finish, it’s Technicolor, multi-faceted and visceral; the swansong at the end of the apocalypse just as humanity finally perishes in an arduous battle. There are simply too many elements of the song to describe in words – you have to hear it with your own two ears – but we’d like to highlight in particular the driving bassline and Philippakis’ vivid vocals.

You may notice that, in the course of this review, we didn’t focus too much on the lyrics. That’s not to say that they are not important or well-written; they are both of these things. It’s just that the force of the instrumentals on this album outweighs everything else.

As Foals themselves have stated, Everything Not Saved Will Not Be Lost is two-piece locket. The two albums, when considered together, paint a picture of a Mad Max-style apocalypse: broken, wild but exciting in its own way. Both albums are great, but it’s with Pt 2 that Foals really stick their landing. And for that reason, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2 is probably their best album so far – and maybe even one of the best albums of the year.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

31 Dec

We have to admit: we kind of slept on Lizzo until early this year. The pop powerhouse – born Melissa Jefferson, stage name Lizzo – has been active for a few years already. Her first two albums, Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrl Small World (2015), were followed by a well-received EP entitled Coconut Oil (2016). But it was this year’s album, Cuz I Love You (2019), that broke Lizzo into the mainstream – and thankfully into our playlists.

Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that Lizzo first caught our ears with her lead single “Juice”, just around the time that an interview with Ellen brought her international attention. Happily, though, despite its irresistible beat and playful lyrics, “Juice” isn’t the only great track on the album – far from it, in fact.

At her essence, Lizzo is self-confidence in all aspects – personality, body, relationships and so on. And it’s when that self-confidence takes center-stage on Cuz I Love You that the singer really shines.

Take, for example, “Tempo”, an excellent collaboration with living legend Missy Elliott. “Slow songs, they for skinny hos / Can’t move all of this here to one of those / I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo” the duo declare. Sure, it’s an anthem for body positivity, but don’t overlook the killer beat or Missy’s seamless inclusion. “Exactly How I Feel”, her collab with Gucci Mane, showcases the wholesomeness of her positivity over funky, bouncy beats. “Can’t hold back my tears, that would be a crime / ‘Cause I look pretty cryin’, oh, they ain’t tell you?” she sings in her glass-busting voice, and ironically you can’t help smiling along.

But there are of course more layers to Lizzo. On the eponymous opening track, she talks about a man that she can’t quite forget: a memory that shatters her otherwise perfect poise. “Got me standing in the rain, gotta get my hair pressed again / I would do it for you all, my friend, ready baby? Will you be my man?” she wonders, before breaking out into an earth-shattering, introspective wail: “I’m crying ‘cause I love you”.

If there’s one negative to this album, it’s that it is too short yet not tight enough. There are some flatter songs on the album, which naturally stand out on the short ~34 min runtime. On the whole, though, Cuz I Love You is a great entry into the annals of this decade’s pop music. Lizzo is on her way to becoming a pop star (Doing SNL! Those red-carpet looks! Twitter friendship with Obama!) and there’s so much more that we can expect from her in the future.

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