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New Artist Roundup: Apr. 2021

5 May

Welcome to the our New Artist Roundup for April 2021! Below are five songs from up-and-coming artists that caught our eye this month, so be sure to give them a listen. And of course, if you’d like to be featured, be sure to email us at artists.tfr@gmail.com.

“FUZZY” by Bandicoot

To us, Swansea four-piece Bandicoot’s music sounds like the point at which the rockabilly sensibilities of the 50s and 60s merged with the glam rock vibes of the 70s. After putting out two tracks (2021’s “Dark Too Long” and 2020’s “O Heavens!”), the band is back with a new track called “FUZZY”, released on April 9th. “FUZZY” is catchy, wild and brimming with energy: the kind of track that immediately causes some part of your body to start tapping along to the beat. If you happen to live in or near Wales, be sure to catch their upcoming festival dates in July and October – this is definitely an act to catch live.

Website | Label | Press

“Morning Sun” by M. Byrd

With over 200,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, M. Byrd is definitely not a “new artist” for many people around the world. However, we were glad to be introduced to the artist’s indie folk music this month, particularly his new track “Morning Sun” – released on April 16th. Byrd describes the song as a morning mantra, a kind of a musical manifestation of how he starts his day. “The idea came to me a few years ago in the morning right after I got up and it came back to me subsequently over and over again, like a kind of entry into meditation, until I finally recorded it and arranged it into form,” he says, and we can see what he means. With its gentle guitar strums and his crooning voice, almost reminiscent of the late Elliott Smith, the song is a great accompaniment to one’s morning coffee. If you liked this track, be sure to check out his other song, 2020’s “Mountain”.

Website | Press

“Third Eye Witness” by Scott McKeon feat. Gavin Conder

We admit: Scott McKeon is the furthest entry on this list from being a new artist. We had first heard of McKeon from his feature on Spotify’s highly-popular Modern Blues Rock playlist, where this track was wedged somewhere between the Black Keys, Gary Clark Jr., and other blues mainstays. McKeon is an established sessions guitarist, playing with everyone from Lana Del Rey to Ed Sheeran to Sir Tom Jones, and has put out a couple of albums under his own name and under other bands over the past 20-odd years. McKeon’s third full-length album New Morning, on which “Third Eye Witness” is featured, was released on April 23rd and we didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to highlight this great talent. The song – with McKeon on guitar and Gavin Conder on vocals – is a groovy, chill track that would be perfect to play on a Sunday morning. And don’t miss the dizzying guitar solo from McKeon about 2/3 of the way through. If you liked this song, be sure to check out the rest of New Morning: the album was apparently recorded mostly on the first take, and you can hear that spontaneity throughout the record.

Website | Press

“Get Up” by Sesame Girl

Canberra pop act Sesame Girl is exactly one song old – having released this very track on April 14th – but they show promise in our eyes. The song is buoyed by the contrast between the happy-go-lucky instrumentation and the lead singer’s melancholic vocals – like looking wistfully back at a childhood memory that, in retrospect, was probably the most fun you’ve ever had. Sesame Girl already caught the eye of Australian tastemakers Triple J, so good things are probably in store for the young band. Keep your eye on this one!

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“Hopelessness of Love” by Waiting for Smith

Waiting for Smith is the stage name for British singer-songwriter Harry Lloyd, who named his act after perpetually waiting for his (presumably ex-) drummer Smith. Lloyd makes lovely, light music that you would have probably heard on your local radio and (in the pre-Shazaam days) waited for years until you serendipitously find it again. “Hopelessness of Love” – released April 29th – is a sweet 3-minute ditty about fighting through a relationship’s rough patches. “It’s about the inevitable collision that happens in any relationship, there’s ups and there’s downs – that’s just life. We can’t fight the hopelessness of love but we can find a way to accept it and use it to become our strength,” explained Lloyd. Overall, this was a sunny, bright introduction to Lloyd’s music and we’ll certainly be back for more.

Website | Press

Interested in getting featured in our next New Artist Roundup? Don’t forget to email us your music at artists.tfr@gmail.com!

Monthly Playlist: Apr. 2021

2 May

As you may know, we at Top Five Records have our roots in India, with several of our writers located in the country. This past month has seen some of the worst days of independent India with the resurgence of a deadly second COVID-19 wave. For all our readers who may be directly or indirectly affected by COVID – in India or anywhere else – we extend our heartfelt sympathies. Here’s hoping these five songs from April 2021 provide a moment’s relief in these dark times.

5. “Introvert” by Little Simz

Rapper Little Simz is back with another great track from her vantage point as a Black, politically-aware British musician and artist. We loved her previous output Drop 6 (2020) – a confident, well-crafted set of songs including the excellent “Might bang, might not”. “Introvert” is musically a little different from these often-barebones rap tracks, bringing in a certain cinematic quality with lush instrumentation. The track is about her own internal struggle between her outward personality and her inner demons as a confident Black woman. Can she be her true self? Why not? What’s stopping her? Her flow on this track is as sublime as ever, and pairs well with the orchestral background. “Introvert” is the first track from her upcoming album entitled Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.

4. “Boilermaker” by Royal Blood

Rock favorites Royal Blood released their exciting third album Typhoons last week, featuring the great singles “Trouble’s Coming” and “Typhoons”. The last single they put out just before the album release was the hard-rock banger “Boilermaker”. Royal Blood have always sounded like a wirier, leaner Queens of the Stone Age but on this track they ramp it up to 11 – for example, the starting few seconds of the song will make you wonder whether you’re listening to an excellent Royal Blood cover of “The Way You Used To Do”. Simply put, “Boilermaker” is as robust and heavy as the name suggests, with Ben Thatcher’s hard-hitting drums coiling around Mike Kerr’s energetic vocals. It’s classic Royal Blood and a great final lead-in into the new album – look out for a review on that soon.

3. “Crawling Kingsnake” by the Black Keys

Another song on the rock landscape this month was “Crawling Kingsnake”, the first new music from the blues-rock legends since 2019’s “Let’s Rock”. This is apparently the first song from their upcoming Delta Kream, a cover album of blues classics. The original version of “Crawling Kingsnake” has no real birth date, believed to have emerged out of the fertile Mississippi delta sometime in the 1920s, but the most famous version was recorded by legendary blues artist John Lee Hooker in 1948. The Black Keys’ version infuses their signature rock style into this classic track, giving it an almost Doors vibe – and we later found out that the Doors did indeed record their own version of this track. Full circle then; and we can’t wait for discovering more blues history through Delta Kream, out on May 14th.

2. “Your Power” by Billie Eilish

“Your Power” marks the first track of Billie Eilish in her first official pop-star makeover – as a blond; more grown up; and much more vulnerable compared to her rambunctious debut album era. She’s been hinting at this for a while with the intermediate songs like “everything I wanted”, and it’s nice to see the first full emergence of the new persona. “Your Power” is a slow-strummed ballad that essentially depicts the romantic power dynamic between a young woman – perhaps we can presume it’s Billie, perhaps not – and a seemingly older man. “I thought that I was special / You made me feel, like it was my fault, you were the devil,” she says in retrospection on her naivety, along with very specific lines like “Will you only feel bad if it turns out that they kill your contract?” that makes one think that she was perhaps the girl in the song. Musically, as always, her brother Finneas’ production is seamlessly suited to Billie’s voice, falling in and out at the perfect moments to underline her tender vocals. “Your Power” is the third single from Billie’s highly-anticipated sophomore album Happier Than Ever on July 30th, following singles “my future” and “Therefore I Am”.

With Billie, the actual stylization of the song titles are important. There was the all-caps titling of her debut album, filled with subversive, all-lower case songs. There were the more formal outputs like her James Bond theme written in normal capitalizations. “Your Power” is deliberately written with normal stylization, perhaps indicating an inner transition to a more “adult” person. After all, it’s sometimes tough to believe, but Billie is still a teenager that has been in the public limelight for the entirety of her teens, living more in those five or six years than most of us will do in half a lifetime.

1. “Chosen Family” by Rina Sawayama feat. Elton John

The original “Chosen Family” is a heart-rending track from Rina Sawayama’s fantastic 2020 debut SAWAYAMA, about her late-adulthood discovery of a LGBTQ friends group that becomes more family than friends. This is especially important given her rocky relationship with her actual family, which is a theme throughout the album on tracks like “Dynasty”. Rina has now re-recorded the track with the one and only Elton John – an LGBTQ icon himself. In a way, it’s arguably better than the original because Rina’s friends group – the other part of the “we” in the track – is given a voice through Elton John. Lines like “We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname / You are, you are my chosen, chosen family” hit much harder when it’s a duet, and of course Elton’s piano adds an additional air of sentimentality to this moving song. This track really needs to be experienced through the accompanying music video, so be sure to check that out above!

Monthly Playlist: Mar. 2021

1 Apr

After a slow start to the year, we finally had a deluge of great music this month. It wasn’t easy to whittle down this month’s best tracks to just five – in fact, we actually couldn’t do it, so look for a bonus sixth track at the bottom of the article. Without further ado, here’s our top five tracks for March 2021!

5. “Get Sun” by Hiatus Kaiyote feat. Arthur Verocai

Hiatus Kaiyote is a four-piece Aussie band that melds genres like R&B, soul, jazz and funk into an irresistible mix. The band’s soul lies in the dynamic vocal presence of singer-guitarist Naomi Saalfield (a.k.a. Nai Palm), bolstered by the almost cinematic instrumentation provided by Perrin Moss (drums), Paul Bender (bass) and Simon Mavin (keyboards). The latest track, “Get Sun”, features 76-year-old Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai, whose arrangements provide even more flair to the band’s already flamboyant style. Saalfield’s layered, staccato vocals evoke 90s soul / R&B stars such as Brandy, balancing well against the big-band horns-and-string section on the chorus. In all, the sprightly song is a good sign of things to come – Hiatus Kaiyote release their next album Mood Valiant in June 2021.

4. “The Kiss of Venus” by Paul McCartney feat. Dominic Fike

The original version of “The Kiss of Venus” from Sir Paul was released in December 2020 as part of his 18th (!) studio album, McCartney III. The song is, of course, vintage McCartney – gentle guitar strums that are alternatingly melancholic (a la “Norwegian Wood”) and quirky (a la “When I’m 64”) – but like most of his solo career, it’s perfectly pleasant but doesn’t quite stick beyond a few listens. Now, McCartney has put out a re-take of the song with young, talented singer-songwriter Dominic Fike – and suddenly, “The Kiss of Venus” has transformed into a different song. Fike’s distorted vocals add a catchy rock edge which honestly that works better for the track. Kudos to McCartney for working with new artists – apparently there’s much more of the same to come.

3. “Wants and Needs” by Drake feat. Lil Baby

“Wants and Needs” represents the synthesis of two of rap’s biggest names today, and currently has upwards of 50 million plays on Spotify and 10 million views on YouTube – so chances are, you don’t need us to recommend this track to you. Part of a three-song March 2021 release from Drizzy entitled Scary Hours 2, this track contrasts Drake’s chill, sing-song rap flow with Lil Baby’s fast-paced trap style. Special props for the line on arch-nemesis Kanye West, whose convenient new religion grift deserves Drake’s (and all of our) contempt (“Yeah, I probably should go link with Yeezy, I need me some Jesus / But soon as I started confessin’ my sins, he wouldn’t believe us”).

2. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X

“MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” was released less than a week ago, and like most Lil Nas X songs, it’s already a global hit with a talk-of-the-town music video to boot. Like it or not, Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) is nearly unrivaled in today’s music world as a tastemaker and cause celebre, and it’s not by accident. The strangely reggae-sounding “MONTERO” sees Lil Nas X on the chase (“Call me when you want, call me when you need / Call me in the morning, I’ll be on the way”) with sexually-explicit lines that make clear exactly what he wants from his lover. Move over, “WAP” – a new right-wing trigger track now holds the crown. Lil Nas X expertly promoted the song with (what else?) a Bitcoin giveaway and a limited-run sneaker drop, so don’t be surprised if you hear about this track everywhere in the coming weeks.

1. “THE DRAKE” by cleopatrick

For us, the biggest surprise on this list has been “THE DRAKE” by Canadian rock band cleopatrick. Hard-hitting riffs, hard-hitting drums, hard-hitting everything, clearing once in a while for the lead singer’s pronounced vocals – there’s nothing new here if you listen to the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and fellow two-member band Royal Blood. However, cleopatrick make it sound fresh on “THE DRAKE”, where monster riffs and Luke Gruntz’s vocals keep you glued for the entirety of the 3.5 minute run. We’ll certainly be going back into this band’s discography – this is one to keep an eye on.

Bonus: “Boyfriend” by Leah Kate

Leah Kate is an up-and-coming LA-based singer-songwriter with a fairly large hit (“Fuck Up the Friendship”) in 2020. Now she’s back with “Boyfriend”, a catchy 90s-00s meld in the vein of Rina Sawayama and Dua Lipa. Plus, Leah Kate is seemingly backed by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s data-driven music start-up indify which brings the venture capitalist world into music, so you know she’s super savvy. Expect to see her around a lot more.

New Artist Roundup: Mar. 2021

29 Mar

Hello, and welcome to a brand-new feature here at Top Five Records! Today, we wanted to dive into five great songs that we’ve heard from new artists who have submitted music to us from all over the world. Without further ado, here’s our inaugural New Artist Roundup from Top Five Records!

Interested in submitting music to us? Please email us at artists.tfr@gmail.com.

“Stuck Pig” by EIN SAM

EIN SAM is a young electronic musician based out of Bristol, UK with three songs so far under his belt. The second of these tracks, “Stuck Pig”, was released at the start of the year. The track features a meandering bassline and slow-paced drums that form a great foundation for EIN SAM’s deliberate vocal style. The song itself is, in the artist’s own words, “about inner and outer divisions”, and he does well in portraying that through his lyrics about being neither here nor there (see lyric video above). The song’s fuzzy psychedelic rock gives us vibes of Mazzy Star, so if that’s your cup of tea, be sure to give this a listen.

“Letters” by Metro

Metro is a young four-piece band hailing from Palo Alto, California. “Letters”, the band’s second song so far, starts off with dreamy instrumentals that are joined by singer Marina Buendia’s folksy, quivering vocals. The entire song is built on a concept of personified Winter and Summer writing letters to each other, and kudos to Metro for making that seem much more quaint than you’d expect. The band’s dream-pop vibes sound like a sweeter, stripped down version of Tame Impala – not bad for a bunch of teenagers. If you liked this track, you can check out their first song “Her”.

“Sinners” by Gede

Washington D.C.-based Gede makes music that defies neat little genre boxes. Gede describes his own music as a combination of big beats, distorted guitars, bass and much more, and cites artists as diverse as Tame Impala and Gary Clark Jr. as his inspirations. “Sinners”, from his 2021 album Forward, is a great example of that. The track features Gede’s contemporary rap bars set against electric blues-rock – with jazzier interplays that could easily feature on, say, a heist movie montage. If you liked this track, you should definitely give the rest of the new album a spin.

“Angel Follows Me Out” by Gallery 47

British musician Gallery 47 (real name Jack Peachey) makes introspective, acoustic guitar-driven music reminiscent of folky artists such as Elliott Smith or Nick Drake. His latest track, “Angel Follows Me Out”, is a two-and-a-half minute ditty with pretty acoustics that play well with the quiet, melancholic vocals. The song really focuses on the deft guitar work with not more than four to five sentences of actual lyrics; but the end result is a clean, simple but haunting piece of music. If you liked that track, then you’re in luck: Gallery 47 is a highly prolific musician with four (!) albums in 2020 alone.

“Space” by Nuela Charles

Canadian singer-songwriter Nuela Charles has been slowly making a name for herself since her debut album Aware (2012). Her sophomore album, The Grand Hustle (2016), featuring the slow-burning pop track “Crumbling Down”, was even nominated for the JUNOs (the Canadian equivalent of the GRAMMYs), and she’s garnered numerous awards and charting positions in her native Canada over the years. Charles’ signature sound seems to be contrasting her silky-smooth vocals – think Ariana Grande or our new fav Celeste – against a big-band bass, horns and drums type of production. Her latest single “Space” (created with Juice WRLD producer her Don Mills) falls squarely in this niche. Much like Grande’s “NASA”, space here refers to the physical and emotional distance between Charles and her lover, except as a twist, it seems like Charles is the one trying to pull the other person back in (“I don’t need space / you told me you needed space”). Great entry point into a singer that is bound to break big very soon.

Interested in submitting music to us? Please email us at artists.tfr@gmail.com.

Tyron – Slowthai

22 Mar

Tyron, the sophomore album from punky British rapper slowthai, is a twin-headed beast. On the first half, with titles in all caps, slowthai (real name Tyron Frampton) comes to the listener with full braggadocio. The second half, with titles all in lower case, finds slowthai in introspection – about his music, his journey and most of all who he is as a person.

A lot of the context for this album comes from a singular day in the Before Times – February 12th, 2020, the day of the NME 2020 awards. Slowthai was nominated for everything from Best Song to Best Album, and even won the famous Hero of the Year award – so far so good. However, things took a left turn when the inebriated rapper proceeded to hit on the comedian-host Katherine Ryan, and then, when folks started throwing drinks at him, tried to jump into the audience for a fight. Ryan soon after said that she was in on the “joke”, but the damage was done. Slowthai was to be cancelled; but unfortunately for his detractors, the lad wasn’t having it.

Swiftly following the event, Slowthai put out a thinly-veiled diss track called “ENEMY” – which is, of course, phonetically identical to NME (“Keep my name out your dirty mouth / Fightin’, don’t know what you keep on cryin’ ’bout”). In a way, Tyron’s first half represents a further exploration of the themes from that song; including his assertion that his steep rise to fame could not be cancelled by one bad night (really, a few bad minutes).

We’ve already talked about the Skepta-featuring hit “CANCELLED” which finds the grime legend joining slowthai in hitting back against today’s often-too-harsh cancel culture. On “MAZZA” featuring American rapper A$AP Rocky – no stranger to controversy himself – slowthai explores the mantra of “Any press is good press”. “Gin and tonic, I’m a bigger topic / Bigger pocket, can’t close my wallet,” he boasts, tongue-in-cheek reference to his boozy bad day. And he has a point; recent events have done nothing but fuel slowthai’s punk image, on which much of his music is based – surely that can’t be bad for business.

The few others on this half of Tyron see slowthai at peak bluster. “VEX” explores his refusal to get ruffled by things that would earlier bother him (“I used to get vexed, now I just, mmh / Been bad since I stepped out the womb”) while “DEAD” speaks to his legacy that, according to slowthai, is irreplaceable whether he’s alive or not. In line with the twist on the death theme, there are some YOLO lyrics on this track: e.g. “My vida loca, true I lead this crazy life / Tune banging in the motor, gun-fingers to the sky”.

After all that bravado, slowthai switches things up on the more hard-hitting second half. It’s not just the titles that are in lower case; these seven songs find the music toned down, his raps slower. If the first half was the drunken, belligerent NME evening, the second half was the morning after – with a heartfelt explanation of the personal events that led to an embarrassing show like that.

i tried” is a heartbreaking tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to be loved but is shunned by a world that only sees the stereotype. It’s a tale as old as time, but the sharpness of his writing lends new texture to the story. “Hug the world with open arms and they treat me like a pest,” he says, followed soon by “Life got me in a headlock, back and forth like a hockey puck / Always wanted muscles, lack of strength made me headstrong”.

terms” sees slowthai realizing the destructive patterns in his life: “Early bird wakes, catches the worm then reverts to its base, regurgitates / And nothing I’ll change / Do it again and I do it the same again and again.” Musically as well, the track’s a stand-out, featuring a surprisingly evocative chorus from rapper Denzel Curry and up-and-coming rapper / musician Dominic Fike. “push” sounds nothing like any other slowthai song, featuring the gentle vocals and guitars of LA singer-songwriter Deb Never. “I grew up ’round toxic / And people can’t see ’cause they live in a pond with some dumb fish,” writes slowthai, wrapping that pearl of truth with coming-of-age snippets from his rough background.

The best of this bunch is “adhd”, which sees slowthai at his most honest and vulnerable. On this track, he paints his hard persona as a shield to deflect from his varied and self-harming internal struggles. If the line “Tryna protect so I project / Deflect and they call it self-defence,” doesn’t get you, this one will: “Overthink, sink in my seat / Eat, sleep, repeat, what you know about T? / Smoke weed only way I fall asleep / Same routine, drink ’til I can’t speak”.

Overall, Tyron adds depth to the slowthai persona, offering up intriguing and well-penned origin storylines that further explain why this lad from Northampton ended up creating a debut album called Nothing Great About Britain. The introspective second-half of the album is far more interesting than the typical braggart first-half, and hopefully slowthai explores that side further in future albums.

Best tracks: “CANCELLED”, “adhd”, “i tried”

Rating: 7.5/10

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.

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