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Top Five Deep Cuts: Arctic Monkeys Edition

11 Sep

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

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

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

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

5. “Piledriver Waltz” from the Submarine soundtrack

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

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

4. “Mad Sounds” from AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. “Secret Door” from Humbug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable mentions:

Cornerstone” from Humbug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

7 Sep

It’s on the title track that you can really feel the talent that Nubya Garcia brings to the table. It’s the longest track on the album at 12 minutes, but it packs those twelve minutes full of action. There’s an excellent solo from Nubya Garcia there and it’s followed by an equally spectacular keyboard solo. It’s a fiery track and absolutely top level jazz.

She has the same quality in “Pace,” where the music has a good, frenetic energy. “Before Us” keeps that fast pace and takes the sound close to noise and benefits greatly from that. The jagged horns are an absolute treat, even if the opening veered a little easy listening for my taste.

However, there a couple of places where it takes things too slow for its own good. “Stand With Each Other” takes too long to get where it’s going. While “Inner Game” and “Together Is A Beautiful Place to Be” both have a nice tone to them, they lack brilliance. They’re satisfactory, but they don’t do anything interesting.

“La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” has genius to spare though. The Latin sound that pops in and out through the album comes to the forefront here and its melding with the jazz is fantastic. Nubya Garcia has the talent to pull off any kind of jazz she chooses, but it’s in this style that she is most exciting.

SOURCE has a little more air than I would prefer, but there’s plenty here to reward jazz aficionados of any level. This is a very impressive debut and completely justifies the anticipation it commanded. I’m excited to see what Nubya Garcia does next.

Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020

2 Sep

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

5. “30 People” by Token

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

4. “my future” by billie eilish

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

3. “Vampire” by Dominic Fike

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

2. “Tangerine” by Glass Animals

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

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

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

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

Burna Boy – Twice As Tall

1 Sep

I’ve gone through a lot of anti-colonial stuff in my time, but I don’t think anyone ever comes anywhere close to making it as much fun as Burna Boy does. The Nigerian afro-fusion artist is just absurdly talented as a musician. His music is as infectious as you could ask for, but clever to go with it. There’s an easy and deeply unfair critique of world music often made, that it’s a shallow gimmick to go to cultural roots for sounds, but Burna Boy’s music fully puts lie to that.

He has some top tier work in this album. The opener “Level Up” is strong music and his talk about the Grammys is disarmingly honest in an album that goes so hard. “Way Too Big” is impeccable stunting and aggressively anti-colonial. “Wettin Dey Sup” is maybe the catchiest song of the year. Also, I really appreciate getting the embodiment of White music, Chris Martin, in for the hook of the angrily anti-colonial “Monsters You Made.”

However, there’s a lot of air in Twice As Tall. “Naughty By Nature” is fun and upbeat, but also forgettable and not particularly interesting. The afro-fusion and pidgin do something, but not quite enough. “Real Life” doesn’t deliver on the promise of the Stormzy collaboration. I’m sure though that I would get more from the album if I knew Yoruba. His lyrics just add so much to the sound.

Overall, it’s not quite the statement of arrival that African Giant was, but Twice As Tall is still a strong entry in the burgeoning afro-fusion scene. It’s fun, it’s intelligent and it knows its history to boot.

SERA – When I Wake Up

27 Aug

SERA (a.k.a. Sera Zyborska) is a Welsh-English singer-songwriter with strong roots in North Wales. Her brand of cinematic, Americana-tinged folk music has been making some noise recently, with a mention in BBC’s coveted Horizons list for 2019-2020 and a performance at the world-famous Maida Vale recording studio. Her August 2020 album – entitled When I Wake Up – certainly does just that, with jangly guitar tunes and SERA’s powerful voice that will jolt even the most casual of listeners out of a reverie.

The album starts off with “Rabbit Hole”, a three-minute blitz that summarizes the touchstone elements of SERA’s sound. There’s the theatrical string flourishes, the fast-paced guitar, and SERA’s strong, emotive voice – almost similar to fellow countrywoman Nadine Shah.

Several songs on the album are set in nature, especially on the mystical side. Apart from the aforementioned “Rabbit Hole”, the more hard-hitting “Into the Woods” and the jangly “Ghosts and the Past” play on the same theme. And there’s a good reason too – SERA’s hometown of Caernarfon is a Technicolor Welsh setting with rolling green hills, breathtaking views of the Irish Sea and a majestic castle to boot.

Things to do while visiting Caernarfon | North Wales Holiday ...
SERA’s hometown. Photo Credit

She also does well on songs that spotlight her crystal clear vocals. For example, on “Atlantis”, her voice sparkles and shines against folksy strings and tambourine-tinged handclaps. “Old Soul” slows things down; here, SERA’s vulnerable, soft vocals are set against gentle instrumentation, in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Norah Jones.

We also loved the rollicky side of her on songs like “Boudicca” and “Switch”. The former is a real foot-tapper that sounds like it could soundtrack an old-timey campfire jig. Fittingly, the lyrics detail a quick folksy biography of Welsh queen Boudicca, who beat back the Roman Empire way back in the first century AD. “Switch” features dramatic violins and SERA’s singular voice that lull you into thinking it’s going to be just a folk song, before breaking into genre-busting drums-and-guitar chorus.

Despite a few weaker tracks that don’t quite pull together, When I Wake Up is definitely a high-powered folk album that’s worth a listen all the way through. SERA is one of those artists that sounds like she’s just about to make it big. She clearly has the vocal goods; she has the song-writing talent; and she also has a unique upbringing in dreamy North Wales that can prove to be fertile ground for endless albums to come. Take a spin on When I Wake Up and see for yourself!

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “Boudicca”, “Old Soul”, “Rabbit Hole”

Glass Animals – Dreamland

24 Aug

British psychedelic pop act Glass Animals recently released their third studio album, Dreamland, earlier this month. The band’s previous outputs – debut Zaba (2014) and How to Be a Human Being (2016) – were fairly well-received, resulting in break-out single “Gooey” in addition to a Mercury Prize nod. With Dreamland, the band digs deep into deeply personal stories for a record that’s nostalgic, expertly produced and as dreamy as the name suggests. However, it remains to be seen whether this is the best that Glass Animals are capable of.

According to lead singer Dave Bayley, Dreamland has a grisly and quite recent origin story. In 2018, the band’s drummer Joe Seaward (and Bayley’s childhood friend, as are all the band members) got into a horrendous traffic accident that left his future uncertain. Although Seaward eventually recovered, Bayley’s experiences at his bedside got him thinking about their past, and then even before that: although Bayley is English now, he is actually American by birth and moved to the UK only in his early teens. This mishmash of trans-Atlantic experiences went on to provide the content for much of Dreamland’s lyrics.

Bayley’s date of birth – in June 1989 – forms another key piece of the album’s lyrics. Dreamland is consciously and explicitly centered on the specific lived experiences of Bayley’s cohort of Americans millennials. Peppered throughout the album are touchstones from the childhood of someone born in the 1989-1992 period – watching “The Price is Right” after-school; seeing school shootings; playing Pokemon; and much more.

Unfortunately, the hyper-specific focus on the personal past sometimes works; but more often than not, makes the songs trite and a little childish. If you are listening as someone born in that exact country and time period, great – chances are, you’ll love it purely out of your own emotional connections. If not – well, it does come across a little vapid.

Lyrics aside, though, the album is quite well-produced and diverse in terms of vocals, drums and beats. Dreamland starts off with the eponymous track and third single, which touches upon the key stories and emotions that will be brought up in the rest of the album. The song also sets the album’s dreamy (duh) tone, from the gentle xylophone to Bayley’s whispery falsetto. The last lines on “Dreamland” literally segue us into the rest of the album: “Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that / So you go make an album and call it Dreamland”.

Say what you will about Glass Animals, but they sure know how to pick their singles. The fantastic Denzel Curry collab “Tokyo Drifting” was released all the way back in November 2019 (remember 2019?); as regular Top Five Records readers know, it was one of the best tracks in 2019 period. Second single “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” from this February was and continues to be a Timberlake/Timberland-esque banger. Perhaps the most interesting track on this album is final single “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”, where the band trade in their hip-hop beats for an intense, Radiohead-like slow-burner. In line with the title, the song gets progressively louder as Bayley’s vocals paint a picture of the split-second after you’ve said something you oughtn’t have.

Among the non-singles, “Tangerine” stands out with catchy beats and a calypso beat that’s instantly reminiscent of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” deals with the quintessentially American topic of school shootings, and is apparently based off of a real-life friend who became a school shooter. Musically, the song features a wide array of blips, beat drops and droning synths that make for a snappy, crisp listen (despite its content).

But beyond these stand-out tracks, the album starts to falter. It’s not that the rest of the songs aren’t good tunes – on the contrary, the beats and production remain top-notch fairly throughout. However, they don’t quite break out of the casual-listen orbit. “Melon and the Coconut” is as forgettable as the name suggests; “Waterfalls Coming Out of Your Mouth” is just “Tangerine” without the Drake rip-off beat. “Heat Waves” is a great summer track, but you won’t probably remember it beyond the summer. In fact, the most memorable part about it is the music video (see below), which was shot entirely in quarantine. “Domestic Bliss” tackles an important subject matter – domestic violence between parents from a child’s perspective – but you could not hum a bar of it afterward if you tried.

Dreamland is a musical version of the 90s-kid meme, filled with the collective memories of 30-ish-year-olds from childhood to the present day – quinoa and online shopping included – through the filter of Dave Bayley’s personal memories. However, the autobiography theme is a little too specific, erring on the side of therapy or diary entries than the side of a meaningful creative output. Also, the chillwave-meets-Beach Boys vibe gets a little taxing and banal after a while, as does Bayley’s constant falsetto. Overall, Dreamland is a fun, crisply-produced listen – but you wouldn’t be amiss to hear the hits and skip the rest.

Best songs: “Tokyo Drifting”, “Your Love (Deja Vu)”, “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”

Rating: 7/10

Top Five Deep Cuts: Taylor Swift Edition

22 Aug

Ed. Note: This is a guest post from our good friend @Beatcritiques. Be sure to follow their Instagram page and check out their blog for more great content like this! Related: Check out our review of Taylor’s latest album folklore.

Everyone knows Taylor Swift. She’s written number one hits like “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and that’s just a few. Swift was also the recipient of the Artist of the Decade award at the 2019 AMAs. Safe to say, Taylor Swift has had an impressive career and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. If you’re looking to jump on the Swiftie bandwagon but don’t want to sound like you only know her greatest hits look no further. Listed below are five of my personal favorite deep cuts that she’s released.

Forever and Always (Piano Version)” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)

The piano version of the track “Forever and Always” from the deluxe version of Swift’s second studio album, Fearless, is heartbreaking. Stripping the track down to the essentials turns an upbeat track into a highly personal breakup song wondering where things went wrong. Swift sounds like she’s singing right to you asking “Baby, what happened please tell me?” and can draw tears out during the bridge telling the subject to “back up, hold on, back up.” A gorgeous track overall. 

Come Back…Be Here” from Red (Deluxe Edition)

Another deluxe edition track, “Come Back…Be Here” comes off of Red, Swift’s transition into pop. This track is deceptively sad and relies heavily on a guitar instrumental. What really makes this song stand out to me is the bridge and more specifically, the lines “This is falling in love in the cruelest way/This is falling for you when you are worlds away.” Swift’s vocals are stunning in this track as she describes the separation between her and the object of her affection. 

Sweeter Than Fiction” from One Chance

“Sweeter Than Fiction” was written by Swift herself and Jack Antonoff (a duo that has produced some of Swift’s best songs in my opinion) for the movie “One Chance.” This track describes supporting a partner on their journey through all of their ups and downs, eventually ending up in a success (“Now in this perfect weather, it’s like we don’t remember/ The rain we thought would last forever and ever”). More of a feel-good song than anything else, it never fails to get me up on my feet dancing and singing along as I remember that sometimes, life itself really can be sweeter than fiction. 

Clean” from 1989

Okay, “Clean” is one of my personal favorite Taylor Swift tracks of all time and seeing it performed in the pouring rain during the Reputation tour is one of my favorite memories. Written with Imogen Heap for the pure pop album 1989, this song is the perfect anthem of cleansing yourself and realizing that you’re better off without some people in your life. The beauty of this song is the fact that it can be applied to any relationship, not just romantic ones. This track is a must-listen Swift ballad and a classic among fans.

Cruel Summer” from Lover

Swift flexes her lyrical ability on the upbeat summer bop, “Cruel Summer.” In my top 3 of seventh-studio album, Lover, Swift describes the “glow of the vending machine,” as she talks about a secret relationship (“sneaking in the garden gate”). As many fans of Taylor Swift must know, she loves a good bridge and the bridge on this song deserves to be listened to at full volume every time. How else are you supposed to scream “he looks up grinning like a devil?” “Cruel Summer” is also a favorite among fans, and was a contender for the next single off of Lover before Swift surprised fans with her album, folklore.

Honorable Mentions (because who can choose just five?!)

  • “Picture to Burn” from Taylor Swift
  • “Beautiful Eyes” from Beautiful Eyes EP
  • “Jump Then Fall” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)
  • “Better Than Revenge” from Speak Now
  • “Getaway Car” from reputation
  • “august” from folklore 
  • “the 1” from folklore

So there you have it! Did you agree with BeatCritiques’ picks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! And don’t forget to follow us on WordPress to hear about our new posts as soon as we hit that Publish button.

Taylor Swift – folklore

19 Aug

It was not something I expected, but Taylor Swift has just made “the indie record much cooler than hers“, and she’s done it quite well at that. I’m not the biggest fan of TayTay personally. Normally, when I mention a TSwift, it’s something that I’ll say to Tom quickly, but her teaming up with the National’s Aaron Dessner has resulted in an album that I actually really like.

She handles understatement very well.  There’s nothing particularly loud or aggressive here, It’s just her voice and minimal instruments, which suits her well. She’s always had musical ability and this album showcases it well by stripping away the rest. She’s similarly deft lyrically. “hoax” has the clever line “You knew the password so I let you in the door / You knew you won so what’s the point of keeping score?” alongside similarly clever music and “my tears ricochet”  has the pointed “If I’m dead to you / why are you at the wake.”

She has a very cinematic bent to her music, which tends to pair well with the genre. There are a lot of scenes that feel set up for a movie and “exile” uses this quite well. “cardigan” is similarly reminiscent of Lana Del Rey and quite good for being so. It’s a little teenage for me with lines like “you drew stars around my scars/but now I’m bleedin'” but it’s still good music. This could be said of the whole trilogy that she embedded in the album. It’s all quite solid music though and I’m glad that her more diehard fans have something that feels built for them.

It’s not a top tier lo-fi record. She hasn’t really found her voice in this space and she’s just not got as many sharp things to say as someone like Phoebe Bridgers (who had an excellent album come out earlier this year) and the music is not quite as memorable as I would like. “this is me trying ” has a chorus that really uses her voice well, but the rest of the song doesn’t quite convert. She never fleshes out the premise and save for the chorus, the song is entirely forgettable. Also, in “peace,” she lacks delicacy. She emphasizes points that would have been better left to the listener to notice and that lack of subtlety weakens the song. Nevertheless, this is a very solid album. This may not be the Taylor I’m used to, but it is a Taylor that I will always be glad to hear again.

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure

14 Aug

Pop singer-songwriter Jessie Ware is familiar to most English audiences. Her debut album Devotion (2012) straight away bagged a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won that year by fellow Brit pop act alt-J. That album introduced listeners to Ware’s powerful voice, typically set against hefty drums and assertive synths. Subsequent albums Tough Love (2014) and Glasshouse (2017) followed the same theme, resulting in fantastic singles such as “Tough Love” and “Midnight”.

This June, Ware released What’s Your Pleasure, her fourth album – and undoubtedly her best. Over 53 minutes, Jessie Ware takes us on a journey back in time to the peak-disco world of late 70s, as epitomized by dance clubs like Studio 54. What’s Your Pleasure finds Ware at her freest – less bound by the rules of commercial pop music – and the result is a bold, highly enjoyable dance-pop extravaganza for the ages.

When we say dance-pop, we aren’t kidding. What’s Your Pleasure is filled to the brim with 70s-inspired dancefloor gems. Disco is, of course, the theme du jour among pop stars, but Jessie’s interpretation is slinkier than Dua Lipa, more refined than Lady Gaga and more inspired than Doja Cat.

From start to end, the album centers along the same few years – perhaps 1972 to 1978 – but manages to capture all the subtle nuances of that era. The album kicks off with “Spotlight”, which opens with a dreamy, vocal-heavy section in line with Jessie Ware of old – but then jumps right into the unmistakable disco synths that color the rest of the album. “Ooh La La” opens with a fat bassline that could soundtrack the entrance of a glamorous socialite into a plush dancefloor. A couple of songs later, “Save A Kiss” goes into the house music arena with a head-spinning beat, tempered by electronic blips and dramatic violins. “Read My Lips”, with its electric-guitar licks and distant synths, is pure flirty fun all the way through.

Lyrically, much of the album deals with obsession in all its facets – longing, lust, sex and sometimes just romance. Ware introduces the theme right at the start with “Spotlight”: “If only I could let you go, If only I could be alone / I just wanna stay, In the moonlight, this is our time in the spotlight”. “Adore You”, the first single off the album, is sweeter. “Stay ’cause I want you / We can tell everybody, tell everybody,” she suggests, perhaps the starting notes of what will soon become an unhealthy obsession. “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” is her paean for the morning-after: “Last night we danced, and I thought you were saving my life,” she confesses.

Both musically and lyrically, the album really hits its peak on the eponymous “What’s Your Pleasure”: a fast-paced, riveting, instant-classic disco hit that’s honestly one of the best songs of the year.

Recently, fashion godfather and Vogue legend Andre Leon Talley released an auto-biography entitled Chiffon Trenches. In the book, Talley describes his life through the fashion world in the past half-century, especially underlining the carefree, lascivious few years in the 70s between the sexual revolution and the AIDS wildfire. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure is the perfect soundtrack to this era: confident yet vulnerable, joyous yet filled with longing, but above all – free.

What’s Your Pleasure is an audacious, glittery antidote to this godforsaken year, and we couldn’t be happier that Jessie has bequeathed us with this gift.

Best songs: “What’s Your Pleasure”, “Read My Mind”, “Spotlight”

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Neeharika’s List

10 Aug

No matter what arena of entertainment you subscribe to, chances are that you are familiar with Donald Glover. Beyond being a well-known musical artist, Glover is something of a modern-day renaissance man. He’s the award-winning creator / actor of the FX show Atlanta; a big-name movie star for properties such as The Lion King and the Star Wars universe; a prodigious young writer for 30 Rock; a bonafide TV star on cult show Community; and much more.

However, our viewpoint here at Top Five Records is of course on his musical avatar. Last week, our writer Nikhil Murthy took a critical look at the life and times of the artist known as Childish Gambino. Nikhil had choice words against the earliest part of Gambino’s career, especially around the Camp era.

It wasn’t all negative though: Nikhil next listed out his top five tracks from the Childish Gambino discography. Here’s his list if you missed it.

After Nikhil put up his list, we had a bit of a heated internal discussion within the Top Five Records team. Did we agree that “This Is America” is his best song? Did we think that “Les” is the best song from Camp? Which is more impressive: time-withstanding lyrics, or tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural one-liners? And so on (as you may imagine from a group of music nerds).

Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to this: Did his best tracks come at the earlier part of his career, or the latter part? So, with that, here’s another look at Childish Gambino’s best songs; this time from our writer Neeharika Palaka.

Honorable mentions

Heartbeat” from Camp: This is a great song from Childish Gambino’s debut album Camp (2011). Although it starts off like it could be a slow-jam R&B track, Gambino quickly dispels the notion with an angry volley of hurt sentiments at a girl who chose someone else over him. It’s immediately apparent that he’s a comedy writer. For example, these lines in which he puts down his rival for being (of all things) a bad blogger, and backhand-compliments his would-be lady’s figure: “He ain’t cool, he ball and all that, but he just a fake nigga who blog in all caps / You coulda’ wait to date, I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate”. “Heartbeat” is not just about the lyrics; Gambino also impresses with his oscillating emotional delivery, the sludgy synths, and a catchy chorus to boot.

Bonfire” from Camp: This is another track from Camp, and really the first Gambino song I ever heard. One could write a long-form essay on the vast array of jokes, double-entendres, clever brags and other sleights-of-hand that Donald Glover, the professional writer, manages to fit into just over three minutes on this track. “Bonfire” works almost like Glover’s intro-slash-autobiography, of growing up as an artistic Black man in rural Georgia, of not quite fitting in with his heritage while attending the best high school in Georgia, of ultimately making peace with his eclectic scenario. Naturally, being Childish, all of these hefty topics are conveyed through a series of improbable one-liners. “Black and white music? Nigga, that’s a mixtape”; “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es”; “Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit ‘First of all, you talk white! Second off, you talk like you haven’t given up yet’”; and many more. It’s honestly a fascinating song.

5. “Redbone” from “Awaken, My Love!”

Clocking at number 5 is “Redbone” from the peculiarly-named “Awaken, My Love!” album. I know Nikhil rated it much higher, and I understand where he’s coming from: this is perhaps one of the funkiest, slow-burn songs in Childish Gambino’s line-up. Moreover, the song has deep meaning. The entire album was said to have been inspired by the birth of his child with his non-Black partner; a light-skinned African American child is occasionally known as a redbone, so that’s likely the inspiration for this track. Although this is an undeniably groovy jam – especially the plethora of Gambino’s “Stay woke” wails – it’s perhaps not endlessly listenable.

4. “Sweatpants” from Because the Internet

“Sweatpants” is the first of my picks from Because the Internet (2013). This was the album that moved my image of Donald Glover from his Troy Barnes avatar to his Childish Gambino avatar, although I did take a shine to his debut Camp (2011) when it came out.

The entire track is filled with the kind of slick, clever writing that earlier resulted in 23-year-old Glover being personally picked by Tina Fey to write for the legendary 30 Rock (fun fact: Glover is actually from Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is famously the hometown of immortal 30 Rock pageboy Kenneth).

I’m just a sucker for braggart puns ( “I got more tail than Petco / You faker than some Sweet ‘n Low”), and this song has them by the truckloads. Another favorite line is “And I’m too fly, Jeff Goldblum” which works two ways because Goldblum is indeed super-fly, and also appears in 1986 film The Fly. And so on. The music video is a cracker too, featuring Gambino playing every role at a greasy spoon, from diners to frilly-frocked waitress.

3. “3005” from Because the Internet

Another great track from Because the Internet is that album’s lead single “3005”, which is at its heart a sweet love song about wanting to stay with someone until the year 3005. There are only two verses on this track, but Gambino makes those verses count. His flow modulates impressively between tones, volume, and emotions, while still delivering clever one-liners like “Girl why is you lying, girl why you Mufasa / Yeah, mi casa su casa, got it stripping like Gaza”. Interspersed between these two verses is an extremely catchy (and sweet) chorus: “No matter what you say or what you do / When I’m alone, I’d rather be with you”.

2. “This Is America” (single)

No Childish Gambino list can be complete without a mention of this zeitgeist of modern-day America. Released in 2018 as a stand-alone single, two years into Trump’s presidency, the song summed up so many elements of culture and conversation at that point in time – from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to a lessening divide between church and state, to America’s gun violence problem. By far, the most chilling part of the song is the ice-cold delivery that Childish Gambino employs at the most deviant lines (“Police be trippin’ now, Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area, I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em”).

The best part of the song, of course, is its iconic, truly memorable music video, in which a crazed-looking Gambino slow-writhes his way through gospel choir, point-blank murder, African dance and too much more to recount. If anything, this song and its visuals have gotten better and more important with time.

1. “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet

My personal favorite Childish Gambino song is, for many years now, “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet. The song is subtitled “‘Oakland’ by Lloyd”, and there’s a reason for that. Gambino sets up the song as if it were a song called “Oakland” by singer Lloyd, playing on LA’s Power 106 radio as Gambino drives from LA to Oakland. In that way, the song serves two functions: one, of course, as a Childish Gambino song. The other is as a paean to the city of Oakland – and the lover it holds – that Gambino, the character in this song, pens as he drives “up the 5” toward the iconic East Bay city (and its most famous street, Telegraph Ave). Again, I’m a sucker for exactly the kind of multi-layered, multi-media texture that early Gambino excelled in, so perhaps that’s why this song just clicks for me. All in all, this is a lovely song about Gambino meditating on his relationship – settling down, making the distance work, growing up, parenthood – on a long, lonely drive. What’s more relatable than that?

Final thoughts

So there you have it. When it comes to early Gambino vs. later Gambino, I definitely count myself in the former “camp” (get it?). With the latter albums, Gambino has great hits; but I feel that anyone with a gold-plated budget and access to top-notch producers could theoretically produce similar songs. On the earlier albums, Gambino leveraged a distinct point-of-difference, in marketing speak: his undeniable writing talent. And it’s that talent which made for highly enjoyable, layered tracks that I still cherish to this day.

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