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Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

25 Nov

I would have thought Afrobeats was too new to support something like THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW, but it’s clear that Amaarae is not the type to wait around for other people to catch up. THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW takes pieces from the rapidly rising Afrobeats, but mixes in influences from all over the place to make something that is impossibly even more catchy than any of its sources.

This is exemplified by the sublime “HELLZ ANGEL.” It has a clever, tripping beat and her art-pop high pitched voice plays against it well. When the song gets going, it’s compulsive and then she switches her tempo before diving into a quick rap with the excellent “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.”

She has a lot of fun in the album. “SAD, U BROKE MY HEART” is the most Afrobeats of the tracks here and it uses the playfulness of the genre to great effect with the gentle singing and the blunt title and on the complete other side of the spectrum, she brings in some emo-rap for the very cute “FANCY.”

For all of that though, the other album highlight is the amazing “JUMPING SHIP.” The tenderness in her voice is exceptional and the song hits all the right notes of regret. It does a lot to ground the album after all of lightness surrounding. it.

In this fusion that Amaarae found, she’s accomplished something extraordinary. This is an infectious, clever album and some of the best music of the year. You should not miss it.

The Killers – Imploding the Mirage

24 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10

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

Ty Dolla $ign – Featuring Ty Dolla $ign

20 Nov

I absolutely love the concept behind this album. It’s anything but uncommon to see Ty featuring on someone else’s album. He’s a good person to fill a gap if needed and this can make it hard to take him seriously for who he is. Like 2 Chainz, it feels like he’s making a push for auteurship and I’m glad to see it.

The idea of taking a ton of features himself and not only owning his shapeshifting, but using it to make an album that is uniquely his excited me. I was hoping for something like LEGACY, LEGACY with space for the people mentioned to actually show up. Featuring Ty Dolla $ign falls somewhat short of that in a number of ways, but there’s still plenty in here.

He does well in the harder half of the album. “Expensive” with Nicki is a lot of fun. He has a great flow in “Real Life” and “Double R.” “Freak” uses Quavo very well. Cudi also shows up well in “Temptations.”

It’s in the slow tracks that Ty misses the mark. “Everywhere” is fine technically, but is forgettable and doesn’t fit in particularly well. “Your Turn” is honestly execrable and “Slow It Down” is a similar weak point. His crooning in “By Yourself” has moments though, but it doesn’t have the energy of the Afrobeats musicians in the same space and Jhene Aiko, while fine, is forgettable.

It all comes together in the closer “Ego Death” though. The Kanye / Skrillex beat is top-notch and not only is the rap excellent, but the shift in sound for FKA Twigs is exactly what I was hoping for throughout the album.

Featuring Ty Dolla $ign is not exactly what I was hoping for, but there’s a lot of solid music in here. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a good time and a very clever path for Ty Dolla $ign to take.

IDLES – Ultra Mono

16 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10

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

Ariana Grande – Positions

12 Nov

Ariana has hit a productive streak of late, and a fairly solid one too. Positions isn’t the revelation that thank u, next was, but it’s still a fun pop album. “34+35” is a cute little sex jam and “my hair” is strong R&B in a Solange vein.

It’s not all what I would hope for though. “just like magic” is a little uninspired and a little grating. “off the table” does nothing by reuniting The Weeknd and Ari, which is a shame given how well their previous collaboration worked. “motive” is effective for most of the song, it’s both suspicious and tender and compelling for it, but sadly the Doja Cat feature detracts from the whole thing.

Still, any flaws are made up for with “positions.” It’s a magnificent song. Her voice is deeply alluring and the song takes an intricate opening and makes it an excellent beat.

Positions is just a good time. Ariana is having fun and being sexy and making frothy pop music that’s a pleasure to listen to.

Ozuna – ENOC

5 Nov

If you haven’t tried modern reggaeton yet, Ozuna has just made the album for you. The Spanish-speaking Carribean mix of dancehall, rap and singing has had plenty of mainstream success already, but this album feels built for crossover appeal.

Ozuma just brings so much energy and so much charisma to this album. It’s irresistibly likable. This is at its best in the admittedly slightly basic “Gistro Amarillo.” It’s just too catchy and upbeat to deny.

He’s very good when he keeps that energy up, as he does on “Del Mar” which does really well for the Doja Cat and Sia features, and through most of the album. However, he misses the mark on his slower songs, like “No Se Da Cuenta,” which is made forgettable in part due to the inclusion of the King of Reggaeton himself, Daddy Yankee.

This is definitely the place to start if you want to jump into the new Puerto Rican hotness and is fun enough to be a good time whatever the case.

Monthly Playlist: Oct. 2020

2 Nov

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

5. “I Love It” by Kylie Minogue

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

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

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

3. “Intercontinental Radio Waves” by TRAAMS

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

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

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

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

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

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

29 Oct

There are some time-worn traditions when it comes to being a music fan. At some point, you realize that you’re older than the hot new popstars, you begin to appreciate some of the music your parents liked (although ABBA is still garbage) and some clever new musician takes your formative music and remakes it for the modern world. I’ve never seen someone take as much of it as Bartees Strange though.

“Stone Meadows” feels like a more cerebral Foo Fighters or like TV On The Radio at their best and Bartees Strange spends most of his time in this space, but then there’s plenty of art-pop and jolts of rap and house. “Kelly Rowland” is more emo-rap than anything else, but with some very intricate threads running through it.

The variety and the scratchiness give this album the feel of a personal mixtape, something compiled mostly from the sounds of the early 00s, but with snatches from other eras as well. For all of that variety though, Strange keeps the album cohesive. It’s a remarkable achievement.

For someone who came to music then, someone ever closer to their thirties, this album is undeniable. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia though, it doesn’t make me feel like I did back then. It is just very good music that speaks to something fundamental in me.

21 Savage and Metro Boomin – SAVAGE MODE II

21 Oct

I watch the NBA a lot and there’s something that comes up every now and again. You’ll get a star player on the breakaway, an athletic player who you know can do something special, someone like LeBron James, and there’s no one between him and the basket. It’s the kind of moment that gets you on the edge of your seat. You see him go up, but instead of anything special, the ball just goes in the basket. No windmill, no arm cock, just two points. That feeling, the feeling of hoping for a highlight and getting a simple dunk instead, that’s the feeling of SAVAGE MODE II. There’s a sense of deflation, but two points are still two points.

21 Savage has already proven himself as a rapper. He’s already found success. And Metro Boomin is Metro Boomin. He’s an institution at this point. This is an album that was built for greatness. It’s a shame that it never does more than reasonable.

This is most evident with the recurring Morgan Freeman appearances. He’s meant to lend gravitas, to make the album cinematic, but instead he bores. His “Snitches & Rats (Interlude)” is uninspired and unintelligent and I can’t remember a single thing from his intro and outro.

The Drake feature is in the same vein of big rapper moves, but does a lot better than the Morgan Freeman parts. Drake feels a little by-the-numbers and 21 isn’t anything special here, but it’s still a fairly solid song. The Young Thug feature does better, but 21 doesn’t feel comfortable in it.

He hits his flow in a couple of places here though. “Glock In My Lap” is the cinematic sound that the rest of the album tries for and “Brand New Draco” is very competent. There’s no question about 21’s talent at this point. He just needs to learn how to relax again.

Fireboy DML – APOLLO

15 Oct

Nigeria is fast becoming a music powerhouse on the international stage. Fireboy DML makes it clear from the beginning that this is something you should be paying attention to. “Champion” starts APOLLO with a silky-smooth tone and then mixes in African themes. It also just means more to hear someone claim themselves a champion in Nigerian patois.

Those Nigerian inflections work well through the album. Songs like “Spell” and “Sound” are catchy, toe-tapping music but would have had nothing more to offer were it not for the Afrobeats elevating them. Meanwhile, “Shadé” has an interesting beat, but that gets completely overshadowed by the textured vocals of the songs. It’s an absolute stand-out and a strong pitch for stardom.

However, Fireboy’s other shots for the big stage miss more than they hit. “God Only Knows” is the outtake that even the direct-for-TV Lion King movies wouldn’t accept. While “Friday Feeling” is nice and upbeat and fun to listen to, it’s very shallow and doesn’t even stick to you when it’s playing. “Remember Me” ends the album on a similarly forgettable note.

When everything clicks for Fireboy though, APOLLO is a solid achievement. It may have flaws, but this is a signature moment for Nigerian music and another reason to be excited about what is to come.

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