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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.

Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet!

11 Oct

You only get an album like this once or twice a year. It’s no mean accomplishment to make music this varied and Jyoti makes it with consummate skill. She skims across genres without a ripple, selecting pieces to meld into an album wholly her own. 

She’s at her best in pieces like “This Walk.” It’s a slow, meandering song, but one where every path is interesting and filled with tiny, rewarding diversions. It’s very laid back, but so dense with thought that it’s very compelling nonetheless. It takes the ambient sounds that she uses throughout the album and cuts it to great effect with the clarity and jaggedness of her voice.

The serrated songs do well. “Ra’s Noise” is similarly jagged and unexpected, but moves further into jazz with a prominent and energetic saxophone. The barbed funk of “Hard Bap Duke” is noteworthy in the same way. This is not to disparage the other tracks here. The traditional jazz of “Swing, Kirikou, Swing” and the ambient of “Quarrys, Quarries” are both very good and the screeching guitar in “The Cowrie Waltz” is fascinating. However, while “Bemoanable Lady Geemix” is interesting for feeling like something out of a hip-hop producer’s album and makes for good background listening, it’s a little shallow. “Ancestral Duckets” is similarly listenable, but could have used more thought.

Mama, You Can Bet ends up with a lot going for it. The range and ability on display here is astonishing. A couple of the pieces here fall short of what one would hope and there’s no single piece that truly stands out, but those are minor blemishes in an album of excellent quality and singular execution.

Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

28 Sep

Fontaines DC burst onto the scene in 2019 with their rambunctious, near-perfect debut album Dogrel. The album’s mix of sneering punk, clever literary references and mesmerizing vocals won over many early fans, including us (as you might recall from our end-of-year lists). This summer, the Irish punk quarter returned with an engrossing, worthy follow-up called A Hero’s Death.

On the sophomore album, Fontaines DC keep their trademark self-confidence, but have somewhat smoothed out the edges. Fewer are the pub-fight-friendly tracks like “Big”; largely gone are the spoken-word punk bangers like “Hurricane Laughter”. A Hero’s Death was largely written on a massive global tour for Dogrel, and one can somewhat see the results. This album is more introspective, more cognizant of their growing fame, and perhaps a little dialed-down on the inimitable Irish-ness. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on the listener.

If you’ve heard Dogrel, you’d have recognized the frequent mentions of America within lead singer Grian Chatten’s lyrics. The centuries-long migration pattern from Ireland to the United States seems to have made the latter a part of the Irish identity – not just for those who’ve left, but for those who stayed behind, too. Dogrel’s hit “Boys in the Better Land” centered on America as the titular “better land” that some folks in the old country still keep talking about.

On A Hero’s Death, “Living in America” adds another wrinkle to the Irish relationship to America: namely, the band’s own extensive tour through America and how it fits into the almost mythic Irish idea of the place. “We were kind of fascinated by that and fascinated by when we actually got to America and you travel across it, you do see that there is really a lot of inequality in a real way,” Chatten said on a recent interview. Fittingly, the track has the same kind of manic yet droning energy of a lot of hard-scrabble, dying American cities.

In fact, the band channels that same dissonance – between reality and imagination, between pre-fame life and post-fame life – on a few other tracks here. The album opener “I Don’t Belong” is a defiant rejection of the post-fame life, where Grian Chatten hypnotically repeats the phrase “I don’t belong to anyone” until all the layers stick with you. Screw you: they don’t want to belong to anyone. Too bad: they can’t belong to anyone. Mind yourself: they shouldn’t belong to anyone. Sadly: they don’t belong to anyone. “I Was Not Born” sounds like a song version of what the band may have precociously said to their tour managers; “I was not born into this world / To do another man’s bidding,” Chatten shouts in an echoing voice over incessant drums and guitars.

Although it’s just eleven songs long, A Hero’s Death takes the listener through many different moods and concepts. Right after the aforementioned brash “I Was Not Born” comes the wistful, sad-pop “Sunny” and the beautiful and gentle album closer “No”. Elsewhere, “Televised Mind” is a hypnotic extension of Dogrel’s “Television Screens” – a favorite theme of Fontaines DC regarding the decay of human thought in today’s consumerist society. “A Lucid Dream”, as the name suggests, is filled with trippy lines (“I was there / When the rain changed direction and fled to play tricks with your hair”) made tripper still with unpredictable volume modulations across verses and chorus.

Perhaps the best song on the album is, appropriately, the title track, which we’ve already spoken about extensively. Grian Chatten’s lyrics are intended to be satire on hypocritical, consumerist preaching, but they’ve accidentally come up with enough do-good edicts to start a small cult (we’re personally ready to sign up just with the line “Never let a clock tell you what you have time for”).

We had good things to say about all of the singles, and thankfully the rest of the album holds up too. A Hero’s Death may not be exactly similar to Dogrel, but it’s more multi-faceted and a little more grown-up in its outlook. Most importantly, it proves that there’s much more to Fontaines DC, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Best tracks: “A Hero’s Death”, “Televised Mind”, “A Lucid Dream”

Rating: 8.5/10

Aminé – Limbo

19 Sep

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how likable Aminé can be and how much that adds to his music. I’m always happy to see what he’s up to. He’s not the only rapper to be this upbeat or this insouciant, but he’s easily the one that I like the most.

Sometimes, this is exactly right. He has a talent for catchiness and so songs like “Compensating” really take off. He has fun, his personality gets to shine and Thugger is a good complement for him. When he gets into his flow, like in “Woodlawn,” he’s a lot of fun. “Riri” is him in his comfort zone, but better than he’s ever been before. That hook in particular is a top-tier earworm.

There’s a fair bit of air in the album though, as is unfortunately common for Aminé. “Pressure In My Palms” tries his standard formula but isn’t catchy or interesting enough. It doesn’t show him off at all and sort of feels like a Vince Staples outtake. Similarly, “Roots” reminds me of Saba and Kendrick, but I’d rather listen to them than this.

“Mama” has him trying sincerity, but it’s not a strong move. He doesn’t have the toughness for the move to feel like a softening and he’s too ironic for a straight-edge song. “Fetus” is slow and thoughtful and quite well done. It’s not innovative, but it is good and the grapefruit line hits.

You have to take Aminé for who he is. This isn’t the kind of album that’s going to stick to you long after it’s done. Instead, it’s an effervescent album with fun lines and catchy hooks and one that you’ll feel good for having heard.

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.

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

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.

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