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Charli XCX – Crash

6 Apr

Words by Raksha Thakur

Charli XCX knows that pop music isn’t about reinventing the wheel. In the age of social media ubiquity and its accompanying cult of authenticity, she doesn’t just play with the deja vu quality of pop music, but leans into it fully— a master of the art of making chart-friendly bops. In Charli’s hands, veering into radio-friendly territory is anything but conventional.

Charli is no stranger to pop music. She is a vocal fan of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, and her smash hits “Boom Clap”, “I Love It” with Icona Pop, and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” dominated the 2010s. As a bankable songwriter, she has also penned some of the most indelible earworms sung by other singers like Selena Gomez, Camilla Cabello, and Blondie among others. Pushing against the constraints of being a Hyperpop singer – a genre she pioneered – Crash sees her return to form in a slick pop music vein.

Playing with the decidedly mass market image of the pop diva, Charli revitalizes mainstream pop through Crash. Anointed the queen of “the future of pop,” Charli slyly challenges this legacy with references to older pop music and audaciously sampling some of the most recognizable hits of the past twenty years. The album is informed by the illusion of the singularity of the major label pop star, all by herself at the very top. Charli hurtles into self-aware pop, with a sonic palette ranging from the ’80s, 2000s and 2010s. The result is an instant classic pop album.

Crash is bangers from the outset, clocking in at a little over half an hour, and opens with the slow, rhythmic adrenaline injection of the title track. The warm, synthy, and ‘80s inspired “New Shapes” featuring Christine and the Queens, and Caroline Polachek (formerly of Chairlift fame) may as well be a tongue-in-cheek kiss off to Hyperpop, if only for the time being. “Constant Repeat” is an arena-sized dance floor scorcher. Its title alludes to the behavior of someone obsessed with a person the way one would be with a song. “You could have had a bad girl by your side,” sings the iconoclast who has proven that she can play the pop game with finesse. “Good Ones” has an intro resembling Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and embodies a catchy ’80s revival sound of the 2000s that Charli grew up on.

Thematically, Crash spans a broad swathe, ranging from aesthetic odes to the witchy, from the occult to David Cronenberg’s risqué, critically-acclaimed movie of the same name. There is also a full circle aspect to Crash having an association with cars: many of her past songs have been about cars, such as “Vroom Vroom”, “White Mercedes” and the unreleased fan favorite “Taxi”.

Charli’s songwriting presents the pop staple of love and romance in all their different dimensions. Through the tracklist, she regularly interplays between provocative songs and softer, more ballad-like tunes. “Move Me” is a ballad with the tempo of a Justin Timberlake & Timba joint with some delicious R&B “oohs”. It is followed by the effortlessly sultry “Baby”, designed to make one do something between dancing and stripping. An unexpected guitar makes a startling appearance and contrasts beautifully with the melodious staccato of Charli’s occasionally manipulated voice at the end of the Kate Bush-by-way-of-New Order anthem “Lightning”.

Charli’s gift of using decade-defining sounds from synths to the scant use of autotuned vocal creates a sound all her own and totally new in the XCX world. For example, the posturing of a pop star in all its manufactured mass appeal goes one step further when Charli sings the chorus of “Beg For You” in a manner that’s a perfect mondegreen of the song she’s sampling from (“Cry For Me” by September). This track in particular (featuring our favorite Rina Sawayama) has all the best elements of Britpop aided by Charli’s touch: a nostalgic disc scratch, Jamie XX-like bass, the sampled breakbeat and melody of Milk Inc.’s “Don’t Cry”, and a duet about heartache that is irresistible to avoid dancing to. “Used To Know Me” takes the recognizably ‘90s club sound of “Show Me Love” and transforms it into a Britney-esque danceable bubble-gum pop bop.

In 2020, Charli released the raw, vulnerable how i’m feeling now – an album that closely involved Charli’s fans (or Angels, as they’re known across the internet), including features in in her music videos. In comparison, the contrast to her new era as a main pop girl baddie couldn’t be more extreme. With its carefully manufactured mystery and allure, this album is nothing short of an enormous pivot.

Pop stars are part of a larger commercial music machinery: cogs in collaborative efforts from record labels to songwriters, singers, and producers. In contrast, Charli is known for her collaborations with other musicians and producers as much as for her signature glitchy sound. Long resistant to the singularity of the pop star, Charli’s new album dives headlong into the illusory concept of the lone pop star while serving the very finest pop music out there. Crash shows a departure for a musician who refuses to be boxed into a genre at the top of her game making timeless catchy pop.

Rosalía – MOTOMAMI

29 Mar

MOTOMAMI is the greatest reggaeton album ever made. Rosalía was already a superstar and yet she has found a way to be larger still, and even more impressively, to do so on her own terms. MOTOMAMI does not fall cleanly into any box, but instead draws from apparently every influence that Rosalía can bring to the table and the result is dizzying.

This shows up well in the fun “CANDY.” She brings great emotion and fascinating sounds from a range uncompromising in its scope and makes the song fun to boot. She is every bit as fun in “CHICKEN TERIYAKI.” The music is clever, lively and so very individual.

For all of that though, she is still capable of “HENTAI,” a slower indie rock cut. She does it well, even if I prefer the reggaeton and her versatility is stunning. This is what allows for the standout “LA FAMA,” not only the best track on the album, but also The Weeknd as good as he has ever been, but somehow in Spanish.

MOTOMAMI is everything you could ask for and yet does not have a single fragment of pandering from Rosalía. This is her album entirely and we are all the better for it.

Nilüfer Yanya – PAINLESS

20 Mar

PAINLESS is an imperious album. It’s effortless in its ability to capture. you. Many of the other great albums of the present work with intricate details. PAINLESS just finds the right grooves, adds the right textures and is rightly confident in their ability to keep you captivated. Yanya then adds to this with insistent and undeniable storytelling that runs as a dark whisper underneath the shimmering dream pop.

In something like the standout “L/R”, the narrative both powerful and sparse. “Sometimes it feels like you’re so violent, autopilot” is a strong line for the chorus and contrasts very satisfyingly with the languor of the music.

Similarly “anotherlife” is buoyant, dreamy and resonant and then it will absolutely lacerate you the moment you let it in. “try” is very compelling and very relaxing music and Yanya’s voice is perfectly restrained and sublimely emotive.

PAINLESS is a consistently cohesive album. There’s nothing here that detracts from the vision or compromises the quality and both are unparalleled.

Monthly Playlist – Feb 2022

7 Mar

The second month of 2022 saw the release of quite a few good albums. There was Laurel Hell, the much-anticipated follow-up from indie-folk singer Mitski, as well as new records from stalwarts such as Animal Collective and Spoon. There were also new tracks from artists such as Fontaines DC, Caroline Polachek and more. Read on for our top five picks from February 2022!

“The Loop” by Toro y Moi

We covered the delectable “Postman” with its fun Pharrell-esque vibe, in last month’s Monthly Playlist – and this month, Toro y Moi has treated us once again to a great track. Unlike the upbeat vibes of “Postman”, “The Loop” is much more laidback, and much more jazzy almost. Subtle basslines mesh with Chaz Bear’s playful vocals, leading to a track that’s perfect for spring days that almost, almost feel like summer. Both “Postman” and “The Loop” are precursors to Toro y Moi’s upcoming album Mahal, out on April 29th.

“Held” by Spoon

Technically, “Held” is a cover of a track by eclectic singer-songwriter Bill Callahan under his Smog avatar. We definitely don’t blame you for never having heard of Callahan, Smog or the original “Held”, but do yourself a favor and check out the cover by Spoon on their latest album Lucifer on the Sofa (released Feb. 11th). Spoon’s cover of “Held” is raw, bluesy, and full of the kind of modern-day cowboy vibes that seep through a lot of Lucifer, for which this track serves as a worthy album opener. “For the first time in my life / I let myself be held like a big old baby / And I surrender to your charity,” ruminates lead singer Britt Daniel, and the way he drawls and draws out his thoughts make you ruminate along with him. “Held” was apparently battle-tested by the band in live shows for many years, and it shows – Spoon truly owns this track.

“Crip Ya Enthusiasm” by Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg had a fantastic February. On February 10th, he made the surprise announcement that he is now the new owner of the acclaimed Death Row Records, the label which famously launched his very career. A day later, on February 11th, Snoop announced “Crip Ya Enthusiasm”, the first track from his new album (also released on the same day) quite suitably titled Bacc on Death Row. If “Crip Ya Enthusiasm” sounds to you like a reference to Curb Your Enthusiasm, then you’re exactly right. The track starts off with a sample of the meme-worthy theme song from Curb that is then masterfully spun into the song’s catchy backbone. The rest is standard Snoop flow – as cool as a cucumber, but don’t underestimate the verbal gymnastics of the West Coast OG. Also of particular note is the verse break (“These are words coming from the Dogg / And everything I do is lit / Hoppin’ right along, tryna get my party on / Call my n*, let’s go bust a bitch”) that Snoop actually sings along to the Curb song.

Oh, and on February 13th, he performed at the highly-lauded Half-Time Show at Super Bowl LVI. Not a bad February!

“Kissing Lessons” by Lucy Dacus

Lucy Dacus is a young singer-songwriter with a couple of well-received albums under her belt: her debut No Burden (2016) and two follow-ups Historian (2018) and Home Video (2021). Apart from her own music, she’s also well-known for being one-third of the group boygenius, formed with fellow indie rocker girls Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. Lyrically, “Kissing Lessons” is a short-and-sweet song about a childhood queer romance – an older girl in elementary school called Rachel that gives Lucy the titular lessons. While Rachel moves away by the end of this sub-2 minute track, Lucy still keeps a memento of her childhood more-than-a-friend. We also liked the wall-of-sound guitarwork that almost competes with Dacus’ vocals for the listener’s attention. A true indie rock song, albeit with a sweet edge.

“Angelica” by Wet Leg

Wet Leg’s debut album was one of the five albums that we were anticipating the most out of 2022 at the start of the year, and the Isle of Wight band has just released one more proof point for our case. “Angelica”, released on the last day of February, is in line with the indie rock sensibilities on their runaway hit “Chaise Lounge” and strong follow-up “Wet Dream”. The track is about a cool it-girl called, well, Angelica, who’s observed by the narrator at a party that they’re both attending. Angelica arrives (with lasagna, to boot) and quickly dominates the room, making the narrator wonder why she’s still hanging around with a person like Angelica in the mix. It’s all very young-person ennui, and Wet Leg’s characteristically catchy, upbeat guitars and drums pair well with the subject matter. The two-piece have a big month coming up, headlining as one of the notable acts at SXSW 2022 and performing in about half a dozen venues in the city of Austin during the 10-day festival. All of this buzz is in preparation for their release of their debut album on April 8th – as we’ve said before, we’re looking forward to this one.

Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

5 Mar

Big Thief has always been a band for whom I’ve had more respect than liking and there have been plenty of albums where I’ve had neither one. This is the first album of theirs that I really enjoy. It is somehow both deeper and more detailed than their previous work. It’s more intelligent and a little off-kilter as in the spectacular “Simulation Swarm.”

More enjoyably though, it’s also much more fun than their earlier work. The two hands clapping in “Time Escaping” is hilarious and on just the right side of camp and the song itself is nothing short of excellent. The country twangs that never move too far into the background of “Spud Infinity” are similarly just funny.

With this humor and humanity, they are more poetic than their usual and more resonant as well. This is really good music with none of the remoteness that often plagued their earlier albums. In fact, it’s hard to think of any real flaw to hold against the album at all.

Saba – Few Good Things

20 Feb

I certainly didn’t expect such a relaxed Saba on Few Good Things. I’m used to a rapper more caught up in the throes of emotion. Here, we see him stretch out a little. He broadens his musical range as a result. “If I Had A Dollar” has him channel Kendrick and “Soldier” brings in something of an Outkast feel. He does well enough with both of them and with the album as a whole. There’s nothing here with much heft, but also nothing here that misses the mark.

Where CARE FOR ME was passionate and heartfelt, Few Good Things is much more muted. Saba is talented enough to make solid music nonetheless, but the album still ends up unfocused and unmemorable.

Mitski – Laurel Hell

14 Feb

Laurel Hell will cut you if you let it. It’s a quiet album and that just makes the cuts deeper still. “Working for the Knife” is painfully sharp and very resonant. It’s great indie rock and pairs clever, evocative rock with clever, evocative lyrics. Her storytelling is top-notch throughout and unmatched in its subtlety. There’s something persistently elusive in the story of “Should’ve Been Me.”

Her music also doesn’t particularly worry about being noticed. The details are often stunning though. She tries sounds that are just a little off-kilter and puts a lot of care into some very small pieces. It’s unfortunate then there are also broad swathes of music that just don’t do anything particularly interesting and not all that much that truly transcends into the magnificent. However, there is still a lot that is quite good and some parts so clever they cannot help but linger.

Monthly Playlist: Jan. 2022

7 Feb

2022 is well underway with new albums from The Weeknd, FKA twigs, Mitski and more. We’ve already covered our picks for the most anticipated albums (that we know of) in 2022. Below, we take a closer look at the top five songs of January. Read on and let us know your thoughts!

“Strung with Everything” by Animal Collective

Animal Collective released their new album Time Skiffs in the early days of February. Prior to the album release, the experimental pop group released three singles: “Walker” and “Prester John” earlier in 2021, and the new track “Strung with Everything” in January. The song begins with a slow build-up that introduces key motifs – randomized percussion, the meandering keyboard melody, and the echoing guitar notes. Suddenly, amidst the meditative elements, the song bursts into full focus, complete with surf-rock style drums, guitars and vocals. Although “Strung with Everything” could have used tighter editing (meandering at almost 7 minutes long), the track highlights Animal Collective’s career-long skills at walking the line between commercial and experimental.

“papi bones” by FKA twigs feat. Shygirl

“papi bones” is an energetic Afro pop-tinged track from FKA twigs’ January mixtape entitled CAPRISONGS (full review here). The track highlights the British pop star’s sensibilities at arranging a song for maximum impact: hype-men introducing a club-friendly beat, a sparse dancehall-esque couple of verses from FKA twigs, and finally a joint verse between her and the excellent Shygirl. Readers will recall that we loved British artist Shygirl’s collaboration with another nouveau British export – slowthai – last year, and her energy is just as plucky and vivacious here. All in all, “papi bones” is a fun and infectious track that’s a perfect starting point for FKA twigs’ new mixtape.

“Jackie Down the Line” by Fontaines DC

We talked about this new track from Irish post-punk band in our recent roundup of 2022’s most anticipated albums, and for good reason – “Jackie Down the Line” is a great track that heralds the beginning of the band’s Skinty Fia era. Fontaines DC has proven that they’re an act that keeps busy, quickly following up their 2019 debut Dogrel with the well-received A Hero’s Death in 2020. But don’t think they’re just churning out run-of-the-mill tracks: the band has used both albums to build up a definitive Fontaines DC sound. What does this sound consist of? Well, there’s the fulsome drum beats, rumbling basslines, and (more than anything), lead singer Grian Chatten’s unapologetically Irish vocals – lyricism, accent, idioms and all. “Jackie Down the Line” is a continuation of this same style. In typically Chatten style, the lyrics are poetic, somber and rather difficult to decipher; but we gather that it’s a meditation of the loss of Irish culture (a common theme in the band’s lyrics) as represented by “Jackie” or Jackeens – Irish fans of the Union Jack.

“Sacrifice” by The Weeknd

Although The Weeknd’s new album Dawn FM failed to blow us away (full review here), there were certainly a couple of bright spots on the track-list. One, of course, is the masterpiece that is “Take My Breath” (even better on the album’s extended version), but we already knew that. Of the new songs that were introduced on the album this month, “Sacrifice” really stands out. Here, Abel utilizes a chunky, disco bassline and funky modulations on his vocals, all resulting in a catchy addition to the megastar’s dance-pop repertoire. You’ll be humming this song in no time.

“Postman” by Toro y Moi

“Postman” is a funky, fun track that was released alongside the announcement of Mahal, the seventh album from American lo-fi dance-rock proponent Toro y Moi. Musically, “Postman” is almost like a stripped-down Pharrell song, pairing a bouncy bass and catchy drums with semi-sung vocals – think something along the lines of a very chillwave “Blurred Lines”. The music video is equally fun and plays homage to Toro y Moi’s Filipino heritage – definitely check it out.

FKA Twigs – CAPRISONGS

31 Jan

FKA Twigs has made a habit of going from strength to strength over her career, a fact made even more incredible by how much she adds with each iteration and how strong she started in the first place. A mixtape like CAPRISONGS is naturally not going to be her strongest or most consistent work, but it is a space for her to stretch out and experiment a bit and it’s delightful for that.

To start with, she brings Afrobeats into the mix. “papi bones” is a lot of fun and has a lot of infectious energy to it reminiscent of Rihanna in her peak Barbados phase. However, there’s lots of innovation even in the more straight-edged pop. She brings in a fascinating high pitch for “minds of men” that elevates the track from merely good pop to something memorable. Similarly, while “ride the dragon” does have a slightly cliche flute and name tag, it’s mostly very intriguing music.

CAPRISONGS is also just good at being good music. “oh my love” is an excellent track and the chorus is a lot of fun. It is “tears in the club” though that is the real standout. Her collaboration with The Weeknd is a true superstar single. Both of the singers are absolutely at the top of their powers and they work so well with each other.

It’s far from a perfect album. The interstitials alone do more than enough to keep it from that. However, it is a lot of very good, very interesting music. FKA Twigs is always doing something new and always doing it very well and it’s a pleasure to try to keep up.

The Weeknd – Dawn FM

16 Jan

Superstardom was always a strange fit for The Weeknd, but Dawn FM is him conceding all the best parts of his music for it. Trading R&B for disco-pop isn’t necessarily a bad thing and he gets some good music out of it but the result is his weakest album yet.

The style works well for things like the extended and extremely danceable “Take My Breath.” It’s absolutely top-tier synth-pop and Abel gets to use his voice to its full effect in it. Similarly, “Best Friend” is a very good song and an excellent showcase for just how well The Weeknd can sing.

Going disco has highlights, but substituting it for the previous R&B really hurts something like “Less Than Zero” which ends up simply boring and bland. He’s also lost a lot of his edge here. He glories far less in self-destruction now that he’s won a Kids Choice Award.

Even something like the still quite good “Is There Someone Else” doesn’t carry the emotion that he once brought to bear. There’s no bite to this album. He’s much less scary and less debauched than he once was. I like what Wayne does in “I Heard You’re Married” and Abel has moments in there too, but it has replaced his razor blades with safety scissors. Also, while I love Jim Carrey, the interludes are the kind of bad poetry I expect at amateur singalongs.

The strangest thing is that The Weeknd has always been an artist defined by singles and not albums and this album has no single for me to really come back to. Dawn FM does come together in a way that none of his previous albums ever really came close to doing but that doesn’t do enough without the musical peaks that he once had. There used to be gold with the dross. Dawn FM is instead a pretty consistent bronze.

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