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Monthly Playlist: Nov. 2020

1 Dec

This month has been a big one for music-related news, from the AMAs to the GRAMMY nominations. While there were certainly moments to celebrate (see: Dua Lipa bagging wins and nominations galore), there were also some notable let-downs (see: the GRAMMYs’ radio silence on Rina Sawayama and the Weeknd!). Awards shows aside, though, there were some great tracks this month. Read on for our top five picks from November 2020.

5. “505 (Live)” by Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys return in December with a studio album – but before you get excited, it’s not new content. In the mythical past known as 2018, the Monkeys performed at the vaunted Royal Albert Music Hall with a set-list drawn partially from Tranquility Base and mostly from their older material (i.e. a palatable ratio). The proceeds from this album, recorded that evening, will go toward War Child, a non-profit focused on helping children from war-torn nations. As a promo for this live album, the band has released the live version of their classic “505”, and we must admit that it sounds great. The acoustics of the famous Hall lend new depths to the song, as do Alex Turner’s vocals – which have unmistakably changed in style since this song’s original version in the mid-aughts. If you can, get this one on vinyl.

4. “Man’s World” by Marina

Marina, formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds, has been a favorite of ours for many years. We’ve always loved the way she does pop – with all the bubblegum sex appeal of Selena Gomez and the like, yet imbued with biting self-awareness that is rare in the genre. With “Man’s World”, the multi-faceted popstar takes on the male-driven world (as the title suggests) with a good measure of COVID- and climate-change-reckoning thrown in. “Don’t underestimate the making of life / The planet has a funny way of stopping a fight,” she warns. The weirdest part of the song is her long interlude about the noted homophobe Sheikh of Brunei buying an LA hotel overtaken by the gays – but hey, she knows her audience.

3. “Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish delivers the ultimate snide cold-shoulder with catchy new single “Therefore I Am”. She delivers the line “Stop, what the hell are you talking about? Ha” with all the iciness of the high school queen giving you a sneering look, and quotes (of all people) Rene Descartes in the chorus: “You think you’re the man, I think, therefore I am”. As with most Billie songs, the magic lies in her brother Finneas’ precise, inimitable production values; we especially loved when the heavy, layered chorus occasionally breaks into Billie’s crystal-clear voice. Reading between the lines, the song seems to be about someone she has been linked with (she mentions being asked about them in interviews and articles) – let us know if you’ve cracked the code.

2. “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)” by Miley Cyrus feat. Stevie Nicks

Maverick pop star Miley Cyrus has released her latest album Plastic Hearts earlier this month. Probably the most innovative track off the album is “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)”, a mash-up of Cyrus’ own recent hit “Midnight Sky” with Stevie Nicks’ legendary 80s banger “Edge of Seventeen”. And what’s more – Nicks herself performs on the track! “Edge of Midnight” is an electrifying mix of these two ladies’ instantly recognizable voices. Expect to get goosebumps the first time Cyrus sings the famous “Just like the white-winged dove” line in her deep, powerful voice.

1. “HOLIDAY” by Lil Nas X

There is honestly no justification to why Lil Nas X should continue to churn out impossibly catchy songs with no real changes to his formula. “HOLIDAY” follows the same ingredient list as the mega-platinum hit “Old Town Road” – the minor scale, a simple and repetitive beat, his silky-smooth and slightly anachronistic voice; and yet we fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Move over, Mariah – this is our holiday song from now on. (Side note: This song got us talking about a literal “Holiday” playlist, so keep an eye out for that!)

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!

Monthly Playlist: Sep. 2020

3 Oct

September 2020 saw the release of a surprise Fleet Foxes album, a much-awaited IDLES follow-up, emphatic returns from the likes of Alicia Keys and Sufjan Stevens, and lots more. Read on for our picks of the top five songs from the month that was.

5. “Love’s Gone Bad” from the Jaded Hearts Club

The Jaded Hearts Club is a supergroup featuring the who’s who of early aughts indie rock. Nic Crester from Jet and Miles Kane from the Last Shadow Puppets share vocal duties, with instrumentation from Muse’s Matt Bellamy (bass), Blur’s Graham Coxon (guitar) and a few other friends. Their music, as the obvious reference to Sgt. Pepper’s suggests, is a mix of these members’ indie rock sensibilities essentially converging into a Beatles tribute band. “Love’s Gone Bad” from early September features classic rock riffs and an energetic Lennon-esque presence from Kane. If you liked the Beatles and/or any of these gentlemen’s bands, it’s likely you’ll like this tune. Incidentally, the Jaded Hearts Club released their debut album You’ve Always Been Here just today, so be sure to check that out if you liked this track.

4. “FRANCHISE” by Travis Scott, feat. Young Thug and M.I.A.

You can recognize a Travis Scott beat anywhere. The dull boom of a thick bass line, paired with hypnotic notes and his lilting flow, became a signature on the well-received Astroworld, and it’s no different here. “FRANCHISE” sucks you right in – not just because of this things, but also because of a fantastic early chime-in from the one-and-only M.I.A. The British-Sri Lankan rapper holds her own with Scott and Young Thug, especially on her onomatopoeic turns with Sheck Wes (yes, he’s on here too). All in all, this is a slick and talent-heavy single from Travis Scott and friends – give it a spin.

3. “War” by IDLES

IDLES, much like their Irish counterparts Fontaines D.C., are key drivers of the rock scene across the pond these days. The British punk band has enjoyed widespread acclaim with striking debut Brutalism and equally-hard-hitting sophomore album Joy As An Act of Resistance. They returned this month with third album Ultra Mono, of which “War” is the opener. And open it does. The song hits like a shot of adrenaline, with brutal drumming that’s inter-cut with relentless guitar riffs. Despite lasting just about three minutes, “War” gives you a feel for senseless battle, from the mentions of Johnny and Sally being sent to their deaths right down to the explicit sound of a sword going in.

2. “Turntables” by Janelle Monae

We didn’t know this before, but apparently Amazon has funded an election-year, straight-to-Prime documentary called All In: The Fight For Democracy. While the thought of a Jeff Bezos vehicle talking about the fight for democracy in the context of billionaire-ridden modern-day America is a dubious proposition (to say the least), we can’t ignore this great track from multi-faceted legend Janelle Monae. The actress-singer-LGBTQ-icon here serves a rousing, patriotic ode to civil rights, liberties and all that the America-of-yore stood for: “I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world ’bout to testify”. Her lines work especially well on the music video that features striking visuals of the ongoing civil rights demonstrations in the US; check it out above.

1. “Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood

Royal Blood are a two(!)-piece rock band from Brighton, consisting simply of Mike Kerr on vocals / bass guitar and Ben Thatcher on drums. Their self-titled debut album blew us away with the sheer volume and breadth of sound that these two people can produce, as did their sophomore album How Did We Get So Dark?. Now, ahead of their third album next year, The band has released “Trouble’s Coming” – a searing ride through familiar Royal Blood territory. The song of course features all the Royal Blood trademarks (Thatcher’s relentless drums, Kerr’s sneering vocals), but what we found most interesting was its dance-rock undertones, especially on the earworm of a chorus (“I hear trouble coming, over and over again”). Beware while listening, though: this is the kind of song that will make you dearly miss live performances.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Related:

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2020

2 Jul

We are now past the halfway mark of this hellish year. One silver lining, though, is the sheer volume of great music that seems to be coming out of artists young and new. Living legends Neil Young and Bob Dylan both released new albums, days of each other, as did rising stars like Phoebe Bridgers and HAIM. Read on for our breakdown of five standout tracks from June 2020.

5. “Kitchen Sink” by Nadine Shah

British-Pakistani singer-songwriter Nadine Shah has what one would call a striking voice: deep, resonant and able to convey as much with her notes as with her pauses. On the eponymous song from her fourth album Kitchen Sink, Shah’s voice precisely fills the gaps between two piano notes, discordant guitars and gospel-like handclaps. In the lyrics, Shah seems to be giving herself a sermon – to let go and stop caring about the mean things that people say. “Don’t worry about what the neighbors think / They’re characters from kitchen sink,” she states mysteriously, before breaking into the song’s chant of a chorus: “And I just let them pass me by.”

4. “I’m Alive” by TTRRUUCES

TTRRUUCES have all the markings of a future breakout act. Like many a musical star, they are unusual with a conviction.  Leaving aside their lackadaisical name, they describe their self-titled debut album as an operatic story of Sad Girl Sadie and Lost Boy Syd in the search for, strangely, a drug called TTRRUUCES. Beyond the character names and thematic elements, there’s a sense of seedy psychedelic underbelly (think Charles Manson) on “I’m Alive” that just draws you in. It’s just a catchy tune overall and we aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed – “I’m Alive” is on the FIFA 2020 soundtrack.

3. “JU$T” by Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha

Just the sheer combined talent of Killer Mike, El-P, Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha would lead one to think that “JU$T” would be a straight-up hit, and thankfully the song doesn’t disappoint. We’ve already spoken about it in our review of this year’s most important record, RTJ4, but it’s worth rehashing. “JU$T” is packed with hard-hitting critiques (as are most RTJ songs) with lines such as “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”. Moreover, with Pharrell in the mix, these lines are hidden in crisp, swaggering beats that could almost make you think this is just a summertime banger.

2. “EXHALE” by Kenzie feat. Sia

Speaking of Pharrell, young pop singer Kenzie channels Skateboard P himself on the highly enjoyable “EXHALE”. On the surface, it’s a pop song, but once the bass and drums-loaded chorus pumps through, you know this is a different kind of deal. To sweeten the pot, the song features Aussie hitmaker Sia on a choice verse or two. And let’s be honest, with the way 2020 is going, everyone needs to hear their advice here: “You need to, you need to exhale so let everything go / Baby, you in control”. Fun fact: Kenzie aka Mackenzie Zeigler is the younger sister of Maddie Zeigler, the famous dancing wunderkind in Sia’s break-out track “Chandelier”; we’re definitely glad the family connections got Sia involved here!

1. “False Prophet” by Bob Dylan

In June, Bob Dylan released his 39th (!) feature album, roughly half a century (!!) after his debut album. There is possibly no other living artist who could pull this off, but this 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is quickly turning out to be one of his best (yet). “False Prophet” features a fairly sparse instrumentation and Dylan’s truly inimitable voice. He growls, laughs, boasts, flirts – sometimes all within a ten-second stretch. If you heard this track out of nowhere, you would think it’s at least a couple of decades old; it feels that well-worn and classic. For a song that sounds like it could have by itself birthed the blues, it’s almost fathomable that it was released just this year; but that’s Dylan for you. At 79, this guy sure is alive and kicking, the end times be damned.

Be sure to check out all of our 2020 song picks on our handy Spotify playlist!

Monthly Playlist: May 2020

1 Jun

We are now far enough into the coronavirus pandemic for this new abnormal to percolate deep into our psyches. Artists are starting to contemplate the differences between Life Then and Life Now. For example: Little Simz, who we cover in the list below, wrote and released an entire mixtape in spite of – and in some ways, because of – her lockdown experiences. Equally as interestingly, we as listeners are starting to consume music differently. Perhaps that slick, braggadocio rap track now soundtracks your daily allotted fast-walking time. Perhaps punk rock pumps you up in the precious time between Zoom meetings where you really, actually do your office work. And so on.

The point being: our surroundings are perhaps irrevocably changed, at least for the near future, but music’s importance has not dimmed the slightest. And here are five tracks that were embedded deep into our daily lives this past month.

5. “Noize” by Iyer’s Filter Coffee

Clocking in at #5 this month is a tune from Iyer’s Filter Coffee, a garage rock band from India consisting of Rushil Mishra (guitar / vocals), Pushkar Ravindra (guitar / vocals), Dennis Dey (bass / vocals) and Sachin Iyer (drums). The band lists the Strokes and the Black Keys as musical touch-points, and does well to justify those influences. After a well-received first EP coldturkey last year, the boys are back this month with their first-full length debut, Is This How You Do It.

First single “Noize” from Is This How You Do It really caught our ears. The song could slot perfectly well on Arctic Monkey’s Humbug– sporting an uncannily similar mix of the same hard-hitting riffs and Queens of the Stone Age-style production as that 2009 album. “Noize” shines especially on the segues featuring rolling drums and fuzz-laden guitarwork which stick with you long after the song is over.

4. “Shook” by Tkay Maidza

Tkay Maidza, a Zimbabwean-origin Australian rapper, has been circling fame for some time now. Her 2014 single “Switch Lanes” made it to the prestigious Aussie radio channel Triple J’s Hottest 100 list (at #100, but still) – back when she was just 17. In 2016, her debut album Tkay reached #20 on the Australian charts, and included a track with the one and only Killer Mike. Tkay’s star has been rising for several years now, and all that comes to a head with the slick new track, “Shook”.

On this track, Tkay clearly channels Missy Elliott, from the brash enunciation to the butter-smooth, non-stop flow. She also has some great lines – “Then these frauds tryna fit in, got ’em playin’ tetris” comes particularly to mind. “Shook” puts Tkay high on our list of artists to watch for in 2020.

3. “Enemy” by slowthai

Speaking of slick rap, we have been blessed this month with a new track from the reigning king of British rap, slowthai. In the Before Times (February 2020), slowthai made news for a thorny NME Awards show – featuring thrown glass, thrown insults and ultimately a thrown-out slowthai. The incident resulted in a typical PR apology but slowthai hinted (aggressively) at his true feelings with a tweet that said, simply, “Keep my name out ur dirty mouth”.

Turns out, he wasn’t done reacting – he turned that tweet into a chilling riff on the new “Enemy”. Wonky, slow-burning beats interlock perfectly with that unmistakable slowthai bad-boy swagger – a mix of London attitude and unpredictable emotion on the delivery from line to line.

2. “Might bang, might not” by Little Simz

May 2020 was fantastic for British rap. Some truly memorable new acts are coming out of that rainy island, and one of those is Nigerian-origin, London-bred Little Simz. “Might bang, might not” is a smooth track from her new, economically-titled five-song mixtape Drop 6.

On this track, Little Simz shows off a clear, crisp flow, set over even crisper layers: a three-note bass line, basic beats and a pace set by what sounds like a single, digitized gasp. What’s most notable about this song and the entire mixtape is that Little Simz wrote and mixed the whole thing herself during quarantine lockdown, often battling mental health issues. If you liked this track, you should read about what it took for her to put it out – check it out here.

1. “A Hero’s Death” by Fontaines DC

After a ripper of a year with perhaps 2019’s best debut album, everyone’s favorite Irish punk band Fontaines DC are back with new single “A Hero’s Death”. This song lies somewhere between a poem and a speech, set to unyielding punk. Lead singer Grian Chatten snaps off line after line of advice, toeing the line between schoolmaster and preacher: the couplet “Don’t get stuck in the past, say your favorite things at mass / Tell your mother that you love her and go out of your way for others” is just one example. The song’s central line – “Life ain’t always empty” – especially sticks in your head, almost like a mantra. All in all, “A Hero’s Death” is the rare song that is equal parts hypnotic and raucous.

The song’s accompanying music video features fellow Irishman and prestige television star Aidan Gillen – a sign of the young band’s rising profile. “A Hero’s Death” is the eponymous first single off of their new album, which is scheduled to be released in July – we can’t wait.

Check out these songs and all others from our 2020 Monthly Playlists on our Spotify playlist here.

Monthly Playlist – Apr. 2020

28 Apr

We say this almost every month, but April 2020 was truly one of the best months of music that we’ve ever been through. There was, of course, Fiona Apple’s universally-lauded Fetch the Bolt Cutters; on the very same day, English pop star Rina Sawayama released what is easily the best debut album since Invasion of Privacy (2018). We even got new tracks from reclusive acts like The Strokes and Jamie xx. Read on for a round-up of the best five songs from this month.

5. “Young and Beautiful” by Glass Animals

This is technically not a new song, but we love Glass Animals’ gauzy cover of Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”, released as part of a growing collection called, fittingly, Quarantine Covers. Dave Bayley’s spindly, whispery voice and bare production lends itself perfectly to the track – the result being a fresh yet respectful cover of a truly classic song.

As a bonus, check out another song in Quarantine Covers – a hypnotic take on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”.

4. “Shameika” by Fiona Apple

 Fiona Apple has had a sparse but monumental career, spanning five increasingly unrestrained albums from her debut Tidal (1995) to Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020). This latest album currently enjoys an unprecedented perfect score on Metacritic. Is it worth the fawning all-round praise? Somewhat – but not entirely (see our in-depth review here).

Perhaps the most widely-shareable song on the album is “Shameika”, a rollicking tale about schoolgirl Fiona getting some tough love from a slightly older girl. The eponymous Shameika tells Fiona that she has potential, and Fiona uses that mantra to get through the bullying and boredom of middle-school life. We particularly love the rolling piano and Fiona’s jazzy storytelling on this track. Fiona recently shared that Shameika, indeed, turned out to be a real person (and not a figment of her imagination as she initially thought), so that’s cool too.

3. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” by The Strokes

On April 10th, the Strokes released their much-awaited sixth album and thankfully, it lived up to expectations. The presciently-named The New Abnormal (in-depth review here) certainly featured some new direction for the band, but there were also some classic, old-school Strokes tracks. The fun and catchy “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” falls squarely in the later category. Kicked off by a bouncy, synth-heavy riff, the song features Julian Casablancas singing about the good old days over feel-good guitar work from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. It’s just a great tune.

2. “Idontknow” by Jamie xx

Idontknow”, a new single from English producer and DJ Jamie Smith (and one-half of The xx), is a revelation in its sheer use of beats. The track starts off with almost African-like beats that are sure to get you tapping along with some part of your body. Just when you think that’s all there is to it, the track ramps up into overdrive at approximately the 78-second mark. And when we say overdrive, we are not joking. The beats double in speed, and Jamie Smith expertly overlays mysterious vocals snippets, with the effect being a frenetic, craze-inducing romper of a track. It’s addictive in its simplicity, and we highly recommend it.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

It may seem like Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama comes to us fully-formed, but the 29-year-old has been working on her sound for some time. She had a couple of well-received tracks between 2013 and 2016, followed by a self-produced mini-album in 2017. This month, she finally released her official debut album – the eponymous SAWAYAMA – and it was well worth the build-up.

Sawayama’s sound is a beguiling mix of late-90s pop (think Britney and Mariah) and early 2000s moody rock (think Evanescence): nostalgic in its components parts but wholly original in its combination. The best song this month was definitely “XS”, a commentary on late-stage capitalism with a killer pop hook (we told you it’s original). “Luxury and opulence, Cartiers and Tesla X’s / Calabasas, I deserve it,” says Rina, before begging for “just a little bit more, little bit of excess”. Even if you don’t listen to the words in detail, you just can’t miss the pop sounds from the millennial Rina’s 90s / early 00s childhood.

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