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Monthly Playlist: May 2019

1 Jun

What a month May has been for great music. Stalwarts made a strong mark, with Vampire Weekend releasing a highly-lauded fourth studio album and Tyler the Creator releasing a fifth – and his best-rated – record. Newcomers, too, blew it out of the water: notably, British rapper slowthai and relative newbie Jamila Woods, who has put out one of the best albums of the year. With all this great music, we really had our work cut out this month picking five great songs to share: but here goes.

5. “We Belong Together” by Vampire Weekend feat. Danielle Haim

As longtime readers would know, anything with one of the Haim sisters is almost always alright in our books. “We Belong Together” – the second Danielle Haim collab from Vampire Weekend’s fifth album, Father of the Bride – is a great, old-school duet love song with a quintessentially-Ezra-Koenig melancholy twist. Black and white, day and night, left and right, bowls and plates – Koenig and Haim list off the timeless and kitschy ways pairs the two lovers belong together. But wait, what’s this? “Baby, there’s no use in being clever / Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together,” they say, on a sugary-light bop, following it up with a devastating “We go together like lions and lambs / Oh, we go together”. This is another irresistibly great song from what has been a solid album front to back. Look out for a full review of FOTB from us soon – until then, take a listen through this track (and the other we’ve covered in our playlists!).

4. “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey

Speaking of melancholy crooners, the absolute queen of mournful murmuring is back. Lana del Rey has announced a new album in 2019 (the brilliantly-named Norman Fucking Rockwell), and “Doin’ Time” gives us a good taste of the excellent things to come. A cover of the ska / punk band Sublime’s 1996 single – and itself sampling the jazz standard “Summertime” – “Doin’ Time” is a head-fake that starts off like a cheery hit and segues into an adult-contemporary drive through Lana’s, well, sublime vocals. The result, as you may expect from a story about feeling trapped by an unfaithful partner, is a mixture between fuzzy contemplation and spiky regret. More to come from Lana this year, and we couldn’t be more pumped.

3. “Record Collection” by Kaiser Chiefs

In another throwback to the mid-aughts, Kaiser Chiefs are back with “Record Collection”, a song that’s basically an updated version of every one of your favorite songs from your high school years (think Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs themselves, and so on). According to lead singer Ricky Wilson, the band recorded their seventh studio album Duck, slated for July 26th (featuring this new track) after going back and reminiscing over their own first few records. You can hear it too: after a forgettable couple of records in the middle, Kaiser Chiefs finally sound rejuvenated. A thick bassline and poppy drums elevate Wilson’s vocoder-style vocals on “Record Collection”, and the song is peppered with the sort of supple hooks that made “Ruby” all the rage more than a decade ago. (Has it really been that long?!) With “Record Collection”, it looks like we have yet another great summer album to await – mark your calendars!

2. “Vacancy” by Havelock

With so many releases from well-known artists this month, it’s easy to miss tracks like “Vacancy”, the second track (ever) by English singer Havelock. But, wow, are we glad we didn’t miss it – and we are so happy to recommend it to our readers, too. “Vacancy” tells a tale well-known by young people around the world – hustling until you make it, with an end in mind but not in sight. Beyond his chill vocals and the warmth of the production, what Havelock really cracks is that clever yet effortless turn of phrase. In fact, there’s a line on here that we loved so much that we’ll transcribe it here in full: “’Cause you got a brand-new vacancy, and I want to join the agency; I hope that it can give me something that I could hold, somewhere that I could go, without working to the bone: can you give me that?,” he asks; achingly poetic in his naivety. “My snooze is on repeat / I know I’d better wake up or I’ll wake up in the streets” goes another splendid couplet. We haven’t been this excited for a new artist in a long time – and we hope you feel the same way, too. (If you liked this tune, you’ll love “Pig Latin”, his debut single.)

1. “Inglorious” by slowthai, feat. Skepta

From an arrangement standpoint, “Inglorious” has a very simple layout: a short intro, followed by a verse by slowthai and the hook, followed by another verse by Skepta and the hook. But what happens in those five parts may well have changed the topography of British rap. Of course, Skepta is already famous; his unapologetic display of British culture – in a genre dominated by American culture – has placed him on a 2017 list of the most influential people in the UK. On “Inglorious”, his talents and persona are put to the best possible collaborative use with newcomer – and inevitable star – slowthai. A dreamlike intro leads into one of the best beat drops we’ve heard all year, along with a volley of British-isms and descriptions of struggle (“Remember when they wouldn’t let me in / Now their wages just a day’s per diem”). “Inglorious” features on slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, which is honestly one of the best albums we’ve heard all year. Listen to “Inglorious” – if you like it, you’re in for a treat for the rest of the album.

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Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2019

1 Mar

Last month, we started a new feature here at Top Five Records: a run-down of the top five songs from every month. We heard from quite a few of you that you loved it – so without further ado, here’s our list for this month!

5. “Body Chemistry” – The Drums

Don’t let the unrelenting bassline on “Body Chemistry” fool you into thinking it’s a harmless, upbeat bop. On this new track from the NYC-based indie-pop band The Drums, lead singer Jonathan Pierce provides a peak-millennial take on anxiety, romance, and the crippling self-awareness in between. “I know some good luck, and a good fuck, a nice glass of wine and some quality time is gonna make you mine,” he acknowledges, “but it’s not what I’m trying to find.” The song itself reminds us of some of the best tracks on Spoon’s last album, so that’s always a good thing as well. The Drums are set to release their fourth album in June.

4. “In the Capital” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Melbourne-based pop-rock quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (there’s a mouthful!) had a very well-received debut album (Hope Downs) last year. Their sound is essentially a cross between the woe-is-me melancholy of Deerhunter and the sparkling pop of Real Estate – but it’s not as odd a combination as you would think. “In the Capital”, a new track that was released earlier this week, apparently came about as lead singer Fran Keaney was swimming. “I can’t neatly describe it, but something like connection despite distance. I was thinking about transience and water and death and big cities and fishing towns and moon river,” he says. Have a listen for yourself – we think he’s got it down spot-on, actually.   

3. “Fast Times” – Albert Hammond Jr.

Albert Hammond Jr.’s third full-length album, Francis Trouble, won us over last year with its boisterous yet clean-cut vibe. With “Fast Times”, Hammond is back with a track that is equal parts nostalgic and melancholic. “I was over there, completely unaware / It was me, that you saw / How little did I know / All the things would go,” Hammond sings, wistfully reminiscing about carefree days long gone. The music is of course immediately evocative of the early 2000s-heyday of crisp, fast-paced rock, for which Hammond’s past (and present!) band, the Strokes, were a primary driver. After “Fast Times”, we’re certainly keeping an eye out for more music from Hammond.

2. “GummyBear” – Mini Mansions

Mini Mansions are an LA-based three-piece band comprising The Last Shadow Puppets’ bassist Zach Dawes, QOTSA bassist-turned-singer Michael Shuman and Tyler Parkford. If that line-up sounds like the band would make fun, bass-driven tracks that could fit well within Humbug-era Arctic Monkeys, you are exactly right. In fact, Mini Mansions are just coming off of a supporting tour on that band’s North America leg, and something great seems to have rubbed off of on them. “GummyBear” is an instantly accessible dance-rock track about a love-hate relationship (“Boy, I thought you was sweet, girl, but you’re just sugar-free”). Mini Mansions plans to release their third full-length album, Guy Walks into a Bar… in July – look for them!

1. “NASA” – Ariana Grande

This month, Ariana Grande released thank u, next, her much-awaited follow-up to 2018’s blockbuster hit, Sweetener. New converts to Arianaworld, such as yours truly, were skeptical that a brand-new album mere months after the monstrously successful Sweetener could live up to the hype that Ariana has created for herself. However, those thoughts can be laid to rest and buried under six feet of earth, because Ariana is almost definitely the new queen of pop music.

The title track from the new album, of course, has been in constant rotation on radio stations and Spotify playlists since late last year, but there are actually a shockingly high number of other great songs on there, too. The best of these, in our opinion, is “NASA”, a space-themed ode to modern romance. “I’d rather be alone tonight / You can say ‘I love you’ through the phone tonight,” she says, an on-the-head flip of decades of popstars who’ve told us that they need to be around their men 24/7. Of course, being an Ariana track, there is also a maddeningly catchy chorus – this one involving a playful spell-out of the titular government agency. We’d be surprised if this song alone doesn’t play a part in raising the brand value of NASA.

Read our full review of thank u, next here.

J. Cole – Middle Child

20 Feb

This song is easily one of the best of the new year. First things first, it’s a good beat and a good flow. That opening feels like trumpets before a war and the song itself is a salvo.

What’s shocking though is the positivity. His lines on Drake giving him a watch as a gift are strong and rejecting manufactured beef are interesting in the genre famous for war being mutually beneficial. The game seems to be turning away from the aggression that once codified it and it’s a fascinating development to watch.

I also appreciate him talking about bringing your people up with you. I appreciate him sending love to the new rappers and sending love to the OGs. Generational strife almost always feels like both sides are out of touch. J. Cole stepping away from that, despite the many calling for him to kill trap or take the torch or whatever other narrative du jour is floating around, is heartening to see.

The contradictions here are interesting. He claims all love, but there are still shots at Kanye and Drake here. The lines are barely subliminals. This makes some sense as he criticizing actions like theirs, but this seems to be swallowing your beef and having it too. Also, look at the refrain “Niggas been countin’ me out / I’m countin’ my bullets, I’m loadin’ my clips / I’m writin’ down names, I’m makin’ a list / I’m checkin’ it twice and I’m gettin’ ’em hit.” It’s this aggression that makes the song though. This isn’t a call for ahimsa, it’s a militant call for love.

On that note, the hook is amazing. The drawn out “feel” with the sung notes is excellent. It lets him put a lot of emotion into very few words. That said, the words of the hook are extremely clever. I love the image from contrasting a pistol in the hand and money in the palm. Playing the drink in his hand giving him something to feel against his foot on their neck is similarly strong. Also, the hook just gives the song a swagger. It’s a boastful song for something meant to bring people together and that’s why I love it.

The corniness is a bit of a sour note though. His advice to the young rappers is painfully cliche when it comes to specifics. Also, is he really Jay-Z’s younger brother? It made sense when Kanye took that epithet in 2007, but J. Cole really feels like Jay’s grandson. He’s always made a habit of giving himself titles that I don’t feel he’s fully earned and it comes off as grasping.

This is the song that makes the case for him though. This is really strong rap and uniquely J. Cole’s. I hope we see a lot more like this from him soon.

@murthynikhil

Snoop Dogg: “No Guns Allowed”

29 Apr

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There is a lot to talk about when reviewing “No Guns Allowed” from Snoop Lion’s latest album Reincarnated. The transformation from Dogg to Lion, the messages of peace, the imagery of the video and the news clips littering the song. This album is more than a new reggae release, this is a watershed moment.

More important though is whether it is good music. It’s okay. Diplo provides a solid background and Snoop, whose voice was always one of the most mellow in rap, sings quite decently throughout. His daughter Cori B provides a solid chorus and while Drake is nothing special, he does well enough. The song is quite listenable, just not outstanding.

The message though comes through quite strongly. The music video may be a tad overblown, but it says what it intends to. While his singing is not quite Bob Marley’s, it is certainly earnest. It feels good to see quite so positive a message from someone as large as Snoop Dogg and his past makes the statement stronger.

All told, this is a pleasant listen and made much more so due to the message. It may not revitalize reggae but it puts Snoop back on the map and not in a bad way.

The Strokes: “All the Time”

22 Feb

All the Time

In 2011, an impeccable ensemble of talented musicians contributed to a Strokes tribute album, entitled Stroked, to commemorate the ten year anniversary of Is This It?. Also in 2011, the Strokes released their fourth studio album. Wrap your head around that for a second: the Strokes elicited this voluntary, collective homage despite being a band that is young enough to add fresh material to its own discography. There are very few bands as iconic, as beloved, and as representative of a time and place in music history – while being fully functional – as the Strokes are. So how do you react when a vintage-yet-active band releases new music? Well, it depends on what kind of Strokes fan you are.

Type 1: The Uber Fan

Cooler than you'll ever be.

Cooler than you’ll ever be.

In 2001, the Strokes released an album that changed the face of music. Is This It? was and continues to be a flawless record, pushing thousands of kids into their garages to create bands that would never be as cool as Julian and the boys. But in a way, the very kids that played the Strokes’ debut all day every day made it rather difficult for the Strokes to move on as a band. Any deviation from ‘the quintessential Strokes sound’ was denounced; any song with more effort than ‘effortless’ was deplored.  Synths? Forget about it. (I’m looking at you, Angles.) “All the Time” is definitely no “Hard to Explain”, “Reptilia” or even “You Only Live Once”, but it has that undeniable, wholly inimitable Strokes vibe that’s sure to satisfy the most ardent of fans. In fact, it almost sounds like it could be wedged right into Is This It?, and that’s always a good thing.

Type 2: The Casual Fan

The Strokes perform on Ellen

If you didn’t spend the better part of your musically formative years analyzing every trough and peak of the Strokes’ debut, then you are going to like this song. Why? Because even if you’ve only heard a few of their songs, even on a bad day, even on a weak track, the Strokes are effortlessly cooler than anything you’re going to hear all day. On “All the Time” , the uber fan might think that the outro is too long, or that Julian’s voice isn’t crisp enough, or that the guitar solo lacks the sheen of the old days. All you’re going to notice, though, is how great this song is. Enjoy!

Type 3: The Non-Fan

Watch the following videos, and please let us know if you don’t convert to Type 2 or even Type 1.

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… we could go on.

Five long years passed between their third and fourth albums; just over two years will transpire between the fourth and the fifth. “All the time that I need is never quite enough/ All the time that I have is all that’s necessary,” sings Julian on “All the Time”, and we couldn’t be happier about that. Long story short, drop whatever you’re doing and listen, because the Strokes have released a new track. “All the Time” is the first single from the Strokes’ fifth studio album Comedown Machine, releasing on March 26th, 2013. You can listen to the song (with lyrics!) here.

Marina and the Diamonds: “Oh No!”

22 Jul

This is the perfect pop song. It is not the first perfect pop song that I have come across, it won’t be the perfect pop song in about a week from now, but for now it is and you must know about it.

Start at the beginning and watch the video. Firstly, it is a great music video and secondly it lets us discuss the surface of the song. This is unapologetic pop. The singer is a very pretty girl in her young twenties, which is a good thing, in case you suspect me of more hipster-ness than good sense. You can hear the Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani influences and there is more upbeat energy in three seconds of this song than I have managed in my entire life. Good, solid, unapologetic pop all the way though.

Now though, go a level deeper and listen to the lyrics. You don’t have to. This is a pretty good pop song even without them and you are free to enjoy the song however you like. However, take a moment and hear what she is actually saying. There are plenty of rip currents of depression running through this pink sea of happy pop. She may be singing that she’s going to fail and she’s going to die with the same smile that she has when singing she’s going to live and she’s going to fly, but you know that she is as earnest about the one as the other.

This is also a pretty intelligent record. The chorus of “I know exactly what I want and who I want to be” speaks layers about who she is and “The nod and a wink of TV told me how to feel, now real life has no appeal” followed by the repeated “No appeal” is easy to empathize with. More than that though, every time you watch the video (and I have watched the video many times indeed, did I mention how pretty she is?) you can validate a completely new interpretation of the song when you pair it with who the singer is. That for me is the borderline that separates intelligent art from the rest, when you can argue the nuances of its meaning.

 

Verdict: This is the perfect pop song. For now, everything should be this song. One week from now, I may be listening to something else, but as of now, this is what all pop should be.

– Nikhil

Childish Gambino: “Bonfire”

26 Jun

“Childish Gambino, homegirl drop it like the NASDAQ
Move white girls like there’s coke up my asscrack
Move black girls cause, man, fuck it, I’ll do either
I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA.”

Childish Gambino (known also as Community star and 30 Rock writer Donald Glover) leaves no room for any doubt about his intentions with “Bonfire,” the first single from his latest album Camp. “Bonfire” is essentially one long unrelenting rant, from start (wailing klaxons, haunting gospel chant and a jarring syncopated drum-machine snare beat), to finish (one word – “bitch”). Along the way, we’re treated to an onslaught of offbeat and off-colour references, masterfully-crafted punnery and sheer unadulterated emotion, with some catchy hooks thrown in for good measure. While this version of Gambino has turned some people off (I’m looking at you, Pitchfork), for your sake I hope that’s not the case. Sit back, listen and enjoy.

The Gambino you’ll hear on this track is the raw unabashed Gambino from his earlier (free) single “Freaks & Geeks”, dialled up to 11. Gambino’s boasts are as frequent and grand as they are hilarious and fierce. You’ll find yourself grinning in appreciation at lyrics like “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over E’s” and “I made the beat retarded so I’m calling it a slow jam.” Or at least, you will if you manage to keep up with the fast-paced, blink-and-you’ll-miss it speed at which such gems are dropped.

That also applies to the pop-culture references liberally scattered over the track – Gambino seems to have made sweet passionate love to some form of pop-culture goddess (Aubrey Plaza perhaps?) in order to produce this single. Invader Zim? Check. Toe-Jam and Earl? Check. Hidden insult aimed at Drake? Check. Not all of his references work quite as well as they should (there are probably better ways to bring up Human Centipede) but Gambino delivers them all with absolute commitment.

Ironically,the song’s music video is where Gambino falls short. While it is indeed a wonderfully conceptualized and filmed piece of art, the story in the video just doesn’t quite match the lyrics and intention of the song. You’ll see Donald Glover in fine acting form, but not in Gambino persona.

Verdict: Bonfire is a song that needs to be listened to once, then once again after looking up the lyrics, and then once again after looking up all the references you may not have understood. After that, just sit back and take a break. Then go listen to it again. By now, a large chunk of you will have fallen in love with all that Gambino has to offer. For those few who remain (poor, poor Pitchfork), Gambino has some parting remarks:

“Rap’s Step-father: yeah you hate me, but you will respect.”

– Manickam.

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