Top Five Albums of 2020 – Nikhil’s List

28 Dec

Not every year is a 2020 and thankfully so, but some very interesting music came out of it. Afrobeats has taken the next step. Drill broke out, although sadly marred by tragedy. Taylor Swift made music I wanted to listen to. Things got strange. Things got listenable too though and these are my picks for what best to listen to.

Honorable Mention: Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

2020 was the year that Afrobeats really broke into the mainstream. Burna Boy’s excellent album is naturally the headliner, but it’s a movement much bigger than the one man, African Giant though he may be and of everyone it was Amaarae that did the most. She took the base of Afrobeats and evolved it well past where I expected it to be so soon.

At it’s best, it’s impossibly fun. “HELLZ ANGEL” is clever, propulsive and has the still-amazing line of “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.” The SAD pair of songs are infectious. This is an album that makes you move.

Some inconsistency keeps THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW from being higher on this list, but it’s still some of the most exceptional music of the year and a strong promise for what is to come.

Read our full review here.

5. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This album really grew on me as the year went by. I was a little disappointed in it when it came out because of how much I liked BOCC and, to a lesser degree, boygenius, but this is actually a really good album. It’s just indie folk rock at its best.

The lead single of “Kyoto” is naturally the highlight. It’s a quick change of pace and a bright piece of fun. It’s more than a little precious, but smart enough to know that and play on it. It’s in the foundation that it shines though. It just lets Phoebe Bridgers sing and that’s sometimes all a song really needs.

This, writ large, is what makes this album. I like indie folk rock. I like the cinematic nature. I like the sharp, evocative and clever lyrics. I like the wistfulness. Punisher does all of these very well. When an album has a strong selling point, it’s easy to write about, but something like this can be hard to pin to a page because it’s all just excellent execution. It’s in a delicate swirl of strings in “Chinese Satellite” or in the sudden upshift right as the album ends in “I Know The End.” It’s in how Phoebe Bridgers’ singing is just the right kind of gentle. It lets the barbs stay sharp, but also, it can just be gentle and, above all, it’s always human.

Read our full review here.

4. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an absolutely stunning album and the one that we’ve been waiting for Fiona Apple to make for her whole career. Apple’s feminist art pop has always been very likable and any one of her last four albums is well worth the listen, but Bolt Cutters is a whole new level for her.

This is an album of challenging, clever music and one confident enough to let you come to the challenge yourself. She puts space in each song just to play around with the music and expand the sound. She even throws in the unexpected with noise, chimes, even barking dogs.

It’s also an album with strong things to say. “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” in “For Her” is the kind of line that you cannot miss and the metaphor of “Rack of His” is ingenious. There are a couple of moments where the privilege comes through a little too strongly, but it only mildly detracts from the unmistakable intelligence of the album.

When the pieces come together in Fetch The Bolt Cutters, it’s incredible. This is an extraordinary album and the best of Fiona Apple’s career.

Read our full review here.

3. Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

Like the album before this, much of what makes this album so great is in the details. There are lots of fascinating little flourishes through the album. Pick Me Up Off The Floor is impossibly lean though. There’s no fat, no embellishments meant to distract the ear from a middling track, just consistently excellent music.

It’s a smart album backed up by a powerful voice. She can take something like the already very listenable “Hurts To Be Alone” and put so much that’s interesting around the edges. The album is playful and fluid and ever-changing and yet always completely in control. This is both life and purpose.

It’s also astonishingly enervating. I’m used to a little exhaustion after getting through a jazz album. The effort that they need is not negligible. This is the rare one that refreshes instead.

Read our full review here.

2. Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

SOURCE is not quite the kind of work-out of the jazz I just mentioned, but it does pack a lot of action into a single hour. At it’s best, like in “Pace” and “Before Us,” it is fiery jazz of the best sort. It has a burning energy and isn’t afraid to take its challenge all the way to the listener’s limits.

The title track does the same and the performers trade excellent solos across its 12-minute sprawl. It’s skilled, compelling jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s in “La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” that the album is at its most interesting. It threads Latin sounds through top-tier jazz and the result is spectacular. I would never pigeonhole a talent on the level of Nubya Garcia. No matter what she does, I’m gong to be excited to hear it. She is just that good and that versatile. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t hope for more in this vein. This is truly wonderful music.

Read our full review here.

1. Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

The thing here is that Uzi can rap. The high concept of the album didn’t really land with me, but Uzi can just rap. It’s like prime Wayne where you just want to see what he does next. He takes the top spot this year purely off the strength of that flow.

He might be the most important rapper in the world right now. Kendrick is on hiatus, J. Cole has gone full Samson, Future has fallen off, Drake is in a holding pattern but Uzi is at full speed. It’s not a guarantee that he will deliver. The extended album had plenty of bloat and while he rapped circles around an apparently disinterested Future in Pluto x Baby Pluto, the album just isn’t enough to wake up for. With Eternal Atake though, he just flies.

Like with Wayne, Uzi just seems to do what he wants. It feels like there’s nothing he won’t try and nothing that he won’t rap about. There are just no limits to what he will do next. What makes it so unfair is how easily he can do it too. He can go hard or soft, he has more flows than you can shake a stick at, he has things you’ve never seen before and he can do it all in the same track just for the fun of it and be likeable to boot.

In my review, I called this the bebop of the trap world, and that still rings true. He makes rap that challenges and delights, rap that’s free-flowing and improvisational and always able to surprise. It’s textured, intelligent music that’s endlessly impressive and human for all of that. This is the most fun I had listening to an album all year and one that I’m happy to have as album of the year.

Read our full review here.

A Quite Literal Holiday Playlist

26 Dec

It’s that time of year again: the twilight week between Christmas and New Years’ Day. Most people are off work or school, staying warm (or cool, depending on your hemisphere) and stuffing themselves silly with every combination of carbs and sugars. As you’re lying there in your food coma trying to block out all thoughts of January 4th, take a whirl through our Quite Literal holiday playlist. Happy holidays and stay tuned for our end-of-year content!

5. “Holiday” by Little Mix

First off is the tune by British girl group Little Mix. The pop song’s saccharine notes coupled with the ladies’ perfectly synced vocals make this the perfect tune to soundtrack an impromptu tipsy dance party. (You know you’re almost there.)

4. “Holiday” by Green Day

Next up is a blast from the past – the tune from alternative rock band Green Day. This song was all the rage when it was released as a single from the landmark American Idiot (2004) album, and is still catchy enough to strike nostalgia in the entire millennial cohort. The “holiday” that Billie Joel Armstrong and the gang are talking about alludes to the apathy that the average American felt at the Bush-era Middle East wars, so that’s always a fun talking point at your holiday event with the broader family.

3. “Holiday” by Vampire Weekend

Once you’ve brought up the anti-war sentiments on the previous track, be sure to flip to this tune from New England indie rock band Vampire Weekend to lighten the mood. With an irrepressible beat and Ezra Koenig’s lackadaisical vocals, this song is the stuff of catchy advertisement music – and indeed, it was aptly featured on ads for the classic-prep fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. One of the best tracks from their overall-great Contra (2010) album.

2. “Holiday” by Madonna

Going back several decades from all of these songs is this tune from Madonna’s eponymous debut album in 1983. The synths and handclaps are simply peak ‘80s, and Madge’s voice is carefree as she sings about the entire world coming together for a holiday. “If we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate / Just one day out of life, it would be so nice” she suggests, and that’s exactly the energy we need to be taking with us out of this hellscape of a year.

1. “HOLIDAY” by Lil Nas X

And now the song that inspired us to create this playlist – this tune from rapper and pop culture icon Lil Nas X. We’ve already lauded the track on our last Monthly Playlist and we admit we haven’t stopped playing it on loop since then. Lil Nas X’s smooth vocals layer over a tight, catchy beat for a new, alt-classic holiday standard. Bonus: Check out his recent performance for Amazon’s live holiday show!

Victoria Monet – JAGUAR

22 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard the handiwork of singer-songwriter Victoria Monet even if you’ve never heard of her before. The prolific pop creator has had her hand in recent hits such as “Ice Cream” by BLACKPINK and Selena Gomez and “Do It” by breakout sibling duo Chloe x Halle. Most notably, Monet has been a direct contributor to most of Ariana Grande’s recent output of singles, from “7 Rings” to “NASA” to “Thank U Next“. (Indeed, Monet was herself one of the recipients of Ari’s seven rings – apparently the song is based on a real story.)

On debut album JAGUAR, Victoria Monet finally steps out of the shadows of the Arianas and Selenas of the world, and comes into her own. The result is one of the smoothest, best-produced pop albums of the year.

JAGUAR spans a mere 25 minutes, but covers a lot of ground on its seven crisp songs (and two sub-minute interludes). Album opener “Moment” is a pop-R&B track with dramatic string flourishes and chillwave beats – in short, the track could easily appear on an Ariana Grande project. One listen through the track, however, is enough to make one realize that Monet plays a giant role in Ariana’s sound – because she owns this song. “Aye, this your motherfuckin’ moment / Yeah (That you manifested slowly),” she says on the chorus, presumably to her lover, but the words could easily apply to Victoria herself on JAGUAR.

First single “Ass Like That” strips away the R&B for a more hip-hop sound. Lyrically, Monet somewhat subverts expectations by talking not just about how her posterior makes men go crazy, but also about how she got, well, an ass like that. “Treat my calories like weed, yeah, I burn that shit / Shout out to my trainer ’cause he crack that whip,” she explains, rather helpfully. In a way, it’s a subtle indication of Monet as a behind-the-scenes that has had to work hard for her position in life – and also, it’s just an interesting pop songwriting choice.

A few other songs on the album work especially well too. “Go There With You” has a much stronger pop-funk sound that sees Monet suggesting intimacy instead of a late-night fight. On lines like “I don’t wanna go there with you / Let’s end the night on a good time / I can find a better way to be all in your face,” the simplicity in her lyrics make clear just why Ariana’s last two albums felt relatable yet well-written – like a heartfelt Instagram post. The title track “Jaguar” is an echoey, catchy ode to her own well-maintained sex appeal (“Supersonic pussycat / Just like a jaguar, silky black”) with slick beats for days.

JAGUAR is a strong offering from a seasoned player in the modern pop industry, and we’ve loved seeing Monet coming into her own, well-deserved spotlight. Although the album overall is too short and perhaps not endlessly playable, it was a great addition to the year’s debut albums. JAGUAR is apparently just the starting point of what’s to come from Ms. Monet – she notably calls it a project and not an album – so we are definitely staying tuned for more.

Best tracks: “Moment”, “Jaguar”, “Ass Like That”

Rating: 7/10

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

18 Dec

Like with Lupe Fiasco before him, there’s always the worry with a Kid Cudi album that he’s found a new way to sabotage himself, or even just that he will reuse one of his old methods of sabotaging himself. Man on the Moon III doesn’t use any of his old tics of poor beats or weird idiosyncrasies. It’s Kid Cudi in the space where he’s at his best, and that should be a relief. It’s just a shame that it’s still so boring.

This is at its worst in the centerpiece of the album, “Elsie’s Baby Boy.” It’s built up, it’s got a story, it feels like it’s meant to be something and it does nothing. I’ve heard it many, many times and I still can’t tell you a single thing about it. It just doesn’t stick, and sadly too much of the album follows suit. There’s some forgettable trap and some forgettable rock-tinged rap and some other forgettable music and that’s most of the album.

It’s tempting to say that I’ve just outgrown Cudi and to internalize the problem, but that’s not the problem. The issue is that the songs just don’t resonate the way his best stuff did. He came in as an everyman in a time of rap excess, and now he doesn’t feel human at all. His old stuff can still hit hard. They were honest and that still shines through. MotM3 has none of that. Also, where’s the fun of taking something like “Poker Face” and making that into a beat?

There are moments here. I like the “get it, get it” in the middle of the solid “Sad People.” It’s mostly listenable, albeit uninspired. He’s definitely had worse albums than this, and during some of the low points, I would have killed to have even this. His single with Travis Scott had seemed to signal a shift for Cudi, it had seemed to be his breakout moment, but instead it looks like it was a lone bright spot and not a star taking shape.

Immanuel Wilkins – Omega

14 Dec

This is the kind of jazz album that I love to review. You can’t get away from the fact that jazz is forbidding. The more that you give to jazz, the more that jazz gives back to you and so it can be hard to start. That’s why albums like Omega are so great to see, this is the kind of album that can start the virtuous cycle of jazz. It’s approachable, it’s very listenable and yet still smart and able to reward any kind of listener.

Despite simple, accessible foundations, the tracks quickly become clever, intricate pieces. “Warriors” opens the album in a very straightforward way, but then goes into a lovely, thought-provoking piano solo. It’s in the next song though that Immanuel Wilkins really takes flight. “Ferguson – An American Tradition” is fiery and filled with agony. It returns to a simple, but stimulating off-kilter refrain about 6 minutes in that gives a bit of respite from the emotion of the rest of the track, but ends with a heartfelt cry of pain. It’s a magnificent statement and, after “The Dreamer” as a nice bit of softness in between, the album goes into further injustice with “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” This is a more muted track than “Ferguson,” but persistent. About two and a half minutes, there’s a straining horn that’s excellent and then returns to the persistent noodling of before and that journey makes for a very powerful statement. The song suffers a little from my one complaint with this album, I would have liked to see the musicians cut free a little more and really push their ideas as far as they would go, but this is a minor quibble and a choice that brings benefits as well.

This is not an opinion that you should let cut too deeply though. This is a very clever album. “Grace and Mercy” is delicate and soothing, but has a flair for the unexpected. It’s quick to surprise and filled with sharp ideas. “Saudade” is a nice shot of energy and change of pace. “Guarded Heart” both demands and rewards attention. It has aggressive saxophone riffs that are compelling and clever and a wonderful, minimal ending.

If you’re looking to pick up a recent jazz album, this is the one you should look to. If you’re new to jazz, this is a great place to start with. It’s just easy to appreciate that this is very good music. If you can invest in it though, it pays you back in spades. I highly recommend you give this a spin.

Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

9 Dec

The music industry has suffered dreadfully in 2020. Artists new and old have been forced to forego their primary resource of revenue from gigs and events, and a locked-down world’s unparalleled dependence on social media means that great music doesn’t always get enough of the public’s mindshare. 2020 has also ruined the culture of the music festival – where you can walk a hundred feet and be transported from rock to hip-hop to EDM, where you can witness exciting musical connections in real-life, where you can truly get absorbed into the sounds around you.

Of course, no one can make music festivals happen again, for some time now. But Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez – the latest album from Gorillaz – comes close to approximating the music festival experience on its eleven-song tracklist. 

If you’re new to the Gorillaz world, you should know that it primarily consists of musician Damon Albarn of Blur fame and artist Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz is a virtual band, with four virtual, animated band members – and they have been for 20 years (talk about being ahead of the curve!). Albarn and Hewlett craft the storylines and artwork of each album to match and often augment the music, usually with the help of carefully-curated featured artists. 

Song Machine is billed as an audiovisual webseries project – which, in 2020, could not have been more apt. What that means, realistically, is that Gorillaz has completely upended old-fashioned concepts such as albums and lead singles. Song Machine began way back in January 2020 with a theme song, the first “Machine Bitez” (short teaser snippet) and the first song from the album – “Momentary Bliss” feat. Slowthai and Slaves. Since then, the band has periodically released almost all of its eleven songs as a separate single, each with teasers, snippets and enough space to grow in the listener’s mind. Why should songs be delivered as an album, all at once? Why should some songs be “leads” and others be fillers? These are the questions that seem to have driven Gorillaz on Song Machine, and frankly, the results are remarkable.

Every track on the album features one or more selections from an eclectic collection of guest artists. Elton John shows up on a song with an Atlanta-based rapper. The anti-establishment British hip-hop star Slowthai shows up with his compatriot punk rock band Slaves. French-Malian folk star Fatoumata Diawara shines on her feature, as does The Cure frontman Robert Smith. The entire experience, start to finish, is exhilarating in its sheer mix of genres, artists, tones, styles and so much more – with the underlying thread of Albarn and Hewlett’s creativity running through. (If you are interested in that thread, we highly recommend watching the episodic webseries on YouTube.)

Of course, fantastic features don’t automatically make fantastic songs, but in this case, there are no weak links in the entire eleven-song run. We’ve already spoken at length about the sparky “Pac-Man” feat. ScHoolboy Q (song review), the joyous trip of “The Valley of the Pagans” feat. Beck (song review), and the perfect vocal mash-up that is “The Pink Phantom” feat. Elton John and 6LACK (song review) – but there’s so much more to unpack on Song Machine

For example, the opening track “Strange Timez” with Smith takes an ethereal look at our planet and the strange times it begets (“Spinnin’ around until the Sun comes up / Strange time to see the light”); truer words have never been spoken, in hindsight. “Aries” featuring Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and English dance-pop producer Georgia is reminiscent of the “On Melancholy Hill”-era Gorillaz in all its smoothness and subtle beauty. “The Lost Chord”, featuring British soul singer Leee Jones, is the song that Arctic Monkeys wish they made on Tranquility Base: ethereal yet packed with rock-infused drums and bass. And we admit we haven’t heard much of Fatou before this, but her powerful vocals on the groovy, beautiful “Desole” has suddenly made us want to learn a lot more about Malian music. 

Simply put, Song Machine is a near-perfect album of eleven songs that all deserve single-worthy status. Gorillaz has rethought the entire album concept into a collection of equally-good songs that are all equally-deserving of their own time to shine. With Song Machine, Gorillaz has provided the fun and exhilaration that has been amiss in our 2020 lives, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. We’ll be listening to this album for years to come, and cannot wait to experience the upcoming Season Two.

Note: This review is for the Standard verison of Song Machine Episode One: Strange Timez, which consists of 11 tracks. There is, happily, a deluxe version with six extra tracks, of which we particularly recommend “MLS”, featuring rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese all-girl rock group CHAI.

Best tracks: “The Valley of the Pagans”, “Desole”, “The Pink Phantom”

Rating: 9.5/10

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

6 Dec

It’s pretty clear what you’re going to get with Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album. She wears who she is on her sleeve, and as you would expect, this album is good, raunchy fun. Her “Savage Remix” with Beyonce was one of the sounds of the year and deservedly so. “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, you don’t feel my pain.” is one of my favorite lines of the year. Megan Thee Stallion is much more than a one-hit wonder though. She delivers a lot of strong, surprisingly old-school, rap here. “Girls in the Hood” could have been a stand-out track in a classic Beastie Boys album and she puts so much swagger into “I’m a hot girl / I do hot shit.”

Her flow is impeccable throughout. “What’s New” and “Work That” are compulsive. “Sugar Baby” has so much energy and the standout “Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business.” It’s “Outside” though that really lets her stretch herself. She has great flow there and it showcases her ability to switch up tempo. She’s astonishingly versatile. Popcaan comes in for a Caribbean slow jam sound that’s a nice left turn for the album and plays well against her rap. Lil Durk has similarly great chemistry with her, but brings in an impressive menace. Meanwhile “Don’t Rock Me To Sleep” is disco-infused pop that could easily have slid into the last Dua Lipa album.

It’s not surprising that Megan’s debut album is this strong. It was already clear that she has talent to spare, but with “Good News,” she has shown the ability to deliver an absolutely first-class album with it.

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!)

Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

25 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

The Killers – Imploding the Mirage

24 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10

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

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