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Top Five Songs of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As a complement to my Top Five Albums of 2020 list, here are the songs whose endless replays helped me get through this year.

Honorable mentions

And now for my top five songs of the year:

5. “Your Love (Déjà vu)” by Glass Animals

Clocking in at #5 is this early single from British pop band Glass Animals’ Dreamland album that was released this year. As we talked about in our review of the album, the singles from Dreamland were really good and everything else was so-so. Well, “Your Love (Déjà vu)” is one of those ridiculously good songs in the first category, featuring crisp hip-hop like beats, electric vocals from singer Dave Bayley and an all-around fun vibe. This is as catchy as the Glass Animals get – don’t miss this one.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020 edition.

4. “The Adults Are Talking” by the Strokes

Over the year, we’ve highlighted “Bad Decisions” and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” from the Strokes’ The New Abnormal (2020) album on our Monthly Playlists; but as we come to the close of the year, it’s the album opener “The Adults Are Talking” that most stands out to me. The Strokes get your feet tapping and your head bopping along from the first seconds of the classic, clean drum line, and it only gets better from there. The icing on the cake is a particularly good vocal effort from Julian Casablancas, especially in the sky-high falsetto at the end. As the first sound you hear on The New Abnormal, “The Adults Are Talking” provided a symbolic sigh of relief to Strokes fans everywhere that the band is alive, well and perhaps better than ever.

Read our full album review here.

3. “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year (which, let’s admit, not a bad plan for 2020), you would have heard Dua Lipa’s mega-hit “Don’t Start Now” at some point. The irrepressible dance-pop number has graced radio stations, talk shows, award shows and all other COVID-ready media; in any other year, it would have likely been on the playlist of every club in the world. Dua Lipa’s entire Future Nostalgia album is an homage to the fun and vivacity of 1970s and 1980s music. And “Don’t Start Now” is the album’s shining disco ball of a crown jewel, with its pulsing bass line, Dua’s staccato vocals, random cowbell, handclaps and so on.

Read our full album review here.

2. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Perhaps the most talked-about song of the year – for one reason or the other – is “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The powerhouse song by the two reigning queens of rap instantly shot to fame with its sexually-explicit lyrics, inciting the wrath of right-wing ghouls everywhere. I consider “WAP” to be iconic, unapologetic and more feminist than most things that claim to be. Cardi and Megan spend the entire song detailing exactly what men should do to please them. The reverse has been covered in songs by men about women ad infinitum; so why should boys have all the fun?

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020 edition.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

As I mentioned on my AOTY list, Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was undoubtedly the best debut album of the year, and the brightest star on the tracklist is the gaudy, poppy “XS”. Rina’s whole vibe is a cool mixture of 90s / early 00s music across all genres, and this song follows that make-up too. Her breathy, slightly nasal vocals – reminiscent of Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears – sync perfectly with the rock-tinged instrumentals brings to mind the early 00s pop-rock acts (Good Charlotte, Simple Plan) which were all the rage back in the day. Lyrically, too, “XS” does well. As the name cleverly suggests, is a critique on the excesses of capitalism (“Cartiers and Tesla X’s, Calabasas, I deserve it / Call me crazy, call me selfish, I’m the baddest and I’m worth it”) – to which Rina cleverly alludes in the song’s music video. All in all, a great effort and – for me – the song of the year.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Apr. 2020 edition.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

End-of-year introspection has an entirely new depth in 2020. There was profound sadness, disappointment, discomfort, dismay – but also hope. Hope in the vaccines that have arrived at breakneck speed, hope in the stronger relationships that emerged out of quarantine, and hope in continuing to keep up whatever gave you joy in this hellish year. For me, the year was made better by the presence of the following five albums, plus a few others that I’ve highlighted below. Read on for my take of the Top Five Albums of 2020.

Honorable mentions

  • What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware: Ridiculously fun, dance-worthy disco jam. (Full review here)
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels: Powerful, well-penned and a perfect soundtrack to the racial turmoil this year. (Full review here)

5. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. debuted in 2019 with the spectacular Dogrel (which also made it to my list last year), and followed it up in 2020 with a deeper sophomore album – A Hero’s Death. The album was written while the band was on a whirlwind global tour for Dogrel, and consequently highlights their thoughts on fame, identity, America and so much more. With mainstream success comes mainstream expectations; A Hero’s Death sees the band rebelling on tracks like “I Don’t Belong” and “I Was Not Born”. “Living in America” dissects the reality of the United States of America from the mythical land-of-the-free in Irish minds while “Televised Mind” comes back to the theme of the stilted thoughts in today’s consumerist world – a favorite theme of Fontaines D.C. (and punk rock bands everywhere). All in all, this is a great record that proves there’s a lot more to come from Fontaines D.C.

Read our full review here.

4. The New Abnormal by The Strokes

Few records have ever been as perfectly titled as The Strokes’ sixth studio album The New Abnormal. The album was announced in February – pre-pandemic – and by the time it came out in April, the whole world was in an entirely different place. In the wilderness years between their fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) and this one, the band released a sum total of three songs (plus a remix). Most of the members used the seven years to work on side projects and there were rumors that the Strokes were done for. Happily though, the situation now seems as far from that as it has ever been, because The New Abnormal sounds like a perfectly-curated playlist of the Strokes’ creative output – together and apart. There are of course the classic “Strokes-y” songs like “The Adults Are Talking” that could do pretty well on their earlier records; but there’s also tracks like the melancholy “At The Door” with its clear Voidz edge and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” with its touches of Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo work. On The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound like they’re working well together and having fun again, and that shows in the music.

Read our full review here.

3. Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

If you’re a pop / R&B star not named Billie Eilish, chances are you’ve tried your hand at dance-pop / disco this year. We had 80s-inspired music from Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and so many others, but none can come close to the disco perfection on Future Nostalgia. The album is pretty much just straight hits from top to bottom. The metaphorical strobe lights start flashing right from the opening beats of the bouncy, irrepressible title track; and it’s a full-blown dance party by the time we get to the massive hit singles like “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical” and “Break My Heart”. Dua has also excelled in live shows this year (of all years), taking and running with any opportunity she gets – see her stripped-back Tiny Desk session or her magnetic AMAs performance of “Levitating”. Future Nostalgia is fresh, fun, timeless and an instant mood booster at a time when we all needed it the most.

Read our full review here.

2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

SAWAYAMA by Japanese-English singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is, in my mind, undoubtedly the debut album of the year. Imagine a mixtape of all the music you illegally downloaded off Napster in the 90s and early 00s; but somehow all the tracks have magically mashed up across genre lines – that’s more or less what SAWAYAMA is. For example, “STFU!” sounds exactly like a Britney Spears cover of a Korn song, while “Dynasty” has all the harmonized pop extravagance of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, with a hint of Evanescence-style elven vocals. If those come off as odd mash-ups, it’s purely a testament to how well this album has been visualized, produced, mixed and implemented. Songs like “XS” and “Comme des Garcons” are crisp, campy, catchy and everything that good pop music ought to be. Rina’s confidence and integrity of artistic vision belie her discography length, and a legion of fans now eagerly await her next move.

Read our full review here.

1. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz

Until about late November, when we in the music review hobby start charting out our end-of-year lists, I honestly did not think of the new Gorillaz album on this list. Indeed, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez was just released a few weeks ago, and although they have been steadily releasing great singles all year, I didn’t think the combined package would hold up. However, the more I started running through Song Machine, the more I was certain that this was the album of the year.

On Song Machine, Damon Albarn has turned the traditional album-single release tradition on its head. Every song is a single in its own right, and has been more or less treated as such, each with a separate release date, music video, accompanying snippets and so on. Release mechanics aside, the music holds up too: every single song on the 11-track album is worthy of the listener’s attention. Moreover, one must applaud the sheer audacity of throwing together musicians across genres – for example, Elton John with rapper 6LACK on “Pink Phantom” – and creating something totally unique and magical. From the opening notes of the otherworldly title track (“Strange Timez” feat. The Cure’s Robert Smith) to the high-energy closing track (“Momentary Bliss” feat. British rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves), Song Machine is the closest we’ll get to an eclectic and electric music festival this year. Virtually of course – what else could it be in 2020?

Read our full review here.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

13 Apr

If you were still wondering whether disco has truly made a comeback in 2020, look no further than Dua Lipa’s sophomore album, Future Nostalgia . With a stark departure from the dance-pop sensibilities of her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa brings her modern spin on retro-fabulous to the table. Yet somehow, it’s not all disco. Lipa has managed to concoct a dance album that simultaneously draws inspiration from three decades of pop music – yet feels fresh, fun and timeless.

Dua Lipa has always been a Cool Girl™. She’s suave, she’s a sharp dresser, and she’s seemingly stolen Lady Gaga’s spot as a pop queer icon (at least until Chromatica drops later this year). Future Nostalgia feels like the first time that she’s dropped the image and just had fun with it, for a change.

If you’re looking for deep lyrical content on this album, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Most tracks on this album are sexually-charged love songs or radio-pop anthems peppered with cookie-cutter feminist slogans. But there’s no denying that Dua Lipa knows how to make a good pop banger that gets you moving.

The album opens strong with “Future Nostalgia”, a song that clearly spells out Lipa’s thesis statement for the album (“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game”). “Don’t Start Now” is an upbeat heartbreak anthem, a strange juxtaposition of themes that shouldn’t work, but somehow does – and incredibly well, too. With “Physical”, a dancercise-style synth-pop track, Dua Lipa embraces the retro sound to her advantage. The chorus is a direct reference to Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Let’s Get Physical”, and she employs a classic 80s song structure, complete with a hand-clapping bridge section. Yet somehow, the track feels modern and light, all while giving you the intense urge to throw on a pair of spandex and (poorly) follow along with a Jazzercise VHS tape.

Out of the eleven tracks on the album, the first ten of them could be individually released as successful lead singles- it’s just one frenetic synth-pop disco dream after the next. The stand-out pieces, though, are neatly nestled in the middle of the tracklist. “Levitating”, an interstellar-themed track with deceptively simple vocal work, sounds like it was copped straight from The Weeknd’s repertoire. Not surprising, since Lipa herself names Daft Punk (along with Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Kylie Minogue to name a few) as one of her muses for her new “retro-futuristic” sound. With the heavy pounding choruses and dreamy verses on “Hallucinate”, Dua Lipa explores Europop, a frequently overlooked relic of the 80s and 90s that hasn’t seen much traction since the Spice Girls era of pop.

That isn’t to say that this album is perfect. “Good in Bed”, a Lily Allen-style bop, has some of the worst rhymes we’ve seen (- bad – sad – mad -), and will incessantly annoy you with how catchy this objectively trashy track is. That’s another bone to pick with Dua Lipa’s work: the vacant lyrical content.  Sure, most pop stars have always stuck to a handful of topics – usually love, romance and heartbreak – but you’d expect something more, thematically speaking, from a modern feminist pop icon like Dua Lipa. However, the one time she does try to explore a different subject matter on “Boys Will Be Boys”, it falls entirely flat. Dua Lipa means well with this number as she attempts to speak up about women’s rights and gender roles, but she ends up putting a sudden and final damper on an otherwise fun, upbeat and perfect pop album.

But maybe, given the state of the world in April 2020, a groovy dance-your-way-through-the-decades style pop album is what we need right now. There’s a reason disco makes a comeback every few years- it’s fun, it’s uplifting, and most importantly it’s infectious! Dua Lipa has truly perfected the art of a perfect pop album. You can throw it on, dance it out and take her advice to heart: “Don’t take yourself too seriously and just have fun with it!”

Monthly Playlist: Mar. 2020

31 Mar

March 2020 will forever be known in the history books as the month that COVID-19 really stuck its hypothetical flag into Earth. Over a billion people are now in quarantine, leading to stranger-than-fiction outcomes like kindergarten classes over Zoom. There is, however, one silver lining to this whole scenario: humanity’s ability to find artistic outlets seems to have gotten sharper. Either that, or this was just independently a really good month for music. Read on for our top five tracks this month – and stay safe!

“just a boy” by Alaina Castillo

Houston, Texas-based Alaina Castillo has been making her moves for a while now. Castillo shot to fame the new-school way, by racking up a massive YouTube following, before transitioning into her first traditional EP (2019’s antisocial butterfly). Three months into the year, the English-Spanish bilingual singer has already released five singles but it’s “just a boy” that may just give her the mainstream break-out she deserves. The song features Alaina’s silky smooth, pitch-perfect vocals that can give Ariana Grande a run for her money, layered over stripped-down guitar work. It’s the best of pop: sugary-sweet vocals, relatable lyrics, and heartfelt emotion.

“Ooh LA LA” by Run The Jewels (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)

Rap duo Run The Jewels, consisting of Killer Mike and El-P, are back with a new jam called “Ooh LA LA”. The track has a laid-back, 90s rap vibe that perfectly complements the comfortable-brag lyrics. In particular, Killer Mike’s “First of all, fuck the fucking law, we is fucking raw / Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar” is a standout, but really, the whole song is filled with such lines. What’s more, the song is well-served by a catchy-AF chorus. Run The Jewels are scheduled to release a new album this year, and had an amazing double-bill tour with Rage Against the Machine (titled, appropriately, “Public Service Announcement”) planned for 2020 – time will tell how much of that tour they are actually able to embark upon.

“P2” by Lil Uzi Vert

In 2017, Lil Uzi Vert shook up the world with, of all things, an emo rap song, entitled “XO Tour Llif3”. “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead,” says Uzi on the chorus , throwing in side-note one-liners like “I might blow my brain out / Xanny numb the pain, yeah”. Late 90s emo rock bands probably ate their hearts out – here was a genuine and successful emo song, parceled in talented rap no less. In 2020, Lil Uzi Vert released his much-awaited (and much-lauded) album called Eternal Atake (read our review here). “P2”, coming in just before the end of the behemoth one-hour 18-track album, is in essence the follow-up to “XO Tour Llif3”, both lyrically and musically. Uzi retains the hypnotic, slightly-off kilter minor beats, and his lyrics take on an after-the-fact vibe: “I don’t really care ‘cause I’m done”. Great song, and great album.

“Faith” by The Weeknd

“Faith” is an atmospheric, textured track from The Weeknd’s new album, After Hours (read our review here). While most of the spotlight right now is on the lead singles – “Blinding Lights”, “Heartless” – it’s really “Faith” that finds The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) at his most genuine, fractured self. Set on heavy choir-like synths, “Faith” really explores the various pieces of Abel’s self-destructive tendencies. He goes sober for his new love, but threatens to go back to his old ways if she leaves him. When given a choice between Heaven or Las Vegas (a reference to a previous song, btw), he chooses Sin City. And if he ODs? “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me,” he requests. “Faith” is almost a psychological study of a chronic drug abuser and what makes one stuck that way. Good music too – check it out.

“Break My Heart” by Dua Lipa

Technically, British-Albanian rising star Dua Lipa’s new album has been in the public sphere for a few months already. Unless you live under a rock, you must have heard her massive global hit, “Don’t Start Now”. The next single, “Physical”, did the rounds well too. This month, the new album Future Nostalgia was finally released, and it proved to be on par with both of those bangers. In particular, “Break My Heart” really encapsulates the vibe of the whole album: nostalgia for the early 2000s (when Dua was a teeny-bopper) masked in the touchpoints of today’s pop hits. Synth-pop beats and her signature husky voice bring back memories of Titanic-era Cher, perhaps, with some busy Gwen Stefani-esque attitude – but it’s all done in a way that feels modern, not retro. The perfectly-titled Future Nostalgia as a whole is a great ride, and “Break My Heart” is a good place to start.

Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa

11 Jun

This is a good, strong pop debut. Songs like “Be The One” and “New Rules” are classic dancefloor pop and have rightfully been monopolizing airwaves for quite a while now. Her voice is stellar, holding its own against Miguel just fine in “Lost In Your Light.” Despite its many strengths however, the album lacks any factor that distinguishes it enough to make it a must-listen. It is a good, strong pop album and makes for a reasonable listen, but that is all it does. It’s still fun though.

@murthynikhil

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