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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.

Glass Animals – Dreamland

24 Aug

British psychedelic pop act Glass Animals recently released their third studio album, Dreamland, earlier this month. The band’s previous outputs – debut Zaba (2014) and How to Be a Human Being (2016) – were fairly well-received, resulting in break-out single “Gooey” in addition to a Mercury Prize nod. With Dreamland, the band digs deep into deeply personal stories for a record that’s nostalgic, expertly produced and as dreamy as the name suggests. However, it remains to be seen whether this is the best that Glass Animals are capable of.

According to lead singer Dave Bayley, Dreamland has a grisly and quite recent origin story. In 2018, the band’s drummer Joe Seaward (and Bayley’s childhood friend, as are all the band members) got into a horrendous traffic accident that left his future uncertain. Although Seaward eventually recovered, Bayley’s experiences at his bedside got him thinking about their past, and then even before that: although Bayley is English now, he is actually American by birth and moved to the UK only in his early teens. This mishmash of trans-Atlantic experiences went on to provide the content for much of Dreamland’s lyrics.

Bayley’s date of birth – in June 1989 – forms another key piece of the album’s lyrics. Dreamland is consciously and explicitly centered on the specific lived experiences of Bayley’s cohort of Americans millennials. Peppered throughout the album are touchstones from the childhood of someone born in the 1989-1992 period – watching “The Price is Right” after-school; seeing school shootings; playing Pokemon; and much more.

Unfortunately, the hyper-specific focus on the personal past sometimes works; but more often than not, makes the songs trite and a little childish. If you are listening as someone born in that exact country and time period, great – chances are, you’ll love it purely out of your own emotional connections. If not – well, it does come across a little vapid.

Lyrics aside, though, the album is quite well-produced and diverse in terms of vocals, drums and beats. Dreamland starts off with the eponymous track and third single, which touches upon the key stories and emotions that will be brought up in the rest of the album. The song also sets the album’s dreamy (duh) tone, from the gentle xylophone to Bayley’s whispery falsetto. The last lines on “Dreamland” literally segue us into the rest of the album: “Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that / So you go make an album and call it Dreamland”.

Say what you will about Glass Animals, but they sure know how to pick their singles. The fantastic Denzel Curry collab “Tokyo Drifting” was released all the way back in November 2019 (remember 2019?); as regular Top Five Records readers know, it was one of the best tracks in 2019 period. Second single “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” from this February was and continues to be a Timberlake/Timberland-esque banger. Perhaps the most interesting track on this album is final single “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”, where the band trade in their hip-hop beats for an intense, Radiohead-like slow-burner. In line with the title, the song gets progressively louder as Bayley’s vocals paint a picture of the split-second after you’ve said something you oughtn’t have.

Among the non-singles, “Tangerine” stands out with catchy beats and a calypso beat that’s instantly reminiscent of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” deals with the quintessentially American topic of school shootings, and is apparently based off of a real-life friend who became a school shooter. Musically, the song features a wide array of blips, beat drops and droning synths that make for a snappy, crisp listen (despite its content).

But beyond these stand-out tracks, the album starts to falter. It’s not that the rest of the songs aren’t good tunes – on the contrary, the beats and production remain top-notch fairly throughout. However, they don’t quite break out of the casual-listen orbit. “Melon and the Coconut” is as forgettable as the name suggests; “Waterfalls Coming Out of Your Mouth” is just “Tangerine” without the Drake rip-off beat. “Heat Waves” is a great summer track, but you won’t probably remember it beyond the summer. In fact, the most memorable part about it is the music video (see below), which was shot entirely in quarantine. “Domestic Bliss” tackles an important subject matter – domestic violence between parents from a child’s perspective – but you could not hum a bar of it afterward if you tried.

Dreamland is a musical version of the 90s-kid meme, filled with the collective memories of 30-ish-year-olds from childhood to the present day – quinoa and online shopping included – through the filter of Dave Bayley’s personal memories. However, the autobiography theme is a little too specific, erring on the side of therapy or diary entries than the side of a meaningful creative output. Also, the chillwave-meets-Beach Boys vibe gets a little taxing and banal after a while, as does Bayley’s constant falsetto. Overall, Dreamland is a fun, crisply-produced listen – but you wouldn’t be amiss to hear the hits and skip the rest.

Best songs: “Tokyo Drifting”, “Your Love (Deja Vu)”, “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”

Rating: 7/10

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.

Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020

2 Mar

We are back in the new(ish) year with our Monthly Playlist feature! Read on for the five songs that caught our ears this past month.

5. “Cars in Space” by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

We last covered the uniquely named Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever in a Monthly Playlist about a year ago, and we’ve had our eye on them ever since. “Cars in Space” is a jangly, upbeat tune from the Aussie indie pop-rock band. It’s funny – some songs don’t necessarily have a hook but earworm their way into the listener’s mind nonetheless. “Cars in Space”, with its memorable phrasings and high energy, is definitely one of those songs.

4. “Corduroy” by Monks

Liverpool-based Monks are, as of yet, quite the undiscovered gem, so we feel grateful that we’ve come across their diamond-in-the-rough of a track, “Corduroy”. The song starts off with the lead singer’s melancholy, chill-wave vocals – with a reverb that Kevin Parker might want to nick – before quickly transitioning into a chaotic-good riff that seems to pay homage to “Take Five”. Psychedelia with a jazzy temperament – what’s not to love?

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

Image result for your love glass animals

Our readers will be well-aware that Glass Animals scored the top honor for our best songs of 2019, and we are happy to let you know they are already back with a banger this year. “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” starts off with an instantly-danceable beat that might have come out of the Justin Timberlake-Timbaland in the Futuresex heyday. The “déjà vu” here is ostensibly about avoiding a needy ex that the main character is still torn about; a stretch, for sure but it is a banger from start to end.    

2. “Bad Decisions” by The Strokes

In 2020, one of the savviest ways to see the who’s-who of today’s music is by simply livestreaming the opening acts of Bernie Sanders rallies. So far this year, the Sanders campaign has welcomed everyone from Soccer Mommy to Vampire Weekend as rally-opening acts, but on Feb. 10, Bernie himself opened for famed NYC quintet, the Strokes. Over their hour-long set, we found out many things: that they do know how to play songs from Comedown Machine; that their new album is releasing on April 10th; and that new track “Bad Decisions” could really be one of the greats.

Bad Decisions” is essentially a back-to-roots track that would fit quite well on Is This It. It also takes inspiration – apparently with full intention – from Billy Idol; an on-brand nod to the band’s turn to ‘80s nostalgia over their previous two albums. If you’re a Strokes fan, you’ll love the song; even if you aren’t, chances are high that you’ll like it. All in all, “Bad Decisions” gives us great hope for the upcoming Album No. 6.

1. “Breathe Deeper” by Tame Impala

After an almost five-year hiatus, psych-rock mainstay Tame Impala is back with a new album, The Slow Rush. The Australian act, comprising primarily of singer / songwriter / madcap-genius Kevin Parker, hits it out of the park with the entire album (our review incoming shortly!) but probably the best track on the album is the hypnotic bop, “Breathe Deeper”.

The track essentially sounds like someone – Parker, we suppose – applied a gauzy psych filter to an old-school R&B song. The result is a track that somehow sounds like a fresh remix of a classic track, even though it’s all original. If you’re familiar with Tame Impala, you’ll recognize the lyrical content: Parker’s lifelong struggle between anxiety and success, and his notes-to-self about how to survive that chasm (in this case, to breathe deeper).

Although the entire song is a sonic treat, the best part comes on at about the five-minute mark, when the R&B elements are suddenly stripped off to reveal the Daft Punk-esque acid house underneath. It’s magical, and definitely one of the best moments on the entire album.

The Top Five Songs of 2019

31 Dec

If making a great album is one unique combination of skills, making a great song is another – sometimes complementary, sometimes not – skillset. Below is a look at the top five songs that defined our editor’s year. Let us know if you agree!

5. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

“Tokyo Drifting”, an unlikely collaboration between British psych rockers Glass Animals and Southern rapper Denzel Curry, is – even more improbably – the best trap song this year. Hazy beats and Curry’s swaggering verse make this the perfect soundtrack to a nighttime chase through a city that never sleeps – just as the title suggests.

This song also appears on our Nov. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

4. “Exits” by Foals

With its slightly off-kilter beats and the lead singer’s enigmatic vocals, “Exits” casts a hypnotic spell on the listener’s mind. This lead single from Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 also offers a trippy synth solo, cryptic music video, and much more. Don’t miss out!

This song also appears on our Mar. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

Much like Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” last year, this opening track from British band Elbow’s eighth studio album is actually several songs in one, stitched together by impeccable production quality. Over six minutes, “Dexter & Sinister” skips from bass-heavy alt-rock, to ethereal pop, to meditative guitar – apparently as a musical metaphor to Brexit.

This song also appears on our Oct. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

2. “Inglorious (feat. Skepta)” by slowthai

If there is a zeitgeist for the political minefield that is today’s United Kingdom, it is slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. And the core of that album – the zeitgeist of the zeitgeist – is this track, featuring another UK man-of-the-moment, Skepta. “Inglorious” is about what it means to be poor and overlooked, and how that feeling sticks with you whether your fortunes change or not. This is the essence that informs and guides the rest of the album, which sees slowthai peeling apart the layers to Brexit with snark and irreverence. Rap with the spirit of punk.

This song also appears on our May 2019 Monthly Playlist.

1. “The Runner” by Foals

 “The Runner” is Foals at their finest: cryptic lyrics, heavy-hitting riffs and sharp production turned up to the max. It’s also just great music: endlessly listenable in all moods, whether it’s on the radio or on a superfan’s 500th spin. Foals have had a great year, but this song may be their best work ever.

This song also appears on our Sep. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

Honorable mentions: “CHARLIE” by Malfnktion feat. Shayan Roy; “Juice” by Lizzo; “7 rings” by Ariana Grande

Monthly Playlist: Nov. 2019

2 Dec

Before we swing into the final month of the year – and the decade! – we wanted to do a quick review of a few songs that made our November. Read on below:

5. “Kiss Like the Sun” by Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg has been our radar for about the last seven years, when we covered his fantastic, eponymous debut album. Even back then, the young (1994-born) singer-songwriter had a unique sound, evocative of the good old days (think Bob Dylan) but often ratcheted up to a modern-day streetwise setting (a la the Arctic Monkeys’ debut).

His sparkly debut, unfortunately, was followed by a rather middling series of three albums, with the last being released in 2017. Happily, though, it looks like Jake is making a foray back into music. On the new track “Kiss Like the Sun”, the Nottingham lad taps into a sort of amalgamation of the jangly tunes of a Feist track, and the rollicking bluesy good times of the Black Keys. We loved it, and hope there’s more to come.

4. “holy terrain” by FKA twigs

“holy terrain” is, in our opinion, the stand-out track from FKA twigs’ overall brilliant album from this month, MAGDALENE. Over a glitchy trap beat, twigs’ airy voice seems to speak of a soon-to-be love-hate relationship in its tumultuous early days. “Will you still be there for me once I’m yours to obtain? / Once my fruits are for taking and you flow through my veins?” she asks, hitting about ten emotions and twenty notes on the way. Her lover, here played by rapper Future, doesn’t have a great answer: “Throw loads of gold on you just to fall asleep, yeah / I hope you never take my love, yeah, in vain, yeah,” he answers, putting materialism and love in doomed equal footing. Ouch – good luck, folks. If you loved this track, be sure to check out our full review of MAGDALENE.

3. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

Florida rapper Denzel Curry seems to be having a Brit-heavy collab year. After a joint track with British rap’s reigning king slowthai earlier this year, Curry has a notable stint on “Tokyo Drift” by British act Glass Animals.

For those who are new to Glass Animals, the four piece creates essentially a genre-bending musical mix of pop, R&B, trip hop, and everything in the middle – think Mazzy Star meets Portugal the Man over woozy electronic beats. On “Tokyo Drifting”, the dizzy trap beats and disorienting lyrics do indeed bring to mind a fast, nighttime drive through the glittering streets of Tokyo. And the best part, honestly, is Curry’s fast-and-furious verse right in the middle.

2. “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Pond

So we’re cheating a little bit here: “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Perth-based psych rockers is technically a song from their debut, Psychedelic Mango, way back in 2009. However, the song was rerecorded and released as a single on their Sessions live album from earlier this month, so we are considering it fair play.

With the heady reverb and thick basslines, “Don’t Look at the Sun” right from the outset sounds a lot like Tame Impala. We know we make that comparison that a lot – Tame is a solid reference point for lots of new music – but in Pond’s case, the comparison is not accidental. Pond and Tame Impala enjoy a revolving door of Perth-based musicians that play pretty much across both bands, including Kevin Parker himself, who used to drum for Pond. Basically, it’s no accident that “Don’t Look at the Sun”, with its groovy breaks and Doppler-effect vocals, feels like it would fit right in on Lonerism.

If you liked this song, we highly recommend you check out Pond’s 2019 album Tasmania – the eighth (!) full-length album from the good folks Down Under.

1. “Arabesque” by Coldplay

Like the Pond song earlier, this one is a little bit of a cheat too. As our avid readers would no doubt recall, we mentioned “Arabesque” as the paired single with “Orphans” in last month’s Playlist. However, since both songs feature on the band’s new album Everyday Life, out on November 22nd, we are once again considering this fair play.

Everyday Life overall is imbued with the mystique, romanticism and inimitable beauty of the Mediterranean-meets-Middle-East – the broad swathe of countries across the culturally complex top half of Africa. In fact, the essence can be summed up precisely by the name of this very song, “Arabesque” – a little Arabic, a little French, and many other things too.

On “Arabesque”, Chris Martin and the lads do justice to this complexity with a jazzy, bilingual track that elicits a Casablancan air of exotic joie de vivre. The lyrics themselves are not complex: “I could be you, you could be me / Two raindrops in the same sea,” sings Martin across English and French, perhaps speaking to the ultimate commonality in the basic human experience. But it’s the delivery – the band at their liveliest and most exuberant – that really makes the song for us. The best way to experience this song is through its accompanying live music video (which, in fact, was released this month, so I suppose we get points for that?):

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