Tag Archives: pop

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

29 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous in Pick Me Up Off The Floor. It’s stripped down in the way of lo-fi rock, but has sort of come to it from the other side. There’s just a sublime confidence in this music. It never overwhelms. It just takes things out one at a time, gives you time to examine it and then puts it away so that you can see what’s next. It knows that everything it has for you is worth your consideration and so there’s no need to hurry you along.

It has the cleverness to justify that confidence too. Right from the opener of “How I Weep” which draws out the first two words into a hurried “weep” at the jump and then draws out that same “weep” on the next go-around. Norah Jones’ singing is impressive as ever. Her voice has the strength to pull off all her gambits and fluid enough to work as well in the barnstorming blues of “Flame Twin” as in the country / gospel ballad of “To Live.” It’s clever and jagged in “Say No More” and yet filled with personality and irresistibly seductive. She dances across genres with very light feet and never stumbles once. There’s not a single point here where she feels less than completely in control.

Furthermore, it’s a sharp enough tool to need little else. The stark structure of “Were You Watching” would have been repetitive with a lesser musician, but between her voice and the clean piano, there’s just no need for anything else. This is a delicate, understated album and an achievement as one. In a turbulent time, it is a respite to have this album playing. It might have benefitted from delving deeper into the current moment than it does. There are references to the world right now studded throughout the album, but there’s also a lot that floats context free. Still, it floats so beautifully that it’s hard to complain.

It is very satisfying that Pick Me Up Off The Floor is the perfect sound to get up to after a fall. It’s always the dream that you build something from an experience that helps others with the same one. I’m listening to the soft, noodling instrumental piece at the end of the final song “Heaven Above” as I write this and it has been a hard and disappointing day and this is the gentleness that I’ve forgotten I need. This is a deep breath and a quick stroke on the back before I get up and now, I get up.

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

26 May

Pop is the medium of the present. Other genres can try to make an album that future generations will love or something that speaks to the older generation of established critics or just to be something their parents would listen to. Pop is about the now. Sometimes, like photos of ourselves from the nineties, we can only look back in bemusement, but that’s missing the point. how i’m feeling now is about just that, how I’m feeling right here and right now.

Make no mistake though, this is music of the present done very well. “claws” is a propulsive stream-of-consciousness with a chorus that extends exactly one beat longer than expected and is perfect for doing so. It forces the listener to pay attention and pulling out the phrase “I like” into the conclusion of “everything about you” is cute and yet intense in the way feelings are when you’re young. It’s some of the best pop that she has ever made.

She’s got that aesthetic down pat by now. “7 years” and “party 4 u” are good pop and very cute for that feeling of young love. Similarly, “i finally understand” puts a smile on your face for how well it expresses the feeling of being understood yourself. It’s upbeat and energetic and just feels happy. For an album about living in a pandemic, this is mostly a joyful album and it achieves that through just being honest. There is still a lot to celebrate in the now.

That’s one of the biggest strengths of how i’m feeling now, Charli brings the sincerity that great pop needs. It feels raw, it feels unpolished and it even feels a little rushed, but none of these detract. It’s not sloppy, it’s authentic. It’s straight from the feelings. It’s not an album to study, it’s one to experience in the moment. “pink diamond” opens the album strongly with just how uncompromising it is. The harsh noise and unforgiving beats hit you from the jump. It’s a very aggressive sound.

It’s also just masterful pop. Charli has been one of the most interesting musicians in pop for quite a while now and how i’m feeling now continues to prove how good an ear she has for pop. “detonate” is proper club pop in an age of no clubs and the breakdown at the end is genius for how it reminds you of that. “c2.0” has her at her most playful with her sounds. She lets pieces bubble into each other and burst through and it’s very clever. “enemy” has bright, blinding synths and while the lyrics never deliver on the promise, it doesn’t matter. It’s a shimmering, not a textbook.

This is an album of the moment and it’s transient in the way all pop must be. I don’t know if it will hold up at the end of the year or if it’s the kind of thing that I’ll ever come back to, but right here and right now, it’s perfect.

@murthynikhil

Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

23 May

Nostalgia in pop is having a moment. The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, for instance, have mined this vein heavily, but no one has done it with the intelligence of Rina Sawayama. The trick to nostalgia is not to sound like what music used to sound like, but to sound like what you remember things to feel like. It’s not about the sound. It’s about the feel. I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t the most sophisticated of listeners in the early nineties and much of what I was listening to wasn’t that sophisticated either. Sawayama draws from wells like Korn, Evasnescence and above all Britney for the album, but through an astonishing alchemy serves something as sharp as any of the most experimental pop today.

The best tracks, “XS” and “Comme Des Garcons” have all of the energy of Britney, but with a complexity that it’s hard to imagine Britney bringing. “STFU!” is as hard and as fun as any Korn track, but it’s not dumb and that’s a pretty big difference. Her upbringing further sharpens the album. “Akasaka Sad” and “Dynasty” both layer in her personal story and in doing so further evolve the music. The pop she draws from never thought to speak of the immigrant experience. She astutely and cuttingly speaks of tourists in “Tokyo Love Hotel” and the storytelling there is made better for the earlier contrast of “Bad Friend.”

It does occasionally slip too close to the well and so “Paradisin” has nothing interesting. The sax there almost sticks it, but is just too cheesy and her voice is not enough to carry the song through. Similarly, “Chosen Family” is just a traditional pop ballad and can’t hold up to the more interesting music here.

At its best though, this is absolutely incredible pop. It’s whip-smart and yet highly approachable from its sources. Outgrowing old tastes has never been this fun.

Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

25 Apr

It has been a long time since we’ve seen an album release like Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Acclaim this universal comes by only about once a decade. The combination of storytelling and challenging, clever music is powerful and the album is unquestionably brilliant, but it lands just a little short of being a full fledged masterpiece for me.

Firstly, this is an album that rewards attention, even if it doesn’t do that much to force it upon itself. It’s a largely understated album but right underneath the surface are all kinds of interesting currents. It’s heavily layered, but delicately so. Despite all of the flirtations with noise pop, the album only rarely pushes at you. It’s content to just be itself. Should you spend the effort to focus on it then it is generous with its rewards, but should you not, it’s not going to make the first move.

For instance, in the excellent title track, there are beautiful little musical sparkles running below her already muted voice and percussion. You can spend the whole song chasing any one of them happily and then come back to do it again with a completely different strain. Small touches like the chimes and the barking dogs at the end substantially elevate the song as a whole. A trend through the album is ˙letting each song fade with the band noodling and Apple vocalizing and this both highlights and expands the music. They like messing with noise here, but instead of the tortured guitars of 90s alternative, this is gentle, gossamer noise. It’s the sound between radio stations at night. Instead of breaking the song down, it builds upon the foundation that it set.

“Fetch The Bolt Cutters” also has fantastic storytelling and sharp lines through it. “And you maim when you’re on offense / But you kill when you’re on defense” is a great couplet. The quiet, but determined, music works excellently against the dark humanity of the lyrics. It finds exactly the right tone to communicate a very specific feeling, that of understanding that it’s time to cut the links with a person. This is a very understated song in an already understated album and quietly one of the best in here.

The writing here can often be excellent. The album is exceptionally coherent and so the storytelling comes through strong. “Rack of His” is a clever and honest song built around a sublime pun and ”Newspaper” is sharp story. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends” is lean and yet complete. There’s nothing more that needs to be said after a line like that. On top of that, the music is inventive and unexpected. It’s pinned well by the percussion, but it’s very pleasingly jagged. It’s never quite where you expect it to be.

The album then takes a turn for the softer with “Ladies.” It’s softer and simpler than the rest of the album, but it makes for a lovely break because it’s a lovely song. She’s able to belt out vocals when she needs to and the bravery of the repeated “ladies” in the song is amazing to see. Also, having the song be a plea for cooperation and then ending it with the garbled, mumbled refrain of “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through” is a body blow.

Unfortunately, from here we get to much of my issue with the album. “Heavy Balloon” is just too simple a song, especially right after “Ladies.” The blues in it should work well, but it just compounds the problem. The metaphor here is too weak to carry the song and so the whole song breaks down. It’s almost rescued by the instrumental ending. Deemphasizing the lyrics allows the music to really speak and it’s foot-stomping fun. The ending is one of the best parts of the album, but the core of the song is just too weak. Similarly, the following song “Cosmonauts” is great to listen to, especially once it takes off and just goes hard into the chant. However, the core simile, though clever at first glance, is just nonsense.

This problem is even worse with a few of the opening songs. “Shameika” has a kindergartner stomping around in it. It’s a heavy pace that’s childish and fun and the Alice-down-the-rabbithole bridge is excellent. However, the bullying just doesn’t have any heft to it. There’s too much comfort in the song. Similarly, “Relay” has a catchy chorus that’s anthemic, which is amazing given the meaning in it. That Apple wrote it at fifteen should be amazing, but the couplet of “Evil is a relay sport / where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch” sounds like it was written by a fifteen-year old and that takes a lot away from the song. It’s just too naive for me.

This is still all strong music though. “Under The Table” is too privileged in its politics for me, but the music is incredible. The couplet of “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me” is too wealthy a couplet for my taste with the dinner parties that it evokes, but the song fades it repeatedly into the background near the end and that’s excellent. Also, when she sings “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / to help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine”, the lyrics finally match the cleverness of the music and it’s sublime. I just wish that the album was more able to consistently line the two sides up. The songs with the best music tend to weak lyrics and those with the sharpest lyrics have music that, while extremely good, is not quite as great as the best here and the result is that there’s no single here that sticks with me.

These flaws are the exception, not the rule though. This is a stellar album. The opener “I Want You To Love Me” has a nice, arboreal sound to it. It’s a country song, but the country is a woodland. “For Her” places a nice summer pop sound against harsh lyrics, including the memorable “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” That’s the kind of thing that wakes you right up. “Drumset” is the same kind of brutal in the lyrics, but manages to be healing nonetheless. Finally, the closer “On I Go” is a very intelligent set of variations on a repeated chorus that gives the album a good, open-ended sound. It leaves you with the feeling that the album hasn’t ended, it has just left space for you to fill in with your life.

This is an exceptional album all told. This is some of the best music that I’ve heard in a long while. There are enough issues here to hold it back from being a true masterpiece, but it’s still an astonishing accomplishment. This is the best album of Fiona Apple’s career and a highlight of the year. You should definitely check it out.

Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of

17 Apr

As albums go, there are far harder ones to sell someone on than I’m Your Empress Of. It’s frothy, compelling pop led by the skill of Empress Of herself. “Bit of Rain” starts the album with a great synth beat that’s elevated by her voice and it’s got sex both poetic and fleshy. “Not The One” is similarly a highlight both for the honesty in the sex and honesty in the singing.

It’s a very consistent album, there’s no bad music here. However, there are also just not enough highlights either. Something like “Love Is A Drug” is very well crafted, but lacks a little inspiration. There’s a lot of good music in this album, but not quite enough that sticks to you. I’m Your Empress Of is a good pop diversion and it doesn’t need to be anything more.

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!”

Christine and the Queens – La vita nuova

5 Apr

The new Christine and the Queens EP is good upbeat pop. It’s fun, uptempo music and eminently danceable. It’s infectious and very consistent. I don’t think there’s a single moment here that could be considered a misstep. The quality is startlingly high throughout.

For all of that though, there isn’t anything here that truly elevates the album either. I’m very much enjoying listening to it right now, but I don’t think that I’m going to return to it again. If you’re looking for something entertaining and lively, this is perfect for right now, even if it maybe won’t be as perfect tomorrow.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

31 Dec

We have to admit: we kind of slept on Lizzo until early this year. The pop powerhouse – born Melissa Jefferson, stage name Lizzo – has been active for a few years already. Her first two albums, Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrl Small World (2015), were followed by a well-received EP entitled Coconut Oil (2016). But it was this year’s album, Cuz I Love You (2019), that broke Lizzo into the mainstream – and thankfully into our playlists.

Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that Lizzo first caught our ears with her lead single “Juice”, just around the time that an interview with Ellen brought her international attention. Happily, though, despite its irresistible beat and playful lyrics, “Juice” isn’t the only great track on the album – far from it, in fact.

At her essence, Lizzo is self-confidence in all aspects – personality, body, relationships and so on. And it’s when that self-confidence takes center-stage on Cuz I Love You that the singer really shines.

Take, for example, “Tempo”, an excellent collaboration with living legend Missy Elliott. “Slow songs, they for skinny hos / Can’t move all of this here to one of those / I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo” the duo declare. Sure, it’s an anthem for body positivity, but don’t overlook the killer beat or Missy’s seamless inclusion. “Exactly How I Feel”, her collab with Gucci Mane, showcases the wholesomeness of her positivity over funky, bouncy beats. “Can’t hold back my tears, that would be a crime / ‘Cause I look pretty cryin’, oh, they ain’t tell you?” she sings in her glass-busting voice, and ironically you can’t help smiling along.

But there are of course more layers to Lizzo. On the eponymous opening track, she talks about a man that she can’t quite forget: a memory that shatters her otherwise perfect poise. “Got me standing in the rain, gotta get my hair pressed again / I would do it for you all, my friend, ready baby? Will you be my man?” she wonders, before breaking out into an earth-shattering, introspective wail: “I’m crying ‘cause I love you”.

If there’s one negative to this album, it’s that it is too short yet not tight enough. There are some flatter songs on the album, which naturally stand out on the short ~34 min runtime. On the whole, though, Cuz I Love You is a great entry into the annals of this decade’s pop music. Lizzo is on her way to becoming a pop star (Doing SNL! Those red-carpet looks! Twitter friendship with Obama!) and there’s so much more that we can expect from her in the future.

FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

Charli XCX – Charli

23 Oct

Charli has come a long way from 2013’s True Romance. That was an album that showed promise, but I don’t know how many expected Charli to be where she is now, legitimately bucking at the gates of superstardom. What makes her and Charli itself incredible though is that she is still a relentless innovator.

Admittedly, Charli does continue in the vein of her previous mixtape Pop 2, but it’s too rich a vein to complain of that. Her electro-pop-with-friends sound is still fresh and the new cast mostly works well with her.

“Gone” for instance is very good, punchy pop. Charli and Chris (of Christine and the Queens) have a fantastic push-me-pull-you dynamic that elevates both of them. Their trading of verses is thoroughly collaborative and yet contains enough of an edge to push both of them.

That edge would have helped in “Cross You Out” where Sky Ferreira slips a little too effortlessly into the song. It’s still good pop, but a little conflict might have tempered the whole thing.

Similarly, “Warm”, while a fun song, doesn’t feel like the collaboration with HAIM that I hoped for as much as a Charli song with a feature in it. It’s got some of the fun HAIM rock in it, but you sort of have to be looking for it. “February 2017” also feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity due to how understated Clairo is in the song.

Her chemistry with Troye Sivan really makes the album though. “1999” may not be the deepest Charli cut, but it is as good pop as anything that she has ever made. It’s fun, it’s relatable and it’s very catchy. It was the lack of a single like this that brought down Pop 2 and having one of the quality of “1999” does a lot for Charli. “2099” is not quite as strong a single, but it’s a fascinating, futuristic piece.

There are still a couple of missteps. Lizzo is a bit forgettable on “Blame It On Your Love”, even if Charli herself does quite well in it. “Shake It” however is just not good. It’s noisy and grating and doesn’t do anything interesting with all of that noise. “White Mercedes” has Charli stretching herself into something more of power-pop, but that’s not really her métier.

Nevertheless, this is a strong pop album and one well worth spending some time with. Unlike thank u, next and Norman Fucking Rockwell!, this doesn’t feel like the album to take the artist to the next level, but it’s still a very solid addition to an oeuvre rapidly filling with them.

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