Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the top 25 best albums of 2013

And now we're down to the final list - my top twenty-five albums of 2013. This year, I reviewed 135 albums - and frankly, I should have done more. But I feel it's a plenty big sample size to discuss my choices, and all of these earned their slots on this list. I'll also try to keep this as quick as I possibly can - I've already talked about all of these albums in detail, and you should all check out my reviews if you want a more in-depth discussion. Also, my list isn't exactly going to correspond with common critical consensus - there are albums I have picked that have been ignored, and there are certain albums that some critics lauded that I didn't find nearly as strong. Got all that? Good, because we're not waiting any longer, let's GO!

the top 50 best songs of 2013 (PART TWO: 25-1)

Whew, that takes care of that.

Last one is the long-awaited albums of the year - stay tuned!

the top 50 best songs of 2013

Some of you are probably scratching your heads with confusion at the title of this list and wondering, 'Wait, didn't he already make this exact same list a few days ago?' Well, this list is significantly different than the last one, mostly because we're no longer talking about the hits. No, these are the songs, singles or otherwise, that appeared on the albums I listened through this year and stuck with me. They aren't the hits - most of you might not recognize the songs I mention, but all of them bear the highest of my personal recommendations. That's right, from the 135 albums I reviewed this year, these were my favourite songs. I'm not segregating them by genre or success - singles or deep cuts all have a chance to make this list, which was initially reduced from thousands down to 436, which was then narrowed down to fifty. And believe me, even with that I had to make some painful cuts, and what is on this list will surprise you. So, without any more delay, here are my Top 50 Songs of 2013! Let's get started!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

the top ten best hit songs of 2013 - video

So this turned out as well as I expected. List 2/4 done, stay tuned for more!

the top ten best hit songs of 2013

Here's a fun fact about me - as much as I nitpick and criticize and say all manner of things people don't want to hear about the music they love, I've got my own fair share of popular music that I cherish, appreciate, or outright love. Sometimes, quality rises to the top, and while none of this particular list will show up on my upcoming list of the best songs of this year, I still think they're worth mentioning if only to reinforce some vague sense of populism that I have. But really, it's nice to point out that some mainstream music gets popular because it's good, and sometimes pop or country or mainstream hip-hop can be just as good as the most underground of indie hits.

Now the rules are as before: the songs have to debut on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart this year - so as good as 'Die Young' by Ke$ha or 'Some Nights' by fun. are, I can't exactly mention them again on this list after they made my list last year. And on that note, don't expect any sort of coherent theme to these picks. While my year-end worst list had an abundance of terribly vapid luxury rap (especially near the top), on a year as varied and confused as the 2013 chart would indicate, my choices might surprise you. And fair warning: you won't agree with the majority of this list.

So let's get started with some Honourable Mentions, shall we?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

the top ten worst hit songs of 2013

It's that time again.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year where I take a look at the biggest hit songs of the year and pick out the top ten best and worst to the complete indifference of artists, producers, and fans alike! Sounds like fun, eh? Okay, let's get started, and I think the prime place to begin is at the absolute bottom: the top ten worst hit songs of the year.

First, some ground rules. For one, a song will only ever make the list if it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End chart this year. Of course there are holdovers I dislike from last year, but they had their chance to pop up on my 2012 list (which is available here). And I'm only choosing songs from this list - of course there were worse tracks that I covered in my album reviews, but I want to make the point that not only are these songs terrible, they're also impossible to escape throughout the year.

And here's another thing to keep in mind: for a song to reach my list, it has to actively annoy or irritate me, and simply being boring is often not enough to propel a song into my line of fire. The year-end charts are less aggressively bad than they are boring, and this year had that problem more than previous years, mostly because the indie boom lost momentum and mainstream radio had no idea what to replace it with. That means large tracts of this year were dominated by easy listening slow jams, interchangeable EDM, increasingly listless hip-hop, and a disco revival that came out of nowhere. 

But that's not saying there weren't songs that pissed me off, so let's begin by tackling some Dishonourable Mentions, shall we?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

video review: 'parts of speech' by dessa

Well, this one turned out quite good. Surprisingly good quality in the change of location.

Next up are the year end lists. Stay tuned!

album review: 'parts of speech' by dessa

Exactly one hundred video reviews ago, I talked about the debut album from Colette Carr called Skitszo - which, much to my surprise, actually turned out to be pretty decent. I mean, this was a white female rapper who pulled half of her inspiration from Eminem and the other half from the Spice Girls, it would make sense to expect questionable results. Fortunately for everyone, Colette Carr proved to a good performer, and Skitszo wasn't a half bad album.

But If that album highlighted anything, it only served to show how very few albums existed from female rappers, let alone ones that actually produced viable hits. And the sad fact is that it actively seems to be getting worse - at least in the late-90s and early 2000s we had acts like Missy Elliott and Lil Kim and Lauryn Hill who had mainstream success, but who can you say fills that role now? The only two that spring to mind is Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., with the former squandering her talent making increasingly bland luxury rap and the latter losing momentum in recent years.

Fortunately, there are still female rappers making music, and great music at that - unfortunately, they tend to be underground acts, and today, we're going to be talking about one that really caught me by surprise: Dessa, a member of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. When she released her album Parts of Speech back in September, I initially passed it over (mostly because I was swamped in September), but after hearing some rave reviews and recommendations, I figured I should go back into her discography and get a feel for her music.

Man, I'm glad I did that, because Dessa is awesome. With a measured yet forceful flow, baroque-pop inspired production with a ton of flavour and texture, a superb singing voice, and strikingly intelligent lyrics, Dessa's first two records (that have significant overlap) A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin were memorable and easily rose above the conventional topics in mainstream rap. And thus, I was kind of psyched to listen to her new album Parts of Speech - how did it turn out?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

video review: 'sonic dopamine' by cousin ayjay

Well, this took a long time to get out, but it's about time I post it.

Next up will be Dessa, and then it's time for YEAR-END LISTS! WOO! Stay tuned!

album review: 'sonic dopamine' by cousin ayjay

Let's talk about weed albums. 

I was once told by a friend that if I ever started smoking pot, I would inevitably start listening to either trance or hip-hop, and the more I've delved into the latter, the more that statement makes sense. There is a lot of talk about marijuana in rap music, from casual mentions to glorification to the rare anti-drug screed, and some rappers like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa (hell, most of the G-funk scene) built their entire personas off of association with pot. Now I'm not puritanical when it comes to weed, and I am in favour of legalization and taxation just like cigarettes and alcohol, but I'm also aware of the fact that like any drug, abusing it can have detrimental impacts on your life. As for me, I'm not one to smoke pot and that always leads to an interesting question: do I need marijuana to truly appreciate or understand albums focused around the drug?

Now, the obvious answer is no: if the artist is good enough, they can recreate the feel and emotions of getting high through their production and the delivery and their subject matter. Acts like Gorillaz and the supergroup 213 were fantastic at this, but even then there were some tracks where I had to accept as a critic that they weren't going to make sense. Like with The Beatles' famous 'I Am The Walrus' or The Barenaked Ladies' raps in 'One Week', some songs are intentionally nonsensical. The issue that I've run into, however, is unique to weed albums, where I've called out elements for not making the slightest element of sense and then get criticized for not being 'on the same level, man'- implying that the truths these albums are conveying only become coherent or are relevant under the influence. 

But even with that possibility in mind, I was curious to check out the album from Cousin Ayjay, who approached me back in September to take a look. And while it is later than I'd prefer, I still was curious to take a look at his new record/mixtape Sonic Dopamine, which from the track titles and the few samples I heard definitely had the hallmarks of a weed album. Did it work for me?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

video review: 'underground luxury' by b.o.b.

So this is it: my 100th video album review! Shame the album isn't better, though.

Next up... hmm, we'll see. I've got at least two more albums to cover before my year-end lists, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

album review: 'underground luxury' by b.o.b.

One of the first album reviews I ever wrote for my blog was for the sophomore album Strange Clouds by B.o.B., and I've always had a bit of a fondness for the guy. I've liked his inventive production that blends southern hip-hop trends with off-beat folk and futuristic beats, his flair for bombast and killer pop hooks that are striking and memorable, his flow and wordplay calling back to that of Andre 3000, and his lyrical dexterity in constructing an intricate and compelling song. That last album had a loose thematic progression exploring isolation and coming to grips with success, and while I'd argue the record was shaky, inconsistent, and frequently undermined by guest stars who didn't contribute well, it ultimately managed to stick the landing with the career defining thesis statement of 'Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray)'. The song remains a big favourite of mine for the superb piano hook and the fact that it proved B.o.B. was his own harshest critic. 

And thus, I've always tried to keep my eye on B.o.B. throughout this year. Fortunately, it wasn't all that difficult, given that he had a hit lurking in the Billboard Hot 100 for most of this year. Unfortunately, that song was 'HeadBand' featuring 2 Chainz, which was only really notable for a listless and minimalist presentation in a year where most mainstream rap was listless and minimalist, where 2 Chainz delivered a load of punchlines I could have sworn he already used in one of his other myriad guest appearances this year, and B.o.B. delivered two of the most lazy performances I had ever heard. It was a disconcerting sign of things to come, and thus I wasn't really looking forward to Underground Luxury, which the record label had decided to dump in mid-December (already a bad sign). Granted, he's still a good rapper and producer, but was the energy or intellect going to survive the transition on a record which he called his most 'effortless' to create?

Monday, December 16, 2013

video review: 'aims' by vienna teng

Ah, that was a nice breather. Definitely enjoyed that album - and yeah, you should all get it, definitely.

Next up should be B.o.B. - stay tuned!

album review: 'aims' by vienna teng

Here's a fun fact about my 'job' as a music critic here: people send me music they want me to cover or talk about all the time, which means I'm almost always slammed with more material than I'll ever be able to cover. But believe it or not, I do listen to nearly all of it and I'm always on the lookout for material that deserves more mainstream attention, or at least the attention of record labels hungry for new talent.

But here's one of the unfortunate things about working in the era of the internet: thanks to iTunes and the relative ease of distribution, it exposes a ton of talent who might otherwise get ignored. But at the same time it floods the market and makes finding true superstars a real challenge - separating the wheat from the chaff takes time, and when I still have a full-time job and have to cover hundreds of professional acts, it makes hunting through the independent or underground scenes incredibly difficult. And as much vitriol as I spew at the record industry, they simply have more resources in sweeping through the talent pool and finding marketable stars (managing them, however, is an entirely different issue).

But even on that note, I'm floored that none of the major labels have swooped in to grab up Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter Vienna Teng yet, because it's been a long time since I've seen an act as professional and talented as this. She's been around for over ten years on the fringes of the indie folk and pop scenes, and has always gotten rave reviews for her albums when they've bothered to pay attention, but maybe it was an issue of marketing or promotion from her label or not having that killer single, because she seemed to fly entirely under the radar. So she did what indie acts have had some success with in 2013 - she founded her own record label to release her newest album Aims, all the while finishing grad school. So, from a recommendation, I took a listen to that album: how was it?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

video review: 'feels like carolina' by parmalee

Well, this one went nowhere. Can't be surprised, though, the album did nothing for me.

Next up... well, B.o.B. is dropping an album later this week, but let's see if I can handle the new Vienna Teng album tomorrow. Stay tuned!

album review: 'feels like carolina' by parmalee

I'm starting to think that bro country might be beginning to recede a bit.

Yes, if you go looking at the country charts right now, you'll find Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan at the top, but their songs aren't in the meatheaded checklist variety that were inescapable and insufferable through the summer and fall of this year. Hell, Keith Urban (fresh off of his inexplicable inclusion on Rolling Stone's 'Best Albums of 2013' to the surprise of, well, everyone) and Miranda Lambert managed to have their lukewarm ballad 'We Were Us' wrestle control of the top spot for about three weeks on the country charts.

But then again, maybe I'm just being optimistic, because there's plenty of bro-country still on the charts as we speak, which takes us to the somewhat mixed blessing that comes with trends - the chance for new acts or even older struggling acts to break through by jumping onto them. This takes us to the band we're talking about this week, Parmalee. This band has been around since the early 2000s, but they've had a lot of difficulty breaking into the mainstream until this year, where they were signed to Stoney Creek records, which I know as the label backing Jason Aldean. This group seems to have a lighter, more upbeat vibe to them than their more successful labelmate, though, which meant I was cautiously optimistic stepping into their new album Feels Like Carolina. Did it turn out okay?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

video review: 'beyonce' by beyonce

Thought you'd pull a fast one on me, eh, Beyonce? Not to worry, I've got this.

Okay, next up will be Parmalee, I promise.

album review: 'beyonce' by beyonce

Imagine you're a music critic for a major publication. Imagine that you've reviewed well over a hundred albums throughout the course of the year and you've collaborated with your colleagues to post your list of the best albums of the year. Imagine your sighs of relief when the list goes live in early December and the irritated scoffs you make when the comments light up with complaints that you discounted some album or another. You think in the back of your mind, 'Hey, what do they know - I do this for a living, goddamn it, this list was hard to make, and we can't put everything on it!' You put the list in the back of your mind - because, hell, it's not like anyone's going to release any albums worth caring about in December, right?

Then imagine you get a call from your boss in the middle of the night just over a week later, screaming bloody murder because a press leak just revealed that a major pop star had decided to, without warning or promotion or even a lead single, drop an entire album onto iTunes. And this isn't just your run-of-the-mill major pop star, but one who is married to an all-star rapper and high-powered businessman who has enlisted some of the best producers worldwide for the album and who obviously is taking a big interest in his wife's success - and with no promotion, the only way the album will sell the numbers this pop star is used to is through the critical press. And considering this artist's last album was a critically acclaimed smash hit two years earlier, suddenly that year-end list of the top albums of the year looks a lot more shaky, doesn't it?

Now, I'm likely wrong here, but I can imagine the editorial teams for major outlets who already dropped their 'Best of...' lists panicking when they heard Beyonce had done exactly what I described, releasing a self-titled record to iTunes with no promotion or even a leading single. Fortunately, not having finalized my list yet, I did what any music critic does on a surprise release: put the album on repeat and work to take it in. Believe it or not, I actually was pleasantly surprised about this album - I'm no big fan of Beyonce, but her last album 4 was extremely strong, and she's working with some of the best names in the industry. So, how did Beyonce's BEYONCE turn out?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

video review: 'whiskey & lace' by krystal keith

Okay, so I covered Krystal Keith first. Next up is Parmalee, I promise. Stay tuned!

album review: 'whiskey & lace' by krystal keith

It's a healthy response to feel wary whenever you approach music from the children of major artists. Not automatically denigrate it because of its lineage - good music can spring from anywhere - but some skepticism can be expected. After all, I haven't exactly forgotten the 'legacies' that acts like Hot Chelle Rae and LMFAO have landed courtesy of their family connections, when in any sane world neither of those groups would been signed or gotten airplay in the first place. And I've got the same issues with nepotism that everyone does - more qualified, experienced, or just plain better artists getting turned away in favour of a famous son or daughter.

That being said, I was actually anticipating the debut album from Krystal Keith more than I initially expected. She's the second daughter of Toby Keith, a favourite country singer of mine and one who I reviewed earlier this year. It's interesting to note that Toby Keith hasn't exactly had a great 2013, especially when it comes the tumultuous year country music had as a whole, and while I did mostly like his album Drinks After Work, it hasn't really stuck with me. Indeed, Toby Keith seemed almost amused that critics took his album as well as they did (another sign that some elements of the country critical press are too soft on big name artists). 

But if there's one thing about Toby Keith I've respected, it's that he has a fairly good head for business, and if he was more focused on helping his daughter get started over his own solo record, it'd make some sense to why Drinks After Work felt a bit light-weight. And considering she's signed to his label Show Dog-Universal Music, he produced this album, and he contributed a few songs, it'd be wrong to ignore Toby Keith's watchful eye on his daughter Krystal's debut album Whiskey & Lace. But putting that aside, how did the record turn out?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

video review; 'black panties' by r. kelly

Damn, I wanted this to be better. Ah well.

Next up is Parmalee. Stay tuned!

album review: 'black panties' by r. kelly

Here's a part of my musical philosophy that ends up being more complicated than it sounds: when it comes to music, I need to buy into the romance projected by the artist. I can look past a lot of corny lines and ridiculous lyrics if I can buy into the persona of the performer, and when that persona fractures, it's incredibly difficult to repair. It's one of the reasons why I, like so many critics, find it hard to buy into the romantic sentiments of Chris Brown (or in my case, John Mayer). 

And I can imagine that many fans of modern R&B legend R. Kelly probably felt the same way around the mid-2000s. Sure, his first three albums were damn near untouchable, but in the early 2000s, something went wrong. Maybe it was the criminal allegations, maybe it was the substandard material (although Ignition (Remix) is untouchable), or maybe it was because something got knocked loose in R. Kelly's brain (see his albums with Jay-Z, the disastrous subsequent tour, and all of Trapped In The Closet), but suddenly it got a lot harder to buy into any romance R. Kelly was proposing, especially considering the heavy sexual content in his lyrics. 

And yet things changed for the better in late 2010 when R. Kelly released Love Letter. It was a richly orchestrated homage to early soul and R&B with enough of a modern touch not to feel like a throwback, and it was excellent, mostly because it traded explicit sexuality for sensuality, and it proved to be a great fit for R. Kelly's jawdropping vocals. He followed it up in 2012 with Write Me Back, which moved forward in time to reference the disco era of the mid-to-late 70s, but it also lost a lot of unique flavour in the transition - the album might have been good, but it wasn't great.

But it was worrying when R. Kelly announced a return to his modern R&B roots with his new album Black Panties - mostly because the worst songs on Write Me Back were those that went in a modern direction. And while there isn't anything wrong with going back to your roots, R. Kelly has tread this ground so many times I honestly didn't think there was anything new or interesting he could bring to the table. Was I wrong?

Monday, December 9, 2013

video review: 'wish bone' by oh land

This came out surprisingly easily, and better than I expected. Almost makes me wish I covered her when this album came out in September... ah well.

Next up is R. Kelly. Brace yourself, folks, I don't suspect this will go well.

album review: 'wish bone' by oh land (RETRO REVIEW)

Several months back, in my review of Tegan & Sara's album Heartthrob, I made mention of my distaste for the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' trope, one that has grown increasingly popular with the rise of 'indie/hipster' culture in recent years. For those unfamiliar, those defined by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character and image are off-beat, quirky, and decidedly lodged in girlish adolescence. What's key is that these character traits must lack an inherent root cause: these characters are quirky and eccentric just for its own sake, a shallow idealized fantasy and not, you know, an actual human being. And I'll be blunt: it's alarmingly sexist, considering female characters who fall into this trope are often treated as 'precious' or 'cute' by the male characters and any potential nuggets of real insight are solely marginalized to observational quirk - treated as girls instead of as women. And it really says a lot about guys who are drawn to this, because they aren't looking for a relationship of equals or for a partner who might be able to match their own eccentricities  - they want a girl with just enough randomness and quirk so they can delude themselves into thinking they're deep.

Now let me make this clear: it's not the aesthetic of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that's the issue, which is ultimately why I came down mostly positive on Tegan & Sara's pop-flavoured appropriation of the image which paid big dividends for them. After all, Heartthrob was only trying to be a shallow pop album, and the aesthetic worked. But there are a lot of indie acts who have realized this image and style sells very well to the hipster set... which can be unfortunate for acts with occasional insight, like Regina Spektor. And as a music critic, it can be frustrating to peel away the artifice and see if there's anything real underneath when so many indie acts are leaping aboard this trope. 

And all of this comes back to Oh Land, a Danish artist who released her new album Wish Bone three months ago and who seemed to be playing close to this trope. I didn't cover the record because the critical buzz had been lukewarm and September was incredibly busy for me, but enough of you recommended I check it out, so I gave it a look and hoped for the best. What did I find?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

video review: '...like clockwork' by queens of the stone age

Well, that should take care of the last of my major retrospectives, and it's a great one to end off on, I think.

This is the last big week for album releases, so I'll endeavor to knock back some of the big ones and a few last retrospectives before my year end lists, so stay tuned!

album review: '...like clockwork' by queens of the stone age (RETRO REVIEW)

For the longest time this year, I ignored Queens of the Stone Age and their newest album entirely.

And really, that was a big mistake, mostly linked to the fact that I had a few major misconceptions about the band that I only really knew from the few singles I heard from Era Vulgaris six years ago. As I've said a number of times, I skipped over most rock throughout the 2000s and jumped straight into metal, and Queens of the Stone Age were one of those bands I just ignored because I assumed they were just another post-grunge or hard rock band that somehow managed to get rave reviews. 

As I said, big mistake, and I've spent the past three weeks listening through the band's discography and realizing the major errors in my thinking. For one, Queens of the Stone Age are one of those acts that really defies genre classification: they've done hard rock, they've flirted with psychedelia and alternative metal, and while they've worked with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, I wouldn't call them a post-grunge act by any stretch. Also, they're awesome, as in one of the best rock/metal acts of the decade. I stand by my opinion that Era Vulgaris is their worst album, but it's by no means bad (it mostly suffers from the same listlessness that Tonight... Franz Ferdinand had when they made a 'nightlife' album). As to my favourite Queens of the Stone Age record, I'm honestly going to go with Lullabies To Paralyze, simply because the nightmarish fairy tales that Josh Homme wrote about added a lot of twisted flavour to the songwriting, and the album had simply phenomenal grooves and melodies that I really loved.

And thus, having completed my heel-face turn on Queens of the Stone Age, I was psyched to listen through their newest album ...Like Clockwork - albeit six months too late. And I'd be remiss not to mention the importance of this record, or the troubled production process that preceded it. Long-time Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo was fired about a third of the way into the recording and replaced by Dave Grohl, and Josh Homme recruited singers like Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, Jake Shears, Elton John, and even former Queens of the Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri for backing vocals. And this was their first album in six years - did ...Like Clockwork manage to work?

Friday, December 6, 2013

video review: 'because the internet' by childish gambino

Well, this went okay. Probably one of the odder albums I've covered, and I think the review does reflect that to some extent.

Next up will be the long-awaited retrospective of the Queens of the Stone Age album, then we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'because the internet' by childish gambino

Let's ask an uncomfortable question, one I don't think there's an easy answer to and one I certainly I can't answer: how much does race matter in music, especially in rap music? On the one hand, music spans skin colour and culture, and one would like to think that it shouldn't matter when talking about artists or personal tastes. We live in a generation where Jason Aldean can collaborate with Ludacris and Brad Paisley with LL Cool J, and we should be able to judge the music regardless of racial connotations. And yet, when you have acts like Eminem or Cage or Macklemore or Yelawolf or The Beastie Boys, the prefix 'white' is always added to their titles as 'rappers'. But it runs deeper than that, to a bigger cultural question: whether hip-hop or rap hold central roles to black culture, and the distinguishing factors that make that genre unique to that audience. Now of course this can reach cartoonish extremes, such as those twits calling Lorde racist for attacking shallow luxury rap for its materialism and emptiness (which holds a much uglier connotation, implying that it's inherently black to revel in superficial displays of wealth), but one can't exactly deny that there's a distinctive difference between the place of hip-hop in black culture, particularly in the United States, in comparison with some other genres, like country or metal. And let me assure you, this isn't just confined to the hip-hop genre: many would rightfully argue jazz, soul, funk, disco, R&B, and even the very origins of rock 'n roll itself could be considered having deep roots in black culture.

And nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the subgenre of 'nerd culture' topics like sci-fi and fantasy, which has tended to trend overwhelmingly white or Asian. Now there have been acts that have bucked this trend - the Afrofuturist movement, for instance, with its most recognizable figure in modern music being Janelle Monae and all the awesome work she's done. These works suggest a synthesis, a fusion of stereotypically 'white' sci-fi precepts with discussions and critiques of real world black culture and history. From my point of view, Janelle Monae is doing something truly great by stripping away any needless racial connotations associated with subgenre conventions like sci-fi or fantasy, and adapting them to her own unique viewpoint.

So let's ask another question: what do you get when you have a black rapper who is a nerd and is somewhat enamoured with 'white culture', to the point where he feels he has lost something of his black cultural roots? Well, in that case you get Childish Gambino, well-known as Donald Glover, comedian and actor from NBC's excellent show Community. When he released his major label debut Camp, it polarized critics, mostly because it was an album that spent much of its running time discussing Gambino's unique insecurity: feeling like an outcast because he was 'too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids'. His skin was black, and yet he liked comic books and sci-fi and was defiantly not the stereotypical tough guy gangsta rapper, to the point where his attempts at playing one to win over girls were completely unconvincing. Coupled with the baroque pop-infused production, the near-constant stream of pop culture references, and his cartoonish and exaggerated flow, it made for an interesting listen, if not an unequivocally great or even wholly good one. Despite Pitchfork's scathing line, 'If you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I'm guessing it'll be Camp', a line denigrating presumably ignorant (read: white) audiences who followed Glover from Community (fun fact: the reviewer who wrote that review was white - make of that what you will), there is a grain of truth in the observation. 

And as a white guy who listens to a fair amount of hip-hop and who is clearly the audience for that album (having listened to Camp after watching Glover on Community), what did I think? Well... look, it was okay. I liked the instrumentation and production drawing from baroque pop with Kanye's influences, but Gambino's flow was jerky, the hashtag rap got old fast, the references were well-structured but dated themselves quickly, and Gambino's very real insecurity (supported by a bizarre myopic and backwards-looking view of hip-hop) often lacked coherency or depth. That being said, I can accept that it might have greater resonance with other audiences who might more closely resemble Gambino's situation, and all of the real positives on the album were enough for me to give his newest album Because The Internet a listen. Did it manage to work better than its predecessor?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

video review: 'days of gold' by jake owen

Well, this was a nice surprise. Can't say I was expecting Jake Owen to deliver anything worth listening, after all.

Next up will probably be Childish Gambino's new album, so stay tuned!

album review: 'days of gold' by jake owen

A few months back, I reviewed the mostly-ignored album from Joe Nichols, and in that review, I mentioned that a certain male country singer had come out against the rising trends of bro-country, stating that 'we need more songs that just songs about tailgates and cups and Bacardi and stuff like that'. And yet, the traditional country music press had to restrain some scoffs of disbelief when they heard that comment - mostly because it was coming from Jake Owen. 

Okay, some background. Jake Owen is a country singer that had his major breakthrough hit in 2011 with 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night', a song I only ever thought was okay, mostly buoyed by the strengths of the performer himself. As much as Jake Owen doesn't seem to be the brightest apple in the bunch (at least to judge by his songs), he has the energy and affability of a born showman, a guy with a ton of natural charisma and likability, which is a natural fit for his upbeat, beach-ready brand of country. But it's hard to deny that songs like 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night' were the prototypes for the rise of bro-country that we have today, and thus it was a little difficult for some to take Owen remotely seriously in his comments about going back to tradition. 

But then I thought, 'Wait, how the hell is that fair? We let the Zac Brown Band retain their traditionalist country credentials when they do songs with Jimmy Buffett, and there isn't anything inherently wrong with making dumb, fun party songs! The bigger problem has always been the gradual stripping away of individuality between songwriters across Music Row, and if we're looking to call Jake Owen on any hypocrisy, it might be here, because he doesn't have a single writing credit on his newest album Days of Gold. But on the other hand, there has been 'bro country' music that I've liked, and one of my biggest issues with the genre has been how unnecessarily serious and over-the-top macho so many of the artists have played it, so maybe Owen's goofball charm and charisma might play to his advantage. So, how did Days of Gold turn out?

video review: 'britney jean' by britney spears

Forgot to post this last night. Kind of irrelevant, though, because the album sucks.

Next up will be 'Days of Gold' from Jake Owen, and then hopefully I can tackle whatever's left in my backlog before the December glut in a few days. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

album review: 'britney jean' by britney spears

Throughout this year, I've gone on at great length regarding scope for certain acts, knowing one's limits and how to position an artistic work with respect to those limits. A bit of an odd topic, I'll admit, but it holds a surprising amount of relevance when it comes to pop music, and over the past few years, I've found that the best pop albums come from artists knowing their limits and pushing towards them, or even finding ways to extend them. And hell, even serviceable pop albums can be made by staying within those limits and carefully fine-tuning the little details. But if the artist or their handlers don't know these limits, sometimes you can run into serious trouble and the mainstream audience isn't quite as ignorant as some record executives think they are.

Take, for instance, Katy Perry's Prism. Now, I wasn't particularly kind to that album: the lack of strong hooks, the instrumentation cribbed from a half-dozen better acts, and the occasionally inexplicably bad songwriting were bad enough, but looking, my biggest issues were that Katy Perry was trying to make an album with more resonant emotional depth, and she didn't quite have the songwriting skill or emotional range to pull it off. Let's face it, Katy Perry has two modes where she's solid as a performer: enthusiastic sex kitten and on the verge of emotional collapse. Outside of those modes, she either comes across as obnoxious or aggressively bland, and writing semi-spiritual songs just didn't sound natural for her. 

But perhaps I should have been grateful, because when I heard that the newest album from Britney Spears would be her most 'personal album to date', I steeled myself for the worst. Look, I've never been the biggest fan of Miss Spears over her decade long career, but I'll acknowledge she has put out some good, possibly even great songs - but 'depth' and 'personality' have never been a part of her vocabulary or arsenal. While Katy Perry can at least say she has two modes of performance, Britney Spears arguably has one: cooing sex kitten. The fact that her songwriters and handlers slammed her into this role at an incredibly young age and were incredibly poor at managing the fallout of it throughout the mid-2000s really does make me feel sorry for her, and the fact that so much of her career and life has become a walking spectacle beyond her control is kind of heartbreaking. But I'm a music critic and I put aside Miley's baggage when I reviewed Bangerz, and when I go back through Britney's discography... look, it's a miracle her career lasted as long as it did. Her albums have never received critical acclaim or have ever been cohesive, she's not a great singer on record or live, and her songwriters made the choice long ago that all she should sing about is sex. And when she sticks to that mold, she can be enjoyable.

But, to be fair, the few points where vulnerable elements of Britney's personality have shone through have been good moments: hell, her song 'Lucky' probably remains my favourite of her hits simply because of how eerily prophetic it turned out to be, and that wasn't a sex jam at all. So maybe I misjudged Britney, and I gave her newest album a listen: how did it go?

Monday, December 2, 2013

video review: 'run the jewels' by run the jewels (RETRO REVIEW)

Finally. Goddamn, I'm happy I got this out. Yeah, the video's not one of my best, but this was one of those tougher ones, and I'm just happy I got to say my piece.

Next up is Britney Spears. Brace yourselves, it's not going to be pretty.

album review: 'run the jewels' by run the jewels (RETRO REVIEW)

Okay, it's time for me to talk about a fundamental tenet of my reviewing philosophy: whenever I go into an album, I always try to discern the artist's intent, and review the album they built with that in mind. It's all a matter in how well they present and deliver that intention and message, and how they control their scope. And this can mean some acts will get good reviews from me despite the fact that they really aren't aiming to say anything all that transcendental. Thus if a boy band makes an album full of silly dance and love songs, that's the standard by how you should review them, and as much as you'd like to rage and complain that they aren't making grand, affirming, meaningful statements, they aren't trying to do that. For an example, compare the original review of Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet by Pitchfork and then look at the re-review a decade later.

But at the same time, this sort of reviewing philosophy can get frustrating when approaching albums that attain some measure of critical acclaim about six months too late, which takes us directly to the self-titled debut album from hip-hop duo Run The Jewels. The duo is composed of two important names in hip-hop: Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and near-legendary Brooklyn rapper-producer El-P, the latter who has been a favourite producer of mine for quite some time. In 2012, they collaborated on a pretty damn solid album R.A.P. Music, with Killer Mike on vocals and El-P handling production, but this year, El-P decided to step up to the mic himself for their newest project: Run The Jewels. To be completely honest, I didn't cover this album until now because, hey, I can't cover every hip-hop album and mixtape that hits shelves, I'd be swamped (it's easily one of the most prolific genres and it's no surprise there are whole channels dedicated to just covering it). But given the critical attention and acclaim it received, I figured I needed to cover it some time - and unfortunately, it's taken almost half a year to get through my backlog to it. And believe me, considering how well this album was received, I was seriously pumped for something special from two heavyweights in their genre. Did I get that?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

video review: 'knock madness' by hopsin

Okay, that takes care of November album releases, and it ends on a good note. Time to catch up on as much material as I can before early December, wish me luck!

album review: 'knock madness' by hopsin

Before we start, I want to take care of a brief piece of old business from one of my most viewed - and most openly reviled - reviews, when I covered Cage's album Kill The Architect. Since that review, I've relistened to that album several times, trying to see what others clearly found so inspirational and powerful that they felt content to hurl all manner of abuse at me, and I'd like to make a small correction to that review, as I feel I didn't quite represent myself as well as I could have. In that review, I drew several comparisons to Eminem's Encore (which with its reflective themes, depressing tone, and bleak ambiance, to say nothing of the awful singing, felt more than appropriate) and I made the comment that Cage had lost his ability to shock me in his raps. Some took umbrage to that by stating that Cage wasn't trying to do that on this album, instead opting for an introspective focus and message (even though there were enough sinister elements that could easily be construed as threatening...). 

And here's where I feel I have to make a clarification: my issue with Kill The Architect was never the change in subject matter or tone, moving towards what some would argue more 'mature' subject matter. My issue was that it didn't resonate with me as compelling, half because Cage's delivery was more low-key and lacking in energy than ever, and half because the insights he was providing into his current state of affairs felt strangely muted and distant. It was an awkward fit for the guy, and while some might empathize with his inner turmoil (and hell, there were points where I did), it felt like steps taken in a downward spiral without the slightest desire to climb back up. And as I've said time and time again, nihilistic artwork can get boring or absolutely intolerable if there's no deeper context or nuance. In contrast, Nine Inch Nails and The National both made dark, somewhat depressing albums this year, but they tempered their depression with rich context and compelling instrumentation and coherent focus, none of which I felt Cage brought to the table.

But this prompted an interesting question: most critics tend to be harsher on acts that shift their artistic direction and subject matter from their established formulas. Hell, I'd argue I'm even somewhat guilty of this, so why do we do it? Well, part of it is obviously linked to comfort with the familiar, but I think a greater portion is that when artists decide to shift direction, critics have an automatic expectation that the artist is knowledgeable enough about the genre that they can execute the shift and still maintain their artistic strengths (which can be unfair). And to be fair, not a lot of artists can pull that off. 

So instead, let's talk about an artist who seemed to be on the right track: Hopsin. A reasonably new arrival to the scene, he's an L.A. rapper who drew a lot of his inspiration and flow from Eminem for his first releases, which had trace elements of horrorcore fused with straightforward, hard-hitting hip-hop. But in 2012, he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 5, a charged track targeting trends in youth today with vitriol and biting insight. It was a phenomenal change of pace and it showed that Hopsin had potential for societal commentary beyond his previous work. But then he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 6: Old Friend (later retitled as 'Old Friend') earlier this year, and I didn't like it quite as much. Sure, it felt genuine and emotionally grounded, but the sharp anti-drug screed felt less like it was appealing to my mind and more trying to tug on my heartstrings (particularly with Hopsin's delivery), and I felt it was a step down artistically from the previous track. It shows one of the occasional weaknesses of message-driven music: jettisoning the nuance in favour of broader emotional messaging that might prove more accessible to a wider audience, but doesn't quite contain the same punch or impact (at least for me). 

And thus, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with his most recent album Knock Madness. Recorded over a period of two years, how was Hopsin going to reflect his dramatic shifts in direction over his recording period?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

video review: 'danielle bradbery' by danielle bradbery

This was a nice surprise, I actually didn't hate this album. Next up is Hopsin, and then I'm going to cover a few albums I missed earlier this year before covering Britney Spears.

Sadly, one of them won't be Chris Brown - the asshole delayed his album to 2014. COWARD.

album review: 'danielle bradbery' by danielle bradbery

Okay, let's try this again. 

Back when I reviewed Cassadee Pope's long-delayed debut album Frame By Frame, I made the point that I didn't really watch NBC's The Voice, half because I don't have a TV and half because I've never cared. To me, it was yet another reality show with an overcomplicated competition narrative between a selection of big-name stars using their 'proteges' to win over their colleagues. The question I don't think anyone was prepared to answer was how on earth The Voice would help the careers of the new acts they were promoting.

Well, it did what its predecessor American Idol did: set the artist up with a selection of professional songwriters and proceeded to scrub every iota of distinctive personality to create more blandly-written pablum for the public at large, which was arguably my biggest problem with Frame By Frame. It wasn't precisely bad as it was boring, and a big step down in terms of personality from her days with Hey Monday, which at least had something of a distinctive sound and soul in comparison to the neutered pop-country she was pursuing now.

But at least on that album Cassadee Pope had songwriting credits, which ultimately led to the few songs I actually kind of liked on that album. With our newcomer Danielle Bradbery, the winner from Season 4 of The Voice, we've got no such luck, and thus I had a real sinking feeling when I prepared myself to look at her self-titled debut album from Big Machine Records. I mentally set myself up for yet another Taylor Swift wannabe, especially considering she's seventeen and every iota of her public persona seemed to emphasize the 'cute' factor. What did I find?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

video review: 'dark wings of steel' by rhapsody of fire

Ugh, I really wish this had been better. Eh, even in genres you like, you get duds.

Next up will be Danielle Bradbery, then probably take on some Hopsin. Stay tuned!

album review: 'dark wings of steel' by rhapsody of fire

Let's talk about fantasy and heavy metal. These two genres within art have often had a pretty stable link that's persisted for decades: both were unfairly branded 'outsider' or 'low art' genres for a long time by the mainstream, both had been persecuted by alarmists trying to link them to allegations of Satanism or paganism, and both occasionally toed the line between the 'epic' and the 'epically ridiculous'. It's also the connection of how I jumped into heavy metal in my teens, pretty much bypassing nu metal and the rest of angry white boy music to settle in with power and symphonic metal acts like Blind Guardian and Nightwish. And really, fantastical subject matter is often a great fit for power and symphonic metal: they're looking to tell epic tales on the fringes of imagination, with grand scope and power, often calling to mind titanic battles and feats of heroism - and what better way to tell such stories than with grand, multi-part arrangements and blistering guitar riffs? 

But with the mainstream success of material like The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones, I began wondering whether it wouldn't be long before the heavy metal genres I liked began to reap the rewards of that link. Of course I was being realistic about this - there's always a certain pulpy cheesiness to some metal acts that would prevent most people from taking them seriously, but some could stand to do well, and metal has occasionally been successful during the numerous fantasy booms throughout the past few decades. 

Yet even with that, Rhapsody of Fire would probably not reap many rewards of that association, because of the metal acts I've covered, they're one of the tough ones to get into in the middle. Started in 1997, the band steadily pumped out album after album throughout the late 90s and 2000s that all tied together to the same ongoing fantasy story, confined to two five-album sagas, with a pretty dense mythology by the end. That 'end', incidentally, occurred in 2011, where the band decided to amicably split into two distinctive bands, one with the same title and the other called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody of Fire (if only to additionally confuse things), with the eponymous name coming from the guitarist and primary songwriter. They released an album titled Ascending Into Infinity in 2012 that was pretty solid, but today we're going to be looking at the original Rhapsody of Fire, who have decided to dispense with the ongoing mythos and try something new, with all the lyrics written by lead singer Fabio Lione, along with a new guitarist and bassist. If anything, it feels like I'm approaching an entirely new incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire... which could be a good thing for new fans. And really, a fresh start might just be what this band needs, so I checked out Dark Wings of Steel. How did it go?

video review: 'the woman I am' by kellie pickler

Almost forgot this entirely. Ah well, here it is.

Next up is that blasted Rhapsody of Fire review. Prepare for the maelstrom, folks, this might get ugly.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

album review: 'the woman I am' by kellie pickler

If you've been listening to country radio over the past few months, you'd probably think that there aren't many solo female country stars left in the genre - with the exception of Taylor Swift (who is barely a country act these days), Miranda Lambert (who only is notching mainstream hits thanks to duets, unfortunately), and maybe Carrie Underwood (same deal as Taylor), who do you have? Well, you've got Cassadee Pope, but she's following in the Taylor Swift template and is more pop than country (an unfortunate cry from her roots, but given the patronage of Blake Shelton, not entirely surprising). But even with that, the songwriting is seldom up to par, and you don't tend to see a fair number of female country singer-songwriters gaining chart or critical acclaim.

But that doesn't mean they aren't there. Acts like Kacey Musgraves, who won Best New Artist of the Year at the CMAs (deservedly so) and Brandy Clark are still writing and singing great country songs that reflect a distinctly female presence in the genre. And really, it's a damn shame they aren't getting airplay in the same way, particularly when they write bitingly intelligent material and have a lot of flavour and texture behind their delivery. And thus, I was looking forward to the new album from Kellie Pickler, who some country music fans have wrongly branded just another American Idol 'faux-country' girl (even despite her embattled childhood and distinctive country roots). Then again, it's not hard to see why some came to that conclusion, given her first albums of output were not strong in the slightest.

But then she came back in a big way with 100 Proof last year - which earned a fair amount of critical acclaim for being an artistic breakthrough for Pickler and addressing some of the darkness in her past. And, completely unsurprisingly, the hits of that album didn't chart for anything - which was a real disappointment, because it was a very strong album and enough to pique my interest for her newest record, The Woman I Am. Between these two, Pickler had left her former label and signed with Black River Entertainment, an independent country label (yes, Pitchfork, indie country exists, why aren't you reviewing it?), which for me was an even better sign - maybe Pickler would have more control over her artistic direction, and we could get something special. So how did the record turn out?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

video review: 'midnight memories' by one direction

Well, I did it. Cue fanrage from everyone. But I didn't get into this without being honest, and I was here.

Next up... honestly, it'll either be Rhapsody of Fire or Kellie Pickler, we'll see.

album review: 'midnight memories' by one direction

There comes a time in every boy band's 'evolution' that they want to take their brand in a different direction from the typical pre-packaged pop music that made them stars. They might want to come across as darker, or edgier, or experiment with new instrumental directions or styles. It's often the first tentative step towards artistic freedom, and it's also the step that tends to either make or break boy bands. 

Let's consider the 90s boy bands and for an example, we'll talk about N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys. The latter band decided to go in a darker direction with Black & Blue, which arguably handled the transition better by opting to stick to the pop template and just play with a darker tone and energy, and, for the most part, it worked. But then again, it would take the Backstreet Boys five years to create another album, and by that point they switched genres towards adult contemporary and pop rock. The much bleaker story comes from N'Sync, who jumped onto the slick R&B bandwagon with Celebrity in 2011 - and then imploded. They went on hiatus and since Justin Timberlake's solo career took off, they never reunited, but I place most of the blame on that final album, mostly because it was only a half-hearted step towards a genre into which the band was an awkward fit. Note the difference between the two bands here: one stuck within the same genre but changed the tone, the other switched genres and fell apart.

So what should we expect from One Direction, the mega-selling boy band titan that currently rules the hearts of teenage girls everywhere? Honestly, I don't know what to expect, because having listened through both of their previous albums and watched that godawful movie (which only notable for wasting Morgan Spurlock's talent as a director), I still don't have a feel for the unique personalities behind the band. I guess some could make the argument that Harry Styles is going to become the Justin Timberlake and use One Direction as his N'Sync, but I find that hard to believe given Timberlake was at least a potent songwriter on his own and Styles doesn't really have that solo songwriting presence (both Liam and Louis have more songwriting credits). 

The other big problem is that none of these kids have ever impressed me with raw personality or charisma or talent in the way Justin Timberlake did, and while I can now tell them apart, I have yet to detect enough vocal distinctiveness to determine personalities outside of 'the cute one' in the boy band template. Yeah, it's time for full disclosure, before going into this album, I've never liked One Direction. Their harmonies are bare-bones at best, their instrumentation and production (easily the best element of their material) can lack flavour at points, and their lyrics are godawful. I don't need to link The Colbert Report's dissection of 'What Makes You Beautiful' or the seduction-through-insult methodology behind 'Little Things', all of these lyrics make One Direction come across as pickup artists who target their material at the most vulnerable parts of the psyches of their teenage fanbase. And while I won't deny it works, it doesn't come across as romantic or authentic to me, because the material is so calculated and the band is devoid of unique personality between members. I'm not going to deny that The Backstreet Boys and N'Sync used a lot of the same formula, but at least the Backstreet Boys made 'The Call' and 'Perfect Fan' and 'Larger Than Life', and N'Sync made 'Pop' and 'Bye Bye Bye' and both bands built their brand on differentiations between the members both in sound and in style. And frankly, One Direction has neither, which made me think at first Midnight Memories might be a step in the wrong direction for the band. If they're going for pop rock the same way N'Sync went for R&B, they might be in a world of trouble. Was I right?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

video review: 'desolation rose' by the flower kings

So happy that I could get this out, mostly because this is a band that really deserves more attention. 

Next up... oh boy, let's see how much hatred I get if I tackle One Direction...

album review: 'desolation rose' by the flower kings

It shouldn't be any surprise to, well, anyone at this point that I'm a big fan of progressive rock. Bearing its roots in the psychedelic rock, classical rock and early metal of the late 60s, it was a genre known for concept albums, virtuosity in instrumentation, complex and cerebral themes and lyrics, and off-beat experimentation that defied commercialism. The genre definitively peaked throughout the seventies and declined with the rise of punk, but that doesn't mean prog rock has gone away. Far from it - it still exists in the form of prog rock harkening back to the golden age, prog metal in the vein of acts like Dream Theater, Ayreon, and late-period Porcupine Tree, and even what has been described as nu-prog like Coheed & Cambria and the Mars Volta. 

And really, there are great acts in all three categories, but today we're going to be talking about a favourite act of mine that fits closest into the group of prog metal calling back to the past, yet with enough a modern touch not to brand them as a throwback. Yes, I'm talking about The Flower Kings, a Swedish prog rock group that began in the early 90s and have continued releasing albums for the past two decades. And yet, they've never really had that critical breakthrough single that would have propelled them to anything close to chart success, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a huge following for the band - which is really disappointing, because they're awesome, a cerebral act that often goes for broke with interesting concept album ideas and some great instrumental segments to back it up. I got into The Flower Kings first through their 2006 album Paradox Hotel, which acts as an exploration of various paradoxical situations with breathtaking variety. 

But it might have been an inopportune time to get into The Flower Kings, because after their 2007 album Sum Of No Evil, the band took a five year break to recharge, coming back with their exceptionally strong 2012 album Banks of Eden. And thus, I was overjoyed to hear that they had released another album this year, titled Desolation Rose. The band has made the statement that they consider this album their 'most involved, important, and interesting album ever', designed to make the audience 'question the mainstream media and rethink your whole world view'. Now I always get skeptical when prog bands become political, but to be fair, prog rock might be one of the few avenues where political music works well, assuming they put the time and intellectual nuance into articulating their points of view. And really, The Flower Kings have proven in the past that they are capable of doing this, so I went into Desolation Rose with more than a little excitement. How did it turn out?