Tuesday, May 31, 2016

album review: 'delirium' by lacuna coil

It hasn't been easy to be a fan of Lacuna Coil.

And the sad thing is that most of the fanbase seems to be in agreement that starting with Shallow Life the gothic metal band became a less-interesting shadow of what they were. I'll be honest and say that while I got into them when I was a teenager, I would never consider Lacuna Coil one of my favourite metal acts, but throughout the late 90s and most of the 2000s they were a solid group that had potent melodies and a cohesive sound. And even if their writing has always been a little spotty, there was a lot to like about those records... and then Don Gilmore showed up. With a more commercial-leaning mix, Shallow Life was a pivot towards the mainstream that was too little, too late, and only served to alienate a fair chunk of Lacuna Coil's fans. They made a modest return with Dark Adrenaline, but by the time they released Broken Crown Halo in 2014, having booted Gilmore for Jay Baumgardner, it became apparent that the problem wasn't so much the production but by-the-numbers composition and writing. And yes, that's even with the admission that 'Die & Rise' remains one of the best songs of 2014 for taking a unique point-of-view and twisting it into a kickass song.

So one could argue Lacuna Coil needed a dramatic shake-up - and from all accounts they got it. Both guitarists and the drummer retired from the band, which led their bassist Marco Coti Zelati picking up guitar work along with new arrival Diego Cavallotti, along with hiring drummer Ryan Folden. It rapidly became clear that Lacuna Coil was heading in a new direction, and with lead-off single 'The House Of Shame'... well, they certainly got there, with chugging, borderline metalcore riffs and a much heavier focus on the growled male vocals. And... look, I'm not a metalcore fan, but I was willing to give this a try, especially considering Zelati was handling all production work in-house. So did this work?

video review: 'teens of denial' by car seat headrest

This record took a lot to digest, but overall, damn solid release. Definitely happy I covered it.

Next up, though, is that Lacuna Coil album and if it's going in the direction of its lead-off single... yikes. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 30, 2016

album review: 'teens of denial' by car seat headrest

Let me propose a hypothetical scenario. You're a boss of a fairly well-regarded independent record label - especially considering you don't engage in copyright nonsense on YouTube to stifle criticism - with a pretty potent roster but always hungry to expand. And in the course of sifting through prospects, you find an astoundingly prolific indie artist off Bandcamp known for self-producing some surprisingly catchy indie rock that might have crossover potential. Do you sign this guy, and if so, how do you best market him?

Well, if you're the CEO of Matador Records, this might seem like a no-brainer, but in retrospect bringing the critically acclaimed indie rock project Car Seat Headrest onboard might have been more trouble than its worth. Oh, sure, for production it wouldn't be a huge issue - no need to hire Steve Albini when the mastermind of the project Will Toledo effectively produced everything himself - but how to best position him onto the market, especially considering he already had something of a cult following? In retrospect, I think Matador found a mostly workable solution - take cuts from his eleven self-released records and slice them into a comprehensive whole with a little more polish - but it also meant the buzz didn't quite materialize in the same way, at least for critics like myself.

And yet I started getting requests to cover the follow-up record Teens Of Denial almost immediately - although the headaches had only gotten worse for Matador, as all physical copies of the album have gotten recalled over a sampling clearance mess surrounding an interpolation of a snippet from a Cars song 'Just What I Needed', that Ric Ocasek rescinded at the last minute. Estimated losses are around $50,000 - and for an indie label pushing a relative unknown even despite critical acclaim, that's a considerable loss. Thankfully, I was still able to pick up the album digitally to figure out what the fuss was about - what did I find?

video review: '7/27' by fifth harmony

Well, this was... well, certainly controversial, but I stand by it. 

Next up, Car Seat Headrest, and then probably Lacuna Coil, since Billboard BREAKDOWN will be delayed thanks to Memorial Day - stay tuned!

album review: '7/27' by fifth harmony

And here we go again.

I think there are a few misconceptions that linger from the last time I covered Fifth Harmony and their debut album Reflection, which many people angered that I didn't like the record. And while I'm not surprised at the anger, I am a little perturbed by the intensity, mostly because we've heard all of this before. One of the foundation points of the review was that Fifth Harmony was plainly set up along with Little Mix by Syco Records in order to engineer competition and pull in piles of money, and given my positive reception to Little Mix, my review was quickly dismissed as by some who assumed I had a stake in this. The truth, unfortunately, is a lot less interesting: Fifth Harmony's debut Reflection just wasn't very strong on its own merits, with by-the-numbers production that made some egregiously awful miscalculations, a vocal ensemble that had talent but was also unevenly balanced, and lyrics that ranged from forgettable to hysterical. And I didn't blame the girls for that - Camilla remains the weakest singer who got the lead far too many times, but it's not like she or the rest of the group wrote any of these songs - because, again, I've heard this all before... when they were called the Pussycat Dolls. 

it's actually uncanny how many parallels they have: forgettable guest verses, weak production, a 'leader' who is nowhere close to the strongest singer in the group, and even a British counterpart miles ahead of them in every way that would never get the stateside attention they deserve. Maybe it's because I actually remember the mid-2000s that I can speak to this, having seen pop group competition be engineered so many times before, but at the end of the day, I just want good music, whether it be from Fifth Harmony or Little Mix - I have no stake here either way. And yet while Little Mix has pivoted back towards pop to diminishing returns off their 2015 album Get Weird, Fifth Harmony looks to be in a much weirder state themselves, even despite their lead-off single 'Work From Home' being their biggest song to date. For one, it actually looks like Simon Cowell gave this record a budget and hired on some bigger names for production and guest verses... and yet the music wasn't getting better. Of course they had no writing credits again on this record - yeah, keep calling this a more personal record, ladies, I'm not buying it - but 'Work From Home' was the step towards R&B that had no personality outside of unsettling lyrical implications. And if that was the direction 7/27 was going, I had a really bad feeling about this album - was I proven wrong?

Friday, May 27, 2016

video review: 'if i'm honest' by blake shelton

I honestly thought I wouldn't be able to get this review out tonight - turns out I was able to film and edit two, the latter of which will drop tomorrow and is sure to cause a stir. 

Want to know what it is? Stay tuned to find out!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

album review: 'if i'm honest' by blake shelton

When I reviewed Blake Shelton's last record Bringing Back The Sunshine in 2014, I made the comment that he had to be the luckiest guy working in modern country music. In retrospect, I probably too kind to the guy.

So let's put his career in context, shall we? A mild-mannered b-lister who played a little more contemporary than Tim McGraw but not quite as rowdy or political as Toby Keith, Blake Shelton got his start in the 2000s with some decent tunes but nothing you'd really care about after you heard it with very rare exception. Part of this is because Blake Shelton maybe wrote one or two songs per album - he wasn't really a distinctive authorial voice - but partially because as a whole he was never all that consistent or interesting, and like everyone else, I assumed when Chris Young came along Blake Shelton would find himself replaced. But then bro-country happened, and having shrewdly snagged a judge position on The Voice that he'd ride to victory after victory, Blake Shelton was able to capitalize on the biggest spotlight he'd ever have to ride the trend to previously unheard of heights. And sure, some of this was luck - Tim McGraw was fighting for artistic freedom against Curb, Toby Keith was sinking into alcoholic mediocrity, and the rest of his competition were either too young or too harsh to play in a similar genial lane - unlike someone like Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton seemed capable of smiling when he was singing, even if he hadn't written a single song on a fair few albums by then. 

And then things changed. His marriage to fellow country superstar Miranda Lambert failed in spectacular tabloid fashion, and he got involved with fellow judge on The Voice and pop star in her own right Gwen Stefani. And while I was eagerly waiting for the album of unbridled hellfire that Miranda Lambert was bound to bring - there's not a woman in mainstream country who can get as emotively raw and pissed off as Lambert since Reba McEntire - I was genuinely curious to hear what Blake Shelton was planning. And the record almost seemed to designed to provoke controversy, featuring the most writing credits Blake Shelton has ever had on an album and the title If I'm Honest. And while there's a part of me that's definitely skeptical - at the end of the day Blake Shelton is a consummate businessman who has never been particularly raw or personal in his writing - I hoped there was something here that cut a little deeper... so did we get it?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

video review: 'hopelessness' by anohni

By the nine hells, this record was unbearable, only salvaged from being lower thanks to one or two good songs. Let's hope that our next record will be better...

Oh, wait, it's Blake Shelton. Eh, whatever, stay tuned!

album review: 'hopelessness' by anohni

If I were to ask you what are the genres that bring up politics the most, what would be your answers?

Well, if I were to guess, you'd probably start with punk, and then follow with hip-hop. Maybe you'd bring up folk or funk or soul, or in a pinch you might mention alternative country or metal. Odds are you would not mention electronic music or synthpop, and there's a reason for that. In the latter case, it's fairly obvious: if you look at the historical legacy of synthpop, most of it tended towards weird abstraction or flighty dance floor jams, and while of course there were exceptions, they were not the rule. With electronic music... okay, you can make more of an argument when you consider certain underground scenes, particularly in inner city Detroit and Chicago where you'd find acts like Jlin, or you might mention acts like The Knife, which got very political on their 2013 album Shaking The Habitual to very mixed results, at least for me. 

So what about an artist like Anohni? If you don't recognize the name, don't worry, she's only been performing under it for this record, previously leading the band Antony and the Johnsons. Now keep in mind that Antony and the Johnsons are a baroque pop group that's received a ton of critical acclaim - mostly for good reason - but this is also her first album in six years and her first real venture into electronic music. Fortunately, she pulled in some heavy hitters to help her, the first being Hudson Mohawke, who is most well-known for working with Kanye West. The second is Oneotrix Point Never, a critically acclaimed experimental electronica musician who, yes, I know i need to hear more of his stuff, it's in my ever-expanding backlog. In other words, we could very well have another situation like Anna Meredith, the fusion of electronic and classical music... but on the other hand many of the statements Anohni made before this record implied this was to be a much more political work. Okay, that's a loaded implication, but I figured it'd probably be worth a few listens, so I checked out Hopelessness - what did I find?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 4, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was a weird week - and arguably one of my weakest episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN in a while. Flubs, not catching on that Drake's revival was thanks to Spotify... ugh, not pleased with this.

And on that note, ANOHNI review is up next, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 4, 2016

So we're now settling back into routine - well, as much routine as we can expect, especially when Ariana Grande is coming around the corner next week - and this has led to something of a bizarre case that I've observed happen to big debuts in the past. They have tons of songs smash onto the Hot 100 the first week, and yet while things cool off dramatically the second week, the third week a whole group of them seem to bounce back. Now there are a lot of reasons for this: initial fatigue after a binge feeding into renewed interest; the radio picking up a few for rotation; or even the case of compensation against a reset to equilibrium...

Monday, May 23, 2016

video review: 'paradise' by white lung

About time I got to this one. Pretty damn solid album, definitely happy with it, and yeah, it really should be sparking more conversation than it is.

After this, I'm thinking Anohni and Vektor, but first we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

album review: 'paradise' by white lung

So I don't review a lot of punk.

I mean, I will on occasion - if there's something really jumps out at me with sharp hooks or particularly nuanced lyrics, I'll get all over it - but I think it's fair to say that of the punk scene that's left, there's not a lot that really works for me. And it's not saying I dislike the genre or don't have my own personal favourites from both the 70s and 90s waves - I certainly do. But maybe it's just a factor of overexposure and looking for acts that are saying and doing something a little different - punk by definition went back to the basics, and when you have nearly forty years of the 'basics', you need to do something to stand out.

As such, I've been a little reticent to talk about White Lung, a Canadian punk act from Vancouver known for blisteringly fast hardcore riffing and frontwoman Mish Way's raw, explosively feminist lyrics. Up till now they've released three records that might generously have just over an hour of material, but they've managed to capture a lot of potent content that updates the riot grrl ethos for the modern era. And while I won't always say I loved their albums - I'm not the biggest hardcore fan - I've liked what I've heard in terms of their progression, towards a fuller sound and stronger hooks, and the lyrics have always been well-framed as well as explosively raw in a Perfect Pussy sort of way.

So I was definitely curious to check out their newest album Paradise, which wasn't just their longest album to date - nearly a half hour! - but also featured new production from Lars Stalfors, most well-known for his association with The Mars Volta, the Cold War Kids, and - sigh - Matt And Kim. At the very least this promised to be a prettier affair than previous records, but if that meant a shift towards more defined melodic hooks, that could be a really good thing, at least for me. So I picked up Paradise - what did I find?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

video review: 'dangerous woman' by ariana grande

Ah, glad to get this out of the way. Took me way too long to deconstruct it, but still worth it.

Next up, White Lung, ANOHNI, and hopefully Vektor - stay tuned!

album review: 'dangerous woman' by ariana grande

It has been fascinating watching the evolution of Ariana Grande - and given that I've already covered two of her albums, I've had a front row seat to all of it.

Granted, evolution might not be the correct word for the carefully considered marketing and micromanagement of Ariana Grande's musical career, but there has been a progression, and I'm a little on the fence of how well it has worked. On the one hand, the instrumentation and production moving from Yours Truly to My Everything has only been a net positive, giving her breathy, soaring vocals the room they desperately need. And while the songwriting has been micromanaged, there have been real moments of maturity that have started to come through in her writing that has led to strong tracks, including the fantastic 'Love Me Harder' with The Weeknd.

But throughout the lead-up to her newest album Dangerous Woman, that progression has seemed shakier than ever. You can tell that her producers and handlers are pushing for a more explicitly sexy image and 'sound', and it's an open question whether or not Ariana or her writing team can pull it off. Part of this is her voice - when she sticks to more sultry, low-key R&B cooing it's believable, but she doesn't have that element of rawness in her delivery yet to believably pull off pop diva powerhouse, and her occasional sloppy enunciation doesn't help. But more than that, being 'sexy' is music is incredibly difficult to pull off well - sensual a little easier because you can modulate your range, but sexy requires a type of intimacy and poise that Ariana can't always pull off, which can make certain songs come across as hard to believe. And while this was an issue on My Everything, it looked to be a much bigger issue here, especially opposite artists like Lil Wayne and Future, who play in a very different type of sexuality than Ariana. That said, Dangerous Woman looked to have promise if only because Ariana had taken a much firmer hand in the writing process, with nearly double the credits from her last album, and with a smaller writing staff I had the hopes that this might actually work - so does she pull it off?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

video review: 'coloring book' by chance the rapper

So yeah, trying to catch up on my schedule has been insane... which means Ariana is probably going to be next before White Lung and ANOHNI - either way, stay tuned!

Friday, May 20, 2016

album review: 'coloring book' by chance the rapper

Let's talk about faith.

Now before I blow open this can of worms, let me start by saying that I'm not talking about religion here - my own personal faith is private and complicated and probably would extend over more than just one video, and entangling it with religion doesn't make things easier. But that's not to imply that faith doesn't inspire art - often times it can inspire better art than religion itself, see the vast majority of the Christian music scene! Good art arises from conflict, and a crisis or conflict of faith is often times one of the most potent anyone can have, especially when there's no concrete answer to the questions presented.

But what about Chance The Rapper, the eternal bright-eyed optimist in modern hip-hop who has ignored major labels with aplomb to release free album after free album? Yeah sure, it's been called a 'mixtape', but at this point I doubt Chance is going to release anything outside of 'mixtapes' like these, so if I want to cover him at length, it'll involve me breaking my mixtape rule and talking about this. A rule, by the way, that I'm happy to break here: my experience with Chance The Rapper might be uneven - I really liked Acid Rap, Surf reveals itself as even more messy with every subsequent listen - but if you get him on a straightforward project he can spray colourful and relentlessly fun verses like no other - his verse on Kanye's 'Ultralight Beam' proved that and outshone nearly everyone else on the project. What did worry me was that, again like Surf, this project might have too many hands in the pot, with an overloaded guest list and many that you would not expect from reportedly a hip-hop gospel record! But hey, maybe Chance had managed to tap into the spiritual side of artists like Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Future, Young Thug, and Justin Bieber - at the very least, it would force them out of their comfort zone. So I picked up Coloring Book - what did I find?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

video review: 'cloud nine' by kygo

Truth be told, I was reticent about covering this record, but really, it turned out to be rather nice. Good listen.

Next up, Chance The Rapper, White Lung, and finally Ariana Grande, so stay tuned!

album review: 'cloud nine' by kygo

So let's talk a little about tropical house.

Because in mainstream pop, you can't go that far on the radio without hearing its influence, and yet in comparison with most house music, it's relatively new. An offshoot of deep house that got its origins in the mid-to-late 2000s, it has become huge in the mainstream thanks to big pop crossover singles, or pop artists like Justin Bieber hopping on the sound. And really, it makes sense: the dark hollow tones of deep house could work in the right environment, but it didn't have the same sort of festival ready vibe that the lighter, more liquid tropical house tones did. And with the inclusion of a broader and brighter instrumental palette, it's the summer-ready material that might not have the bombast of the EDM of the first few years in the 2010s, but it definitely has more groove.

And yet I would make the argument that, like with so much electronic music, the US charts barely reflect the world-spanning scope of the genre. And one of the biggest cases of that is Kygo, a Norwegian producer who first smashed onto the scene with 'Firestone' in 2014 that finally crept onto the bottom of the Hot 100 late last year. But even though the United States may have forgotten he exists, the rest of the world hasn't, with multiple massive singles and as of yet the fastest artist to hit one billion streams of Spotify. Obviously there is something to this guy who has grabbed everyone's attention - along with the fact I've been getting requests for months to cover this album - and his debut album did have an impressive array of vocal talent, including John Legend, Foxes, Labrinth, and plenty more. That being said, I was a tad skeptical how well the tropical house formula would hold up over the entire record, or if Kygo could keep things interesting beyond the singles. So I hopped on Cloud Nine - what did I find?

20,000 subscriber Q&A! (VIDEO)

I'm personally amazed that we got to this point, and I really genuinely appreciate everything you guys have done in order to help this channel expand. Let's keep up the fine work, and see this thing double by this time next year (lofty goal, but you never know!)

Kygo coming up later tonight, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 28, 2016 (VIDEO)

Nearly forgot to post this, but it did go over pretty well, so I'm pleased. Next up, the 20,000 subscriber Q&A, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 28, 2016

And now... the cooldown week. After the past several weeks of instability, this is the return to the 'status quo' that is characterized by songs returning to old positions of strength and a ton of returning entries. So while to the outside viewer it might appear that there were a lot of shifts this week - and there were, let's not kid ourselves - most are just resets to a form of equilibrium as Drake and Beyonce's big debuts continue to fade away. As such, you'd think it'd be a quieter week, and for the most part it was...

video review: 'thank you' by meghan trainor

Whereas in this case I don't think anyone was remotely surprised that this kind of sucked. Go figure.

Next up, 20k Q&A and Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

video review: 'a moon-shaped pool' by radiohead

So here's a true story: I was genuinely concerned that I'd lose so many subscribers with this video that I postponed filming the 20k Q&A video. Turns out that I didn't lose that many - and that video will probably be going live later today, along with Billboard BREAKDOWN - but still, this was one of my more controversial videos in a while.

Thankfully, the next on our docket wasn't nearly so controversial...

album review: 'thank you' by meghan trainor

Let's talk briefly about selling out.

Now I know that even by opening up the review like this, I've set myself up for a certain amount of backlash, particularly from people who think that I'm using it as an opportunity to denigrate a shift to pop. The funny thing is that you can 'sell out' while still remaining in the same genre, by compromising artistic principles or a unique sound for something that's more generic but is guaranteed to sell better. And that's not making the implication that selling out is inherently a bad thing either - some acts only discover a pop sensibility when they do so, which can result in them making more melodically satisfying music - but especially for an act starting out, it can be a bad sign for times to come, and it tends to rend fanbases in two.

As such, I've had a certain academic curiosity in watching how people have reacted to Meghan Trainor's lead-up to her sophomore release. With her debut album Title, Meghan Trainor carved out a distinctive niche for herself, even if it did happen to turn my stomach with every subsequent listen, a doo-wop inspired retro-pop sound that was safe, self-satisfied, and overwhelming white and saccharine. It was very much music for a demographic that didn't want to be challenged by their music, which would have been fine if Meghan Trainor's songwriting and delivery didn't demand frequent challenges for a load of unsettling implications and amateurish sloppiness, something which Trainor seemed adamant in ignoring. In other words, there are reasons why she took the top two spots on my Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2015, one for her collaboration with Charlie Puth on 'Marvin Gaye' and the top spot all for herself with 'Dear Future Husband'.

And yet even despite the avalanche of requests for me to tear her sophomore album a new one, I was genuinely perplexed about Meghan Trainor's new direction. With a track like 'No', which traded one style of plastic pop for another - 50s for late 90s - I had no idea where Trainor was going to be taking her sound as a whole. Was she succumbing to what acclaimed critic Nathan Rabin has described as the 'hoification process' and augmenting her material with more openly brazen sexuality - which would certainly be amusing to dissect after Title - or was this a half-measure to court mainstream nostalgia baiting with a sophomore release that further muddied her message? And more importantly, would it be listenable? Well, I dove into Thank You to find out - what did we get?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

album review: 'a moon-shaped pool' by radiohead

Most of the time, I have absolutely no issue going against the critical consensus. Sure, it's nice to know that my opinions are echoed by popular opinion, but I've taken some hard and controversial stances before and I'm not afraid to stand by them. I've found albums that critics adored to be tedious or mediocre, and I've found some albums that were critically savaged to be hidden gems. After all, as much as critics like myself like to think we're the ones who can shape history, reality often proves to be vastly different.

And yet when we get to Radiohead... goddamn it, I wish I liked this band more than I do. The way I've always described the critically beloved group is that I respect them more than I like them - I can appreciate what they did to push boundaries in alternative rock and blending in electronica throughout the 90s and 2000s, but in terms of the records themselves? My favourite Radiohead album has always been The Bends, and while OK Computer and In Rainbows definitely have their moments and are great records in their own right, I've never been able to get passionate about this group. A big part of it is Thom Yorke himself - I can appreciate his expressive delivery to a point, but I've never found him to be the profound or interesting songwriter so many have said. And sure, melodically Radiohead have put together some potent moments and great songs, but when pushed through every shade of melancholy in the book - especially with the increasingly diminished returns of the 2000s - the material just doesn't connect for me. Hell, I'd argue part of it started with Kid A, certainly a good record with some spectacular moments but not worth the ocean of praise the majority of online critics - especially Pitchfork - ejaculated all over it in 2000. And no, it wasn't going electronic that hurt Radiohead for me - In Rainbows found a synthesis of it that was looser, more melodic, and really quite potent, it really is the brighter side to OK Computer - but I will say that the more humanity and organic instrumentation Radiohead tends to embrace, the more their gift for melody comes to the forefront, something which their 2011 record The King Of Limbs didn't emphasize all that effectively in its choice to play for choppy, looped rhythms and minimalism.

So when I heard that their surprise new release A Moon-Shaped Pool was going back towards more organic instrumentation, perhaps even bringing in elements of folk that they've flirted with but never completely embraced for decades... hell, I was intrigued. And even though I'm decidedly in the minority when it comes to Radiohead albums, I figured I still liked the group enough to dig in, so what did I find with A Moon-Shaped Pool?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

video review: 'ripcord' by keith urban

So this didn't go well... I wish I could say I was surprised, but I'm really not at this point. Still disappointed, though.

Okay, I think I'm nearly ready to talk about Radiohead, so stay tuned!

Friday, May 13, 2016

album review: 'ripcord' by keith urban

I've talked a fair bit before about the thin line between pop and country, a divide between genres that to some isn't just about the music, but ideology as well. The very idea that country could exist in the same space as pop, with clean and polished tones, light subject matter, and touches of modern production, that's offensive to some people, because it betrays country's commitment to history and authenticity.

Now I'm not one of those people, because like it or not, I think that pop country can be a workable subgenre. Just because the subject matter is lighter, the production is more polished, and the singers are prettier doesn't mean there can't be great music with strong melodies, good performers, and smart writing. Think Lucy Hale, or Shania Twain at her peak - or on the flip side, you could have Keith Urban. And let's make no mistake here, ever since he came up in the same mold with the same producer as Rascal Flatts, he's been making very polished, very accessible pop country. The big difference between him and Rascal Flatts is that he had charisma and better songwriters and wasn't afraid to give his solid guitarwork a little more room to breathe. I'm never going to say that he was an essential act in the 2000s, or that he didn't make very pop songs, especially on his 2013 album Fuse. And yet keep in mind that when I covered it back in 2013 on this channel, I actually liked that album, and for the most part I still do: by keeping the melodies prominent and the percussion grooves breezy, even when they were electronic, the album was an easy, fun listen with some above-average songwriting that was a real pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, going into Ripcord I had a lot more misgivings - like it or not pop music has gotten more choppy and staccato thanks to the influence of trap, which does not help the flow of a record like this, and the songwriting was only feeling more inane, lacking the subtle flourishes that gave songs on Fuse more personality. I wasn't really wild about any of the lead-off singles, and seeing a Pitbull collaboration immediately threw up a red flag. That said, Keith Urban has earned a fair bit of good will with me, so even despite some pretty harsh critical reviews, I gave it a listen: what did I find?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

video review: 'the impossible kid' by aesop rock

Well, this took entirely too long to finish, but I'm glad I finally did. Lot to dissect here, I must say.

Next up... hmm, not sure yet. Do I want to cover Radiohead yet, or should I handle Vektor and Keith Urban... decisions, decisions, but regardless, stay tuned!

album review: 'the impossible kid' by aesop rock

So when I covered Kevin Morby last week, I mentioned that much of the wordplay I tend to prefer is intricate and layered, or at least trying a little harder than bog standard metaphor trying and failing for universality. And with rare exception, if you take a look at my favourite albums of any given year, that focus on lyricism has led to certain records landing on the list that push the gauntlet lyrically but might not quite be as innovative in their sound - or if they are, it's in subtle ways that serves and compliments the writing.

But that's not saying I don't have my limit on the other extreme, the songs that weave such tangled webs of words that clawing forth any specific meaning is a twisted nightmare in and of itself, and that's not even counting the writers who focus more on impressionist poetry over direct meaning. To me, this material draws a lot of curiosity, but the bizarre thing is that they can be a little emotionally distancing - when you get so focused on untangling what is said, you can lose the heart of it all.

And that was my biggest fear before I started delving into Aesop Rock, the veteran MC who is known for having the biggest vocabulary in hip-hop and with a considerable discography and reportedly impenetrable albums. Not only was I concerned about verbosity and so many words adding up to less than expected, but that I would lose the emotional core in the music. Fortunately, as with so much hype on the internet, this didn't happen, and it's been a hugely rewarding experience revisitng Aesop Rock's discography in full, complete with all of the eccentric production choices, oddball lyrical knots, and records that might all run long, but often have a strong enough emotional core to hold my attention. And here's the thing: sure, the music is going to require some work to decode, but no more so than Joanna Newsom or Uncommon Nasa or any other singer-songwriter with an eye for detail, and unlike a rap act like Shabazz Palaces who can get lost in their own impenetrability, Aesop Rock's songs tend to have a point that will crystallize if you dig into them. 

So yeah, I was definitely curious to check out his newest solo release, four years after the critically acclaimed - for good reason - Skelethon, which I'd place in my upper tier of Aesop Rock records just below Labor Days and maybe a smidge above Float. And considering his production has only gotten more layered and complex and buzz was suggesting this might be one of Aesop Rock's most specific and direct releases to date - which is a good thing, as sometimes even he can slip into the lyrical rabbit hole - I was genuinely thrilled to dig into this. So what did we get?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

video review: 'you should be here' by cole swindell

Wow, this was a real surprise. Didn't expect this to be all that good, but it turned out to be pretty decent. Go figure.

Next up, I think I'm ready for Aesop Rock and (sigh) Keith Urban, so stay tuned!

album review: 'you should be here' by cole swindell

So, for those of you who have been watching since the very beginning when I discussed the rise and fall of bro-country know that I took a bit of a complicated position surrounding the subgenre - namely that I didn't hate it altogether. I'm not sure what it was, maybe some lingering sympathies from my own bro tendencies, or maybe it was that even despite how stupid it could get, if played with sincerity and production with a little more meat or writing with a bit more tact, you could actually get decent music. 

Of course, the majority of bro-country acts maybe got one out of three on a good day and we got a whole lot of mediocrity, of which I had no qualms giving the thorough thrashing it deserved - when bro-country was good, I had no problems celebrating it, but when it was bad, I wasn't about to avoid an easy target. And one of the easiest was Cole Swindell, a former fratmate and merch manager for Luke Bryan who became a songwriter and later released a debut album I slagged as being one of the most formulaic, badly produced, and sloppily written bro-country records ever made. Until Thomas Rhett came along, Cole Swindell represented the absolute worst of bro-country for me: he might not have been the most obnoxious or processed or have the most offensive writing, but he represented the numb, sterile blandness that came to saturate country radio's mindless attempt to jump on a trend.

But let's be honest: bro-country is effectively over at this point, and Cole Swindell now had to prove he was more than just a trend. And with his lead-off single, the title track of this album that was a tribute to his late father, he actually convinced me to give him another chance. Sure, the percussion and production was too synthetic for my tastes and much of the melody line reminded me way too much of Luke Bryan's 'Crash My Party', but the writing had enough detail to feel authentic and real, even if it is framed through a bro-country lens. So, believe it or not, I had some real hope going into this album that we might see a more interesting or introspective side of Cole Swindell - did we get that?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 21, 2016 (VIDEO)

Believe it or not, this was actually an easier episode to edit than the last one - took less time too, so go figure.

Next up, Cole Swindell, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 21, 2016

This is probably not going to be one of the nicer episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, just so you're all forewarned. And those of you who follow this series probably know that already because I've been calling this for a few weeks now. Well, my predictions came true, and not only did we lose every single Prince song from the Hot 100, they all got replaced by Drake, including the #1. And I'm going to say this right now: Views has only become less interesting since I covered it, and while you could cite that being my own fault given that I've been listening steadily to Aesop Rock and Death Grips, it doesn't change the fact the record is tedious, inconsistently produced, and increasingly badly written. And yet the mainstream public jumped all over it, giving Drake the record number of Hot 100 entries - and yet unlike Beyonce, I wouldn't expect many of these to stick around.

video review: 'bottomless pit' by death grips

Well, this was surprisingly solid, really did enjoy it. Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN... so yeah, stay tuned if you want me to give Drake another round of thrashing, stay tuned!

Monday, May 9, 2016

album review: 'bottomless pit' by death grips

Okay, I can't be the only one who is a little surprised Death Grips is still releasing music at this point, am I?

Because let's be completely honest here: after the 'break-up/reunion' that played into the whole lead-up of their last album The Powers That B which I covered last year, I got the impression that Death Grips were at the very least stretching the patience of their fanbase, only able to keep them on board because they were consistently delivering quality, albeit with records like Government Plates that might be a step away from their best. Sure, I wasn't wild about the first half of that double album, but Jenny Death did prove to be the explosive, noise-rock-inspired climax that could serve as a logical, emotionally satisfying endpoint to their wild saga...

And then they kept going. And sure, you could have predicted some of it - you could definitely argue the end of Jenny Death was a rebirth of sorts for Death Grips, a regeneration into new flights of experimentation, but I can't be the only one who feels the novelty isn't quite there anymore. Noisier production is a lot more common in alternative hip-hop these days than back in 2012, and while MC Ride is still a presence unto himself, the graphic nihilism doesn't shock me in the same way anymore. And let's get real, you can only really take the arc that Jenny Death took once, but on the flip side, this also meant that with Bottomless Pit anything could happen. So I jumped into Bottomless Pit - where did I wind up?

video review: 'the colour in anything' by james blake

I'm honestly not sure how this review is going to be received. I mean, the album is good, but I get the feeling people are going to be pissed that I don't think it's great... because I don't. Eh, it happens.

Next up, Death Grips, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the colour in anything' by james blake

So on Billboard BREAKDOWN earlier this week, when I was covering Beyonce's 'Forward', the collaboration interlude she made with PBR&B and post-dubstep artist James Blake, it was implied by someone that I'd like to see James Blake drop an album sometime in the near future. And while that's definitely true, I started trying to dissect why, because he's not often an artist I seek out, but one I'm happy exists all the same. His brand of moody yet soulful atmospheric electronic R&B can be surprisingly compelling, albeit more for the performance than the content. All of James Blake's biggest strengths shine through in subtlety, and the details, and while I never really loved his self-titled record or his 2013 sophomore release Overgrown, they were both records I found myself revisiting to try and extract more.

So little did I expect that James Blake would seemingly follow up on my suggestion and drop a record with no warning whatsoever! Now as much as I'd like to say I called it and would love to further test my precognitive powers, in reality it's probably just a matter of timing. After all, for the first time in his career James Blake has landed a featuring credit on the Hot 100 thanks to 'Forward' with Beyonce, so why not push that moment of hype further with the long-teased third record The Colour In Anything. But on a similar note, I was concerned that the release might be overshadowed by louder or more famous entries, especially when hours later Radiohead announced they were releasing a new album this Sunday! And that's not considering the album itself, which running over an hour is nearly double the length of previous James Blake albums, and I was a bit concerned how well that sort of atmosphere would translate to a longer project. But enough dancing around the issue: how did I find The Colour In Anything?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

video review: 'singing saw' by kevin morby

Well, so this sucked. I'm genuinely curious how people are going to respond to this review - it's a critically acclaimed release, but it's also a smaller one, so I have no idea how much of a response it's going to get one way or another.

Anyway, next up I've got a bunch of albums to get through before I cover Aesop Rock, so I might fit in Death Grips ahead of time... stay tuned!

album review: 'singing saw' by kevin morby

So I don't cover a lot of music from the indie folk rock scene - and believe it or not, I actually have a reason. Several reasons actually, the first being volume, because it seems like every other week I hear about a new up-and-coming indie folk songwriter that I need to hear and most don't really impress me. I used to define it as a general aversion to the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' subgenre, but it runs a little more complicated: when you strip down the sound to the bare essentials, those essentials all need to be great working order or the flaws stand out all the more. And yeah, part of it is the fact that when you've heard so much singer-songwriter music, your bar when it comes to compositions or lyrics tends to be quite high - and I'll be blunt and say that a lot of this material can get tedious or pretentious if the writing or instrumentation doesn't step up.

And those were a lot of the thoughts I had before looking to cover Kevin Morby, most notable as being the former bassist of indie rock band Woods before going solo in 2013. And when I checked out his two previous records to this... well, they have their moments, I guess. I was never really gripped much by the songwriting - it always felt a little too self-serving and lacking in storytelling chops, with none of the writing having any sort of flair or punch - but a lot of the production and composition was nice, and I always appreciated a commitment to solid mix balances. But it wasn't until the second album Still Life where I saw the long shadow of The National hanging over Kevin Morby, especially in the vocal production and the blend of alternative country and modern folk rock influences - and look, I love The National, but I don't need a sleepier version of a group that already has trouble with momentum.

That said, this record has been getting a suspicious amount of critical acclaim, so I figured what the hell and checked out Singing Saw - how did it go?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 14, 2016 (VIDEO)

So yeah, this week was awesome... and yet given that Drake is probably going to smash most of this way next week, it's all too brief. Eh, it happens.

And also on a downer note, I've got the next review dropping tonight, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 14, 2016

So remember when I said last week the turbulence wasn't going away any time soon? Yeah, this week proved that in spades, because not only did Beyonce's Lemonade hit like a ship from Heaven, Prince's tracks only picked up more traction on the Hot 100 and holy shit, somehow the charts got kind of amazing this week! And I mean that beyond just the new arrivals: this sort of shakeup I suspect will have longer lasting impacts than many might think.

Monday, May 2, 2016

video review: 'dolls of highland' by kyle craft

So this was amazing. Seriously, everyone should be checking this out, I absolutely adore this record - so damn catchy!

Next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN, where I effectively get to enjoy myself by re-reviewing Beyonce's Lemonade, so stay tuned!

album review: 'dolls of highland' by kyle craft

So before I begin, let me talk a little about my schedule. Right now I'm at a bit of weird place: I've got upcoming releases that of course I'm going to cover, but a few records in my backlog have pretty extensive discographies to revisit and review. So while I'm intending to Aesop Rock, I just need some time to completely absorb his existing material. As such, I did the next best thing, went to Pitchfork, and scrounged around for an act that looked interesting... and here we are.

So, introductions in case you haven't heard about this guy - and I reckon that's probably a strong possibility, given that outside of the critical circle he hasn't made a huge splash just yet. Kyle Craft is a Louisiana songwriter who started off crafting some rough-edged southern glam rock before moving to Portland and signing with Sub Pop. Now immediately for me that's a good sign - Sub Pop tends to have a good reputation with signees and I was kind of intrigued by what I heard from Craft, blending a certain sort of Southern carnival theatricality with rough-edged, early-Bowie-esque melodic grooves. And while I wasn't convinced his debut would be a great record - that sort of style can get a little gimmicky if not played with smart songwriting or poise, and it can feel a little dated - at the very least it would make for a release with a lot of personality. So I dug into his debut record Dolls Of Highland - what did we get?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

video review: 'views' by drake

I'm a little amazed that this video hasn't been torn to shreds by the Drake stans yet... eh, just should give a little time, I think.

Next up, I'm interested in this Kyle Craft project (I need time to get to Aesop Rock or Brian Eno), but there are a few potential options, so give me some time. Stay tuned!