Showing posts with label 2015. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2015. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

the top 25 best albums of 2015 (VIDEO)

And now we've got the last of the lists - damn, this video took WAY too much work to get online...

Okay, next up... well, it's Rachel Platten, so nobody cares, but after that is Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

Monday, January 4, 2016

album review: 'wildfire' by rachel platten

There are very few times worse to be an album critic than right at the beginning of the year, and the sad fact is that there's a lot of reasonably good reasons for it. It's right after Christmas and heading into the doldrums of the winter months, nobody's buying music right now, and thus if labels are releasing material, it's the stuff that was considered not strong enough to be rushed towards a holiday release. In other words, I can only imagine that's why Sremmlife was dropped at the beginning of January last year - it was clearly never designed to be a hit.

Now thankfully we've got a new album from David Bowie dropping in a few days - mostly because it's Bowie and he'll drop music when he damn well pleases - so this drought won't last for long, but until then, the most interesting thing I could dig up was Rachel Platten's major label debut Wildfire. Now already I had a lot of bad feelings about this, because not only was 'Fight Song' one of the most limp and forgettable hits of 2015, it was also a very poor man's Kelly Clarkson and not a good sign for what was to come. Sure, 'Stand By You' was better, but it's very telling that it's taken this long for Rachel Platten to gain any traction in the music industry, mostly because her music doesn't reflect personality. What you probably don't know is that Rachel Platten has been making music since 2003, with her last album Be Here dropping in 2011 basically providing a lot of TV soundtrack fodder and operating as a poorly produced cross between Sara Bareilles and Hilary Duff. Maybe she could have had more luck if she had dropped it in the mid-2000s, but 2011 was the middle of the club boom, and she definitely was never weird or mature enough to get either the adult contemporary or indie crossover.

And yet in 2015 she got her big break... but did she really? As I said, it's not a good sign when labels drop albums in early January, and the buzz I had caught was mixed at best. I did not remotely expect this to be good, but there was an Andy Grammer feature, so I might as well get the whitest pop album until Charlie Puth's debut later this year out of the way, so how is Wildfire?

the top 50 best songs of 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, this was fun. Now, let's see if the albums list will actually get online and not glitch out badly again - wish me luck!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

the top 25 best albums of 2015

We're now onto my final list, the one that always produces a certain amount of frustration as I struggle to recognize the best of the best. And as I said in my last list, it's always difficult to narrow it down to the best of the best. And this year was probably the hardest yet, mostly because it started so damn strong and was able to sustain that momentum into late this year. And while I was able to trim this list down to 25. And thus for the sake of my own conscience, I need to mention a few Honourable Mentions in no particular order that just missed this list. 

Because believe me, when you have comeback records like No Cities To Love by Sleater-Kinney and Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco that show huge returns to form, they deserve at least a shoutout. Hell, an album that features a creative rebirth like Baroness' Purple which dropped very late in the year deserves it too. And then you have underappreciated gems like Escape From Evil by Lower Dens, one of the great unsung synthpop records of this year. And on that note, as much it might be a bit of a contentious statement to say that hip-hop had a great year, I stand by it - when you have Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Rock, The Underachievers, Yelawolf, Pusha T and Czarface dropping stellar sophomore records, coupled with comebacks of unexpected quality from Ludacris and killer debuts from Joey Bada$$, all of which might have had a shot for this list in a weaker year, that's saying something. And that's not counting the list itself that's at least twenty percent hip-hop, but we'll get to that - hell, might as well start with...

Friday, January 1, 2016

the top 50 best songs of 2015

And now we're onto the list that's always the hardest for me to make, mostly because it requires by far the most work: the best songs of the year, overall. Not just hits, but singles and deep cuts from album ranging from widely successful to barely out of the underground.

And this year was harder than most, mostly because it was a damn great year for music. The charts may have been strong, but that was nothing compared to the cavalcade of great music we got, which meant that cutting this list down from thousands to around 630 to 165 to the fifty we have meant that there were a lot of painful cuts, so much so that I seriously considered instituting a one-song-per-album rule. In the end... I couldn't do it, because there were some records that were so unbelievably good that I had to include multiple entries. Now we'll be covering those albums in greater detail a bit later this week, but in the end I held to the rule that at most I could put three songs from any one album on this list - and that we easily had more of those makes my argument that was a damn solid year of music, probably better than last year's, all the more powerful. 

One more thing before we start: while I can describe music well and why it works for me on a technical level, most of the songs on this list cut a fair bit deeper than that, and thus I'll endeavor to provide some emotional context as to why they worked so well beyond a purely intellectual exercise. And of course it's my picks - there might some common overlap between my choices and other critics, but it would be disingenuous to choose tracks for 'cultural importance' rather than what really got to me more deeply.

So let's start with a track that completely threw me off-guard.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

the top ten best hit songs of 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, this was fun to put together. Yeah, a few minor glitches, but it did come together in a hurry more than I'd otherwise like (mostly because I'm travelling atm and have limited Internet/computer time). Interesting to see all the controversy about my #1 pick, but you always get that sort of thing.

Anyway, now to focus on the Top 50 Songs of 2015, so stay tuned!

the top ten best hit songs of 2015

Of all of the lists that I put together throughout the last weeks of the year, this is probably my favourite, because it's where I feel the most populist. It's the acknowledgement at listing the absolute worst hits that there is good stuff that deserves attention too, and that the mainstream public actually agreed. And 2015 really was a good year. Yeah, hip-hop and country in the mainstream struggled, but there were a lot of great pop songs pulling on rock, synthpop, funk, and even R&B. And while I wouldn't say this year's hits are quite as strong as a year like 2012 or 2011, it handily beats the last two years I've been putting together this list not just in number of great songs, but their quality. And again, the songs had to land on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 - the deep-cuts and stuff outside the mainstream, that's coming next - but this was the good stuff that got popular.

So let's start with our Honourable Mentions, shall we?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

the top ten worst hit songs of 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, it's finally here, the video so many of you have been wanting for so long. Once again, thanks for your patience - because man, this is a doozy. Stay tuned for the Best Hits of the year in a few days, but until then, have a Happy Holidays!

the top ten worst hit songs of 2015

There are a lot of critics - myself included - who will say that 2015 was a better year for the Hot 100 than previous years. While there were a fair amount of bad songs, they don't quite dip into the seething rage that sparks when you have songs implicitly endorsing date rape like in 2013, or watching two of my favourite genres spiral into inane, offensive nonsense like in 2014. And sure, some of that did continue into 2015, it was largely overshadowed by the good songs being better and the bad songs not quite having the same staying power or cultural presence, with a few unfortunate exceptions that we will be discussing.

So let's re-establish the rules: the songs need to have debuted on the Billboard Year End Hot 100 this year, and just being obscenely boring doesn't cut it. So if you were expecting Rachel Platten's 'Fight Song' or 'Somebody' by Natalie La Rose on this list, it's not going to happen. And one other thing: just because I might have had a passionate reaction to the song on Billboard BREAKDOWN is no guarantee that the song might land on this list. As much as 'Coco' by O.T. Genasis is ridiculously incompetent, it's too stupidly earnest to be hateable so much as it is hilarious. This list is for songs that make my stomach churn, the tracks I avoid with all costs, the compositions where you wonder who in the Nine Hells greenlit for public consumption.

Of course, for some tracks you can see what they were going for, so let's start with our Dishonourable Mentions!

video review: 'purple' by baroness

And there we have it, the last of the album reviews before the lists begin. Wow, that was quite a run...

So, first up is the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2015, which will be dropping later today - stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

album review: 'purple' by baroness

So here's something that really bugs me about the state of modern music criticism and journalism: the culture of clickbait. It's frustrating to me that lists will always be my most viewed videos, or where I display an extreme polarity of opinion, or that when I try to give an honest and thorough opinion, positive or negative, that might differ from the consensus, it gets branded as done so in order to 'draw views'. Trust me, if I wanted to game the system and draw in views, I'd keep my review videos at roughly half the length and they'd all be ranked lists of each song from least favourite to most.

And sadly nothing draws clicks faster than tragedy, and that's why I was very hesitant to open up a conversation about American sludge metal band Baroness... because inevitably, once you get past the great one-two punch that is Red Album and Blue Album and through the fascinating, if overlong double record Yellow & have to get to the bus crash. It's the point where many would be right to wonder if Baroness would survive, when three of the members were badly injured, two eventually leaving the band. And yet they would start touring again with new members and before long a new album was announced on their own independent label, reportedly a brisker affair than their last double album that was more of a return to their metal sound.

And believe me, I was optimistic. Not only is this sort of rebirth narrative always great to see, but Baroness are an impressive metal band, with an impressive skill for writing unique melodies and some thunderous tracks. What intrigued me more was that like Cage The Elephant, they had swapped out producers, John Congleton for David Fridmann, who is most well-known for working with The Flaming Lips. And while I had some very mixed feelings about this - Fridmann has been known to go overboard on the compression and loudness - I had hopes that Baroness would still deliver with a fresh lineup - was I right?

video review: 'king push: darkest before dawn - the prelude' by pusha t

Okay, that's one - got another a review coming tonight, the last album review of this year - stay tuned!

album review: 'king push: darkest before dawn: the prelude' by pusha t

I always get the feeling that I should be a bigger fan of Pusha T than I am.

Because when I reviewed his solo debut My Name Is My Name, I found myself struggling to like it. And going back to it now... well, putting aside how uneven it feels as a whole, Pusha T always struck me as a strong, technically detailed MC that didn't take his coke hustling and gangsta image beyond a wallow in darkness, almost for its own sake. And while he definitely had the voice and production for make something vividly compelling out of it, I kept looking for more of a pay-off that didn't really materialize. And it's not like Pusha T had The Game's pop sensibility or Freddie Gibbs' complicated framing or even the over-the-top gangsta iconography like Rick Ross or Jeezy - you could definitely argue that the methodical grime of Pusha T's best material simply operated as a mirror to the subject matter, nothing more, nothing less. But that's probably been the reason why I've always been a little underwhelmed by Pusha T's work over the past couple of years since Clipse broke up - for such a talented rapper, you'd like to think he'd go for more than that.

And the funny thing is that Pusha T appears to have brought more ambition to the table in the lead-up to his 2016 release King Push - so much so that he dropped an entire album's worth of material as a prelude, a short, brutally dark project released just before 2015 comes to a close as one of the best years for hip-hop in recent memory. And while I remember not being all that enthused about My Name Is My Name, after relistening to it I was interested in this. After all, that album had been stuck in development hell, and now that Pusha T had a firm hand on his career - probably helped by being appointed President of G.O.O.D. Music - maybe this prelude might have real impact for me. So how did Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude turn out?

Monday, December 21, 2015

video review: 'tell me i'm pretty' by cage the elephant

Oh god, this review was torture to make. Reshot it twice, had too many takes... and yeah, it was just painful. Thankfully, only two more left before the end of the year and they both look solid, so Pusha T, Baroness, and a new episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN coming up before the lists begin, so stay tuned!

album review: 'tell me i'm pretty' by cage the elephant

So I'll be the first to admit that there are some producers that tend to rub the wrong way - and if you've watched any of my rock or country reviews, you'll know the name that leaps to the top of my list is Jay Joyce. Most well-known in the country sphere for working with Eric Church, he's got a knack for production that can have impact with chunkier riffs and rougher edges, but it can lack subtlety or finer instrumental details. The funny thing is that if you flip over to the rock side, there's also been a band he's been working with since the start of their career who have had some success on modern rock radio: Cage The Elephant.

And I've always been kind of on the fence about this group, in that I really wish I liked them more than I do. They've got a knack for melody and there's are broad strokes to their explosively messy sound I find appealing to go with the occasionally twisted lyrics, but they're also not a subtle group, and it's led to their past three records being good but not quite great - you can definitely see why Jay Joyce worked with them. Part of this was the gradual maturing of their lead singer Matthew Shultz, as his early vocals has a nasal quality that got grating, especially on their wilder, more punk-inspired second album Thank You, Happy Birthday. Things improved the most on their third record Melophobia in 2013, which was a much thicker, heavier, more bluesy and psychedelic album, but despite a fair few great songs there were a lot of instrumental flourishes and genre shifts that I wish were a little more grounded or given more room to breathe, especially considering most of them served as outros that didn't really fit with the rest of the songs. That said, it was their most diverse and well-structured and helped define their most unique sound to date, and it seemed like they had a good groove going...

So naturally it makes sense to pitch their lead guitarist, Jay Joyce and start working with frontman of the Black Keys Dan Auerbach on production for their newest album. Now in theory you could have seen this coming - Cage The Elephant toured with The Black Keys, they were moving more towards blues rock, Jay Joyce is busier than ever these days, and Dan Auerbach has handled production before. Unfortunately, the last thing I covered that he produced was Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence - not a good sign, and neither was the buzz suggesting that early singles for this album had shed some of Cage The Elephant's newly defined sound in favour of sounding like The Black Keys. But hey, this was my chance to evaluate if the compositional strength and writing could hold up in a different production environment, so I gave Tell Me I'm Pretty plenty of listens - what did we get?

Friday, December 18, 2015

video review: 'untamed' by cam

So this was actually pretty damn solid - how long it'll hold up is anyone's guess, but I definitely did enjoy this.

Next up, probably Cage The Elephant, so stay tuned!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

album review: 'untamed' by cam

So now that we're heading into the final weeks of this year, I think I can state this definitively: it was not a banner year for country music, especially for women and especially in the mainstream. Forgetting the ugly 'tomato' controversy and focusing just on the music, not only were the crossover hits fewer than ever, you'd typically have to add some heavy qualifications to calling them country at all. And the sad thing is that if you look to the indie scene, it wasn't that the records were bad so much as they were underwhelming compared to their previous work. Lindi Ortega, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, it happened to all of them, and it's not like any of them were crossing over to compete with Maddie & Tae or Carrie Underwood or Kelsea Ballerini any time soon.

Now there were two big 'exceptions' to this rule, the first being the unprecedented success of Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush', but I'm inclined to disqualify it from the conversation because Pain Killer dropped in 2014, they're a mixed-gender band, and you'd have to put some serious qualifiers on calling that country instead of folk or maybe even pop. The second is the unexpected sleeper hit of 'Burning House' by Cam, a song that I was initially not particularly impressed by when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but in retrospect have come to appreciate a fair bit. That song - which has turned out to be the highest selling country song from a female artist in 2015 - led me to dig a little more into Cam, a singer from San Francisco who got her start as a songwriter before meeting up with producers Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, the latter who in recent years has been known to work with Kanye West, Natalia Kills, fun., Beyonce, and most recently Mark Ronson on his chart-dominating smash 'Uptown Funk'. In other words, we're looking an artist who once wrote for Miley Cyrus, seemed the furthest thing from Nashville and who ended up signed to Arista Nashville, the label of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Worse still, even despite some positive critical press the label decided to release her debut album in mid-December - otherwise known as the dumping ground for album releases that labels have zero confidence will stick, because year-end lists are getting published, the charts are slowing down, and most people just don't care in the same way for new releases during the holiday season. And yet 'Burning House' continues to rise on the charts  and I figured I might as well try to give Cam's debut a chance if nobody else would - so how did it turn out?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

video review: 'know-it-all' by alessia cara

Well, this was rougher than expected. Hope for good, expect the worst, and it's a shame this turned out more of the latter.

Next up, Cam, then probably Pusha T if I can get a hold of his album before two rock records to end out the year - stay tuned!

album review: 'know-it-all' by alessia cara

Okay, so whenever you have a big act in the mainstream blow up with tons of buzz, critical success and mainstream crossover, you tend to have acts following behind them that want to cash in. Sometimes it feels natural, a trend that was growing that finally burst through, but more often it's a tad more cynical as otherwise popular acts try to jump on the sound. And in some cases, they might not even have a choice, especially if the label is pushing them in that direction.

But when you have a success story like Lorde's Pure Heroine breaking in 2013, major labels encountered an act that wasn't exactly easy to replicate. Sure, the immediate impact is a whole slew of pop acts who washed out their mixes, piled on the reverb and vocal filters, and focused more on percussion over melody, but they were never really able to capture that same vibe. Lorde's formula was more than just instrumentation, it ran in her smart songwriting and populism, and that's hard to pull off - hell, just look at Halsey's disastrous fumble with 'New Americana'.

As such, I wasn't exactly surprised when I heard that Def Jam had placed a major push behind Alessia Cara, a young Canadian singer-songwriter drawing more on old-school R&B for her debut EP - as you'd expect, given its current popularity. But her lead-off single 'Here' was more reminiscent of Lorde, not just in her thin, slightly husky delivery, but in the subversion of a typical party vibe with overwritten lyrics, to the point where people were legitimately angry it didn't net the same Grammy nominations. Now I wasn't wild about 'Here' when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, and thus I was kind of reticent about covering this album, especially given the rushed production schedule by her label to push it out before Christmas, but I figured I might as well give it a chance, especially considering how many of you kept asking for it. So how did Know-It-All turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 26, 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, this happened. Pretty rough week, again, but you've got to hope that once The Voice and Bieber are off the charts, things'll get better, right?

Anyway, Alessia Cara and Cam are next, so stay tuned!