Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Britney Jean | Britney Spears

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This is a happy year for the Britney Army, but not such a good year for those expecting quality music from Britney Spears, because Britney Jean is here.

The album opens on a strong note with "Alien." The song carries a really relaxed sound that would be really great to listen to while driving at nightfall. "But the stars in the sky look like home / Take me home / And the light in your eyes lets me know / I'm not alone, not alone, not alone," sings a slightly-autotuned Spears. It's probably the best track off of the album, and has pushed its way onto my list of favorite Britney Spears songs.

The quality dips off with "Work Bitch," which acted as the lead single for Britney Jean. The Max Martin production series has ended its reign over Spears' career, making way for some electronic beats from different producers. I really don't have a problem with the instrumental track of "Work Bitch." I can actually say that it's pretty catchy, but Spears' vocals ruin it. This faux-British stunt she has tried to pull off with "Scream & Shout" and "Work Bitch" is not working. It's just annoying.

"Perfume" is Spears' attempt at a second single, but it has failed thus far. That could partly be to blamed on the complete lack of promotion, but could also be caused by the fact that it's just not a good song. The chorus seems off-tempo and shouted, with an annoying and repetitive cymbal crash underneath it all. It's like a middle school student just got his first pair of cymbals and wanted to try them out in Spears' recording studio before heading off to the school band try-outs.

The only song worth a listen on the album besides "Alien" is "Til It's Gone," a song that ripped a page out of the electronic dance handbook and managed to pull off the sound better than "Work Bitch." Perhaps most importantly, sleazy-sounding American Britney is back and her signature singing style (talking/moaning/singing/auto-tune) is revisited. It kicks some life and variety into the otherwise bland mix of Britney Jean, stuck between the somewhat strange "Body Ache" and the power-ballad "Passenger."

The one thing that is evident with this Britney Jean is that Britney just simply does not care about her career anymore. This album was just put out there to appease her fans. First of all, the standard version of the album clocks in at only 36 minutes... That's not an album; that's an extended play. 

To add salt to the wound, she's decided to totally ignore the album. Promotion? That must be a forgotten concept in Britney's little world, because there wasn't any outside of one appearance on Good Morning America and few Facebook posts. "Work Bitch" debuted at number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100, then sank to number forty-one before reviving to number thirteen (thanks to the streaming points from the music video). After that second peak, it fell back into oblivion. 

Meanwhile, "Perfume" has performed even worse: it's only managed to peak at number seventy-six. No, that is not a typo... A BRITNEY SPEARS SONG PEAKED AT NUMBER SEVENTY-SIX. That's pathetic for an artist of Britney's caliber. If she thinks she's going to move albums with those single sales, she's dead wrong. Furthermore, I'm not sure how she'll be able to fulfill that two-year residency deal at Planet Hollywood for Britney: Piece of Me. With her lazy, lip-synced performances and her lack of interest in her career, the show's run could end disastrously.

Britney Jean is obviously going to be seen as a misstep in Spears' career. If she's going to stick to music, she needs to stop thinking she's going to be indefinitely relevant. She's still got to go out and market, even if she is a mother (which is an excuse she's been using often lately, even though having two children never stopped her promotions and tours for Circus and Femme Fatale.) Believe it or not, Spears is still marketable, but she's going to have to put some work into it. 

Madonna and Cher are 55 and 70, respectively, and are still putting out material and selling-out tours; Britney is only 31... Her career is far from over if she wants to continue in the industry. But again, she's going to have to get off her high-horse and get her name back out there with each album cycle, and perhaps put a bit more work into her albums to have another solid piece of work like some of her previous albums. Sadly, Britney Jean just isn't going to make that cut.

Friday, November 15, 2013

ATM Jam | Azealia Banks feat. Pharrell Williams

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

In the ongoing saga of Azealia Banks and the delayed release date of her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, Banks has added a new hurdle. Last month, she released "ATM Jam," a single made in collababoration with Pharrell, but it's evident that she couldn't care less about the single... and the same goes for the rest of the world.

"ATM Jam" is just a flat, plain beat; there's no other way to put it. There's absolutely nothing special about it, especially when compared to Banks' outstanding 1991 and Fantasea mixtape. I feel like it was only pushed for release due to the feature of Pharrell Williams, who saw a boost of popularity in Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." Williams takes over most of the song, with his chorus line repeating six million times throughout the song.

Dear God, if I hear "I've got racks, racks, racks 'til the ATM jam / Tell me what you wanna do" one more time, my head might explode. It's a monotonous way to go about a chorus, which is supposed to be the height of the song. Instead, Banks' verses overpower the chorus simply by her vocal power. Her verses really aren't bad, they're just stuck in between repetitions of that terrible chorus.

Sadly, even Banks knows how bad the song is; she has openly admitted that she doesn't like the song and has even decided to take it off of the album that it was supposed to be promoting. Williams also has moved away from the song, because as Banks said on Twitter, "he changed his mind about wanting to be associated with [Azealia Banks]." So, with both Banks and Williams not giving two fucks about it, "ATM Jam" was left to die... two weeks after it had been formally released.

Do I have a problem with the song's early entry to the grave? Not at all. I'm just going to sit here and listen to 1991 while I wait out the release of Broke With Expensive Taste. I can only hope that it doesn't get pushed back any farther than the scheduled January 2014 release date, but if she keeps switching the track listings for it, we may never see the album.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Avril Lavigne | Avril Lavigne

Rating: ★★★★☆

It's not often that artists release an eponymous album that also isn't their debut album, but that's what the "motherfucking princess" is doing now. Avril Lavigne recently unleashed her fifth studio album, which she decided to leave as a self-titled release because she "really couldn't find a title to sum it up."

Before talking music, let's talk about this cover. The album cover for Avril Lavigne is pretty bothersome. In a low quality format, she looks like a ghost with greasy hair, heavy make-up, and extremely noticeable nostrils. In a high quality format, it's a bit more bearable because you can actually see a tint of skin complexion and her hair looks decent, but not many people are actually going to take the time to look for it in high quality unless they're a big fan.

Now, moving onto the music. To be up front about it, "Let Me Go" is without a doubt the best song on the album, hands down. The vocals are spot on, the blend between Chad Kroeger and Lavigne is phenomenal, and best of all, it carries the mature sound that some fans have been begging to hear for a while now. I'm still shocked that the song was picked up as the first single from the album. The album cover screams "dark" and "mature"; things that "Here's To Never Growing Up" and "Rock N Roll" definitely did not radiate.

"17" may not display a massive amount of maturity like "Let Me Go" does, but with it, Lavigne finally rediscovers the sound that got her where she is now. It's got the same spunk and lyrical matter as "Sk8er Boi," which is ironic considering that "Sk8er Boi" looked at the future ("Five years from now, she sits at home feeding the baby, she's all alone.") while "17" looks back at the past ("We were on top of the world / Back when I was your girl / We were living so wild and free / Acting stupid for fun"). It's a nice little song that has a bit of nostalgia attached to it; I like it.

Another shining track is "Hello Heartache," which also works its way back to the sound of Lavigne's older material. I feel like it would do moderately well as a single if it was sent to the right contemporary stations. It's not too far into the pop spectrum, but it's not too far into the rock scene either; it's a happy medium that I like seeing Lavigne at. The lyrics aren't that childish either, which is always a plus: "Goodbye my friend / Hello heartache / It's not the end / It's not the same."

In this album full of power ballads and alternative anthems, pop bits like "Here's To Never Growing Up," "Rock N Roll," and "Hello Kitty" are just randomly shoved in there, however they serve as a wise marketing purpose: they still have to push this album to the fans that fell in love with Lavigne during those awkward days of The Best Damn Thing. The same thing happened with Goodbye Lullaby, when she used "What The Hell" and "Smile" to attract listeners.

On the version of the album I purchased from Target, the album both opens and closes with "Rock N Roll," with the first track being the original pop version of the song, and the closing song being a special acoustic version. Although I do like the original song, I think I like the acoustic version even more; it's a stripped down performance of Lavigne's lead vocal stem and a guitar. The acoustic version seems to actually fit the sound of the album better than the original.

The most experimental track, "Hello Kitty," is also the most awkward outlier on Avril Lavigne. The song opens with Lavigne yelling in Japanese ("Minna saiko, arigato, ka-ka-kawaii, ka-ka-kawaii") before spiraling into a Ke$ha-esque sing-rap of nonsense lyrics, including the intolerable lines "So we can roll around have a pillow fight / Like a major rager, OMFG / Let's all slumber party / Like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties / Someone chuck a cupcake at me." 

After those lines are finally out of the way, the song then spirals into full electronic-dance mode, complete with its own breakdown of synths and squeals of "Hello kitty, hello kitty / Hello kitty, you're so pretty." The lyrics of this song, as well as most of the songs on the album, just emphasize exactly what Lavigne plans on doing with her career: like one of the songs on this album says, she's "never growing up."

By no means am I going to judge her, because the market of tween punk rockers out there is always coming and going. She's going to make money, but like Taylor Swift, she's not going to remain near the top of the pop royalty hierarchy. Sure, there going to be a few pop music fans like myself that will pick up the album, but she's going to make all of her money with the faux punk-rockers of junior high schools around the globe.

However, I am sad to see that Lavigne is still trying to play some sort of juggling act: She has some really great contemporary songs, but she also has some okay basic pop tracks as well. She either needs to focus on one shtick or prepare her fans for more variable albums like this. Luckily, minus the three curve-balls on the album, Avril Lavigne isn't as bipolar as Goodbye Lullaby, but she still hasn't completely picked a side to stay on.

Lavigne's career is slowly but surely recuperating and Avril Lavigne is a sign of that. It took a skydiving trip with The Best Damn Thing, but she's now making up for lost time. While maturing isn't in her agenda (although she is nearing thirty years old), making some great and catchy tunes is. If she continues on this path, it's safe to say that her next album should be directly back on par with Let Go, but for the time being, this album will hold us all over while we wait for that time to come.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

ARTPOP | Lady Gaga

Rating: ★★★★★

In the past two years, Lady Gaga has been through a lot. She released Born This Way, released her first fragrance line, went on tour, and most notably, broke her hip during that tour. Now she's finally back in the public eye and ready to take over the world of pop music once again. It's been over two long and agonizing years in the making, but Lady Gaga has finally dropped her new album, ARTPOP. 

Because of my overwhelming excitement for this album, I decided it would be best if I did a track-by-track review; there's too much to talk about to not do such an extensive review. So, this is going to be a very long but a very thorough review compared to all of my other writings on this blog.

"Aura" not only opens the album, but was also the first ever song that fans got to hear from the album, as an early demo leaked in full online in early August. The song opens with a strange western spiel, sounding similar to "Americano" from Born This Way. It then runs into a massive explosion of electronic madness and lyrics like "I'm not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice" and "Enigma popstar is fun, she wear burqa for fashion / It's not a statement as much as just a move of passion."

It was the opening number to the iTunes Festival, and was released in a lyric video format in October to promote the film that Lady Gaga starred in, Machete Kills. The original demo was nearly identical to the mastered copy, minus the remastered vocals and the altered vocal lines in the verses. For some reason, "Aura" has never clicked with completely. I like it, but I don't love it as much as I want to.

The first promotional single for ARTPOP is "Venus," which was released on October 28. It was originally supposed to be the second single from the album, but "Do What U Want" took its place instead. "Venus" was the first song Lady Gaga produced completely on her own, and considering that fact, the song turned out phenomenally. The chorus is an electronic euphoria, complete with pounding synths, drum kit, and appealing vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, the bridge mindlessly names off the planets (plus Pluto, which isn’t a planet anymore, Gaga!) and serves as a gateway to the immature yet inevitable Uranus joke.

On the October 14 edition of the fan-created webshow, Radio ARTPOP, Lady Gaga and the newest member of the Haus of Gaga, Emma, released a twelve-second snippet of "G.U.Y.," the next song on the track listing. Of course, I had one of many meltdowns on this day, as Lady Gaga had finally shown that this album was going to be full of the bumping electronic tracks I wanted from her. The snippet gave us a taste of the final moments of the pre-chorus and building, before unleashing the monstrous explosion that is the chorus. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga sings "Let me be that girl under you that makes you cry / I wanna be that G.U.Y."

Lady Gaga and Zedd did an outstanding job on this song, with the mind-boggling chorus breakdown, the dark synths, and the lyrics that really put the brain to work. Like a few other songs on this album, "G.U.Y." seems like it is about sex (or in this case, the erotic soundtrack to a video about sexual positions), but actual nods towards Lady Gaga's desire to take control of a relationship instead allowing a guy to do all the work and have all of the power. This is one of the highlights of ARTPOP; if you want to show somebody what Lady Gaga is really made of, make them listen to this song.

The lust-filled lyrics continue in the appropriately-named "Sexxx Dreams." (Yes, all three 'x's are necessary.) When I first heard this title, I abhorred it, but once I heard the song when it was premiered at the iTunes Festival, it turned out to be one of my favorites. This song takes a smooth 1980s vibe and carries dirty lyrics like "When I lay in bed I touch myself and I think of you" and "Damn you were in my sex dreams / Making love in my sex dreams." At one point, Gaga cuts to an extremely brief line of spoken text to reflect her hormonal state: "I can't believe I'm telling you this, but I've had a couple of drinks and oh my God..." The song is so seductive that there is no way to deny that I love it. I obviously can't go around telling people "Oh my gosh I love the song 'Sexxx Dreams' with three 'x's because it's so sexy sounding," but that's really my true reasoning behind loving this song.

Now, onto a song that I'm still lukewarm on, "Jewels N' Drugs" holds the key to Gaga's success with urban audiences. However, the song was poorly executed; it's got three rappers (two of which are completely irrelevant and don't even sound good), and its lyrics are just messy. "Slap honey onto your pancake / We know how to make a lot of money." Yes, you read that correctly. You don't have to re-read it. SLAP HONEY ONTO YOUR PANCAKE? Ugh, Gaga, you're killing me here. That lines beats out a verse of "Donatella" for the worst lyric line on the album.

And back to the three rappers... Really? We need three rappers here? Twista, the only one with a tolerable verse, wouldn't have been sufficient? Or even better, we could have gotten Azealia Banks back in the track listing with "Ratchet." I'm sure that would have been one-hundred times better than the travesty that is "Jewels N' Drugs," even if Banks has "a bad attitude." This whole song makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I'll listen to it if I'm listening to the album all the way through, but I would never skip right to it purposely.

Skipping over the misstep that is "Jewels N' Drugs," Gaga throws herself into a classic rock-inspired bit called "MANiCURE." She rips into each verse with a vocal tone reminiscent of the sounds of Joan Jett, while she wails "I'm gonna be manicured / You wanna be manicured / Ma-ma-ma-manicure / She wanna be manicured" in each chorus. To fit in with the flow of the rest of the album, DJ White Shadow pulls the classic rock sounds into a trippy breakdown at the very end, which worked really well. The song isn't really single-worthy, but it's a nice album track.

"Do What U Want," which features R. Kelly, makes its appearance next. With this song, I love how, once again, she is able to mask a giant meaning behind seemingly shallow lyrics about sex. While she sings "You can’t have my heart / And you won't use my mind but / Do what you want with my body" over a seductive 1980s-esque instrumental, she's actually making subtle jabs towards her critics. That obviously took a lot of thought; its not just another disposable pop song. 

Sitting directly in the middle of ARTPOP, the title track seems like the overall focus of the album, finally bringing art and pop together: "We could, we could belong together / ARTPOP." "ARTPOP" was one of the songs I was looking forward to the most on the album, and with its alien-like backing tracks and the technological beeps and noises, it turned out to be everything I wanted and more. Even the lyrics of the song are some of her best, including my favorite, "A hybrid can withstand these things / My heart can beat with bricks and strings / My ARTPOP could mean anything."

"ARTPOP" was one of the seven songs to be premiered at the iTunes Festival in September and I had a small meltdown over it when I first heard it. The strong live vocals were completely out of place on the song and it left me begging for the studio version. Finally, on the October 21, Lady Gaga and Emma released a minute and half long snippet of the song on Radio ARTPOP. Upon hearing it, I had another meltdown, but a joyful one at that time. The studio version meets every one of my expectations, and I'm glad to finally have it to listen on repeat for hours on end.

"Swine," the next track on the album, was also premiered at the iTunes Festival performance and was the reasoning behind Gaga renaming her portion of the show to Swinefest. The song is DJ White Shadow's first big attempt at a hardcore electronic sound and I can honestly say that he did the job justice. The build-up is bit extended out and the breakdown could have been a bit more explosive, but for being his first go at a job that is usually left up to David Guetta and Zedd, he did well. He did add some personal touches to it, though, including editing Gaga's voice to sound like that of Porky Pig towards the end of the song.

Oh, and then there's "Donatella." To be honest, I'm still not completely sure how to feel about this song. The chorus is another killer Zedd fist-bumper, while the verses should have been aborted before the release of the song. Those verses are absolutely dreadful; the second verse includes the lyrics "Walk down the runway, but don't puke / It's okay / You just had a salad today." The words "puke" and "salad" are almost as awkward as Azealia Banks dropping "chocolate croissants" in "1991." A large portion of the song is composed of a talk-singing method that Britney Spears made famous, which turns into this fit of screams in the chorus: "Donatella [...] I'm a rich bitch, I'm the upper-class."

"Fashion!" introduces will.i.am and David Guetta on writing credits, which many people say was a mistake. Normally, I would be saying the same, but Lady Gaga is always in complete control of her work and she would know what sounds good and what does not; I doubt she'd let will.i.am ruin her album with his vile works. (Yes, I went there.) The song is fine from my standpoint, minus the point when will.i.am's voice makes an appearance and the ending notes when Lady Gaga slides in and out of tune.

The second of three drug-related songs, "Mary Jane Holland," acts as Lady Gaga's weed confessional. To be blunt (no pun intended), she's freely telling people she likes marijuana. I can't find any other way of viewing the lyrics of the song, and although I don't agree with the message at all, the overall sound of the song is nice. Madeon did a nice job on the song; it's like a chilled-out combination of heavy rock and electronic dance music. I do like the lyrics "Cause I love, love, cause I love, love / You better than, you better than / My darkest sin," but I'm obviously not the biggest fan of "When I ignite the flames and put you in my mouth / The grass heats up my insides and my brunette starts to sprout."

After "Mary Jane Holland" comes "Dope," the rewritten version of the song "I Wanna Be With You" that was performed at the iTunes Festival in September. However, the song has now transformed into a emotional ballad that acts as a confessional to her fans. Lady Gaga has noted that this is her most heartfelt song on the album because she's using to it finally admit that she is a drug addict and to apologize to everyone for that fact. “My heart would break without you / Might not awake without you,” she sings, with a half-drunken but heartfelt slur. “I’m sorry and I love you […] I need you more than dope.”

Even with all of the fist-bumpers out there, "Gypsy," a strong and emotional power ballad, has turned out to be my favorite from the album. It starts with some simple piano chords and Lady Gaga singing "Sometimes a story has no end / Sometimes I think that we can just be friends," and it eventually builds into this vocal explosion of "Pack up your bags and we can chase the sunset / Bust the rear-view and fire up the jets 'cause it's you and me / Baby, for life" and "I'm, I'm, I'm / I'm, I'm, I'm / A gypsy, gypsy, gypsy, I'm." However, my favorite lyrics come from the pre-chorus: "I don't want to be alone for ever, but I can be tonight." The song throws me into this giant range of emotions that I can't seem to control, and yet I truly love it.

And finally, closing out the album is "Applause," the lead single released from ARTPOP. I've loved it since the beginning and it still hasn't gotten old. That overwhelming electropop sound and the exciting and loud chorus make the song so infectious, while the Koons reference ("One second, I'm a Koons / Then, suddenly the Koons is me") finally makes sense now that we've gotten the cover for album featuring the giant blue Gazing Ball created by Jeff Koons.

Speaking of the cover, I had some very mixed feelings about it for a while but I eventually fell in love with it, especially the beautifully-crafted sculpture created by Koons. When I first saw the cover, I couldn't get over how busy it was; the cut up images, the bright pink font, a reflective blue ball, the amazing sculpture in the middle of it all; I just couldn't process it all. After four or five looks at the cover, I began to take a liking to it.

The contorted font that can hardly be rendered as "Lady Gaga" and "ARTPOP" shows that Lady Gaga is an icon... a global icon. If one were to see just see the sculpture, almost immediately someone would be able to identify Lady Gaga; titles or textual indications are no longer needed to properly recognize that her. That's something that not many people can say about themselves.

As a whole, ARTPOP shines above the rest of Gaga's discography in almost every department... except those lyrics. No longer is Gaga playing Mother Monster with this album; The "You're beautiful in your way" train has left the station and the "Touch me, touch me, don't be sweet" bandwagon has just arrived. ARTPOP focuses primarily on sex, but what kind of pop music isn't about sex today?

"G.U.Y.," "MANiCURE," and "Sexxx Dreams" are just a few of the songs that just ooze those lusty lyrics: "Touch me, touch me, don't be shy / I'm in charge like a G.U.Y. / I'll lay down, face up this time," "Touch me, in the dark / Put your hands all over my body parts / Throw me, on the bed / Squeeze, tease, and please do what I said," "Last night, damn you were in my sex dreams / Doing really nasty things." Must I say more?

Personally, I'm not bothered by the lyrics, but many people have noticed and disliked the change in Gaga's writing style. I mean, if you plan on letting your child listen to the album, I would highly consider the edited version if I was in your shoes, but teenagers and young adults should be fine with the album and its explicit lyrics. The elderly? Well, probably not. (Or, at least it would be awkward for their grandchildren. Sorry, grandma, but this album just isn't for you.)

Now, if you'd like a comparison of ARTPOP to the rest of Lady Gaga's discography, I can give you a really quick description: Take the complexity of Born This Way and magnify the electronic undertones of The Fame, combine them together, and you've got yourself ARTPOP. 

With every album, Lady Gaga has evolved and improved. I always wondered how she would be able to top The Fame Monster... Then Born This Way came out, and I started to wonder how she was going find room for improvement... And now I'm completely unsure how she's ever going to out-do ARTPOP. Sure, some of the songs are pretty explicit and full of sex and drug references, but that's the name of the game in the pop music industry anymore. However, Lady Gaga is able to mask some meanings underneath all of that; something Katy Perry and Rihanna have yet to master.

Regardless of what anybody else says, ARTPOP is undeniably an improvement from her past works. There was only one dud out of the fifteen new songs but it isn't bad enough to drag down the entire album; she has released worse tracks in her career (*cough*"Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)"*cough*). In fact, despite any problems I may have found in the album, this is my favorite release from Lady Gaga to date, so she obviously must be doing something right.