Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Storyteller | Carrie Underwood

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a lot of small square presents -- roughly six inches by six inches in size -- underneath my tree on Friday. When I tore open those gifts tagged with my name from my sister and pulled out Carrie Underwood's fifth studio album from the remains of the wrapping paper, I reacted similarly to how this child did to the avocado he received for his birthday

You see, I love Carrie Underwood. I can recite a fair amount of the hits word-for-word -- an impressive feat for someone who spends most of his time caught in whirlwinds of synthesizers and 808s. But I tried listening to this album a few months ago and was sorely underwhelmed. Looking at her back catalog, more "torturing/killing my boyfriend/husband/father/brother because he was straight-up no good" anthems were expected this time around; more sonic companions to scenes of our fierce shero with a weapon in hand and ready to seek her revenge. To an extent, we do get what we wanted, but in a different form than we're used to.

While she is still in that mindset lyrically, the album's most glaring problem from a very casual country listener's standpoint is its lack of sonic grit -- perhaps due to its swaying more towards country than pop, unlike her last album. She holds true to the storytelling aspect of country music that she admires and has already mastered, but nothing sonically matches the tales she recites.

Granted, the album's highlights are good, but not Carrie Underwood good. Take "Dirty Laundry," where she delivers a side-eyed story of hanging the love-marked clothing of her cheating husband outside to dry without the typical sense of anger in her voice. Or look at "Church Bells," a story of a woman who takes control of her abusive relationship by slipping some poison into her husband's drink. It's a similar story to one that the Dixie Chicks already told, and told well, and Underwood's track finds itself sufficient by comparison; for Underwood, sufficiency is not the norm. Perhaps the only times that her lyrics, delivery, and style are in sync are on the desperate "Clock Don't Stop" and the warm "Heartbeat."

While not a poor album, Storyteller isn't a particularly defining one, either. There's nothing here that pushes Underwood to the dazzling vocal heights that we know she can obtain (the most assertive she gets vocally is on "Smoke Break," although it is the weakest of her lead singles to date); nothing that conjures the fury of a midsummer storm on Tornado Alley; nothing that blatantly displays the trademark 'vengeful, kick-ass female powerhouse' style that was ten years in the making. But she kept the promise of the LP's title: she's still a decent Storyteller and vocalist, as she always has been and always will be, and that, at the very least, I can appreciate.

Storyteller is out now under Artista Nashville and 19 Recordings. Exclusive deluxe pressings can be found at Target department stores.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

10 Favorite Albums of 2015

2015 was an overload for new music. An inordinate amount of emerging artists entered the scene, and even more artists made their returns with new albums. In Twitter stan terms, I was slain by the pop music scene this year. Albums that made this list gained their positions by initial impressions, overall quality, and endurance to multiple replays. Some albums unexpectedly grew on me, while others were killed by their lack of longevity. 

Revival is definitely more than just an album title for Selena Gomez. This album cycle has marked a critical rebound, a sonic transformation, and a massive confidence boost for Gomez. While the set doesn't brings anything particularly new to the table, its longevity and replay value have been shockingly solid -- and quite frankly, it has also gotten better with age, surpassing my original rating for it. Its R&B-infused synthpop backdrops are much more subtle than anything showcased on Stars Dance or the three albums from Selena Gomez & The Scene, allowing her fragile, breathy vocals to shine through. Perhaps this was the setting she was always meant for, in place of the overwhelming, synth-heavy whirlwinds that forced her to push her vocals out at a shout. This Revival did her well.

Songs of choice: "Revival," "Hands to Myself," "Good for You," "Me & the Rhythm," "Survivors"

Melanie Martinez's persona may not seem believable at first, but after one listen to Cry Baby, it's clear that she is quite immersed in the demented childhood nightmare she has created. She doesn't break character even once through the 13 tracks, translating adult themes (sex. heartbreak, insanity, rape) to playground stories without missing a beat (even the tracks I initially didn't like have grown on me). She crafted this album precisely, all the way down to lyric patterns (check out the verses of "Alphabet Boy") and an accompanying storybook to tie the album's songs together, and it paid off.

Songs of choice: "Sippy Cup," "Carousel," "Pity Party," "Mrs. Potato Head," "Mad Hatter"

As problematic or annoying as people may find her as a person, Halsey sure can craft a pleasing sonic atmosphere. If the music industry is a city, her debut concept album Badlands is a neon-lit, dingy alleyway. A product of a viral, Tumblr-using generation, she rasps her way through flowery lyrics over dense synth soundscapes that follow the path paved by Lana Del Rey's Born to Die. She cross-breeds a number of twenty-first century influences without forgetting the power of a well-crafted hook or losing sight of her imaginary dystopia. Kind of melodramatic? Yeah. Kind of typical? Yeah. Still really good? Yeah.

Songs of choice: "Roman Holiday," "Ghost," "Colors," "Gasoline," "Drive"

For someone who is churning records out like Rihanna circa 2005-2012, Lana Del Rey still isn't lacking when it comes to quality. Honeymoon displays what she has learned from all three of her major label releases, mixing those sets' influences into a moody, bluesy melting pot. And despite her overt abuse of the word "blue" and her walking the line of self-parody, her lyrics are still as still charming as ever. She's a far stretch from who we were introduced to as Lana Del Rey in 2012; while still an enigmatic character, her affinity for all things Hollywood seems to have been tainted in the past few years and the "gangster Nancy Sinatra" curtain has dropped. But most importantly, she's more confident and unabashed than she's ever been... and to think that this is only the Honeymoon of her brighter future with concert-goers and critics alike.

Songs of choice: "Music to Watch Boys to," "Terrence Loves You," "High by the Beach," "Salvatore"

While he brings nothing new to the table sonically on his debut album, Troye Sivan works alt-pop like a pro and teaches our generation a thing or two about sincerity and uninhibited expression along the way. Blue Neighbourhood is an intimate affair, revealing feelings of regret, hopelessness, nostalgia, and love through roomy soundscapes and Sivan's smooth croons. He manages to transport us to his own world without hiding behind the mirage of a concept album -- and it's a mesmerizing trip.

Songs of choice: "Fools," "Youth," "Heaven," "Talk Me Down," "Lost Boy," "Suburbia"

This year, Grimes took it upon herself to add a lick of mainstream pop sensibility to her material that meets halfway between the oddity of Visions and the flamboyance of her 2013 single "Go." Unlike her previous albums, Art Angels seems like a polished piece of work -- not just an album of enjoyable demos. Her delivery has improved (especially that enunciation) and she taught herself how to play violin, guitar, and piano to layer an organic energy with her synthpop bases. With this album, she has concreted her status as a spectacular, ever-evolving, all-in-one package of a vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer -- spare the two featured guest vocalists, all of this is still a one-woman show.

Songs of choice: "Flesh without Blood," "Kill V. Maim," "REALiTi," "Venus Fly," "Butterfly"

Ryn Weaver has a knack for telling (err... singing) stories. The Fool, produced in full by Benny Blanco and Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, carries itself with a campy style that blurs the borders of pop, acoustic singer-songwriter, and folk and is tied together by Weaver's vibrato-rich, commanding vocals and sense of adventure. Perhaps the most important element of the album, though, is the co-dependence between the music and the story arc that it follows; when digested as a whole, the album follows clear tales of a nomadic Weaver and comes full circle upon the booming climax of its grand finale, "New Constellations." Albums as consistent and focused as this one are hard to come by, which makes it even more special.

Songs of choice: "OctaHate," "Pierre," "The Fool," "Traveling Song," "New Constellations"

When Ellie Goulding told us that her third LP, Delirium, would be "big," she wasn't kidding. This album takes her to new heights; the monstrous 16-track set blurs into an hour-long burst of euphoria. She set out to make a pop album that is quality, spirited, and fulfilling, and that is exactly what she did: the album embodies the idea that fun, straightforward, love-oriented pop songs do not have to be chintzy. Since 2012's Halcyon, she has become more confident in her vocal abilities, which allows these tracks to gleam; even when it is embedded in booming productions courtesy of Max Martin and Greg Kurstin, Goulding's untouchable voice isn't compromised and is a vital element to this album's success. The album may not be her most personal, but it's definitely her most fun and ear-catching to date.

Songs of choice: "Aftertaste," "On My Mind," "Holding on for Life," "Love Me Like You Do," "Army," "Devotion," "Scream It Out"

Carly Rae Jepsen is easily the underdog of the year, if not the decade. After slams of being a run-of-the-mill one-hit wonder, she came back swinging with punches that are stronger than we could have ever imagined on E•MO•TION. Sure, this album potentially benefits from a Henry IV effect of sorts; with Kiss clearly being an admittedly average, rush-released effort to capitalize on "Call Me Maybe," it wouldn't have taken much for Jepsen's third LP to seem impressive by comparison. That didn't stop Jepsen, however, from taking her time and curating an album that tackles '80s-inspired synthpop with the rigor that her contemporaries lack. Whereas her past album cycle was all about radio airplay, E•MO•TION puts Jepsen in a category of her own; an artist who makes industrial strength pop that the radio won't grant you access to, but is well worth a listen... or 80 listens.

Songs of choice: "Run Away with Me," "Making the Most of the Night," "Your Type," "When I Needed You," "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance"

On 2011's Ceremonials, Florence Welch's motto was "bigger is better." Four years removed, Welch's production has been reeled in a bit in favor of letting her powerhouse vocals reign supreme on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. In an alternative rock fashion, the space underneath Welch's pipes is colored with guitars, keys, and -- Welch's new favorite instrumental weaponry, trumping the strings of her first two albums -- brass. With her wall of fictional story-telling broken, Welch now drips with dramatic introspection of a few turbulent years. And she has learned to place her voice on a leash and to allow it to work its magic only on her cue, rather than letting it roll like a freight train without breaks. It's a glorious record from start to finish, plain and simple.

Songs of choice: "What Kind of Man," "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," "Queen of Peace," "Long & Lost," "Make Up Your Mind," "Which Witch (demo)," "Pure Feeling"

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Haiz | Hailee Steinfeld

Hazing is frowned upon. Haizing is not.

Nineteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld has taken the jump from an acting career to a musical one. Earlier this year, she was given a push from iHeart Radio stations through an "On the Verge" promotion with self-service anthem "Love Myself" before embarking on the company's Jingle Ball tour this month. She sat at the bottom of the concert's billing, below names like Calvin Harris, 5 Seconds of Summer, Nick Jonas, and the Weeknd -- but does her debut extended play merit her position among such big names?

Haiz could seem like a manufactured four-track collection thanks to heavy input from the songwriting duo of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, who have had hands in this year's projects from Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber, but it isn't as manufactured as it is faceless; while the vocals are strong, they're working at a "business as usual" pace. Both vocally and lyrically, Steinfeld puts on a strong Taylor Swift impersonation ("What are we fighting for? / Seems like we do it just for fun / In this, this stupid war / We play hard with our plastic guns") on "Rock Bottom," and her delivery is simply nondescript on "You're Such A." And while more subtle sonically, "Hell Nos and Headphones" follows an appreciated anti-party schtick, but Steinfeld lacks the earnest approach that makes Alessia Cara's "Here" believable.

So as of right now, she lacks the personality and grit to compete with the big dogs. However, she has potential, especially when "Love Myself" is considered. Nothing here one-ups the high bar set by it, with its driving chorus, side-eyed winks, and double-entendres galore (but the sweeping wall of synths and smooth (Taylor Swiftian) vocals of "Rock Bottom" come the closest). While not overwhelming compelling, the remaining three songs are sufficient and undeniably fun. But with some work on distinctness and a bigger repertoire of songs to display what she can really do, Hailee Steinfeld might just have what it takes.

Haiz is available now under Republic Records.

Friday, December 18, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Five)

10. "Player" by Tinashe feat. Chris Brown

For her upcoming second album, Tinashe has seemingly pulled out all of the stops. "Player" is her strongest number to date, aiming straight for the club jugular as a lovechild of PBR&B and synthpop. The song waits nearly 90 seconds to finally kick into overdrive, and when it does... wow. It slams listeners with a wall of electronic sound, with extraneous sythesizer hits coming in at all the right times. And fortunately, Tinashe's malleable soprano voice isn't compromised when embedded in this sea of sound, and it blends nicely with Chris Brown's as they tag-team the final chorus.

9. "Borders" by M.I.A.

Political unrest, racial inequality, and hot social issues have always been the cornerstones of M.I.A.'s art form, so it's about time she spit her thoughts on this year's state of affairs over a banging club beat. The song (and video, which is exclusive to Apple Music) zeros in on her youth, when she was a Sri Lakan refugee, and parallels it to the Syrian refugee crisis. Also in the mix is commentary on society's obsession with pop culture as opposed to sociopolicital concerns; each issue is then met with a snarky "what's up with that?" banter. The song has been slammed as "pro-terrorist" and "blatant propaganda" by Internet trolls and radical Republicans, but I'd like to argue that it's simply pro-human; in a nutshell, the only request made here is that we co-exist.

8. "Style" by Taylor Swift

I was in the large "STYLE FOR THE NEXT SINGLE" camp since the release of 1989 (or perhaps even before that when I had heard just the small snippet of the song in Swift's Target commercial) and was elated when our demands were met towards the beginning of this year. Everything about the song, from the sultry guitar-led verses to the blossoming choruses, puts it towards the top of the list of Swift's best pieces to date. But on a final note: of the five singles released from the album, "Style" was one of the two not to reach the summit of the Billboard Hot 100. I don't know how we let this happen, America. We dropped the ball on this one.

7. "Good for You" by Selena Gomez

Goodness gracious, what an unexpected, yet very welcomed, change of pace for Selena Gomez. Following the sonic footprint of "The Heart Wants What It Wants," the lead single to her second solo album Revival impresses with sultry R&B production. Both through her vocals and the video, she gleams with confidence as she croons through the song with an accented wisp and poses in a shower. It embodies all that is seductive and sultry, with its climaxes coming from subtle bass booms and the utmost focus being placed on Gomez's voice alone.

6. "Here" by Alessia Cara

Never have I heard a song that suits my attitude more appropriately than Alessia Cara's "Here." Far too often do we hear the typical drugs, sex, and party anthems, but not enough do we get songs for those of us who prefer late night drives with a few friends or solo Netflix binges on Saturday nights. She slides into this moody R&B track with the strongest insinuated eye-roll ever: "Since my friends are here, I just came to kick it / But really I would rather be at home all by myself / Not in this room with people who don't even care about my well-being / I don't dance, don't ask, I don't need a boyfriend / So you can, go back, please enjoy your party / I'll be here." Her smooth vocals take precedence over the sampled beat, proving the raw talent behind the buzz.

5. "REALiTi" by Grimes

Unbeknownst to us at the time, "REALiTi" was our first glimpse at Grimes' fourth studio album, Art Angels. While it was originally a demo from the full album she scrapped, it was remastered and thrown onto the new album by popular demand -- and I couldn't be happier for that. The atmospheric video demo and the peppier final version differ in a sound and definitely each have their own perks, but in any form, this song is just undeniably amazing. The airy, reverberated vocals, the dreamy soundscape... really everything about this song embodies who Grimes is as an artist.

4. "Love Me Like You Do" by Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding wasn't going to stamp her name another soundtrack song, but I bet she's glad that she did. Goulding and The Weeknd were two of the main acts that surged in popularity once again via the buzz that surrounded the raunchy Fifty Shades of Grey saga this year; Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," a passionate, Tove Lo-penned anthem, was pushed as one of the singles to the soundtrack that has outlived the legacy of the movie itself. The timeless song caused one of Goulding's strongest grips on American radio, second only to breakthrough single "Lights," and it displays some of Goulding's purest vocals over her first Max Martin production.

3. "Run Away With Me" by Carly Rae Jepsen

"Run Away With Me" is simply pop music done right.  There are so many reasons why this song deserved to match the success of "Call Me Maybe," and then some. Carly Rae Jepsen crafted this song, as well as the rest of E•MO•TION, to channel the '80s with the precision that most of her contemporaries lack. On this track in particular, a blaring saxophone run and a sea of bouncy drums and synths accumulate into ground-shaking choruses that can be outmatched by only a few pop songs out there today; rumor has it that if you blare the song loud enough as Jepsen shouts, "Baby, take me to the feeling / I'll be your sinner in secret when the lights go out," it will literally shatter the Earth. I know it has nearly shattered my car windows multiple times.

2. "OctaHate" by Ryn Weaver

Okay, so I had to cheat a bit for this one to count. "OctaHate" was released last year on SoundCloud and found its first wave of popularity on the streaming site, but it received its push towards mainstream audiences this year and stalled somewhere in the top 40 range of Billboard's US Pop Songs chart. While The Fool, her debut full-length album, may be a solid piece of work overall, "OctaHate" is easily her magnum opus. Her rich, vibrato-accented vocals are highlighted in the childish, twinkling verses before they are immersed in one of the few choruses that can one-up Carly Rae's "Run Away With Me." (In fact, those vocals come out on top even against those relentless drum machine hits in that glorious temper tantrum of a chorus.)

1. "What Kind of Man" by Florence + the Machine

Florence + the Machine delivered one of the best albums of the year with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, so it's no wonder the lead single to the album gleamed with power. After a fragile opening minute, the song commands attention with pounding drums and Welch's aggressive vocals. In tradition Florence + the Machine style, Welch's voice is a vital source of commanding energy, further concreting the fact that only she could get away with the music she makes. Accompanying the track, like the rest of the singles from the album, is a cinematic music video that brings the last possible bit of life to the song. It's a beautifully unpredictable and irregularly-formatted song that stands towards the top of Welch's catalog, although it is hard to choose just a handful of her best works with three extraordinary albums under her belt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Four)

20. "Me & The Rhythm" by Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez was a surprisingly strong candidate this year. After a rocky past with critics, her second solo LP Revival clocked critics and music buyers alike and has had great replay value. "Me & The Rhythm" is a killer pop tune from the LP with a melody line that is nearly unbelievable from someone like Gomez. 

19. "Magnets" by Disclosure feat. Lorde

The EDM premiere of Lorde was inevitable. Even the least likely candidates (i.e. Haim, Florence Welch, Lana Del Rey) ponder in the genre, whether it was an intentional collaboration or an unappreciated remix that spontaneously took off. Lorde's stab in the genre, though, is disguised as more of a powerful pop bit than a proper EDM banger -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

18. "Music to Watch Boys to" by Lana Del Rey

This song succeeds simply by being quintessential Lana Del Rey. It conforms to that cover-all, murky style of alt-pop that she created with Emile Haynie, Jeff Bhasker, and Rick Nowels (the latter of which takes production credit for this track) back in 2012 with her debut album without feeling repetitive. She gives a low-key nod towards voyeurism, alternating thin high notes with half-spoken low ones as she sings through the chorus, but she doesn't forget all of those idiosyncratic lyrical additions that serve the sole purpose of aesthetic (pink flamingos, lemonade... anything that represents the warm, glistening feel of a midsummer day).

17. "Your Type" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Need proof that Carly Rae Jepsen can channel '80s influences better than any of her contemporaries? Here it is. "Your Type" pops into its climaxes with a powerful shout of "I'm not the type of girl for you" and tickles of era-authentic guitars and synths. Even better? It's the perfect anthem for when you've been friendzoned.

16. "Terrence Loves You" by Lana Del Rey

"Terrence Loves You" is easily the most important track from Lana Del Rey's Honeymoon. The horns and keys brood and harmonies fall into dissonance in all the right places, allowing Del Rey's fragile vocals to gleam at the front and center of attention. With tracks like this one, it's no wonder that critics finally came around this era to see the raw talent behind the lush backdrops of her debut album.

15. "Talk Me Down" by Troye Sivan

Arguably the most intimate moment from Troye Sivan's Blue Neighbourhood is "Talk Me Down," a track that strips away the forests of electronics for a more subtle, roomy backdrop. The feels get real -- especially when the music video is taken into consideration, as well.

14. "Army" by Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding's third LP Delirium rarely leaves the pace of a moderate sugar rush. While that's not a problem, it does help "Army," a blossoming acoustic ballad dedicated to her best friend, stick out of the crowd in the best possible way. She's free to display both her mid-range and that beautiful upper register, which can convey itself through either an airy rasp or an angelic howl, depending on technique.

13. "Flesh Without Blood" by Grimes

2015 marked the long-awaited return of Grimes. In the early part of the year, she released a collaboration with Bleachers and a demo of "REALiTi" before hitting the road on Lana Del Rey's North American tour and releasing her fourth studio album, Art Angels. This track ushered in the era on a gleaming note. Upon its release, "Flesh Without Blood" was her solo first track to have this much power; while most of the tracks on Visions sound like advanced demo tracks, this track licks her synthpop style with an electric guitar to seal the deal.

12. "American Oxygen" by Rihanna

The best songs always go unnoticed; just ask Rihanna about "American Oxygen." Co-produced by Alex da Kid and Kanye West, stamped with the chase of the American Dream, and plugged with a visually-stunning video, it should have been destined for domination. Instead, it died in the bottom half of the Billboard Hot 100: a very strange thing for a pre-album release Rihanna single to do. That, however, certainly doesn't discount its position as the strongest track in Rihanna's discography. Most notably, the gritty, chaotic production adds a new flavor to Rihanna's discography. The video, with a strong focus on racism and tragedy in America, was released midst the riots in Ferguson, too - a gutsy move, but a strong statement.

11. "Queen of Peace" by Florence + the Machine

Every song from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful deserves a spot on this list somewhere, but unfortunately, that would make it unfair for most of the other artists here. While it's hard to choose clear stand-out tracks, "Queen of Peace" is one of the many shining jewels from the album. It's a brass-powered bullet, cutting through the airwaves with a rattling chorus melody line. Florence Welch really cuts loose vocally on this one, wailing, "Suddenly I'm overcome / Dissolving like the setting sun / Like a boat into oblivion / 'Cause you're driving me away." 

Monday, December 14, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Three)

30. "Wildest Dreams" by Taylor Swift

Lana Del Rey might have been shut out at the Grammys, but at least she bask in the satisfaction of having influenced some great acts. Musical pop-country chameleon Taylor Swift took some notes for "Wildest Dreams," a clearly Del Rey-inspired tune with a sense of Top 40 urgency and the right Swiftian (Taylor Swifian, that is) touches.

29. "Blue" by Marina and the Diamonds

As a whole, Marina and the Diamonds' third LP Froot wasn't as enticing as intended. Luckily, "Blue" is one of the few gleaming highlights in the otherwise bland offering. Diamandis finally puts a pep in her step with this one, after she spent most of an album with mid-tempo pop-rock. Her vocal delivery and lyrics give subtle nods to the days of The Family Jewels, with Electra Heart-esque quirkiness on the "gimme love, gimme dreams, gimme a good self-esteem" spiel.

28. "Traveling Song" by Ryn Weaver

Holy waterworks. "Traveling Song" is the most intimate and subtle moment of Ryn Weaver's debut album, written as a token of her love for her grandfather, Max, who passed away on the first day of this year. This song really succeeds by allowing time and space for that quirky vibrato and emotion to resonate. And as if the song wasn't enough to get the emotions rolling, Grandpa Max's home videos have been compiled into the video accompaniment to his musical tribute. Once again, holy waterworks.

27. "Alive" by Sia

Adele ought to be shaking her head for passing up this one. After she declined it, Sia kept it for her own concept album that is composed of tracks originally written by Sia for other artists. Coming off the success of "Chandelier" (which topped my 'best of' list of last year) and "Elastic Heart," we expected no less than was delivered from "Alive." The vocals alone -- the smoky lows, the soaring highs -- are enough to capture the attention of anyone within earshot.

26. "Lean On" by Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ

"Lean On" marks one of the first times Indian and Middle Eastern influences have found their way back onto American contemporary hit radio since Selena Gomez's "Come & Get It" -- and it's great. The breakdown's central feature is made out of contorted vocals -- the same tactic Diplo used in the Jack Ü collaboration with Justin Bieber that offers a level of exclusive uniqueness that cannot be replicated by any synthesizer out there.

25. "The Hills" by the Weeknd

Those who listened to the Weeknd prior to this year have been up in arms about his change towards a more digestible PBR&B, but "The Hills" is nothing but classic Weeknd material: Raunchy, sexy, and straight-up badass.

24. "Roman Holiday" by Halsey

As discussed many times before, Halsey knows how to craft some mad aesthetic. A very clear highlight from Badlands, this song's layers of smoky vocals and heavy synthesizers emit the radiance of a warm summer day.

23. "Mrs. Potato Head" by Melanie Martinez

Not sure why it took this long for someone to finally make a parallel between a toy based on rearranging facial parts and plastic surgery, but let's be really glad that Melanie Martinez was the one who finally did it. A clear highlight of her debut album, the track meets all of the requirements for a Martinez original -- childish xylophones, heavy beats, insanely wise lyrics, and one hell of a chorus.

22. "On My Mind" by Ellie Goulding

Banger alert: "On My Mind" was our first taste of "big pop" Ellie Goulding. Lyrically, it's not the strongest from Delirium, but it perfectly returns fire at Ed Sheeran's "Don't." (Although she claims otherwise, the song's lyrics perfectly rebukes the claims made in Sheeran's song, which was rumored to be penned about Goulding.) It's infectious, ground-shaking, and dance floor commanding.

21. "Amazing" by Foxes

Poor Foxes has been sorely mistreated by her record label (Sony UK), but thank goodness that she's still delivering quality material. "Amazing" is one of her best songs to date, mixing power pop and touch of soul for a great outcome. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part Two)

40. "Don't Be So Hard on Yourself" by Jess Glynne

All in one sitting, Jess Glynne's debut album gets a bit repetitive. In four minute increments, though, she can create bursts of euphoria. Case in point: "Don't Be So Hard on Yourself." It's a whirlwind of disco and europop production with unbreakable, soul-tinged vocals.

39. "Colors" by Halsey

The new "in" trend is to cyberbully Halsey, one of the most notable breakthrough stars of the year. But let's not let that take away from the quality of her music. "Colors" has been a fan favorite for a while, and for good reason. Perhaps the bridge's cheesy little poem take itself a bit too seriously, but the immersive chorus and pretty, artsy language makes up for that.

38. "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots managed to capture the spirit of nostalgia and the struggle of growing old in just one song. Trip-hop fused alt-pop is in the duo's wheelhouse, and this song hits the nail right on the head; it succeeds with a good hook, conversational lyrics, and #relatable moments.

37. "Better" by Banks

The fragile upper register, the spooky lower register, the moans, the crackles, the squeals, the incredible, vibrato-rich runs... Everything Banks can do with her voice is breathtaking. While last year's Goddess was incredible in nearly every way and was constructed on murky synthpop and vocal samples, it looks like her second studio album will place even more emphasis on that voice in its natural state. "Better" allows it to shine at the forefront before the song builds into a short-lived climax.

36. "Money All Around" by Holychild

Ironic statements on society are nothing new in music, but Holychild makes them well. Creating their own realm of "brat pop," the duo immerses their ironic lyrics in tidal waves of heavy synthesizers and dance-floor beats -- and "Money All Around" may just be their crowning jewel.

35. "Hymn for the Weekend" by Coldplay
*stream is pitched due to copyright

Chris Martin plus Beyoncé? We must be in heaven. "Hymn for the Weekend" is a deep forest of fun, with Martin and Yoncé's vocals blending like coffee and cream as they sing, "I'm feeling drunk and high / So high, so high / Then we shoot across the sky," over the beat-laden, horn-accented track. 

34. "Bitch Better Have My Money" by Rihanna

I don't care. This thing is a banger, ratchetness and all. It makes more sense in context of the music video, but even without the knowledge of the accountant that bankrupted Rihanna, it's still a badass tune; the whole heavy trap track is sing-shouted and fueled on aggression. It's what we expected from Rihanna -- and it's wanted from Rihanna after that one night stand with an acoustic guitar on "FourFiveSeconds" early this year.

33. "Pity Party" by Melanie Martinez

What is the best way to make your "demented child" schtick seem authentic? Put your own spin on the most notable musical temper tantrum in existence. Melanie Martinez translates elements of Leslie Gore's "It's My Party" into a deep trip-pop meltdown and has the voice to execute the persona perfectly.

32. "Heaven" by Troye Sivan feat. Betty Who

Honestly, this one may be especially important to me as a member of the LGBT+, but that's alright. Troye Sivan's butter-smooth voice glides through the song's lyrics, which zero in on the conflict of interest between living openly as a gay man and subscribing to a religion that could be manipulated to condemn him to eternal damnation. And course, the addition of Betty Who definitely doesn't hurt, either.

31. “WTF (Where They From)” by Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams

In the ten years that Missy Elliott has been gone, plenty of girls have come to fill her shoes -- but their size 7 feet just can't completely fill out Missy's size 12 shoes. At age 44, Elliott is back to show that she hasn't lost her touch with the Pharrell-assisted "WTF (Where They From)." She's still distinctive, she's still on top of the game, and she's still nothing but 100% Missy.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Wiped Out! | The Neighbourhood

Imagine this: you're walking alone down a palm tree-lined street on a warm summer evening. The empty beach is on your right, a line of dingy dives on your left. The murky waves are catching the last amber glimmers of the sunset while most of the black sky is illuminated by only flickering neon marquees. There's a sense of serenity. Over your ears rests a pair of headphones, playing the soundtrack to this whole scene: Wiped Out!, the newest album from American alternative group the Neighbourhood.

The band is not apple of the critics' eyes, billed off as the most insignificant, manufactured player in the viral competitors' ring. In such a saturated area of the music market, it's easy to see how the band has been thrown in this light by comparison to their contemporaries (awkward interviews, embarrassing faux-punk attitudes without the music to match, lack of distinctive lyrical content), but these musicians do have an undeniable knack for creating an atmosphere. On their 2013 debut I Love You., it was a monochrome Emile Haynie soundscape sparked by "Sweater Weather." This time around, it's the dusky palm trees affair glossed with a certain ambiance of leather-scented *cool* and complemented by spirals of endless instrumental breaks (check the title track, "Baby Come Home/Valentine"). While different from two years ago, the band still requires an acquired taste.

After "A Moment of Silence" (literally 30 seconds of silence; apparently very hipster), most of the album's ten other tracks play out in a relentless haze -- which would be a bigger problem if that haze weren't as hypnotic as it is. Involved listeners get trapped in the band's atmosphere for 45 minutes without a care of what each four minute snippet of the experience is called. Sure, the appreciation for the consistent *cool* style and the echoed vocals of lead singer Jesse Rutherford is a prerequisite for grading this album anything higher than 50 percent; it could easily be grating without a prior liking for the band (because perhaps the only time that they break the album's formula is on closing track "R.I.P. 2 My Youth" and maybe "Greetings from California"). But with that requirement met, listeners should be reciting every word to "Daddy Issues," "Cry Baby," and "Single" along with the best of them soon enough.

The members of the Neighbourhood could have just as easily dismissed themselves as a fly-by-night indie sensation à la Foster the People or Walk the Moon, but they came back with another crowd-pleasing set that has already been cast away by critics. Again, polarizing, they are; relatively indistinct, their lyrics and Rutherford's voice are; cringe-worthy, their off-stage personalities are. But when digested as a whole, this album is an oasis that sticks to listeners and refuses to release them from its grip prematurely. Maybe I'm a sucker for some ambiance, or for some cliché hipster-chic production, or for some heavy reverberation, but I wouldn't mind letting this album run its course many times through while I work, hoping that it could mentally transport me to that scenic boulevard by the beach, even if just for under an hour.

Wiped Out! is available now under Columbia Records.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Blue Neighbourhood | Troye Sivan

Team Internet, all hands in: we have another success story.

Twenty year old Troye Sivan has outgrown the safe haven of his YouTube channel. Once home to challenges, collaborations, question and answer sessions, and the typical YouTuber nonsense, his personal channel has been forced into the backseat in the speeding vehicle that is his career by his music career. Wild, his second major label extended play, was released in September of this year, debuting at number five on the Billboard 200. But just when we thought that was all for him this year, he announces Blue Neighbourhood, his debut full-length album.

Since the release of Wild, Sivan has been subject to endless comparisons to Lorde and Halsey, his female counterparts in the industry. Sonically, perhaps this comparison is fair; all three youngsters are reliant on sharp drum machines and seas of synths, undeniably viral products of a post-Lana Del Rey landscape. But under the scope of lyrical analysis, Sivan is easily the most sincere of the three. While Lorde operates through the guise of poetic sophistication and Halsey's forte lies in the power of the concept album, Sivan can be no more than himself.

Whether he's reflecting on love or on the past, he does so with honest emotion. "Talk Me Down," which stylistically walks the line between dreary and dreamy, insinuates suicide and begs for comfort: "I want to sleep next to you / But that's all I want to do right now / So come over now and talk me down." On a more bittersweet, carefree moment, he gushes with nostalgia over his hometown on closing note "Suburbia," singing, "Yeah, there's so much history in these streets / And mama's good eats / Oh Wonder on repeat / There's so much history in my head / The people I've left / The ones that I've kept." The unrefined personality is perhaps the most important, though, on "Heaven," the crowning jewel of this album that should resonate with a fair amount of LGBT+ listeners; he points a finger at the conflict of interest between living openly as a gay man and subscribing to a religion that can be manipulated to condemn him to eternal damnation, proclaiming, "So if I'm losing a piece of me / Maybe I don't want heaven."

All of these emotions are expressed through a butter-smooth voice -- though technically a baritone, Sivan's voice carries itself with the light tonality of a tenor -- over dusky alt-pop soundscapes that were expected, and quite frankly, wanted from him. Those productions, despite being sourced from a handful of people, are consistent and leave room in sonic space to highlight his voice, yet each song has gleaming, distinct strengths. The chorus of "Lost Boy" is a magical moment, as two vocal stems, one in a lower, raspy tone and a lighter one repeating the melody an octave above, converge and supersede the importance of the backdrop, while the power of "Youth" is shared between the anthemic chorus ("My youth / My youth is yours / Tripping on skies, sipping waterfalls") and booming instrumental post-chorus.

This 35-minute offering is split into three-and-a-half minute bursts of raw emotion; it's of a quality that couldn't have been predicted by even the Wild extended play. In fact, the album's most notable misstep -- Allday's rap in "for him." -- isn't even a fault of his own. The best cuts from that release ("Wild," "Fools," and "Ease") have been carried over to this album, but the seven new tracks are written with a striking amount of personality that hadn't been displayed in any of his work until now. While he brings nothing new to the table sonically, Troye Sivan works the genre well and teaches our generation a thing or two about sincerity and uninhibited expression along the way.

Blue Neighbourhood is out now under Capitol Records. Standard and deluxe editions are available. Exclusive pressings can be found at Target department stores.

Friday, December 4, 2015

50 Favorite Pop Songs of 2015 (Part One)

50. “Hypnotic” by Zella Day

Western-tinged alt-pop is strange hybrid of sounds, but this song just works so well. Its title is fitting, seeing that it hypnotizes listeners with a combination of that underlying shoot-'em-up cowboy movie guitar line, spurts of synths, and pouty voice.

49. "Dear Future Husband" by Meghan Trainor

This has been Meghan Trainor's year, and while she has had to share it with Taylor Swift, Adele, and Justin Bieber, she has still made quite a name for herself with a number one album and four top 20 singles. "Dear Future Husband" is quintessential Meghan Trainor; it's cute, doo-wop-dominated, and self-assured. Of course, it hasn't been without the accusations of being anti-feminist for its music video's imagery and mention of typical '50s housewife duties, but let's get real: the Internet finds something new to be offended over every day.

48. “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King

Pop radio grabbing a hold of a girl with a voice that belongs on an '80s rock band album? Better believe it. Elle King found her success this year by burying a pop-worthy hook in old school rock and roll production that seems nearly authentic of decades past.

47. “Where Are Ü Now” by Jack Ü with Justin Bieber

The move that nobody expected from Justin Bieber: a decent electronic dance takeover. Skrillex and Diplo craft a spacious digital atmosphere behind him before bringing it home with a breakdown composed of Bieber's distorted vocals -- it's a style that actually suits Bieber well.

46. “Sparks” by Hilary Duff

Hilary Duff hasn't aged at all -- musically or physically. "Sparks" is a slice of sugary synthpop heaven, complete with a bouncy beat and a trend-conforming whistle post-chorus. An dance-worthy little bop, it is.

45. “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato

Woah, Poot Lovato sure has changed. Her mature-content breakout comes a bit later than her former Disney girl counterparts, but she sure pulled out all of the stops: a new vocal technique accented by warm, seductive breaths, a grinding Max Martin production, and the shouted belts that make her identity clear again.

44. “Hello” by Adele

The lead single to Adele's record-breaking 25 may be the best that it has to offer. It is the proper punctuation mark at the end of her last album's affairs; a strong display of her well-supported vocals that brings closure to 21's chapter. And of course, it has been certified meme-worthy, too; just ask Miss Piggy.

43. "Borderline" by Tove Styrke

I had to cheat a little bit for this one to make the list, using the excuse that Styrke's full-length debut didn't get released until this summer. Her nasal-tinged sneer cuts through an off-beat, tribal-sounding track before she spirals into a strange little "ah" vocal run.

42. "King" by Years & Years

Years & Years' American breakthrough never happened, but this song was the group's best shot of doing it. It introduces listeners to the trio's silky-smooth take on faceless synthpop with one of their best melody lines and infectious synth runs.

41. “Love Myself” by Hailee Steinfeld

At first, it seems like your basic pop song, perfectly manufactured for immediate breakthrough success. Upon closer listens, its clever and infectious nature begins to reveal itself. White moms love it for the mirage of self-empowerment; we love it for being the first song to go over every radio listener's head, even though the clear meaning is on display right between those bombastic choruses. It may just be the best song out there about... self-servicing.

Purpose | Justin Bieber

Welp, for better or for worse, the "Baby" Bieber is officially dead and gone -- his baby-makers have dropped and puberty hit the boy square between the eyes. Puberty has taken away a few of his high notes and the boyish tone that made him an overnight sensation, revealing a voice that really isn't that special. But with age comes more than just biological change, so in response, he and his army of collaborators (over three dozen sets of hands are credited on the standard edition of his new album) hone in on his most interesting sound to date on his fourth studio album, Purpose, to distract from his voice's new found lack of charm or distinction.

What started as an one-off collaboration with electronic dance giants Diplo and Skrillex (on summer smash "Where Are Ü Now," which finds its way onto the track listing of this album) spiraled into a large-scale experiment with the genre, abandoning the dime-a-dozen teen pop products of yesteryear. Skrillex and Blood Diamonds claim responsibility for roughly half of Purpose (surprisingly not "What Do You Mean" or "Company," though, which are par for the course here), using it as a digital sandbox to play as they see fit. As is the case with Madonna's Rebel Heart, club-geared tracks on this album feel like a joint showcase of Bieber and his producers, with a stronger focus on those sitting behind the soundboards -- except these tracks are noticeably more interesting than Madonna's collaborations with Diplo and Avicii (especially "Children," a hyperactive, late-night club anthem, and "I'll Show You," with its immersive waves of synths).

However, the entire record isn't Skrillex feat. Justin Bieber; there are plenty of tracks to counterbalance the EDM bangers, ranging from acoustic cuts ("Purpose," the absolutely laughable "Life is Worth Living") to fuzzy electro-R&B attempts ("No Pressure," "No Sense"). And of course, this record is the Biebs' first chance to add his two cents about his turbulent relationship with Selena Gomez (the other half of Jelena already told her side of the story with "The Heart Wants What It Wants" before undergoing a Revival this year), so there are few other stray bullets aimed at his ex besides the Skrillex-produced single "Sorry." "Love Yourself," a disconnected, guitar-led standout co-written by Ed Sheeran, seems to be a direct fire at her: "My mama don't like you, and she likes everybody." Well ouch. On the other hand, "The Feeling," which features Halsey and echoes the dingy alt-pop production style of her Badlands, is a bit more reserved, simply questioning, "Am I in love with you, or am I in love with the feeling? Trying to find the truth, but sometimes the heart is deceiving."

Purpose is easily Bieber's most accessible album for those of us outside of his target audience of loyal teen girls, but his back catalogue didn't really make that a challenging competition to win. The lyrics are still pretty dull, the voice doesn't leave a lasting impression whatsoever, the inauthentic "woe is me" mentality is draining and doesn't elicit any of the sympathy that it tries to, and the distracting production is the only element keeping this thing's pulse from dying away. Again, he put production responsibilities in good hands to distract from the insignificance of the other elements here -- that's definitely a commendable and wise choice.

Perhaps what is most shocking about this relatively average album, though, is how successful it has been -- spawning a handful of top ten singles, beating One Direction to the summit of the Billboard 200 with the second-highest album sales debut of 2015, dominating the current musical landscape -- even after all of his escapades: the neighborhood egging, the DUI and arrest, and his worst decision, the neck tattoo. Its success is most likely due not only to the botched attempts at an image revitalization (he's still throwing temper tantrums and cancelling appearance for no apparent reasons) and the pity parties on public display that people have somehow bought into, but also the fact that he has at least made an attempt to curate a somewhat interesting album.

Purpose is available now under Def Jam Records. Exclusive editions can be found at Walmart department stores.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Head Full of Dreams | Coldplay

Chris Martin's storm has ended in a magnificent rainbow.

Last year's Ghost Stories was Coldplay's proclamation of emotions in the aftermath of Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow's infamous conscious uncoupling, which, we have learned, means that they're technically divorced but still spend a fair amount of time together for the sake of their two children. The nine-track set was stained with sorrow yet was sprinkled with the hope of better days to come, paving the way for the band's seventh (and possibly final) release, A Head Full of Dreams.

Within the past few album cycles, Coldplay has become a band that refuses to fit perfectly in its listener-assigned alternative rock mold, making that fact most obvious when the quartet's fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, took the form of a gritty, electroindustrial concept album. Martin's voice remains the band's only constant factor; everything else works around him. This new record, just like the last few, further explores just how far a catch-all genre like alternative rock can be bent before it breaks. Just how far, you ask? Judging by the scene set by the opening title track, which displays an alt-rock core adorned with technicolor pop sensibility, pretty damn far.

This record most closely parallels the band's fifth release in the sense that it places the most emphasis on electronic-assisted production -- the one form of Coldplay that divides fans and critics alike. "X Marks the Spot," an unlisted track that is tacked onto the playtime of "Army of One," is Coldplay's best attempt at the spacey synthpop that the kids (Troye Sivan, Halsey) are making nowadays -- of course, with solid results. "Birds" (not to be confused with "Up with the Birds") charges along with a double-time beat that doesn't rest until the song awkwardly cuts off with Martin's muted mutter of "cool." Even lead single "Adventure of a Lifetime" is an energetic little number led by a reverberated guitar riff, vocal samples, and retro disco vibes; it may just be Coldplay at its most carefree moment.

Although only one artist, Swedish pop newcomer Tove Lo, is credited for her feature on the album, this album is the band's most collaborative effort, with unaccredited vocals coming from Paltrow (again, that conscious uncoupling thing is really lax), Beyoncé (!!!), and President Barack Obama (pulling out all of the stops here, folks). The other voices on the album take the backseat (even the POTUS, whose rendition of "Amazing Grace" is clipped to a fuzzy, nearly unrecognizable snippet at the end of the "Kaleidoscope" interlude) so Martin can continue basking in the spotlight, but they each serve a pivotal purpose in adding flairs to this album that gives it the advantage of unexpected variety over the band's others.

Surprisingly, Lo's voice, thrown into its light upper register and somewhat unrecognizable from its state on her own Queen of the Clouds, plays back-up on the nostalgia-soaked "Fun." Arguably, Yoncé's feature on "Hymn for the Weekend" is more commanding -- and her feature isn't the only thing that makes it the strongest track on the album. The anthem's title is fitting, given that the duo sings, "I'm feeling drunk and high / So high, so high / Then we shoot across the sky," over the beat-laden, horn-accented track. And as for Paltrow, her vocals barely emerge to audible levels behind her ex-husband's "Everglow," a bittersweet wave goodbye to their relationship that acknowledges a lasting impression that each had on the other.

If this album is, in fact, Coldplay's final sendoff, the band's story concludes with a "happily ever after" and a promise that everything is going to be okay, even if things are weird right now and you're singing songs about your ex-wife... with your ex-wife. It infuses a certain level of bliss but doesn't lose the personal touch of its creators, even with the slew of extra voices that wiggle their ways onto tracks and the production responsibilities that are credited to unlikely candidates: Norwegian duo Stargate (the production duo's name is attached to Ne-Yo, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Lopez). The record doesn't contain anything mind-blowing, but that wasn't necessarily a requirement to begin with; it needed to prove that Coldplay is still a chameleonic little band that is alive and kicking nearly 20 years after its formation -- and it fulfilled its purpose with ease.

A Head Full of Dreams will be available on December 4, 2015 under Parlophone Records.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Singles Summary: November 2015

Banks // "Better"
TBA, Harvest

Coldplay // "Adventure of a Lifetime"
Head Full of Dreams, Parlophone

Carly Rae Jepsen // "Last Christmas"
N/A, Interscope

Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello // "I Know What You Did Last Summer"
Handwritten: Revisited, Island

Sia // "Bird Set Free" & "One Million Bullets"
This is Acting, RCA
Bird Set Free: ★★★★☆ // One Million Bullets: ★★★★☆

Troye Sivan // "Youth"
Blue Neighbourhood, Capitol

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Know-It-All | Alessia Cara

Forget it, Katy Perry. This is the real teenage dream.

After the rebound of her single "Here," which originally settled for viral success before creeping its way up into the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in the past month, 19 year old Alessia Cara's career has recently reached a turning point. Like every teenager, she's seemingly a Know-It-All but admittedly doesn't know enough -- and it's this attitude that makes her debut album the most #relatable set of ten songs to be released in a long time.

Much like the relationship between Troye Sivan's Wild and Blue Neighbourhood is said to be, this album is merely an extension to Cara's Four Pink Walls extended play, which was released only three months ago. In fact, all five songs from the EP -- including "Here," "Seventeen," and "I'm Yours" -- were simply copied and pasted right beside five complementary tracks. The tracks are just as enjoyable as they were in August -- and they're still the most varied tracks. The new tracks all follow a pop pattern more closely than the old school R&B-fused tracks from the EP, leading to a mixed bag of productions here.

But where the production lack in identity, the lyrics pick up the slack. Those light, digestible productions are guided by Cara's defining characteristic: the glimmering optimism -- the same optimism that she (sarcastically) cast off in "Here" -- that oozes from her conversational lyrics. Her shtick is introspection disguised in straight-out-of-the-diary writings (the mushier parts of the diary come through on the album's two lovey ballads, "Stone" and "Stars"),  and despite a number of co-writers with their hands in this project, Cara's writing of "Four Pink Walls" single-handedly confirms that most of the album's statements are, in fact, hers -- which is promising, considering they, alongside her voice, are the most powerful weapons in her teen pop arsenal.

For example, her own ode to outsiders, "Wild Things," is a standout track that revels in being carefree and professes a love for the 808s that drive this album: "So aye, we brought our drum and this is how we dance / No mistaking, we make our breaks, if you don't like our 808s / Then leave us alone, cause we don't need your policies / We have no apologies." And album closer "Scars to Your Beautiful" may make her strongest statement, with its verses telling the story of a teenage girl who takes dangerous measures (self-harm, starvation, etc.) to look like a cover girl. The song's chorus, however, spins things back to that signature glimmer of hope: "But there's a hope that's waiting for you in the dark / You should know you're beautiful just the way you are / And you don't have to change a thing / The world could change its heart."

With an animated voice, straightforward lyrics that get their points across smoothly, and a generally innocent demeanor that amps her likability by at least tenfold, Alessia Cara is bound for further success. She plays it safe with her nondescript production this time around as she experiments with that malleable voice, but the development of a signature sound should be expected in the coming years as she releases more material. This album may not be anything especially striking, but it surely is the warm introduction to the talent at hand.

Know-It-All is out now via Def Jam Recordings. Exclusive pressings can be found at Target department stores.