Sunday, December 25, 2016

Three | Phantogram

Inside the cardboard housing for Phantogram's third album, the inscription is simple: For Becky.

The two words summarize Three well. The jagged album, proudly nonconformist to smooth synthpop standards, is checkered with memories of Sarah Barthel's sister, Becky, who committed suicide during its creation. "Barking Dog," a Josh Carver-fronted track chronicling the afterthoughts of someone who has committed suicide, was already in consideration before Becky's death, but all things considered, it take new meaning here. Amid her coping, Barthel fuels her inner cynic on "Cruel World" ("I used to see beauty in people, but now I see muscle and bone") and on "Answer," she begs for just that: "Kindly be kind, wipe all the dirt from my eyes. I need an answer."

Tragedy and inspiration aside, the core of pop music – infectious hooks, heavy production – remains intact. While Three continues Phantogram's tradition of building tracks around harsh, unrelenting samples, the duo has delivered its most accessible, but darkest, album to date with some help from executive producer Ricky Reed. Spare "Barking Dog," which pools together with never-ending string samples, the samples lend themselves to supermassive choruses. Lead single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" is arguably the most aggressive of the ten tracks, taking a harsh guitar sample and grinding it against the soundscape for a sucker punch of a hook, but "Run Run Blood," tinged with East Asian influences, takes the silver-plated award.

As the 35-minute set comes to a close, it's hard to grasp what kind of journey it just took listeners on. The album that begins with "Funeral Pyre," a hypnotizing track that paints the lingering image of a recently departed loved one, is the same album that ends with a danceable little ditty that instructs us to "shake, you know you want to shake, keep going, now" because "we all got a little bit a' hoe in us." But in retrospect, this is a confessional album of frustration, heartbreak, and loss. Despite the continuation of dark sonic influences, the closing track, then, offers the promise that this musical therapy session was a success.

Three is available now under Republic Records.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Five)

10. "Winterbreak" by Muna

Self-proclaimed dark pop girl band Muna is one of my latest but most promising discoveries of the year. With "Winterbreak," these three young women deliver a dreamy track that is equal parts electronic and organic, blending the hums of guitars with watery, synthesized layers of vocals. Despite a clear desperation behind the track's lyrics, lead vocalist Katie Gavin brings a level of cool serenity to the track, insinuating the discovery of comfort in the on-again, off-again cycle of an unsteady relationship.

9. "Tilted" by Christine and the Queens

Technically speaking, a French version of "Titled" was originally released in 2014, followed by an English-French hybrid dub late last year, but you know, it's my list and I can do as I wish. This track's hypnotizing nature is astonishing, considering its true simplicity: one constant electronic drumbeat, intermittent sputters of a few synthesizer lines, and Christine's sturdy vocals are all that is needed to spark the magic here. Although being pieced together from three different tracks and open to interpretation, the track's lyrics seem coherent, potentially acting as a misunderstood dedication to productivity, creativity, and her fans.

8. "Love is Blind" by Låpsley

More often than not, Låpsley shoots for minimalism to admirable results. "Love is Blind," however, offers enough competition in the soundscape for her to really let loose with that heavyweight voice of hers, but not enough that she is overshadowed; her voice projects as far as the ear can hear at the peak of the pre-chorus before the chorus' melody line forces it into gracious dips and turns, as if matching the layout of winding country road, over sweeping synths and a subtle, twinkling harp.

7. "Formation" by Beyoncé

This year, we watched Beyoncé transform from an entertainer to an advocate before our very eyes, and it all started with "Formation." While it's hard to notice at surface level, the track's lyrics bear enough symbolism regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and Beyoncé's personal and marital struggles that they can be (and have been) dissected in a collegiate-level literature class. Its thrives on heavy bass and utmost confidence, spiraling into a new, unexpected direction at every separate section of the track.

6. "Touch" by Shura

Yes, I know that this song is technically two years old at this point, but to my defense, it was re-released this year and was included on Shura's debut record this year. While Nothing's Real is great in its entirety, "Touch" is far too infectious not to be considered for this list. One of the most organic-sounding electronic songs of recent history, the track builds upon into a trance slowly but surely; the tickled synth line and sampled ambiance that draw listeners in and initially keep the track in line get swept away as wispy vocals and warm synths blur it into a fuzzy dream.

5. "Into You" by Ariana Grande

Let's get real: this thing is the banger to end all bangers. Fueled on jagged synths, double-tracked vocals, and sex appeal, it's a supercharged punch to the senses that serves as the pinnacle of the theme on which Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman is based: her self-serving sexual liberation. And more importantly, through this track, she further proves that she can still showcase her showstopping vocals while having a blast in a super-produced pop environment courtesy of Max Martin and his protégé, Ilya Salmanzadeh.

4. "Same Ol' Mistakes" by Rihanna

So I'm thinking Kevin Parker and the rest of Tame Impala owes Rihanna a card and some flowers, at the very least. She not only introduced me, and surely countless others, to the psychedelic rock band, but also put Parker to shame on his own track. Her cover of the band's "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" is a carbon copy instrumentally – which isn't a bad thing – but vocally, she nails it. A sprawling six and a half minutes long, the track is a hypnotic journey from start to finish that casts a relationship as an addicting tribulation.

3. "Somebody Else" by The 1975

This track is a trip, to say the least. It hums like a lit neon sign at each end, with a sweeping wave of automated drums, pulsating synthesizers, and reverberated vocals taking control in between. Reeking of jealousy and perceived betrayal, Matt Healy's lyrics recount feelings associated with a ex who left him with the false hope that reconciliation was possible – and they're lyrics that he delivers with appropriately fluctuation, expressing emotions that range from sorrow to frustration.

2. "Hotter Than Hell" by Dua Lipa

If there's one thing I spent the most time doing last year, it was spreading the word that Carly Rae Jepsen is one of the best pop artists of our generation. This year, most of that time has been reallocated to listening to Dua Lipa and (more importantly) convincing others to listen to Dua Lipa – and "Hotter Than Hell" is the track I've been shoving into my friends' ear holes to convert them into fans. One late June night, I composed a very important list of reasons that justifies "Hotter Than Hell" in its position on this list, and I stand by it. If you don't follow the link to that list, I'll give you a short synopsis: It's a tropical house banger that will remain as timeless as the artist who birthed it.

1. "Gemini Feed" by Banks

While any given track from Banks sophomore record could have easily taken the top spot on my list, I felt it was appropriate to hand it to "Gemini Feed" – the spark that ignites the bonfire that is The Altar. It marks the beginning of an album of personal evolution as Banks takes control back into her own hands with a swift, fiery hand. Accompanied by the snarling dissonance of a synthesized vocal line, she croons over bubbling verses before letting her emotions take control over the chorus – a storm of unexpected aggression from the woman who had spent the entirety of her last album wallowing in heartache and self-blame.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Roosevelt | Roosevelt

The implementation of grinding synths, warm guitars, and tinny 808s in high-gloss 21st century tracks has become a practice among most synthpop artists, arguably popularized by Daft Punk and Pharrell on 2013's disco-leaning "Get Lucky." It seems, however, we have reached a point in time during which being '80s-inspired is no longer enough – and the term "'80s-inspired" is almost a given in reference to modern day synthpop. In today's musical climate, pop artists must now masquerade themselves as true fixtures of three decades past for distinction.

Last summer, Shura moved to create an synthpop album on par with era-appropriate Janet Jackson and Madonna. Even earlier in the year, St. Lucia delivered an upbeat collection of tracks that were breezy, yet not enough to shake its humid '80s undertones. Into these artists' ranks, enter German singer, songwriter, and producer Roosevelt. His self-titled debut album crossbreeds Daryl Hall and John Oates with Duran Duran, then spikes the product with subtle tropical undertones and four-on-the-floor disco influences. It's an unexpected product from a man whose musical origins can be found as a headlining DJ in a Cologne nightclub, but it's a welcomed one nonetheless.

Roosevelt is warm ball of guitar lines, tireless drumbeats, and slurred, reverberated vocal work – all coated in a fuzzy, analog-quality filter, giving it an optimal impression of authenticity. Each track stands melodically independent, but collectively, they melt together over the same mood board and nearly identical sonic approaches. The album, then, is a fluid body of work that finds a fresh hook every four minutes to keep from running idle. The appeal is delivered sometimes via infectious synth loops ("Moving On," "Fever"), but most often through the combination of those synth loops, guitar riffs, and simple yet effective vocal melody lines ("Wait Up," "Belong," "Colours").

Straying from the newest trend that has sustained the album as a worthwhile format in a world of Top 40 and streaming convenience, Roosevelt doesn't find purpose in making a grandiose statement on society at large or a frank revelation of personal distress. Rather, he allows listeners to escape reality by taking pop music back to its roots: frivolous, funky, and feel-good. He exhibits an admirable, refreshing brand of lightheartedness, harking back to the days when pop music could be carefree without resorting to recklessness. And perhaps that is what truly sets this album apart.

Roosevelt is available now under City Slang Records.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top 10 Albums of 2016

10. Mind of Mine by Zayn

With a debut that clocks in at 20 tracks when deluxe tracks are added into the equation, Zayn Malik gives himself ample space to shape who himself as a solo artist. It seems he's had a lot to say for a long time, and for first time ever, he is uninhibited in his craft. After all, it's much easier to build a badass image over some brooding PBR&B, intricately crafted to be enjoyed in the dead of night, than his former band's bright pop-rock. Sure, he intrudes on some other artists' territory on Mind of Mine – the Weeknd was really the one to make Zayn's genre of choice accessible to pop audiences last year – and that would be a problem if he weren't doing this well. But he is.

Favorite tracks:
"BeFoUr," "BoRdErZ," "LIKE I WOULD," "lUcOzAdE," "TiO"

9. I Remember by AlunaGeorge

Whereas AlunaGeorge's debut album, Body Music, dipped its toes into the pool of mainstream pop, I Remember dives headfirst. Gliding through their stew of influences, Aluna Francis and George Reid have their sights split between a good time and experimentation through downtempo rhythm and blues, warm tropical house, and most often, bonafide pop disguised as banging electronic dance. In many respects, the twelve tracks of I Remember have rendered the duo's debut material, which was at one point deemed "futuristic pop," damn near obsolete. By and large, the album is a prepackaged party, but it's all executed with gusto, swinging smoothly from style to style without losing touch of home base.

Favorite tracks: "I'm in Control," "Mean What I Mean," Mediator," "Not Above Love"

8. Don't You by Wet

Wet's debut album takes the cake for the album that grew on me the most this year, for sure. While all 11 tracks on this record are derivatives of the same cross-breed of PBR&B, dreampop, and synthpop, attentiveness will easily discredit the careless listener who argues that the tracks stagnate as the album runs its course. Distracted listeners will only float at the top of a placid pool, while those who devote undivided attention to the album at hand will be sucked under the surface, encapsulated by the soothing body of water without the worry of grabbing another breath.

Favorite tracks: "It's All in Vain," "Deadwater," "Weak," "Island," "Move Me"

7. Dangerous Woman by Ariana Grande

Unlike her previous releases, both overloaded with collaborations and hoards of producers, Dangerous Woman is Ariana Grande at her least formulated, at her most genuine. The smoothest transition into an adult image compared to her contemporaries, this album acts as her true sexual liberation. The deep dance undertones help raise the temperature, keeping the album pulsating like neon lights in a sticky nightclub and holding it to a consistent tone. She was a singer before – an extremely talented one, at that. But a record this consistent has finally rendered her an artist. One with a vision, one with a passion, and now more than ever, one with distinction.

Favorite tracks: "Be Alright," "Into You," "Greedy," "Thinking 'Bout You"

6. Long Way Home by Låpsley

Largely a product of suspicion and distress, Long Way Home listens as such. Unlike her two closest vocal equivalents – Amy Winehouse and Adele – she rejects the type of traditional pop production usually paired with her type of soulful inflection, often opting for sparse, self-produced beats and foggy atmospheres. The album, composed of tracks produced within a lengthy two-year span, is a safe space in which the young artist can learn to walk on her own two legs, learning from experience and massaging any growing pains along the way – yet the results of DIY song-making experiments render listeners breathless nonetheless.

Favorite tracks: "Cliff," "Falling Short," "Heartless," "Hurt Me," "Love is Blind"

5. Christine and the Queens by Christine and the Queens

Despite being the result of vigorous study of the superficial mirror of society that is pop music and being the home to a well-placed sample of a 2008 Kanye West hit, the debut album from Christine and the Queens is a well-versed dance record for modern-day philosophers who can never stop thinking and artists who can never stop creating. With an album that is both perceptive and danceable, Christine manages to marry two elements that are often thought of as mutually exclusive: the need for realistic thought and the desire for upbeat sonic appeal. It's a recipe that yields pop music that masks its great intelligence with glamour – but bears that intelligence nonetheless. (Yes, this album was released in the United States in late 2015. But if the great Annie Mac can put it on her 2016 list, so can I.)

Favorite tracks:
"iT," "Narcissus is Black," "No Harm is Done," "Safe and Holy," "Tilted"

4. I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it by The 1975

Shocking entrants to the list, English pop-rock band The 1975 delivered an album this year that seeps with Tumblr-chic aesthetic, but within that aesthetic also lies substance. Frontman Matt Healy and his band members thrive in spicing everyday thoughts with some unorthodox topics of conversation, then covering it in glossy production tactics that cover any imperfections like sonic Instagram filters. While it's quite obvious as to why people like the sound of their tracks, their lyrical shtick validates listeners' experiences but pushes them into a degree of escapism – a pleasantly addictive sensation.

Favorite tracks:
"UGH!," "She's American," "Somebody Else," "The Sound"

3. Lemonade by Beyoncé

Both chronicling personal turbulence within a marriage and examining societal race issues from the standpoint of a black woman, Lemonade is a surprisingly concentrated piece of work that makes unprecedented statements from a mainstream artist – an archetype that normally does not stray from the status quo in fear of draining her listener pool. But Beyoncé is not par for the course in stardom; she has made it quite clear that she is Beyoncé, in a class of her own. This year, she dropped an album that has set a new precedent for independent women without another installment to her straightforward girl-power tracks. Life gave her lemons, and she did, indeed, make some of the world's finest Lemonade.

Favorite tracks:
"Pray You Catch Me," "Don't Hurt Yourself," "Daddy Lessons," "Formation"

2. Nothing's Real by Shura

The magic of Shura's debut album stems from the authenticity in her commitments to achieve a perfectly imperfect reimagination of porous, spacey '80s synthpop: Fuzzy layers of white noise, heavy reverberation, vocal filters, and succinct 808 hits make for an album that channels a decade with unbelievable execution for an artist who didn't even live through it. The album's competitive advantages can be found in its space age meandering, refusal to abandon a midtempo pace for a more marketable livelihood, and overt sincerity and pensive nature. Essentially, Nothing's Real is Shura's very own personal time capsule, crafted with care and filled with memories, home video tapes, and a heap of pop records that predate her by ten years, and we listeners have been invited only to marvel as it's cracked open.

Favorite tracks:
"Nothing's Real," "What's It Gonna Be?," "Touch," "Make It Up," "White Light"

1. The Altar by Banks

With its metamorphic narrative and natural sonic experimentation, The Altar was all but guaranteed to take the gold against its competition upon first listen. A masterful recalculation of her debut's heartbroken conclusions, the album resolves Banks' former insecurities with the reigning confidence she promised to have all along. It is represented by a title that, without context, hints at either of two extremes: unconditional or unrequited love. But because Banks opens the record with the snide "And to think you would get me to the altar," we enter the album with the understanding that the title does not represent the devotion (or lack thereof) to another. It is a devotion to herself: as an artist, as a sexual being, as a woman. And it is through that mindset that she truly reigns supreme.

Favorite tracks: "Gemini Feed," "Lovesick," "Trainwreck," "This is Not About Us," "Poltergeist"

Sunday, December 18, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Four)

20. "Life Itself" by Glass Animals

Glass Animals brought driving junglebeat back strong with "Life Itself." A commentary from the standpoint of a loner on the fringes of society, the track chronicles a struggle to adapt to the standards of the civil world and the desire to overcome it; the apathy of its verses and the urgency of its choruses reveal a harsh contrast, suggesting an inner dissonance between continuing life uninspired or breaking free of self-imposed barriers to a better life.

19. "Fever" by Carly Rae Jepsen

After delivering the holy grail that is E•MO•TION to us common men last year, the immortal pop legend CRJ decided to keep the party going this year with E•MO•TION: Side B, a collection of tracks that didn't make the original album's cut. From it, we were blessed with eight great tracks, including the neon-lit "Fever." The Jespenator really delivered here, folks. She progresses from heartbroken fragility in the track's verses to rise-above acceptance in the killer refrain. (I will note, though, that "The One" put up quite the fight to take this spot from "Fever." I blame humanity's only hope Carly Rae Jepsen for that dilemma. After all, she is in the business of crafting too many perfect tracks.)

18. "Still Falling for You" by Ellie Goulding

All hail the soundtrack queen. After she told fans she was going on a brief hiatus upon the conclusion of her Delirium World Tour, Ellie Goulding proved once again that she an unstoppable music-producing machine. Crafted by the same team as her "Love Me Like You Do," Goulding's contribution to the Bridget Jones's Baby soundtrack isn't as outwardly explosive or frankly romantic as the worldwide smash; it chronicles the much lighter and brighter side of love, especially a long-term love that has been rekindled or strengthened.

17. "Wish That You Were Here" by Florence + the Machine

Like Ellie Goulding, Florence + the Machine is a gift that never stops giving. This year, Welch gave to us her full long-form music video, The Odyssey, three tracks for the soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV, and "Wish That You Were Here" for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. While the lush masterpiece that is "Too Much is Never Enough" put up a good fight to take this spot on my list, this track snatched it. The chorus jumps off the minimalist, somber verses and into light but driving production with an upfront plea: "I never minded being on my own, then something broke in me, and I wanted to go home, to be where you are."

16. "Not Above Love" by AlunaGeorge

AlunaGeorge's I Remember makes some striking steps forward for the duo. Once the quirky cousins of mainstream pop, Aluna Francis and George Reed debuted in the nosebleeds of the electronic dance arena. This year, they proved themselves to be a versatile pairing as they broadened their own horizons. On "Not Above Love," Francis widens the appeal of her voice from her typical high-pitched bounce to a smoother, soulful radiance, and with the help of Rock Mafia, Reed stretches his abilities past pure electronica.

15. "BoRdErZ" by Zayn

Allow me to be blunt: this track is the musical personification of making love. It begs for more than physical intimacy; through it, Zayn pleads for the destruction of all barriers, physical and emotional, in pursuit of becoming as close as possible to his partner as possible while getting hot and bothered – an intimate sentiment that is hard to come by in today's mainstream pop landscape. Oh, and those vocal runs are as smooth as a flowing stream and that sneering bass can rattle teeth out of your mouth at the right volume.

14. "Move Me" by Wet

A lot of the material from Wet's Don't You – namely standouts like "Deadwater" and "Weak" – could have made a surprise appearance on this list, but technically, a lot of its tracks were released last year or the year prior. "Move Me," however, is a fresh cut from the album that is quintessential Wet. Kelly Zutrau pleads in her ever-so-fragile voice over a simple guitar loop until a swaying bass kicks in and sweeps listeners away – and by the time the track closes on subdued synth sparkles, listeners are left hypnotized. (It's important to make mention that there was another close competition for this spot: The trio's newest single, "The Middle," was neck-and-neck with "Move Me.")

13. "Go Off" by M.I.A.

Let's be real here: M.I.A.'s AIM was not as controversial or as upfront as last year's "Borders" suggested it was going to be. That doesn't mean, though, that she didn't deliver. "Go Off" is swan song of sorts – masked as a Skrillex and Blaqstarr-cosigned banger. Between the supercharged drops, she questions her legacy and the impact of her decade of broadcasting politically charged, controversial ideals via rap music.

12. "Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign

Many are quick to discredit successful Top 40 tracks on year-end 'best of' lists, but this one most definitely deserves its spot here. Part Rugrats theme song and part sexy club bop, "Work From Home" sparks a desire in me to become a hypersexual construction worker with killer dance moves... you know, if I had the body for it. While it does jump on the abuse of the word "work," it's too hot not to sing along to every single time.

11. "The Greatest" by Sia

Right on the heels of the success of "Cheap Thrills," Sia delivered another prepackaged party – one that's even better than her sole number one hit. A makeshift tribute to the LGBT+ community in the wake of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, "The Greatest" is a pounding tropical house track that buries its grief with optimism and a superb melody line. And yes, yes, I get it: tropical house is allegedly on its way out. But I don't want to hear about how dated this thing is going to sound, because it's a bona fide banger no matter how you split it.

Matter | St. Lucia

Imagine the island of St. Lucia. The term evokes the mental image of a luscious Caribbean island, encompassed by deep green and blue tones that are rendered oversaturated in photographs from the bright sun above. Its sticky climate isn't bothered by the coastal breeze that sweeps across it. The illustrated cover art for Matter, the sophomore release from the band named after the popular tropical destination, doesn't imply that the album's 11 tracks mimic the island's characteristics, but let us not forget that looks are deceiving.

Frantically dancing through its 53-minute run time, the album doesn't feel the need to stop to catch its breath. St. Lucia's lustrous brand of sunny, bright synthpop is hyperactive, but never enough to blow off their music's humid '80s undertones. Blasting spurs of paralleled guitars and synths are the name of the game here, paired with vocal filters and delivery that come eerily close to Phil Collins. If you can keep up with its back-breaking pace, the album is all but a warm, memorable glow by its close – and if you can't, you'll be left behind by the second track.

Matter is available now under Columbia Records.

Friday, December 16, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Three)

30. "Punchline" by Josef Salvat

Josef Salvat has a thing for slow-burning, extended release climaxes – and I'm totally okay with that. "Punchline," a clear standout from his debut album, opens with the fragility of a piano run before building to a breathtaking haze of vengeful guitars and drums. Salvat evolves emotionally throughout, killing away his self-blame upon realization of his former relationship's true foundation.

29. "Boyfriend" by Tegan and Sara

Tegan and Sara are very much pop now, but they haven't lost the passive-aggressiveness that allowed them to thrive in the pop-punk space that they dwelled in for so long – and that's what makes this such a great tune. It backhands the false standard to have a "man" and a "woman" archetype in lesbian and gay couples with the eye-rolling, "You treat me like your boyfriend, and you trust me like a, like a very best friend." The irritation of the matter, though, is glossed over with spiked synths and a bouncy vocal delivery, almost as to distract from the inner urge to scream.

28. "Moth to the Flame" by Chairlift

It's quite hard to wrap my mind around the fact that "Moth to the Flame," while lacking Chairlift's typically blatant experimental touch, was an afterthought to the duo's third album, found in the bowels of Caroline Polachek's hard drive as a "dummy song." Built on the admittedly cliché expression for the relentless gravitation towards a bad influence, it's the second cousin to modern house music that thrives in the power of lyrical repetition over a dancing synth groove, interrupted by a declarative plea: "He's just that kind of man, mama." 

27. "Dancing on Glass" by St. Lucia

Okay, so listen: The chorus of this song is kind of everything. The jubilant hook springs into action with gusto, spurring a certain essence of optimism among its lyrics that point blame at an unhealthy chase for perfection and self-fulfilling excellence for clouding the raw human experience. I feel like I'm on top of the world when it slams into place each and every time.

26. "Conscious" by Broods

The goal of Broods' sophomore album is to show us exactly what the Kiwi duo can do. It's filled with adventurous power pop – a far stretch from the quaint little retreat of Evergreen. If there is a culmination point to the set, it is easily found at its closing and title track. Closing with spirals of bulky, gritty synthesizers and vocal howls, "Conscious" would make for the perfect closer to a sold-out stadium show. Oh, and that staccato "wake me up and keep me conscious" bit haunts listeners even after the track has closed.

25. "Us" by Anna of the North

In line with Anna of the North's minimalist synthpop template, "Us" blends spurs of electronic dance into her ever-important sonic aesthetic standards. The production works in coordination with her pastel-tone, paper-thin voice to craft an encompassing, yet not overpowering, soundscape.

24. "Think Twice" by Emily Vaughn

What a hidden gem this track is. When a friend sent me the link to this track, I was hooked instantly. Emily Vaughn's smooth vocals are countered with a snapping drum machine and deep crashes of a chunky synth line as she claps back to an ex who destroyed a relationship and has now realized that he messed up – big time.

23. "True Disaster" by Tove Lo

Minimalist club vibes are kind of Tove Lo's thing now, but that's certainly not a bad thing. This track revels in its grimy atmosphere and rapid drumbeats before its chorus comes to life, pulsating like a rush of lust-induced adrenaline. Never have I heard somebody exclaim, "I'm going to get hurt!" in such anticipation, but Lo is a different kind of girl: While she dives headfirst into a relationship knowing damn well how things are going to end, the sheer anticipation of its demise is all part of the fun.

22. "Good Grief" by Bastille

Bastille's "Good Grief" fits its name, juxtaposing bright, upbeat alternative rock production with lyrics covering the mind's unexpected reactions to saddening situations. Upon its release, it signaled the slight shift in sonic direction to come with their sophomore album: a lessened reliance on the deep bellows of melancholy production and an implementation of more organic elements in the mix without the loss of identity.

21. "A-Yo" by Lady Gaga

Alright, so I was a Joanne skeptic upon for my first few listens. I'll admit it; I'm guilty as charged. But I grew to like it quite a bit as time drove forward – especially "A-Yo." Leave it to Lady Gaga to create a 21st century party track without the staples of a 21st century party track: no prominent synthesizers, no automated drums, and no mad electronic breakdown. Instead, she settles for hand claps and a raw but raring vocal performance – and executes the style like a champ.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part Two)

40. "Alarm" by Anne-Marie

Tinge trip-hop with tropical house and sprinkle in some strikingly emotive vocals, and you've got yourself Anne-Marie's "Alarm." Anne-Marie plays super-sleuth girlfriend of the year and uncovers her boyfriend's dastardly ways, making this track the perfect anthem during the anticipation of a break-up with a no-good boy (or girl).

39. "I Love You Always Forever" by Betty Who

Leave it to Betty Who, underrated dancepop sorcerer, to kick new life into a 20-year-old one-hit wonder of a song. Her take on Donna Lewis' 1996 hit borrows from the same mood board as the original but swells with more production than its predecessor. And let's be real: Who's delicate voice was made for the song.

38. "On Hold" by The xx

Glued together by a pitch-shifted sample of Daryl Hall & John Oates' "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," The xx's "On Hold" kicks a bit of new life into the trio, famous for their fuzzy indie drawl. While they're still as indifferent as ever vocally, the dance-mimicking production tactics add some grit to their demeanor.

37. "Warrior" by Aurora

In many instances on her debut album, Aurora keeps her listeners in suspense for the majority of each song before blowing them away with a whirlwind of a finale, but "Warrior" is not one of those songs. By the first chorus of the song, it takes a sudden but graceful liftoff, sweeping away the clumsy tinkling of a beat throughout the first verse. Her extended chants of "I'm a warrior, warrior, warrior" sit atop mountains, while thunderous drumbeats fill the canyons below.

36. "Muddy Waters" by LP

Let's get the obvious, expected statement out of the way here: This song sent chills down my spine when it accompanied the season finale of Orange is the New Black this summer. When Poussey smiles into the camera and the low hums of the track kick into place as the screen cuts to black... ugh, the feels. LP's shrill voice howls over the bellowing chorus behind her, making for paramount blasts of emotion when each hook hits.

35. "That's So Us" by Allie X

Allie X's stab at going full-on mainstream pop, "That's So Us," is easily her happiest outing to date. (Not that she wasn't mainstream pop dressed in pretentious imagery to begin with anyway, but I digress.) Rather than crawling back to a toxic ex or planning her vengeance, she revels in a relationship that clicks. It's the exact level of genuine exuberance we needed to hear from that squeaky little voice of hers for quite some time now.

34. "Body Say" by Demi Lovato

Okay, so wow. Just days after I proclaimed her to be the Queen of Making Better Memes than Music back in June, Demi Lovato clocked me. To coincide with her joint headlining tour with Nick Jonas, she dropped "Body Say," a surprisingly impressive track that oozes sex appeal. God bless. And let's be even more thankful that she's given up that god-awful scream-singing racket (whoever told her she sounds impressive on "Stone Cold" needs to be fired) for a smoother pout, even if that approach was ripped from Selena Gomez's most recent work. This song does not need to be deleted, fat.

33. "Closer" by The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

While I'm not immune to the ideology that The Chainsmokers are unbearable frat boy types who need a lesson in humility, I was an early adopter (and fan) of this track and had to separate the creation from its creators and limit my radio exposure so I could continue to enjoy it. It's nothing special, but it's catchy, damn it. I suppose I'm a sucker for the occasional Johnny one-note electronic breakdown; what else can I say?

32. "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" by Phantogram

Man, what an aggressive tune. Historically an unorthodox pop duo, Phantogram and producer Ricky Reed found the harshest sample they could and built a song upon it that will knock listeners off their feet. It's a demanding soundscape that lead vocalist Sarah Barthel manages to compete with as she rips through the verses, floats through the pre-choruses, and squeals into her upper register on an added descant at the track's close.

31. "Meteorites" by Lights

I would be a liar if I said I didn't initially sigh when I saw that "Meteorites" was being pushed as the first taste of Lights' Midnight Machines, the acoustic companion to her third studio album; after all, the song was arguably the most forgettable of the Little Machines tracks. That attitude changed within the first 90 seconds of the acoustic track's run time, though, and for obvious reasons. Dare I say it is her most striking translation of a song into an acoustic format since "Suspension" from her last stripped set?

Monday, December 12, 2016

How to Be a Human Being | Glass Animals

Acting as a scrapbook of perspectives from different fictional characters that frontman Dave Bayley created while touring his band's debut album, Glass Animals' How to Be a Human Being is a whirlwind of a concept album that ties together each story with a thick forest of jungle beat and an eclectic palette of electronic jolts. In their respective appearances, each character sketch possesses Bayley; their physical manifestations leave only his voice behind to deliver their messages.

A collection of 10 distinct vignettes seems far stretched and poses a threat of overzealous creativity in theory, but it's ingenious when waxed with Glass Animals' brand of left-field lyricism and zany yet accessible production. Once some familiar beats and synths grab the typical synthpop listener's attention, common ground can be found between that listener and each character through dissection of their unorthodox life stories.

Over the driving beat of standout track "Life Itself," we learn that Bayley takes the form of a strange young man living on the fringes of society; on the eight-bit "Season 2 Episode 3," a stoner without aspiration; and within the madhouse of demented chords of "The Other Side of Paradise," a"hoop phenomenon" in the making. All of these characters act not as pieces of a whole cast, but rather as alienated neighbors who are entangled in the burdens of their own lives. Listeners, then, take the place of a god-like figure, peeking into the psyche of each community member – and it's a fascinating vantage point.

How to Be a Human Being is available now under Harvest Records.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christine and the Queens | Christine and the Queens

As a queer woman who operates through an androgynous alter-ego, Héloïse Letissier has good reason to feel out of place in the mainstream music environment. "I've got it: I'm a man now," she sings in the opening track of the self-titled debut album from her synthpop project, Christine and the Queens. Masked as a statement on gender identity, the comment marks a celebration for her successful penetration of the largely English-speaking, male-dominated industry she longed to thrive in for so long.

Inspired by the late Michael Jackson and endorsed by Madonna with an on-stage slap on the ass, she shares a similar showmanship that spares the latter's flamboyant hypersexuality and emphasizes the former's alluring mystique. The three find commonalities in being self-sufficient songwriters, producers, dancers, and entertainers in singular bodies, but whereas Jackson was and Madge still is on the search for the bigger, better, and bolder, Christine finds power in both modesty and simplicity. Her attire gets no more ornate than a well-fitted pantsuit and no more risqué than an off-white undershirt and grey jersey shorts, as not to distract from the infectious creative energy emanating from the woman underneath those outfits.

Christine and the Queens, the bilingual repackage of her self-produced, French-tongued debut album, makes proud display of its GarageBand demo roots. Its skittering electronic beats are chunky and calculated to a tee, yet those inorganic beats create a warm and inviting home for all of their creator's thoughts and wonders. Despite being the result of vigorous study of the superficial mirror of society that is pop music and completed with a sample of a 2008 Kanye West hit, it's a well-versed dance record for modern-day philosophers who can never stop thinking and artists who can never stop creating.

Making histrionic lyrical cornerstones out of topics such as stardom, sexuality, gender and self identities, creative processes, love, and mortality, Christine is perhaps among the most idiosyncratic and introspective of her cohort. On what can construed as an ode to her craft, productivity, and relationship with her fans, she sings, "Trample over beauty while singing their thoughts." While the sentiment from "Tilted" is strong, it is arguably untrue in her own case. With an album that is both perceptive and danceable, she manages to marry two elements that are often thought of as mutually exclusive: the need for realistic thought and the desire for upbeat sonic appeal. It's a recipe that yields pop music that masks its great intelligence with glamour – but bears that intelligence nonetheless.

Christine and the Queens is available now under Atlantic Records.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

50 Favorite Songs of 2016 (Part One)

50. "No" by Meghan Trainor

JUDGE ME. DO IT. JUDGE ME LIKE JUDY. I DARE YOU. While Meghan Trainor has been thrown into quite a negative light since her debut, I'm not afraid to admit her "No" wears its early 2000s pop sensibility on its sleeve and throws us Millennials on one hell of a nostalgia trip. (Yes, before you ask, I know "Me Too" is kind of garbage. Let's just not talk about it, okay? Focus on this track's greatness.)

49. "Make Me..." by Britney Spears feat. G-Eazy

Britney Spears abandoned her theme of opening her album eras with an upbeat pop gem, instead aiming for smooth, sensual vibes with "Make Me." I wasn't crazy (as in "(You Drive Me) Crazy," of course) about it at first, but after a few listens, it was quite easy to get entranced by its chorus as it reaches a peak of euphoria, with her "ooh"s buried in a pool of dreamy synthesizers. This song is definitely a grower, not a shower. (We could all certainly do without G-Eazy, though... and we could definitely do without that "Me, Myself, and I" interpolation from the MTV Music Video Award, but I digress.)

48. "This is What You Came For" by Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna

The third collaboration between Calvin Harris and Rihanna is about as half-assed as they come, but quite frankly, I don't give a damn. Starring Rihanna and an unaccredited Taylor Swift, this track is a pre-packaged party in a box. Yes, most of it is a sliced-and-diced stem of "ooh"s and a loop of electronic magic, but it's just that infectious. Fight me on this one, if you'd like.

47. "Final Song" by MØ

The trajectory of MØ's career in the wake of her Major Lazer-fueled success has been a bit strange, hasn't it? She shook off the oddities of her debut album, leaning towards a mainstream, marketable approach without a defined sonic direction. Even still, it's mainstream music with grit. Co-written by Noonie Bao and produced by MNEK, "Final Song" finds her encapsulated in a bouncy party song. It strays from the East Asian intentions of "Lean On" and "Kamikaze," giving her another new perspective for her upcoming album.

46. "In My Mind" by Maty Noyes

When she appeared opposite of The Weeknd on the closing track to his sophomore album last year, Maty Noyes became a subject of interest. This year, she dropped her solo extended play and debut single, "In My Mind" – an anthem for the girl whose guy is hung up on her past. The smooth sulk of her collaboration with The Weeknd has shape-shifted into a sexy pout over standard (yet addictive) drum machine-reliant pop production. (P.S. – That little "dah-dah-dah-dah-dum" hook gets me every time.)

45. "SOS (Overboard)" by Joseph

Marketing at its finest, folks: After seeing the three lovely ladies of Joseph on YouTube ads, beside more well-known artists at Target, and at the top of Urban Outfitter's online vinyl store, I finally decided to give them a chance. And it's a good thing I did. An acoustic hybrid of pop and folk is their thing, and they do it quite well. "SOS" is perhaps their liveliest selection, kept alive by an organic drumbeat and guitar strums.

44. "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" by Adele

So listen, I was a bit rough on this song when I reviewed Adele's 25; it was too far from what we were used to hearing from Adele, and my ears just weren't ready for it. But after the tenth listen, I couldn't get enough; I changed my mind. Sue me. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go twirl and brush my shoulders alongside Adele as I karaoke this shit like a pro.

43. "Gold" by Kiiara

If Kiiara and Terror Jr. taught us one thing in 2016, it's that their mutual producer Felix Snow is a one-trick pony, but the former's "Gold" was the first to capitalize on that one trick. It thrives in its simplicity; reeking of effortless swagger, Kiiara transforms the drum machine reliance of Lorde and FKA twigs into a confident, club-ready tune with a chorus that begs to be sang alongside  even if the vocal sampling makes it nearly impossible.

42. "Close" by Nick Jonas feat. Tove Lo

I smelled some record label pressure from the very beginning when I heard that Nick Jonas and Tove Lo paired up for this track, but who knew they would have this much chemistry? With those two begging to be as close as physically possible, this track is so hot that it drips in sweat; there's even an unexpected authenticity behind Jonas' cries of "close, ooh, oh so close."

41. "Starving" by Hailee Steinfeld and Grey feat. Zedd

I was a bit worried about Hailee Steinfeld post-"Love Myself." While "Rock Bottom" was sufficient, nothing on her short extended play quite matched the heights that her debut single did. "Starving," however, puts her back in line for pop greatness. Building off a single guitar riff, the track somehow blossoms into an electronic dance track by the middle-eight in a much smoother fashion than expected.