Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017

10. Ctrl by SZA

With personal tales of conflict, sexcapades, and self-loathing, SZA doesn't seem to have it all figured out as her debut album unfolds. And as a coming of age record, Ctrl is striking in the sense that SZA never does figure life out by the end: "Only know fear. That's me, Ms. 20-Something. Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love," she sings on the album's acoustic finale. It doesn't hurt, of course, that her malleable voice navigates well through her soundscapes, which color a bit outside the lines of the typical R&B artist's template, and that the album doesn't have any shortages of solid grooves or melodies. But what really drives this record home is the young woman at the center of it all: SZA, a charismatic, honest woman who isn't afraid to splatter herself, her insecurities, her mistakes, and her secrets across a damn fine record. (Read the full review.)

9. Crawl Space by Tei Shi

Capturing the essence of the narrow, dank space Tei Shi often visited at night as a child to combat her fear of the dark, Crawl Space is an echoing pop record adorned with mysterious shrieks and extraneous spurts of energy. Insulated by a cloak of anonymity within the darkness, her ambient dreams and disruptive tendencies clash unabashedly, translating into a schizophrenic, albeit revealing and enjoyable, product of experimentation. Although her voice and demeanor were shrouded in reverberation and behind a wall of blaring synthesizers on past extended plays, they take command and become the guiding forces to hone a consistent vision on her debut record – an eccentric, honest vision from an artist who just conquered all of her fears in one zealous swish. (Read the full review.)

8. Lovers by Anna of the North

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as purely an aesthetics act, capitalizing on viral appeal for sharp cinematography and living in a world colored in pastel pink and baby blue. While that may have been a more accurate description in the days of "Sway," the disjointed breakthrough track recorded on GarageBand, today's Anna of the North has a clearer trajectory. They've found their place along the musical spectrum, nixing their initial nods toward hip-hop for feathery synthpop. Now to be considered the formal introduction to the duo, Lovers is a focused ten-track outfit with the sounds and substance to captivate. (Read the full review.)

7. Truth is a Beautiful Thing by London Grammar

When at their best, the members of London Grammar sound as if they make music while driving westward at dusk, forever chasing the radiant glow of the sun from under the impending cloak of night. A dark desperation looms over the trio's lyrics, but muggy undertones linger from the heat of the day, melting some of lead vocalist Hannah Reid's stern vocal impact. While the trio's debut operated on the successful creation of moods and vibes, their sophomore record, Truth is a Beautiful Thing, takes a more anthemic approach. The resulting product is a captivating record with stronger melodies that better exercise the skills of the dominating vocalist who delivers them. (Read the full review.)

6. Dua Lipa by Dua Lipa

With her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa declares herself a conscious pop artist. She delivered a standard pop album in many aspects, ignoring the pressures of cohesiveness and albumwide storytelling. And spare perhaps a faulty moment of judgement when she thought it was a good idea to give a song the trendy acronym title "IDGAF," her unrestrained creativity doesn't lead her down any disastrous avenues. But more importantly, she proves to be a very human artist, with an alluring debut album that mirrors not only her musical interests that encompass every star and moon of the pop music universe, but also her exploration as to her place within that universe. She may not have found the answer to the latter just yet, but at least she knows that there are good chances that she could stick the landing no matter which way she jumps. (Read the full review.)

5. Lust for Life by Lana Del Rey

Despite the smile she wears on the cover of the strangely optimistic Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier one who has just entered a new chapter of life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she shaped pop culture present as she wandered through memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title as she ignores a real-life disaster – a striking change from just a few album cycles ago, when she would dream up an imaginary tragedy to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it. (Read the full review.)

4. Something to Tell You by Haim

Haim's sophomore record is low maintenance, rhythm-heavy, and effortlessly rad. Juxtaposing its lyrics, which are tied up in a few love affairs, it rides a warm Southern California vibe and operates without any sense of urgency. Something to Tell You doesn't search for the enveloping climaxes that were scattered throughout its predecessor, but instead, it stumbles upon them by surprise. And through it all, the Haim sisters usher it all back into a singular vision – a vision of a warm, sepia-toned world – from behind their pairs of retro drugstore sunglasses. (Read the full review.)

3. Masseduction by St. Vincent

Though her most impressive outing overall to date, Masseduction undoubtedly finds its brightest moments in firecracker cuts like "Los Ageless" and "Sugarboy," when she commands her trusty guitar and zany synthesizers to unhinge around her soprano pipes. But sparse, surprisingly transparent ballads like "Smoking Section" and "New York," during which she seems more conflicted than corrupted, are equally important to the album's backbone. Because while her inner conflict is exposed only when St. Vincent comes down from the frantic highs to reflect on intrapersonal issues rather than on how widespread chaos affects her daily life, it is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. (Read the full review.)

2. About U by MUNA

Fusing the best of pop-rock, synthpop, and contemporary alternative R&B without skirting through their contemporaries' narrow field of drum machines and dingy synthesizers, MUNA (like Lady Gaga with ARTPOP, they insist on all caps for their title) rests within a malleable niche that lends itself to every mood of the hour. The scope of their debut album's sonic horizon stretches from the dusky tones of "After" to the atmospheric euphoria of "Around U" and "End of Desire." In theory, it could seem like an overarching goal of a hyperactive group in a rush to show the world what they're capable of delivery; In practice, though, it's a well-executed display of every emotional turn in the trajectory of an ill-fated relationship. The songs of About U follow the organic fluxes and flows of a story arc that is more than intriguing enough to pull listeners into MUNA's gaze and lock them there from beginning to end. (Read the full review.)

1. Melodrama by Lorde

Lorde's sophomore record, Melodrama, paints the warm-toned portrait of a charismatic young woman who has cracked open her own reservations and granted herself the liberty to act her age. As the animated scrapbook of someone who dipped her toes into adulthood with the luxurious excesses attached to celebrity status at her disposal, the album's narrative reveals Lorde did a bit of it all in the four years between her studio albums: The drinks, the parties, the love. In fact, the only thing the album fails to mention is the secret Instagram account dedicated to onion rings. (Read the full review.)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017 (Part Five)

It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on my countdown. Click the hyperlinks to read parts one, two, three, and four, and check back for my top ten favorite albums of the year post in the coming days.

10. "Lost in Your Light" by Dua Lipa feat. Miguel

Ah, the hit that never was. Its trendier follow-up, “New Rules,” was the wild hit that Lipa wanted since the beginning – so badly, in fact, that she tried to rerelease "Be The One" in what seemed to be a hail Mary pass to becoming a Top 40 artist – but “Lost in Your Light” deserves credit where it is due. Quite the grower, it was at first seemed like a radio-chasing track for Lipa. But as time has passed, it has become a highlight from her self-titled debut album; the warm entanglement of Lipa and Miguel’s vocals over an embankment of synthesizers feels like too natural to have ever felt as foreign as it once did.

9. "Non Believer" by London Grammar

On the encompassing, dusky-toned “Non Believer,” London Grammar vocalist Hannah Reid’s heavyweight harmonies are drenched in a sticky, syrupy vocoder, which digitizes her voice into a wall that slams into listeners at each chorus. (And man, when the instrumentation breaks away and lets the vocals to their own devices at the three-minute mark, it makes for a haunting moment before the song kicks back into overdrive.) Simply put, it's an exhilarating listen from start to finish.

8. "Hard Times" by Paramore

On “Hard Times,” Paramore manages to encase its favorite topic – angst in the highest degree – in hazy, upbeat pop. Hayley Williams is still caught under the weight of living, singing, “Hard times, gonna make you wonder why you even try. Hard times, gonna knock you down and laugh when you cry.” The successful juxtaposition of Williams' grief with the fizzling pop sparks roughly equates to the same basic principle upon which Paramore was founded: barreling through the pain via song, even if that means plastering on a smile but allowing the stretched threads of a singer in crisis show through.

7. "Mama Say" by Betty Who

If you aim to make a tribute track to peak Britney Spears and market it as such, this is the way to do it. Betty Who packed “Mama Say” with a load of Britney lyrical references, a heavy beat that thumps like a basketball pounded across a polished hardwood floor, and – wait for it – a signature early Max Martin staple: a double-layer final chorus with a bridge overlay. It is the unapologetic pure pop track that we've wanted from many pop stars for a while now, but one that we haven't received from the big names in years as they continue to diverge into newer territories. Luckily, Who understands and appreciates '90s kid nostalgia as much as we do.

6. "Around U" by MUNA

On “Around U,” MUNA's frontwoman Katie Gavin recounts the world as she once saw it while enamored with a past lover but realizes that the world she sees now is much brighter alone. It's the most triumphant moment on the trio's outstanding debut album, About U, which is often stuck in a cloud of self-doubt. "Something massive happened here. You can feel it in the atmosphere. Something false that once was true: I no longer revolve around you," Gavin says as the track expands into an encompassing, awestruck chorus.

5. "Los Ageless" by St. Vincent

On her newest album, Masseduction, St. Vincent is much wittier than she wants listeners to believe. Damning west coast show business culture on the jagged standout "Los Ageless," she masquerades her commentary in a love song façade. "How can anybody have you, lose you, and not lose their minds, too?" she wonders out loud over one of her catchiest soundscapes to date. Playing the hell out of her guitar, she layers her instrumental talent over Jack Antonoff's relentless electronic drums and keys. In traditional St. Vincent fashion, it's a technicolor madhouse of a track – but a beautiful one, at that.

4. "Keep Running" by Tei Shi

In a race against time, Tei Shi crafts a desperate plea for a lover, quite frankly, to hurry up. A constant reminder that time goes full-speed ahead while we sit none the wiser, a love-hungry Shi repeats, “Every time I look over my shoulder, I’m getting older. Time is so sad; tie me to it.” The spacey track first counteract, then builds to match, her urgency as layers collide; what begins as a cool drumbeat and bass line turns into a paroxysm of soaring vocal lines and instrumentation.

3. "Tease" by Ralph

A glistening, modern synthpop track built upon a slinky ‘70s rhythm machine for a backbone, “Tease” flourishes into the sunniest, most conversational exposé to come from pop music – one that isn't particularly bitter, but rather nods toward the mere recognition and dismissal of a sweet talker. Ralph’s smooth vocals, just reminiscent enough of Stevie Nicks’ to make note of the similarity, give way to lively instrumentation that begs listeners to dance away their feelings for all the two-timers who were disguised as cool cats. 

2. "Perfect Places" by Lorde

As the album-encompassing finale of Lorde’s coming-of-age manifesto, “Perfect Places” shatters the glorious, perfectionist perceptions of her debut record. In a rebellious turn, she strays from intense intellectualism and into the depths of every house party on the block on Melodrama, but it isn’t until “Perfect Places” that she gives insight as to why. All her heroes are dead and her idealistic dreams are shattered, she admits in a breathtaking chorus. In disbelief, she attempts to find happiness at the heart of every party – and with this track, is the life of said parties, too. By its close, “Perfect Places” settles on the realization that complete happiness will never be, so escapism will have to do.

1. "Someone" by Anna of the North

Anna Lotterud and Brady Daniell-Smith wanted to create a song that sounded like the tracks they listened to as kids of the ‘80s, a decade dominated by warm, fuzzy synthpop and overwrought power rock ballads. And unlike most in their position, Anna of the North was able to tackle both in one song. Tying the gap between Madonna and Journey, “Someone” commences with clipped drum-machine hits and swells into the overwrought ways of '80s power ballads: blaring choruses, prominent guitar lines, multilayered vocals – oh, and a key change, which concretes the duo's successful effort to replicate the authenticity of an '80s radio behemoth.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017 (Part Four)

It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on my countdown. Click the hyperlinks to read parts one, two, and three, and check back for the rest of my list in the coming days.

15. "Malibu" by Miley Cyrus

Though Younger Now unsuccessfully tries to stretch its magic across 10 tracks, "Malibu" is undeniably one of Top 40’s best offerings this year. An unexpected move after Miley Cyrus' detour into hip-hop on Bangerz and obscure alternative rock static on Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, acoustic country-pop blossoms into SoCal soft rock on "Malibu" to successful results. It radiates with a newfound happiness, mirroring Cyrus' life as a re-engaged woman.

14. "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry feat. Skip Marley

Katy Perry said to expect woke-pop from her fourth major label studio album, and “Chained to the Rhythm” was a positive sign that she could make good on the promise. Utilizing a popular ironic approach to social commentary, it hypnotizes listeners with a looped neo-disco sample, despite its own warnings against the attraction to an arbitrary beat. Witness may have fallen flat of expectations and been no more than typical fodder, but "Chained to the Rhythm" remains one of Perry’s brightest, most self-aware highlights.

13. "Underdog" by Banks

Traditionally a somber artist who unleashes either sorrow or fury in her tracks, Banks has let loose. She strips away sexual inhibition, admitting she is a daunting lover. “Even though I got a reputation unaccompanied, baby, you could make this, maybe you could make it as the underdog,” she over-enunciates over jolting electronic keys and smooth bass. In signature Banks style, she gulps through most of her words as sharp beats kick beneath her.

12. "Something to Tell You" by Haim

The title track to Haim's sophomore record is the antithesis to their debut's magic formula: It allows dead space for the song's elements to breathe. Accompanied by a groovy bass line and deep drums, the track bleeds a summery '70s vibe that the Haim sisters align with effortlessly. Meanwhile, Danielle, Este, and Alana spurt into thick harmonies against little instrumental to support them, accentuating their vocal lines and intensifying the urgency behind the lines, "'Cause I got something to tell you, but I don't know why it's so hard to let you know that we're not seeing eye to eye."

11. "Heroin" by Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey’s fourth major label studio album, Lust for Life, is strangely optimistic – something uncharacteristic of the usually gloomy Del Rey. Zeroing in on society as it stands today, it acts, in part, as a protest record, but it often fine-tunes itself with a brighter outlook than expected. However, not all is well in Del Rey's world, especially in her personal life. Paralleling heroin for fame, “Heroin” follows both sides of the metaphor; a booming ballad, it unpacks the destruction caused by heroin in society and fame in her life. She flies over the cinematic soundscape in imperfect harmonies, projecting the organic, raw guise she has boasted since Ultraviolence.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017 (Part Three)

It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on my countdown. Click the hyperlinks to read parts one and two, and check back for the rest of my list in the coming days.

20. "Crying in the Club" by Camila Cabello

Okay, yeah, we all know Camila Cabello's "Havana" is great. That hot tropical realness is quite nice. But let's talk about the great pop song that doesn't deserve to be known as just "that one song before 'Havana.'" That song, "Crying in the Club," is a little slice of pop magic. Cabello's slurred vocal is clearly inspired by – and is backed with the vocal remnants of – a Sia demo as she delivers a killer lead-up: "Let the music lift you up like you've never been this free. 'Til you feel the sunrise, let the music warm your body like the heat of a thousand fires."

19. "Prom" by SZA

A warm, organic guitar line and fuzzy drum machines make the perfect cozy soundscape for SZA to dribble her fluttering vocals across. "Promise to get a little better as I get older. And you're so patient and sick of waiting," she sings on "Prom," a track that confronts the flighty, sometimes immature tendencies explored through much of her debut album, Ctrl. It's an outlier on the album in a sonic sense, as the relentless, muffled drum keeps it in a tight pop form, but it's one of the record's most memorable listens regardless.

18. "Fetish" by Selena Gomez feat. Gucci Mane

Ladies and gentlemen, Selena Gomez delivered her sexiest track since "Good For You" and we all let it go unnoticed. In all fairness, it was released at a terribly inconvenient time for Gomez and couldn't be promoted amid her kidney transplant and subsequent recovery, but we shouldn't have done her dirty like that. A double-tracked and reverberated Gomez whimpers over "Fetish" as heavy bass vibrates beneath her, making for the year's hottest track.

17. "Disco Tits" by Tove Lo

This thing is a neo-'90s house banger. You know it as well as I do, so let's not play games here.

16. "Let ‘Em Talk" by Kesha feat. Eagles of Death Metal

We were introduced to Kesha as an intoxicated party girl, drenched in more autotune than T-Pain and hard up for the heaviest 808s ever to be blasted through the aftermarket speakers in the trunk of an old Trans Am. I suppose that felt natural at that time, but now, “Let ‘Em Talk” reveals the type of party girl Kesha really is. She's loud, disruptive, and all-out rock – not because she’s under the influence, but because she’s naturally just out of control. And it’s amazing, considering how long she has been silenced before she was able to be this euphorically crazy again.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017 (Part Two)

It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on my countdown. Click the hyperlink to read part one, and check back for the rest of my list in the coming days.

25. "Say My Name" by Tove Styrke

Today's minimalist, bona fide pop Tove Styrke is certainly more than a stone's throw away from the idiosyncratic, left-field one of yesteryear, but I promise she's just as enjoyable. A drastic reinvention of her musical taste, the lightweight "Say My Name" is more traditionally appealing than the cool cuts on her sophomore record, Kiddo; A scrappy ukulele riff and electronic drum beat act as its backbone, while Styrke's lyrics and delivery come across as carefree and conversational.

24. "The Cure" by Lady Gaga

Did Lady Gaga jump on The Chainsmokers' electronic-lite train just before it departed the popularity station? Yep. A surprising departure from the back roads expedition that was her fourth studio album, Joanne, "The Cure" marks the first time Lady Gaga jumped on a trend rather than jump-started it. Did she nail it, though? You bet she did. Released when she replaced a very pregnant Beyoncé on the Coachella main stage, the track is understandably anthemic and just as infectious as you expect a Lady Gaga song to be.

23. "Need You" by Allie X feat. Valley Girl

Allie X came into her own this year, noticeably improving her craft and proving herself worthy of big league ranks in pop stardom; her Collxtion II spotlighted her versatility, bouncing from one inspiration to the next. Between her first and second "collxtion" releases, she learned how to craft a killer climax without yelping over a balls-to-the-wall instrumental burst – a skill she best exhibits on the vocoder-laden "Need You." The most notable element of its ambient backing track, a drumbeat nods along beneath her muddy puddle of robotic vocals.

22. "Top of the World" by Kimbra

In preparation for her third studio album, Kimbra continues to do what she does best: take an organic approach to electronic-influenced pop music. "Top of the World," the second cut from her upcoming third studio album, is a hypnotizing tribal-beat track that was co-produced by Skrillex. On the track, Kimbra shies from modesty to reflect on what she has earned as an artist – and everything there is yet to conquer. She sing-raps just slightly off-kilter, signaling vocoders in and out of the mix to haunting results, before the song resolves into a chanted hook.

21. "Magnetic" by Chlöe Howl

Man, this may be the year's most underrated pop gem. On "Magnetic," singer-songwriter Chlöe Howl barrels over a spellbinding track that sweeps listeners in a sea of sound. It pulsates below her commanding pipes as she unleashes a melody that is impossible not to yell alongside in the car, no matter how much damage may have been done to your vocal cords in the process. After having fallen from pop culture's consciousness a few years ago, this track is a triumphant return.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017 (Part One)

It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on my countdown. Below are my honorable mentions; check back for the rest of my list in the coming days.

Honorable mention: "Stay" by Zedd feat. Alessia Cara

Alessia Cara has had quite a good year, hasn't she? "Scars to Your Beautiful" made itself a home in the rotation lists on adult contemporary radio, and her collaborations with Logic and Zedd both found their footing and were nominated for Grammy Awards. Though it rips its opening chop pattern from Banks' "Poltergeist" and nobody wanted to point it out, "Stay" was the traditional EDM track we all needed this year, especially when David Guetta was shut out of the Top 40 and Calvin Harris renovated his production style into something unrecognizable.

Honorable mention: "Cut to the Feeling" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Would a year-end pop music countdown be complete without Carly Rae Jepsen? Of course not, especially when she continues to pump out tracks like this. "Cut to the Feeling," an E•MO•TION b-side that was somehow deemed unworthy of E•MO•TION: Side B, danced its way onto the soundtrack of an animated children's movie that flew under the radar. In tradition Jeppo fashion, she jumps alive in the song's chorus, shouting her way through its lyrics. What a tune.

Honorable mention: "Getaway Car" by Taylor Swift

The closest Taylor Swift brushes into an airy synthpop palette on Reputation, "Getaway Car" stands as the record's magnum opus. Employing Swift's signature storytelling for her best self-deprecating track yet, she parallels her string of short romantic flames to jumps from one getaway car to the next. "You were drivin' the getaway car. We were flyin’, but we'd never get far. Don't pretend it's such a mystery; Think about the place where you first met me," she sings over a soaring soundscape. The track is a subtle reminder that Swift still has a sense of humor about her reputation, despite an entire album dedicated to it, and glaring proof that she can still write one hell of a song, even as a brand new Taylor Swift.

Honorable mention: "Imaginary Parties" by Superfruit

Superfruit as a music group is the same as Superfruit as a YouTube collective: A bit frivolous and conscious as its states as light entertainment, but undeniably fun. Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi's tight-knit harmonies on "Imaginary Parties" carry lyrics that burst at the seams with fun as they chronicle a night in the bedroom: "Baby, let's get fresh; it's like we just met. If you wanna catch fire, we'll get a little hotter. Wanna keep you satisfied," they sing. A prepackaged party in a box meant to be played on repeat, the song crossbreeds a rhythmic heartbeat with sleek pop production.

Honorable mention: "Bellyache" by Billie Eilish

With an image and voice not far from Melanie Martinez sans baby rattle, 15-year-old Billie Eilish was bound for success in the viral pop universe. Her music is an in-house product, co-written and produced with her brother, age 19. Her debut extended play, Don't Smile at Me, doesn't concrete her as a defining musical force just yet, but "Bellyache" sure is a good start. With its silky build-up and low-riding chorus, it unexpectedly grows into a low-maintenance banger.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blue Lips | Tove Lo

Earlier this fall, Tove Lo prefaced her newest album with a seven-minute music video that predominantly features very detailed sex scenes with a bargain brand Muppet on acid. The track it was produced for, "Disco Tits," is a banging neo-'90s house track that, while largely a harmless earworm, boasts a few one-liners delivered like nails across a chalkboard. (For future reference, Tove, any mention of nipples is probably a no-go.) It all had us wondering if Tove Lo is okay – in less of a 2007 Britney Spears way and more of a 2013 Lady Gaga way, when creativity takes an absurd form – until we took a hard look at her path to her third studio album, Blue Lips.

Twinkies in the bathtub, daddies on the playground, and freaky people in sex clubs – that was Lo's introduction four years ago when "Habits (Stay High)" ignited in America. So when her second studio album came in the form of a sleek dance-pop record titled Lady Wood, with a title track as outwardly sexual as one could expect, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. While Lo developed an understated cool presence between her debut, Queen of the Clouds, and Lady Wood, her vernacular further regressed. Even the term "lady wood" in and of itself is cringeworthy to a degree.

In that sense, conditions don't improve much on Blue Lips, marketed as the second phase of Lady Wood. Though its title implies lack of sexual satisfaction, it tells quite a different story in its 14 tracks – a tale of a woman's sexual liberation with good intent but without any sort of elegance. "They can't fake it, drying off the seat when they getting up to leave," she sings on "Bitches," a smug, sexy track that explores her bisexuality. (Really, not a track goes by that doesn't reference wetness, bodily fluid, sweat, oral sex, or climaxing.) And like the "WTF Love Is" and "Vibes" of Lady Wood, "Struggle" is the trend-term track of Blue Lips: "Fuck, fuck some sense into me. The struggle is real when you don't tell me how you feel about this love."

But luckily, her knack for slick, attention-grabbing production and cutting melody lines has managed to hypnotize listeners yet again on Blue Lips. The record is more aggressively catchy than her previous releases, grinding into sharp house beats and humid guitar lines. "I'm the queen of the motherfucking discotheque," she declares on introductory interlude "Light Beams," before the record throws itself onto the dance floor (and into the bedroom of another one night stand). The first seven tracks, all hyperactive and hypersexual, match her black-lit ecstasy, yanking listeners into the clouds with her. "Disco Tits" and "Shedontknowbutsheknows" sputter and spasm with heavy electronics, while guitars and clipped beats kick "Stranger" alive. Even "Bitches," in all of its raunchy glory, keeps me coming back for listen after listen.

The album's back half, informally titled by minute-long interlude "Pitch Black," keeps in touch with the first half's sonic palette but takes to midtempo speed as it comes down from her frantic rush. "If it was easy, I'd forget about you, baby, but I never really understood how people can move on from a heart to love another. Oh, if I could, I would," she sings on the effortlessly smooth chorus of "Bad Days," an in memoriam of her recent wild nights. The album's finale, meanwhile, seems to recap how the insane two-album narrative began: "Hey, you got drugs? Just need a pick-me-up only for tonight. Don’t tell anyone I was with you," she repeats on power ballad "Hey You Got Drugs?" 

The story arc that carries from Lady Wood comes to a close nicely on Blue Lips – first with one last streak of destruction then with a crash-landing into reality. Along the way, though, we get lost in Lo's overt drive to be as sexual as possible. (If the album's title and ass-grabbing album artwork didn't let you in on it already, Tove Lo is really just all about sex and she wants you to know it right now.) But goddamn it, we get lost for a reason: Because Tove Lo knows how to make a frank, trashy, infectious banger. Sometimes it's hard to believe that she's so outrageous – again, not 2004 Britney Spears outrageous; it's more like a 2015 CupcakKe outrageous – but we all keep singing about our nipples and repeating our new favorite dirty Fifth Harmony reference alongside her anyway.

Blue Lips is available now under Island Records.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reputation | Taylor Swift

Three years ago, Taylor Swift sat atop the Empire State Building, surrounded by a live studio audience of fans and cameras that streamed her announcement around the world in real time: After a long career that flirted with the thought, she pledged herself as a bona fide pop star. And she would go on to become quite a successful one, unveiling the neon-lit 1989 and fanning its success across nearly two years. The album and its six singles intoxicated audiences with their shimmering '80s pop, and Swift's unshaken songwriting style kept pop Taylor Swift from seeming too foreign for comfort.

But the Top 40 landscape that allowed her to dominate with the one-two sucker punch of "Shake it Off" and "Blank Space" is no more; a diverse portfolio of hip-hop artists occupy the spaces that used to hold gold-plated reservation cards for pop titans like Swift, Katy Perry, and Adele. Nothing if not an industry mastermind, though, Swift already knows rule number one to pop stardom survival: reinvention. Toying with her tried-and-true two-year album cycles, she spent an extra year in the dark amid an embroilment with Kanye West before unleashing plans for her sixth studio album, Reputation, a high-gloss set that proves Taylor Swift committed herself to the right genre.

She killed off county Taylor for the new, shiny pop Taylor just one album cycle ago, and as it turns out, 2014's pop Taylor was only the first of many versions to come. "The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, because she's dead!" she says on lead single "Look What You Made Me Do," a dark-toned manifesto that sneers against an unnamed entity – some argue West, though I tend to align with the theory that it damns the media personified. (West becomes the direct target, however, on the bratty "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," which reopens the wounds from VMAs and recorded phone calls past.)

The exaggerated self-portrait on "Look What You Made Me Do" paints Swift as the bad girl, the lying, cheating, sleazy snake that Kim Kardashian implied she was. A preoccupation with her public image lingers throughout Reputation, the first half of which concerns itself with selling – not rebuking – the idea of Taylor Swift as pop culture's ultimate villain. "They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one. So light me up. Go ahead and light me up," she declares on "I Did Something Bad," a jarring, gunshot-sampling banger. Also revealing a wolf in sheep's clothing, "Don't Blame Me" is a burning slow-jam that admits to shifty behavior but projects that blame onward: "Don't blame me: Love made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right."

Swift has built a career that is reliant on being egocentric – that quality just hasn't been so outward until this point. She has found great success in music that exists almost exclusively in a vacuum, immune to sociopolitical forces that don't pertain to her brand, her relationships, or her music. That, perhaps, is why it seems ridiculous that an uprising has appeared for her to make career-shifting comments on American politics or sexual assault, especially in the wake of her high-profile (and successful) countersuit against a deejay who grabbed her inappropriately. Swift's brand has always been, and even now still is, relatively inoffensive fodder; she has planted herself into American households as a sister and a friend, making her gossip as worthwhile and entertaining as a real relative's newest neighborhood scoop.

At 27 years old, Swift is in her own class among her 20-something contemporaries, having built an empire without a preexisting celebrity preamble from Disney, Nickelodeon, or the like. Since her 2006 debut, she has aged alongside listeners naturally. The ordinary girl who cried over unrequited love in a freshmen-level classroom has grown into the superstar who gets plastered at her own bougie, Gatsby-level parties – and after 12 years to get here, it actually feels later than it should for Taylor Swift to reference alcohol for the first time. (Yes, Taylor Swift acknowledges that she drinks alcohol and has sex a few times on Reputation. Insert slight gasp when she wisps, "Carved your name into my bedpost, 'cause I don't want you like a best friend. I only bought this dress so you can take it off.")

She dismantled her good girl image, but it's important to note that the fundamentals of the old Taylor Swift – the one who found comfort in love and heartbreak – are still intact and are integral to Reputation's story arc. As the world descends on her public image, she shutters inward and toward a lover who calms the waves: "My reputation's never been worse, so you must like me for me," she croons on the bouncy, vocoder-drenched "Delicate." The album's back half is almost entirely dedicated to her love life, once her songwriting's mainstay but now reduced to a subplot. The synth-propelled "Getaway Car" best represents love, even if doomed from its start, as the vehicle for escape: "I was ridin' in a getaway car. I was cryin' in a getaway car. I was dyin' in a getaway car," she sings.

"Getaway Car" is the closest Swift comes to brushing against 1989's sonic palette, and although it is an outstanding highlight, that may be for the best. Swift's image overhaul and commitment to her newest reincarnate make Reputation as successful as it is. Ditching the guitar, her longtime instrumental companion, she is clad in heavy electronics and soupy vocoders. Her vocal showcase and songwriting are more conversational, leaning into a causal sing-rap in places like "...Ready for It?" and "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." And she pulls it off well: Throughout "End Game," a song that features Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Future, the one who feels most uncomfortable is Sheeran – who would have ever guessed such a development?

A shiny, 2017-chic release fueled on a breakneck sugar rush, Reputation manages to come off as both a natural progression and a wise, albeit calculated, business endeavor. Though she does chalk up her actions as the vengeful consequences of others' doings, Swift no longer plays the outright victim of others' crimes and has aged out of a squeaky clean image. This all plays out over premier power pop that camouflages Swift within this year's Hot 100 cool crowd, which guarantees success even amid an anti-pop era in the mainstream. Reputation proves Swift knows how to read the room, survey the lay of the musical landscape, and plant her feet where they need to be. And if she can continue to do this throughout her career's lifespan, this won't be the last time an impressive new Taylor kills off an old Taylor with one swift slice to the jugular.

Reputation is available now under Big Machine Records.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ctrl | SZA

Upon the release of her debut album in June, singer-songwriter SZA found herself thrust into the ranks of the Knowles sisters as a figurehead for the modern black woman – a significant charge for a young woman who had to fight a much harder battle than a second-gen Knowles should for the release of her album. After delays – both self-imposed and label-rooted – put it in limbo for almost two years, Ctrl found its footing due to its alignment with the current popularity boom for hip-hop. But spare "Love Galore" and "Doves in the Wind," two lackluster tracks included only because they carry big-name guest features, the album is more sophisticated in sonic composition than its radio-dwelling counterparts, dodging most typical chintz of the hits and capitalizing on authentic, unpolished neo-soul and rhythm and blues.

Rawness and vulnerability are terms that have been branded into SZA's hip, perhaps thanks to this album's title and overarching theme: Control and her perceived lack of it in both life and love. Admittedly but admirably flawed, SZA admits many times over that an affinity for "dirty men" has damned her since the beginning. She owns up to things that once would have been twisted to slut-shame the hell out of a woman and turns them into defiant acts of self-preservation, done in pursuit of taking back control. She advocates for vengeful cheating (the two-stepping, slow-burning "Supermodel," on which she reveals she slept with her ex's friend after he went to Las Vegas without her on Valentine's Day) and upstaging the main attraction as a mere side piece: "My man is my man is your man, heard it's her man, too. You're like nine to five; I'm the weekend," she sings over a sultry groove on "The Weekend."

At the record's pivotal moments, she best translates the consequences of reckless, taboo behavior: Muffled automated drums keep "Prom" alive as it recounts a fear that she hasn't matured the way that she should have, while the downtempo "Broken Clocks" watches time melt as SZA realizes that life has slipped through her fingers. There is also, then, the matter of self-worth – a touchy topic for the other woman, the role she plays from time to time. Two-stepping lead single "Drew Barrymore" recounts her humble dream to eat tacos, smoke a joint, and watch Narcos before it magnifies how relentless self-doubt and self-consciousness destroys it all: "I get so lonely. I forget what I'm worth. We get so lonely. We pretend that this works. I'm so ashamed of myself, think I need therapy."

With personal tales of conflict, sexcapades, and self-loathing, SZA doesn't seem to have it all figured out as the album unfolds. And as a coming of age record, Ctrl is striking in the sense that SZA never does figure life out by the end: "Only know fear. That's me, Ms. 20-Something. Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love," she sings on the album's acoustic finale. It doesn't hurt, of course, that her malleable voice navigates well through her soundscapes, which color a bit outside the lines of the typical R&B artist's template, and that the album doesn't have any shortages of solid grooves or melodies. But what really drives this record home is the young woman at the center of it all: SZA, a charismatic, honest woman who isn't afraid to splatter herself, her insecurities, her mistakes, and her secrets across a damn fine record.

Ctrl is available now under Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Relaxer | alt-J

English three-piece alternative outfit alt-J has never been anything less than a bit unhinged. They came into fame via disjointed soundscapes with hidden agendas: On An Awesome Wave, lead vocalist Joe Newman glazed through stories of love triangles and murders with slurred, hypnotizing diction. Their follow-up, This is All Yours, fussed over songwriting so unorthodox that it took over a year of repeated listens before its musicality revealed itself. Their work was calculated to pinch a nerve with absurdist themes and use its alluring soundscapes to soothe over the pain immediately.

The trio's third album, meanwhile, doesn't concern itself with much, standing stagnant as the world moves around it. At just shy of 40 minutes in run time, it disguises itself as a short escape... that is, until listeners dive into it head first and realize that five of its eight tracks clock in at five-plus minutes. And those five tracks take their dear, sweet time to get a hell of a lot of, well, nowhere, but that isn't necessarily a damning point in alt-J's case – especially as they deliver an album titled Relaxer.

Given its title and visual treatments, which come courtesy of a first-generation PlayStation game that replicates surreal, LCD-influenced dreams in chunky pixels, Relaxer is exactly as it markets itself: a record more concerned with its indie-static vibe than its inspirations, which are more benignly cockeyed than its predecessors' backstories. Tracks like "Adeline," a Hans Zimmer-sampling cut about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a human woman, and album finale "Pleader" spiral into cinematic instrumental scores that leave just enough space to mold Newman's warbles and moans into the equation.

On standout track and lead single "3WW," a fuzzy guitar loop plays like a flickering candle under Newman as he melts under Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell. And if "3WW" is the embodiment of the album's mission, "In Cold Blood" and "Hit Me Like a Snare" are its antitheses: the former, a jolting anthem that speaks in numeric code, and the latter, frankly the most obnoxious of any alt-J offering. "We are dangerous teenagers. Fuck you. I'll do whatever I want to do," Newman shouts with kiddish happiness on "Snare," breaking his usual cool demeanor in the most uncool way he could dream up.

The alt-J of years past was a bit more inspired and a bit less tired than the one we hear today. Relaxer serves its purpose in their discography, especially in its more glistening moments ("3WW," "In Cold Blood," "Adeline"), but when the record lags in its monstrous run time, it wears far too thin for even remote comfort ("Hit Me Like a Snare," "Deadcrush"). That's not to say that the alt-J guys have lost their appeal, but they do seem a bit less commanding than they were when we last saw them – a fact that becomes obvious only when they make us endure those long moments of friction within an album that was meant to be a smooth ride.

Relaxer is out now under Atlantic Records.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Beautiful Trauma | P!nk

In the five years since we last heard from P!nk, not much out of the ordinary seemed to have gone down in her life – or at least from what we know, she steered clear of anything that would have inflicted great emotional pain. Aside from a one-off folksy album released with a friend, she hasn't done much aside from fostering a family: She saw her firstborn child through her formative years and gave birth to a second. Her marriage with motocross racer Carey Hart, which was rocky from the start, seems to have stabilized into a tabloid nonevent.

But when she returned to music this year with "What About Us," she didn't seem quite like the P!nk we've come to know. Though the pulsating dance track hints at context within the turbulent American political climate, it is uncharacteristically subtle, especially for an artist whose opinions have never been to herself. Then comes Beautiful Trauma, an album with a title that bears the weight of many healed scares – but an album that never quite gets to the point on how the scars got there or proves if they're even genuine at all.

With P!nk's personal life mended and "What About Us" giving few hints, Beautiful Trauma leaves few things for her to bear issue with: the political landscape, of course, being one. And if any pop star could have conjured a fury over the Donald, it could have been P!nk. After all, she was the one to shoot a musical missile toward George "Dubya" Bush point-blank ten years ago. Yet what we are greeted with is a discrete album, overflowing with acoustic midtempo tracks that busy themselves with undisclosed problems within her marriage. (See: the folk-dipped "Where We Go," piano ballads "You Get My Love," "But We Lost It," and "For Now.")

The album is not odious by any stretch, but it's far glossier and more nondescript than it should be. Her stern voice still being her main selling point, she commands a groove over the rhythmic "Better Love" and across the album's liveliest track, "Secrets." And her sense of humor reappears on "Revenge," a lighthearted Eminem duet that works much better than the description "lighthearted Eminem duet" reads on paper. But too often, she gets sleepy and kicks it into autopilot: Dawdling through their run times, fluffy filler tracks like "Whatever You Want" and "For Now" don't assert themselves on the assumption that P!nk's voice can capture attention without a sturdy melody or thoughtful lyrics.

In the back end of the album, she rolls into gospel-influenced choruses of the straightforward "I Am Here." That she is – and historically, that's been enough. Every few years, she has appeared from dormancy with another novel's worth of life packed into an impressive album. After taking to a hiatus from music and having feared she was forgotten, she blasted herself into relevance with I'm Not Dead. When her marriage fell to shambles, she unleashed the burn-the-house-down, run-over-his-shit-with-a-lawnmower, punch-someone-in-the-face Funhouse. Upon that marriage's reconciliation, she dedicated an album, The Truth About Love, to the often untold details of love and forgiveness.

While it splashed onto the scene with the highest debut sales week for a female this year and will hold the title until Taylor Swift storms through next month, Beautiful Trauma doesn't tout the same genuine spark that previous albums set us up to expect from P!nk. She is most definitely here, which is nice and all, but that doesn't matter when she – a self-proclaimed loudmouth, mind you – bites her tongue and lets herself go unnoticed.

Beautiful Trauma is available now under RCA Records.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Masseduction | St. Vincent

Short of somehow begin misconstrued as a bigot, Annie Clark told Nylon magazine for her cover story in the publication's final printed edition last month, she doesn't mind being misunderstood. Of course, the 35-year-old musician, who does business as St. Vincent, has never been one for lucidity: Wrapped in erratic soundscapes and delivered in twisted, elusive poetry, the messages in her back catalog have ranged from satirical on a societal level to sentimental on a personal one. 

Masseduction, her fifth record, places St. Vincent in the midst of a sexed up, drugged up, messed up world and frames her personal woes as inescapable misfortunes that come stock with life in modern America. Damning west coast show business culture on the jagged "Los Ageless," she burrows into the problems it brings — an especially appropriate centerfold as we watch the destruction of a nation that overnighted an unqualified Hollywood elitist into the White House. But rather than lament on the obvious, she sews together her own experiences in today's frivolous world and proves she does not transcend the mess; Instead, she admits to being a victim of it herself and now fears what is to come.

Personal in nature first and foremost, Masseduction is open to alternate, grander significance secondarily. With "mass seduction" slurred into one word for its title and spandex-covered buttocks on its cover, the record delivers brutal honesty in regard to St. Vincent's lust, intensified by a neon-lit, leopard-printed culture: “Savior” is a disjointed recounting of role play in kinky leather outfits, while the title track delivers a double entendre on an unhealthy relationship and a toxic combination of sexuality and popular culture. "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings on the chunky, beat-heavy title track, digitizing her voice to alternate "mass seduction" with "mass destruction" beneath its melody.

Sharp-tongued cuts like "Young Lover" and "Pills" spell out in somewhat ambiguous terms the ruins of her previous relationship with actress Cara Delevingne, who makes a surprising guest appearance on "Pills." "Pills to fuck. Pills to eat. Pills, pills, pills, down the kitchen sink," she chants with an uncharacteristic giddiness. The five-minute sonic representation of St. Vincent's experiences with sleeping medication, complete with jittering, jingle-like choruses and a spiraling comedown, wasn't intended to be — but sure does work as — a "finger-wagging" statement on a medicated society. Likewise, "Young Lover" tells the story of an addicted lover with leftover childhood scars, not to be an archetypal superstar’s portrait. 

When she cries, "How can anybody have you and not lose their minds, too?" on "Ageless," the suspect could fall not on a person, but on fame personified. As she towers to new heights in fame and mainstream appeal, having piqued interest as Delevingne's girlfriend and working with in-demand producer Jack Antonoff on this record, she finds herself wedged in an uncomfortable fold of fame. "And sometimes I feel like an inland ocean: too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction," her voice smolders on "Smoking Section," the album's finale. She simmers from the album's otherwise breakneck pace and looks in the mirror, reassuring herself she'll make it out alive: "It's not the end," she repeats in its final 90 seconds.

Though it is her most melodically impressive outing to date, Masseduction finds its brightest moments in firecracker cuts like "Los Ageless" and "Sugarboy," when she commands her trusty guitar and zany synthesizers to unhinge around her soprano pipes. But sparse, surprisingly transparent ballads like "Smoking Section" and "New York," during which she seems more conflicted than corrupted, are equally important to the album's backbone. Because while it is exposed only when St. Vincent comes down from the frantic highs to reflect on intrapersonal issues rather than on how widespread chaos affects her daily life, her inner conflict is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. 

Masseduction is available now under Loma Vista Recordings.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Double Dutchess | Fergie

Fergie could have enjoyed both the luxury of name recognition and the artistic freedoms normally granted only to brand new artists when she embarked on a solo endeavor in 2006. But settling on the philosophy that things that aren't broken shouldn't be fixed, she didn't go far from what she knew:, The Black Eyed Peas ringleader and the executive producer of what everybody knows is Britney Spears' worst album, wasn't far from Fergie's side, producing and featuring on solo debut The Dutchess to immense commercial reception. And despite the album's wild success and what was once a widespread demand for a sophomore solo record, its long-overdue follow-up, Double Dutchess, is nothing but double trouble.

Double Dutchess feels so awkward largely thanks to its faulty timing. Between the releases of "L.A. Love (La La)" and the full-length record, I was able to earn a bachelor's degree. More importantly, though, the popular music industry has flipped what feels like 50 pages in its coursebook for success; DJ Mustard, whose production tag is sewn into "L.A. Love," fell out of style not long after the track's 2014 release. And by shoving the dated song alongside 12 unrelated, inconsistent ones produced amid a rocky promotion cycle and eventual record contract dissolution, she furthers the feeling that this haphazard pop album was forced together like a puzzle finished with pieces from six different boxes.

The Dutchess, even if ridiculous at times, maintained a grasp on a similar sonic palette: pop music built on retro-R&B production bases. Yet throughout Double Dutchess, Fergie cannot sit still – and it's hard to be taken seriously as the jack of all trades when critics barely considered her the master of one to begin with. Perhaps her least successful alter ego throughout is chintzy, second-rate reggae Fergie with "Love is Blind," but following close behind is adult contemporary Fergie, who hit the jackpot once on "Big Girls Don't Cry" but couldn't dare repeat it on acoustic-based tracks "Life Goes On" and "Save It Til Morning" on this album.

It's only when Fergie stops taking herself too serious attitude that Double Dutchess reveals its best material. "Tension" dives into deep synths and a seductive guitar line, making for the album's most blatant highlight as Fergie takes to the dance floor. Interpolating the one-off '80s hip-hop hit "It Takes Two," the Nicki Minaj-featured "You Already Know" hypnotizes listeners into bouncing along to the classic sample and eventually rattling along with Fergie-Ferg and Minaj. Hell, even "M.I.L.F. $" is at least honest in its absurdity, making the relentless rap track at least ironically enjoyable as a party track in same sense as "My Humps."

But the attitude can be stretched only so far over poor songwriting. While fierce vocal delivery is meant to electrify tracks like "Hungry" and "Like It Ain't Nuttin'," Fergie fails to recognize that the ill-fated tracks, like many on Double Dutchess, should have been killed on the studio floor to spare everyone the trouble – three years of trouble for herself and a flurry of songwriters and producers. And so it seems that in attempt to convince herself that she didn't waste three years to produce weak melodies and uninspired lyrics for nothing, Fergie didn't even try to put lipstick on the pig that is this flimsy album – she just greased it up and let it loose on the streets anyway.

Double Dutchess is available now under Dutchess Music.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Younger Now | Miley Cyrus

Since her Can't Be Tamed days, Miley Cyrus has been pigeonholed as the poster child for hyper-maturity of child stars as they enter adulthood. With a fickle little muse on the hunt for the pop stardom's edgier sides, she went from sexy to absurd and from absurd to alarming. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, her 2015 passion project released online independently from her record contract two years after Bangerz ignited her public image, was a marijuana-laced call for attention... or help... or both. For what it's worth, at the era's peak, we watched Cyrus cover the raunchy "My Neck, My Back" on stage while wearing nipple pasties and giant butterfly wings.

Now, reversing the underlying desire for maturity that determined her career's schizophrenic trajectory for over a decade, Miley Cyrus is ready to come home. Denouncing her wild, albeit undeniably fun, days spent teddy bear-humping and wrecking ball-riding, she has scrubbed up her image to become an innocent, carefree, Nashville-bred girl once again. And in doing so, she has planted her sixth studio album, Younger Now, at home base, where she began years ago with crossover radio hit "The Climb" – country music, or at least the closest she go to it as a pop artist.

As she admits on the record's title track, Cyrus has never been one to stay in place for very long. And although country-pop is many worlds away from the hip-hop-drenched Bangerz and the psychedelic trip delivered courtesy of Dead Petz, her transition somehow feels as much natural as Lady Gaga and Kesha's moves to country and rock influences in the past year. After all, she is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus and goddaughter of Dolly Parton, who makes her umpteenth guest vocalist appearance this year on the peace-seeking "Rainbowland." They sing together in a jubilant but nondescript chant, with Cyrus' pipes overtaking Parton's muted warble.

Expanding upon the ignorant, escapist bliss of "Rainbowland," the record lives largely behind rose-tinted glasses, a natural viewpoint for a woman who has just fallen back in love. The breezy SoCal soft rock "Malibu," one of radio's most outstanding songs this year, breathes a sigh of relief after a turbulent past with once-ex, now-reconciled fiancé, Liam Hemsworth: "I never would've believed you if three years ago you told me I'd be here writing this song. But here I am, next to you. The sky's so blue in Malibu." But unfortunately, the album doesn't reach that track's level of outwardly infectious musicality again until "Thinkin'," a sassy, thumping cut toward the record's back end.

Cyrus has always ensured her voice is her music's headliner, never allowing even the heaviest beats of Bangerz to deduct from its power. And the same can be said here, even given how heavily this album relies on her newest image reinvention into a breezy, seemingly non-confrontational singer who is once again family-friendly and undeniably charming. But there are times when love just isn't enough; producer Oren Yoel can stretch the strings of the same acoustic guitar only so far before they break, especially when Cyrus demands on laying her average songwriting atop the same acoustic tone throughout. "Miss You So Much" and "I Would Die For You," for example, both drag listeners through their run times without the reward of a moral or captivating hook.

Younger Now starts and ends on its strongest notes, with the title track and "Malibu" at its commencement and back-to-back ballads "She's Not Him," a sparse reflection on her pansexuality, and "Inspired," a quaint acoustic ballad that shimmers with childhood memories and a bundle of hope, closing the curtains. In between those bookends, it begins to take a mushier formation. Like an undercooked cake, things begin to taste less appetizing than the first few tastes around the outside. Nevertheless, every bite is still sweet enough to take another, which is more than can be said about her last reincarnate. And if she spends more than few years in this new musical phase, she may be able to perfect it before her next outing.

Younger Now is available now under RCA Records.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Now | Shania Twain


Never has one guitar riff been so capable of igniting such a staggering excitement in every crowd it is played before, each one eager to respond with a resounding chorus: "Let's go girls!" Much like the album from which it originated, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" adopted a life much larger than the artist who birthed it. By the time it was released in winter 1999,  singer-songwriter Shania Twain was already over a year deep in the promotion of Come on Over, a mammoth album that remains the best-selling album from a female act in the United States.

Up!, the album to follow after the turn of the millennium, was an ambitious reaction to her extraordinary fame. The mega-record went bigger, boasting three discs of 19 tracks dressed in different production styles: a country disc to pacify original fans who had stuck around since The Woman in Me days, a pop disc to cement the love from those who were swept up in her previous record's country-pop charm, and a Bollywood-style disc for the hell of it. It fanned hits, though not as many as its predecessor, across pop and country formats, strengthening her crossover appeal.

And when it seemed as if Shania Twain couldn't go any larger, the instinct was right. Not long after Up! and a subsequent greatest hits compilation, Twain's stage went dark. And behind the curtain, her world imploded. Her husband and sole musical collaborator on her largest three records, Robert "Mutt" Lange, was caught in an affair with Twain's best friend, a saga that rolled out to fans via tabloid magazine sidebars. Meanwhile, battles with dysphonia and Lyme disease almost stripped her of a vital luxury: her voice. Happiness ensued, though, when she found solace in Lange's mistress' then-husband, whom Twain married after both couples divorced.

Upon her return to the spotlight a decade after Up!'s release, she planted her feet as a nostalgia act – one with a Vegas residency packed with all the hits and a bit of pizzazz. She even took the act on the road, crossing North America on an all-time performer's high and a promise to follow up with new music. Making good on that promise, she has released her fifth studio album eagerly but cautiously, like a swimmer who dips her toe into the water to ensure it's a proper temperature before she cannonballs into the deep end. Titled Now, it's a pop-lite effort that burrows into glossy, streamlined soundscapes that hyperextend what country music can be.

It's a fitting title as we watch Twain find her place in today's pop culture, what must feel like fifty worlds away from what she left behind in the last decade. She once wrote a mix of remarkable love ballads and empowerment anthems with feminist intentions, leveraging herself as a titan for the everyday woman. Although accusatory tracks like "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" or "Waiter! Bring Me Water!" invoke quite a strange feeling in hindsight, never was it implied or believed that Twain, who worked on music only with her then-husband, wrote them from an autobiographic perspective. But damn, she delivered them with an attitude that made it hard to believe that she had to feign sincerity.

Playing a relatively similar role as she did years ago, today's Shania Twain prides herself on optimistic, self-motivating tracks. Just as informal and conversational as she was when we last heard from her, she now channels a personal place, loosely entwining leftover scars from her nearly decade-old divorce. Lead single "Life's About to Get Good," for example, carries a cheery disposition and not-so-subtle jabs at Lange over a thumping, awkwardly thin soundscape: "The longer my tears fell, the wider the river. It killed me that you'd give your life to be with her." Likewise, she sings, "Still can't believe he'd leave me to love her" on the not-so-country "Poor Me."

While it retains its cornerstones, her sound isn't as unmistakably Shania as before. Having sustained permanent damage after her battle with Lyme disease, her voice idles at a lower pitch and is blanketed with a nasally overtone. The gusto she has left is steamrolled into synthetic productions deemed thin enough to give her voice the competitive edge, even though she has proven herself capable of railing through her older, thicker tracks after they've been tailored down a half-step or two. Nevertheless, she delivers her sustained notes statically ("Swingin' with My Eyes Closed," "Soldier") and sounds most comfortable on the lowest rumbles of "Roll Me On the River" and "We Got Something They Don't," back-to-back standout tracks sparked alive by stern drumbeats and walls of instrumentation.

With thinner, lighter soundscapes and an even larger ratio of contemporary pop to country trends, Now proves that Twain is genuine when she says she has serious interest in collaborating with the likes of Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj, be that for better or for worse. The chords that open "Poor Me" can be traced back to The Chainsmokers, and trendy island island beats breeze their way into dance-country hybrid track "Swingin' with My Eyes Closed." Luckily, the latter leans more towards her roots, sharing a warm, country-based sound with "Home Now." Nothing feels more familiar to Shania fans, however, than "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl," a mid-tempo country track that finds Twain's melody leaning into a soft pile of backing harmonies.

An album titled Now insinuates life in the moment, without the past's interference in thoughts and actions. Given her statements in the press during this record's promotion cycle, it seems that's what drew Twain to the title. But even as much as she refuses to admit it, the present is here only because the past paved the way – the chaotic past that she has referenced time and time again in her newest work, from the cheetah print revival from "That Don't Impress Me Much" to the direct nods toward her divorce. Ultimately, despite the reluctance to throw a "divorce record" tag onto Now, humility yields to honesty too often throughout the record for it not to wear the dreaded label.

In her past life, Twain created monstrous albums that had only two gears: slow-burning, unbelievably great love ballads and uptempo, unbelievably great firecrackers. Today, she stalls somewhere on middle ground, making one of her shortest records feel like her most bloated. But even given its sterile production that may be better off classified as adult contemporary rather than country, Now is also her most emotional and most honest. Penning the therapeutic album by herself, she doesn't play the everyday woman but proves she is the everyday woman – one who has been hurt and has managed to heal. So sure, it's certainly no Come on Over, but that's because it was never meant to be another Come on Over anyway.

Now is available now under Mercury Nashville.