Double Album Review: Justin Bieber – Purpose & One Direction – Made in the A.M.

Let’s talk about narrative for a moment.

Narrative in mass culture is essentially hype on a continuum. It connects and contextualizes a cultural figure’s actions to give them heft, and is made from a combination of historical record, information directly from the source, fan speculation, and prattling from pop culture nerds like myself. It’s an ongoing saga, and an easy to way to answer “but what does it mean?” Narrative, for example, is saying Beyonce wasn’t a gimmick, but a show of force. It’s what says Adele is the queen of interpreting human sadness instead of someone who has made two very nice albums. It’s what gives Drake his power. It’s an energy field created by all tweeting things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

I bring this up because Justin Bieber is currently a walking ball of narrative and self-mythology. Narratives are usually given a spark by the artist before everyone else runs with them, but no one is pushing “Justin the Redeiber” harder than his base camp, almost to the point that whatever Purpose sounds like is secondary to the record as Bieber’s act of contrition. The goal of this album cycle is to walk back the Actual Shitty Person reputation he’s earned in the last few years, and if they sell a few singles, too, then so be it.

To understand the Narrative, let’s look at “Where Are U Now?”, the Bieber assisted Diplo/Skrillex collaboration that kicked the Biebenaissance off earlier this year. “Where Are U Now?” is included on Purpose, partly because it was a hit/soft launch for the album, and partly because its sad-bro, tropical, post-dubstep EDM pop sound is the album’s template (singles “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” are almost direct rewrites, while “I’ll Show You” uses the same tricks as a ballad). It is, along with the album’s singles so far, a pretty catchy and quality song, but it derives most of its flavor from the production, with Bieber more or less contributing decent if not essential vocals. In fact, the best part of “Where Are U Now?” is the post-chorus breakdown, where he’s only present in the form of a processed beyond recognition wordless vocal. But the singles have yielded the same reaction: “Justin Bieber has new songs out, and they’re really good!” And, with good singles, Purpose is angled for a great reception, confirming that “Bieber is back!”

Here’s where the narrative loses track of reality.

Bieber’s gotten a lot of shit during his career, but–one overplayed “Baby” aside–his music has never been that badBelieve wasn’t a slept-on masterpiece, but you could do a lot worse in the annals of 2010s pop than “As Long As You Love Me” or “Beauty and a Beat”. The Purpose singles are universally better, but by a narrower margin than what’s been stated elsewhere. I think it comes down to presentation: 2012’s Believe didn’t cleave entirely from Bieber’s teen pop aesthetic, while Purpose tries to age him as far up as possible with decidedly mixed results. “Hey girl” jams like “Company” and 90s R&B biting “No Pressure” attempt to sound mature, but come out as stifled. They make sense for the narrative, though; see? Justin is ready for you when you’re ready because he’s such a gentleman (see also: “What Do You Mean?”), song quality be damned.

Which makes the inclusion of “Love Yourself”, the second bitchiest “It’s-not-about-someone-real-except-it-probably-is” song Ed Sheeran‘s ever written, even more confusing. Maybe in the hands of someone with a sense of levity, “My mama don’t like you/And she likes everyone” could be funny, but Bieber delivers the line with all the seriousness of a sermon. And then, there are the actual sermons, like (snerk) “Life Is Worth Living”, “Purpose”, and “Children”, a song that has the gall to wonder out loud “What about the children?” But these songs aren’t here to be listened to, they’re here to tell us how sorry Justin is.

Really, if there’s one song and one sentiment to take from Purpose, it’s “Sorry”. It’s got the hallmarks of the album’s sound, but filtered through a slightly more dancehall sound, and the melody to it is quite nice (even the lyrics delve into ick). Otherwise, Purpose is more functional as a hard rest on Bieber’s career than an album. The singles are good, and you could argue that Halsey duet “The Feeling” is a nice production exercise, but don’t believe the hype. “Justin’s back” is reserved for whatever his next album sounds like.

If One Direction ever made an album concerned with narrative, this would be it: Made in the A.M. is their fifth album in as many years, their first without fifth man Zayn Malik, their last album before a temporary hiatus while they try solo careers, and they planned it for the same release date as Purpose. But does that translate to the album? “No!”, I can hear Harry Styles shout defiantly, “We’re not in the narrative business; we’re in the records business!” I can hear one of the three not-Harrys and not-Zayns adding.

Malik himself just did a Fader interview where he straight up admits that One Direction was designed to be “generic as fuck”, and whatever the band put out was handed down through management without room for that pesky artistic interpretation or some shit. Listening to Made in the A.M., this seems 1. totally believable, 2. something the remaining members are aware of, and 3. not that big a problem. Well, okay, it might be a problem for Harry and the other guys, but as a listener, it is disturbingly easy to if not enjoy, at least appreciate this album.

Made in the A.M. is the musical equivalent of those knockoff sandwich cookies you can buy sixty of for like, four bucks: you can turn your nose up at it, you can know it’s a fleeting, flimsy product, but you can’t quite dismiss it outright. Each song’s designed to be a cheaply enjoyable listen for its three to four minute run time while leaving a dimly positive reaction; the efficiency is nearly artistic in and of itself. And because the whole project has a flavor (loosely arena rock-y) and is bereft of the cynicism found in say, Maroon 5’s last few albums, it’s surprisingly hard to hate.

The album needs to skate by on that goodwill, because even a glance at Made in the A.M.‘s ingredients reveals wholesale lifts from other artists. Why yes, that is “Bittersweet Symphony”‘s drums on opener “Hey Angel”, thank you for noticing! Boy, sure was nice of the guys to reheat soggy Coldplay balladry for “Infinity”, wasn’t it? Look, there’s Sgt Peppers‘ worship on the jaunty “Olivia”, and don’t forget to wave at It Won’t Be Soon For Long era Maroon 5 when they show up on “Drag Me Down.” Oh, speaking of Beatles worship, did you see “Long Way Down”, an Oasis mid-tempo strummer, complete with Gallagheran lyrics like “We had a spaceship, but we couldn’t land it”? Or, best of all, “Perfect”, a Styles led response to Taylor Swift’s “Style” that straight up jacks the melody and beat on “Style”‘s chorus, and includes “If you’re looking for someone to write you breakup songs about/Baby, I’m perfect.” “Perfect”, like most of Made in the A.M., isn’t an especially great or memorable, but I almost gave it a point or two for the audacity alone.

That said, an album of cheap thrills can only get you so far, and Made in the A.M. doesn’t do enough to justify itself over most other pop albums. The guys sound fine, but faceless, and shiny but generic only works for six or seven songs, not thirteen; you might like storebrand cookies, but not enough to eat the whole package at once. The album’s in an odd place, better and more fun than I thought it’d be, but nothing I’ll go back to in a few months.

So, Purpose or Made in the A.M? Honestly, it’s practically a tie that comes down to preference: Purpose has a stronger identity, and more powerful singles, while Made in the A.M. is more rewarding as a whole, despite fewer aspirations. Gun to my head, I’d go with One Direction overall, but “Sorry” is the best thing on either album. If you’re a fan of either of these acts, go ahead and check’em out, but really, these are both set up albums for whatever comes next. The narrative continues.

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Album Review: Grimes – Art Angels

I just wanted Claire “Grimes” Boucher to be happy.

That’s odd for an album, but given that every artistic choice or news item about Grimes between 2012’s critically acclaimed Visions and now came with its own controversy, it seems like the only thing left. She released a pop single meant for Rihanna, and her fans hated her for it. She scrapped an entire album of material. She put out a demo song, and everyone loved it. She said the “Go” wasn’t meant for the album, anyway. Pitchfork called Visions single “Oblivion” the best song of the decade so far; Grimes says she hates it, and cringes when people hear her old albums because the new stuff is so much better. She sounds irritated with the whole process, which is totally understandable: Grimes is a self-conscious perfectionist, and working under intense scrutiny, pressure, and stakes that weren’t there last go around had to be agonizing (see also: Ocean, Frank. I don’t care if I never hear Boys Don’t Cry; I just want Frank to be at peace).

The time was worth it, though; Art Angels is fantastic on almost every level. The woozy, bedroom indie pop sounds from her previous work are still present throughout, but it’s like watching a YouTube clip from 2007 versus Blu Ray. You put “Genesis” from Visions against something like “Easily” or “World Princess, Pt. II”, and “Genesis” can’t help but sound a little chintzy next to Art Angels‘ clearer mixing and powerful bottom end. Grimes’ production style here uses tons of sounds in ever-changing arrangements that are both dramatic and subtle. On one hand, you’ve got moments like the chorus on “Kill V. Maim” where the guitar tracks, vocals, and pounding drums rip the song wide open, but slick moves like “Easily” at the same time, where there’s maybe a grounding element or two, like the beat and piano hook, but all sorts of elements fade in and out like a DJ set, and these are both enjoyable listens.

Actually, screw “enjoyable.” I’ll say it out right: “Kill V. Maim” is on the short list of my favorite songs of the year. Shit’s wild (it’s the much pull-quoted “gender switching, time-traveling vampire!Al Pacino” song). The song’s built on a dry, “Since U Been Gone” style guitar riff and a skittering drum beat that left turns into a mocking cheerleader chant and then pivots into a T.Rex of a chorus with snarling guitars and massive, stomping drums, giving that cheerleader all the force of a linebacker. And Grimes sounds absolutely batshit, jumping between her natural singing voice, the hyper-feminine cheerleader chant, throat destroying screams, and sped-up wailing while tossing off lyrics that are equally badass (“You gave up being good WHEN YOU DECLARED A STATE OF WAAAR”) and taunting (“Cuz I’m only a maaaan/And I do what I can”–sidenote, this is ). It’s a bonkers, subversive, “I am on my shit” banger that distills everything great about Art Angels in four minutes. I love it so.

“Kill V. Maim” is the album’s undisputed highlight, but honestly, there’s a lot of grade A material here. Third track “Scream” best embodies the album’s “I do what I want” ethos: Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes spits two surreal verses in Mandarin over guitar reminiscent of Metallica’s “Fuel”, and the chorus is just screams and baby growls. What a time. “California” and “Flesh without Blood” sound like top 40 country and pop singles beamed from the same alternate robot dimension that spits out Missy Elliot singles. But the album’s backhalf has gems, too, like big-bassed “Venus Fly” with Janelle Monae that’s a middle finger to beauty standards doubling as a club banger, or interlude “Life in the Vivid Dream” that dabbles in acoustic trip-hop.

Other favorite, the incredibly pretty New Wave track “Pin”, spins that prettiness by matching it with lyrics about cutting fingernails and the blood on your knees. That sort of dissonance is common with Grimes, but used to its greatest effect on Art Angels. She wraps these grim sentiments and diss track lyrics in brightly colored, highly concussive packages: check out “Belly of the Beast” that uses “Everybody dies, we anoint their eyes, and we dance like angels do”, or “When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” from “California”. Or hell, all of “Flesh without Blood” and “Venus Fly.” A kiss with a fist, indeed.

The talking point around Art Angels is that it represents Grimes’ sellout or radio move, which just isn’t true. She’s still making off-kilter, gonzo pop, just without a layer of synth grime to make it weird. Instead, this album’s weird derives from its overloaded sound, like the clattering sound effects and, er, laser sounds that sprinkle “California”, or the constantly shifting beat of the title track and “Flesh without Blood.”, not to mention Grimes’ frequently sped or pitched up vocals. Art Angels is a pop music record, but it’s not pop the same sense that, say Delirium is (besides, can you imagine this cover art sharing shelf space with 25?).

There’s a slight dip in the middle of the album with “Easily” and “Artangels” back to back, but even that’s negligible because the songs are interesting enough. Art Angels is a masterclass album that establishes Grimes not just as a solid performer with a distinct vision, but as a potential big name producer down the road. She produced this entire album herself, can you imagine her doing a Nicki or Rihanna track, or a Gorillaz collaboration? It’s exciting. I’m honestly surprised at how much I like this album, especially because I couldn’t stand Visions (hating Visions feels like a minority opinion, so let me explain: I respected that, Grimes doing important work, but the songs didn’t grab me and the whole project felt it skated by on aesthetic at times. Couple that with the “post-internet bb” status Grimes had at the time, and just listening to the album made me feel like an asshole for liking indie music). Art Angels is, in a lot of ways, about the frustration in making Art Angels, and that could have turned toxic. But, it’s telling that the album’s last lyric, “If you’re looking for a dream girl/I’ll never be your dream girl” is a gleeful declaration. This is a record that kicks back at a world that harries you, but it doesn’t do so out of meanness or spite. It does so to declare the best thing a record can say in 2015: Here I am, and I love myself.

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Album Review: Ellie Goulding – Delirium

Ellie Goulding named her third album “Delirium” because she felt like it summed up her life, but the term describes her confusing, ungrounded place in pop music, as well. “Lights” broke out in 2012, and follow-up Halcyon/Halcyon Days kept her on the map, but Goulding has always had a sense of remove from pop’s center. She makes music that, even at its brightest, has an “outsider” affiliation, if only you can feel the distance between her profile and that of, say Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift. At the same time, she doesn’t have a cushy indie critic reputation like fellow 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack collaborator The Weeknd, nor is she especially beholden to the EDM scene, despite joint efforts with big names like Skrillex and Calvin Harris. All of this together makes for a career that pulls in every direction, but feels incoherent.

Goulding seems aware of this, and has billed Delirium as her attempt “to make a big pop album.” The move makes sense: Goulding for the last few years now has been consistent if not essential chart performer, she’s built a solid presence, and she has forward momentum from her ubiquitous 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack single “Love Me Like You Do.” In declaring Delirium her pop move and a “desire to be on another level”, she’s setting the album up to be The One: the album where the gains and exposure she’s achieved in the last few years are cashed in for a place within the pop elite. Goulding wants Delirium to be her 1989, or at least her Beauty Behind the Madness.

Calling Delirium “a big pop album” also makes sense because it’s the shortest, straightest line from question to answer in describing what the album is. There are no bids for genre radio stations, no guest verses, or no plays for hipster cred; just an onslaught of three and a half to four minute bangers-deliberately-written-as-“bangers” with the broadest appeal possible. The record stays firmly in mid-tempo electropop, where the hooks are in explosive choruses that follow quiet bridges. There’s nary a surprise to be found, but that doesn’t make Delirium any less catchy. It’s as down the middle a pop album as you’re going to hear.

This is actually less a good thing in practice than you’d think in concept. While there isn’t an outright bad song on Delirium, and I’d even hesitate to call something like “Holding On For Life” (standard big budget electropop augmented with a raved up choir backing the chorus and disco piano chords) filler, other songs hit the same pleasure centers, like the horn-assisted hook and big drums of “We Can’t Move to This.” Albums where every song wants to be The Single have this problem; even good material can feel stale without a sense of pacing or any attention to variety. On one hand, “Around U”, “Codes”, and “Don’t Panic” are all super enjoyable pop songs, but together they’re a tedious sum of ruthlessly catchy parts. I like the loosely acoustic, vulnerable ballad “Army” because, well, because it’s one of the best songs here, but I’d be all for it, if only since it’s the one time the album stops to take a breath.

I get why Goulding and company made an album where any song could be a single: Goulding has a weird (read: poor) history at predicting her hits. Her biggest songs have been last chance hits or tracks written for year-later rereleases, not fire-on-arrival lead singles. It is, in a weird way, logical for her to hurl an album of potential chart busters at the public, and let the free (streaming) market decide a single for her.

That’s not a knock on robo-bouncy lead single “On My Mind” or second, groovy offering “Something in the Way You Move”, all I’m saying is nothing stick until, like “Devotion” with its guitar loop and Daft Punk-ized vocals takes off in March. And, if it doesn’t, I’m sure whatever leads from the High Delirium reissue will do the trick. Meanwhile, fans can pull from tuneful jams like “Keep on Dancin'”, “Lost and Found”, or “Around U” for playlists. For me, the downright effervescent “Don’t Panic”, which sounds like a slightly polished outtake from Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION is a keeper, and opener “Aftertaste” and the aforementioned “On My Mind” are great, too. But, for me, “Don’t Need Nobody”, a full-bodied banger that sounds like DJ Mustard gone Top 40, is Delirium‘s best chance at pop supremacy.

It speaks to how much I like “Don’t Need Nobody” that, at ten songs in, it got me reenergized for Delirium. Like I said, I get why the album’s structured the way it is, but holy shit is it overloaded. Not only does every song playing out to the back row at Coachella, but the standard edition tallies 16 tracks in a whopping 56 minutes (the deluxe edition pushes this to 78 minutes, the longest an album can go before it defaults to double album status). This might be understandable if the record had any discernible peaks or valleys or a narrative, but that kind of length is grueling for what amounts to a collection of songs. And while they’re good songs by an indefatigable performer, I suspect Goulding will be waiting awhile longer for that next level to arrive. A long pop career is the result of a focused effort, not something attainable in fit of Delirium.

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Radio Rant: Adele – Hello

Hel–oh sorry, hello to you, too, Adele.

She’s back, y’all. Rumor’s had it for a while that Adele was eyeing a November release date for the follow-up to her global smash 21, but we finally have the details on (wait for it) 25. She’s forgoing the usual album preroll for a lightning fast campaign: the album’s out November 20th, and just about everything about it only came out this week, including the lead single. I’m not sure how the blitz will pan out for her in the long run, but at least in the short-term, its accomplished the goal of making Adele the biggest news in a week that’s seen Drake release a video tailor-made for memes, and the latest waft of cologne in Justin Bieber’s tepidly tasteful comeback.

I’ll admit, it’s surprising to see Adele everywhere with barely any notice, but you have to remember that 21 was an album that was fucking everywhere. It spawned three number one hits, spent 24 weeks on top of the charts, won every award possible, and sold ten million copies in a little under two years. Taylor Swift’s 1989 might keep that pace, but Adele did it before Billboard updated their rules to include streams; that ten million was done in pure albums sold. One well-received Bond theme and three years of nothing later, here we are with “Hello” and 25, and I feel a little conflicted.

Let’s get this out of the way: “Hello” is a perfectly great Adele song. It’s stately, it’s sweeping, it sounds like a million bucks. It sufficiently tugs at the heartstrings, particularly at the final chorus around three and a half minutes in. Adele gave a sky-high vocal performance on the record, and I’m sure she will be just as great on that soaring chorus when she plays late shows and award ceremonies live with a piano to her right, and a choir behind her. The song eases back somewhat on Adele’s overt classicist production by using softer drum sounds and keeping the strings tucked in the farthest reaches of the background, and I swear there’s some textured synth sounds in the chorus somewhere. In short, “Hello” is everything you like about Adele polished toward perfection.

But, right now, I can’t say I’ve fallen for “Hello.” I can recognize that it’s a brilliant move technically, artistically, and (probab–oh, let’s not kid ourselves) commercially, but my heart’s not in it yet. A lot of it has to do with the nature of Adele’s music; historically, her songs click with prolonged exposure over months instead of within the first week or two of listening. Her brand of universal-but-specific songwriting, and detailed if unflashy arrangements sound best after you’ve gotten familiar with them, otherwise she sounds great, but boring (it’s worth noting that “Rolling in the Deep” went to number 1 in May 2011, some six months after its November 2010 debut). Come back to me later, and I’m sure I’ll be wrapped up in it, but right now I’m still looking from the outside in. Let’s see some lyrics.

“Hello, it’s me, I was wondering/If after all these years you’d like to meet to go over everything” I don’t know if this is a continuation from 21, but I don’t know that it isn’t, either. Solid introduction to bring back the Queen of Aching.

“Hello, can you hear me?/I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be” This might be the most somber song to ever use “California dreaming”.

“Hello from the otherside/I must’ve called a thousand times/To tell you I’m sorry, for everything that I’ve done/But when I call you never seem to be home” 25 is Adele’s designated “make up album”, but no one said making up was easy.

“Hello from the outside/At least I can say that I’ve tried/To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart/But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore” That’s a hell of a one-two from “You never seem to be home” to “It clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore”. It’s a tragic progression from 21: you can miss someone on your own, but closure is a team effort.

I certainly respect and even like “Hello”, even if I feel like I’m missing something from it right now. It updates Adele’s sound and perspective just enough to feel different from 21, and it works well as a reintroduction, but it’s hardly a departure. If you’re on the Adele hype train already, this is your everything; if not, “Hello” falls into the same category of being overpowering but kind of dull, a criticism of her work that probably isn’t going away soon. On a related note, I don’t know if this sort of flash delirium album rollout will work for her. Adele’s music is a lot of things, but I wouldn’t say “urgent” is among them, and you kind of need that for these proto-surprise releases. Then again, for an artist who commands attention like she does, I’m not sure it matters. That’s why I’m okay giving “Hello” time to sink in: I know it’s not going away soon.

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Album Review: Allison Weiss – New Love

You follow someone long enough on Twitter, you get an inside(ish) perspective on what they do with their time. In the case of musicians, it’s also a peek into their headspace while making an album. That can mean they’re drinking more coffee, living a healthier lifestyle, listening to something different, or even having a mental breakdown. Doing a longtime follow for indie singer-songwriter Allison Weiss means I’ve noticed that she is driving like, all the time. Granted, most artists at Weiss’ level are going to spend a healthy portion of a year crisscrossing states, regions, and time zones in the van, but she’s always at work somehow, somewhere. Be it a quick jaunt of supporting dates, an extended tour, or relocating from New York to Los Angeles following 2013’s excellent Say What You Mean, you feel every mile alongside her. She even has her own Spotify On the Road playlist.

All this is to say that of course Weiss made, well, first of all a great album, but also one of the year’s best driving albums. This is by design: lead single “Golden Coast” is about going out west to clear your head and get away from a negative space, and “Motorbike” is literally the sound of someone relieving tension by driving around. But more than touchstones, New Love is a killer road album because the whole record has a sense of forward motion; even a slower, middle cut like “Out of This Alive” cruises on clean guitar arpeggios, nimble bass, and light drumming with the inherent momentum that only comes after you’ve logged an hour into this highway trip already. It’s even possible to see the album’s arc as a drive: “The Sound” is a slow, ever building number that mirrors the rising anticipation in starting a long trip and leaving your familiar streets, while the rollicking “Who We Are” contains the excitement of hitting the open road. From there, it’s all systems go in the first half through “Good Way”, a brief, mid-drive “there’s nothing out here” zone out on “Out of This Alive” and “Over You”, followed by the closing-in rally of “Motorbike” and the title track, and the tired-eyed revelation and comfort of arriving on “The Same”.

And despite a saying about a long drive with nothing to think about, Weiss is doing plenty of thinking and reflecting during New Love. Like Say What You Mean and last year’s Remember When, the album is in the wake of a break-up, but frames the whole experience in the rear view; it’s something you only think about alone and late at night instead of being all-consuming. You can sketch an outline for the album’s thoughts on the break-up, too: after realizing she can’t stop thinking about hurt on “The Sound”, Weiss plays through an optimistic reunion for “Who We Are” before spending the album’s first half convincing herself to walk away for real (this section includes the aforementioned “Golden Coast” and “Back To Me”, an awesome song rendered heartbreaking in context), finally culminating in the crash of “Good Way”. New Love‘s back half finds her having to live with the decision, including falling to pieces over seeing an ex on social media, and trying desperately to move on from them. Weiss sums it up best in the chorus from the title track: “There’s no love like new love/You’re moving on and all I want is you, love”.

Whereas Say What You Mean‘s closer “I’ll Be Okay” hinted at some nebulous Resolution someday, New Love‘s final song “The Same” leads with “Is anybody never really over anyone?” and concludes that “we’ve all got feelings that we can’t explain/we’re all a little bit the same”. It’s the complicated emotion of moving on in some way, but maybe not in the big way you were expecting, and that’s okay.

But, New Love isn’t all high-minded ideas on four wheels and hearts in motion, it’s also a blast to listen to. The big story here is that Weiss has traded a scrappy, borderline pop-punk guitar rock for polished synth pop (there’s a really easy 1989 comparison I’m not going to make here), but the move is less dramatic than you’d think. Weiss has more prominent (and impressive) synths here, and the guitar is de-emphasized, but Heartthrob it ain’t. Even after opening with a wave of synths, “Golden Coast” still utilizes guitars in the same, single picked line way she used them previously, and “Back to Me” features reverb guitar riffs straight out of The War on Drugs playbook and a great synthed up bridge to boot. The album uses plenty of keyboards, but they get used in the context of a pop rock writer; anyone whose listened to Weiss so far won’t be surprised by these songs.

I’ve written this about Weiss enough that I’m running out of ways to say it, but she’s still one of the most underrated songwriters working today. The songcraft is still fantastic, and this album finds her adding new details, like the vocal outlines on the title’s song second verse, and coloring outside the lines somewhat. For example, the dynamics on “Good Way”–going from acoustic strumming to thick, fuzzed out guitars a mile wide–are more dramatic than she’s tried previously. And her knack for hooks and melody remains untarnished despite fairly rapid output. I called Remember When a workshop, and it pays off in Weiss sounding utterly confident when she goes big here.

If you wanted to hold something against New Love, it’s that it doesn’t have as many quick thrills as Say What You Mean, but again, that’s likely by design. SWYM was made to fire on all cylinders; NL is a sleeker, and possibly more fulfilling product, it just takes a few more spins to appreciate. The album’s outlined in great songs between “Who We Are” and “New Love”, and the rising section between “Golden Coast” through “Good Way” is top-notch. It compares to, and in my opinion, outdoes 1989 as a concept driven pop record that breaks down a relationship. The album ends without a resolution, leaving the road before us open. Good thing Weiss gave us something great to listen to on the way.

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Radio Rant: The Weeknd – The Hills

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s get working for this one today.

Today, we’re here for The Weeknd (aka: Abel Tesfaye), a guy who, depending on your circles, was only really known last year as either “dude on that Ariana Grande track” or “Indie Critic Boom, Pop Market Bust #86″. He’s been in music for a few years, but 2015’s his pop takeover, first with “Earned It” from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, and then “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” from his new album Beauty Behind the Madness, a record that’s played great with critics and audiences alike. He’s going to be a pop force going forward, so let’s take a look.

A driving force behind The Weeknd is he’s very much a Drake or Taylor Swift; someone with a distinct persona that’s readily apparent in their songs. For Tesfaye, that persona is basically the Venn diagram overlay of “Dirty Diana”, “Closer”, and “Say You Will” while totally missing the point that those songs are about freaked out, lonely, pathetic dudes. His music plays with control and sex (and a lotta drug use) on the most surface level possible; he looks at coked out, needy hook-ups and thinks “shit’s dope” without considering what kind of fucked up baggage a person needs to get there. It’s like that bro who sees Fight Club and thinks Brad Pitt’s the good guy. I wouldn’t call it a coincidence that Fifty Shades of Grey was the Trojan Horse aspect of The Weeknd’s campaign for pop stardom.

And I mean campaign very nearly literally. Every move from “Love Me Harder” until now has been selling a palatable version of The Weeknd to a mass audience; it doesn’t get much closer to shaking hands and kissing babies in the pop world than slick collaborations with Max Martin and features with Possible Actual Baby Ariana Grande. Then you’ve got “Earned It”, where Tesfaye got to pretend models in high-waist bikini bottoms with taped up T-and-A and “you earned this dick” lyrics were in character for Fifty Shades of Grey, and not just his usual aesthetic hemmed at the edges. But “The Hills” going to number one feels like the campaign has ended in triumph.

“The Hills” is The Weeknd back in his moody, hazy, wheelhouse. The song opens with stabs of massive synth fuzz like a drug trip before dropping down to a sparse hi-hat/snare beat with light synth for the verses. Horror movie style strings start playing under the beat as the verses build, and, because I guess The Weeknd just wanted to make a Halloween banger, the chorus starts with a woman’s scream. The strings reach fever pitch while the beat goes full on pop-trap and Tesfaye jumps into his falsetto for a chorus that might be as on the nose as white powder from a glass table, but is still fairly catchy. The music doesn’t deviate from this palette too much–there are no sweeping flourishes to the final chorus or anything–but the bridge/outro is an appropriately haunted sounding bit of atmospherics and piano interplay (complete with an outro sung in Amharic, the language Tesfaye grew up with and the first language of Ethiopia). Interestingly enough, “The Hills” is technically Beauty Behind the Madness‘ lead single; it was released before “Can’t Feel My Face” but has only just now peaked. I get it though: if you liked the winking entendre there and in “Love Me Harder”, then you can get through the sex and drugs on “The Hills” just fine.

With the order his singles have crested, “The Hills” can’t help but feel like The Weeknd rebranding on some level. Not only is his normal schtick back, but it’s back in the bluntest way possible. Dude’s two albums, three mixtapes, and four years into his career; using “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” as a hook is uninspired. Let’s see some more lyrics.

“Your man on the road, he doin’ promo/You said, ‘Keep our business on the low-low'” Would it surprise you to know that The Weeknd has a pretty big Drake cosign?

“I’m just tryna get you out the friend zone” Bro, if you’re coming over for an agreed upon smash, I don’t think either of y’all have to worry about the friend zone.

“I can’t find your house, send me the info” I only mention this line because Tesfaye sings it in this lecherous croak, and the image of him trying to still seduce this woman while being totally lost in her neighborhood is too funny to pass up.

“I only call you when it’s half-past five” As someone who used to have to wake up and be out the door at half past five, no one is having fun at half past five. Trust me.

“I only love it when you touch me, not feel me/When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” #TinderBiosBeLike

“I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you” Holy shit, Abel, you have a flippant attitude toward the people you rely on for sex, we get it.

“Drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf” Holy shit, Abel, you have a flippant attitude toward the substances you rely on to feel ~alive~, we get it.

I did a catch up on The Weeknd before Beauty Behind the Madness came out, and I like a lot of his stuff, but his biggest downfalls are always going to be subject matter and a painful lack of self-awareness. Like Lana “the most problematic of faves” Del Rey, Tesfaye’s playing around with a purposely fucked up character here, but doesn’t do enough on “The Hills” and elsewhere to make the character seem big enough or removed enough to be meaningful in any way, and the “don’t like me, just fuck me” attitude gets wearing in how unthinking it gets. Even Del Rey feels like she’s inching toward awareness these days. For the short term, though, “The Hills” is a decent song and an introduction to The Weeknd proper. Welcome to his twisted fantasy.

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Radio Rant: Billboard’s Top Ten (Probably) Songs of the Summer 2015

So, you might be asking yourself why you’re reading about Songs of the Summer now that we’re ankle deep in college football season and drowning in Pumpkin Spice Everything (I’m more a fan of the Caramel Apple Spice, but that’s neither here not there). A year or two ago, Billboard switched their Songs of the Summer chart from being one final chart for the whole summer to a chart that updated every week between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I kept an eye on this damn thing for the last month for some sort of final list, but they finally stopped updating it this month without doing one final summer list for me to cover. I’m late enough already, so I took the confirmed top five, and fiddled with Billboard’s math to rig an approximate top ten. It’s not the Official Billboard Songs of the Summer, but it’s pretty damn close. Also, their list is now twenty songs, which is like, entirely too much work. Anyway, here we are.

10. Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MO – “Lean On”

“Lean On” is one of the better distillations of Diplo’s “world EDM”, and probably my favorite EDM crossover hit of the summer. That production is slick as hell–it even manages to make DJ Snake’s signature wheup wheups sound light on their feet–and MØ’s cooler than thou vocals give the song a color to stand out on the radio. Apparently Rihanna turned down the song, and I get why: you can practically hear her on it, but it’s also the sort of thing she seems bored with, if her new stuff is any indication. I’m glad someone picked it up, though.

9. Skrillex & Diplo With Justin Bieber – “Where Are U Now?”

Man, two music villains and the dude who has the sins of dubstep laid at his feet. This song shouldn’t have had a chance. And yet, it works more or less because everyone involved is a goddamn professional. Skrillex and Diplo’s beat has a nice build to it with one hell of a payoff in that post chorus that thumps in like six different ways, and doing a feature like this was a nice soft opening for the inevitable Biebaissance. Bieber’s vocals are best when they’re pitched beyond belief; he’s just a little too mewling here for my liking–but this is still better than it had the right to be.

8. David Guetta feat. Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack – “Hey Mama”

Oh my God, the bottom third of this list has enough people for its own fantasy league. Anyway, the beat’s a standard D.Guetta speaker destroyer that feels claustrophobic, but with a few Caribbean tones thrown in. Nicki’s at that level where she can show up in mercenary hitmaker mode, add a touch of her own Trinidadian roots (and a solid verse), and redeem what would otherwise by complete filler. I didn’t think I’d look at a David Guetta song in 2015, but here you go.

7. Walk the Moon – “Shut Up and Dance”

I’m conflicted about these dudes. On one hand, I’m happy to see anyone from Cincinnati blow up, but on the other hand, they feel made up of the least interesting parts of The Killers. That Edge-biting guitar riff, the manic dance beat, corny lyrics, unabashed delivery, and the shamelessly 80s revivalism? All Killers standbys! This song is Walk the Moon’s chase the radio moment, and while it’s basic as shit, that “Whoo-hoo-hoo!” on the chorus is one hell of a hook. Sometimes a song doesn’t make you just shut up and dance, but smile like you mean it.

6. Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”

It’s been so much damn fun to watch the critical consensus on Fetty Wap shift as this year’s gone on. With its gleefully amateur, well, everything, “Trap Queen” is one of those songs that kind of nags you when you first hear it. And then everyone realize the beat hits kind of hard while still being catchy, the whole concept is kind of crazy awesome, Fetty Wap launches himself into the song, and he did it two more times, and Fetty Wap became one of the year’s bigger success stories. “Trap Queen” still isn’t as much fun for me as “My Way”, but putting this many hits up at once has rightly put Fetty Wap in pop rap’s center. Couldn’t have happened to a more beautiful cinnamon roll.

5. Silento – “Watch Me”

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I worked as a summer camp counselor, which meant tons of exposure to whatever that year’s dance craze was, along with whichever teen stars were big at the time (it’s entirely possible this is why I’m still weary of Bieber). I mention this because I am positive that, if I still worked there, I would have heard “Watch Me” at least four times a week, and hate it. As it stands, I have only heard “Watch Me” in full recently. And hate it.

4. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”

Earlier this week, I surmised that Max Martin in 2014 wasn’t Quincy Jones in 1982. Max Martin in 2015 is still not Quincy Jones in 1982, but damn is he close. No small part of that is Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, who officially overtakes Bruno Mars for Most Baldfaced Michael Jackson Impression for “Can’t Feel My Face”. The intro still feels a little disjointed from the rest of the song, but once that first chorus (and that bassline, dear God that bassline) kicks in, “Can’t Feel My Face” becomes downright addictive. Is a G-rated banger written in collaboration with the mainstream pop producer a sell out move? Absolutely. Do I care? Not at all, and neither should you.

3. Taylor Swift ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Bad Blood” [remix]

This remix only kind of works–the beat feels a little slapdashed and like someone’s idea of a remix instead of an actual one–but can we appreciate how hilariously out of place Kendrick Lamar sounds here? Kendrick on mainstream pop remixes will never not be funny to me because he sounds good, but so out of his lane. He’s such a wordy rapper, and even though he gets in a nice Deez Nuts joke and “Backseat Freestyle” reference, he also namechecks the Iraqi Civil War and West Coast gansta rap on a goddamn Taylor Swift song. His airy delivery goes a long way, but still: Swift’s rhyming “problems” with “solve’em” while he’s playing tongue twisters with the letter “b” and stringing “need ya”, “procedure” and “amnesia” together. You’re working too hard.

2. Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth – “See You Again”

Man, this list almost made it without a brick (you could count “Watch Me”, but it’s more meme than song), then it drops a big one. This is one of those songs that clearly wants to feel deep and important but comes off maudlin and trite. The beat sounds like it was thrown together for someone’s high school graduation slideshow, asking Wiz Khalifa for emotional insight in the face of loss is akin to nurturing a plant with bong water, and Charlie Puth just an exceedingly poor version of Sam Smith. It’s blatant emotional profiteering at Paul Walker’s death; I feel like a chump just for listening to it.

1. OMI – “Cheerleader” [Felix Jaehn Remix]

Normally, this is where I’d say congrats to OMI for winning the annual Song of the Summer fight, but I’m starting to think the position’s cursed. LMFAO from 2011’s Party Rock came down hard the next year, and have been regulated to club hell since launching solo work. 2012’s winner Carly Rae Jepsen is trying so hard for a career that the blogosphere can’t will into existence no matter how hard they try. And then you have 2013 and 2014’s winners. Robin Thicke paid for “Blurred Lines” basically with his life, while last year’s breakout star Iggy Azalea’s career came crashing down so hard she had to cancel her tour. So congratulations OMI, but be careful, dude. Hope this thing comes after Felix Jaehn; he’s the one who got you here in the first place.

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