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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Ryan Adams (and Taylor Swift) – 1989

There are some releases that feel inevitable, and some that, even on repeated listens, still inspire a dull amusement that, holy shit, this actually exists. Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s 1989, an album that’s spent the last week in ubiquity despite not existing in an ethereal or corporeal form in July, is firmly the latter.While  most musical endeavors are an end result of “anything can happen”, 198Adams (I gotta find a better abbreviation) is an end result of a very specific chain of actions.

For starters, Ryan Adams is exactly the sort of fringe lifer who could make this project happen in its best possible form. Adams is an insanely prolific songwriter; in addition to his workaholic solo discography, there are a litany of EPs, and even a number of straight up lost albums out there. Dude will start in on something like a “sci-fi metal concept album” or “three songs with Johnny Depp”, and, not only it will be made so, but it will be done because that will be what he genuinely wants to do. So, when starts posting fairly complete (and enticing) clips of Taylor Swift songs and says he’s gonna do it in full, there is a very real chance that this might actually happen.

Of course, Taylor Swift is largely responsible for RY989‘ release as well, and not just because they’re her songs. Support for Adams was as broad as it was immediate, but Swift campaigned loudest and hardest (such to the point that some fans groused she gave it more promotion than some of her own videos). You could easily argue that 19Addy9 was going to get released in some form or another, but let’s be real, it was Swift and Swift alone who got this thing finished in landspeed time and rubbing elbows with albums by The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey on iTunes as opposed to a quieter and later release ala Meow the Jewels.

But, hey, it’s here. Is it enjoyable? Absolutely! Adams dresses the album up in jangley, droning, roots rock melancholy without irreparably damaging the songs’ core structures. He makes some tweaks–reorients genders, drops the cringing rap-talk from “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off”–but these changes are Adams digging into a song’s pathos instead of doing some yahoo ironic cover. The changes are superficial; “Welcome to New York” is still an arms wide open, romantic greeting, but now it’s done as charging arena rock instead of blipping synth pop. “Out of the Woods” gets recut as a shuffling acoustic ballad with an extended coda, but the yearning in Swift’s original is still there. The most inventive recut, I’d say, is “Style”, which swaps out the exacting, hotblooded pulse of the original for a delightfully slurred and strutting rock tune that apes the original’s wide-eyed passion.

Only two songs strive for drastic reinvention. “Shake It Off”, which still feels like Taylor Swift’s first mean girl moment, is a quietly seething comeback that starts a little limp, but ends kind of awesome because of the Smiths-style guitar lead and Adams turns a repeated mantra of “I’m just gonna shake” into something kind of hopeful and kind of pissed. It’s cool, but I’m still partial to Screaming Females take. Much less successful–in fact, the only outright misfire here–is “Blank Space”. I’m not hot on the original, which we will get to in a bit, but recasting it as a lifeless Avett Brothers number is a downturn. These two songs highlight the key difference between Swift’s and Adams’ approach to the material: Adams plays up the vulnerability and introspection that’s always been (and ideally always will be) part of Swift’s songwriting, but in addition to those features, Swift on 1989 is very much someone performing in their moment, and Adams either can’t or won’t replicate that. You can feel that discrepancy most strongly on “Wildest Dreams”: I really like the Adams-ized shimmering, California pop rock version, but he doesn’t have the performance power Swift does. He blusters his way through the bridge, whereas she shines (“Wildest Dreams” is still one of Adam’s better compositions, though). Adams knows when to get out of the way, though, and “This Love” and “I Wish You Would” are the best songs on both versions.

While I like 198Ryn liking it feels complicated. A lot of that is because my opinion of 1989 is still complicated. Last year, I wrote that it was a smartly prepared, if undercooked, album that had a clear narrative, but felt cloying at the end of the day. Like, take “Blank Space” for example. I can sit here and praise it as an incredibly self-aware piece of songwriting that sets the stage for the album’s emotional and narrative punches while the video weaponizes and reclaims Swift’s status of “crazy ex-girlfriend” that the media (of which I am part) has perpetuated for years, all while looking poised as fuck, and mean every word of it. But, as a song, I would much rather talk about it than listen to it. That’s 1989 for me: the album is Swift at her most realized as a writer and especially as a performer, but she is so letdown by Max Martin, Shellback, and Ryan Tedder to the point that her success is in spite of the production, not because of it. 1989 wasn’t the best pop album of its year; it didn’t even have Swift’s best pop song. Even when the tempo throttles on “Shake It Off”, the end result is still too shellacked to be the pop gush it wants to be. Max Martin in 2014 ain’t Quincy Jones in 1982, you feel me?

All this is to say that I want to make sure I like the Ryan Adams version because I like vaguely alt. singer-songwriter schtick, not because Adams made something real or gifted her credibility. If anything, Adams has made these songs sound “deeper” while actually flattening them: the original “I Wish You Would” balanced its falling-in-slow-motion sadness with a bright edge to show the romantic conflict while Adams just has the sads. But, this is an awful lot to dump on a project that began life as a lark and ended as a well-sounding lark. I can’t imagine any of these becoming someone’s “definitive” version (at least I hope not), but anyone who found even a little to like in the original will like something here. I’m just waiting for Swift to announce her and Adams’ joint tour.

Posted in Album Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Should See Them Live: Marilyn Manson and The Smashing Pumpkins at Riverbend Music Center

How did it take The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson this long to go on tour together?

I mean, you look at Marilyn Manson’s The-Face-That-Launched-A-Thousand-Hot-Topics aesthetic, and The Smashing Pumpkins’ penchant for goth-y imagery that surfaced around 1998, and you’d think someone would start calling venue managers. But, that’s not the case, and now that elder-state alternative bands are sharing audiences more than they’re competing for them, a joint tour makes more sense than before.

Of course, I wasn’t really thinking about this when I bought a ticket. It was a lot more holyshitmyfavoritebandandMarilynMansonIguessiscomingtomytownandIshouldprobablygo. This hasn’t really come up on the site, but somewhere in my junior year of high school, I got in deep with The Smashing Pumpkins, and to this day, they remain my sole favorite band. I love all sorts of other cooler and smarter artists, but for whatever reason, the band led (and more or less defined) by a strident, bald, and perennially uncool Midwesterner is my long running favorite. So, I threw on my Zero T-shirt and Chucks, and a friend of mine and I made our way to the Riverbend amphitheater on the banks of the Ohio River.

But, to get to the bald man, I had to spend some time with the pale man.

Honestly, I figured Marilyn Manson would be an added novelty at best and a tolerated gimmick at worst when I bought the ticket. His stuff’s familiar enough to me that I figured outright boredom wouldn’t be an issue (you listen to enough Nine Inch Nails in high school, you kinda happen into some Manson singles eventually), but I didn’t have high hopes.

But here’s the thing: Marilyn Manson is kicking ass in 2015. His new album The Pale Emperor has a bluesy, glammed out, and outright mean edge to it, and that equally campy and sinister snarl carried over to his live show, as well. From my friend and I’s incredibly strategic “No one in the immediate vicinity seems annoying and the sightlines aren’t terrible” spot on the lawn, the band’s sound comprised of lumbering drums, shotgun-to-the-gut guitar, staggering bass, and Manson’s characteristic croaks and screams all turned up to eleven. Was it elegant? Shit no, but blasting through “Day Three of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Dope Show” like teenagers kicking over trash cans and smashing mailboxes with baseball  bats isn’t supposed to be.

More than high-grade new material, the Manson boom of 2015 is because he’s figured out how to survive without being a cultural lightning rod. In lieu of shocking a long gone moral majority, he’s focusing on owning the shit out of his image and making the most entertaining show possible with it. This meant a handful of wardrobe/suit changes (winner: a furry sportcoat and “Smooth Criminal” hat combo that I couldn’t get a good picture of–why did I only spring for a lawn spot?), an array of kitchen knife or brass knuckle grafted microphones, and a prop beer bottle that inked blood that Manson would occasionally use to “draw” on himself. The stage went through changes, too: the old banners and podium made their way out for “Antichrist Superstar” and “The Beautiful People”, and Manson sang one particular song from behind a customized pulpit (I’ll let you guess which song). Then there was his choice to sing “Sweet Dreams” while on a pair of stilts, complete with his own Britney-style headset mic. I’ve been part of musicals with lesser production values.

The spectacle of it all sprang to life (death?) because Manson seemed to be truly having a blast, whether he was strutting around while casually knocking over mic stands or amps, telling off the wall stories between sets, or flailing behind a podium like a coked out jack in the box; he was committed to playing as large as possible. Somewhere in the set, Manson said he’d grown up in Ohio and developed his persona here. It felt fitting that he’d be back while on a new high. I guess even the devil gets a redemptive arc.

So, after a surprisingly rad set from Manson, it was time to wait for The Pumpkins, and even though I was watching their stage be set up, it didn’t quite feel real yet.

Source: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Big Talk Films

Source: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Big Talk Films

If you ever get the chance, see your favorite artist live. The one who you listen to when no one’s watching. The one whose songs you know by heart (even the bad ones). The one who you don’t talk about often because so God help if you start, good luck finishing. Yeah, see them the second they come to your town. It’s the most validating fucking thing. Being there and experiencing moments you’ve internalized for years, like the floating guitar intro to “Mayonaise”, or the part in “1979” after the first verse when the band kicks in, as part of a world bigger than your headphones or your stereo or discs or data files is its own form of exhilaration.

The more we internalize our favorite music–or anything, really–it becomes more personal, sure, but it also gets easier to forget that it exists outside you. You pour enough of yourself in, and your favorite music becomes less of an arrangement of music and lyrics; it almost becomes an imaginary friend, if you let it. And feeling that rush crashing to life among a crowd of thousands (or hundreds or dozens)? There are few things that feel just that cool.

Of course, all this ~deeper meaning~ hinged on a good set, and The Pumpkins were more than happy to oblige. The stage dressing was minimal outside the draperies (so many draperies) hung from the stage’s electrics, and outside a crack about playing parties and funerals, the banter was kept light. The band let the songs do the work for them.

2015 seems like a fairly kind year for The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan in particular. Lineup woes have tapered off some, studio time has been productive, Anderson Cooper hasn’t talked any shit, and last year’s Monuments to an Elegy shored up the band’s reputation; for the first time in post-reunion Pumpkinland, things look stable and Corgan’s alright with his place in the world.

The setlist reflected this. Perhaps not surprising for a known contrarian, Corgan’s never been reliable for a “greatest hits” set, instead opting to use a few big songs to justify pulling deep from an extensive back catalog. Possibly because he was playing with Jimmy Chamberlain again, that policy changed for The End Times Tour–if was a high profile single, they played it (the only hit we missed was the encore of “Today”, which was apparently the tour’s stretch goal). A trio of songs from Monuments made their way in, as did a handful of deep cuts that were more illuminating than the rest of the set.

“Thru the Eyes of Ruby” and “Mayonaise” are long beloved fan favorites (“Mayonaise” is seen by many as their best; it spent years as my favorite song ever) that have been in and out of live rotation for years. Meanwhile, including “United States” and “The Crying Tree of Mercury” showed Corgan’s contrarian streak is alive and well: both come from lesser Pumpkins albums, and don’t have special traction with fans. It’s like Kanye breaking out “Drunk and Hot Girls”. It’s entirely possible that these songs made their way to Riverbend for the simple reason that Corgan likes playing them. And hell, it was entertaining: Corgan, a paisley-clad, lanky, six-foot-three Chicagoan, looked like he was having honest to God fun slow jamming on “Mercury”, and subbing a Hendrix-y take on “The Star Spangled Banner” into the ten minute metallic jam of “United States” instead of the song’s listless middle section on the record made for an awesome listen once the shock wore off.

I left with the last notes of crazy awesome encore “Geek U.S.A.” rattling in my head. To end with what might be Corgan and Chamberlain’s crowning achievement seemed like a perfect choice, and the whole band seemed thrilled to blast their way through it. Alternative Nation’s a world away from any relevancy, but for The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, it no longer seems to matter. They’ve settled into the long haul within their respective crowds, and sound comfortable in their own skins. And if you’re in that crowd, even from an emptying lawn spot, it’s a hell of a ride from here. Well done, bald man.

Posted in "Thoughts" | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radio Rant: Rachel Platten – Fight Song

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Whose on today?

Remember last year, when women ran the pop conversations and the pop charts so well that the idea that their place in pop music had been fundamentally rewritten was exciting and entirely plausible?

Yeah, 2015 ain’t having that shit; this year’s mission is all hail the status quo bro. The lone female artist whose made it to number one this year is Taylor Swift, and, of the two times she’s pulled that off, once was on a 2014 holdover, and the other held the top spot for a week, despite weak competition and major promotion. Female representation’s been down throughout the year: of the 14 longest running top ten hits introduced this year, only one is by a female artist, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” at #8 (7 of last year’s 14 longest running hits included a female performer, including “All About That Bass” at #1).

The austerity has extended to the summer, too, where we’ve only seen three hits lead by female artists. There’s the aforementioned Swift and also Selena Gomez, both of whom have dudes featured, and then Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”. So, how’s Platten managed to go it alone? Let’s take a look.

Rachel Platten’s story might as well have come from a singer-songwriter movie. You know the beats: played instruments at a young age, sang all her life, and happened into a Big Moment performance in front of thousands. She was probably a lead when her high school did Guys and Dolls or The Music Man. Her formal music career started in 2003, and she’s been active in some capacity since then with just enough momentum to keep going (singer-songwriters get dumped on, but the career path certainly has legs; most other acts couldn’t sustain that long). From an industry perspective, Platten’s has mostly existed in the margins of soundtracking: her songs have appeared in Pretty Little Liars, the movie The Good Guy, VH1’s Basketball Wives, Finding Carter on MTV, and she wrote the theme song for ABC Family’s Jane By Design.

Platten’s resume displays her skill at competently assembled if too broad for its own good adult alternative music in the mold of Andy Grammar, Ingrid Michaelson, and Sara Bareilles. Bareilles especially stands as a comparison for “Fight Song” because, like “Love Song”, it’s an empowerment anthem that doubles as a meta-commentary on the artist’s career (I also didn’t realize until just now that they’re both “___ Song”). “Love Song” was a kiss-off to the label who wanted, er, a love song from Bareilles that works as a general kiss off, while “Fight Song” is Platten refusing to give up on a career that still hasn’t coalesced over a decade that gets perfectly by on being inspirational to anyone.

How you feel about “Fight Song” is going to depend on your tolerance for boring music. Platten’s good at writing to a universal theme with some nice imagery, and as an “I’m going to make it” anthem, the song’s more believable than “Roar”, “Welcome to New York”, or even “Brave”, but it’s still incredibly generic. This isn’t necessarily damning; I’d even argue that “Fight Song” wouldn’t have been blown up like it did if it leaned a little harder in any direction, but there’s still no getting around how pedestrian a song it is.

You even see that in the “something for everyone” music. It starts with some singer-songwriter piano, adds in arena rock sized drums and fake strings at the chorus, layers the vocals, and even sneaks in a drum machine and some acoustic guitar strumming before it ends. You’d be hard pressed to find a segment of the general population who wouldn’t stomach at least part of it, hence why it’s been used in TV (twice already) and in a car commercial. In fact, “Fight Song” made its way all the way up to Taylor Swift, who invited Platten to play “Fight Song” with her on stage as part of Swift’s campaign to have more famous guests than fucking Jimmy Fallon this year.

For my part, the music reminds me of those corny as shit contemporary Christian rock praise/celebration bands whose mission is to make you sway in place and raise your hands in front of you if you feel extra blessed. That vibe is all over the song’s blandly positive tempo, constant vamping, and artificial size, but comes in especially during the “vocals and drums only” version of the chorus after the bridge. If I close my eyes and imagine myself in an ill-fitting polo, I can almost imagine the hack band leader/music director’s call on everyone between lyrics.

“This is my fight song”
“Come on and clap, everybody!”
“Take back my life song”
“We’re gonna take it back through Him!”
“Prove I’m alright song”
“With God, it’s all possible, I wanna hear you sing!”

Lyrically, “Fight Song” holds together well enough. A few of the metaphors don’t make sense (how exactly does a small boat set a big wave into motion? Or how is there a fire in your bones?), some are actually pretty solid (“I might only have one match/But I can make an explosion”), and some are both (“Wrecking balls inside my brain” is some Noel Gallagher level shit). Like the rest of the song, they’re a blank slate by design, and for the time of year that starts with graduation ceremonies and ends with going back to school or starting college, that sort of garden variety determination can work.

Even if my feelings on “Fight Song” come down to a genial shrug, it’s a good song to have around this summer. The music, lyrics, and Platten’s vocals hold up well enough together to resonate with a lot of people going through a lot of shit, and it’s better to have this over something like “Fancy”. It’s probably not going to go down as a classic, but if it gets someone through the next three and a half minutes, more power to them. Bring on another round.

Posted in Radio Rants | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radio Rant: OMI – Cheerleader (+Felix Jaehn Remix)

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. And we’re starting with two, four, six, eight!

I think August has become the pop chart’s “fuck it” month. The whole Song of the Summer campaign is pretty much decided, kids gotta get back to school in a few weeks, and the “fun in the sun” thing is a lot less sexy in 95% humidity. It’s usually a slow promo season, so any new number ones tend to be whatever bubbled in the top five and still has a little gas in the tank once the Summit Hit exhausts all momentum in its ninth week or so. Hence our rude awakening last August.

This year’s winner of the “Who The Fuck Knows?” Late Summer Hit-Maker Contest is Jamaican singer Omi OMI (oh God, ALL CAPS flashbacks). OMI’s been knocking around the Jamaican music scene for the last few years, making woo-y world-pop songs with idiosyncratic and stupendously cheery lyrics. Take “Baby Mama Drama”, for example: he’s done with baby mama drama…because they’re going to make it official! “Baby Mama Drama” might be his most on the nose song, but all of his music I’ve found has that same boys-like-girls romanticism and single-minded devotion.

Which is to say that, immediately, “Cheerleader” doesn’t stand too far out from the rest of his work. I say “the rest of” and not “previous” because the original 2012 version was a one-off release with singles before it and singles after it. This version of “Cheerleader” is maybe a little brassier and midtempo than his normal fare (not to mention a bit tighter, possibly due to famous producer Clifton Dillon), and maybe hews a little closer to reggae that world pop in the dubby guitar, limber bassline, and saxophone flourishes throughout. OMI’s vocals throughout are bright and endearing, especially on the warbling chorus when he sings “I think that I found myself a cheerleader” and “She is always right there when I need her”. It’s a breezy and enjoyable if not brainy song that has Song of the Summer written all over it.

But that’s not the version that actually blew up this summer.

OMI might have found himself a cheerleader, but he doesn’t have anyone getting down to this. Sick. Beeeeeeat! like the Felix Jaehn remix does. About a year after the original’s release, a record executive for Sony dance music subsidiary Ultra Music heard the song, and signed OMI while looking for someone to remix it. “Cheerleader” went to a pair of DJs, and Jaehn’s remix was released in May 2014 (which is decades ago in pop music time), when it started gaining traction in Europe before being pushed in the states. The original had done well regionally (Dubai, Hawaii, Miami) and been a hit in Jamaica, but the remix took it somewhere else entirely. Just remember: it takes a German producer to unlock the dance rhythms and feel good vibes in a Caribbean track. Who knew?

The remix speeds up the vocal and guts the instrumentation of the original for a world house beat complete with piano, conga loops, soft pad drums, and entirely too much trumpet. The treatment on the vocals works okay enough on the chorus, but OMI’s verses trip on their own melody sped up like this, and it’s kind of chirpy. Honestly, “Too chirpy” could apply to the whole remix: it’s a little too perky for its own good. It trades the easygoing swing of the original for the peppy, empty calorie bounce of festivals and clubs. Maybe it’s because I don’t know a lot about EDM, but the ThisSickBeat version doesn’t do anything for me. It feels disjointed, like something’s missing. Sure, there wasn’t much to “Cheerleader” in the first place, but trying to appreciate the remix is like trying to divine the nuanced flavor in a Lim-A-Rita.

So, let’s look at some of those lyrics, shall we?

“When I need motivation/My one solution is my queen/Cuz she stays strong…She is always in my corner” It’s cool to refer to her as your queen and all, but seems like you’re leaning on her kind of hard here, no?

“All those other girls are tempting/But I’m empty when you’re gone” Cuz they got nothin’ on youuuuuu, baby. N-n-n-nothin’ on you, baby.

“And they say/’Do you need me? Do you think I’m pretty?/Do you feel like cheating?’/I’m like ‘No, not really'” I just love that avowed monogamist OMI turns down infidelity with the same casual denial you use when someone suggests going to that bar you don’t like.

“Oh, I think that I found myself a cheerleader/She is always right there when I need her” But like, why? The support in this relationship seems to trend pretty hard in one direction. Annie Clark ain’t gonna take that shit.

“She walks like a model/She grants my wishes/Like a genie in a bottle” She doesn’t exist. No way.

“Mama loves you, too/She thinks I made the right selection/Now all that’s left to do/Is just for me to pop the question” See that? Boy meets girl, girl has no interests/wants/desires/needs outside supporting her boy, boy shrugs off other girls who keep throwing themselves at him, girl sticks around because reasons, and he pops the question. And they said the Supreme Court killed marriage.

Not to beat a point into the ground, but you get what I’m saying here, right? I know haranguing a pop song about its dumb gender politics in a world but two years removed from “Blurred Lines” is small time, but it’s hard to ignore the way “Cheerleader” beats you over the head its wonky take. I’m more favorable to the original; the remix keeps me sitting in the bleachers.

Posted in Radio Rants | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album MiniReview Round-Up!

Best Coast – California Nights Whenever someone riffs on Best Coast for being too basic or simple, I can’t help but feel confused. This is a group whose breakout song alternated between a pair of two-chord riffs, and literally rhymed “crazy” with “lazy”; criticizing them for being simple begs the question “what do you want from this fucking band?”

Best Coast’s strength six years into their career isn’t making complex music with tastemaker appeal, but catchy, shimmering, guitar pop songs with surprising durability. A BC album should aspire to be a new take on the band’s sound while containing at least a handful of tracks that’ll still sound fresh a calendar year from now, and California Nights more than hits that mark. The fitness themed video for “Feeling Okay” also describes the album: BC hit the gym this time around. The songs have more heft, partially due to the cleaner production, but also by design. The band’s drums have always had punch, but they’ve never done guitar riffs like the driving “Heaven Sent” (which also cheats in a gloriously air-guitar friendly solo), or extended outro on perfectly mopey “Fine Without You”. The extra punch, plus Bethany Cosentino’s constantly improving vocals, keep standard power pop fare like “In My Eyes” and “So Unaware” from being rank and file. Some of the atmosphere from mini-album Fade Away sticks around on “Jealousy” and “Sleep Won’t Ever Come”, while the title track and closer “Wasting Time” try for grander, more experimental sounds.

Best Coast haven’t made a magnum opus yet, and, mostly on account of a languid second half, California Nights isn’t going to change that. Power pop’s a hard genre to keep fresh, but its thrills can be unending if done right. And as long as Bethany and Bobb can keep firing off catchy, crunchy guitar pop with an emo undercurrent, they’ll be more than an imitation or a cheap trick.

That second mainstream rap album, man. It’ll get you.

To be clear, we’re not looking at a B.o.B or Kid Cudi situation with A$AP. He wants to be more interesting than that. A.L.L.A leans away from radio singles in favor of dark, psychedelic sounds; forget “cloud” rap, this is rap gone down the rabbit hole. And, like I imagine most drug trips, it gets its “whoa” out of the way early: with the exception of just okay opener “Holy Ghost” (produced by Danger Mouse) and sorta interlude “JD”, the first eight or nine songs here are straight fire emoji. “Canal St.” balances a moody atmosphere with a solid performance by Rocky, who also carries the cheeky “Excuse Me” all by himself. Meanwhile, he swaps rapping for singing on the spaced out psych-ballad “L$D” (fuck subtly), while absolutely lighting up banger “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2”. A.L.L.A proves Rocky can hold on his own, which was the biggest criticism of debut Long.Live.A$AP.

That’s not to say he has to play alone, though. M.I.A struts all over standout “Fine Whine”, which also has a solid Future feature, while Miguel shows up to cover a solid Rod Stewart sample on the only kind of obvious single here (buried at the end of the album) “Everyday”. Kanye’s feature on “Jukebox Joints” is better as production than a verse, but Lil Wayne turns in delightfully loony bars on “M’$”. Longtime collaborator ScHoolboy Q and Rocky both turn in killer performances on the seductive, should-be-a-single “Electric Body”. British singer Joe Fox is all over hooks on the album and always does a solid enough job, even if him on Danger Mouse’s spaghetti-western schtick for “Holy Ghost” sounds like a Demon Days outtake.

Like someone taking the substances it’s inspired by, the significant downside to A.L.L.A (aside a handful of spectacular lyrical misfires) is a lack of cohesion and a tendency to get lost in its own haze. Eighteen tracks is high for most albums, and that goes extra for when the pace doesn’t go faster than a strung-out lurch. And, while most of the album sounds good while it’s on, most of these songs don’t lend themselves to high replay value; I like “Dreams” and “Better Things”, but can’t see myself reaching for them in a few months. Rocky’s at least got a good grip of his identity (again, this isn’t Cudi or B.o.B), and although AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP feels more like a transition than a destination, that’s not to say it’s not a fun trip.

Tame Impala – Currents
Kevin Parker wants you to like his band.

No shit, this is true for most artists, but Currents‘ strain for likability is palpable. You can see it in the gentle coaxing of song titles like “Let It Happen” and “Yes, I’m Changing”. You can hear it in every song’s determination to have a hook. You can feel it in Parker’s delay-inducing perfectionism. Listening to the album is like reading an essay by that kid in class whose self-conscious of how smart they are; the exertion of the creator’s brilliance is coded into every line.

For Parker, all that belabored finesse has gone into retooling Tame Impala’s psyched out rock into something tighter, synthier, and dancier. From the brisk, shuffling pace of “The Moment” to the looser, lounge groove of “Yes, I’m Changing”, the album’s defined by spacey synths and atmospheric electronics grounded by the band’s super-crisp drums and some immaculately produced basslines (and finger snaps in every song–finding the snaps is like finding the Wilhelm Scream in a sci-fi movie). The mixing on Currents is great throughout; it’s easy to hear every moving piece and flourish in place and enjoy Parker’s arrangements. When everything clicks–such as the vocal delay on the chorus to “The Moment”, extra gorgeous arranging on “Yes, I’m Chanigng”, the wailing synth covering the last two minutes of “Eventually”, or the entirety of the sad-eyed, spaced-out funk Song of the Year nominee “The Less I Know The Better”, it’s stunning.

These thrills are scarce to come by, though. For an album this eager to please and as dance-oriented as Currents is, large parts of it leave me cold. The production is stellar, but leaves these songs no room to hide how frequently the same tones are used, and a near constant mid-tempo lets everything blend together. I can’t immediately say what differentiates “Reality in Motion” from, like, “Past Life” outside the latter’s gimmicky pitched down monologue, but neither song makes me care to tell the differences, either. Parker’s vocals get tedious as well; his mournful, Lennon-esque falsetto worked for psychedelic rock songs, but utterly lacks the rhythm or bounce he wants these songs to have (“The Less I Know The Better” in particular would be even better with a more grounded or lively vocalist).

For how much Currents boasts how different and changed it is, it follows a worn trope: guy ditches guitars for synths and wants to prove he’s got moves. But having moves means you risk falling, and Currents is too conscientious to even allow the idea of a stumble. The record’s all about just the right influences and impeccable choices; it might be the year’s least adventurous and most curated album. As a result, it’s all very good, but very predictable. That’s the problem with reading the smart kid’s perfect essay: it ends up being perfectly dispassionate. And you can’t follow that approach with moves or the music that inspires them. Sometimes, even if it’s a wrong move, you have to let it happen.

Posted in Album Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Livin’ the Stream: Blake Tries Apple Music

2015’s going to go down in the books as the year streaming music officially became a norm. Obviously, it’s been a thing for years, but 2015 marks streaming becoming a dominant force, not just in terms of behind the scenes number crunching, but as a cultural phenomenon. You could avoid hearing much about Spotify without trouble, Beats Music came and went as a gimmick, and even now, GooglePlay is the quiet kid in the corner, but through a combination of “the streaming wars” between services and the public’s focus on anything Apple or Taylor Swift do, streaming’s come to all.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with Apple. Apple Music, the tech juggernaut’s streaming service, co-opts the mobile Music app, and nestles its way into the most recent desktop version of iTunes. Basically, Apple brought streaming to you: the next time you went to fire up “Hey Ya” in your Music library, Apple asked if you’d want to start your three month trial period, and, one password later, you were on your way. In our current #HotTake climate, there were a lot of first impression pieces on AppleMusic, so I thought I’d examine the program now that I’ve had a few weeks to use it in my day-to-day.

Set Up
Oh, the set up Bubbles. Upon agreeing to try AM, you’re presented with genres (hip-hop, country, classical, electronic, rock, alternative, indie, hits, jazz, etc.) in bubbles, and have to tap once to “like”, tap twice to “love”, before doing the same with artists within your genre selections, all with the end goal of a highly customized “for you” section in the app. It’s a cool idea with belabored execution: surely, wouldn’t it have been faster to ask me for ten artists and start basing recommendations from there? Instead, I was stuck going through clusters of chosen artists, debating if I liked or Like-liked Alicia Keys, and praying LCD Soundsystem would show up. Sure, you don’t have to revisit this Pepto-tinged ball pit ever again, but it’s a slow start.

My Music
AM brings a lot of bells and whistles to the table, and the iPhone’s Music app was already an efficient and fully formed music player/organizer. As I read about features in AM, I got to wondering how it would work in relation to the longstanding app I already knew. The bulk of the old music app is regulated to one “My Music” section, sacrificing its efficiency in playlist creation and toggling between categories (songs/artist/albums/genres), and a clunky redesign of desktop iTunes shrunk down. On a full monitor, the list of options makes sense, but on mobile (and especially my poor, pintsize 4S), it’s just claustrophobic. The rest of the sections pop with color and sleek designs, but the opposite feels true of “my music”. Design wise, it seems to trump its musical selections while shrugging at yours.

For You
Even in the halcyon days of, digital music has treated taste curation and recommendation like an alchemical formula it’s always on the cusp of discovering. It’s never just been about playing your music, but going one-up from there: “sure, we can spin To Pimp a Butterfly, but have you heard of Stankonia?” If there’s a predictive model to music discovery, I haven’t seen it; no matter the platform, the “recommended” tag feels novel and inessential.

Which is why it’s refreshing to see that AM’s “For You” has some teeth. Its pitch is less sexy than the celeb hook-ups at Beats1 Radio or Connect, but it’s the feature with the most potential mileage. Basically, when you open “For You” or refresh it, it comes at you with six album suggestions and three Apple Music curated playlists. It gets started in the bubbles, but seems fairly receptive based on your listening habits. For example, I went spelunking in demos on Smashing Pumpkins reissues, and the next day AM spat a Smashing Pumpkins deep cut playlist at me (score!). “Deep cuts” style playlists are popular, as intro/best-ofs, and the requisite “mood” playlists are accounted for, as well. Some of the best playlists I’ve seen are the ones that forsake these standards for more inventive ones: I had one that was nothing but songs produced by Just Blaze, and another that was nothing but Rihanna hip-hop collaborations. Another boon to the playlists is length; instead of Spotify’s unwieldy 100 song behemoths, these skew between 12 and 25 songs, keeping selection tight and runtime brisk.

Even with “For You”, though, that ideal predictive music discovery model is still missing. It gives me a selection of hip-hop playlists wildly disproportionate to how much of it I listen to (I listen to about as much hip-hop as I do indie or alternative or punk on a given day; a steady 90% of my playlist selections for said day will be hip-hop). Playlist specificity is great until it isn’t: Jay Z playlist? Awesome! Jay Z guest verse playlist? Still awesome! Jay Z Guest Verses With Subtle Digs In Them? Okay, I get it, the Apple Music Hip-Hop team really thought these out–y’all wanna do a Nas best-of?

Likewise, as soon as you get outside canonized punk or alternative records, AM goes blank faced. I went on a bender where I threw Likes/streams/downloads at Title Fight, Candy Hearts, Titus Andronicus, Joyce Manor, The Wonder Years, Allison Weiss, Modern Baseball, Spraynard, Adventures, Mixtapes, and Into It. Over It to trigger some sort of response, and got “Drake: the Deep Cuts” in return. Some of the indie or alternative playlists seem pedestrian as well; I don’t know, maybe the Hip-Hop team’s creativity spoiled me.

Nifty as it is, the feature can be exhausting: AM opens in “For You” by default, even when you just want to throw on some of your music. I get it, they want to emulate the mythical All Knowing Record Store Employee, but this isn’t suggesting a record during small talk, it’s shoving half a dozen in your arm when you walk in.

Beats 1
It’s 2015, and I’m reviewing a radio station.

You can hear the pitch for Beats 1: Apple gets exclusivity on big names, DJs get to be themselves, play some tunes, talk shop; everyone walks away happy. And it’s Always On ™! I like that Beats 1 doesn’t archive their shows, it gives incentive to catch what you want to, and adds a bit of urgency to whatever you hear (it also keeps a show from being an overproduced podcast). The shows have a permanent novelty where it’s not that something’s always happening, but that something could always happen. I caught part of “Money, Pizza Respect” with The Fat Jew–who I genuinely thought was Action Bronson for the first ten minutes–where Lisa Loeb just happened to call in, chatted for a bit, and told a story about a fight between some Bloods and Crips at one of her shows back in the day. I don’t know that I needed that in my life, but I also don’t know that I didn’t need it, either.

The celebrity shows I’ve heard were both of the “Play music we like and comment” sort. Ellie Goulding had a great assortment her influences and favorite contemporaries, while Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age (sidenote: can we appreciate that Homme, whose biggest album has the underlying concept of “DJs suck, has his own radio show?) played from the same pool of stuff, but would occasionally throw a theme in for a few songs, like “animals”. They were both enjoyable, but nothing I’d make a priority.

What I’d really want to see is someone who won’t play nice. Beats 1 advertises itself as being the most exciting radio station in the world, let’s see someone whose not afraid to go there. Put Tyler on. Give Noel Gallagher an hour. Let’s see Willow and Jaden burn this thing down. That‘s exciting.

A streaming service has to do two things: play the music you want it to, and justify the existence of any of its add-ons. I can’t say Connect sticks the landing, not yet at least. Connect is a way to “keep up with the artists” and have access to content you wouldn’t find otherwise. Trent Reznor, bless his heart, has been the only one to do something meaningful with this: he put up studio quality instrumentals of two of Nine Inch Nails’ albums up the day Connect launched, and put up some extra music from the Gone Girl soundtrack since (although, full disclosure, he’s also one of the creative directors for Apple Music). Otherwise, Connect is full of the same dull announcements/postings you’ll find on even the most basic social media sites where the uploads are done by the #ContentManagement intern. I see Connect’s SoundCloud/Tumblr/Facebook/Instagram aspirations, but it reads much closer to GooglePlus.

Aside from playlists from the official Apple Music genre teams, there are activity playlists and curator playlists. “Activity” playlists are broken down by categories–“Breaking up”, “driving”, “getting it on”, “kicking back”, “running”, “lamenting the inevitable heat death of the universe”, and so on. This seems like a retooled, less whacky version of Beats Music’s Sentence feature, but still more novelty than anything else (and God help whoever’s frantically scrolling through the “Getting It On” section with their pants around their ankles, agonizing between “Bedroom Bangers” and “Trip-Hop Turn-Ons”).

Curated playlists have gotten to be part and parcel of streaming services. I think they’re kind of silly. At their best, they offer a little more (read: any) genre diversity by list, and they’re trite stereotypes at worst (to wit: NME’s first list is “Alex Turner’s Best Tracks”). I’m sure there are interesting lists there, but finding them is to go further down the rabbit hole than I’ve explored so far; most are garden variety tastemaker/”here’s what’s out”.

I’d much rather curate my own playlists, but making a playlist using streamed content only is like pulling teeth. All playlists are routed through “My Music”, meaning that you have to download each song locally, or turn on the settings to show your entire iTunes library just to make and access a custom streaming playlist. A two click process on Spotify or Tidal is jumping between two and three sections and two different settings here. It gets back at the obtuseness of “My Music”, like Apple’s made their stuff as pretty and accessible as possible while cutting every corner of your own input.

I think I’m still going to carry on through my trial period. Right now, it’s not costing me anything, and I’d like to see AM improve its functions (that and give Connect/curated playlists time to update). It’s convenient and it has enough useful features to keep me coming around, but the fact that I can’t get to my own music without it throwing a handful of records at me sums the experience up perfectly: forget ownership. Digital music has always tried to recreate the record stores they supplanted, but AM forgot the end goal: leaving with what you love.

Posted in "Thoughts" | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment