Album Review: Banks – The Altar

Subgenres: they’re useful until they’re not.

There’s this joke in Parks and Rec about different color shades (okay, it’s an old joke, but the version I’m thinking of is from Parks and Rec). Parks and Recreation employee Tom Haverford is tasked with finding an appropriately colored ribbon for Pawnee, Indiana’s memorial service in memory of miniature horse/local hero Li’l Sebastian. The foppish Tom looks over a tray of black ribbons (probably) the exact same shade, and when his tragically Midwestern coworker Gerry says they’re all black, Tom snidely identifies each ribbon’s shade by its proper name, from obsidian to “Void, by Armani,” and laughs at him for his lack of culture.

It’s an exchange that comes up whenever I think about how I categorize Banks’ subgenre: is she closer to the dark, synth-heavy, personal, clattering sound of alternative pop like Lorde; or the midnight, electronic, sensual thump of alt-R&B acts like The Weeknd or fka twigs? Like Haverford’s onyx and rolling black out, there’s a lot of common ground between the two, like the idea in some circles that they’re the bleeding edge of popular music artistry, and any artist working with these subgenres should always push them further.

Banks turns over the conventions of alt-R&B/electro-pop on The Altar more than she advances them, but does so with a hitherto unseen deftness and sense of songcraft that results in a solidly enjoyable LP. Alt-R&B in particular is supposed to be groundbreaking, but Banks almost defiantly colors inside the lines, and made a sturdy lowercase a album while doing so. Instead of the challenging structure like an Event Album, The Altar follows the vintage album format: frontloaded with fiveish songs that either are singles or could be singles (plus one that should), a cooler if still interesting enough middle section with at least one stylistic cul-de-sac, a few filler tracks buried toward the end, and then a rally with the closer. It even gives you that sweet, sweet 13 songs in 45 minute run time–the hour-long network procedural of album lengths. If any of that reads as a knock, I swear it isn’t: The Altar has great replay value.

It’s also decidedly an improvement over Banks’ 2014 debut Goddess. Goddess is Banks’ Kiss Land: the mostly botched attempt at translating groundswell from quickly released and well received mixtapes/EPs into mainstream success. Alterna-hit “Beggin For Thread” worked, but overall the album is punishingly too long, too slow, and frequently aims for mysterious but lands at underwritten; imagine Lana Del Rey or The Weeknd himself at their least interesting, but forever. The Altar does away with the “too long” problem by lopping off about 13 minutes of clutter, counters being too slow by punching up the tempo and tightening up the songs, and drops the “mysterious” playact in favor for songs that spit venom.

The improvements are obvious as early as opener “Gemini Feed.” Banks stays poised over a fleet of different keyboards, loops, and surprisingly kicking drums while telling off an ex-lover from a toxic, enabling relationship and her newfound confidence stays with her over the course of The Altar. In fact, on lead single “Fuck with Myself,” it’s kinda the point; Banks exudes confidence in the song’s lyrics–“fucking with myself” is another way of saying “I don’t fuck with you,” after all–and in her more varied vocals. She still uses a hushed singing voice across the album, but it’s less of a default and more just one of a few different vocal tricks she deploys, like jumping into her upper register, using a vocoder, or double-tracking with a pitched down take. On a song like the standout “Trainwreck,” the digitized vocals on the chorus match the witchy mood set by the icy synths and hard snares, where Banks sounds as angrily glitchy as the music behind her. If anything on The Altar ends up getting radio play, “Trainwreck” is going to be it: there’s a solid hook there, and the track’s trap/electro influences would be right at home on most pop FM.

Other times, especially in the album’s early run, she’s able to do more without as many flourishes. “Lovesick” has a gentle thump and groove, and even if it runs a little long, “Mind Games” gets mileage out of the “ethereal alt-R&B ballad with the fuzzy, whispery synths and sparse drums” trope. The mid-section between “This Is Not About Us” and “Judas” is your make or break: either you’re fine with the acoustic-based and overly raw “Mother Earth” and 3 other accompanying midtempo-ish electro-tracks, or you’re checking out. This stretch, while not as powerful as the opening salvo, is a testament to Banks’ consistency: she’s able to crack out pop songs going 8 or 9 tracks deep without falling off because of how broad The Altar is musically and thematically. There are only minor bumps in the middle, like “Weaker Girl” being a little limp, or the over-sangin’ on “Mother Earth.” But, like most rank and file albums, The Altar runs out of momentum before it runs out of songs; the trio of songs after “Judas” and before towering closer “27 Hours” is just redundant and uninteresting. But still, it’s great enough that it’s worth a listen by anyone who goes for alt, electronic, pop, R&B, and any combination thereof.

So why wasn’t it a bigger thing?

Banks has the misfortune of trying to hack it during music’s most niche-ified era. The pop charts are more or less a split between inconsequential one-offs, and whichever 7 megastar pop celebrities are active at a given moment, and the music press coalesces around the obscure, the Important, and the artistes. As a result, music’s middle class of genre artists and capable if not mind-blowing acts that would normally be a steady presence have kinda disappeared outside their own fandoms. Did you know that–to name a few–folks like The Head and the Heart, Usher, Fantasia, The Pretty Reckless, Grouplove, Two Door Cinema Club, and Ingrid Michaelson all put out albums this year? Those acts all have serious followings and are making mainstream music, but there’s little room for them and their music in the conversation. And I’m not saying any of those are unheralded masterpieces, but does everything have to be? Why can’t an adult alternative album be just that? Or why can’t we relish a former American Idol winner singing like she was born to? On The Altar Banks doesn’t challenge our societal more or push a sound forward. She just makes good music.

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Feedback: Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Feedback is a Ranting About Music feature that dives into a famous artist’s least-famous album. Today felt like as good a time as any to take it off the ice for indie rock band Arcade Fire’s 2007 album Neon Bible.

Within Arcade Fire’s discography, Neon Bible is the ugly duckling: it doesn’t have the classic status of its predecessor Funeral, the mainstream success of Grammy Album of the Year winner The Suburbs, nor the Festival Rock cool of Reflektor. Instead, this is Arcade Fire at their most buttoned-up, furrowed-browed, and Bible-and-journal-clenching serious as they lash out against the loudness and aggression present in Western material culture; it’s a stern affair even for a genre as hilariously joke-averse as indie rock. Neon Bible is a musically insular album, too, featuring a less catchy and more rustic version of the ramshackle indie rock the band perfected on Funeral, and frequently relies on unfashionable choices like prominent church organ, orchestral arrangements, and early rock and roll influence to convey its grandiose angst. This is the sort of album whose centerpiece is a dirge-y marriage of surf rock and symphony adrift in reverb about being adrift in the noise of modernity.

Here’s the thing, though: I kinda love Neon Bible, particularly for its prickliness. It’s huffy and overwrought and probably not as smart or deep as it wants to be, but the songs are there for the most part, and underneath the album’s dour attitude is an earnestness that I find oddly endearing. It’s fully committed to what it’s saying and how it sounds, and I appreciate the band’s willingness to write a singer-songwriter-y record with unfashionable musical accents instead of churning out another Funeral. It’s an album I habitually come back to.

To be fair, though, I brought it back in rotation even before the election because Neon Bible is also an excellent fall album. The conversation around certain types of music fitting certain seasons best begins and pretty much ends with “Songs of the Summer” fare, but I’d argue each season has music that fits it best. Dark, atmospheric records with expansive sounds best fit the winter (Beach House’s Depression Cherry, Placeo’s Meds, and most Drake), while spring is best suited for music that’s bright but still textured like the first sunny parts of the year (soul writ large, Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, and Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory?). A good fall album captures the season’s balance: it’s warm with shade filtering in at the edges to give it a slight sense of isolation, and it moves faster than winter’s glacial crawl, but lacks summer music’s hectoring pace. It’s cozy, but discomfort isn’t completely out of the question, yet it has a distinct sound. A few great fall album examples include Lorde’s Pure Heroine, Transatlanticism or Plans by Death Cab for Cutie (any of Death Cab’s non-Narrow Stairs albums, really), and Demon Days by Gorillaz.

Neon Bible’s rustic instrumentation and solitary nature fit the fall criteria, too. The mix favors crisp acoustics over the indie rock jangle of Funeral–second single “Keep the Car Running” gathers more momentum from its strings and mandolin than electric guitar, and the title track is so unplugged that it can be played in an elevator, provided you can find one big enough to fit the band. The record’s idiosyncratic organ and orchestral flourishes are as vibrant as turning trees. But more than musical details, Neon Bible matches fall in mood and tone. The reflective nature of its lyrics matches that of a fall walk, and while the album is very worldly in how it engages with culture and religion, it has a sense of remove, too. And much of the album carries that same “stranger in a strange land” dissociation that comes with fall: the shifting tempos of “The Well and the Lighthouse” match those days where you experience 3 different weather patterns in 12 hours, “Ocean of Noise” is for the overcast days that refuse to change, and “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” captures the first-week-after-time-change jitters that come with plunging into total darkness by 6 PM. Autumn is pensive if a little irritable, as is Neon Bible (Arcade Fire’s other albums by season, for the record: Spring–>Reflektor, Summer–>The Suburbs, Winter–>Funeral).

And right now, “pensive, if a little irritable” works for a lot of people, just as it did in 2007. Neon Bible came out that March, and was written and recorded in the previous year after constant touring behind Funeral. Its world-weariness comes from touring, sure, but 2006 also has a lot of Western malaise to it: the roiling anger against Bush had burnt itself out, but so had enthusiasm for the increasingly complicated War on Terror, and it’s still pretty far from 2008 and, y’know. Some parts of Neon Bible are tied to its time, like the soldier mentioned on “Intervention,” the cringeworthy “Mirror, mirror on the wall/Show me where them bombs will fall” on “Black Mirror,” and its television-centric/pre-smartphone take on consumerism. But Neon Bible’s themes are still largely relevant; it’s not like the world has gotten any quieter in the last 9 years. Call it MTV, call it YouTube, the “stop selling me shit” meaning behind “Windowsill” still resonates.

On religion, Neon Bible still resonates, too. For a long time, one of the top comments on that elevator video further up suggested that the band should have been ripping a Bible instead of a magazine for percussion, but I feel like this completely misses what the album’s trying to say about faith and religion. Neon Bible’s views on religion have always struck me as coming from a person of faith, not against it, and frontman Win Butler confirmed this in an interview with Paste where he describes the album as “addressing religion in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can.” And maybe it was just clear to me because of my Catholic background, but critiques like those in “Neon Bible” and “Intervention” (which flatout sounds like a church hymn itself) are written in a way that would only come from someone familiar with religion. Taken together, the album’s criticisms take issue with how religion can be co-opted by the insincere, who will use the meaningful role it has in people’s lives to advance their own agenda of either power or wealth. The issue is less religion itself as an institution and more the televangelists who preach prosperity theology to line their own pockets (“Neon Bible,” “Antichrist Television Blues”), or figures who prey on people’s fear and use organized faith to manipulate them (“Intervention”). These people are effectively false prophets, treating something sacred like it’s part of the same shiny, buy/sell bullshit that corrodes the soul with scripture in neon and oceans of noise that keep people from what’s real and truthful.

But despite its reputation as a bummer, Neon Bible’s finishes by running toward the light. Things pick up with the stirring “Windowsill” where, after an album-long list of society’s ailes and personal woes, the song’s narrator decides they want to be above all the negativity and noise. Then comes “No Cars Go.” “No Cars Go” originally appeared on the band’s first EP as a rumbling, midtempo plea for escapism; on Neon Bible, it’s a relentless epic that feels like it can actually hit the highs it believes in. That it does this with a fucking beautiful string arrangement that sounds like flying only adds to the light.

Closer “My Body Is a Cage” brings things back to Earth, but encapsulates the temperament of the full album: it starts dour and alone while gradually slipping into despair before almost giving in entirely as martial drums, organ, and a choir wail with Butler at full blast. But then, just as things sound darkest, the song centers on a refrain of “Set my spirit free/Set my body free.” as the choir and organ continues to swell like a closing hymn at Mass before ending without resolution. It’s not the same as ending with the out-and-out soaring magnificence of “No Cars Go,” but feels truer to the album: that even almost defeated, Neon Bible can still aspire to goodness.

That Neon Bible secretly has some of Arcade Fire’s strongest material is almost an added bonus: “Keep the Car Running” and “Intervention” are still rightly remembered, “Ocean of Noise” is one of the band’s go-to deep cuts, and from “Antichrist Television Blues” to the end is up there with Funeral’s final stretch and the opening charge of The Suburbs for Arcade Fire’s best sequencing. But it’s not just the quality of the material, it’s what it’s saying and how it says it that keeps me coming back. Neon Bible, for all of its crankiness and coarseness believes that what it’s saying has value, even if it looks uncool. It wallows and it’s overly serious, but also rejects what’s predatory, and wants to champion what’s real; it wants to be free. It believes it’s time to wake up.

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Album Review: Lady Gaga – Joanne

Lady Gaga wanted to make something Real.

More than a comeback, more than a career reset, and hell, more than a collection of songs, Joanne is something Real. That’s the sui generis of the project in Gaga’s discography. This is, as has been stated just about everywhere, a deliberate (and IMO, over) correction to the ARTPOP bust of 2013. ARTPOP was Gaga’s 3rd (4th if you’re counting The Fame Monster–which why wouldn’t you?) re-up on glammy club pop in 5 years without any time for artistic de-escalation, and it shows. The record runs on creative and songwriting fumes, and compensates by playing everything as loud and broad and “WEIRD” as possible. It’s an album overloaded with thundering drum machines and blaring synths that’s exhausting to listen to, and had to be exhausting to make.

Joanne wants to run just as far as ARTPOP in the opposite direction. Instead of loud, shallow, fakey pop music, this is her bid at an understated, nuanced album full of authentic music and Real emotion. The difference between the Real on the album and the realness of the Gaga’s Still Got It campaign that lead up to Joanne is that she didn’t have to be Lady Gaga to do that Sound of Music medley or jazz standards with Tony Bennett (although having a Lady Gaga caliber voice certainly helped); these are things anyone could have done.  Meanwhile, Joanne is Real because of how performatively personal it is: the album’s named after Gaga’s poet/artist aunt who died at age 19 who she’s named after and always idolized, and several of the songs here deal with the fallout of Gaga’s broken engagement, although never too specifically. The authenticity of Joanne is incredibly apparent in its musical choices, as well. By and large, the album’s sound is influenced by indie rock, singer-songwriters, and country: three genres that place the highest value possible on authenticity. Her collaboration choices for the album telegraph this desire, as well, with folks like Florence Welch, Mark Ronson, Nashville songwriter Hillary Lindsey, Beck, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker all contributing.

And for all of the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into the album, it’s largely…just okay. Between the hemmed-in arrangements and anodyne production, Joanne strikes me as generally sort of flat, and even a little medicinal to listen to. The album rollout emphasized how much time Gaga et al. spent in the studio tweaking and retweaking, and listening to these songs, you get the feeling maybe a little too much time was spent there; everything sounds too workshopped. I’m sure that 2 versions ago, “A-YO” was a swaggering, stomp-n-clap single instead of making me realize how much I haven’t missed Glee, just as I’m positive that Kevin Parker’s laptop has a “Perfect Illusion” master where that key change actually elevates the song into the psych-disco rocker it wants to be (like this one). I get that ARTPOP went bust by swinging too hard into sloppy electropop, but Gaga and company didn’t have to make “Sinner’s Prayer” too measured for its own twangy, lounging good as punishment.

Gaga doesn’t help things, either. While Joanne‘s music and arrangements are too polished and low-energy, she tries so hard to sound as urgent and vocally raw as possible. She throws raspy runs, cracks, and breaks in like she’s applying for her own American Recordings series, and she completely overmatches the music instead of meeting it. You hear something like opener “Diamond Heart,” where it sounds like the band is playing their heart out in the next room, but the lead singer is wailing in your ear, and it just feels disorienting. Gaga, theater kid until she dies, has never been an understated singer, but she’s never pushed this hard, either. It’s not a constant distraction–in fact, it helps on the slower stuff here until the music doesn’t rise with her at the end–but hearing Gaga strain while effectively running in place flatters neither her nor the music, despite how Real these vocals get.

In addition to vocal mismatches and the odd death by a thousand edits, Joanne gets weirdly humorless at times. “A-YO” never seems as loose as it needs to be to look convincing, instead sounding more like the idea of fun than actual fun. And despite Gaga being high camp at its finest and country being a pretty campy genre itself, “John Wayne”‘ doesn’t go far enough with its yee-haw ruff man schtick; instead, it sounds exactly how you’d expect a song promoted with the Budweiser Dive Bar Tour to sound. I’m not sure what to make of the dancehall-lite “Dancin’ In Circles,” either. It could maybe be a single, but like ARTPOP‘s “Sexx Dreams” it already feels redundant: 7 years after “So Happy I Could Die” and in the same one where a song about getting dick so good you can’t walk straight the next day is a certified hit, is a song overtly about female masturbation really going to move the dial on its own?

Sometimes, Joanne really, really works though, especially near the end. “Come to Mama” is a singer-songwriter piano-basher in the vein of Elton John with a gleefully loud sax and simple hook that works by embracing its own cheesiness in the best way. It would have been unthinkable for Lady Gaga of all people to do an “everything’s gonna be alright” group singalong before Joanne, but she’s got great voice for this type of thing. Then there’s the touted duet with Florence Welch, “Hey Girl” that’s likely the album’s best song. The track dips its toes in lightly groovy 70s soft-rock with a warbling synth lopping through, but Gaga and Welch are what make it. It’s just two women with fantastic voices and chemistry sounding like they knocked this ode to friendship out in an afternoon. “Hey Girl” isn’t aspiring to be anything more than it is, and that’s what I like: it’s simple and fun and it reminds me of a few of my best friends. It feels real.

Lady Gaga’s always been a singer-songwriter underneath the outfits and the eccentricity, so an album like Joanne feels more inevitable than it does surprising. Stripped of her previous artifice, you’re left with is a record whose goals are admittedly staid, but they’re met: Joanne is an articulate, smartly composed album that ultimately feels unsatisfying because it relies too much on being musically fine so long as it’s authentic in an unchallenging way. If something as simple as the mixing were a little more robust, or if the songs were more immediate, Joanne as an argument for Real artistry would be more triumphant. As it is, I’m just reminded of the fact that we met Lady Gaga, not the Stefani Germanotta Band.

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“You’ll Carry On:” My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade Turns 10

blackparadecoverLet’s start with something potentially embarrassing: every day, I try to read about one Pitchfork review. The review doesn’t have to be for an act I know of, I don’t have to agree with it or disagree with it, I don’t have to listen to the album afterward; it’s just part of my routine. The music itself is beside the point; I just like seeing how people write, and sometimes I’ll find a new idea or phrase I like. A few years back now, I was reading Ian Cohen on Wavves’ then-new EP Life Sux, and at one point, Cohen makes the off-hand remark that maybe Wavves’ previous album King of the Beach was “the record he was put on this earth to make.”

Tabling discussion on the merits of Nathan Williams’ discography, the idea of a given album being the record a band was put on this earth to make has always stayed with me, and I don’t think there’s a truer instance of it than with My Chemical Romance’s 3rd album The Black Parade, which turns 10 today. That it’s the band’s best album is a foregone conclusion; it’s also their best-selling (double platinum in the US and UK, platinum in 5 other countries), the purest distillation of their essence, and it still has a cultural footprint. Go to a theme park for a day, and you’ll still see at least one kid sporting a My Chem shirt with that marching band skeleton on it.

And that marching band skeleton matters because aesthetic has always counted for a lot (like, a lot) for My Chemical Romance. It’s largely immaterial that their heavy makeup look, red and black wardrobe, and campy horror/sci-fi overtones borrow heavily from The Misfits and horror punk/’80s goth in general, the point is they adapted it with near perfection for the MySpace generation with 2004’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. As that album caught on, more and more scene kids started getting into ornate all black outfits and black fingerless gloves. You can even see MCR’s immediate impact on their contemporaries’ aesthetic: Fall Out Boy look like normal dudes in a band for their “Sugar, We’re Going Down” video, MCR’s highly stylized/Tim Burton-ized/choreographed video for “Helena” comes a month later, and suddenly someone’s giving FOB’s extras dance lessons and bought Pete Wentz some eyeliner (side note: FOB’s lowkey careerism is almost inspiring). By 2006, MCR lead singer Gerard Way was responsible for more eye makeup and black hair dye than Billie Joe Armstrong.

usrev0600227_640x480_01It was a surprise, then, when Way first appeared bleach blond, and with the band in matching marching band uniforms to ring in The Black Parade era. The “Welcome to the Black Parade” video was a blindsider: this band had sounded and looked more or less true to life before, but here they are leading a parade as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Death Cult Band that is supposed to guide someone to the afterlife? And Way bleached his hair to become the album’s protagonist The Patient, who is dying of cancer? The song itself was a change-up, too; these scuzzy, former hardcore punk kids were back with a polished song that dared include a piano introduction, martial drumming, and downright Queen-esque guitar solos. “Welcome to the Black Parade”–all 5 minutes of it–was stock pop-punk underneath it all, but the clarity of execution and grander scale caught lots of fans off-guard. Way had telegraphed this, though, in an interview the year before by saying that MCR was patterning their career after The Smashing Pumpkins, that the first album was discovering their sound, the second was refining it for a broader audience, and the third would be actualization.

Now, as a Pumpkins lifer and My Chem casual, I feel like Way compared my favorite album ever to a decent if filler-heavy record just to one day piss me off, but after the fanrage subsides, I admit there’s something to equating The Black Parade to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They both lead with quietish intro tracks that segue into explosive numbers, and in spite of both records being the most stylistically diverse that each band got, they’re incredibly front-loaded with straight ahead rockers whose momentum crests with lead singles. Each gets deliberately kooky in their back half, which sees the band do some of their quietest and loudest work, although Billy Corgan never thought to have a Liza Minnelli cameo buried in with his heavy metal histrionics. But, more than structural similarities, what Mellon Collie and The Black Parade share is an expansive, edge of the world ideology. You can hear each band push every idea they have as far as possible on these albums. Wanna do a slash and burn power ballad? Okay, here’s “Sleep.” Three Cheers-style, bashed-out wailers? Enjoy “The Sharpest Lives.” Not only does My Chem lean into their theatric side with the cabaret of “Mama” (hi, Liza!), but they mash it up with Iron Maiden worship, too. And “Teenagers” isolates the strands of sarcastic, stooge-y (and Stooges-y) DNA in the band’s composition.

Just as the Bald Man justified Mellon Collie‘s scope by calling guitar rock passe, MCR’s Queen, Pink Floyd, Bowie, and Beatles influences on The Black Parade can be explained at least in part by the band trying to get as far afield from the “emo” tag as possible. This ended up being a right place/right time move: in hindsight, 2006 is the line in the sand between the cathartic, hard-charging stuff of the emo breakthrough and the poppier, less engaged (read: shittier) dance-influenced stuff that would eventually devolve into scene-pop. Similar to how My Chem distanced themselves from emo with classic rock on TBP, FOB would go further into arena rock and soul, original breakthrough acts like Taking Back Sunday and Jimmy Eat World spent the mid to late ’00s making “mature” records, and even carpet baggers Panic! at the Disco laid low in their own Sgt. Peppers’ disguises for their next album. Gerard Way would eventually take things even further by declaring emo to be “A pile of shit” in a post-Black Parade world.

462546998_31f9ee2354_oEven if not everything on the album works, an awful lot of it does. Opening on a The Wall-inspired note with “The End.” and launching into the zany “Dead!” is MCR’s most satisfying one-two, “House of Wolves” is a still a reliable venom spitter, and “Sleep” is a one-up on Three Cheers‘ “The Ghost of You.” “Mama” might be the most off-kilter thing on here and thrives because of it, and I like the string and piano ballad “Cancer” so much that not even an abysmal Twenty One Pilots cover can sink it (second side note: my reaction to Twenty One Pilots covering MCR shouldn’t be “Huh, this needs to be more melodramatic and obnoxious,” but here we are). “Cancer” works so well because it conveys how tortured and shriveled The Patient is through the writing and performance, not blustery volume; as far as macabre lyrics go, it’s hard to top “Baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo.” Elsewhere, the not-quite-filler stuff like “This Is How I Disappear” or “Disenchanted” still sounds fine due to Rob Cavallo’s production.

You can tell The Black Parade is the album My Chemical Romance was put on this earth to make, not just because it’s a culmination of everything they’d done before, but because they had such a hard time following it up. The band originally planned on a hard and fast follow-up recorded with rock producer Brendan O’Brien, but those sessions were shelved due to the band’s dissatisfaction with the end product. After scrapping more material, Way started working in January of 2010 on what would be released that fall as Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a concept album about desert renegades fighting against a corporate dystopia (10 songs from the O’Brien sessions would be later released as a compilation album). Taking the The Smashing Pumpkins’ comparison further than Way intended, MCR never made their “falling from the peak in slow motion” record ala Adore, but Danger Days is definitely their Machina: the flailing, end of the line, rawk album unaware of its own desperation. MCR would break up in 2013 without another proper record.

I haven’t heard any chatter about Danger Days since its release, but The Black Parade ended up making waves again earlier this year. A teaser video of sorts went up on MCR’s YouTube page in July, and immediately the internet went wild with speculation over a possible reunion tour. In the end, the teaser was for a not especially interesting looking TBP special edition that came and went without much other promotion, but the instant hype around even a potential tour proved this band and this album resonated with a lot of people, and it still does. I get why: it’s a melodramatic rock album with camp for days, and perfectly tailored for anyone whose ever felt angsty and grandiose, and kids will never stop being part of that parade.

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Album Review: Bon Iver – 22, A Million

The best song that Bon Iver/Justin Vernon is essential to isn’t called “Skinny Love” or “Perth,” it’s called “Lost in the World.” The penultimate track on Kanye West’s still kinda bonkers My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy generously samples the melody and phrasing of Bon Iver’s 2009 song “Woods,” going so far as to use the song itself as an introduction before shooting Vernon’s somber, Auto-Tuned falsetto into outer space, but with more processed choirs, massive drums and thundering piano. Reaching the end of MBDTF is kind of exhausting, but “Lost in the World” is worth the trip in significant part due to that “Woods” sample because without it, there’s nothing for the rest of the song to build and play off of.

“Lost in the World” also unintentionally shores up what bothers me about Bon Iver: Vernon is undeniably talented at folksy auteur studiocraft, but what he actually does with it is frustratingly limited. For how sculpted his music sounds, it often comes off as inert, and frankly too dull to mine for pathos. The, let’s call it “interest gap,” between “Woods” and “Lost in the World” illustrates this perfectly: “Woods” delicately stacks various AutoTuned voices repeating its lone stanza, but after 3 minutes of sad-man falsetto with nearly 2 more to go, I feel Vernon’s melancholia less and my own indifference more; I just want to hear someone’s ego obliterate and reconstruct itself over Gil Scott-Heron samples, blaring alarms and poems written to Kim Kardashian.

I feel like Vernon gets this. In case the insular song titles, wacko name, and “I’m really getting into numerology” cover art aren’t a tip-off, 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s self-conscious freak-out album. And at its best, it sounds like a deconstruction of the folk and 80s soft-rock mash-up that Bon Iver went for on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Here, Vernon slathers the instrumentation and voices on the album in gauzy, grainy production and foregoing verse-chorus-verse structure. Instead, songs drift into each other when they don’t start or stop without warning, and different elements like guitars, saxes, or vocals add to the chaos by suddenly reappearing/disappearing. The intention is to sound dissociated and non-linear, even though loopy instrumentation, obfuscated singing, and a blaring mix like this are all stock maneuvers from the Indie Rock Kar-razy Record playbook.

But shit, sometimes the playbook works. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is built on a delirious drum loop, heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, too loud synths and horns, and backwards guitar like someone smashed Revolver and 808s & Heartbreak together as hard and loud as they could, and is downright exciting because of it. It shows Vernon operating as far on the musical fringe as he’ll allow himself to on a Bon Iver record, but succeeds by doing so. Opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” with its warm tape hiss, bright guitars, and gospel vocals on top of Vernon’s falsetto, sounds like a glitchy, pretty sunrise. Elsewhere “33 “GOD”” is 22, A Million‘s take on Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s stately studio folk, injecting the latter’s grandeur with looseness and spontaneity that lets it soar higher. It’s delightful enough that I wish the song went longer instead of cutting off at 3:33 cuz numbers, man.

At other times, 22, A Million‘s choice to fire weird doesn’t work in its favor. Vernon’s engineer Chris Messina invented a new AutoTune harmonizer that gets used on acapella track “715 – CRΣΣKS,” which works for a panicked, broke down lyric like “Goddamn, turn around now,” but is otherwise insufferable on a track with a weak melody to begin with. “____45_____” uses Messina’s device on a saxophone that plays opposite of Vernon at his most natural, and while “Man sings opposite vocoder sax and banjo” sounds neat conceptually, it’s a lot less engaging as a listen. That “____45_____” follows the tedious “8 (Circle)” only hurts things since “8 (Circle)” represents the album at its worst: it’s a ruthlessly mid-tempo, sax-heavy, 80s cheese-rocker with layers of hazy mixing that barely goes anywhere. “8 (Circle)”‘s 5 minute run time feel like–well–8.

22, A Million‘s peaks and valleys flatten out over time. Although “SHAD Apartments” is engaging in fits and starts and “666 f” has interesting moments, they never gel as songs, and just sound half-baked. “21 MOON” is too committed at synth-inspired, soundscapey background texture for its own good, and after a tepid 2nd half, closer “0000 Million” comes off as a wash. The most damaging part of these back-half misfires is that they come on the album’s longer songs (both “SHAD Apartments” and “666 f” flail about for 4 minutes apiece, which yikes) and at a brisk 34 minutes, 22, A Million doesn’t have space to surrender this much of it to the doldrums. 

I don’t imagine Vernon meant for 22, A Million to sound contemporary in 2016, but it does. If you’ve put together a knotty, high production value, sprawling album that reads as a nonlinear monologue (or a dialogue!), 2016 is apparently your year. You could name Kanye’s The Life of Pablo and Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound here, but the albums that 22, A Million remind me most of are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot by Teen Suicide.

Blonde and 22, A Million‘s main difference is genre: outside that, they’re both long-gestating, isolationist albums that emphasize studio tinkery and stubbornly/frustratingly (YMMV) refuse to give into the pop instincts they tease out. I spent a month obsessed with Blonde despite the fact that you could level most of my criticisms of 22, A Million at it–that it’s stodgy, its drumless tempo approaches glacial at times, and it’s abstract to the point of formlessness. But Blonde, for me, works because it has songs: “Nikes,” “Self-Control,” and “Nights” have presence and melodic deftness, and no matter how (warning: overused music crit vocab incoming) ethereal Blonde gets, the songwriting, composition, and mixing are all solid. 22, A Million, meanwhile, gets lost in its own inscrutability.

It’s the Big Joyous Celebration…is 26 songs of low-fi indie rock/bedroom pop that comes to just over an hour (think of it as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Soundcloud), but reminds me of 22, A Million in its vignette styling, lyrics that seem like inside jokes with themselves, and how it uses garbled production to let itself be vulnerable; something looping and frayed but hopeful like “I Don’t Think It’s Too Late” could fit on either album. But Teen Suicide is willing to go for it in a way Bon Iver won’t; Vernon, as shown on the album’s back half, never strays from his folksy, plainspoken but kind of pedestrian approach to songs. Even dressed up in production tricks, vocoders, and numerology, these songs are just too nice to be as challenging and therefore rewarding as they want to be.

For its ideas, some truly great songs, and inspired moments, I’d say that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s best album, but that doesn’t mean it avoids its predecessors’ pitfalls. Vernon, for all of his inventiveness, insists on too many feints and too little directness to make an end-to-end engaging record. He even pulls up short on this album’s weirdness; a weirdness whose “a band, but deconstructed” approach is only truly surprising if we act like Kid A isn’t a founding document for modern indie. Which is a shame, because 22, A Million is fulfilling when it uses unconventional sounds and structure to build toward something, and far lousier far more often when it’s content to mill about and make oblique references to God or relationships or whatever. The philosophical guts of the record borderline inaccessible if the music just isn’t there. If you’re all in on Bon Iver and Vernon’s music emotionally, then it can be a sweeping, mesmerizing trip through his head and yours. To the rest of us, he just sounds lost in the woods.

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Shifting Goodness: The Hotelier, Against Me!, and What Comes Next

Most albums are centered around Something That Happened. Be it a break-up, a marriage, moving cities, or touring, it is perfectly normal for an artist to head into the studio, and put what’s been weighing on them most to music. The idea, especially for albums surrounding upheaval (break-ups, deaths, etc.), is that you use this record as a way  lay bare the Thing That Happened, process it, and boom–by the end have all the resolution of Vivien Leigh declaring “After all, tomorrow is another day” as the music swells. You then lay this out night after night in front of adoring strangers for a while, take some time off, and two to four years later, crack out another one free of whatever was troubling you last time.

I get this approach, but I find it also kind of bullshit because it denies human complexity. Upheaval isn’t just something that happens, is immediately processed, and then you’re fine. No one works like that, and you’d be foolish to suggest otherwise to someone’s face. Recovering is its own full step that takes time and includes its own non-linear emotional arc. It requires truly reflecting on and understanding where you want to go and what comes next. Two punk (ish) artists have explored this idea of What Comes Next recently: Worcester, MA’s up and comers The Hotelier and Florida’s Against Me!

The Hotelier first made waves in 2014 with their sophomore album Home, Like Noplace Is ThereHLNIT is a concise, smartly written album of cathartic punk rock, but it’s also a double-barreled blast to the chest of interpersonal and emotional crisis. There’s the rollicking tune about taking someone home after they OD. The hooky single about a friend’s suicide. The mid-album ballad on abuse. The screamo burner about gender dysphoria. All these songs rock, but the album’s intensity isn’t something that can be replicated or repeated without diminishing returns because no one’s meant to go through that much sustained anguish. “You have to find a way out” as Hotelier frontperson/principle member Christian Holden has said in a recent profile.

Released in May as Home‘s follow-up,  Goodness focuses almost exclusively on recovery following personal trauma. Recovery, as shown on Goodness, is removed and therapeutic; the names of the album’s interludes and spoken word intro refer to forested areas of New England that mean something reflective to Holden, including the Not Back to School Camp where they’re a camp counselor each summer. You hear this naturalistic isolation all over the album’s music, too: Home had a coarse production and sounded as raw as its subject matter, while Goodness includes cleaner, crisper production; and often with the guitar’s distortion pedal traded in for clean, Peter Buck-ian tones (really, the whole LP has that early-R.E.M. warmth to it). The songs on Home sounded like something you went crashing into because of the emotional overcharge; the autumnal light sound of Goodness is meant to envelope instead of overwhelm.

The songs on Goodness are enveloping as a byproduct of their sprawling nature. They’re a little slower, a little longer on average, and less pop-punk but no less effective here than on Home. “Goodness Pt. 2” is a thrilling opener with an earned full band drop after 2 minutes of building tension with Holden singing an elongated melody over crisp drums and softly dissonant guitars. Meanwhile, “Piano Player” doesn’t feel five minutes long thanks to a brisk tempo, dynamic instrumental work, and the band knowing exactly when to hit the throttle and when to ease back. And then you get “Two Deliverances,” which kicks off with the album’s prettiest guitar riff and only improves from there. Holden has that pop-punk nasally croon, but they wring more emotion out of it than on previous releases, including some falsetto to really send the yearning on “Two Deliverances” home.

Goodness‘ two songs north of 6 minutes are both are great, especially for an act who normally wrap things up in 3 or 4. “Sun” is structured around a busy, looping riff for its first half, and then fades into a jam (all those years playing live together are paying off) that leads into quiet to chants of “Sun” before exploding into a final, raspy refrain. It’s less orderly than the band’s previous long songs, but the risk and build-up pay off. Meanwhile, closer “End of Reel” is a Hotelier anthem in the vein of “An Introduction to the Album” and “Dendron” to its core, that starts small and builds and builds until the exact moment it doesn’t.

Another aspect of Goodness and how it believes in healing is how it wants to heal and exist on its own terms. It’s not a difficult album in the vein of, say, Blonde where it subverts expectations, but in it how it makes some plain damn weird (but completely logical) artistic choices. It’s an album that’s not afraid to be itself, in other words. On one hand, you’ve got stuff that scans as self-indulgent–like the spoken word introduction and acoustic, sound collage-y interludes–which maybe insist upon themselves, but make sense as searching for inner peace. And then, you’ve got the material that makes you feel blisteringly self-conscious about championing this record, like the high-lariously NSFW cover art, and how extroverted “Soft Animal” is about its plea for–well–goodness. There aren’t half-measures on something like the overearnest gloriousness of a chorus going “MAKE ME FEEL ALIVE/MAKE ME BELIEVE THAT ALL MY SELVES ALIGN.”  Goodness is like that with its other choices; either you entertain the argument that AARPsters going full-frontal is beautiful, or you just closed out a tab as fast as possible.

But I get it. I get why Goodness is so committed to its aspirations. The common complaint is that the album isn’t as immediate or dark/cathartic as its predecessor; that The Hotelier have lost something intimate by going light instead. I see this complaint, but it’s not accurate. I say that Goodness is so committed to its aspiration toward goodness and recovery because that hope is all it has left, and it knows that without that hope, it would die. That, to me, is darker than Home. And this is supported entirely by the record itself: those studio glitches that creep up during otherwise peaceful moments (“You in This Light” skipping at its end, the bursts of noise in “Settle the Scar,” and the background hiss on “Goodness, Pt. 2”) sound like a past anguish trying to claw to the surface. The chorus on “Piano Player” offers the most compelling and harrowing version of this: for the first one and a half iterations, Holden sings the word “Sustain” like a calming, controlled mantra. On the second time around, they pivot from that peaceful, clear tone to a full-throated scream barely contained in background, and you can hear their voice either on the edge of breaking through to the front or breaking down completely into despair. In that white-knuckled moment, “Sustain” isn’t an ideal, it is optimism or death.

Even after 47 minutes, Goodness knows that the search for happiness and the process of recovery may never be over. The album closes with perhaps its most musically straight ahead song, “End of Reel.” The formal power balladry of the song ends four-fifths of the way through for one last rising rock band jam. Over about a minute, the guitars lock into place, the bass weaves between them, the cymbal crashes mount, and as the whole thing damn near actualizes into an Arcade Fire-sized wave of catharsis, everything dies out, except random snare hits. As soon as you’re aware of your own happiness, it disappears, and you can’t catch it right back. But, you can look for it, and that’s all Goodness wants.

“What comes next?” is an immediate concern for Florida punks Against Me! and their new album Shape Shift With Me. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, written while frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as trans and transitioned to life as a woman, was a watershed moment for the band that revitalized their career. It was also my favorite album of 2014. But it left almost too neat a bow on Grace and her band’s narrative: she was out, proud, and unilaterally supported while her band made the best record of its career. Hell, Transgender Dysphoria Blues even ended its fraught and traumatized run time with Grace at her most resolutely defiant on “Black Me Out;” things couldn’t have ended neater.

But, while Grace’s public and professional lives aligned, she was fighting to keep herself together. As detailed in a recent Rolling Stone profile, Grace’s transition effectively blew up her personal life by putting a significant strain on her relationship with her father, on her mental state, and eventually ruining her marriage. The upheaval for Grace isn’t over, and may never be.

Shape Shift With Me handles what comes next by refusing to take any of its shit, which keeps with Against Me!’s general M.O. For however frayed Grace’s personal life is, at least she can take solace that her band’s never sounded better: The Offspring veteran Atom Willard returns on drums, longtime member James Bowman handles guitar leads, and hyperactive bassist Inge Johansson joined following the Transgender Dysphoria Blues tour. The chemistry on last year’s live record is present here; from brawny shout-along opener “Provision L-3″to the free-wheeling punk rock makeout sesh “Rebecca” to “Boyfriend”‘s heavy stomp, Shape Shift With Me has some of Against Me!’s most muscular but surprisingly catchy and fun music.

That’s the other thing about Shape Shift With Me–it’s the first Against Me! record that could be described as fun. Part of the reason why is this band’s blend of folk, punk, and Springsteen-ian stadium rock has always had some bounce and melody to it, but SSWM is the first album where they lean into their pop-rock tendencies. The single biggest factor in the album’s brightness is the production, though; not only are the guitars big, the drums punchy, and Grace’s vocals pushed to the front, they’re polished without being overproduced (see: Crosses, White). That sheen is what makes “Crash,” whose central riff threatens to burst into “Just What I Needed” so damn enjoyable, and what closing track “All This (And More)” bittersweet, since Grace has room to sound dejected without being buried by the music. Sonically, this is the new wave record that every band who toured Warped between ’04 and ’08 eventually does.

Shape Shift With Me‘s musical brightness matches its lyrical determination to have shit work, but it’s not as lighthearted and carefree as it wants to be. For one thing, lighthearted albums don’t have kickass songs like “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” where gender dysphoria is set to a punk rockified take on “Billie Jean,” or Flogging Molly-esque fuck-offs like “Haunting Haunted Haunts.” But even the album’s “just wanna have fun” moments come with desperation: “Rebecca” isn’t so caught up in its own hot blood that it doesn’t implore its subject “Let’s not fall in love,” lest anything hurtful happen, and the positivity of “12:03” is tempered with the anxiety of hearing back from someone and getting things to go right. And, as “All This (And More)” admits with its closing line, everything over the last 36 minutes has been to forget you.

I guess you could argue that Shape Shift With Me is a break-up record, but that seems too narrow. More broadly–and accurately–it describes the fallout and next steps in Grace’s life following her transition. There’s no longer one big change (i.e. “My name is Laura Jane Grace”), but a bunch of smaller changes, y’know, shifts in her current life. Whereas Goodness centers on internal healing from previous trauma, Shape Shift With Me believes its core self will be enough if the world would accept it. But both truly, firmly believe that good things will not only come, but they have to. You just have to survive first.

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Radio Rant: Billboard’s Songs of the Summer 2016

Of all of Billboard’s silly charts, none draws me year after year like the Songs of the Summer. For one, it’s a good tip-off to how the year-end is going to look because whoever runs the summer will place generously there, but mostly I enjoy it because its only purpose the futile exercise of quantifying hype. Most of Billboard’s other charts are rooted (however dubiously) in the hard numbers of sales, streams, and airplay. The Songs of the Summer chart is made of, “the most popular titles based on cumulative performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from Memorial Day through Labor Day,” which (I think) means that it takes however the songs are doing on the Hot 100 and rejiggers them into a new list…somehow. Cumulatively? Who knows! It gets even kookier because Billboard doesn’t do one final list for the entire summer anymore and instead issues the chart week by week, meaning wherever you rank in mid-September is supposed to reflect the summer, leading to wonky claims like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” magically coming in at the 10th song of the season despite never being that popular. Thank goodness for cumulative ranking!

So instead, I made my own list with Billboard’s data. Using their 20 spot Summer Song  weekly chart, I gave the number one song 20 points, the number two song 19 points and so on each week (if a song didn’t chart for a week, it got 0 points), and then averaged each song’s points out for what’s basically a pop music DVOA. The top ten highest point-earners are below. And, if you’re so inclined, you can click here for the breakdown.

The last thing I’ll say is that this year solid enough, but it was pretty homogeneous. Most everything that ranked high had a sultry, electronic, dancehall tinge to it. In other words, it all sounded like Rihanna. So then, part of today is going to be a game called “Sounds Like Rihanna,” where we’ll appraise each song on how much it does or doesn’t evoke the ANTI singer. Let’s begin.

10. Kent Jones – “Don’t Mind”Hola como esta Kent Jones? Long time, no see. I still maintain that “Don’t Mind” is a mindless song, but at least the chorus is mindless fun instead of mindless dumb like the verse, and that’s enough to make it harmless coming in at number 10. I don’t know, this is still low quality radio filler, so there’s not much to say. The Pitbull remix fits “Don’t Mind” like a glove, though (this is a compliment).

Sounds Like Rihanna: Very low. It’s just so damn perky that I think she’s sneer at it over her sunglasses.

9. Mike Posner – “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (Seeb Remix)
In which Mike Posner capitalizes on what the rest of us have known since 2010: fuckin’ nobody wants to be Mike Posner. There’s potential for a song like “ITaPiI” that so nakedly grips with being a wash-up, but Poser’s too self-pitying to really make it work outside a line or two. The Seeb remix is uninspired sub-DJ Snake EDM pop, and jamming in the club to “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is “getting drunk to ‘Swimming Pools’” level Missing The Point.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Musically, not really, but “I took a pill in Ibiza” is definitely a thing she’s done.

8. Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”
“Cheap Thrills” landed on my personal Songs of the Summer list, so it’s gold to me. It’s just a fun listen because Sia, Sean Paul, and Greg Kurstin know their way around mercenary, breezy pop music like few others do. And, speaking as part of a friend group where invariably one of us checks their mobile banking app on the sly before we all go out, I can appreciate a song about partying on the cheap. “Cheap Thrills” is just an honest good time, and the fact that one of our summer hits is by a pair of 40-somethings only made the happy hour booze that much sweeter.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Cheap Thrills” was literally written for Riri, if that answers it.

7. Rihanna – “Needed Me”
When ANTI came out in January, I wanted “Needed Me” to be a hit, but I never thought it would actually happen. It’s not structured like a pop song. It neither slaps nor bangs. It has a surprisingly raw Rihanna. It has DJ Mustard’s iciest beat made of stretched and twisted synth buzz and reverby drums. None of these are knocks–in fact, I’d call “Needed Me” one of Rihanna’s best songs–but it doesnt’ scream “radio single,” even with an eye-catchy video. Still, though, it happened. What I like about “Needed Me” in pop context is that it’s basically just Rihanna on this thing: it’s not weighted down by a guest verse, it’s not anchored by a big name producer doing his trademark work; it’s just her front and center. Also, Rihanna curving a tuxedoed Drake in front of millions has to be a “Fuck your white horse and a carriage” moment.

Sounds Like Rihanna: It’s not just Rihanna, it’s Peak “Maneater DGAF” Rihanna.

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign – “Work From Home”
Fifth Harmony have the same problem that Ariana Grande had last album cycle: here’s a pop act with decent material, but lacks that one intangible to send it home. And “Work From Home” is fine, really. End of the day, I think I slightly prefer the brassy attitude of “Worth It,” but I can respect the way “Work From Home” taps current trends and churns out a good application of them. If you like songs on the radio, you’ll probably like this one, but you probably won’t love it. There also, y’know, that other song.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Work From Home” is the The Amazing Spider-Man to “Work”‘s Spiderman.

5. Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna – “This Is What You Came For”
The easy bag on “This Is What You Came For” is that the song’s behind the scenes drama between producer Calvin Harris and pseudonymous writer/Harris’ now-ex Taylor Swift is more interesting than the song itself. I’m not gonna fight that exactly, however, “This Is What You Came For” is a solid dance track. It features some relatively restrained and smooth Calvin Harris production (check the way that chorus synth/handclap combo just bounces and the post-chorus glides), and even if she’s doing a light Taylor Swift impression, I’d rather hear Rihanna on this than T.Swift herself. And c’mon, was it really surprising that Swift wrote this song? Doesn’t “Lightning strikes every time she moves” scream “Taylor Swift lyric” to anyone else?

Sounds Like Rihanna: If Rihanna hadn’t gone artistic for ANTI, its first single would have sounded like “This Is What You Came For.”

4. The Chainsmokers ft. Daya – “Don’t Let Me Down”
This is still a song I will never give a shit about, and Daya seems poised to have a legit career, but the most exciting thing that’s happened between now and the last time I looked at this C-minus of a hit is The Chainsmokers’ bro-tastically unself-aware Billboard profile. In the profile, the guys talk about: being inspired by characters in Entourage, starting an investment club in high school, pin that awful VMAs performance on Halsey, a “tip-to-tip” measurement of their combined dicks, describe their first meeting as “a man date,” mention how “even before success, pussy was number one,” and I’m only lying about one of those. Enjoy it while it lasts, broskis, but remember that Mike Posner was once you. And some day, you’ll be him.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Daya continues the chart’s “Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation” pattern.

3. Desiigner – “Panda”
“Panda” is still too long by a stretch, but not since seeing DJ Esco and Metro Boomin weave through “Where Ya At” has my opinion of a song been so buoyed by seeing people dance to it. You couldn’t choreograph that kind of shit to “Don’t Let Me Down.”

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Panda” and Rihanna both appear like, 40 seconds apart on The Life of Pablo, but that’s about it.

2. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
I’m of two minds with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” On one hand, this is some aggressively middle of the road, people pleasing, disco-pop by numbers, craven capitalist (Don’t forget to see Trolls in theaters!) bullshit. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is like Justin Timberlake’s Michael Jackson self-insert fanfic last year without Michael’s take there to shine things up. On the other hand, I fucking loved “Love Never Felt So Good,” and if anyone’s going to dedicate themselves to making this fizzy pop song work, it’s JT. And most of my knocks against “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” seem like they’re by design: this is a song that’s supposed to color inside the lines and please people. It’s the all-ages banger for the summer. I don’t have to like it, but for weddings? It’s time to dance, dance, dance.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Not at all, to the point that it’s sort of a defining feature. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is trend-averse, silent majority kind of pop.

1. Drake ft. Wizkid & Kyla – “One Dance”
A large part of why the Songs of the Summer chart feels so doofy and unnecessary is that the actual song of the summer is always a forgone conclusion. We’ve been so thoroughly shellacked by the season’s biggest song by mid-September that our reaction to it has calcified into grudging indifference, unbridled joy, or deep, unending rage. “One Dance” falls squarely in the “grudging indifference” category: it’s passable, maybe even good if you squint at it, but completely underwhelming, no matter the context. It’s hard to pin down exactly how “One Dance” did so well; there was no unstoppable video, it’s not super quotable or joke worthy, and it’s barely a song. Maybe Drake’s just too big to friggin fail at this point. With “Controlla” and “Too Good” bubbling under in recent months, we shall see. If those songs really take off, he can rule the rest of the year. Otherwise, this is just that summertime sadness.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Sort of? I feel like she probably laughed at “One Dance” the first time she heard it.

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