Album Review: The xx – I See You

A funny thing happens on The xx’s new album: there is a song entitled “A Violet Noise.”

For anyone even passingly familiar with The xx, this almost registers as a joke, a very rare thing in indie-dom. This band has made a name for itself over the last 8 years by specializing in hushed, minimalist indie pop that plays with negative space and lush beats; to describe the texture of any given xx song is to see how many synonyms you can find for “delicate.” “A Violent Noise” is very much an xx song in this regard, with its clean, reverberating guitars and soft synths. Its namedrop comes in Oliver Sim’s muted lament that “But every beat is a violent noise,” so it fits the song, but taken against the band’s work as a whole, it’s akin to naming a line of feather pillows “Brick.”

I See You is The xx’s third album, and the first to roll back the luxe cover their insular sound, albeit only slightly and likely by necessity. Their 2009 debut was a sleeper hit that eventually became an influencer, but recent years have also made it a victim of other people’s success, as the band’s signature moves–sparse instrumentation + electronic atmospherics + romantic complication + introversion–have gone mainstream while they as a unit have not. On one hand, this gives them cachet (in fact, band producer Jamie xx coproduced the title track of Drake’s close-enough-to-landmark Take Care, indirectly putting him near the epicenter of his band’s sound going mainstream) but at the same time, their once cutting edge work seems somewhat outmodded by artists who have pushed it in different directions since their debut and 2012’s Coexist. Jamie xx himself experimented with their template on his breezy, more overtly electronic 2015 solo album In Colour, which itself colors I See You.

As indicated on lead single “On Hold” and album opener “Dangerous,” I See You‘s new trick is swapping out a significant part of the band’s introversion for something dance-friendly. “Dangerous” announces a newer, looser xx with blasts of processed horns, a syncopated head-nod friendly beat, and house bass for a track that’s more outgoing than most of what the band’s done before, but whose excitement wouldn’t overpower you at the clearance rack of Express (and I swear that’s meant as a compliment). “On Hold” owes its expanse, meanwhile, to the festival-friendly build up to a cozy drop with a Hall and Oates sample, as addition to a solid instrumental overall that compliments Sims and Romy Croft’s vocals. Elsewhere on “Replica,” a violin loop is incorporated into the band’s blend of indie rock with dreamy synths, and Croft’s backing vocals are a highlight for a song that quietly reveals when it could just be a puff of smoke.

At the same time, though, there are a few things holding I See You back. Like any act who succeeds at doing one thing really well, every xx album sounds redundant at some point: here, Romy excels on “Brave For You” which handily beats her other glacial, pained confessional “Performance,” and there’s little making “Lips” or “I Dare You” required listening. And sometimes, Jamie’s DJ retool robs the outfit of their best weapons. They could be vocally/sonically be cold and aloof, sure, but they also wrote tightly wound songs that played to those strengths. The band loses a lot of that insulation by going slightly more vibrant, but everyone involved isn’t quite dynamic enough to make the change stick, and so you’re left with songs like “Say Something Loving” and “A Violent Noise” that don’t sound lighter as much as they do flimsier. That’s arguably, if not likely, by design: The xx are a shy group. At their most outgoing, they’re not going to overcome like, Purity Ring. No matter how well-made the dance-heavy or poppier material is, The xx are only going to be able to do it so well.

Whenever my mind wandered while listening to I See You, it came back to how fastidious this album is when it comes to taste, and how that affects the music itself. At times, it feels like the album’s more concerned with showing its impeccable credentials, and making correct song choices than creating arresting music. And I think upper-tier indie has been like this for a while. For my part, it really kicked in with Currents, which, at release, I said “might be the year [2015]’s least adventurous, and most curated album.” “Least adventurous” is unfair in hindsight, but I’d still say that the curating of indie is an ongoing problem. The xx fell victim to it, as have acts like late day Dirty Projectors, Future Islands, Vampire Weekend, and occasionally Bon Iver. I like music done by those groups, but too often they come off as using disparate or passe influences/samples for sake of proving you can without actually making something interesting; it’s the musical equivalent of crashing a conversation with “Well, I think that Bread’s work has gone under appreciated as a whole.” I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with focusing on taste or using obscure influences–Grimes does both, and I still love Art Angels to death–but there has to be a point to it, and it has to work for your audience. Otherwise, you’re playing Coachella today, but who will see you tomorrow?

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Let’s Fix the Grammys

Does anyone out there truly enjoy watching the Grammys?

No, seriously: I know that I’ve come to regard it as a chore, and I’m not alone in calling it a wailing and grinding of teeth. Truth is, it’s an overlong, tedious ceremony that’s frustrating when it isn’t baffling, and tempers its highs (Chance the Rapper gets everything!) with lows (Twenty One Pilots accepted an award in their underwear!) with a final balance that’s never weighted in your favor, unless your name is Adele. So, I can either grumble about how awful they are again, or I could offer up my suggestions to fix the Grammys. Either way, I’m not being original; “how to fix the Grammys” is the music writers’ equivalent of a break-up album or collaborating with Danger Mouse: everyone does one eventually. All the same, I’m ready to try.

So first, a tacit admission: we’re not “fixing” the Grammys, per se. “Fixing” implies that we’re taking something that’s broken or fallen into disrepair, and making it whole again, whereas the Grammys have seemingly always been pretty lame. Instead, this is more a look at how to make the Grammys at least as tolerable as any other awards show.

Fire Whoever Hired James Corden: Whatever else you could say about previous lackluster Grammy host LL Cool J, he was effectively a 10 second YouTube preroll ad: unskippable, a little grating, but ultimately knew when to get out of the way. Corden, meanwhile, thought he hosting a ceremony people actually like, and performed accordingly. He’d be solid on any other awards show (his turn hosting last year’s Tonys went well enough), but on the blandy Grammys, showbiz bits about the folding chairs in the audience or rapped opening monologues just read as filler. He wasn’t bad, but for the love of God, don’t let Corden and his cardboard Carpool Karaoke prop become a recurring #GrammyMoment.

Build the Difference Between Record of the Year and Song of the Year Somewhere Into the Telecast: “Record of the Year vs Song of the Year” is a piece of standby Grammy content only behind the “The Grammys Fucked It Up” piece and “How to Fix the Grammys” piece in terms of popularity. Hell, even I have to look up the difference every year or two (short answer: “Record” is for “best recorded music of the year”), and I have to care about this shit. So run a disclaimer with the difference at the bottom of the screen, include it with the President of the Recording Academy’s annual “fuck you, pay me” speech, or just give Record of the Year to whichever artist can explain it first on stage. Any option will be an improvement. Speaking of arcane rules.

Set Eligibility to “Came Out Last Year:” All awards shows are bad at this; the Grammys are just the worst. Eligibility for this year’s ceremony was from October 1st 2015 to September 30th last year, which is how you get 25 nominated for Album of the Year for 2017 despite coming out two Star Wars movies ago. The Oscars strategy of releasing a movie to like, six theaters in LA in early December, and only doing a wide release after Christmas is probably more dishonest, but at least it’s logical.

Decide How Important the Awards Actually Are: Did you know that, shit you not, 84 Grammy awards were given out yesterday? That’s a lot! And while I imagine there isn’t demand to see who takes home the coveted Best Surround Sound Album gramophone (a real award with a real winner), last night handed out 9 awards over a glacially paced 3 hour and 40 minute ceremony. On average, that means the Recording Academy issued 2 awards in the same time it’d take you to listen to Lemonade once, while the rest were doled out in the pre-show.

This puts all the emphasis on the performances (more on that in a moment), but it also means that most of the awards–the things we’ve known about since early December–are dealt with out of sight and out of mind. This means you broadly lose things like Bowie’s victory lap from beyond the grave, or the sheer WTF-ness of “Hotline Bling,” a song with less rapping than “Tik Tok” or “Poker Face,” picking up two awards in the Rap category, or walking warcrime Pentatonix winning a country award for their cover of “Jolene.” There’s a lot left on the table. And the non-Big Four (Song/Recording/Album of the Year, Best New Artist) hand outs that make the telecast come without rhyme or reason because the ceremony doesn’t tell us anything about them beforehand.

So play around with it. Try more awards. Try fewer. Do a bunch at once, or do a ceremony and then a big concert blowout. Let the winner of Best New Age Album introduce a performer. Just do something different.

Put the Performances on YouTube: I mean, there is no reason to not do this. Lady Gaga’s entire Super Bowl performance went up on an official NFL YouTube account by the game’s end in HD. Meanwhile, I’m trawling Beyhive Twitter (also known as “just Twitter”) for decent rips of Music’s Biggest Night that’ll probably get taken down this week.

Do Joint Performances That Make Sense: We got one of these this year! Mic issues aside, Lady Gaga and Metallica’s “Moth Into Flame” duet worked because “Moth Into Flame” is solid late day Metallica, and because Gaga and James Hetfield share the same brash vocal style (sidenote: glam metal won’t move a lot of radio units, but damn if Gaga didn’t look more engaged doing that than she did on anything for Joanne). I’d throw John Legend and Cynthia Erivo’s cover of “God Only Knows” in this pile, too; she’s on Broadway, he’ll be there inevitably.

Don’t Do Joint Performances “Just Because”: Lukas Graham and Kelsea Ballerini performing on their own is barely going to register with most viewers, so trying to cut her song into the still awful “7 Years” isn’t doing anyone any favors. Nor is putting established star Alicia Keys next to [Google check] Maren Morris. I’d try to lobby against something like Andra Day, Demi Lovato, Tori Kelly, and Little Big Town’s collaborative Bee Gees tribute, but ill-advised tributes are too intrinsic to the Grammy brand.

Exciting Performers to the Front: No matter how you feel about Adele, opening the 220 minute telecast with “Hello,” the mid-tempoest of mid-tempo ballads, isn’t exactly charging out of the gate. Nor was following it up with The Weeknd and Daft Punk’s great but chill “I Feel It Coming.” And, while he’s a talented guy, Sturgill Simpson appearing around the 3 hour mark isn’t exactly a shot in the arm. We had a surprising number of engaging performers last night between Beyonce, MetalliGa, Bruno Mars as Bruno Mars and cosplaying as Prince, A Tribe Called Quest, and Chance the Rapper, but these far and away came in the second half, where they had to fight the show’s bloat.

Book Performers Who Will Try Something: The Grammys are, for better or worse, one of those “the world’s stage” moments, so why not swing as big or as hard as possible? Why not do a heady meditation on motherhood and spirituality that also screams “I’ve gotten really into fka twigs and/or art history recently?” Why not smash two of your professions of faith into each other as joyously as possible? Why not be A Tribe Called Quest and bring the politics of your music all the way to the forefront? It makes for better viewing than Daft Punk dipping their robo toes into another Alive setup, or Ed Sheeran doing his latest “Look ma, no hands” looping bullshit. Hell, Katy Perry might have done the most hamfisted #wokepop #protest performance possible, but it still left an impression.

And last, but not least…

Give Beyonce the Damn Album of the Year Award: I mean, come on. Even if you set aside the merits of Lemonade as a cultural landmark, a powerful statement about aching and affirmation in black womanhood, and a declaration of self-love, and ignore its context as an artistic step forward for Beyonce, and brush away the importance–tangible or imagined– of its AOTY nod in light of three years of escalating bullshit in the category; if you just appraise it at base level “Which of these has the most songs I like hearing” appraisal…it’s still better than 25 by a considerable stretch. And I’m not saying that 25‘s bad. I listened to it again while writing this piece, and it’s good. In some parts, it’s really good. But it’s not the album of the year in this bunch. Let’s be honest, though, the Grammys ducking the actual album of the year in favor for a safe bet can’t be fixed because it’s not a bug: it’s a feature.

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Radio Rant: Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj – Side to Side

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants! New year, new Rant, let’s jump on.

A quiet but triumphant thing happened last year: Ariana Grande became an actual, solidified pop star. While true that she’s in her second major album cycle (discounting “The Way,” Yours Truly was basically a Selena Gomez and the Scene album), everything Grande did in the My Everything era had that self-conscious “I do adult pop music now, please do not mention my old kids show” slant that Gomez and Miley had in 2013. She was wobbly at Dangerous Woman‘s release too, for different reasons, but that seemed to work itself out by summer’s end. As a result, Grande ended last year as the newest pop star with an established base. Now, to be clear, part of it is also the field; anyone bigger than Grande seems either too disinterested in the pop idol game (Rihanna, The Weeknd) or has transcended it (Beyonce, Drake), while her competitors who haven’t imploded already (Charli XCX, Iggy Azalea) lack the right songs to personality ratio (Meghan Trainor, The Chainsmokers). She’s pretty much alone in her lane as the industry backed, personable, good but never singular, pop star. Welcome to the new age.

But, nothing feels as convincing of Grande’s newly minted stardom as “Side To Side,” which consists of exactly one entendre tucked inside a nothingburger of a song. If this is Grande’s biggest single off of Dangerous Woman (it’s already her highest charting), and not the a-okay title track or the fantastic “Into You,” then she’s clearly hit the point of pop entrenchment where she’s rewarded more for showing up than bringing her best material. I’ll say this for “Side To Side:” it’s the most unhurried she’s ever sounded on record, which is good for Grande’s long-term career prospects, but doesn’t add much to a song that’s already low energy. It comfortably sounds like a third single, which is to say, kind of conservative. Regardless of quality, the third single is the one that’s just kind of there. It’s not as attention grabbing as the lead single, nor designed for maximum airplay like the second one, but doesn’t have that “why the fuck not?” edge that comes with batting clean-up (Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and T.Swift’s 1989 exemplify this order).

And musically, “Side to Side” is the epitome of “just kinda there.” It has that incorrigible reggae/tropical bounce to it that pop ran into the ground a year ago, and that just sounds bizarre next to single degree temperatures outside. The heavy bassline in the verses adds a little texture, but it’s not enough to give the song any kind of life beyond Max Martin-led pop song #1138. What’s weird about “Side to Side” is how the pre-chorus and chorus both hint at this release that never comes; the pre-chorus (“These friends keep talkin’ way too much”) raises the drama, and the first two lines of the chorus (“I’ve been here all night/I’ve been here all day”) hint at a climaxbut when it comes to the actual delivery of “You’ve got me walking side to side,” the song shoots a blank. While it splashes around in the same vaguely tropical waters as “Cheap Thrills” and others, “Side to Side” comes up dry.

But I’ve jerked around as long as I can, it’s time to get to the thrust of what people talk about when it comes to “Side to Side:” did you know that this song is about getting dick? In fact–ahem, I don’t know if you know this yet–but it’s about getting dicked so hard you can’t walk straight the next day. Scandalous. It’s compulsive to hint that you know this whenever “Side to Side” comes up; even yesterday, I heard the song on the radio, and the DJ followed it up with “That was Ariana Grande’s ‘Side to Side,’ I’ll let you figure out what it’s about” like the meaning is some Dan Brown Illuminati shit to be decoded, and not immediately where your mind goes after hearing “I’ve been here all night/I’ve been here all day/And boy, you got me walking side to side” for the first time.

Two things with this. First of all, y’all, this is not a secret. The only reason the “You Won’t Believe What ‘Side to Side’ is Actually About” narrative exists is because Grande and her team framed the song that way. Grande copped to the meaning as soon as the song started getting promotional push before playing coy about it on twitter, at which point Buzzfeed ran a piece on Pop Twitter’s wild overreaction, and we all agreed to just go with it. No one who took more than a glance at this song or its video thought it was actually about bicycles (speaking of the workout video: Kanye did it first, Best Coast did it better). Second of all, I don’t know how much sex Ariana Grande does or doesn’t have, but I do know that “Love Me Harder,” a song of hers that’s just barely not about rough sex, already exists, so the sexual nature of “Side to Side” barely registers. The shock behind “dick bicycle” exists just so this song can sell.

Otherwise, there’s not much to “Side to Side.” Grande sounds fine, the beat’s unremarkable, and Nicki does one of those solid pop verses that I feel like we take for granted, but I also don’t have much to say about (aside from “Rappers in they feelings cuz they feelin’ me” getting a lot funnier now that she’s broken up with Meek Mill). I want to say that I’m surprised this has been Grande’s big hit off Dangerous Woman, but I get how it’s ridden the charts so long. It’s so slight that you don’t notice it chafes.

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Overrated, Underrated, Properly Rated: Green Day

When you sit down to write a little on every Green Day album ever, somewhere around Nimrod, you get hit with the burning question “Why?” The best answer I can give is that I think Green Day honestly gets a bum rap. If you want to knock them for being basic, entry-level pop-punk, then sure go ahead, but I’d argue that’s punishing them for what they’re designed to do as opposed to appraising how well or not they do it. When you look back on their career, Green Day has a consistency and stability you don’t find with most groups in their weight class; they’ve played at a higher level longer than like, The Offspring or NOFX, their bad stretches have never flailed as hard as fellow Alterna stalwarts Red Hot Chili Peppers or Weezer, and they’ve held the same line-up for 20+ years. That same consistency is, I’d say, something that gets held against them because Green Day’s never had a break-up/hiatus to serve as a referendum the same way that blink-182 or Fall Out Boy have.

So, this is me trying to reverse that somewhat. Instead of a straight ranking, I’m looking at how fairly “rated” each Green Day record is on the very serious and not at all wildly subjective criteria of my own impressions and observations over 12ish years of fandom. I’m not trying to argue whether or not Warning is actually better than Dookie, but more what deserves its rep, what needs a second look, and whether or not we’re right to avoid Dos! (spoiler alert: we are). Agree or disagree, let me know! So welcome to paradise, here we go.

39/Smooth (1990): Did you know Green Day had an album before Dookie? Either you didn’t, and you’ve never heard of 39/Smooth (or 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours if you own the more circulated version that comes with the band’s first 2 EPs stapled on), or you did, and you know that this one’s too underdeveloped for its own good. Either way, no one listens to 39/Smooth a bunch, which isn’t unfair; PROPERLY RATED.

Kerplunk (1991): Did you know that Green Day had two albums before Dookie? Kerpunk, in a lot of ways, feels like the Batman Begins to Dookie’s The Dark Knight: it’s good and got people’s attention, but also hard to see with fresh eyes because everything good about it crystallizes on the sequel. If Green Day imploded after Kerplunk, they’d still go down as an affable bunch of slacker Bay punks thanks to ramshackle songs like “2000 Light Years Away,” “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?,” and “Christie Road.” There’s the argument that this one should be underrated because it’s the band’s authentic indie record, but truth be told, the only reason you’d ever reach for Kerplunk is if you’ve already worn out Dookie and Insomniac and refuse to believe this band’s existed for the last 20 years. PROPERLY RATED

Dookie (1994): Trying to render judgment on Dookie is like trying to appraise Nevermind or Empire Strikes Back: the material is so ingrained in cultural memory that you’re not sure you’re listening to “Longview” or your memories of listening to “Longview” whenever it comes on. “Longview,” “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around,” and “Welcome to Paradise” are still alternative radio staples, and “She?” is still as fine a song as Billie Joe Armstrong’s ever written. “Chumped” is solid, and Dookie has one of my all time favorite Green Day deep cuts. Maybe I just got to it too late–Dookie was one of the last Green Day records I got to as a teen–but despite the reputation, this one’s always seemed inconsistent and filler-y outside the classics. Your mileage may vary, but because of how it works as an end-to-end listen, I have to declare Dookie OVERRATED.

Insomniac (1995): Insomniac is Green Day’s Room on Fire/Antics/Favourite Worst Nightmare: the brief, bashed out, similar but not samey, quick turnaround follow-up to the landmark breakout record. Dookie and Insomniac are cut from the same no-frills, all-thrills musical cloth, but Insomniac’s heavier, crunchier sound is its own, and despite missing Dookie‘s highs, Insomniac is the stronger, more consistent record. That consistency is born of a glassy-eyed, giggling dread that permeates the album. You see it best on “Geek Stink Breath,” “Brain Stew/Jaded,” and “Panic Song;” cuts that play where the line between “dangerous” and “hilarious” blurs. For a lone album, that sort of churning dread a really good look for Green Day. Because of their close release proximity and because this is the last pure “punk” album Green Day would make, Insomniac is always going to have to spar with Dookie in a way that the band’s other albums don’t have to, which seems a little unfair, so Insomniac is UNDERRATED by my count.

Nimrod (1997): Honest question: does Nimrod even have a reputation? When I went to listen to it for this article, I could have sworn “Hitchin’ A Ride” was the opener, and not the actual first song “Nice Guys Finish Last;” that’s how much it’s disappeared from our cultural memory. Ironically, Nimrod feels the album that set up Green Day for long-term success: the songwriting matures somewhat, and it marks the first album where their de facto guitar tone–their distorted, particular version of “DUN-DUN-DUN”–comes up. At the same time, they started sounding less overtly punk with songs like the high-stepping “Hitchin’ A Ride,” the surf rock “Last Ride In,” arena number “Haushinka,” and of course “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Nimrod’s also the first album where Armstrong wrote and sang like he wasn’t afraid of letting a melody develop. At a huffy 18 tracks with some redundancies (“Redundant” itself is excellent, however), it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but Nimrod is UNDERRATED all the same.

Warning (2000): Frequently heralded as Green Day’s most underrated album, Warning is Green Day at their furthest in the weeds (39/Smooth, meanwhile, is Green Day at their furthest in the weed). Freeish of expectations, the band dabbled in more acoustic work here from affecting ballads (“Macy’s Day Parade”) to power pop (“Warning,” “Church on Sunday”), and the songwriting skewed toward social commentary and dirtbag relationship reflections. Somewhat to its detriment, Warning is low stakes in a way nothing else is in the band’s discography, and the only one of their records that could be described as pensive, maybe even warm. My one gripe with rating Warning is that it’s 16 years old, and been called “underrated” for the last like, 11, so it’s back in PROPERLY RATED territory.

American Idiot (2004): I mean, c’mon. This thing was everywhere for about 2 years, and still feels like one of the best mainstream rock albums of the ‘00s. PROPERLY RATED.

21st Century Breakdown (2009): So, Green Day didn’t plan on American Idiot taking off like it did, nor did they know how to follow it up aside from their usual “take previous album, recalibrate” approach. Thus, you get 21st Century Breakdown, which wants to be AI, but more: more powerful, more personal, more songs, more variety–gimme, gimme more (it’s Billie, bitch). You’d be hard pressed to argue that the album isn’t grasping and wheel-spinny at times–”21 Guns” just is a rewrite of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”–but the middle is stacked with a potent mix of songs; the stretch from “Christian’s Inferno” to “Restless Heart Syndrome” feels like American Idiot with a health dash of Nimrod mixed in, and “American Eulogy” is a fine two-song suite. What sinks the record is Armstrong’s palpable strain for Importance on the album’s opening and closing salvos of songs. Sweeping Statement Cultural Messiah Billie Joe is the least appealing Billie Joe; he flails when it comes to making statements like “See The Light,” and sounds better in the thick of things like the claustrophobic “Murder City.” I’d agree that 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t quite make it as a whole–it’s hit/miss rate is less than ideal, and at times it feels too short or too long, but underneath the bloat is a sturdy enough 35-40 minute record, so it clocks in as UNDERRATED.

Uno! (2012): Oh, the trilogy.

In 2012, Green Day had the bright idea to release three full lengths a few months apart instead just culling the best of the best for one (hypothetically) really good album. Uno!, Dos!, and Tres!–known colloquially as “the trilogy”–mark the lowest point in the band’s almost 30 year career: a grave miscalculation of market demand matched only by an oversupply of so-so material and a PR bottom out. You can’t really talk about the band at this time without mentioning Armstrong’s “One fucking minute” outburst at the IHeartRadio festival, and his subsequent time in rehab for alcoholism and prescription pill abuse, all of which derailed the band around Uno!’s release and cast a grim shadow over the next two albums. It didn’t affect Uno! all that much, which got treated as an okay if underwhelming GD record, which is still about right; PROPERLY RATED.

Dos! (2012 again): Dos! has my single favorite song of the trilogy. It’s also handily the worst entry of the three, and that it isn’t universally seen that way is still irritating. OVERRATED. SOMEHOW.

Tres! (2012 again): Tres, Green Day’s third album in 3 months, is the one actual–hey, come back! UNDERRATED.

Demolicious (2014): For 2014’s Record Store Day, the band released a compilation of 18 studio demos of songs from the trilogy. The argument from Green Day obsessives (and one I’ve propagated before) is that Demolicious has the real versions of these songs, and not the corporate, overproduced ones that the man sold you. But, if I’m being honest with myself, the corrective nature of Demolicious is oversold. Rubbery overproduction was a problem with the trilogy, but it was also too overloaded with tracks that would have been the 5th or 6th best song on a normal mid-tier Green Day record. No stripping the studio lacquer off is going to fix that. Song selection works against the corrective narrative for Demolicious, too, since at an hour plus and lacking some of the more ambitious moments from the trilogy like “Brutal Love,” it doesn’t function as a tight best-of. As the fanatic’s cure-all for the UnoDosTrelogy, it’s OVERRATED, but as a listenable but inessential compilation, Demolicious is PROPERLY RATED.

Revolution Radio (2016): Revolution Radio has the unsexiest role of any album in Green Day’s discography: it’s their Competence Album. A Competence Album’s job is to prove that an act can still sound like itself after at least the last two records have fallen short, and other course corrections have failed. It’s not a full-fledged comeback, it just has to stop the bleeding with a single that sounds good on the late night TV circuit, and convince folks that you still know how to deliver on your best traits, even if you aren’t writing your best songs. Literally all it has to do is not make fans wince when you announce something. Semi-famous examples of Competence Albums include Interpol’s El Pintor, Weezer’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, Pearl Jam’s self-titled, and Oceania by The Smashing Pumpkins.

To that end, Revolution Radio does its job: “Bang, Bang” is your heatseeker single, the title track calls the knee-deep politicking of ‘00s Green Day to mind, “Outlaws” is your ballad, “Youngblood” and “Still Breathing” are your down-the-middle power-pop cuts, “Forever Now” checks off the boxes as the “multi-part epic” the band just does now, and “Ordinary World” is your singer-songwriter acoustic closer. In fandom, RevRad is probably overrated right now (another Competence Album signifier: its reputation starts high with the fans and eventually levels out once the pleasant surprise of its okayness wears off), and I called it underrated within 2016, which feels like where a band like Green Day should be right now, leaving it PROPERLY RATED.

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2016: The Year in Rant and Odds n Ends

Welcome to the closing day of Listmas 2016. It has, as always, been a lot of fun to do this for everyone, and I appreciate you reading and keeping up with our end of the year coverage. Today’s going to be a briefish take on this year’s pop chart, followed by the annual superlatives.

Getting to the Chart of Things
Working on the worst and best hits lists means spending a lot of time with Billboard’s Hot 100 for year, and you end up noticing a few things with that kind of repeated exposure. This year’s chart largely struck me as being…fine? Like, at least for me, a top ten with “One Dance,” “Panda,” and “Stressed Out” all in it doesn’t inspire much either way, and I felt pretty similarly going up and down the chart overall. Most of it ranged from pleasantly okay to kinda dull. As a result, the worst hits tended to be the incompetent ones, while the best hits list skewed a little singular in massive sound that married texture and emotional heft. They were still my honest picks, but I was aware of the trappings on both sides as I was writing.

The most lasting impression I got from the year-end Hot one hundo is that it already feels like I’ve known these songs forever. It’s felt this way a little more with each passing year, but 2016 marked the first year where “stagnant” felt like the default descriptor of the weekly top ten. Songs are not only holding number one for longer, but the whole top five has become routinely entrenched by the same songs in the same positions for weeks at a time with only a minute week to week change. This is reflected in the year-end chart by something like, well, “Love Yourself,” which was number one for 2 weeks, but held in the top ten so long that it beat “One Dance” and “Work” cumulatively. It works in the opposite direction, too; “Closer” came in at number 10 for the year, despite being the longest running number one. Part of “Closer” underperforming on the year-end could be due to its run not being complete yet, but it still placed lower than “All About That Bass” did in 2014 despite their similar peak times.

The long hit dovetails into another 2016 pop trend: the disappearance of the pop middle class. I worked this idea into an album review last month, but this is a good place to discuss how it applies to pop specifically. Effectively, you’ve got a situation where 5ish zeitgeisty pop superstars are calling the shots, and everything else feels either inconsequential or consciously in the stars’ shadows. This year, you saw so many different spins on Bieber and/or Diplo’s tropical house, Rihanna-esque dancehall, and Drake, and with so many of these guys and their imitators charting (and again, for so long), the non-pop stuff got stiff-armed. The genre fair got pushed to the edges: the usual country subset was limited to Florida Georgia Line and a schmaltzy Tim McGraw number, while rock’s only showing was Imagine Dragons knock-off X Ambassadors (the ascendant Twenty One Pilots aren’t rock, even though they’re on Fueled By Ramen–don’t @ me). And there’s no reason not to think this monopop trend will continue.

What caused all this? Well, the nicheification of popular culture at large, the breakdown of genre radio stations…oh yeah, and streaming. Definitely streaming. Billboard started counting streams toward the Hot 100 in 2012, and with the proliferation of streaming platforms this year, it’s gotten easier to keep a replayable song higher in rotation for longer. It creates a feedback loop where popular songs stay popular, and unless something breaks through on the power of sheer will (“Stressed Out”) then, well, at least “One Dance” sounds nice? I don’t know, we’re all learning as we go in making a better, smarter pop world, one overplayed hit at a time.

And now, for the sake of tradition, here are some superlatives!

Favorite Albums That Barely Missed the Da List
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Joyce Manor – “Cody”
Mitski – Puberty 2
Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

Albums I Meant to Listen To But Never Got Around to This Year, So Watch Me Get Into Them in March
Young Thug – JEFFREY
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Sleeper Album: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool. I don’t know why Radiohead, of all bands, released an album in spring that’s tailor-suited for fall and winter.

The “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Album: Angel Olsen – My Woman

“Punk in 30 Minutes Or Less” Ranking
5. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost
4. G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day of Revenge
3. Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
2. Joyce Manor – Cody
1. Mannequin Pussy – Romantic

Honorable Mentions (Considered for the Best Hits List)
Selena Gomez – “Hands to Myself”
Twenty One Pilots – “Heathens”
Kiiara – “Gold”
Jeremih – “Oui”

Dishonorable Mentions (Considered for the Worst Hits List)
Adele – “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
Meghan Trainor – “Me Too”
Charlie Puth – “One Call Away”
Coldplay – “Hymn For the Weekend” (Chris Martin should never say “Drinks on me”)

Best Number 1 Hit: Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles”

Best Number 1 Hit That Wasn’t on the Best List: Sia feat. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”

Worst Number 1 Hit: Justin Bieber – “Love Yourself”

Worst Number 1 Hit That Wasn’t on the Worst List: idk, “Pillowtalk” by Zayn?

Most 2015 Number 1 Hit: Justin Bieber – “Sorry”

Pop Star Who Was on the Bubble Who Made 2016 Their Own: Ariana Grande

“Sorry About the Comeback Attempt” Award: Lady Gaga. =/

“Congratulations on Crossing Over With Your Weakest Album” Award: Drake

There might be a thing up next week, but otherwise we’ll see you at the start of next year. Thanks again for reading!

Listmas Schedule:
12/14: Favorite Albums
12/15: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/16: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/17: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/18: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/19: The Gibby 50 and Over/Underrated Albums
12/20: The Year in Rant: Odds and Ends

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The Gibby 50: 50 Favorite Songs of 2016 and Over/Underrated Albums

Hello all, and welcome to our first almost-late day of Listmas! Wouldn’t be this time of year without one. Anyway, today we’re trying something new with the 4 most overrated and underrated albums of the year. I’m not saying the overrated albums are bad, but that maybe the music-list machine has been a little too nice to them. Conversely, the underrated ones are ones that I thought deserved more of a chance, and so I wrote a little thing for them. Here are those things.

Underrated Albums
4. Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
I saw Beach Slang live this year at one of the more singular live shows I’ve been to. Their second guitarist was fired the day the tour started, and frontman James Alex resolved to do the tour as a solo acoustic act, instead. Somewhere, that plan got nixed, and on the night I saw them, Alex walked out alone but with his white Epiphone 335, and jumped right into “Atom Bomb.” For the next two and a half hours, he played and sang Beach Slang’s loud as shit guitar rock like the fact that the rest of the band wasn’t there did not matter. He headbanged, he jumped and stomped, he did Pete Townshend windmills, all despite the fact that if you were close enough up front, you could hear his unamplified guitar strums. A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings has that same do-or-die mentality, and while Beach Slang probably won’t evolve past their earnest, scrappy, punk with a wide pop streak, they’re hard to top at it. So long as Alex keeps turning in the songs, he’ll be able to keep the dream alive on tour, whether it’s just him or the full band.



3. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
31 months isn’t so long to go without a release in most music circles, but rap actively punishes artists for not being prolific. No one more than TDE member Isaiah Rashad is aware of how long the gap was between his debt Cilvia Demo and September’s The Sun’s Tirade (well, aside from TDE manager Dave Free), and Rashad spends most of the album reflecting on and overcoming the substance abuse and depression that interfered with his creativity. For an album coming from a low place, it’s never dour: the production is a smooth mix of boom-bap and soul-tinged southern rap, and even at his grimmest, Rashad sounds like a guy who considers himself thoughtful. It’s a good, moody record, even if it got overshadowed in the rap canon of 2016.

2. Green Day – Revolution Radio
Where are Green Day supposed to exist in 2016? Even after Billie Joe Armstrong’s 2012 meltdown and the UnoDosTriology, they’ve always felt more creatively stable and ambitious than their still-going Alternative Nation compatriots Red Hot Chili Peppers and blink-182, and less likely to give into classic rockization. At the same time, there isn’t a way forward for them on the radio, which was more or less finished with Rock bands by 2011. So, Green Day spend Revolution Radio convincing fans they’re still good at being Green Day; that they can still fire off three chord riffs, verse-chorus-verse songs, and junior year poetry-as-commentary lyrics without derailing it with tons of filler or heady concepts. They’ve also let the sentimental streak live on RevRad with “Outlaws,” “Still Breathing,” and “Young Bloods” all acting as homages to old friends, the fresh out of rehab new lease on life, and Armstrong’s wife respectively. Green Day are still as uncool as they’ve always been, but this is the best they’ve sounded in 12 years.



1. Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
If it’s hard for Green Day to exist in 2016, it’s even harder to say where a veteran indie act that doesn’t act like a veteran indie act like Tegan and Sara fits in. Love You To Death doesn’t get to re-up on the “they went synthpop” narrative critics got to attach to Closer, despite this album picking up where Closer’s gleaming synths left off, nor are any of these songs especially likely to cross over onto unadventurous radio stations. But pound for pound, it’s one of the best, purest pop records of the year. The synth arrangements here are more intricate than Closer, and the writing here is ridiculously sharp in how it looks at the ways a relationship is often at odds with what we want for ourselves (“U-Turn” might be the single smartest pop song you hear all year). It’s weird that a compact, intelligent album full of unabashedly queer synthpop went by almost unremarked all year, but you’ve still got time to cue this one up. You may even love it to death (sorry, I had to).

Overrated Albums.
4. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Anderson .Paak’s 2016 might be the best thing that came from Dr. Dre’s Compton last year. On top of Malibu, he also released the collaborative Yes Lawd! with Knxledge, and had great feature spots with Kaytranda, ScHoolboy Q, and A Tribe Called Quest. That said, the EOY praise for Malibu (which is a good and undeniably fun record!) feels like it’s for his year as a whole than on its merits as a record. It’s a solid G-funk meets R&B record, but one that loses its flavor somewhere past “Room in Here.” It’s a good start to what’s hopefully a long career on the up-shoot.

3. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Does Justin Vernon know that the point of numerology and symbolism is that you go somewhere with it? 22, A Million gleefully clubs you over the head with its hieroglyphs and coded numbers, but you never get the sense that it actually means anything under it all, which goes for the album’s wonky, non-Euclidean take on studio folk, as well. Vernon is talented at making songs that sound very something, but any deeper meaning behind “#29 Strafford Apts” or “715 (Creeks)” is covered in too many layers for anyone who isn’t a Bon-Hiver to discern. This record got compared to Kid A a bunch, which has never sat right with me because Kid A is loaded with “Look Brian Eno, no hands” moments, sure, but its songs believed in being actual songs. Instead, with the way it uses unconventional sound and obfuscation to hide its own intertia, 22, A Million reminds me of The King of Limbs.

2. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
In a Songs of the Year match-up, Pablo is the six shot revolver you brought to a knife fight loaded with “Ultra Light Beam,” both “Father Stretch My Hands” numbers, “Real Friends,” “No More Parties in LA,” and “Fade.” And TLOP is a fascinating album to turn over mentally from the living document angle and as a prelude into the hectic year in store for its creator. It’s too bad it’s so lopsided as an album with underdeveloped sections and pacing issues. As compelling a thought experiment it is, The Life of Pablo cannot be an album of the year if the least compelling thing about it is hitting play.

1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Is it reductive to write-off all of indie rock-dom as “sad white dude sings about his disaffection?” Maybe. Is it unfair to hold that reputation against Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest? Almost definitely. Toledo knows his way around a song–”Destroyed By Hippie Powers” is the keeper here, and “Fill in the Blank,” “Vincent,” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” are great, too–but Teens of Denial is too self-satisfied and (so) overlong as a whole to be anything beyond okay. There’s only so much mileage you can wring out of presenting the ennui of a guy living his mid ‘20s in a city as plainly as this, and somewhere after the second or third song about the emptiness of drinking at parties, but before the eleven minute long one that uses the sinking of a cruise liner as a metaphor for how life is just so hard, it’s like “Jesus Christ, Will, I know.

The economics of time might something to do with why Teens of Denial is a turn off. At 70 minutes, not only is it unwieldy, but I could fit in Mitski’s Puberty 2, Mannequin Pussy’s Romantic, and most of Cody by Joyce Manor in the same time and get more bang for my angsty 20s-something buck. I don’t know. I think of Teens of Denial, I think of seeing James Alex front Beach Slang alone, and I try to imagine Toledo trying the same gig. I don’t see it happening. Toledo’s music doesn’t have that desperate edge, that guilelessness necessary to take the leap. Without that, Teens of Denial sounds cool at first, but gets indulgent and empty in a hurry. It becomes the sort of record that makes you look at indie rock and ask “Is this it?”

The Gibby Fifty
Anyway, now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s my favorite 50 songs of the year. The only real rules for this one are one per primary artist, and songs from the best list don’t count because we already accounted for them, and songs from the worst list are (natch) DQ’d. It’s alphabetical with the “the” artists in the T’s. Check it out, we finish tomorrow!

6LACK Getting Old
A Tribe Called Quest We the People….
A$AP Ferg Strive
Against Me! Crash
AJJ Goodbye, Oh Goodbye
Anderson .Paak feat ScHoolboy Q Am I Wrong?
Banks Trainwreck
Beach Slang Atom Bomb
Beyonce Don’t Hurt Yourself
Blood Orange Best to You
Bruno Mars Too Good To Say Goodbye
Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna This Is What You Came For
Car Seat Headrest Destroyed By Hippie Powers
Childish Gambino Redbone
Chris Farren Say U Want Me
clipping. Wriggle
D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty Broccoli
Danny Brown feat Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt) Really Doe
Drake Feel No Ways
Esperanza Spalding Unconditional Love
Frank Ocean Nights
Future Maybach
Green Day Bang, Bang
Gwen Stefani Make Me Like You
Isaiah Rashad feat. Syd Silkk Da Shock
Jeff Rosenstock Blast Damage Days
Joyce Manor Last You Heard Of Me
Kanye West feat. Kendrick Lamar No More Parties in LA
Kendrick Lamar untitled 05 | 09.21.2014
Lady Gaga feat. Florence Welch Hey Girl
Mannequin Pussy Anything
Mitski Your Best American Girl
Modern Baseball Just Another Face
PUP If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will
Radiohead Daydreaming
Rae Sremmurd Take It or Leave It
Rihanna Kiss It Better
Santigold Can’t Get Enough of Myself
Savages Adore
Sia feat. Big Sean Cheap Thrills
Solange Cranes in the Sky
teen suicide It’s Just a Pop Song
Tegan and Sara U-Turn
The 1975 Somebody Else
The Hotelier Two Deliverances
The Menzingers Bad Catholics
The Weeknd Stargirl (Interlude)
Thin Lips Never Again
Weezer LA Girlz
Young Thug Drippin’

Listmas Schedule:
12/14: Favorite Albums
12/15: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/16: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/17: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/18: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/19: The Gibby 50 and Over/Underrated Albums
12/20: The Year in Rant: Odds and Ends

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The Top 10 Best Hits of 2016 (5-1)

No introduction necessary, you know what we’re doing.

5. Rihanna – “Needed Me” (#13)
Rihanna’s secret is that under her famous “IDGAF” persona, she actually does give a fuck, but albeit a fuck that is deployed very selectively. “Needed Me” is the moment she finally gives one; it’s the fuck that comes after she’s quietly watched your every move, counted your every pace, and knows exactly how to stop you dead. The song’s been out since January, and it still wows with what a thorough dissection it is of the dude who thought he was playing Rihanna. She just takes him apart limb from limb, and it’s great: you were just some guy on the list, you were only good for the hookup, and fuck your white knight bullshit; you’re the one who needs her. That all this happens on a song with a standout Rihanna vocal and a DJ Mustard beat colder than this polar vortex is just icing on the cake. “Needed Me” has a loud and clear message: if you fuck with Rihanna, you hurt yourself.

4. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane – “Black Beatles” (#UNRANKED, WHAT?)
HERE’S OUR RULE BREAKER. “Black Beatles” didn’t make the year-end Hot 100, thus disqualifying it from my list, but I’m saying to hell with my rule because Billboard’s ruling on the matter is fucking stupid. As I write this, “Black Beatles” is in its fifth week at number one on the charts. Let me underline that: “Black Beatles” has been the biggest song in the country for more than a month, and still missed the year-end because of when the charts are called for the year. Just speaking logically, you cannot be the biggest of something for almost 10% of the time, and stay losing to competition that peaked as Halloween ’15’s last minute costume. That’s the rules’ fault.

I will gladly break the rules for “Black Beatles,” too. This might be Mike WiLL Made-It’s best ever production: a take on Atlanta trap that’s as melodic as it is massive with a surprisingly emotive synth interwoven between skittering drums and divebombing bass, and it provides the necessary room for Sway Lee, Gucci, and Slim Jxmmi’s distinct verses. Sway is nimble, sing-y, and bounces between hedonist and melancholy; Gucci’s here in Atlanta elder statesman mode for the cool; and Slim Jxmmi counters both of them with his bellicose boasting. All four guys involved with this song bring their best, and “Black Beatles” was already one of my songs of the year before it made the charts.

Not that it’s really essential–I’d put the odds that Rae Sremmurd came up with the concept of “Black Beatles” because it sounded like some cool shit to say at about 65%–but I do get Beatles vibes here. There aren’t any superficial comparisons, sure, but “Black Beatles” totally nails the strung out, emotionally frayed, melted “I haven’t lived a normal day in years” psyche that ran rampant on the Fab Four’s The White Album. Sway Lee’s disconnected lines have the same fractured twist of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” while Slim Jxmmi bellowing “I HAD HATERS WHEN I WAS BROKE/I’M RICH I STILL GOT HATERS” isn’t so far from McCartney’s “I’M COMING DOWN FAST BUT DON’T LET ME BREAK YOU” on “Helter Skelter.” “Black Beatles” sounds as art-damaged as the group did in their later days, which is more true to the Beatles than a “Hard Day’s Night” sample any time.

3. Ariana Grande – “Into You” (#51)
Can a track by one of our most mainstream contemporary artists and produced by the insider Swedish pop god be considered a cult classic? Because “Into You” seems destined to live on only with pop music obsessives despite being designed to be as big a hit as possible. Really, “Into You” is structured to always keep its momentum going forward with verses that build gracefully into blockbuster choruses, and it’s vocally right down the middle for Grande’s multi-octave voice. She sounds great, and Max Martin brings his nicest sounding robo-disco synths and drum machines for the hook; “Into You” is nearly the platonic ideal for the industry-approved Swedish pop jams we’ve had since the turn of the century.

The only reason I could see for why “Into You” didn’t go further (it stalled out at #13, which is weird considering how long we held onto like, “One Dance”) is that it isn’t “Into You” isn’t very–God, I can’t believe this is an actual metric necessary for success; 2016 sucks so hard–meme friendly. Like, Grande’s “Side to Side” has become something of a sleeper hit, and it’s hard to argue that “dick bicycle” didn’t help keep it in public consciousness at least a little. “Into You” is woefully lacking on the dick bicycle front, and has to settle on being killer pop music instead.

2. Zara Larsson & MNEK – “Never Forget You” (#46)
If “Into You” represents Swedish-written pop music of the past, then Zara Larson and MNEK’s “Never Forget You” represents Swedish-written pop music going forward. It’s still based in dance pop and precise, almost numeric melodies, but adds breaks and touches of tropical house to compete in a post-EDM world. Another key difference is that a song like “Into You” is meant to sweep you up, whereas “Never Forget You” is overwhelming by design. The song runs through its rise and fall verses right into a building chorus, which then drops into a break reminiscent of “Where Are U Now?” but faster, and then does a rinse/repeat with MNEK joining Larsson on vocals. Throw in another charging chorus with extra percussion and a final break where Larsson and MNEK trade off on vocal runs, and “Never Forget You” ends with all the elation of running a marathon. It’s a lot, but “Never Forget You” wouldn’t be as satisfying if it backed off any. Sometimes, you just have to let a song run away with you.

1. Beyonce – “Sorry” (#71)
It wouldn’t be an end of the year list if Beyonce didn’t top something. That’s not to say that “Sorry” was a preordained number one here, but even against the competition, it’s just that good. I’ve written before about “Sorry” as the best representation of Lemonade‘s ethos, and a smooth blending of electropop, R&B, and hip-hop, and I still stand by that; if you can only play someone one song from the album, I’d go with this over “Formation.” As for the charts, what makes “Sorry” stand out is how un-loud it is: it’s not unassuming or quiet exactly, but it isn’t trying to wrestle your attention to it with both hands or pummel you with its hooks. Instead, it has some empathy with its listeners who might be going through some shit, and implores you to “Tell’em boy, bye” in defiant celebration. “Sorry” is inviting in large parts, which only makes its falling in slow motion end even more affecting. So for nailing its emotional high-wire and the sound of like, 4 different radio trends, “Sorry” is our best hit song of 2016.

That’s it for the hits! Come back tomorrow for my 50 favorite songs and the 5 most under/overrated albums of the year!

Listmas Schedule:
12/14: Favorite Albums
12/15: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/16: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/17: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/18: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/19: The Gibby 50 and Over/Underrated Albums
12/20: The Year in Rant: Odds and Ends

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