Ranting About Music’s Top 17 Favorite Albums of 2017

LISTMAS TIME!! Welcome to Listmas, the annual end of the year mania here at Ranting About Music!, where we look back on highs and lows of the year in music. As always, this means you’ll see a new post going up every day for 7 whole days, starting today. It’s a lot of fun for me, and really, it’s a thank you to y’all for reading. I appreciate the continued love and support this site got this year and every year. Today, we’re starting, per tradition, with my favorite albums. Full calendar’s at the end of the piece!

The album class of 2017 is an interesting beast. There were a lot of great albums out across multiple genres, but it didn’t have that thing 2016 did where it sometimes felt like there was a new capital M Masterpiece popping up somewhere every few weeks. You’ve seen this translate to a little more diversity in 2017’s list toppers. Like, yeah, there are still two records that have shown up on about every list I’ve seen (including this one because I can only be so contrarian), but it’s not to the point where you can guess everyone’s Top 5.

Instead, this has been what I’ve thought of as “the year of the 8.5.” It’s been a relatively light year on albums that make you say, “Yes, that is the one from that artist,” but it’s been really easy to keep this year’s best in rotation. Each record, from the moody soundscapes to the punk scorchers to the intimate strummers, has songs that meant a lot to me, and I hope they can mean a lot to you too, if you check’em out. I always like to call this my list of obsessions. We’re gonna do a lucky 7 on the honorary mentions, and then the top ten, m’kay?

17. Perfume Genius – No Shape
16. Japandroids Near to the Wild Heart of Life
15. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
14. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
13. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
12. Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life
11. Charly Bliss – Guppy

10. Future – HNDRXX
Empty space. That’s always the first thing that hits me about
HNDRXX: that an album by Future, a rapper who has specialized in relentless trap music for the last 3ish years, opens with space empty but for abstract vocalizing. Over the album’s expansive run time, Future uses that space for some of his best songs, shedding aggro-trap rap for a bunch of songs that lean more into R&B and interstellar pop. There are plenty of capable songs here, like always, but the record goes on a run midway that’s damn near bulletproof from “Use Me” to “Hallucinating” that Future’s recent output just can’t keep up with. He sounds invested on HNDRXX, too, like a man finally coming out of a purple haze with a rekindled flare for life. Future’s spent years telling us he was among the stars; HNDRXX makes him sound like he might not be alone up there for once.

9. Lorde – Melodrama
I keep going back and forth with Melodrama. On one hand, it’s as perfectly executed a mainstream pop album as you’ll see this year (he wrote on the 4th anniversary of Beyonce’s surprise release from orbit) that takes more risks than it had to, but on the other hand, I feel like the hype celebrates this record for being the stone cold classic it isn’t because it’s kind of hard to root against Lorde. It comes down to the music for me, and fuck it, “The Louvre” is such a good song that it’s taught me how to spell “Louvre,” I’m still tickled that the synth panic on “Hard Feelings” gets to exist on a big tent pop album, “Sober II/Melodrama” slaps, and “Supercut” is a top 5 pick for song of the year. If Melodrama gets remembered as Lorde’s best album, I’ll be a little bummed, but it still left a mark on me all year long.

8. [tie] Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights/Sorority Noise – You’re Not As _____ As You Think
These two are tied because I ended up thinking about them together. Granted, part of that is because the two artists know each other (Baker gets a lyrical nod on “A Better Sun,” Sorority Noise frontman Cameron Boucher plays woodwinds on Turn Out the Lights), but these records feel like two different paths to the same end of coping with trauma.

These records–hell, these artists–are emotionally beat back by substance abuse, mental illness, and the suicides of others; and are tasked with finding their will and self-worth in the fall out. They’re also both more than a little Christian, and search for absolution through musical catharsis. Baker’s singer-songwriter approach favors hushed piano and guitar balladry with pensive lyricism, while Sorority Noise utilize battered pop-punk to describe being mentally bombed out but resilient. Both of these records face their demons in isolation, and they’re both more than a little devastating (okay, they’re fucking devastating), but ultimately, Julien Baker and Sorority Noise see the value of others, and more importantly, themselves.

7. Kitty – Miami Garden Club
Kitty (“Kitty Pryde” when she was viral) took a long journey to get to Miami Garden Club from her tumblr cloud rap days. She developed and refined her persona and voice. She went from journal-centric cloud rap to trance to EDM. She moved a bunch. And all that work has culminated with Miami Garden Club, which blends everything she’s done, and moves it somewhere almost post-pop. There are some conventional tracks on here, like slurry electro-popper “Running Away,” ‘80s sci-fi jam “Asari Love Song,” and squelching rap banger “Mass Text Booty Call,” but I wasn’t able to get this thing out of my head because most of the album lives in the abstract areas between pop, rap, EDM, R&B, and even video game-y chiptune. It might just be my ignorance, but what do you call a song like “New Leaf” that sounds like trance meets pop and strips both genres to the essentials? Or “If U Wanna Come Over,” which matches floating synths and robot noises to rap rhythms? Honestly speaking, Miami Garden Club reminds me of Blond(e) in that both records are the sound of an artist not caring about what anyone else is doing, and going their own way. We could use more of that.

6. Paramore – After Laughter
Paramore’s fifth record snuck up on me. When it was released following a lightning quick campaign in May, I liked it plenty, although I thought it didn’t quite match their 2013 self-titled effort. But these songs stick. I found myself coming back to “Rose-Colored Boy,” “Told You So,” “Pool,” “Fake Happy,” “Idle Worship,” and especially “Caught in the Middle” throughout the year, and stacking all these songs next to each other only strengthened their appeal. There’s nuance to this record, too; really listen to how many drum rolls and fills are splashing about in “Grudges,” the vocals buttressing “Idle Worship,” or synths on “Told You So,” and tell me Paramore didn’t secretly make one of the year’s catchiest headphone albums. Now, throw in Hayley Williams’ powerhouse vocals and darkest lyrics over that, and you’ve got a potent, memorable cocktail about letting yourself feel how you feel while still moving forward. After Laughter isn’t just dancing with tears in your eyes, but finding the people and things that keep you dancing.

5. SZA – Ctrl
Ctrl’s name works on multiple levels. At its most metatextual, it reasserts SZA’s control over her career, which looked just a year ago like it was going to flame out before she could capitalize on the promises of a few EPs, guest spots due to executive meddling. On another level, the name reflects how the album is a constant back and forth about who maintains control in and of a relationship. And finally, ctrl is a record about the consequences of maintaining (or hell, just trying to maintain) control in your life. It’s an album that doesn’t shy away from handling the shit that makes you feel insecure, but it also plays with the highs and lows of where those insecurities take you. Despite the themes, though, ctrl is an often breezy and melodic listen (what’s the last major TDE record that wasn’t a major head rocker?) with a wildly expressive voice leading the charge. There’s nothing less than great in this record’s first seven tracks, and SZA grounds the spacier back 7, too–just listen to how she does on the interstellar “Anything.” This has been SZA’s breakout year, and one listen to Ctrl is enough to say she deserves it. Debuts rarely sound this commanding.

4. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die came back to kick it. The Connecticut emo collective knew they couldn’t blow their expansive sound on Harmlessness even further out for their next record, so they decided to fold it in on itself. The result is their tightest work musically (“The Future” and “Dillion and Her Son” are still just impossibly catchy two and a half minute poppy punk songs) that matches their most direct lyrical effort. Always Foreign is a record of binaries: it has brief and sprawling cuts that are equally impacting, and it has their most vitriolic lyrics, yet also, most empathetic; they’re a band where nothing feels off-limits. And, for a year with a frankly sometimes exhausting number of Trump records, this one felt layered. Always Foreign contends with not being able to save everyone, but treasuring who you have and lamenting who you’ve lost.

3. Harmony Woods – Nothing Special
“I think I might need you” goes the recurring lyric on Harmony Woods’ (led by Sofia Verbilla) debut record, a half-hour long document of falling in and falling out with someone after desperately trying to make it work. The record’s name doesn’t relate to its quality (no shit), but to the universality of a relationship’s arc, from the pain-in-the-neck struggle of getting to a paramour’s house just to realize it was worth it once you’re there, to watching TV so you can be together, to working with them emotionally…to knowing you can’t do this anymore, and what you’ve built won’t sustain either of you. Verbilla tells an aching and affecting story through personable vocals, repeating lyrical motifs, and in-the-room production (care of Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald and Ian Farmer behind the console–Bren Lukens from the same band plays lead guitar).

Nothing Special has the hallmarks of a Philly record: it’s treble-friendly, punchy, and willfully zig-zags between singer-songwriter and punk, and stands out because of Verbilla’s ambition. Harmony Woods is self-described on band camp as “lo-fi by circumstance,” and the album’s last minute epics–I’m thinking of “Parking Lot” and “Renovations” in particular–attest to that. I can’t wait to hear the new adventures in hi-fi that could come from this group (sidenote: should you buy this one, which I truly suggest you do, I advise grabbing the physical, if only because this thing has my favorite liner notes/inner art design of the year).

2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
If you told me Kendrick Lamar was gonna follow up 2015’s jazz-rap masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly with a Southern Rap-tinged, palindromic odyssey that owes as much to the Old Testament as it does kung-fu movies, I probably wouldn’t have been that surprised until you told me people would go fucking nuts for it. DAMN. took on mainstream success Lamar’s previous records could have only dreamed of, but it’s hardly a kissass record or just a collection of woke bangers. DAMN. still looks over its shoulder plenty, it just feels more user-friendly because there aren’t any Kashami Washington sax freak outs or cassette tape skits gumming things up, and the singles are a little shinier. DAMN. doesn’t play it straight: there’s still a seven minute/three suite song, a two-parter with U2, a track that’s more blues than rap, and freeform slam poetry over Thundercat basslines. And while there’s still plenty of barbs about anti-Blackness in America, Lamar’s focus shifts inward this time. He worries about doing good works with his time on Earth. He battles ego, terror, and vices while trying to uphold truth and loyalty and wondering about his relationship with a righteous God. That he’s able to do this while still firing on all cylinders and perfecting that rasping, apocalyptic flow is, itself, basically a miracle. So pray for him, he’s dying of thirst.

1. Jay Som – Everybody Works
And to think this thing was made in a bedroom.

Jay Som’s Everybody Works is one of those records that clicked right away as “That One:” a document where you can hear an artist stretch in every direction without missing a stride. It’s indie pop, categorically speaking, but really, virtually any kind of pop or rock fan would find something to love here. If the reflective, pocket-sized anthem “The Bus Song” doesn’t do it, maybe “1 Billion Dogs,” a post-shoegaze pop rager with a gloriously noisy guitar solo will, or any one of Everybody Works’ 8 other fully release songs. This is Melina Duterte’s 2nd full release, but she already has a commanding knowledge of dynamic songwriting and incisive lyricism that makes for an album full of highlights like “For Light.” Duterte’s lack of genre fealty is refreshing, too; she’s just making the music she wants, and if that’s going to include stuff like technicolor psych-pop explosion “Baybee” and the Lonesome Crowded West crunch of “Take It,” I’m more than happy to keep listening. Everybody Works is an essential listen not just for how well it’s made, but for how well it cut through the noise this year; it’s about as welcoming as a pile of familiar blankets.

Listmas 2017 Schedule
12/14: Favorite Albums
12/15: The Gibby Fifty (50 Favorite Songs)
12/16: Top Ten Best Hits of 2017 (pt. 1)
12/17: Top Ten Best Hits of 2017 (pt. 2)
12/18: Top Ten Worst Hits of 2017 (pt. 1)
12/19: Top Ten Worst Hits of 2017 (pt. 2)
12/20: The Year In Rant/Odds and Ends

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Album Review: Taylor Swift – reputation

Taylor_Swift_-_ReputationTaylor Swift would be a bad serial killer.

She’d be a bad serial killer for a bunch of reasons, but specifically, the country girl-next-door turned pop center turned heel can’t help but leave a trail of breadcrumbs in her work to explain herself. Even before easter egg hunting and reference spotting were content industries, Swift littered her creations with nods about who or what certain songs were about, most famously by leaving secret messages in liner notes. The old Taylor is dead, but her compulsion to explain isn’t; instead of just not doing interviews for the reputation cycle, she captioned her announcement of Target-exclusive reputation magazines with, “There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.” and then liking tumblr posts that speculated that she wasn’t doing interviews. She rewards those who are observant, which could explain why I can’t get part of the magazine’s introductory letter (readable here) out of my head. Buried halfway through the third paragraph comes this line, “I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old.” and that sentence feels like it should be in 48 point font. More than any lyric or video gif, that quote unlocks reputation to me; it’s the album where Taylor Swift is telling us, “I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old, and I’m not sure it was worth it.”

Which is why reputation feels like an attempt by Swift to deescalate her status from “mind shatteringly famous” to “mega famous.” It tries to retrofit the last year and a half of pop/rap trends into a sound that gels with the decisively non-rap Swift of 1989, largely to middling effect. Sometimes, it sounds great (“So It Goes…”), sometimes it faceplants (“King of My Heart,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”), but mostly it’s just okay. For the first time in her career, there are no new worlds left for her to conquer, nor does reputation try to. The record’s also something of a feint: instead of a meditation on fame, media personas, and how much Kimye and Katy Perry suck, we’ve got an album of 12 crush/love songs with 3 seemingly left-field, context dependent screeds against some enemy that’s barely above the haters and fakers of “Shake It Off.” If nothing else, slotting “Look What You Made Me Do” as the lead single was a canny way for Swift to quiet the narrative up front: the initial controversy stuck more to the single, and she’s able to center the record on less incendiary topics.

The music of reputation suggests deescalation, too. Swift’s last five albums have–to varying degrees–incorporated stray elements into her core singer-songwriter sound, from the pop country of Fearless to the omnivorousness of Red to 1989‘s synthpop overtones. reputation marks the first time where she goes overtly contemporary, which might tie her to the moment. Working again with producers Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, Swift goes all-in on the sounds of 2016 and 2017, which means lots of echoing synths, stuttering drums, digitized vocals, and some of her most icy and metallic production. It’s brooding and unfriendly, but not unfamiliar for a pop landscape that’s had Blackout and 808s & Heartbreak in its DNA for the last decade, especially since these are still friendly enough pop songs (“Look What You Made Me Do” excluded). You can see this most readily in the album’s opening run, where “…Ready For It?” “I Did Something Bad,” and “Don’t Blame Me” have smoother moments to reign in their louder, more blustery, impulses.

Swift’s work with Martin and Shellback doesn’t have a great payout here. They do more with less on the airy “So It Goes…” a robo-ballad whose vocoder-ed verses and swooning chorus approaches the soft-touch electronica of ’00s Nine Inch Nails, and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” works because of Swift pushing her range to the limit and a few synth tricks. These are the exceptions, though, since the productions are letdowns elsewhere, and Swift sounds locked a cell when it comes to Martin’s melodic math. These beats suffer because they’re pop approximations, and beg the question of what’s stopping Swift from going right to the source? If you’re going to try for an “urban radio” single, why not tap Cirkut or Metro Boomin? Instead of Shellback’s decent OVO impression on the dancehall adjacent “Delicate,” why not see if Ninteen85 will do it?

The other big name collaborator on reputation is Jack Antonoff, inflicting a third major appearance on a pop album aside from his own in 2017. I don’t begrudge Antonoff’s decision to shamelessly cozy up to every commanding female artist with a singular vision and a MetroCard so he can pop up in Vulture to say “And I helped” while dropping some pseudo-therapy talk about process, but if we’re going to let this guy run wild, he needs new sounds. My biggest criticism of Antonoff is that he lack imagination; his lone style is the bass-deficient, reverb reliant, arpeggio synth, gated drum, bouncing piano blast of ’80s worship that’s been a pop fixation for the last like, decade, and his version of it got tiring halfway through the first Bleachers album. It’s why something like “Getaway Car,” a synth-y late album opus, should feel exciting and effervescent, but just reads as stale.

One thing you can say for Swift’s tracks with Antonoff is that at least she sounds like a person. “Dress,” “Call It Want You Want,” and especially the intimate, sparse closer “New Year’s Day are her best performances, where she sings about having her heart interlinked with someone she is afraid to lose. She’s human, but coming from a weirder angle on other Antonoff collaborations “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” the record’s Kanye West takedowns. When “Look What You Made Me Do” came out, I thought it might make more sense on the album, but if anything, the electroclash single sounds even more out of place between the dancehall crush song and glitchy torch one. And it’s somehow preferable to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” where Swift boasts about living like Gatsby (. . . as a member of the nouveau riche whose life of glamour conceals their loneliness and longing for love and acceptance they’re incapable of receiving?) before dissing Kanye, only she does it by referencing two songs better than almost anything on reputation. This is all set to a bubbly mash-up of “Royals” and “Roar,” it’s buried at the end of the album between love songs, and there’s also a fake laugh and “oh my God I caaaan’t” bridge. It’s all very confusing.

Which might be preferable to the times she sounds like an algorithm result. I’ve mentioned this before, but Swift doesn’t mesh with Max Martin’s calculated songwriting, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the duo’s over-processed tracks. Is there a point you can make about digitized-to-death vocals representing the loss of Taylor Swift’s humanity at the hands of mass culture? Yes, but the album doesn’t engage with that idea. Instead, it sees her try rapping several times, using a light accent of something every now and then, and reheating the soggiest parts of “Bad Blood.” Look no further than what we made her do on (inevitable single) “Endgame,” where she has a tripping, over-practiced rap verse that falls somewhere below a double timing Future, but above #bars covered in flop sweat by Lannister bastard Ed Sheeran. Swift doesn’t sound awful on “Endgame”, but her performance is indicative of reputation writ large: someone getting by without playing to their strengths.

Not that it doesn’t sometimes work. The quiet romances detailed in “Delicate” and “Gorgeous” sound worth it, and once the record dispenses with the bangers and Swift has room to breathe, the second half improves. Closer “New Year’s Day” peels away layers of production until it’s just Swift and a piano, and her performance is outright compelling. She sings like she truly just went through midnight after midnight after someone with drinks (quick tangent: Swift mentions drinking so much on reputation that I thought it was the new Japandroids record), and wants to stay, no matter how tired she is or how many challenges await them in the outside world. It sounds relatable, which goes back to why she left all those little clues in her work in the first place; she wanted to tell us she was with us. If the swirl around reputation did more of that instead of obsess over Swifts interlinked within Swifts interlinked, or if the songs themselves were as sturdy as they were on her previous albums, then maybe this record could have been an interesting “turn back the curtain” to show what Swift’s fame has cost her. But it pays (red-painted) lip service that idea, offering anodyne relationship songs instead. Swift is ready to exit the narrative; she told us she was going to be bad, but really, she’s saying “Leave me alone.”

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Grammy Nominations/Predictions 2018

Like death and taxes–and usually about as fun–the Grammys are the one certainty through all of music-dom. Well, that and everyone grousing about end of year lists coming out sooner and sooner each year. Every winter, somewhere between the Super Bowl and the Oscars, is Music’s Biggest Night, a three and a half hour ceremony where less than a dozen of eighty-four awards are handed out in between performances, bizarre collaborations, and the annual reminder from the president of the Recording Academy not to pirate music (and don’t forget to hashtag at #GrammyMoment!). It’s a night usually known for its wailing and grinding of teeth.

But this year, the story going around is “The Grammys Are Actually Kind of Good,” which is…mostly true? The Big Four categories (Album/Record/Song of the Year + Best New Artist) are littered with hopeful nominees like in years past, but this year’s crew lacks both a capable but uninspired choice who will steamroll everything and any outright terrible choices. When Jay-Z is your worst guy in the Album of the Year category, things could be a lot worse. It remains to be seen if the Grammys’ pivot to youth is the result of widening diversity among their voting pool, a fluke, a result of poptimism, or the outcome of musical tastes homogenizing as music delivery systems themselves homogenize resulting in everyone more or less listening to the same thing by default forever and ever, but the field looks a little brighter this year than it has in a while, regardless.

Which is why we’re going to play a game called “Ifs and Wants” The way it’ll work is I’ll start each sentence with an “if” fragment about the awards, and it’ll end with a “want” fragment about something I want to happen at the ceremony, because I wanna take anything I can from the institution that thought a Lukas Graham and Kelsea Ballerini collaboration was something anyone wanted. Here’s an example: “IF ‘That’s What I Like’ Wins Song of the Year, I WANT Bruno Mars and the Hooligans to do a routine as his acceptance speech.” So I’ll do a few small ones, and then a couple of longer ones. My predictions for prominent categories will be underneath those at the end.

IF “Despacito” wins Song of the Year, I WANT Justin Bieber to get the least amount of speech time.
Ideally, he doesn’t even join Ramon Ayala, Jason Boyd, Erika Ender, Luis Fonsi, and Marty James Garton in going up to accept, because I feel like “Despacito” winning is a “lose your shit” moment, and Bieber doesn’t seem like he’d be great for those.

IF Childish Gambino wins any award during the telecast, I WANT Donald Glover to shoutout another Migos song.
It was part of their number-one run in January, why not get “T-Shirt” back on the charts to bookend the year? This one’s not big enough for its own separate entry, but I also want Glover to remark on his overt 70s funk throwback record winning Best Urban Contemporary Album, should that come to pass.

IF Nothing More get either award for Best Rock Performance or Best Rock Song, I WANT to see them perform.
This has way less to do with listening to their music (which is, in short, very bad) than it does me seeing what they look like, because just listening to [checks notes] “Go to War” makes me think it was written by 4 random Hot Topic employees.

IF Jay-Z wins Album of the Year, I WANT Beyonce to accompany him on-stage.
The even better version of this would be finding out that Jay has the Grammy plaque redone later to read that it goes to Lemonade, because 1. 4:44 is a less interesting, less compelling, and (probably) less well-received album without Lemonade, 2. It’s going to be the only way to keep Beyhive Twitter (still also known as “just Twitter”) from a mountain of “THEY GAVE JAY A GRAMMY FOR CHEATING ON BEYONCE AND NOT ONE TO BEYONCE” takes and 3. I’m just not ready for “The Grammys Hate Beyonce” to become a trilogy.

And now for two slightly longer ones.

IF Kendrick Lamar wins Album of the Year or Record of the Year, I WANT the Grammys to play “Sit down/Be humble.” as his walk-up music while cutting Ed Sheeran at least once.
This one plays both ways. First, a win for Kendrick outside the genre categories would go a long way to correcting his contentious past with the Grammys since both of his previous albums have had their hopes dashed at the hands of lesser creations. His landmark debut good kid, m.A.A.d city was shut out of the rap categories by Macklemore’s fun but disposable The Heist (it also lost Album of the Year, but it was a dark horse pick at best), and then in 2016, To Pimp A Butterfly–a possible consensus pick for album of the decade–lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989. You’re not really going to nominate the guy a third time just to say no, are you?

The other side to this want is that it cuts Ed Sheeran down in the pettiest way possible. Sheeran set the tone for the Divide album cycle in GQ profile where he matter-of-factly stated that he wanted to sell more records than Adele. Unapologetic careerism isn’t a sin in itself, but combined with Sheeran coming off as kind of an entitled ass in the profile, the fact that Divide has his most banal and most blatantly commercial songwriting, and his past Grammy success, and you’re left with a guy who expected he could collect his gramophones at the door and acted like it. Him getting locked out of the Big Three this year has to smart, and I just really wanna see his face listen to “Sit down, be humble.”

IF a country or rock artist presents an award or does a performance, I WANT them to comment on the genre getting kicked to the side.
The flipside to this year’s pop and rap-centric Big Four is that there’s no room left for the token “left-field genre nominee” in any category. Past years have seen the likes of Chris Stapleton, Alabama Shakes, and Little Big Town crowbar their way into the competition, none of whom have any stand-ins this time around. Which is a shame, because it’d be cool to see Paramore or somebody tussle with Bruno Mars in AOTY, or Miranda Lambert pop up in Song of the Year. Even though I like this year’s nominees enough, I’d put money on the entirety of the SOTY pool drawing from a near identical listening base, which is a little disheartening. The Grammys bill themselves as Music’s Biggest Night, and this year’s nominees–while again, solid–almost begs the question: are we all just listening to the same things?

And here are some of the more relevant nominations (predicted winner in bold).

Album of the Year
Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Jay-Z – 4:44
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Lorde – Melodrama

Song of the Year
Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber – “Despacito”
Jay-Z – “4:44”
Julia Michaels – “Issues”
Logic ft. Alessia Cara and Khalid – “1-800-273-8255” (it’s pedestrian without being trite, perfect Grammy choice)
Bruno Mars – “That’s What I Like”

Record of the Year
Childish Gambino – “Redbone”
Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber – “Despacito”
Jay-Z – “The Story of O.J.” (the “we’re sorry about your other two losses” award)
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”

Best New Artist
Alessia Cara
Khalid (right mix of “new and different” and “willing to perform with Stevie Wonder at the 2019 Grammy ceremony”)
Lil Uzi Vert
Julia Michaels

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance
The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – “Something Just Like This”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee ft. Justin Bieber – “Despacito”
Imagine Dragons – “Thunder”
Portugal. The Man – “Feel lt Still”
Zedd & Alessia Cara – “Stay”

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album
Michael Bublé – Nobody But Me
Bob Dylan – Triplicate
Seth MacFarlane – In Full Swing
Sarah McLachlan – Wonderland
Various Artists – Tony Bennett Celebrates 90
(I don’t have any insight as to who wins here; I just wanted people to know about this fucking bonkers category)

Best Pop Vocal Album
Coldplay – Kaleidoscope EP
Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life
Imagine Dragons – Evolve
Kesha – Rainbow (How great would this win be?)
Lady Gaga – Joanne
Ed Sheeran – Divide

Best Rock Performance (The Rock Grammys Are Weird, Pt. 1)
Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”
Chris Cornell – “The Promise”
Foo Fighters – “Run”
Kaleo – “No Good”
Nothing More – “Go To War”

Best Rock Album (The Rock Grammys Are Weird, Pt. 2)
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
Metallica – Hardwired… To Self-Destruct
Nothing More – The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Best Alternative Music Album
Arcade Fire – Everything Now
Gorillaz – Humanz 
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
The National – Sleep Well Beast (The only nominee where you can’t make a halfway convincing “This is their worst album” argument)

Best R&B Song
PJ Morton – “First Began”
Khalid – “Location”
Childish Gambino – “Redbone”
SZA – “Supermodel” (It’s either this or “Redbone” and choosing between them breaks my heart)
Bruno Mars – “That’s What I Like”

Best Urban Contemporary Album (aka, always one of the quietly strongest categories, coded name notwithstanding)
6LACK – Free 6LACK
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Khalid – American Teen
SZA – Ctrl
The Weeknd – Starboy

Best Rap Performance
Big Sean -“Bounce Back”
Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow”
Jay-Z -“4:44”
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.” (He’s won recently for “i” and “Alright”)
Migos ft. Lil Uzi Vert – “Bad And Boujee”

Best Rap/Sung Performance
Goldlink ft. Brent Faiyaz & Shy Glizzy – “Crew”
Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé – “Family Feud”
Kendrick Lamar ft. Rihanna – “LOYALTY.”
SZA ft. Travis Scott -“Love Galore”

Best Rap Song
Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow” (this choice just seems too fun to not go with)
Danger Mouse Featuring Run The Jewels & Big Boi – “Chase Me”
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
Rapsody – “Sassy”
Jay-Z – “The Story Of O.J.”

Best Rap Album
Jay-Z – 4:44
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Migos – Culture
Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy (the genre Grammys can get a little left-field, and so’s this choice)

This year’s Grammys are January 28th on CBS, which James Corden inflicted on us for a second year.

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The Swift Sixteen: A Tournament of Taylor Swift’s Biggest Hits (part 2 of 2)

Here are the results of Round 1.

Let’s being Round 2!

Round 2, Match 1: “Shake It Off” (#1, from 1989) vs. “Style” (#9, also from 1989)
Twenty years from now, when Teen Jeopardy! needs a $400 answer in “Finish the Lyrics,” that sucker’s going to read: “This 2014 song cautions that ‘The haters gonna hate, hate hate/And the fakers are gonna fake, fake, fake’” and some nervous kid with too much hair is gonna say “What is ‘Shake It Off’?” while sucking spit out of their retainer. “Shake It Off” is guaranteed to be at least one of Swift’s two most enduring songs, and for an artist as careerist as she is, that gives it no small amount of weight. I remember seeing the video for the first time, and recognizing how it grabbed from different aesthetics, uniting them all under Swift. The intent was clear: Taylor Swift was making pop, and she was making pop for everyone.

And yet, “Shake It Off” is limited in its pull for everyone; it’s a song that could be sung by anyone. “Style” keeps all the pop trappings in that pulsating beat, the synthetic kick drum, and that soaring chorus, but there’s also real poignancy in the lyrics, too. It’s both a pop creation and a Taylor Swift creation. I realize that I’m talking about a single from what’ll be a defining mainstream pop album of the 2010s, but it feels like this song didn’t chart high enough. “Style” prevails in the upset to go to the Final Four.

Round 2, Match 2: “Love Story” (#4, from Fearless) vs. “Teardrops on My Guitar” (#11, from Taylor Swift)
Even though it’s only an 11th seed here, “Teardrops” is Swift’s biggest hit from her self-titled, making this the oldest possible Country Taylor match. And “Teardrops” handily wins, because “Love Story,” while a great radio single, retrospectively lives all the way under “You Belong With Me.” Plus, not that my opinion sways a lot here, but “Teardrops on My Guitar” kicked off my favorite Taylor Swift sub-genre: helplessly watching everything pass you by (see also: “The Story of Us,” “I Wish You Would”). “Teardrops” makes the Final Four.

Round 2, Match 3: “You Belong With Me” (#2, from Fearless) vs. “Mine” (#10, from Speak Now)
A few paragraphs ago, I said that “Shake It Off” was guaranteed to be one of Swift’s two most enduring songs. Its counterpart is “You Belong With Me,” an absolute monster of a song that has serious pathos in addition to being one of Swift’s catchiest hits (just try not to singalong to “So why can’t you see-eeeee-eee?”). “Mine” could maybe chase down a win against any of the other Fearless singles, but “You Belong With Me” is just too solid and quintessentially Swift to lose. To invoke another March Madness archetype, this is that game where the unassuming low-seed that clawed its way this far gets tossed into the sun. “You Belong With Me” belongs in the Final Four.

Round 2, Match 4: “I Knew You Were Trouble.” (#5, from Red) vs. “Blank Space” (#3, from 1989)
The second round ends with a clash of the titans. Both “I Knew You Were Trouble.” and “Blank Space” were their respective albums’ flagship singles: not the leads, but the ones that eventually defined the era. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” proved that Swift could hijack a contemporary trend for her own end. This marked a departure from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which was fairly down the middle as far as radio sounds went; the only risk involved was that it wasn’t even country in passing. But CMA sweetheart Taylor Swift throwing dubstep drops into a single? That easily could have backfired.

Okay, so as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really like “Blank Space,” but even I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is happening” when it started taking off in late 2014. “Shake It Off” might have broken the ice for Swift’s “first official documented pop album,” but “Blank Space” was what proved that she had pop staying power. It quickly eclipsed “Shake It Off”’s stint at the top of the charts, and solidified her arrival at pop’s center. “Blank Space” also marked, somehow, a new high in Swift’s popularity since it and its whip-smart video didn’t just look at Taylor Swift, Actual Person, but confronted Taylor Swift, Media Construction, blurring the two into one, self-aware reflection (if you squint, this is also where the road to Reputation begins). A few dubstep drops ain’t got nothing on that, as “Blank Space” rounds out the Final Four.

Final Four: “Style” (#9), “Teardrops On My Guitar” (#11), “You Belong With Me” (#2), “Blank Space” (#3)

Round 3, Match 1: “Style” (#9, from 1989) vs. “Teardrops On My Guitar” (#11)
And so one Cinderella run has to come to an end, but which?

“Teardrops On My Guitar” got here by being one of Swift’s best bedrock songs, while “Style” is exemplary of her, well, style. It’s a match of potential vs. actualization. “Teardrops” is great, but it’s limited by the fact that Swift is still figuring things out; it has all the right pieces, but isn’t quite realized. “Style” has a confidence and grace that’s missing from “Teardrops,” and just about every aspect of the former lives in bolder color than the latter. The instrumentation is richer, the lyrics are more complex, and it’s like night and day with Swift’s vocals between the two (it’s those swells at the end that really put it over the edge); in terms of composition, it’s hard to argue against “Style.” And the pair almost exist on a continuum: “Style” might be the cooler, older version of who she was on “Teardrops,” but both get denied because of some impossible to know other girl who almost pushes them into breaking. I think that kind of continuity is neat. “Style” is one of Taylor Swift’s best hits.

Round 3, Match 2: “You Belong With Me” (#2, from Fearless) vs. “Blank Space” (#3, from 1989)
Our first round 3 match was a battle of the underdogs, so of course, the other match is a tussle between dominant 2nd and 3rd seeds.

Let’s change our approach for a second and consider a hypothetical. Let’s say Taylor Swift isn’t Taylor Swift. Let’s say her career’s the same through Fearless or Speak Now, but the whole VMA debacle never happens, so she’s never thrown into a national pop culture controversy, so she remains a very successful country artist, but not someone whose profile reaches the point where Taylor Lautner tries spin-kicking the head off of Kanye West mannequin twice while defending her honor in an SNL monologue before settling for a measly punch (this is one of those sentences that sounds made up, but I swear to God it isn’t). And, let’s say that she never tries the pivot on Red, more or less sticking to country. She’s still noteworthy, but falls into a holding pattern after Speak Now where she notches a mid-tier crossover hit or two per album that gets bounced by the newest Selena Gomez or Imagine Dragons single.

In this hypothetical, “You Belong With Me” remains her commercial high-point, and eventually gets a “We Need to Talk About Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’” gif-heavy piece in Buzzfeed in 2018 because that song’s a success no matter where you place it. Even if Swift never did anything else, “You Belong With Me”  endures because it immediately zaps everyone who hears it back to some personal memory they have with either the song or the situation described therein.

On the other side, “Blank Space” is still a creative and commercial achievement, but everything great about it hinges on Taylor Swift being Taylor Swift. It’s too dependent on context to reach that topmost level, and truth be told, Swift is at her most hit and miss when the songwriting relies too much on Max Martin’s melodic math. “You Belong With Me” is less sculpted, but more enthusiastic, altogether better, and in fact, “You Belong With Me” is one of Taylor Swift’s best songs.

FINAL ROUND: “Style” (#9, from 1989) vs. “You Belong With Me” (#2, from Fearless)
Alright, main event time. In one corner, we have a quietly impeccable synth-pop tune from 1989 which has toppled that record’s biggest single, and KO’d one of Swift’s earliest hits to get to the final. Against that is a song that could be said encapsulates Swift’s artistic essence during her country days, and quite possibly her most famous creation.

“Style” is the sturdier of the two, but “You Belong With Me” is Swift’s best earworm, so it’s musically a draw, and “You Belong With Me” runs laps around 1989’s least successful hit on every commercial and impactful level. That gives it an edge going into the final question: which song just does more?

And that’s where “Style” shines. “You Belong With Me” is universal, yes, but that’s because daydreams are. The phrase “you belong with me” is a thing you say when there is exactly a 0% chance of you two getting together, and the song cops to that; the lyric “Dreaming about the day” is arguably the quietest part of the song, but it’s still there. It’s a daydream content to be a daydream. Meanwhile, “Style” describes a complicated “will it work, or won’t it?” Swift has with a guy where everything they do gets tangled up–both sides admit they’ve been with someone else, but they keep coming back for each other because they just feel so good together.

But it’s not that simple, right? No one gets as invested as Swift is on “Style” over something that just works because it’s fun: it could be that you two stay together because it’s easy, or because you like the rush, or way you make each other feel in spite of all the baggage that comes along. Yet the song chooses to believe that it all works because of James Dean eyes and classic red lips. That’s every bit as fictional as “You Belong With Me,” but “Style” knows that. It knows that it’s grasping onto superficial reasons to avoid hard questions and the fallout of crashing down, and because of that, “Style” wants itself to be real more than anyone else. It knows what longing and–this is important–loss feel like, but it also knows that picturesque love stories don’t always work, which is why it desperately wants to believe that this supercut of romance can be true just once. “Style” goes in several directions, and is compelling in each one, so “Style” is Taylor Swift’s best song.


Ranting Research Notes
-That “with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” lyric in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” lands a whole lot different now, considering how concerned with “cool” Swift’s next two records would be.
-It took doing this tournament for me to realize that “Our Song” and “Love Story” aren’t just the same song.
-Did anyone lose in the Twilight series as hard as Taylor Lautner?
-Speaking of Lautner: could you imagine what would happen if Swift ever got “Kanye in ’09” level backlash? She made Reputation after like, half a week of Twitter jokes; I think she just kills everybody if the backlash ever goes that far.
-A note on the pros and cons of song selection/seeding methodology: I wanted to use something objective, and considered a few different methods to keep things equal, but any number-based system was going to favor “22” at the expense of like, “Tim McGraw.” I went with Billboard in the end because their chart contains the least amount of weirdness–there’s no differentiating between pop versions and deluxe versions and such, nor would the earlier songs be at disadvantage because of being uploaded to Vevo years after their release. That said, Billboard still wasn’t perfect, since video performance was included and likely boosted some songs (looking at you, “Bad Blood”), and wasn’t present for others (“You Belong With Me”). Still, though, for someone as invested in cultural dominance as Swift, it got the job done.
-Yes, I’m reviewing Reputation, and soon.

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The Swift Sixteen: A Tournament of Taylor Swift’s Biggest Hits (part 1)

Let’s look at the closing chunk of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video. When all of the Old Taylors were falling like Valkyries, it made me realize how many different eras Swift has, and how each is its own self-contained thing. And from there, I had a thought: if you pitted all of Taylor Swift’s biggest songs against each other, which one comes out on top? What would a March Madness-style tournament of Swift’s biggest pre-Reputation hits look like? So, that’s what we’re going to find out today, but we need some parameters before we begin.

Qualifications: Only songs that are on Taylor Swift albums can participate, and since the Reputation era is ongoing, songs from it do not qualify. If “I Don’t Want to Live Forever” couldn’t hack it on a T.Swift record, it can’t hang with “Love Story” here. Nor do Taylor Swift features count, so we’re also nixing that song she did with B.o.B.

Metrics: Each match is going to be decided by which song has the stronger argument for it being better, and the impact of each song at the time, plus and its impact going forward. My personal taste matters, but it only as far as an argument can take it. And to keep things objective…

Seeding: Seeding and selection were done using Billboard’s list of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits. This way, I have zero input into the matches and seeding, but it also means we’re robbed of deeper cuts like “All Too Well,” “The Story of Us,” “Mean,” “I Wish You Would,” and “Haunted” that will have to play in the NIT of my heart. Going off Billboard’s list, here are our seedings.

  1. “Shake It Off”
  2. “You Belong With Me”
  3. “Blank Space
  4. “Love Story”
  5. “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
  6. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
  7. “Bad Blood (remix)”
  8. “Wildest Dreams”
  9. “Style”
  10. “Mine”
  11. “Teardrops On My Guitar”
  12. “Our Song”
  13. “Back to December”
  14. “White Horse”
  15. “22”
  16. “Fifteen”

And here is the bracket:


Round 1, Match 1: “Shake It Off” (#1, from 1989) vs. “Fifteen” (#16, from Fearless)
We’re off to a fiery Pop Taylor vs. Country Taylor start here in the first match. “Fifteen” is an almost storybook tale of what being in your freshman year of high school feels like, complete with making new friends and experiencing crushes. “Shake It Off,” meanwhile, is about Taylor Swift not just crossing over to pop, but leaving country in the dirt.

As far as song quality goes, it’s about a tie. “Shake It Off” has always been mindless but catchy, and “Fifteen”  is the least essential of the Fearless singles because it feels like a rehash of what Swift did on her debut. It comes down to impact. “Fifteen” was a hit, but one that’s always existed in “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”’s shadow, while “Shake It Off” still stands as Swift’s pop music coronation. It set the stage for her world dominating 1989 cycle, was the culmination of four albums’ worth of planning, and stuck the landing. “Shake It Off” advances in a blow out.

Round 1, Match 2: “Wildest Dreams” (#8, from 1989) vs. “Style” (#9, also from 1989)
After leading with one of our most lopsided pairings, the second match is probably the tournament’s most even coupling. “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” were 1989’s 3rd and 5th singles, and were the ones that were just kind of there, relatively speaking. Neither went to number 1 on the Hot 100 (“Style” peaked at 6, “Wildest Dreams” at 5), nor were their videos Earth-shattering events like “Shake It Off,” “Bad Blood,” or “Blank Space.”

These songs are both The Sexy One, so this match gets decided by which does that better. “Wildest Dreams” has more risque lyrics (“His hands are in my hair/his clothes are in the room”), but that pulsating beat and Swift’s delivery nail what being enraptured with someone is like, plus that “he’s got ____/I’m ____” chorus is Swiftian to its core. Were this tournament actual March Madness, this would be that game where no one expects much from either team, and then the winner hangs like, 35 extra points on the loser. “Style” advances in a rout.

Round 1, Match 3: “Love Story” (#4, from Fearless) vs. “Back to December” (#13, from Speak Now)
And so we come to our first county vs country throwdown of the tournament with “Love Story” from Swift’s 2008 breakout record Fearless squaring off against “Back to December” from its 2010 follow-up, Speak Now. The most interesting aspect of this match is that “Love Story” is one of Swift’s most mercenary singles, while “Back to December” comes from her least radio-friendly album. Not that Speak Now is radio-unfriendly–Lady Gaga’s Joanne was more obtuse–but within Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, it’s not artisan synth-pop, a country-pop smart-bomb, or a genre-hopper where every song could be The Single. Instead, Speak Now is her most writerly record; the one where she wrote almost everything solo and handled coproduction with longtime collaboration Nathan Chapman while refining what made a song a Taylor Swift song. You can hear her tease an idea out, play around with it, and move on once everything’s lyrically come full circle.

All this is to say that Speak Now makes for as solid as any Swift record as a whole, but tends to come up short on a song to song basis, let alone going against a song that goes for the pop jugular like “Love Story.” You could make an “artistry vs. commerce” argument here, but it’d rely on an even match. As is, “Love Story” is ruthlessly efficient, while “Back to December” just reminds me of Speak Now‘s lesser qualities: it’s overworked and too long. “Love Story” handily wins it.

Round 1, Match 4: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (#6, from Red) vs. “Teardrops on My Guitar” (#11, from Taylor Swift)
Here’s our first landmark match up! “We (eee!) Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is, as I’m sure you know, Swift’s first overt move toward the CMA side door, while “Teardrops on My Guitar” was her first Top 20 hit. “WANEGBT” puts a lot on the board: it went platinum six times, was her first collaboration with pop braniac Max Martin, and was her first number 1 hit in America. The timely impact of this thing was damn high.

And yet, it’s going against “Teardrops On My Guitar,” which was the first song where all the parts of Taylor Swift clicked into place. The hyper-detailed lyrics, the melodramatic choruses, the feeling of being impossibly close to something and yet so far; these are the things that make up Swift’s best songs, and “Teardrops” is the first time they synergize. If we want to talk about impact, there’s little topping what’s essentially the flashpoint of her career.

Plus, “WANEGBT” hasn’t aged well. It made sense as a stopgap between country-pop Taylor and pop-pop Taylor, but seems contrived now that we’re through the looking glass. That, and it marks the birth of the “Taylor Swift Lead Single Obnoxious Spoken Word Bridge.” “Teardrops on My Guitar” advances.

Round 1, Match 5: “You Belong With Me” (#2, from Fearless) vs. “22” (#15, from Red)
A kind of quick aside: Red is Taylor Swift’s best record! It’s her most varied and overall strongest work: a 65 minute long player that has a little bit of everything, from pop collaborations to vintage Taylor Swift to her rockin’est songs. It’s solid enough that not even “featuring Ed Sheeran” showing up in the tracklist is an automatic KO. The hits outweigh the misses, and when things hit like they do on “All Too Well,” hooo boy, do they hit.

I praise Red because it gets bodied back to back in this tournament. Not that much would stand against “You Belong With Me,” which is still probably the Taylor Swift song in some circles for good reason, but “22” is especially not going to step to it. “You Belong With Me” is focused, catchy in a memorable way, and detailed while being relatable, while “22” has the focus-grouped blandness of a Disney Channel show that doesn’t get renewed after the first season. Swift gets called basic, sometimes to the point of unfairness, but “22” is fucking basic. “You Belong With Me” lights it up to advance.

Round 1, Match 6: “Bad Blood (Remix) feat. Kendrick Lamar” (#7, from 1989) vs. “Mine” (#10, from Speak Now)
If you listen to all the songs from Round 1 in one sitting, hearing Kendrick’s voice on “Bad Blood” is a blast of fresh air. Beyond that, “Bad Blood”’s remix has always felt secondary to its video, where Taylor Swift assembles a squad of impossibly beautiful women/pop stars whose sole purpose is to vanquish not-Katy Perry in a show of female solidarity and empowerment. The remix itself has always felt like it was slapped together by someone who knew what a remix was, but not how to make one; it’s just kind of dumb and loud.

In the other corner is “Mine,” Speak Now’s lead single. “Mine” is, in a word, deft: that opening “oh-oh-ooh-oh” and twangy guitar is surprisingly effective without clubbing you over the head with its own hookiness, and the pre-chorus is a great “Falling in slow motion” Taylor Swift moment (during the second time around, she laments “But we’ve got bills to pay” and her delivery always stuck with me). The song overall feels like a demilitarized zone between the picturesque stories of Fearless and the Here’s What Dating Famous People Is Like mindset of her immediately following work. “Bad Blood” might be bigger and get the assist, but “Mine” has the depth to win it.

Round 1, Match 7: “I Knew You Were Trouble.” (#5, from Red) vs. “Our Song” (#12, from Taylor Swift)
No disrespect to high school fairytale “Our Song,” but “I Knew You Were Trouble.” is 1. still a banger, 2. Red’s defining single, and 3. the literal GOAT.

“IKYWT” practically gets a bye.

Round 1, Match 8: “Blank Space” (#3, from 1989) vs. “White Horse” (#14, from Fearless)
Our final first rounder is a battle of deconstructions. “White Horse” functions as a grounding rod to Fearless’ fantastical highs, and reminds Swift that she’s not in Hollywood, but lives in  a small town, and that the guy feeding her lines won’t be able to save her on his, well, on his white horse. The song counters the other Fearless singles, showing that for all the tiaras and stolen glances in school hallways, Swift understood that things didn’t always work out.

“Blank Space” is like that, but for Swift’s entire career. It takes the two most popular tropes of her songs: “Ours is a romance that will span centuries” and “I will salt your fucking fields after you wronged me” and sends them toward each other at ramming speed while claiming that yes, Taylor Swift will be that “crazy bitch.” It handily owns what people reduce Swift to, which goes far beyond “Maybe life isn’t a fairytale.” “Blank Space” goes to the next round.

Round 1 Winners: “Shake It Off,” “Style,” Love Story,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “You Belong With Me,” “Mine,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” “Blank Space”

Come back tomorrow to see how the tournament ends!

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Album Review: The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign

Just say that band name out loud to yourself: “The world is a beautiful place & I am no longer afraid to die.” Joke or not, the name sort of hits on everything about the Connecticut collective: they’re sprawling, they’re a bit too much, there’s more than a little post-rock in them, and they challenge you to meet them in their too muchness; that ampersand in the middle highlights how long and dramatic the name is, and it almost dares you to stop there, but fuck it, I am no longer afraid to die. The statement reads as a realization, and with it, the band’s music has always treated the sky like it’s a limit they’re trying to reach. But Always Foreign has to contend with what happens when the world might not be a beautiful place–what happens when it feels goddamn terrifying?

Such concerns weren’t problems on 2013’s When, If Ever and Harmlessness, its successor released in 2015. Harmlessness, a fantastic synthesis of post-rock musical cinema and emo revival personal catharsis, spent most of its time advocating for mental health and support systems, and saw the world as having problems, yes, but ultimately believed it was good. “I am alive, I deserve to be” goes a lyric from “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” and while it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation, TWIABP’s optimism meshes well with the emo revival scene they’ve influenced; in the same year that Harmlessness was released, Joy, Departed by fellow revivalists Sorority Noise culminated in a key-changing, crowd surging shout of “I STOPPED WISHING I WAS DEAD.” In context, that line is in perfect sync with TWIABP’s outlook–that after everything else has gone wrong (Joy, Departed is in broad strokes about mental illness and substance abuse), life itself is still desirable. Harmlessness believed that, even if things were wrong, the world had a way of righting itself or of being made right by the inherent goodness of others.

But Always Foreign is not Harmlessness, and you can see the differences as early as their first singles. Harmlessness‘ first single was “January 10th, 2014,” a 7 minute long epic with musical peaks and valleys, and its lyrics celebrated a story of feminist vigilantism that ended with the resolution to “Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow.” Meanwhile, Always Foreign‘s lead single “Dillon and Her Son” has instrumentation that matches “January 10th” for intricacy, but condensed to an impossibly tight run time. “Dillon…” forgoes extended musical breaks for a punky rhythm section, knotty guitars, and SNES-y synths that have a build-up and final payoff, all inside two and a half minutes. You can pick out differences in the worldviews of “January…” and “Dillon…” as well from the lyrics: the former is a celebration of world-righting justice, while the latter–which implores “Give my life back if you believe us”–expresses wonder at a slight reprieve from the world’s instability.

Even though it doesn’t appear until the album’s middle, “Dillion and Her Son” is a great opening shot for Always Foreign, because it shows how the band’s entire orientation has changed. At a glance, yeah, the songs are generally shorter, but more than that, they’re streamlined. The music still reaches for those widescreen highs, be it on perfect pop song “The Future” or Always Foreign’s lone seven minute sprawler “Marine Tigers,” but the band’s swapped out dramatic pauses for constant forward motion. Even though it seems counterintuitive, paring down actually lets the songs breathe more since they’re stripped down to the (again, still very intricate) essentials; something like “Faker” or “Infinite Steve” would risk ending up jumbled on a previous release, whereas they make for breathtaking two parters now.

Consequentially, this is TWIABP’s song-iest record. It’s still meant to be listened to in order from end to end (especially the closing trifecta of “Marine Tigers,” “Fuzz Minor,” and “Infinite Steve”), but the album’s individual parts each have a distinct identity. If you want to appreciate “The Future” as a focusing point for the album after opener “I’ll Make Everything,” that’s an option, or if you love it as a standalone The Wonder Years meets Funeral pop-punker, you can totally do that, too. “Fuzz Minor” succeeds as the middle piece in the album’s closing thesis statement, and as a hellish rebuke to the current Presidential administration equally; the sheer vitriol that singer David Bello, who is of Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, packs into the word “spic” has to be heard to be believed. Each song is full arresting moments like that. I could go on about the music, but instead, I’ll just quote music writer Ian Cohen who said of Harmlessness, “There are at least 50 moments on this thing where I imagine yelling at a non-convert, ‘how can you think THIS IS JUST OK?'” thus predicting my reaction to “Infinite Steve” 2 years early.

I mention “Infinite Steve” because it’s the record’s closing attempt to reconcile living in a terrifying world and who you can and can’t take with you. The first half of the song is a roiling account of modern life that lashes and wails in anguish until it gives way to an impressionist story of either a communication breakdown between friends or a mass shooting set to the prettiest damn music this band’s ever made, and the contrast between the two is evocative. Always Foreign finds the world awful for lots of reasons, but, like a healthy percentage of indie/punk records this year, a big league reason is the Trump administration, who gets put on full blast directly in “Fuzz Minor,” whose supporters are questioned during “Faker,” and whose influence permeates the immigration tale of “Marine Tigers.” But, for as much political heat is on this record, TWIABP also knows that those who were closest to us are the ones who can cause the most damage; angry as “Fuzz Minor” is, it doesn’t swing nearly as hard as “Hilltopper,” a song aimed toward a former band member, does. “Gram” examines small town drug trades, while “For Robin” details watching someone’s alcoholism and substance abuse cause them to fall further and further away before dying, and together, the two songs funnel substance problems from an institutional issue to something that’s wrought devastation on so many individuals. That’s the scope of this record.

Always Foreign is the first The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die record that doesn’t take the first half of their name for granted. While the band’s outlook wasn’t pure rose-colored glass (“We Need More Skulls” comes to mind), this album is the first time that the world’s innate goodness has been interrogated. And still, I think Always Foreign ultimately believes the world is worth it. Among lyrics like “I hope evil can see this, “Will you be faking it when they’re rounding us up?” and “Four cars jammed inside every garage” are ones that say “Just hold on until the phantom’s gone,” “There are places we’re gone that our friends never will,” and the harrowed “Marine Tigers” ends with “We’re here/I told you so.” The world might not be harmless. But it isn’t helpless.

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Radio Rant: Post Malone feat. 21 Savage – “rockstar”

Hello and welcome to Radio Rants, let’s tune up for today.

There were big moves a few weeks ago on the Hot 100. The lead story was Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” overtaking Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” at the top position, a move that has been celebrated for reasons ranging from historical (Cardi is the first female rapper in 19 years, or 3 Batman actors, to have her own #1) to the mundane (“Bodak Yellow” is a legitimately good song, while “LWYMMD” is debatably Swift’s worst single to date).

But in addition to “Bodak Yellow”’s ascension, I noticed that “LWYMMD” not only fell from number one, but slid to number 3 behind “rockstar” by Post Malone and featuring 21 Savage. The rise of “Bodak” makes sense: the song’s trended upward all summer, and fans made a concerted effort in September to get it to number 1 (this video of Janet Jackson dancing to it probably helped). Between that push and “LWYMMD”’s apparent lack of legs, the “Bodak” come up was only a matter of time. “Rockstar” debuting at no. 2, though? That’s a surprise. For one, it’s higher than Post or 21 have gotten before, and for two…this is what did it?

There’s a quote out there about how 80% of success is showing up, and I can’t think of anyone in 2017’s pop scene who embodies that philosophy more than Post Malone. Malone’s career started with “White Iverson” in August of 2015, and he’s only risen since then; his debut Stony late last year has gone platinum, and “Congratulations” was a summer hit. If you really wanted to, you could have The White Rapper conversation around him, but frankly, Malone isn’t interesting enough as a rapper to merit it. His bars rely on boilerplate wordplay and a liberal application of slang ad-libs, feeling more like topical placeholders than actual verses, and mechanically, he’s stronger using a digitized, Bieber-esque vocal style that etches out little melodies than he ever is with a flow. In spirit, Malone is closest to Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews Band: vibesy chill-meisters whose music considers it hard times when no one can find a lighter or a bottle opener. 

I wouldn’t trust him for a whole album, but Malone’s traits–his musical evanescence, his nondescript presence behind the mic, and his overall affability–are probably what make him a streaming monster. He’s the kind of guy whose songs you can just let play, and probably sound better the less attention you apply directly to them. He’s a conceptual lightweight, which likely plays a big role in him doing better with pop audiences than rap ones; his rapping is the least interesting thing about him (among the most interesting: his appearance, which is like a PG-13 version of James Franco from Spring Breakers mixed with a gerbil).

And so we come to “rockstar,” Post’s newest single, and biggest hit. There’s not much to it. It’s not that I need (or hell, want) my pop to be context-dependent or meditative, but all “rockstar” does is mutter and warble its way through a bunch of rock shit that’s been done since The Black Album; if Malone’s previous output had all the depth of a Biggie poster hanging in a dorm room, then all “rockstar” does is tape a Jim Morrison one next to it. Like, for fuck’s sake, Nickelback was more inventive with the same subject matter–that’s how you know it’s time to try something else.

Then again, “try something else” seems antithetical to the Post Malone experience. “Rockstar” finds him in the same “watery synth opening, unhurried pop-trap chorus, mild verses” musical lane as “White Iverson” or “Congratulations” that’s sounded familiar to the general public since at least “The Hills,” and its effectiveness has more to do with familiarity than anything Malone or producer Tank God brings to the table. The beat itself lacks character; even after a bunch of listens, my brain still auto-reroutes to “Congratulations,” which was a little more plodding than “rockstar” but featured a hint of triumph, whereas “rockstar” doesn’t really have a mood. Even if his third hit is still technically fine, law of diminishing returns is going to kick in real quick.

“Rockstar” isn’t doing anything lyrically spectacular, either. For everything else you could say about Nickelback’s “Rockstar”–it’s like if week-old Chili’s leftovers were a song–it at least had an inkling of an idea that the “rock star” archetype was tired enough to poke fun at. Meanwhile, Post Malone plays it entirely straight, meaning that one of our rising stars of 2017 is officially getting outplayed by the dumbest band of the 21st century. You’d think that someone with Malone’s multi-genre past would bring something interesting to a song called “rockstar,” but the song’s just a bunch of moldy boasts chained to what I assume are the most easily researchable rock nods on Spotify. Malone has a line about coming “back in black,” so here’s a Bon Scott shoutout! Hey, Jim Morrison was a rock star, so let’s crowbar a line about how to “light a fire like I’m Morrison” (even though, and yes this is pedantic, but c’mon this shit is entry-level, the song is “Light My Fire”). Those two lines aside, the rest of the song is about fuckin’ hoes, popping pills, smoking, having shooters on every block, and a bunch of other average rap shit; you could argue that this is a sign of how rappers have supplanted rockers as “rock stars,” but you wouldn’t be saying anything new. Neither is Malone.

It’s easiest to see what makes “rockstar” so anemic by putting it next to what’s blocking it from number one: “Bodak Yellow.” Both songs are essentially boast tracks, but no matter what you think of “Bodak,” you can’t deny that Cardi B has serious charisma and flow; you listen to her rap about how great she is, and it’s like, “You know what? I’m convinced. You make ‘Mooooney mooooove.’” You listen to “rock star” after that, and it sounds like Post Malone and 21 Savage are just kind of there, trying to embellish on a cliché that hasn’t been reinvented since Axl Rose. “Rockstar” says nothing while sounding nice and borrowing other people’s essence, and for that, it’s as good a distillation of Post Malone as any. He’s showing up, but he’s doing it with 80% of a song.

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