Friday, December 22, 2017

Top Songs of 2017

Top 10 Songs of 2017:

Below is my list of my favorite songs from 2017. It took quite some time for me to get the order just right - I moved things around quite a bit before finalizing. It was a great year for music - I don't know if it topped 2016, but it definitely produced some tracks that I'm going to be listening to long after the year is over.

  1.  Black Butterflies & Deja Vu - The Maine
    • The moment I heard this song for the first time, I knew it was going to be one of my favorites of the year. With each and every time I listened to it this year (107 times, to be exact), I fell more and more in love with the upbeat and soaring instrumental, the incredibly meaningful and relatable lyrics, and the way those elements came together to create a song for both the good and bad times. I know with confidence this is my favorite song of the year ( & possibly my favorite song by The Maine ever). 
  2.  Young & Menace - Fall Out Boy
    • I also vividly remember the moment that I heard this song for the first time, and I knew as well that this one was going to be a definite top 5 favorite for the year. With Mania, the album "Young & Menace" is the lead single for, being delayed till next month from it's original September release and the other singles released so far being a bit more lackluster, I have been giving this song even more attention and reveling in the way that it pushes the limits of where Fall Out Boy can go with their music. This song has divided the fans in terms of its reception, but I think it's absolutely stellar. The huge jumps between the lows and highs, building from brooding verses to the immense chorus that harnesses a gritty, blaring synth as Patrick Stump's voice is sampled dizzyingly high and crashing drums and roaring guitars create a wall of sound that I still find invigorating. 
  3.  One More Light - Linkin Park
    • I knew Linkin Park was going to be releasing a new album this year, so I knew something from the release would make it onto my end of the year list. After the album released, I was very fond of both "Invisible", "Nobody Can Save Me", and "Sorry For Now", thinking one of those would be in this spot. That changed with the passing of Chester Bennington, one of the band's frontmen and one of my heroes. This song was already an incredible and beautifully haunting song, but it took a completely new meaning after Chester's death. It will be one of the best songs that Linkin Park ever does; the gut-wrenching, vulnerability of the lyrics and instrumental create a truly touching song about loss and the impact one person's life can have. 
  4.  Headphones - Walk the Moon
    • Another release that I was anticipating greatly, Walk the Moon released "Headphones" as the second single from What If Nothing. I enjoyed "One Foot", but "Headphones" grabbed me and held tight throughout the 3 minute ride that is this song. Gritty guitars and bass, thundering drums, and the back and forth of Nicholas Petricca's speaking-then-yelling vocals create a track that doesn't let up for a moment and reveals a lot about the talents of the group. I pestered my girlfriend about listening to this song for a few days after it released before she had the chance. I told her it was really good, but when she listened to it, she was almost mad - she asked my why hadn't I said it was absolutely incredible and that she needed to listen to it right at this very moment? I highly recommend you listen right now.
  5. Hook, Line & Sinker - Royal Blood
    • A band that I had heard relatively little of before 2017, I happened across their second album by chance and knew there was something fantastic happening here. While almost all of the songs on the album are absolutely incredible, "Hook, Line & Sinker" was the hidden jem near the end that I couldn't get enough of. The mind-boggling talent of two musicians Mike Kerr & Ben Thatcher is displayed ferociously on this song as they jam out for 3 & 1/2 minutes of rock n' roll bliss. The synchronization of the bass guitar and vocals on the verses gets my head nodding every single time I listen, without fail. The simplicity yet speaker-filling quality of the instrumental is just wonderful. 
  6. 24/7 - The Neighbourhood
    • This band keeps me interested in how they're able to create an alternative reality within their music; an overcast, almost dreary, Southern California. At least that's the impression I get when I listen to their music, and as I live in SoCal, it's a really interesting concept of music that reminds me of a place that rarely exists. This song in particular uses lots of electronic elements mixed with guitars and drums to create a blurry, syrupy instrumental that's both urgent and relaxed. I love Jesse Rutherford's vocals on this song as well; the softness he utilizes for the verses in particular, as well as the way the melody climbs as he sings "Just give it some time" (there's also a very edited and muted scream he does right after this line during the second chorus that's really, really wonderful). Contradictions are the name of the game with this tune, and part of what keeps me coming back for more. 
  7.  Passionfruit - Drake
    • Drake seems to have a knack for crafting certain songs that just blow up and resonate with people (or he employs dad dance moves). I remember I was listening through his new "playlist" (it's an album, but he called it a playlist), and this song started and I was immediately captivated. The sensitive, soft-sounding synth and marimba melody that goes throughout the song got stuck in my head constantly, and Drake backed it with vocals that matched the smooth nature of the track. I've always liked Drake best when he goes for the vulnerable sound, and this song is his peak in terms of that. 
  8.  Told You So - Paramore
    • After Laughter had a lot of songs that really resonated with me; this struggle of keeping appearences of being happy and content while dealing with internal and external turmoil. While "Hard Times" & "Pool" were both other contenders, "Told You So" feels like it's going to stick with me the longest in terms of it's composition and lyrical content. The opening line, "For all I know, The best is over and the worst is yet to come" came to me in a time when I was dealing with a lot of struggling and resonated with me to the core. The juxtaposition of a poppy & bright instrumental with lyrics like this create a piece that is at odds with itself, much like it's composers seemed to be when it was created. 
  9. Anyone Else - Pvris
    • Pvris' latest album was another I was very much anticipating, and while the overall record didn't feel quite as strong as I'd hoped, many of the songs had individual strength that left me still pleased. "Anyone Else" was the top contender from the album, with strong lyrical content and a prominent etherial sense to the instrumental. "I could touch a hundred thousand souls, but none of them would feel like home" was the line in particular that caught my attention - Pvris has always delved into the subject of souls and I was glad to see them continuing it here. The instrumental does an excellent job of flowing from the soft to the gritty as well, giving me another reason to love the band.
  10. Halfway Off The Balcony - Big Sean
    • I've never really been an avid Big Sean listener, but found myself very much impressed with this year's I Decided. The concept, story driven backbone resulted in some very introspective songs from the man who was gaining a lot of fame for "I Don't F**k With You". "Halfway Off The Balcony" is a brooding, darker rap that relies more on singing than the spoken word, but manages to combine Big Sean's real life with this imagined reality he creates within the album in a way that's almost haunting. The chorus is one of the strongest, lyrically, that I've heard this year: 
      • "I'm hangin' halfway off the balcony, overthinkin' 'cause my job is way more than a salary, everything around me gold like I just practiced alchemy, I realized when it comes to girls, that chemistry means way more than anatomy"
Honorable Mentions:
  •  hell is where i dreamt of u and woke up alone - blackbear
    • Another new artist for me this year, the opening track from blackbear's first release of 2017 (digital druglord) is a big contrast to the rest of the release. Employing just piano and vocals as opposed to the trap and rap influenced R&B, blackbear shows off some vulnerability in this stripped down track that caught my attention and showed some signs of potential from the still growing artist.
  • Lit Me Up - Brand New
    • The title track from the last album from emo veterans Brand New showed me that this release was going to be something special. The darkness is so strong in this song, from the creepy intro of a woman talking about dreams to the brooding sense of the instrumental and the vocals. It's a slow building song, never fully erupting in an aggressive or gritty sense, but gaining strength and momentum through the power of it's haunting nature.
  • Sober - Lorde
    • As someone who wasn't super impressed with Lorde's debut album, her follow up release surprised me greatly (see below for more on that). "Sober" mixes both sensuality and melancholy, an odd combo but one that works in the context of the song. She reveals the growth she's gone through since breaking into the music scene, and this song is one of the strongest examples of that.
  • Dirty Laundry - All Time Low
    • This song was a bit of a sleeper for me - I listened to it a few times when it first came out, left it alone, and then ended up really becoming entranced by the way it slowly shifts from a polished, pop-leaning track into a full-blown rock song at the end. Alex Gaskarth's vocals are the highlight for sure; he employs vulnerability throughout, both in a more subdued and soft sense and then with grit and volume by the end. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Get Better - EP - Citysick

Citysick is an emo/indie band based out of Chico, California. David Hollenbeck, their lead guitarist, was good friends with some of my friends back in high school, and through our mutual acquaintances, I previously reviewed an album by his last band, Dear Misguided, back in 2013. He asked me to check out Citysick's new EP, Get Better, and see what I though of it. Below are my thoughts.

Like I mentioned about, Citysick describe themselves as emo and indie, which are very much evident in the sound they produce. All the songs have a melancholy vibe to them, whether they're slower or more upbeat. The latter makes for an interesting sensation, where the instrumental might be fast, but the vocals and lyrics mellow the overall experience out. "Joyride" is a good example of this notion; especially with lines like "you saw the worst in me, and I think you were right". "Leaning" manages to be more on the upbeat side than down, seeming to revolve around what is clearly an unhealthy relationship/friendship and taking the necessary steps to recognize that, even if the other person involved can't. This song also includes small acoustic guitar parts, which add to the overall warmth that helps the track stand out in it's more positive spin than negative. The bridge/outro is especially great, building from muted guitars and low vocals into both David and main vocalist Kaleb Sievers singing simultaneously in what feels like the most compelling part of the song. The line they continue to repeat the whole section is

"If I'm the worst part of your life, how come you call me every night, so you can say I'm on your mind, and say I'm keeping you alive"

which is probably my favorite lyric of the release in it's revealing nature. 

"Moving Season" is more of an example of a slower song, starting in a way that reminded me of "I've Given Up On You" by Real Friends. David's vocals feel quite vulnerable on this track, playing into the sad/emo vibe. "Cut Short" also ends the EP on a slower and somber tone. Lines like "I'm trying to be brave, but it's hard to be so strong when the ones you love are standing in their graves" give an indication as to the difficulties that have been experienced by those involved in this music. The song ends with a very beautiful sounding vocal harmony over the instrumental before it's all cut short by the guitar abruptly ending and silence finishing out the release.

There is clearly talent here; that is hard to miss. The instrumentals are great, the vocals are great, and the production is high for a band that's still in it's infancy.  However, I found myself struggling to connect to the music as easily as I do with other bands and songs. Some of this might stem from the bands that they like not being a part of the bands I listen to regularly. Bands like The Wonder Years, American Football, and Have Mercy are just a few that they listed as bands they like. While I've heard of those groups and a fair amount of the others on their list, they aren't ones I listen to often or even at all. But part of it is the heavy, sad-feeling that comes across for most of the songs. While I am all for music that conveys sadness and the ways in which humanity struggles with it, I also want to leave that behind at a point and find the redemption, find the hope. Some of these songs do that; after many listens through the EP, "Leaning" began standing out in it's upbeat nature and lyrics that promote self improvement through the discarding of toxic relationships (that's what I got out of it). "Hurricane" also showed a great sense of contrast in sounds and energy. The intro immediately caught my attention, being so strikingly different than the previous songs I had heard with just guitar lines and vocals; a sound that was haunting to be sure. It eventually explodes into an emotionally charged climax, alternating moments of gritty guitars and crashing drums with moments of letting the distortion hang in the air as Sievers almost yells his vocals. It changes yet again as things settle down a bit, and an acoustic guitar and the added vocals of Kelly Corfield create another completely different feel than before; an almost soothing, pretty part. Both of these songs do a great job of displaying what is clearly pain and difficulties while pushing towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

I did enjoy the music; it's just not something I'm going to listen to on repeat. If you like the bands I list below in the "Related" section, then this EP will definitely be for you. They emulate the bands they love very well.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended: "Hurricane (feat. Kelly Corfield)", "Leaning"

Related: American Football, The Wonder Years, Seahaven

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

cybersex - blackbear

blackbear is a rising R&B/Hip-Hop star that I discovered earlier this year thanks to Linkin Park. In one of their interviews, Mike Shinoda had mentioned how blackbear (whose real name is Matthew Tyler Musto) helped write one of the tracks, "Sorry For Now" from their latest album, One More Light. Since the track was one of my favorites, I decided to check his work out, as I do for most artists that Linkin Park work with or mention. What I found was different than what I was expecting, given the way that "Sorry For Now" sounds. blackbear had just released his latest album, digital druglord, which I found myself really enjoying the majority of the album. He combines mostly R&B style vocals with hip-hop influenced beats and pop sensibility. I later found out he's done other songwriting for major artists, notably on "Boyfriend" by Justin Bieber, among others.

When I heard he was doing a mixtape back in October, I was surprised and impressed; it had barely been half a year since Digital Druglord. I listened to the lead single, titled "playboy s**t (feat. lil aaron)", which also had a music video that premiered on a porn website, which was something that I had never heard of before (I won't be linking to the video, for obvious reasons). I wasn't super impressed with the song, and so didn't really pay attention to any of the other songs released. About a week before the mixtape, titled cybersex dropped, I saw more singles had been released. I listened to "gucci linen (feat. 2 Chains)", which I was already hesitant about due to 2 Chains being on the track, as I'm not really a fan. However, I found myself intrigued when I put the song on the first time and heard a much more blatantly hip-hop/trap influenced sound. Gone were the almost syrupy, layered and smooth instrumentals of digital druglord, and instead a more stripped, minimalistic high-hat and bass heavy beat that was as aggressive as the lyrics blackbear was putting out. 2 Chains' part even fits the mood of the song, and I knew that I was going to be playing this in my car, very loudly and frequently for the near future.

I then decided to give the rest of the mixtape a listen when it came out soon after, and found a very intriguing collection of songs had assembled. digital druglord was very fluid and cohesive in the sound that blackbear had put together and was minimal in the featured artists, whereas cybersex finds itself delving into multiple genres, still flowing but in larger jumps and with a whole crew of friends on the tracks. There are hip-hop, trap, pop, and R&B songs all together on the 14 song mixtape. "gucci linen (feat. 2 Chains)", "bright pink tims (feat. Cam'ron)", "glo_up (feat. Rick Ross)", and "candayapple (feat. Paul Wall & Riff Raff)" are all within the hip-hop and trap realm. "g2g ttyl (feat. THEY.)", "playboy s**t (feat lil aaron)", "thursday/froze over (interlude)", & "anxiety (feat. FRND)" definitely feel like pop songs. "down 4 u (feat. T-Pain)" "top priority" with Ne-Yo,  & "i hope your whole life sux" all show R&B influence.

All this is to say that there's definitely a variety on this mixtape, in sound and in guest artists. Some of the names seemed to make sense, like 2 Chains, lil aaron, and THEY. all fit the sound of their repective songs well. However, others felt more unlikely, such as T-Pain, Ne-Yo, and even Rick Ross; lots of big names from other areas of music that I wouldn't have necessarily associated blackbear with. In each case, though, the songs worked very well, with each artist bringing their sound and style to mix with blackbear and showing his ability to adapt and mesh with different artists without losing his own sound. I definitely have a better respect for him as a songwriter after all these collaborations. Not all of the features were memorable, however; the surprising appearance of Paul Wall, someone who I never thought I'd hear again in music, on "candayapple", is fairly forgettable set of bars. Cam'ron, who is featured on "bright pink tims", doesn't really come accross to me as someone who feels unique or particularly skilled. Obviously, someone thinks he has talent, as he is appearing on songs, but that's definitely not an indication of promise. The song, another trap-influenced song, would be better without his presence.

The other aspect of this mixtape that really caught my attention was the lyrics and attitude blackbear carries on most of the songs. It's a quite different feel from digital druglord, with blackbear moving from more "romantic" and relationship based lyrics to the content typically found in a lot of hip-hop music currently. Bragging about money, clothes, cars, women; all the usual subjects you expect from the genre. What's weird to me about this is that it feels more forced and almost cringeworthy on this mixtape, specifically with the way blackbear talks about women in his life. They move from a more personal, relational level to being objectified, trophies in his rise to fame, riches, and the "good life". "top priority" is guilty of this, with the woman who is the subject at hand being told that she needs someone who can "wife her up" and things of that nature. That she is too wild and needs a man to tame her, which feels really odd from blackbear. "i hope your whole life sux" and "thursday/frozen over" come off as petty and pig-ish. He brags about being with other women, wishing someone else is hurting because he can't get over his pain, and all the "Instagram sluts" he can have whenever he wants. These songs in particular are hard for me to enjoy, because the lyrics are unbearable in their crass and objectifying nature.

There's really only two songs that I enjoyed, lyrically, because they felt like moments where the bravado and pride fall down and we see a real picture of who blackbear really is and his state of mind in this new found position of life. Those songs are "anxiety" and "santa monica & la brea", the later of which closes out the album. The former is interesting in how it plays on a lot of pop and even EDM sounds that are prevalent in songs currently, being very upbeat in terms of the instrumental while having lyrics about anxiety. Part of the chorus goes as follows:

"Yeah, I can't eat, I can't sleep, I get anxiety
When you're not here with me, I get anxiety"

and the second verse:

"Every time I smile what I'm doing fine, does it show?
'Cause I'm really freaking out, too scared of letting you go
Then my heart drowns out my thoughts, my head's about to explode"

These kinds of lines show a different side of blackbear, a softer, vulnerable side that he's hiding behind the hard exterior he displays on other songs.

"santa monica & la brea" is also an example of a more thoughtful, introspective side. The line that really made me notice this song is the beginning of the chorus:

"And maybe I could die treading water
Drowning under moonlight sonata"

which by itself is enough to be interesting and a bit heart-wrenching. However, the way blackbear sings this line makes it haunting; he sings high and soft, employing his falsetto to create a moment that is much more striking than anything else on the mixtape. It's fitting that he saved the song for the end, as I think it's the best song of the release overall and a great way to finish out the mixtape. It gets rid of all the lights, the flashy talk and money and women and focuses on one relationship (failed, from the sound of it). It helps the average listener connect better than at any other moment on the mixtape.

Overall, this release was impressive in terms of the production, length, and variety of sounds and artists, given the proximity to digital druglord. While it wasn't my favorite lyrically, it was cool to see blackbear step outside his norm and try a new set of sounds and ideas. I hope, however, that he moves back towards the sound he has built up in his previous releases. This release doesn't feel like it'll have a lot of sustainability, in terms of listening in the future.

Rating - 2.5/5

Recommended - "santa monica & la brea", "anxiety", "gucci linen"

Related - G-Eazy, Hoodie Allen, Post Malone