Monday, December 17, 2018

Top Albums of 2018

As this year is coming to a close, it's time for one of my favorite posts - my top albums of the year. I always find really entertaining to go through and rank the albums that were released throughout the year, and this year is no exception.

However, I've decided to approach it a bit differently, mostly due to the inspiration I got from all the Spotify posts I saw recently (I use Apple Music, so no year end totals for me). In past years, I've just ordered them based on how I liked them and their impact on me. While I will include those factors, I've decided to do a few different lists based on different factors - primarily play counts and averages. I'll show the lists, and then go into further detail after each one. 

I took all the numbers down on December 7th, and haven't counted plays or releases after that date.

For albums with the most total play counts (play count in parenthesis, for all songs combined):
  1. Post Traumatic - Mike Shinoda (589)
  2. Mania - Fall Out Boy (478)
  3. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino - Arctic Monkeys (475)
  4. Chrome Neon Jesus - Teenage Wrist (464)
  5. Nearsighted - Speak Low If You Speak Love (390)
  6. Swimming - Mac Miller (362)
  7. Trench - Twenty One Pilots (329)
  8. Beerbongs & Bentleys - Post Malone (299)
  9. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (ABIIOR) - The 1975 (293)
  10. Delta - Mumford & Sons (218)
This, to me, feels like the popularity rankings. It's not based on merit, but instead just the numbers - how many times did I listen to the tracks for each album. The top four were unsurprising; those albums have been vying for best album all year. The biggest surprises were Beerbongs & Bentleys and ABIIOR - the former because it was NOT in my top album contention (unlike the Grammy's, apparently), and the later because of it's late release (only 8 days before I did my counts). Some of the numbers are a bit skewed, however, due to factors such as singles, release dates, and others (specifically for Mania, with it's postponed release date from last year and the length of time some of the singles had been out). 

So I also decided to also figure out the average play count, based on the totals I got above and the number of songs on each release. 
  1. Mania - Fall Out Boy 
    • (47.8 average, 10 tracks)
  2. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino - Arctic Monkeys 
    • (43.2 average, 11 tracks)
  3. Chrome Neon Jesus - Teenage Wrist 
    • (42.2 average, 11 tracks)
  4. To Imagine (EP) - The Neighbourhood 
    • (39.6 average, 5 tracks)
  5. Post Traumatic - Mike Shinoda 
    • (36.8 average, 16 tracks)
  6. Nearsighted - Speak Low If You Speak Love 
    • (32.5 average, 12 tracks)
  7. A Modern Tragedy, Vol. 1 (EP) - grandson 
    • (31.2 average, 5 tracks)
  8. This Place Is A Movie (EP) - First Ghost 
    • (29.8 average, 6 tracks)
  9. Swimming - Mac Miller 
    • (27.8 average, 13 tracks)
  10. Trench - Twenty One Pilots 
    • (23.5 average, 14 tracks)
This one felt like it was a little more balanced, because it was less of a popularity based on individual track plays and boosted the albums that I listened to frequently from start to finish. However, it also was more partial to shorter releases, especially EP's that only contain five or six songs (like To Imagine, A Modern Tragedy, and This Place Is A Movie).

I found that going through and figuring out the numbers and averages was actually really fun. It gave me a different perspective on the releases, showing me how I favored some albums more than I originally thought, while reaffirming others as being my favorite and the numbers reflecting that. I decided to finish the post with my original list of how I rank the albums and a few sentences about why. I've also linked each title to it's original review for more in-depth info as well (if I reviewed it).

Top Albums of 2018:

  1. Post Traumatic - Mike Shinoda
    • I had a feeling this album would top the list, but regardless of my love and admiration for Linkin Park - what a release. Coming from such a loss and creating such a piece of art, Mike Shinoda shows his versatility, his songwriting skills, and, most importantly, his ability to be raw and vulnerable in his walk through life. 
  2. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino - Arctic Monkeys
    • If Mike Shinoda hadn't put out such a stellar album, this would have taken the cake. An album that immerses you from beginning to end, that demands to be listened to as a whole, an entire unit - a bold, yet well played move. Definitely an album I will continue to revisit.
  3. Chrome Neon Jesus - Teenage Wrist
    • Teenage Wrist was band I did not know of before this year, but I've grown to love the gritty nature of the group that combines sound influences from my childhood (emo/mid 00's alternative) and just before my time (90's alternative). Another solid album of guitar-based music, a blaring middle finger to the critics and naysayers who claim that music with guitars is "dead".
  4. Swimming - Mac Miller
    • An incredible album that's tragically marred by the loss of a blossoming artist. Mac Miller's latest and final release reveals a man who was finally hitting his stride, who was breaking into a place of authentic and vulnerable creativity. The demons were lurking in the album, but the staying power and message was hope - striving towards the light and the dawning despite those dark places.
  5. Delta - Mumford & Sons
    • A late entry but an easily identifiable masterpiece. Mumford & Sons have broken their own molds in spectacular fashion, and this album sets new standards for the "banjo band". Sweeping epics, quiet crooning, and a sense of honesty and being true to oneself that's really inspiring.
  6. A Modern Tragedy, Vol. 1 - grandson 
    • A fiery debut from a fiery artist - one that I had the pleasure of seeing in concert this fall. What rage, what energy - this is the political rock of our day and age. Channeling Rage Against The Machine, grandson flies through this five song EP as he covers a span of topics; police brutality, political corruption, depression, and drug abuse and addiction. Not a name to be missed, and one whose star is most definitely on the rise.
  7. Trench - Twenty One Pilots 
    • With the way that anticipation was building for the follow up to Blurryface, I wasn't sure how Twenty One Pilots was going to approach their latest album. The result was more than I could have hoped for - possibly their darkest album yet, but filled with moments of glittering, gleaming hope - light and darkness ever warring.
  8. Mania - Fall Out Boy
    • This album was one I was expecting to be on last year's list, but due to some delays, we got the album just after the start of this year - and was it worth the wait. One of the strongest FOB albums to date, showcasing their ability to continually adapt and build their sound in new and intriguing directions. It wasn't the most consistent album, but still a thrill ride from start to finish.
  9. Nearsighted - Speak Low If You Speak Love 
    • An album that I wasn't expecting to enjoy as much as I did, Nearsighted really highlights the songwriting skills and thoughtful music of Ryan Scott Graham. It's a layered release, full of raw and tender moments throughout - all with easy, sweet melodies to accompany.
  10. KOD - J. Cole
    • While I didn't listen to this album as consistently as some of the others on this list, I was still very impressed with the latest effort from J. Cole. Covering a variety of topics over some slick beats and fantastic production, Cole opened up about many things while calling out and rejecting stereotypes in rap. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - The 1975

A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is The 1975's boldest album yet. A sprawling, 15 track journey into a strange yet familiar place, ABIIOR covers an incredible amount of ground in just under an hour. The 1975 takes us on a tour of the modern era, the world of the internet and trap music, while incorporating more timeless and classic sounds, like jazz and ballads. You can hear the 80's, the 90's, the 00's, and today's sound all in the boundaries of the album. It's an ambitious and risky move, the entirety of the album. In an interview with Beats 1 on Apple Music, frontman Matt Healy explained that they don't want fans calling them a rock band anymore - they're a pop band, making pop records. While some people might have issues with this, it's a very honest statement from the group, and an accurate one. The indie-britrock band of the first The 1975 album is gone, and the emerging persona is one that has grown exponentially. Change for artists is always important, and while sometimes not well received initially, very necessary for a band to continue thriving in the world of popular music. This album shows the band's ability to embrace this new direction and focus for the band without compromising their integrity or the integrity of the music. That's a feat not easily achieved, and many bands have seen themselves fade from quality music into the blur of mainstream pop music (I'm looking at you, Maroon 5).

It's hard to pinpoint this album, genre-wise. And that's okay. Genre, in mine and other's opinions, is a dying breed. I think the blending and melding of genres is excellent and exciting and the way new musical ideas and boundaries are birthed and explored. Obviously, genres will exist for some time - but band's like The 1975 are doing good work in coloring outside the lines. Some of the music falls within the expected framework for the band. "Give Yourself A Try" and "It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)" feel the strongest of The 1975, the most reminiscent of their previous songs and soundspaces they've explored before. Not to say that they're unimaginative or boring - "Give Yourself A Try" is one of the best songs of the album, with the gritty guitar line, electronic/noisy drums, and Matty's autotuned vocals coming together to create a simultaneously relatable and exciting track.

The deeper you delve into the album, the more you find new ideas and places previously unexplored by the band. "Love It We Made It", the strongest song of the album, is this haunting and chaotic piece that showcases a very raw and intense side of Healy's vocals we haven't seen before, perhaps since their early days. "I Like America & America Likes Me", which started as a tribute/riffing off of "Soundcloud Rap", ends up being a very unexpected foray into trap that still somehow works for the band. "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME" gives off an ever so slight reggaeton vibe and sees the band at their poppy peak; the lyrical content does give the track much more depth, tackling the subject of cheating in a relationship.

The last four songs of the album feel complete as a section, a whole piece that flows together in a way that I find hard to listen to them separately. "Surrounded by Heads and Bodies" is simply stunning; this beautiful, eerie piece that's so stripped yet holds such a strength and lasting power. The fact that it was written for a women Healy met while he was in rehab makes it all the more bittersweet. "Mine" emerges from the sort of mysticism presented with the last track and slows things down with some really, really jazzy sounds. Yet it still works. "I Couldn't Be More in Love" has a gospel feel, especially on the latter choruses, and "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)" is reminiscent of late 90's/early 00's alternative, specifically in the intro with the acoustic guitar and in the chorus with the way the instrumental kicks it up and expands into this wall of noise.

I think the most remarkable thing about all these songs, all these examples, is that despite the number of directions the band goes, they still retain their identity and their sound. That's something that's really admirable. I think that this is the band's best album to date in terms of conceptual and lyrical content - time will tell whether this album can hold it's own against their sophomore release (one of my favorite albums of the last few years), i like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. I don't know if the diversity of sound will create an album I'll continually come back to or just specific songs that I'll enjoy. But the most baffling thing of all is that the band is currently working on and planning to release another album in May of 2019: Notes on a Conditional Form. What that album will hold, we'll have to wait and see. But I am pleased and will be thoroughly enjoying this new work of art from one of the world's most promising acts.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended: "Love It If We Made It", "Surrounded by Heads and Bodies", "Mine", "Give Yourself A Try"

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Delta - Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons finally did it. They shed the “banjo band” skin.  If their last album, Wilder Mind was their breaking from the stereotypes surrounding them, then their fourth album, Delta, is a declaration of limitless potential. Delta reveals a band unhindered by expectations, willing to try and explore previously untouched areas and sounds. This is a band that has decided to use all the tools in the toolbox, to mix and meld a variety of ideas as they forge towards a new direction. Delta feels like the band is breathing, truly breathing, and revealing their own potential. It’s an honest and vulnerable work from the band, both musically and lyrically. It feels very cohesive, with tracks flowing into each other and referencing cross-tracks.

These also a big sense of exploration in this album. Different genres and elements are introduced that feel quite different and out there for the group. Hip hop, pop, and R&B all find their place throughout tracks in various parts of the instrumental. "Woman" and "Rose of Sharon" both feature hip-hop influenced beats, with the chorus of the latter even having some pop tendencies; the choral vocals, the clap beat, and the synths all showing a modern influence in the organics of the band's usual sound. "Picture You" definitely showcases some pop influence even stronger, yet in a way that still feels very natural for the band. Not only is the album different in terms of genre exploration, but also in variation of sounds. While Wilder Mind was a step in the right direction for the band with the rock focus, Delta shows how big the band can go beyond that. The scope of the album was broader, with more variation, contrast and highs and lows. It creates a more engaging experience than before, drawing the listener along for a wild ride. The track that does this the best, to me, is “The Wild”, a track that starts of soft and slow and beautiful and finally erupts into this huge, epic sound that still retains the beauty from before. The orchestral elements add layers, showcasing the band’s ability to creat and orchestrate beyond their usual instruments and sound space.

There are stories to be heard in these tracks, songs that bleed into and reference each other. Sequences reveal shorter tales in the middle, series of tracks that rise and fall on their own within the larger scope of the album as a whole. My favorite sequence is “Picture You”, “Darkness Visible”, and “If I Say”.  Not only does it sonically ebb and flow, but lyrically and thematically as well. “Picture You” feels like a reminder, a calling out to the Lord in spite of the darkness visible, the darkness ever approaching or looming. “Darkness Visible” brings the storm to life, the eerie sounds blending with the instruments as an excerpt from John Milton’s Paradise Lost is recited - tying in even more to the religious and spiritual aspect of the sequence. It grows into this loud, booming section that’s heavy and intense, bringing to mind a battle - in this case, perhaps for the soul. “If I Say” brings the sequence to a close, starting off stripped and bare after the conflict, yet building back slowly with hope and love. The story conveyed is absolutely captivating; breathtaking music that builds its own world yet tells a story so relatable and timeless - the struggle between hope and despair, light and darkness, good and evil.

Delta is the band’s most ambitious outing to date. It reveals the butterfly bursting from the cocoon, the long gestating form of a band that has a long career ahead of them, full of new surprises along the way. This album is easily one of the best of this year, and I certainly think it’s the best work from this band so far.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended: "The Wild", "Picture You/Darkness Visible/If I Say" (all as a sequence), "Forever"

Friday, November 23, 2018

Honey - EP - Crooked Teeth

When I interviewed Tyson of Crooked Teeth for my review of their rerelease of Pastel, he mentioned the influence that Fall Out Boy has had on the band, in terms of way they approach all aspects of the music biz and taking the risks that they have over the years.

As I was listening to the new EP, Honey, I found myself very much agreeing with that influence and seeing the way that Crooked Teeth is ready to take risks and make bold moves. With just five songs, the band really flexes their songwriting skills and showcases their wide-ranging influences, with elemtnts of hip-hop and pop smoothly mixing in with pop-punk and emo sounds. It's an ambitions venture, not trying to fit a single mold or set of expectations as the band lays it all out on the line. The whole EP only lasts for about 17 minutes, but each listen reveals the variety of sound spaces that the band chose to explore through. At it's heart, the band's pop-punk and rock sound holds true throughout. Each song of the release manages to incorporate an element or two that is not an obvious connection - the hip-hop beats of the title track, "Honey", and "You and Me (Whatever)", the synth/percussion melody line utilized in the intro and choruses of "Broken Bones", and the pop-leaning beat, synths, and echoing/super high vocals of "Absent" all reveal a much wider range of musical inspiration far beyond those of any one genre.

One of the most impressive elements of this release is the songwriting. It's incredibly strong, with all of the hooks for each song being both memorable and creative; tunes that get stuck in your head but still retain substance and intentionality. I think the song that sticks out to me the most is "You and Me (Whatever)" - the vocals and melody feel the strongest of the whole EP, showing pop-sensibility over both the synthetic beats and bass or the gritty guitars and crashing drums. The fact that they hold up so well over both sections, both of completely different directions and vibes, really is a testament to the band's songwriting and Tyson's vocal abilities.

The impressive nature of the songwriting goes far beyond the vocals; the instrumentals are all top notch as well. The flawless melding of the band's usual tools (guitar, bass, drums) with the synthetic and genre-crossing elements makes for an ever-deepening listening experience. Each time through leaves room for new discoveries, new a-ha moments. Not to mention there's just some kickass, jamming places that make your body want to move along. There's this place in "Absent" where the guitars hit these staccato, almost snarl-like notes, in sync with the drums that is just damn cool. The contrast of the verse in "Hate Me" between the muted guitar strums and drums and the full throttle wall of noise for Tyson to growl over. The drop into the first chorus of "Honey" where Tyson falls through a melody that conveys such anguish while Adam and Adam kick things into high gear to provide a ferocious wall of support. I could keep going, but the point is that the band knows what they're doing - these ain't no amateurs.

Lyrically, this release is a gold mine. Such well crafted songs about deep struggles and pain that life has brought and letting those responsible know what they've done. It's a very relationally-based set of songs, but one that feels very relatable and paints vivid pictures of the various situations. The chorus for "Honey is one such example:

"I think I might die
I feel the onset of this heart attack
While my hands are tied behind my back"

as well as part of the chorus of "Absent"

"It always happens, that I'm left hurting
Rather be absent, than feel like a burden
You draw me close, just enough to make me hang around"

The biggest stinger/call out, which I really appreciated the brutal honesty of the last few lines of the bridge for "Broken Bones":

"There's only so much you can buy
When there's just nothing left to hide behind
So smile big cause that's the only thing that's real".

Each song contains a number of lines that I imagine many people will grab onto and hold close to, capturing the different struggles of those with anxiety, depression, and heartbreak.

When I spoke with Tyson back in May,  he said this about the forthcoming EP (Honey): "I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at the growth there." He got it right on the nose. I think this EP has a little bit of something for everyone. Not only does it have elements that drew fans to the band, but shows the scope of their vision for what the band can accomplish and their willingness to take risk along the way. The payoff was definitely worth it; this is 17 minutes of super solid music that you won't want to miss.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended:  "Honey", "You and Me (Whatever)", "Broken Bones"

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Folds in Your Clothes - EP - Laureline

The more I listen to this EP, the more I find myself in wonder.

As a disclaimer to start, I went to college with Ciera (vocals/guitar) and Marian (bass) of LA-based band Laureline, so I'm somewhat biased towards the work that they do.

Now, does that mean that I am going to promote or encourage you to listen to their music just because I know & like them as people? No.

I'm going to tell you to listen to this EP because it's damn good.

The comparison to The 1975 feels too obvious (as well as something I mentioned in my review of their first single "I Love You"). It's an influence, no doubt, but isn't a defining aspect. Sonically, yes, it's similar. But the direction, the vibes? Much, much different. There's a clear intentionality about the music of this EP, a purpose and a passion with each track. It's all very atmospheric, layers of sounds building together to create an experience with each listen, not to mention the lyrics and the stories the band tells with each track.

I love the dual vocals - I have said it time and time again when reviewing other artists that utilize this, and I will always go on about it. It provides so many more opportunities for a band, places and sonic spaces that other groups can't explore. The way in which Laureline chose to have songs where the vocalist work together ("I Love You" & "Nothing") and also songs where each vocalist gets to lead ("Restless" for Ciera" and "Hum" for Chris). Each song reveals the vocalists' own strengths or allows one to shine while the other provides support.

"Restless" starts with this beautiful set of piano lines, echoing into each other as the rest of the song unfolds (which the beat, to me, reminds me of "100 Letters" by Halsey off her latest album).  Ciera's vocals are really the highlight of the release though, floating over the track like a spirit with some real soul. The song has a little bit of fight, especially in the chorus and the last line: "when you say you want it back, you can have it"; clearly a relationship or friendship gone south is the fuel to this fire. I especially enjoy the saxophone solo, adding to the hearty and soulful sound of the track, despite the more modern instrumentation.

To me though, the highlight of the release is "Hum" and "Just Go Slow On Me", the last two songs that meld together to create a nearly eight minute long experience. They're softer, quieter songs; yet build in momentum and emotional weight as they progress.

The strongest, most pulling moment of "Hum" is the bridge, where Chris repeats the line, "Do you wanna love me now?", over and over, rising with the music as the intensity builds. It feels so vulnerable and heart-wrenching, and showcases the band's ability to craft such powerful pieces.

The follow up to that intensity, however, almost ends up overshadowing it. "Just Go Slow On Me" is shorter, but the second stanza of lyrics carries such weight despite it's brevity:

"But I can't
Hear you but you're talking to me
And I'm forgetting how you look already
And I told you please just go slow on me
When you told me that you like loving me
But I can't".

The two songs are certainly interconnected, and almost required together to fully experience the depth to which this band wants to bring the listener; cocooned in soft synths and warm bass tones as the sorrow washes over. That makes it sound a bit more emo than it is - but I promise, it's an experience worth going through.

What a phenomenal start for a group with such potential. Most definitely looking forward to future releases from one of LA's most promising young bands.

Rating: 4/5

Related: The 1975, Lany, Halsey

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Simulation Theory - Muse

If I'm being completely honest, I wasn't planning on listening to this album.

I've been listening to Muse for quite some time now; nearly a decade of following their work (and lucking out with seeing them in 2010 - if you get the chance, I absolutely recommend it). I entered into their realm during The Resistance era, exploring back through their discography and anticipating each new release with much enthusiasm.

That is, until their last album, Drones. While I wasn't as active with my blog between 2015-16, that was one of the few albums I did review, and it was not my taste. So I was skeptical of new music from the group when they started releasing singles nearly a year an a half ago. I definitely enjoyed "Dig Down", but found myself feeling less and less optimistic with "Thought Contagion", "The Void", and "Something Human" (the later two of which I listened to maybe twice). It felt, from initial impressions, that the band went from revisiting their edgier rock roots to falling in with the trends.

So, when I was the album released, I didn't even try listening to it. I was feeling fairly uninspired by the singles, and not wanting to invest my time into an album that I didn't think I was going to enjoy. I don't have as much time as I'd like to just listen to music and potentially review it, so I've been more selective and stingy about what I listen to. Which is not always fair to music and the artists, but I can't waste time on music that doesn't catch me and excite me.

Yesterday, however, I was driving to work and the opening track came up on my weekly suggested playlist from Apple Music. So I decided to give it a go and see how it sounded.

I'm quite glad that I did.

While I was right in my initial impression that this album plays more with current trends in music, I was wrong in the depth and musicality of it. Trap high-hats, dubstep wobbles, and pop-star falsettos all make their appearances, but alongside layering of electronic synths, live drums, gritty bass and guitar lines, and a smattering of orchestral instruments. The result is an album that feels like Muse at their peak - intentionality and experimentation coming together in a way that promotes exploration without compromising the band's integrity or character. Simulation Theory feels like the band took all the tools they've been playing with over the last decade and brought it all together - much like Linkin Park did with their Living Things album in 2012.

Some of the songs and moments feel very similar to Muse's past material. "Blockades" feels quite like it could be at home in a set list right between "Starlight" and "Knights of Cydonia", with the synth arpeggios, sweeping vocals, and guitar solo that reminds you of Matt Bellamy's shredding skills. The wobbles of "Dig Down" bring to mind "Madness" and the almost heartwarming, hopeful nature of the song feels like "Undisclosed Desires".  "The Void" could very easily fit in with the "Exogenesis Symphony" of The Resistance, with just a more modern/80's feel.

The band does make some moves in new and previously unexplored directions, however, and these ones pay off big time. "Propaganda" is probably the most obvious track in this case; produced by Timbaland, the song ends up feeling like a mash up between Muse and Justin Timberlake in the best way possible. While "Thought Contagion" felt like it was trying too hard, I think "Propaganda" manages to be this contemporary sounding song without feeling too weird or out of line. Timberland's touch was definitely helpful with this - but also was never a collaboration I would have dreamed of, which makes it all the better.

"Break it to Me" is similar in this sense, but with a much more gritty tone. This was the song that made me know I was going to review this album, that I was going to give it an honest chance. The bass and drum lines come together to give the song swagger, while the vocals give it a sensuality that I never, ever would have expected in a Muse song. It's been a long time since I heard a Muse song that got me excited, that got me dancing in my car. Not to mention the scratching (that I think is done on a guitar??) section in the bridge - I felt like I had been taken back to the Nu-metal days of the early 2000's. I want to write about every single moment of the track, but the bottom line is it's just a sick, cool-ass song.

"Get Up and Fight" is another one that caught my attention, drawing influence from alternative of the late 2000's and early 2010's. The chorus is the best part, shattering the minimalistic, calm verse with a wall of guitars, drums, and some of Bellamy's most earnest and honest sounding vocals in a while. I also discovered that the female vocals featured during the intro and transition from chorus to verse were recorded by To Love - someone I have listened to and appreciate, but an unexpected collaboration nonetheless.

All in all, this album is a job well done. Drawing from popular trends such as trap and 80's sounds, while working with new producers and pushing the boundaries for the band as a whole, has demonstrated that the band is working to create new areas to explore while still retaining their sense of self. Something this album does well that I noticed in the Apple Music description is the general sense of positivity in the songs. The band has delved into some darker and more cynical notions the last few albums, and hearing more hopeful and uplifting ideas from this album helps to make the album something I'm more likely to come back to for more. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a solid, exciting record. I'll gladly admit that I made a wrong assumption about this record, and I will be sure to keep that in mind as I listen to their music and that of others in the future.

Rating: 3.75/5

Recommended: "Break it to Me", "Get Up and Fight", "Pressure", "Blockade"

Monday, October 29, 2018

If I Say (Single) - Mumford & Sons

I wasn't specifically planning on reviewing the new music from Mumford & Sons. After I had heard "Guiding Light", I found myself a bit underwhelmed - lyrically I really enjoyed it, and felt there was a lot to be appreciated - but the instrumental feeling somewhat lackluster. It was very much in line with the progression of sound I could expect from M&S, and didn't feel quite like it took any chances or risks; a little too safe to be memorable.

However, when I listened to the latest single, "If I Say", in a very intentional manner, I found myself i immediately much more drawn in. The song starts off slow and low, with just synths and keyboards providing the background for Marcus Mumford's vocals that match the softness of the instrumental. Despite that quiet nature, it is clear that the song has urgency, that it is working towards somewhere further on; adding elements with each verse, each repeating chorus. Strings and electronic drum elements mix in, as well as a full drum rhythm and the rest of the band members until the song reaches it's peak, building an intensity that's evident in multiple dimensions of the song. The lyrics of the chorus are really what bring the song together; 

"And if I say I love you, well, then I love you".

It's so simple, yet carries so much meaning and power to it. Marcus Mumford continually repeating his love, the words that mean something, that aren't just sounds that make up a phrase but words that barely manage to encapsulate an immensity of feelings that he truly, deeply means. It's something I've grown to appreciate more as I've grown older, and this song captures that life lesson and realization so well. 

The subtleties of this song, the lyrics building upon themselves and the instrumental slowly fleshing itself from a soft, delicate piece into a sweeping, breathtaking avalanche of sounds, are what impressed me and made me be a bit more intrigued about the rest of the upcoming album. The previously more unexplored use of electronic elements, the orchestral sense to the song, working a bit outside the norm of the band's previously tested waters; all of that is growth that I am appreciative of. Mumford & Sons had a sound they captured and perfected by their second album, but it is clear after their last album, Wilder Mind and their forthcoming album, Delta, that the band has more territory to explore.

I wrote most of this review on Saturday, the 27th. Earlier on the evening of the 28th, I found out that one of my closest friends lost his father. I found myself listening to this song after I got off work, turning it up in my car as I was driving along and thinking about my friend, thinking about his loss and how even though I hardly knew his father, I felt such sorrow, such a strong sense of mourning. The song built and I starting singing along with the chorus each time, growing and singing louder, until I was yelling it in my car despite feeling my heart in my throat and my eyes wanting to release these tears. Thinking about what this line might mean to my friend, imagining his father relaying that message to him, imagining our Heavenly Father reminding us of that love He has for us.

I already was really enjoying this song. But these kinds of moments, these kinds of instances of music and reality crashing together to create such beautiful and sorrowful moments; this is why I love music so, so very much. This song will most definitely hold a special place in my heart in the years to come.

I was going to put a rating, as I usually do, but that felt too calculated. Too cold. This is a beautiful song, and I think that you are sincerely missing out if you don't listen to it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trench - twenty one pilots

Trench was an album that I've been anticipating for quite some time, long before it was announced this year. Watching twenty one pilot's assent into the limelight has been more surprising for me, just in the uniqueness of their sound and appeal. Perhaps that is the strength and driving force behind it - the versatility of their sound, the fluidity, genre-hopping nature of the duo behind one of the biggest names in alternative music right now. It is because of that ever morphing sound, that constant drive and push towards new ground and sonic territory, that I continue to want more (and clearly many other fans do as well). I was very curious to see the direction of this album - their last album was a knockout, but was also still built outside of the limelight and without huge, looming expectations. Whatever came next, after Blurryface, however, was going to be under such intense scrutiny from the world, and I was interested to see how the band would tackle such a daunting task.

Trench was just the right step for the band. 

It has elements of Blurryface - more so than any of the transitions I've witnessed between albums for the band - yet is also it's own beast. Sound-wise, it's one of the more consistent albums for the band, exploring still while utilizing the tools and tones that the band has become known for. Some of the most interesting songs, instrumentally, are "Morph", "Cut My Lip",  and "Pet Cheetah" ("Jumpsuit" and "Levitate" are as well, but I already reviewed them here and here). 

"Morph" has a bit of a swagger to it, mostly thanks to that bass-line that grooves throughout the song, all with Joseph rapping tongue-twistingly fast over the verses. The chorus is my favorite part, however, with Joseph switching to sing as he alternates between falsetto and lower registers to create this beautiful contrast. The way the melody runs, it captures such a sorrow and loneliness in it that's impossible to not be affected by. 

"Cut My Lip" reminds me a little of "Ride" from the last album, but slowed down and with more intensity. The contrast between the verses and the chorus creates such an impact; these low, brooding moments of the almost stripped down verses with the synth driven chorus. The chorus continues to build with each rendition, bringing the listener to the edge of their seat time after time until the moment of certain breakdown - that is, until the band switches gears and cuts the momentum. It's done so masterfully, it gets me every time. I think the song is about to explode into this crazy, intense moment, but it switches into a more dreamy state, showing the band's awareness of the listener's anticipation and predictability of song patterns and their desire to cut through that to create something new. 

"Pet Cheetah" is probably the weirdest track on the album, switching between these gritty, synth driven rap verses and a more soulful, mournful chorus. It's a drastic enough difference that the different parts could be on completely separate songs, but they're not - the band really makes the song work as a whole unit. The best part is probably the outro, which consists of Joseph and other voiceovers repeating "pet cheetah" over and over in a very ominous manner as the song does a very light/minor breakdown. It's almost silly, but still really engaging and strong writing from the band.

Trench also goes even deeper into the mind of Tyler Joseph, with his transparency and honesty at the forefront of the songs and lyrics. I'll be honest, some of it is still over my head - I've been using Genius to see what the popular interpretations of the lyrics are, but only a few are clear to me. And I'm okay with admitting that, and knowing that the more I listen, the more I'll understand and decipher the lyrics. There's also a bit of a story woven into the album - this concept of Nico and The Niners and all the lore the band has built up leading to the release of the album. I haven't delved into that, but it is definitely heard in certain songs as well as the visuals provided by the connected music videos for "Jumpsuit", "Nico & The Niners", and "Levitate". 

I do know that the parts of the music I have been able to understand deals heavily in mental health and dealing with depression and anxiety. There's also a large amount of faith in these lyrics, something that I wasn't aware of from the band until recently - Joseph is a practicing Christian. There are certain lines that the meaning now becomes much more apparent with that in mind. For example, much of the song "Morph" deals with the notion of the inevitability of death, especially from a faith perspective. The following lines illustrate some of this:

"We're surrounded and we're hounded
There's no above, or under, or around it
For "above" is blind belief and "under" is sword to sleeve
And "around" is scientific miracle, let's pick "above" and see
For if and when we go above, the question still remains
Are we still in love and is it possible we feel the same?"

this part of the verse talks about how death is going to happen; as humans, it is unavoidable and ever present as a thought ("we're surrounded and we're hounded"). Three options are presented; "above", "under", or "around"; going to heaven, going to hell, or attempting to avoid death altogether (respectively). Joseph picks above, but wonders what it'll be like when he arrives - will he still feel, will he still love? I think this refers to the people in his life, whereas the annotator on Genius believes it is whether Joseph and God will still love each other (I don't know if or where it discusses that in the Bible/in theology, so if you do, please let me know). 

The amount that I can unpack from just a part of a verse of one of the songs astounds me - there's such a depth and multi-dimensional aspect to these lyrics, and it's part of what has kept me coming back to this album this past week. 

The song I want to talk about the most, lyrically, has to be "Neon Gravestones". I could tell this song was different just from the sound, the instrumentation and more somber mood inspired. However, the more I listened to and processed the lyrics, the more I knew this song was going to be the standout. "Neon Gravestones" tackles the notion of suicide, especially amongst celebrities, and how the way in which society reacts to these events becomes very dangerous. Early on in the song, Joseph sets the tone:

"We glorify those even more when they...
My opinion, our culture can treat a loss like it's a win
And right before we turn on them
We give 'em the highest of praise
And hang their banner from the ceiling
Communicating, further engraving
An earlier grave is an optional way

By talking about those whom we've lost in a way that highlights all their achievements, it can wrongly lead people, especially those who are emotionally vulnerable and possibly contemplating suicide themselves, to think that suicide can make them seem better to those around them - that their names might be glorified after death because of the tragedy. As Joseph points out later in the song:

"I could use the streams and extra conversations
I could give up, and boost up my reputation
I could go out with a bang
They would know my name
They would host and post a celebration"

Those lines further cement this idea further, the glorification of suicide.

Joseph makes sure to address the people who help enable this in the second half of the second verse:

"My opinion will not be lenient
My opinion, it's real convenient
Our words are loud, but now I'm talking action
We don't get enough love?
Well, they get a fraction
They say, "How could he go if he's got everything?"
"I'll mourn for a kid, but won't cry for a king.""

People can say that it's tragic, that the loss is terrible, but then refuse to adjust their mentality when thinking about the well-being and mental state of those in the spotlight. Just because they have material possessions and are considered to be well off, that's not enough on it's own. As we've seen many times, wealth and success and fame don't solve problems; often times, they make it more difficult to deal with and heal from. 

The idea of trying to write a song like this seems so incredibly impossible. The topic of suicide is difficult on its own, but to try and call out the way we've begun to shift our thoughts about the subject as a culture in a dangerous direction; I can't think of many bands that would be able to approach the subject in a way that honors those we've lost while pleading with and calling out the people and habits that enable more loss and tragedy to occur. I have such an immense respect for the band for taking this subject head on, as it's something I've thought about and talked about with friends, family, and through previous posts through the last year or so. It's absolutely important to talk about this, but also to act on it and work towards preventing more people thinking that suicide can be an answer. This song is by far one of the most important songs I've heard this year, if not the most. 

Not all the songs dwell in such heavy and dark places, however. Songs like "Legend" and "Smithereens" both have a much more lighthearted and positive light to them, especially the later. "Smithereens" is a love song at it's core, as the chorus states:

"For you, I'd go
Step to a dude much bigger than me
For you, I know
I would get messed up, weigh 153
For you
I would get beat to smithereens"

The song was written by Joseph for his wife, and is one of the more authentic and sweetest love songs I've heard in years. It's really important and well placed on the album, providing a respite for the listener and a song that brings a smile to one's face. 

While I think that people will always fawn over Blurryface as it was the album that broke the band into the spotlight, Trench is going to be one that really defines and cements the status of the band as being quality songwriters and incredible musicians. I think this is their best work yet - it feels confident while not being prideful, shows growth and awareness of the duo's fame and position without abusing it. This is masterfully made art; this is how music can transcend being simply notes and words and create an experience, a lasting impression. 

Rating: 5/5

Recommended: "Jumpsuit", "Levitate", "Morph", "Neon Gravestones", "Smithereens"

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Ever Changing - EP - The Neighbourhood

This EP marks the end of the last year of music from The Neighbourhood, starting last September with the Hard, followed by To Imagine, and most recently with their self titled album (click on any of the names to read my reviews for each release). When you put the names of the releases together, the titles come together to say "Hard To Imagine The Neighbourhood Ever Changing". In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, the band talked about how they wanted the releases to create a sentence that made a statement & how they staggered their new music over three EPs and a LP to keep momentum going. I have to say, it's been effective - I've been listening to the band a lot over the last year, both their newer and older material. 

With the entire set of music out now, I've been taking time to look at it as a whole unit, a complete piece, instead of each individual release. This latest chapter for the band has definitely seen them flexing their range of sounds and vibes, and what defines them as a group. I think that a lot of casual listeners who mostly know of The Neighbourhood from their breakout single, "Sweater Weather" would find themselves very surprised to come back to this release and see what the band is doing now. This comes back to my post about Mac Miller, and the idea of putting artists in these boxes and being surprised when they don't conform to it. For example; in 2014, the band put out a mixtape, titled #000000 & #FFFFFF (which are the HEX codes for black and white), which featured many rappers and hip-hop sounds - much like Ever Changing. It's a very natural progression, listening to the mixtape and then hearing their latest EP - but if you were outside of that knowledge, it might seem like a weird leap. But it most definitely makes sense for the band, being comfortable territory for them. I definitely have a lot of respect for the band in terms of the scope and vision that went into this series of releases - they decided to try something different

Now, the features on this release are a bit different than the band's last foray into rap. I knew who most of the guest artists were (G-Eazy, YG, Dej Loaf, French Montana), whereas with Ever Changing, I only knew of Ghostface Killah (thanks to Fort Minor). To be honest, I think the features were some of the weaker aspects of the songs - IDK and Nipsey Hussle specifically. Their verses felt flat and unimaginative and both sounded (in their own ways) like Eminem copycats, with IDK being the biggest offender.

On the other hand, Denzel Curry did very well on the first song of the release, "Kill Us All"; the song has a mix of 90's rap vibes and modern alternative, and Curry's West Coast style fits in perfectly. Ghostface brings a similar strength to "Beat Take 1", which is on the opposite spectrum from "Kill Us All", with a slower pace, more chilled-out vibe, that has a hint something more serious. The only song on the release without a feature, "Paradise" is a stand out track - both for the change in tone and the quality. It's a glimpse of the band that most people are used to, which while I understand their desire to push their boundaries, I find myself most drawn to this track out of them all.

This EP, to me, felt like the most scattered of the releases for this era of The Neighbourhood. That's not saying that it's bad - I think that it's a really different move for the band, and I very much respect that. The overall release is definitely enjoyable, even if I'm not a fan of all the individual songs. It's a fitting end for this series from the band - it shows their courage to be themselves as artists and not to worry about the notions and ideas that people have of them. Definitely worth checking out.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended: "Paradise", "Kill Us All (feat. Denzel Curry)", "Beat Take 1(feat. Ghostface Killah)"

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Music Lover's Brief Update

Lately, when I’ve been listening to music or browsing what’s new, I have often ended up listening to older music - either from earlier this year or in the last few years. I’m just finding that a fair amount of the new songs and albums don’t have the same repeatable factor that I’ve been hearing in other songs. That, and lately my mood has not always been reflected by or compatible with the music coming out.

So I’ve been going back to what’s comfortable, what’s familiar. The songs I know that will fulfill that need, the emotional craving inside. I love exploring sounds, finding new artists, but sometimes it doesn’t work for me. I don’t like trying to review or make judgments on music when I’m like that, as I feel it doesn’t give the songs or artists the chance they deserve. Sometimes, I end up feeling guilty if I don’t review something for a long period of time, at least in the last two years or so since I’ve been posting regularly again.

I know I’ve done some reviews for the sake of it, to be consistent and keep up the image of being a good blogger (whatever that means). I also know that part of it lies in my need to feel productive, to feel like I’m doing something and see results and have other people see that as well. The search for validation and results, two things that I’m constantly searching for.
The last month or so, I really haven’t attempted any reviews. Part of it has been due to a busy time, and letting that be an excuse. But a big part was the lack of inspiration and desire to review music, and wanting to share thoughts that I felt were authentic. Not for the sake of putting something out there. Learning to let myself take the time I need for the real world, and not letting guilt or internal pressure push me towards mediocre or subpar.

More reviews will be forthcoming. There’s been some stuff coming out that I’ve got my eye on to write about, but I felt like I needed to put this out as well and be authentic in this process. Thanks as always for reading and indulging my thoughts.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Pre-Conceived Notions - Some Thoughts On Mac Miller

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about Mac Miller.

It’s so interesting how events can have such an unexpected importance. How they can come crashing in before your defenses are up and all of a sudden you're reeling and gasping for air. Your hand shakes and you feel your heart try to catch up to the emotions flooding through you.

I hardly listened to Mac Miller before 2016. I knew of him, but just didn’t check him out. I pride myself with knowing a lot about music, but I am constantly missing out on artists. I have to play catch up sometimes, and end up discovering artists later on into their careers.

I had a very limited impression of Mac Miller – knowledge of maybe two songs – before The Divine Feminine came out. I remember listening and being very surprised. This was not what I was expecting from him, all because I let my perception guide how he was categorized in my head. I put him in a box, and came back and found he had completely dismantled that box and my notions along with it, and spun me on my head.

Something that I’ve found in recent years is how often I let those pre-conceived ideas dictate the ways in which I think about people, especially the artists that I adore and look up to. I had no idea that Mac Miller was only a year older than me. I had no idea that he struggled with drugs and alcohol. I let his success and elevated place in life influence how I thought of him, and that steered me away from thinking that he might not actually be doing alright.

But it’s not just him. It’s a far reaching and deep-rooted problem that hasn’t been addressed enough. I’ve seen it take the lives of people who have influenced my life in many ways. And it continues to be a shock, it continues to make my heart sink, all because I continue to let myself think in specific ways, even when they are clearly wrong.

Clearly a change is necessary. An adjustment; taking a step back and looking at ourselves and the judgments and assumptions we make and questioning their validity. It’s never easy, to make that kind of change. But it has to start somewhere. After these kinds of tragedies, I keep seeing tweets and posts about how we have to “check on each other”. While I appreciate that sentiment, it involves a lot more than saying it online. Actions speak a lot louder than words, and I can’t let my thoughts and words be it. Start anywhere. Reach out, ask your friends how they really are. I know this is exactly what I said above, but I want people to really grasp it and live it. Be conscious about your words and attitudes. Be intentional with your choices. And show love. Show compassion. People are in desperate need of it, in spite of and especially without always deserving it. The tremors that you can cause in other peoples’ paths are both a blessing and a curse. Think beyond today, think into tomorrow and next week and next year. Don’t let your assumptions stop you from asking that one friend if they’re good.

It makes my heart ache, thinking about these people we’ve lost. About the people that loved them, that adored them; the ones they left behind. About the lost potential, the good they could have continued to bring into the world, despite their demons. The way they helped people realized they aren’t alone in their struggles.

Rest in peace, Mac Miller, Malcolm James McCormick. I wish I could have been your friend, so I could have known you better, and could have been privy to the joy and wonder that your friends and colleague have been speaking of this last week. As John Mayer said, “I’m so sad you couldn’t stay, Mac.”

Friday, August 17, 2018

Levitate (Single) - twenty one pilots

This track is really something else. 

I was excited and surprised to see another single out so soon for the forthcoming album, Trench, from the boys in twenty one pilots. I wasn’t sure what to expect, given the new direction of the first two songs, but I knew I wanted to hear more of this album that I think is shaping up to be really special.

Whatever I thought I could expect, this was not there.

“Levitate” flows flawlessly from “Jumpsuit”, easing the listener into a place of mystery, if only for a moment, before a kick drum and hi-hat provide a sense of urgency and clarity like coming out of fog and seeing clearly for miles. And coming at you at 100 miles an hour is Tyler’s rapping prowess and lyrical mastery, showcased in such a powerful and jaw-dropping manner. The song is under two and a half minutes, in which Tyler manages to lay down nearly 400 words of rhymes (which is even more impressive considering that he’s only rapping for about a minute and a half). I did the math; that’s an average of nearly three words a second, nonstop. That doesn’t do it justice though, just listing off the math and technical aspect of it. It’s something you have to listen to; hear the way he maintains his flow and energy throughout the track, and I’d be very surprised if you weren’t impressed too.

Lyrically, the song is incredibly intriguing. Just take a look at the first two lines/the beginning of the chorus:

"Oh, I know how to levitate up off my feet
And ever since the 7th grade I learned to fire-breathe"

Levitating? Fire-breathing?

There's a lot to try and digest in this song. I won't even pretend like I know exactly what Tyler is talking about for most of the track. There are a lot of references, double meanings, and metaphors that go just a little over my head. It would seem as though a lot of the lyrics are self-referential, with Tyler struggling with a multitude of things like depression, anxiety, self-worthy, and more. I won't try to pick apart the lyrics - I think it's very much an individual experience for this song in particular. But it's very much worth reading through the lyrics to get a better feel for what he's saying (since he goes pretty fast at points), and you can find them here

What I find so intriguing about this song is it's brevity, intensity, and unique structure. It doesn't follow the typical song structure (which is even something that's referenced within the song - how meta), and further showcases the ingenuity and self-awareness of the band. They seem to have a very sharp awareness of their own popularity and uncommon sound, and the way in which those two qualities usually clash. They know the line they have to walk to balance those aspects of their music is a very, very fine line, but if “Levitate” and the other singles have been any indication, the band is on track to do that with Trench.

Rating: 5/5