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"