Ariana Grande Tops Charts With Impressive Fourth Release

Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.

     Ariana Grande is a 25 year old singer and actress based in Florida. She began her career in the Broadway Musical 13, but found her footing on the national stage with the role of Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. On the show, she showcased her skills as a vocalist and left the role with quite a promising future ahead of her.

   She made her musical debut with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. She followed this success with 2014’s My Everything, and 2016’s Dangerous Woman, both of which achieved massive success, going double and platinum respectively. Grande established herself as a modern powerhouse of female vocals. She has an especially impressive whistle register and smoky tone which compliments her penchant for working with hip-hop artists and bass-heavy beats well. I’d had a generally positive experience with all of her previous work, and I was excited to hear her latest release, Sweetener, and I was, overall, impressed with the finished product.

   The album surprisingly diverse, a description not so apt for her earlier projects. Compare the tropical, steel drum-infused instrumental of “successful,” to the trap-flavored beat of “everytime,” which follows directly after. There is almost a sense of musical whiplash between them. The same is true for the gleeful, 80’s influences on “no tears left to cry,” and dreamy, but short love track, “Pete Davidson,” which even finds a home for a beautiful violin line.

   Ariana is at her best on this record when she taps into her more soulful side, allowing herself to indulge with tracks like the excellent lead single, “God is a woman,” or on the criminally short opener, “raindrops,” which may be the best track on the list. One can even hear hints of this on the title track, as well as the closer, “get well soon.”

   Her harmony work is also quite enjoyable. See the vocal layerings of tracks like “better off,” or “R.E.M.” Between the very impressive production work on her vocals and Grande’s impressive performances on multiple parts, these tracks are infinitely listenable, with several hidden runs and lines which may only be discovered upon repeat visits.

   Ariana does, unfortunately have a tendency to get lost in some of the more demanding beats on project. “the light is coming,” for example, bury’s her easily in addition to suffering from a characteristically atrocious Nicki Minaj feature, and is, without a doubt, the low point on the album. “breathin,” suffers a similar fate, not due to an overactive instrumental, but to Ariana’s uneventful performance. This does work quite well, however, on “blazed,” which combines an infectious, tropical beat and a fantastic Pharrell Williams feature to overlook Grande’s less than stellar vocals and the song’s general lack of direction.

   She even dips into an interesting mix of soul and disco with “borderline.” The track is a fun listen and, thanks to Missy Elliot’s braggadocios third verse, it stands as one of the highlights from an already packed album.

   There are, of course, a few weak spots. Ariana’s attempts at rapping, mercifully rare though they are, immediately butcher any sense of enjoyment of a track, the trap drum effects are atrociously overused, and the lyricism so rarely peaks its head above the mark of uneventful as to be unworthy of mention. These are small issues, for the most part, but they’re issues which should be ironed out by an artist’s third and fourth releases.

   However, I’m left with a relatively enjoyable experience. When looking at the modern landscape of female powerhouses, Grande seems to be situated at near the top of the field in terms of ability to craft an enjoyable record from start to finish. She has an entire, fully fleshed aesthetic, a smokey and enjoyable voice, and she uses her power with reserve.

   Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.



Trippie Redd Debuts With Interesting but Directionless LP

Life’s a Trip is a debut full of interesting ideas, but drown out by pervasive trap drums and repetitive vocals.

     Trippie Red is singer and rapper who rose to fame in 2016 and 2017 with a string of relatively well received mixtapes and singles. He was named as a member of the 2018 XXL Freshman class and performed quite well in the promotion’s freestyles and cyphers. After a platinum single and a couple well publicized feuds with 6ix9ine and the late XXXTentacion, Trippie Red had reached a career peak in terms of relevance and exposure.

   His sound is generally characterized as a softer form of the recent Soundcloud scene, even incorporating guitars, pianos, and other rock elements into the overtly trap-inspired genre he frequents. He seems to be a part of the very small sliver of modern rap which has a public respect for the rock music that came, often, before the artists were even born. He’s built such a name and esthetic that, after seeing the fantastic album art and hearing the lead singer, I found my self quite excited for Trippie’s major label debut, Life’s a Trip. The album, for the most part, is what one would expect.

   The more organic instrumentation pallet is much appreciated here, as Trippie’s contemporaries seem to drop slogs of endless synth and trap drums. Instead, the opener, “Together,” and “Forever Ever,” feature catchy guitar hooks, while “Taking a Walk,” is lead by enjoyable organ work. This instrumentation and focus on more organic sounds pops all over the record, and is definitely the best quality of the entire project.

   Trippies vocals, especially when singing, are also quite impressive. His raw, energetic hook on the chorus of “Wish,” makes it one of the best tracks on the album, though I could certainly do without the Kurt Cobain line, and his performance on “Bird Shit,” is also quite impressive.

   These two good qualities combine for the best track on the album, “How You Feel,” which uses electric guitars as its primary melody, laid under an excellent, if a bit repetitive performance from Trippie Red on vocals. It’s catchy, fun, and above all, unique. This sound, however, doesn’t fill the entire album.

   “Dark Knight Dummo,” and “Shake It Up,” for example, are little more than generic trap bangers, and there is little in the way of impressive lyricism throughout. The latter half of the record, for that matter, drowns in overused trap drums and repetitive crooning from Redd.

   Overall, the record incorporates organic instrumentation, especially rock influences, in an excellent way. When the guitars and organs are allowed to lead the way, while being adorned with raw and impressive vocal work from Trippie Redd, this album is unique and impressive, but sadly, this isn’t the bulk of the album.

   Life’s a Trip is a debut full of interesting ideas, but drown out by pervasive trap drums, repetitive vocals, and weak lyricism.


HEAR LIFE’S A TRIP:            

Nicki Minaj’s Fourth Effort Ranges from Boring to Unbearable in 70 Minutes

Queen is yet another example a label turning what could be a mediocre and uneventful EP into an unbearable, bloated mess of an LP.

     Nicki Minaj is a rapper and Lil Wayne protege from Queens, NY. She’s well known for her elaborate music videos, overtly sexual lyricism, and her ability to meld more traditional New York style rap with the modern Atlanta and trap scenes.

   Minaj rose to fame with her triple platinum debut LP, Pink Friday in 2010. She followed this with Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded in 2012 and The Pinkprint in 2014. Each of these went double platinum and topped billboard charts, the former peaking at number one and the latter at number two. She’s amassed quite the following, despite generally mixed critical reception, and after a four year wait, those fans where excited to hear her newest project, Queen.

   Generally, there isn’t much to say about this album. Clocking in at over an hour, there is a shocking lack of diversity over the 19 tracks.

   Probably Queen’s best quality is it’s production. “Barbie Dreams,” features a very listenable, New York style beat as well as some of Nicki’s best rapping, and the opener and lead single, “Ganja Burns,” sees some interesting drum work and a well mixed vocal on the chorus. The bulk of these beats are almost indistinguishable from one another, but every once in a while, we’re thrown a nice surprise.

   The features list is surprisingly bare, though it is rather impressive. Eminem delivers one of his better verses in recent memory on “Majesty,” Ariana Grande’s performance is the highlight of “Bed.” Swae Lee adds quite a bit to “Chun Swae,” and The Weeknd’s vocals on “I Thought I Knew You,” though they are sparse, stand as probably the best feature on the project.

   On the other hand, Lil Wayne drops a shockingly forgettable verse on “Rich Sex,” and Future adds virtually nothing to “Sir,” though he does sound far more at home in the atmospheric beat than Minaj, who simply butchers the dreamy feel of the beat.

   On that note, Nicki Minaj’s staring role over the entire 19 tracks is virtually devoid of shinning moments. From her frustrating insistence on using strange, poorly developed accents on tracks like “Miami,” and the last verse of “Majesty,” on which she is terribly outshined by her featuring artists. “Rich Sex,” even ends with Nicki inextricably shrieking at full volume. She’s best when she taps into her East Coast background, but even then, her flow on “Barbie Dreams,” ruins an otherwise fine beat.

   Nearly all of the lyrics focus on Nicki’s sexuality, which is, of course, fair game for any artist, especially in rap music, but 70 minutes of Minaj reminding us that she’s great in bed but selective in terms of her partners reaches its sell by date before the halfway point.

   The issues with this album are plentiful, but the majority of them can be traced back to the length. I’ve been somewhat critical of the newest, Kanye-led practice of dropping “albums,” with runtimes in the 20-30 minute range, but I much prefer that over the route taken by artist like Drake and Nicki Minaj of dropping more than an hour of nearly identical music and letting the market decide on two or three hits.

   Queen is yet another example a label turning what could be a mediocre and uneventful EP into an unbearable, bloated mess of an LP.


HEAR QUEEN:                    

Jason Mraz Drops Sixth Studio Album for the Fans

     Jason Mraz is a folk/coffeehouse artist from San Diego. He rose to prominence in the early 2000’s college scene and pioneered the hip-hop infused brand of singer-songwriter music which would later be expounded upon by the likes of Ed Sheeran and James Bay.

   His debut record, Waiting for My Rocket to Come and its follow up, Mr. A-Z brought him incredible fame and success and after a couple of well received live albums, he was very obviously on the precipice of a career defining project, which Mraz delivered in 2008 with We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. Not only did this album not disappoint, but it remains his best selling album to date, certified triple platinum and peaking at number three on the billboard chart. He followed up four years later with the platinum album, Love is a Four Letter Word, and again with 2015’s Yes! Today, he is certainly in the post-prime stage of his career, but his influence can’t be ignored, and his recent singles were quite impressive, leaving me excited for this year’s release, Know. Once again, he doesn’t disappoint.

   On this record, Jason is very clearly aiming simply to have fun, a luxury which he enjoys at this stage in his career, and indulges in quite a bit on this project. Tracks like “Makin’ It Up,” and his best pre-album single, “Have It All,” find him in his much more laid back form, dancing over fast tempos with clever turns of phrase, and goofy jokes.

   He even branches out with the reggae-inspired “Might as Well Dance,” which see’s a bouncing rhythm adorned with interesting organ work, a surprisingly engaging guitar solo, groovy bass, and lyrics which, while generally shallow, should pull a few chuckles from long-time fans. With a chorus refrain of “we got nothin to loose, might as well take off our pants,” the song serves as nice wallpaper for summer cookouts, which seems to be its ultimate goal.

   Listeners are also given the treat of hearing Jason return to his earliest coffeehouse roots on tracks like “No Plans,” or the opener, “Let’s See What the Night Can Do,” both tremendously enjoyable, with Mraz’ heartfelt vocal performance and endearing lyrics leading the way over simplistic instrumentals and a few very well placed choral swells. He’s generally at his best here, though this doesn’t ring true for the final track, “Love is Still the Answer.”

   On this closer, the tawdry lyricism weighs like a cinder block on a relatively inoffensive instrumental, accented by a few very well timed violins. Similarly, it’s the generally uninspired writing on “Unlonely,” which plays wet blanket to yet another solid track, this time one which is quite danceable and fun, making this offense all the more irritating.

   However, it’s “More than Friends,” which stands as the least redeemable song on the entire project. The lyrics are barely ankle deep, the track is mostly boring, and Megan Trainor’s feature only serves to further water down whatever uniqueness this track had. The mercifully short three minutes is easily the lowest point in the 40 minute runtime.

   Thankfully, this is offset by the simply striking beauty of “Sleeping to Dream.” This is a fairly old track, appearing as early as 2004 on live releases, but this version is much more mature. The vocal performance is soft and sweet, the lyrics are clever, and the slide guitar work of Drew Taubenfeld gently flavors an excellent instrumental track. It’s good to hear this song finally find a home on a studio project where it can serve as a reminder as to what a talent Jason Mraz truly is as a songwriter.

   This album certainly isn’t all hits, but that doesn’t matter. The misses aren’t nearly egregious enough to be unenjoyable for longtime fans, and when he’s on, he’s on. Know. Doesn’t quite hit the bar set by Mraz’ early work, but he knows his audience, and this album serves as one more present to longtime fans.

   Who could ask for more?


HEAR KNOW.:                    

Every “Weird Al” Yankovic Album, Ranked!

Weird Al is one of the best musical comedians that ever lived, and with thirteen albums spanning 30 years, its worth taking a look at his hits, his misses, and what makes him so great!

13. Off the Deep End1992

download (10)     With the grunge revolution in full swing, Al set to work on his first major reinvention, a skill which would be necessary if he was to continue mocking popular music for an extended period of time. This album is fun and well performed, though its a bit light in the hits department.

   Of course, “Smells Like Nirvana,” is iconic, as Yankovic showed the ability to make light of even the most dark and serious base material, but aside from that, there’s little of note. “Polka Your Eyes,” out is certainly worth a listen if you’re a fan of Al’s Polka work, and “I Can’t Watch This,” may be his most underrated track of all time, but overall, its a goofy listen with few memorable tracks.

12. Alapalooza1993

download (7)   Weird Al’s best selling album of all time, Alapalooza is his only release to be certified double platinum. The album itself is fun, if a bit light on hits. At this time, the radio was mostly dominated by the height of the grunge movement, which had filled his last project, and the new wave of gangster rap, which Al wouldn’t get a grasp on for a few more years. As such, the album is a bit of a transitional piece.

   By way of important tracks, the opener, “Jurassic Park,” is definitely worth a listen, and was the most successful pre-album single. “Bedrock Anthem,” is promising, though it doesn’t quite deliver on its goals. “Achy Breaky Song,” is probably the highlight of the album, though the verses are a bit repetitive. The album is certainly worth a listen for hardcore fans, but for his best selling album of all time, its less that impressive.

11. Alpocalypse 2011

download (2)   After a six year absence, the longest of his career, Weird Al returned with his take on a popular music landscape which had changed quite a bit since his last release. Keeping that in mind, he did quite a job. His song choices are excellent, aside from the Doors parody, and hold up well now almost a decade later. My only complaint is the source of the comedy, where his early work finds genuine laughs, the records in the twilight of of his career finds its comedy through the novelty of what he does.

   “Perform This Way,” is an excellent opener and “TMZ” is one of his best modern tracks. “Polka Face,” isn’t one of his best polka tracks, but simply must be admired for the effectiveness of the pun. “Party in the C.I.A,” is quite enjoyable, as is “Another Tattoo.” Even “Whatever You Like,” is worth a listen, though Rucka Rucka Ali’s parody of the same song is quite a bit better. Overall, its an album with a few fun tracks, but nothing living up to his early work.

10. “Weird Al” Yankovic1983

Weird_Al_Yankovic_-_Weird_Al_Yankovic   Like many revolutionary artists, Weird Al’s self-titled debut was a massive success. He had taken what was essentially a goofy party tricks and turned it into a gold certified album. Al’s vocal performance on this record is characteristically manic, and the song selection plays to his strengths well.

   Tracks like “I Love Rocky Road,” and “My Bologna,” were instant hits, and should surely secure the kind of childish giggle which Al is going for, while the sheer thought and work that goes into “Another One Rides the Bus,” makes that track a sleeper hit. The album surely isn’t his best, many of the tracks being somewhat forgettable, but it was such a revolution in musical comedy that it finds itself kicking off the top ten of our list.

9. In 3-D1984

 download (4)  After the success of his debut, Al stepped everything up for this mid-80’s classic, securing his first platinum certification, as well as his first top twenty chart position. All of those accolades were well deserved as In 3-D improves upon its predecessor in almost every way.

   Of course, the record begins with his seminole classic, “Eat it,” also touching on another classic, “The Brady Bunch,” within the opening moments. “I Lost On Jeopardy,” falls on this record as well, and we are introduced to his accordion skills on tracks like “Polkas on 45.” Al’s iconic voice is perfectly balanced between the grating and geeky, and the manic and hilarious. He’s so clearly having so much fun on this album, and its hard for listeners not to do the same.

8. Polka Party!1986

download (6)   Opinions are divided among fans when it comes to this album, but I tend to fall on the side of a favorable assessment. This is the first glimpse we were given of just what a talented accordion player Yankovic is, and his pure parodies which still fill the bulk of the album are quite memorable as well, leaning hard into the absurdist elements inherent in his brand of humor.

   The opener, “Living With a Hernia,” is absolute classic Weird Al, as he even whips out his best James Brown impression on the ad libs. “Addicted to Spuds,” is probably one of the more ridiculous tracks in his long career, and, of course, the title track established Weird Al immediately as by far the most successful and well known Polka musician in the country.

7. Mandatory Fun2014

download (1)   With Mandatory Fun, particularly in its marketing, the nostalgia was cranked up to deafening levels. Because of this, the record debuted at number one, the first comedy album ever to do this. Song selection ran the gamut from Lorde and Pharrell Williams to mocking the styles of artists like The Pixies and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

   Overall, there’s no shortage of tracks to hit the spot for fans. “Tacky,” and “Handy,” are a couple of my favorites, and “Foil,” is certainly the highlight of the project. “Inactive,” and “Word Crimes,” are enjoyable, though not quite up to the quality we’ve come to expect from Yankovic. While Mandatory Fun doesn’t quite live up to the man’s earlier work, he sounds quite a bit better than most on the tail end of a 30+ year career.

6. Poodle Hat2003

download (8)   Yet another classic album, though one of his less popular releases, Poodle Hat sees Al following popular culture deeper into the rabbit hole of rap music. While he would do this better on later projects, this album gives us a hint of what he was beginning to work with. If there’s any complaint to be had here, its that the album is so engrossed in pop culture of the day that its quite dated today.

   Tracks like “Couch Potato,” and “Trash Day,” are fantastic examples of what Yankovic can do with rap music, while “Angry White Boy Polka” may be my favorite of his Polka work. “A Complicated Song,” is one my favorite Weird Al tracks of all time, and “Why Does This Always Happen to Me,” is one of his best originals. The best of this style was still to come, but this is quite the record all the same.

5. Running with Scissors 1999

images   One of Al’s most underrated projects, Running with Scissors is packed to the brim with deep cuts for hardcore fans. His lyricism is at a career high during this period, and this album definitely benefits from that. His vocal performance is a bit more relaxed than previous efforts, and if the lack of famous hits can be ignored, Running with Scissors is a fun listen.

   Doubtless, the highlight of the album is “The Saga Begins,” which may be the most impressive lyrical effort of Al’s career. “Jerry Springer,” is a fun track as well, and “Albuquerque,” is classic Weird Absurdism and geek humor. “Grapefruit Diet,” is likely the best deep cut on the record, and “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi,” is irresistibly goofy. This may not be the casual fan’s cup of tea, but for truer fans, Running with Scissors is a favorite.

4. Dare to Be Stupid1985

download   For many die-hard Weird Al fans, this is the one. This album, the third in his discography, set a standard that few comedy albums ever would match. His second platinum effort, Dare to Be Stupid contains several of the hits which Al is known for to this day. The infamous accordion makes precious few appearances here, but his performance more than makes up for this.

   “Like a Surgeon,” was the only charting single from this project, but plenty of others became fan favorites. Tracks like “Yoda,” and “George of the Jungle,” are still remembered fondly to this day, and the title track, one of Al’s first and most successful original tracks, is one of the best tracks on the whole record. Of course, one can’t discuss Dare to Be Stupid without remembering “I Want a New Duck,” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch.”

3. Bad Hair Day 1996

Badhairday   Following the massive success of Alapalooza, Yankovic released one of his best records to date, including one of his most infamous album covers. This is his first foray into the rap world, and while it’s not quite as impressive as some of his later work would be, it does work quite well.  The polka track on this album is quite fun as well.

   Tracks like “Gump,” and “Phony Calls,” are somewhat under appreciated entries into the Weird Al cannon, and “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” has always been a personal favorite of mine. “Alternative Polka,” is one of his better polka tracks, and, of course, “Amish Paradise,” is one of the best and most iconic Weird Al tracks of all time.

2. Straight Outta Lynwood2006

download (9)   If you’re a younger fan, like myself, this was likely your introduction to Weird Al as this was the last of his albums not to be billed as a “comeback.” Twenty-three years after his debut, Weird Al is perfectly capable of mocking popular culture with the same geeky fire that brought him success in the first place. Straight Outta Lynwood finds Al taking on brand new styles, including rap and heavy metal, but somehow pulling them off with ease.

   Nearly every song here is a hit. “Canadian Idiot,” and “I’ll Sue Ya,” are good examples of Al’s ability to parody heavier bands while he finds himself rapping on tracks like “Confessions Pt. III,” “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” and his biggest hit and only platinum single to date, “White and Nerdy.” Still more, “Pancreas,” and “Don’t Download This Song,” find Al in much more familiar territory, and he even busts out the accordion on “Polkarama!” Straight Outta Lynwood is certainly a comedy record for the ages, and has a perfectly valid case for being considered Yankovic’s best album.

1. Even Worse1988

download (3)   There are so many respectable choices when deciding the best Weird Al album of all time, and nearly all of them are valid answers, but for me, this one takes the cake. Everything, from the album cover to the song choices, is able to celebrate Al’s monumental success while mocking the absurdity of such a goofy gimmick being so popular. Al turns in what I consider his best full album performance and though Even Worse does lack the Polka work which is synonymous with Yankovic, it more than makes up for it with an array of hits, parodies and originals included.

   The opener, “Fat,” may be Al’s best track, and “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” isn’t far behind. “Lasagna,” is an absolute classic, especially considering the difficulty of parodying a song in a foreign language, and “Melanie,” is Al’s best original without a doubt. The album goes out with a bang as well with “Alimony,” and “Velvet Elvis,” landing in the latter half. There are plenty of fantastic records in Yankovic’s legendary discography, but for my money, none of them can replace Even Worse.

Mac Miller’s “Swimming” May Be the Best Hip-Hop Project of the Year

Swimming was one of the most listenable releases of 2018, and could very well be the best rap album of the year!

     Mac Miller is an American rapper and songwriter based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s well known for his relaxed instrumentation, ironic aesthetic, and his seamless blend of sleepy and sharp flows.

   He made his name on the mixtape scene, having dropped 12 tapes between 2007 and 2015. He dropped his debut LP, Blue Slide Park in 2011 to a number one chart position and a gold sales certification, the only one of his projects to secure this accolade. He would drop one more album, Watching Movies with the Sound Turned Off, with the Rostrum label before debuting on Warner Bros in 2015 with GO:OD AM. Almost exactly a year later he would release The Devine Feminine, his last release until Swimming about a week ago. Each of his albums perform well critically if struggling a bit commercially, but he’s built quite the loyal fanbase and often tours quite successfully. Swimming is yet another entry to this very impressive young career.

   The record is built on several clear inspirations, perhaps the most prominent of which is golden age R&B. Tracks like “What’s the Use,” and the opener, “Come Back to Earth,” feature wonderfully nocturnal, synth-heavy instrumentals are perfect replicas of the pre-Motown wave of R&B and will have listeners dancing no matter where they are.

   Unlike early R&B, however, the instrumentation pallet is extremely wide. Tracks like “Ladders,” and “Jet Fuel,” utilize excellent brass sections to grant a sense of jazz swing, while “2009” begins with a sweeping and beautiful passage played by string quartet and piano. “Small Words,” even features John Mayer on guitar!

   Mac’s performance on Swimming is likely his best yet, as his vocal fires on all cylinders. His his tone is almost drowsy, he drops latter syllables and rounds off the pronunciation of consonants, and yet his flow is quite sharp. “Hurt Feelings,” is a fantastic example of this.

   His rhyme schemes can’t be ignored either. “Wings,” which is possibly my favorite track on the whole album is an example of this, as his simplistic scheme in the first verse fits well with the slightly off-beat snare and the almost childish synth work which opens the track, but his flow tightens up quite a bit in the second half.

   Even his singing work is quite impressive, particularly in the layering, but also in his performance. His falsetto work on “Dunno,” for example, infinitely improves that song, and makes it one of the best on the project.

   There are certainly a few week spots on the album. “Conversations Pt. 1,” is quite drab and is probably the least creative track on the record. Beyond this, the bass has a bad tendency to drown out the interesting instrumentals, Miller’s lyrical abilities are severely hindered when his verses are too long and uninterrupted, and a few of the vocal melodies are a bit childish.

   None of this, however, could take away from this album’s most important highlight: it’s production.

   Whether its the excellent and abrupt beat change in “Self Care,” or fantastic outro on “Perfecto,” the production team never ceases to amaze. The bass line on “So it Goes,” perfectly captures the feel of an acoustic, upright bass, and the general chaos of dissonance and irreconcilable beats on “Wings” is captivating. All this without mentioning the vocal layering on “Dunno,” the shimmering buzzing in the background of “Hurt Feelings,” and the simple but effective stereo imaging on “Small Words.” Swimming is, genuinely, one of the best produced albums of the year.

   This album isn’t perfect, but its not all that far from it. Mac Miller seems to be on the pulse of a very special sound which is somewhat unique amongst the bulk of modern music, and he achieves this sound by allowing his aesthetic to bleed into every facet of what he’s doing while writing with tremendous honesty.

   Swimming was one of the most listenable releases of 2018, and could very well be the best rap album of the year!



Why Grunge Matters

“In short, Rock and Roll had become the music of the cool kids, of the “in crowd.” Grunge changed that.”

     When one thinks of revolutions in music, doubtless the mind fills with images of tie-die clothes, psychedelic use, and thousands of people crammed into a small dairy farm in Bethel, New York.  However, while rock music’s peace-loving, hair growing coming of age story is certainly one for the books, it isn’t what I want to focus on here. In 1969, The Beatles sent hippies diving through their psyche with their seminole classic, Abbey Road, but we find ourselves 20 years later, fists in the air and heads banging to Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach.

R-409348-1150567266.jpeg   To understand the importance of Grunge, we’ll need to first understand where rock music was by the time of the late 80’s. The fire and experimentation of the hippies had not only died,  but much worse, been commercialized. The punk movement in the mid 70’s had undercut the trend of sprawling, conceptual pieces of art in favor of the fast, loud, and simple approach espoused by groups like The Ramones, and this format was much easier to be mimicked, chopped up, and broadcast in three minute snippets on the radio. By the time we reached the late 80’s, groups like Motley Crüe and AC/DC had reached massive arena’s with their blend of hard and punk rock, and even though records like Appetite for Destruction brought something of an edge, and groups like Metallica were beginning to take the underground metal world by storm, the image of the modern day rockstar was still that of a longhaired sex symbol who sung about fast cars, women, and parties. In short, Rock and Roll had become the music of the cool kids, of the “in crowd.” Grunge changed that.

   In 1991, the guard changed in a big way with the release of four monumental records: Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, the Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder super project Temple of the Dog, and, of course, Nirvana’s Nevermind. These each followed the release of Alice in Chains’ debut, Facelift in ’91, meaning that Grunge music’s big four was fully established within one year, and the genre spread like wildfire. In January of ’91, Nevermind famously overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the Billboard chart, Pearl Jam’s “Ten Tour,” sprawled across most of North America and Europe, and names like Chris Cornell and Layne Staley became infamous. What was so different about grunge, though?

   To a casual listener, grunge may sound like a short-lived offshoot of the growing heavy metal movement of the day, and while Alice in Chains somewhat toes the line between the genres, grunge is actually quite sonically unique. It focuses more on the lower end of the pitch spectrum, contrasting the wailing screams of both the vocals and guitar work with groups like Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses. They also preferred melodic guitar work to the thrashing style of early 90’s metal, and lyrics touched on far heavier topics than the classic “Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll.”

51l2kFk6CnL   Its also worth noting the vastly different inspirations between the grunge movement and the previous decade’s radio rock. Virtually every grunge band of the early 90’s had a deep affinity for early blues artists like Robert Johnson, with Kurt Cobain notably stating that Leadbelly was Nirvana’s “favorite singer,” during the band’s iconic Unplugged performance. Eddie Vedder’s visual storytelling and extended metaphors are reminiscent of folk singers like Bob Dylan and even as far back as Woody Guthrie. And the heavier acts like Soundgarden and Alice in chains seemed to be acutely aware of earlier works from Black Sabbath. Beyond this, nearly all of the grunge movement, including the less famous groups we haven’t discussed as much, leaned heavily into the live performance techniques pioneering punk bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols.

   If you haven’t caught the theme hear yet, I’ll state it outright: grunge music didn’t respond to the popular music of the day, but instead attempted to build off of the earliest foundations of older movements. Seattle, a city which was, especially in the early 90’s, quite secluded and unconnected to the rest of the world, became the perfect breeding ground for brilliant artists who were willing to unplug from pop culture of the day, and essentially rediscover rock and roll on their own terms, and with this completely new brand of music, the outsiders once again took center stage. However, no discussion of grunge rock could possibly be complete without mentioning its relatively short life, and brutal downfall.

41m3VZWVNLL._SX355_   It’s often been said that grunge’s lifespan can be tracked perfectly by following the life story of Kurt Cobain. A tortured outsider and brilliant writer helps to craft a record unlike anything the music world had ever heard, finds his way to superstardom, but cracks under the pressure and eventually takes his own life, with the whole process taking only about five years. In some ways, this appraisal of the genre’s short history is accurate, save for leaving out a few important albums after Kurt’s death in ’94, but in other ways, I think one key difference causes this parallel to miss the point. The difference is this: unlike Kurt’s death, which was tragic and violent, the death of grunge seemed almost preordained from its inception, and the bulk of its members knew this.

   Their extensive understanding of early music movements meant that all were likely aware of what our culture does to new and unique styles of art. We chop them up and palletize them endlessly until they either homogenize or fall out of the mainstream. This is why Nirvana stands as such a wonderful measuring stick of the genre’s progress. ’89’s Bleach is chaotic, experimental, and perfectly underground. Nevermind is polished, full of life, and brought the band to Beatles levels of popularity. In Utero is dark, emotional, and bemoans the monetization of one of the last great movements in rock. Where as this process took nearly a decade with psychedelic and hippy rock, the industry was remarkably efficient with grunge.

81eaKFGNhSL._SL1500_   Kurt died in ’94, and Nickelback debuted with Curb in ’96, replacing the burning passion of the grunge movement with a gas fireplace of an album. Grunge was effectively melded into the mainstream cannon of rock music, and we are now still subject to the endless barrage of corporatized versions of it with bands like Breaking Benjamin and Nickelback.

   Since then, rock music has been a bit stagnant. The early 90’s were certainly the last bastion of rock’s stranglehold on radio play and popular culture, but to this day, any knew movement in rock is essentially just a rebirth of old styles, be it Neo-punk bands like IDLES and Protomartyr, or the rebirth of psychedelia in the form of Greta Van Fleet and company. Grunge was the last great musical revolution.

   Grunge matters, not only because the music is fantastic, not only because its meteoric rise is almost unmatched in music history, or even its seamless melding and reinventions of older styles, but because it was the last dying breath of rock and roll’s rebellious ethos, because, finally, the outsiders had taken over rock music once again, and because grunge artists had the foresight to expect their own falls from the cultural zeitgeist, and crammed as much incredible music into our veins as they could in the short time in which they were granted in the spotlight.