Backstreet Boys, Papa Roach, and More! January Lightning Round

Here’s my thoughts on a few albums I missed in January, 2019!!

Bring Me The HorizonAmo

Bring Me The Horizon is one of the fastest changing acts in rock n’ roll, evolving from a simple and heavy death core act in the mid 2000’s to a pop-rock/emo-punk act just over a decade later. Amo is the band’s foray into the worlds of industrial and electronic rock and, while there are a few bright points, most of the album falls flat and lifeless. The lyrics are weak, the instrumentation is uninspired, and the band’s pop sensibilities make reaching the interesting side of industrial rock virtually impossible. Worst of all, the bland production sucks all life from record, leaving only a shell of whatever potential was there.

4/10

Backstreet BoysDNA

This record is a lot of fun. One of the most successful boybands of the late 90’s and the minds behind one of the most successful albums of all time in 1999’s Millennium, Backstreet Boys are still hard at work dropping their 9th LP. DNA is every bit as cheesy and indulgent as one would expect, sporting some fairly well made instrumentals, some nice vocal melodies, and a few very tight harmonies. On the other hand, we get some of the worst lyrics I’ve heard in several years and the production doesn’t seem to have changed since their debut. Ultimately, it’s a relatively enjoyable project that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.

5/10

Papa RoachWho Do You Trust?

The first half of this album is slightly better than you might expect, and the latter half is even worse. Papa Roach was one of the best selling bands of the Nu-Metal movement, but today, they’re largely viewed as an embarrassing phase for rock music. Who Do You Trust does little to dispel that idea as it ranges from completely forgettable to totally unlistenable. The lyrics are cringe-worthy, the production is horrible, and it is virtually devoid of an interesting or listenable melody across the thankfully modest runtime. A very weak showing for the nu-metal veterans.

2/10

Sharron Van EttenRemind Me Tomorrow

I regret missing this album more than any other on this list. Sharron Van Etten is a prolific, indie rocker from New Jersey and Remind Me Tomorrow is her 14th LP since debuting in 2005. The album shows every sign of an experienced writer in its solid pacing, thematic cohesion, and tight, 40 minute runtime. The influences of 80’s and 90’s synth-pop are strong and with the aide of great lyricism and vocal performances, Remind Me Tomorrow is an enjoyable record for a wide audience, despite a few meandering moments. It also features the best album cover of year thus far.

6/10

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James Blake Drops Fascinating Fourth LP

Assume Form is a fantastic addition to both James Blake’s ever improving catalog and the dialogue of modern music as a whole.

James Blake is a singer/songwriter and producer from London. He found underground success with a series of EPs released in 2010 on R&S Records and turned the buzz into a silver certification for his debut, self-titled LP in 2011. He went on to drop Overgrown in 2013 and The Colour in Anything in 2016, both of which peaked in the 30’s on the US charts and topped the dance music charts. His biggest mainstream success came on a pair of features on the Black Panther soundtrack in 2017.

Despite the lack of a massive hit, Blake is a darling of the music critic world, and for good reason. He’s often hailed for his ability to blend a multitude of genres, which he does with ease and remarkable skill. His understanding of rap music is especially impressive as he seems to understand the genre better than many modern rappers, blending it perfectly with jazz, country, rock, and his folksy roots. Now four albums in, James Blake is crafting one of the most unique and intriguing catalogs in modern music, and that continues with Assume Form.

From the start, the album is very obviously headed in a unique, minimal direction. Tracks like the opener and title track or “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow,” utilize simplistic instrumentals, relying heavily on looping sound bites. They also play with timing and tempo in an interesting way that leaves a listener feeling a bit off balance. Luckily, though, our ears gravitate so quickly to Blake’s excellent vocals that he’s able to see us through some of the more experimental changes.

Aside from James’ talented performances, there’s also quite a features list here as well. Travis Scott sounds better than ever on “Mile High,” as does ROSALIA on “Barefoot in The Park.” In both instances, featuring artists get to take center stage for an extended period of time as apposed to a single, unrelated verse as is generally the case. The only feature with a criminally short grip on the spotlight gives perhaps the best performance of the list as Andre 3000 of Outkast drops a fantastically complex verse on “Where’s the Catch,” a track that actually feels a bit meandering aside from his appearance.

Additionally, producer Metro Boomin helps out on a couple tracks. The first of these is the aforementioned “Mile High,” which is relatively simple, but the second is “Tell Them,” which features one of the best beats I’ve heard in quite a while. From the excellent loop of Moses Sumney’s haunting voice to the soft, watery synths, the track is just beautifully crafted, and when the violins make an appearance in the final third, it serves as nothing more than a cherry on top.

The instrumental pallet is nothing to dismiss either, as tracks like “Into the Red,” and “Are You in Love,” use everything from violins to baroque pianos to woodwinds and synths that seem ripped directly from a 1980’s Nintendo game. Even more importantly, though, is the way these organic, folk-inspired instruments are given new life being weaved in and out of what is ostensibly trap production. The heavy bass and snapping hi-hats contrast perfectly against the physical instrumentation in an extremely rare way.

He also plays with a dreamier, more smooth style of production on tracks like “I’ll Come Too,” which seems built from the ground up on a very jazz-inspired foundation, and “Don’t Miss It,” which is driven by a fascinating speed effect on Blake’s lead vocal and decorated by an operatic backing voice that is simply chilling. While this isn’t a style he pursues all that often on the record, he never the less delivers quite impressively when it’s used.

All this is not to mention Blake’s impressive lyrical chops, his ability to write vocal melodies that are completely unpredictable, the fantastic pacing of the album, and the remarkably even balance he strikes between manic tempo and melodic changes and minimalistic grooves. However, there are a few blemishes.

Namely, near the end of the project, there are two weak entries. The first is “Power On,” which seemed packed full of interesting ideas, but instead meanders from section to section without bringing his ideas together cohesively. This is far superior, however, to the closer and worst track, “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” which just seems to lack completely in the creativity department, waisting somewhat interesting lyrics on a weak track that never quite finds it’s footing.

All told, Assume Form is fantastic! James Blake’s ability to meld genres, experiment with tempos and production, and break the mold of conventional song form all while remaining relatively accessible is simply astounding.

Assume Form is a fantastic addition to both James Blake’s ever improving catalog and the dialogue of modern music as a whole.

Weezer Surprises Fans With Fun Album of Covers

Ultimately, The Teal Album is a fun collection of covers that leads me to believe that Weezer may be back on the right track in time for their upcoming March release.

Weezer is one of the most influential rock acts of the 1990’s. They debuted in 1994 with The Blue Album, which went triple platinum and immediately established them as one of the most interesting and exciting bands in the already stacked 90’s rock scene. Their follow up, 1996’s Pinkerton gained a massive cult following upon release, proclaimed by many as one of the best albums of the era. After the 90’s, however, their record is spotty at best. Just in the last few years, they’ve released 2016’s The White Album, which landed in my end of the year top ten list, and 2017’s Pacific Daydream, which rested quite firmly in that year’s bottom ten.

At their best, Weezer is capable of being both comedic and meaningful all at once. They built on the look and sound of early rock n roll artists like Buddy Holly, while fusing it with the grungy tone and punk attitudes of their contemporaries. Their best work is some of the most genuine and listenable rock n roll ever made, but when they aim for radio hits and try to pull in modern influences, the sound goes South quickly. After the universally poor reception of Pacific Daydream, Weezer seemed to be lacking any real plan for the future. However, after the mega-success of their cover of “Africa,” by Toto, there was renewed demand for more Weezer material, and while The Black Album is slated for release in March, Rivers Cuomo and the boys have also seen fit to tide up over with a surprise release of nothing but covers.

The record opens with “Africa,” which is just excellent. Rivers’ voice hits every high note perfectly and the band is so obviously having a blast covering such a classic tune. The production remains true to the original for good and for bad, as the highest harmony part is far too loud in the mix. Overall, though, it’s a blast and it’s obvious why it was such a hit! Luckily, there are a few more moments on the project that reach the same level of enjoyment.

Tracks like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and “Take On Me,” excel thanks to Cuomo’s performance once again. He strikes a perfect balance between paying homage to the original melodies and interjecting his own classic sound. More than anything, these tracks are just great choices by the band as they highlight their natural sound quite well.

The same is true for tracks like “No Scrubs,” “Happy Together,” and my personal favorite track, “Mr. Blue Sky.” Here, the vocals are similarly impressive, but this time the band is aloud to shine a bit more, which they do loudly. The tone on the lead guitars are perfectly distorted and the snares snap sharply for a very tight sound. It’s at moments like these when Weezer seems to perfectly juggle the goals of glorifying older songs that they love and bringing something new and exciting to the table.

At other points, however, they fall short. “Paranoid,” and the closer, “Billie Jean,” suffer from the same issue, namely, forgettability. In both cases, there’s virtually no change in instrumentation from the original, and in both cases, Rivers is trying and failing to fill the shoes of iconic vocalists with vastly different voices. Because of this, the tracks are left sounding like weak karaoke performances as apposed to genuine recreations of classics.

Still, they’re better than tracks like the closer, “Stand By Me,” and the worst track on the list, “Sweet Dreams.” Here, the instrumentation seems to be slightly changed in the worst ways possible, with the former being doused in misplaced power chords and the latter just played with less interesting arrangement. The latter is especially egregious as it’s one of the more unique choices on the project and it has been robbed of all the intrigue and experimentation that made the original special. These are the only tracks that are genuinely devoid of fun.

Overall, The Teal Album is a success. Weezer is often hailed as a meme before their time, and in that sense, they seem to have finally realized their full potential. Most of these tracks are extremely well performed and each of them exudes the enjoyment that the band clearly felt in recreating some of their favorite songs.

Ultimately, The Teal Album is a fun collection of covers that leads me to believe that Weezer may be back on the right track in time for their upcoming March release.

5/10

Thoughts on J. Cole’s Claim to the Rap Throne

Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more.

Yesterday, J. Cole set twitter and the music world ablaze with the release of his first single of 2019, “Middle Child.” Over a bass-heavy beat and between catchy hooks, Cole unloaded on a few topics, focusing mainly on his position in today’s hip-hop scene. While the entire track was extremely well written, the following verse in particular seems to have set off an all too familiar conversation across the hip-hop community:

“To the OGs, I’m thankin’ you now, was watchin’ you when you was pavin’ the ground. I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style. I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” The question we’re left to ponder, of course, is simple. Is he right? Is J. Cole the top talent in the industry in 2019? He’s certainly attempted to lay claim to the title more than a few times over the years, but having just put his fifth platinum album under his belt with 2018’s KOD, the question seems increasingly persistent.

Firstly, it’s worth looking at Cole’s case. As I mentioned, 2018 saw the release of his fifth consecutive platinum album, which is no small feat. Only 10 artists in rap history have more than five platinum albums in a row and, of the ten, only Kanye West could still be considered at his peak. Additionally, though it’s become something of a meme in recent years, J. Cole’s last three albums have accomplished their certifications without a single feature.

On top of sales, he’s shown a remarkable amount of talent over his main run. Each of his verses is well crafted and his flow is slowly becoming iconic. Not only have his albums been impressive, but his non-album singles have been even better. “High for Hours,” is one of the best hip-hop tracks of the decade, “Everybody Dies,” was a perfect response to the rise of the soundcloud/mumble rap in recent years, and “False Prophets,” was a measured and thoughtful response to the outrages actions of Kanye West. It’s in these responses and commentary where we find him at his best. While his albums can often fall short, J. Cole drops better singles than anyone in the game.

He definitely has a strong case and it just keeps getting stronger with tracks like “Middle Child,” but on the other hand, the rap game is in an impressive place right now. When it comes to lyrical ability, artists like Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle are doing fantastic work, and of course, legends like MF Doom, Jay Z, and Killer Mike are still creating some of their best music, but Cole still stands unique among these artists in many respects certainly above them in notoriety. Unfortunately for Jermaine, there is still one artist who exceeds him in nearly every aspect, and that man is Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick’s major label run at Top Dawg covers Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, one of the best breakout albums of all time, To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of, if not the best album in hip-hop history, and DAMN. which was one of the best albums of 2017. Of course the question is subjective, but for my money, Kendrick Lamar has long surpassed any artist in today’s scene and begun jockeying for position among the all-time greats.

Where Cole writes excellent verses and singles, Kendrick puts together full albums of breathtaking scale and sound, each wildly different than the one before. Where Cole’s flow is recognizable and strong, Kendrick plays multiple characters, each with unique flows, tones, and lyrical tendencies, characters which develop across his discography to act as metaphorical stand ins for a multitude of larger ideas. Where Jermaine is beginning to settle into his sonic identity, Kendrick’s instrumentals vary wildly in each record from a masterclass in West Coast boom-bap to a jazz epic helmed by Kamasi Washington to some of the best trap beats in the genre.

Coming into 2019, we’re all enjoying a fantastic era of rap music which will continue to draw comparisons to the golden age of the 1990’s and Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar continues to be one of the best artists in the entire modern music industry with one album after another telling remarkable stories with unparalleled lyricism and he is, without a doubt, the best rapper in the game today.

HEAR MIDDLE CHILD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc

Maggie Rogers Debuts With Creative LP

While her sound could certainly stand some fine tuning in a few key areas, Maggie Rogers has established herself as an exciting force in the modern pop landscape.

Maggie Rogers is a pop/folk singer and producer form Easton, Maryland. She found some fame when she was featured on Parrell Williams’ masterclass from New York University. She presented the track “Alaska,” which would go on to feature on this album, to Williams who was blown away and called it “singular.” Thanks to the viral explosion of the clip, Rogers was courted by several record labels in a way that is somewhat rare today. In the end, she signed with Capitol records and dropped a debut EP, Now That The Light is Fading, in 2017.

Her sound is quite unique, as Pharrell Williams pointed out. Raised in a rural area, Rogers  has strong folk influences and even played more straightforward form of folk music earlier in her life. Today, however, the folk roots remain, but filtered through very genuine dance and synth-pop lenses for an extremely unique sound. Excitement was high for her major label debut, and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint.

Perhaps her most important talent is obvious immediately, that being a special knack for crafting vocal melodies. Particularly in her verses, each line is extremely singable. Tracks like the opener, “Give a Little,” and “Retrograde,” showcase this quite well as I found myself humming the verses well after my first few listens and enjoying choruses even more.

Additionally, her lyricism is very impressive, and it may be where her folk sensibilities shine the brightest. Much of her writing is very visual and often draws on gimmicks while turning them on their head for interesting nuances. Tracks like “The Knife,” and the closer, “Overnight,” showcase her writing exceptionally well, but the album as a whole benefits from her consistency in tone and aesthetic while crafting unique lyrics for each track.

Above all, Heard It In A Past Life is made infinitely better thanks to Rogers’ fantastic production abilities, particularly in terms of designing beats. Tracks like “Say It,” and “On + Off,” have obvious hip-hop influences, especially in their drums. On the other hand, tracks like the aforementioned “Alaska,” and “Burning,” have more natural pallets and utilize harmonies extremely well to build very unique and yet accessible songs.

On the other hand, her mixing abilities are a bit more questionable. While harmonies are extremely tight and well mixed, plenty of tracks seem to bury the vocals quite a bit, and the tracks overall could do with some brightening up. Some of this is a bit understandable as a strong focus is meant to be placed on the admittedly exceptional beats, but this synth-pop sound still draws a listener’s ears to the lead vocal and burying it just comes off as frustrating all too often.

Additionally, her voice itself is something of a mixed bag. While she gives incredible, powerhouse performances on tracks like “Fallingwater,” and the closer, “Back In My Body,” she falls short in two key ways on other cuts. Firstly, she simply doesn’t have the voice to command the more traditional, top 40 sound of a track like “Light On.” A more pervasive problem, however, is her strange pronunciation on long vowels and seeming refusal to open her mouth on a few tracks, the most egregious of which is “Past Life.”

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Heard It In A Past Life. Maggie Rogers has meticulously built an extremely distinct and exciting major label debut. Her production skills along with her more traditional folk background have fused in a way that has me extremely excited for the future.

While her sound could certainly stand some fine tuning in a few key areas, Maggie Rogers has established herself as an exciting force in the modern pop landscape.

6/10

HEAR HEARD IT IN A PAST LIFE: https://open.spotify.com/album/5AHWNPo3gllDmixgAoFru4

Future’s Newest Album is a Slog With Little Reward

Future’s clear desire to grow artistically has bottomed out in trap music’s lack of depth and his own lack of ingenuity to leave us an album of nothing but style over substance.

Future is an Atlanta based rapper/producer. He was extremely influential in the commercial success of trap music, with his 2012 debut Pluto and 2014’s Honest going gold, establishing Future as a top player in the rap world. This was confirmed in 2015 with his solo LP DS2 going double platinum while What a Time to Be Alive, his collaboration with Drake, went platinum as well. Since 2015, he’s released three more records, each of which reached number one and sold over a million copies.

Future’s sound is extremely controversial as he is often credited as a precursor to mumble rap. His heavy use of autotune, bass-centric beats, and constant use of triplet based flows are all imitated so often in the modern rap scene that his influence simply can’t be ignored. That being said, he’s also criticized quite often for meaningless lyrics, repetitive tracks, and an inability to evolve with the genre. On recent releases, Future has adopted the nickname of “Hndrxx,” a moniker which seems to be aimed at rebranding toward a more artistic vision. Unfortunately, those releases also showed very little growth from the sound he came up on. Now, early in 2019, Future treats us to an hour long seventh LP entitled WIZRD.

In the interest of fairness, let’s start with the good, scarce as it may be. The production, which I will complain about later, was at least quite smooth and competent with a few shining moments. “Promise U That,” features an interesting chorus of voices which, in stereo, surround the listener for a nice effect. And tracks like “Servin Killa Kam,” and “First Off,” use glossy, bass-heavy beats that fit the tone of the record well. Tracks like “Call the Coroner,” and “F&N,” also feature fun intros and transitions.

Additionally, the lack of a true chorus on tracks like the opener, “Never Stop,” make Future’s admittedly repetitive flow sound quite a bit more intense. Unfortunately, we’re now left to turn to the issues on this album and they are plentiful.

First and foremost, Future is one of the least dynamic rappers in the game today. Whether the track is intense and upbeat like “Jumpin’ on a Jet,” and “Goin Dummi,” or more melodic like “Ain’t Comin Back,” and “Crushed Up,” his flow is virtually identical, despite the fact that it somehow doesn’t work with either sound. The abusive use of autotune gives his voice a tinny quality that makes his weak flows even more unbearable and leaves me wondering how he ever reached this level of popularity.

Lyrically, the record is about as uninteresting as one would expect. While tracks like “Rocket Ship,” and “Temptation,” are packed to the brim with noticeably cringe-worthy lines, it’s tracks like “Stick to the Models” and “Face Shot,” that are perhaps more frustrating as not a single word is memorable or interesting. Everything is just thrown away and could’ve been written in five minutes.

Above all this, though, the album has a single fatal flaw which simply can’t be overlooked. Namely, every single beat sounds identical to the one before and after it. Tracks like “Overdose,” “Krazy but True,” and the closer, “Tricks on Me,” feel like nothing more than wallpaper because there isn’t a single moment where a track sounds unique or interesting. It’s so repetitive that the rather weak breakdown on “Baptiize,” feels like a much needed release. Even the features on “Unicorn Purp,” are buried under the lack of variety, which is made worse by the push given to the bass and snares so that any changes that are made feel slight and unimportant.

In the end, WIZRD will likely find major success, as have Future’s earlier endeavors, but it seems to be yet another indicting piece of evidence that trap music has passed its prime.

Future’s clear desire to grow artistically has bottomed out in trap music’s lack of depth and his own lack of ingenuity to leave us an album of nothing but style over substance.

2/10

HEAR WIZRD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3LpIwZdzFwc10psLingT8x

CLASSIC REVIEW: In the Wee Small Hours

Before Nirvana was selling out clubs all over the country or Michael Jackson was moonwalking at the Super Bowl, before Beatlemania swept the hearts of swooning young girls or Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips were deemed to sexual for television, before all this, Frank Sinatra captured the hearts of teens all over the country with piercing blue eyes and the smoothest baritone they’d ever heard. He was an absolute rock star, the first of his kind, but when the 1950’s rolled around, Sinatra was in quite a slump.

His recent records hadn’t found the same success they once had and the traditional pop formula, that of releasing collections of fun singles aimed at capturing the juke box market, seemed to be turning on him. He was on the verge of falling to the background behind younger, more exciting acts. Additionally, he was in the midst of a very public divorce from Ava Gardner, his second wife and a cultural legend in her own right. In short, Frank was at his lowest point, both professionally and personally.

In response, like the icon he was, Sinatra hit the studio along with arranger Nelson Riddle for his ninth studio LP, In The Wee Small Hours. What we were given was a vulnerable, soul-baring project that set Sinatra on course to be one of the most successful artists of all time, virtually invented the concept album, and forged the path for popular music to a respected art form.

The album is most notable for a few classic Sinatra tracks. Namely, the opener “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Both of these tracks feature emotionally compelling performances from the man himself, along with lyrics that speak of heartbreak and loss.

Another very important key to this album’s success is the instrumentation. Riddle’s arrangements are warm and dynamic in a way that is well ahead of his time. The dreamy simplicity of tracks like “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “Ill Wind,” is simply gorgeous. On the other hand, when the orchestra gets a chance to be powerful and bombastic tracks like “Last Night When We Were Young,” or the closer, “This Love of Mine,” they are there emphatically.

Of course, the album is nothing without the leading man, and Sinatra turns in one of the best performances of his career. He’s sweet and tender on tracks like, “Deep in a Dream,” and “Glad To Be Happy.” He’s cold and distant on “Mood Indigo,” and “I’ll Be Around.” He’s almost playful on tracks like “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

Sinatra runs the gamut of human emotion on this record, and he’s at his best on the album’s highlight, “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Here, he bares his heart for listeners in a way that simply hadn’t ever been done before. It’s said that Sinatra broke down in tears after recording this song, and it’s a believable story because every second of his performance is simply breathtaking. He boldly pours out everything that was wrong with his life in one track, and perhaps it was this honesty that lead to the album’s overwhelming after-effect.

In the Wee Small Hours was one of the first non-classical albums to be released on the more respected 12” vinyl format as apposed to the traditional format of two 10” records which was used for pop music at the time. In one album, Frank Sinatra forged the modern album into existence, creating a collection of thematically linked tracks in contrast to earlier pop albums, which were just a group of successful singles sent to jukeboxes. Additionally, the album set off a resurgence for Sinatra which would set him up as one of the most respected vocalists that ever lived. 

Frank Sinatra is an icon like we’d never seen before and likely never will again and he would’ve never become who he was without In the Wee Small Hours.

HEAR IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS: https://open.spotify.com/album/3GmwKB1tgPZgXeRJZSm9WX