Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 100 Songs of 2014

This list contains singles and non-singles. My own choices for the Top 20 Singles of 2014 have been integrated into this post.

  1. "Chandelier" by Sia (1000 Forms of Fear, RCA / Monkey Puzzle)
  2. "Two Weeks" by FKA twigs (LP1, Young Turks)
  3. "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX (The New Classic, Def Jam)
  4. "Problem" by Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea (My Everything, Republic)
  5. "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift (1989, Big Machine)
  6. "West Coast" by Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence, Interscope)
  7. "Carolina" by Kimbra (The Golden Echo, Warner Bros.)
  8. "Heavy Metal & Reflective" by Azealia Banks (Broke with Expensive Taste, Prospect Park)
  9. "Habits (Stay High)" by Tove Lo (Queen of the Clouds, Island)
  10. "Bridges" by Broods (Evergreen, Capitol)
  11. "Ghost" by Ella Henderson (Chapter One, Syco / Columbia)
  12. "Silent Partner" by La Roux (Trouble in Paradise, Interscope / Cherrytree)
  13. "Style" by Taylor Swift (1989, Big Machine)
  14. "Hideaway" by Kiesza (Sound of a Woman, Lokal Legend)
  15. "Break Free" by Ariana Grande (My Everything, Republic)
  16. "Cruel World" by Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence, Interscope)
  17. "Hunger of the Pine" by alt-J (This is All Yours, Atlantic)
  18. "Up We Go" by Lights (Little Machines, Warner Bros.)
  19. "Sky Full of Stars" by Coldplay (Ghost Stories, Atlantic)
  20. "Beggin for Thread" by Banks (Goddess, Harvest)
  21. "Pendulum" by FKA twigs (LP1, Young Turks)
  22. "Say Something" by A Great Big World feat. Christina Aguilera (Is Anybody Out There?, Epic)
  23. "Bed of Lies" by Nicki Minaj feat. Skylar Grey (The Pinkprint, Republic / Cash Money)
  24. "Heroes (we could be)" by Alesso feat. Tove Lo (TBA, Def Jam)
  25. "Hard Out Here" by Lily Allen (Sheezus, Warner Bros. / Regal)
  26. "Pray to God" by Calvin Harris feat. Haim (Motion, Columbia)
  27. "Uptown Funk!" by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars (Uptown Special, Sony)
  28. "Black Widow" by Iggy Azalea feat. Rita Ora (The New Classic, Def Jam)
  29. "The Driver" by Bastille (VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III), Virgin)
  30. "Teen Heat" by Kimbra (The Golden Echo, Warner Bros.)
  31. "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor (Title, Epic)
  32. "Yellow Flicker Beat" by Lorde (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One OST, Republic)
  33. "Happy Little Pill" by Troye Sivan (TRXYE, EMI Australia)
  34. "Girls Chase Boys" by Ingrid Michaelson (Lights Out, Cabin 24)
  35. "Outside" by Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding (Motion, Columbia)
  36. "Brain" by Banks (Goddess, Harvest)
  37. "Mother & Father" by Broods (Evergreen, Capitol)
  38. "Magic" by Coldplay (Ghost Stories, Atlantic)
  39. "Night Changes" by One Direction (Four, Syco / Columbia)
  40. "Oil & Water" by Lights (Little Machines, Warner Bros.)
  41. "Empire" by Shakira (Shakira, RCA)
  42. "bad_news" by Bastille (VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III), Virgin)
  43. "Let Go For Tonight" by Foxes (Glorious, Sign of the Times / Sony UK)
  44. "Uptight Downtown" by La Roux (Trouble in Paradise, Interscope / Cherrytree)
  45. "Take Ü There" by Jack Ü feat. Kiesza (TBA, OWSLA / Mad Decent)
  46. "Bang Bang" by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj (Sweet Talker, Republic)
  47. "Scream My Name" by Tove Lo (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One OST, Republic)
  48. "Boom Clap" by Charli XCX (Sucker, Atlantic / Neon Gold)
  49. "Blame" by Calvin Harris feat. John Newman (Motion, Columbia)
  50. "Beating Heart" by Ellie Goulding (Divergent OST, Interscope)
  51. "Left Hand Free" by alt-J (This is All Yours, Atlantic)
  52. "Stolen Dance" by Milky Chance (Sadnecessary, Lichtdicht)
  53. "Fall in Love" by Phantogram (Voices, Republic)
  54. "My Song 5" by Haim feat. A$AP Rocky (Days Are Gone, Columbia)
  55. "Coming of Age" by Foster the People (Supermodel, Columbia)
  56. "Ain't it Fun" by Paramore (Paramore, Fueled by Ramen)
  57. "Go" by Grimes feat. Blood Diamonds (TBA, 4AD)
  58. "Old Money" by Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence, Interscope)
  59. "Eye of the Needle" by Sia (1000 Forms of Fear, RCA / Monkey Puzzle)
  60. "Pulses" by Karmin (Pulses, Epic)
  61. "Sledgehammer" by Fifth Harmony (Reflection, Epic / Syco)
  62. "Chasing Time" by Azealia Banks (Broke With Expensive Taste, Prospect Park)
  63. "The Heart Wants What It Wants" by Selena Gomez (For You, Hollywood)
  64. "Stay With Me" by Sam Smith (In the Lonely Hour, Capitol)
  65. "Jealous" by Nick Jonas (Nick Jonas, Island)
  66. "Stockholm Syndrome" by One Direction (Four, Syco / Columbia)
  67. "Young Blood" by Bea Miller (Young Blood EP, Hollywood)
  68. "Far Side of the Moon" by Tinashe (Aquarius, RCA)
  69. "***Flawless" by Beyoncé feat. Nicki Minaj (Beyoncé: Platinum Edition, Columbia / Parkwood)
  70. "First Love" by Jennifer Lopez (A.K.A., Capitol)
  71. "Shatter Me" by Lindsey Sterling feat. Lzzy Hale (Shatter Me, Lindseystomp)
  72. "Shower" by Becky G (TBA, Kemosabe)
  73. "Digital Witness" by St. Vincent (St. Vincent, Republic / Loma Vista)
  74. "Riptide" by Vance Joy (Dream Your Life Away, Atlantic)
  75. "Bang My Head" by David Guetta feat. Sia (Listen, What a Music / Atlantic)
  76. "You Should Know Where I'm Coming From" by Banks (Goddess, Harvest)
  77. "Wildest Dreams" by Taylor Swift (1989, Big Machine)
  78. "Human" by Christina Perri (Head or Heart, Atlantic)
  79. "Overdose" by Little Daylight (Hello Memory, Capitol)
  80. "Latch" by Disclosure feat. Sam Smith (Settle, Interscope / Cherrytree)
  81. "Jerk Ribs" by Kelis (Food, Ninja Tune)
  82. "Dare (La La La)" by Shakira (Shakira, RCA)
  83. "Glory Days" by Betty Who (Take Me When You Go, RCA)
  84. "Baby Don't Lie" by Gwen Stefani (TBA, Interscope)
  85. "Best Friend" by Foster the People (Supermodel, Columbia)
  86. "Title" by Meghan Trainor (Title, Epic)
  87. "Rather Be" by Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne (New Eyes, Atlantic)
  88. "Cool Kids" by Echosmith (Talking Dreams, Warner Bros.)
  89. "Talking to Ghosts" by Foxes (Glorious, Sign of the Times / Sony UK)
  90. "Muscle Memory" by Lights (Little Machines, Warner Bros.)
  91. "Sirens" by Cher Lloyd (Sorry I'm Late, Epic)
  92. "Burnin' Up" by Jessie J feat. 2 Chainz (Sweet Talker, Republic)
  93. "7/11" by Beyoncé (Beyoncé: Platinum Edition, Columbia / Parkwood)
  94. "One Night Town" by Ingrid Michaelson feat. Mat Kearney (Lights Out, Cabin 24)
  95. "BO$$" by Fifth Harmony (Reflection, Epic / Syco)
  96. "Anaconda" by Nicki Minaj (The Pinkprint, Republic / Cash Money)
  97. "Break the Rules" by Charli XCX (Sucker, Atlantic / Neon Gold)
  98. "Love Me Harder" by Ariana Grande & The Weeknd (My Everything, Republic)
  99. "2 On" by Tinashe feat. ScHoolboy Q (Aquarius, RCA)
  100. "Fun" by Troye Sivan (TRXYE, EMI Australia)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Top 20 Singles of 2014


1. "Chandelier" - Sia

With a voice exuding the force of a fired cannonball and unnatural pop music writing capabilities, Sia Furler was bound for a massive radio hit eventually. Earlier this year, she unleashed "Chandelier" and watched as the song climbed the Billboard Hot 100 and its twisted music video racked up over 360,000,000 views to date. The track masks haunted memories of alcoholism and depression with a heavy Greg Kurstin production and a chorus that would be great to sing along with... if the notes weren't so extraordinary far into the vocal stratosphere.


2. "Two Weeks" - FKA twigs

Say hello to FKA twigs, this year's sexiest singer-songwriter. She preceded this year's LP1 by capturing everyone's attention with "Two Weeks," a lusty track oozing with desire and clouded in a drug-induced haze. Deep ad-libs and heavy beats layer underneath twigs' fragile soprano voice as it turns into an ethereal whisper across the track. She has her eye fixated on a man and will stop at nothing to get him in between her sheets: from "Pull out the incisor, give me two weeks, you won't recognize her / Mouth open, you're high" to "My thighs are apart for when you're ready to breathe in / Suck me up, I'm healin' for the shit you're dealin'." 


3. "Fancy" - Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX

Last year, any mention of Iggy Azalea would have resulted in a response of "Iggy who? Who is that?" This year, on the other hand? A mention of Iggy Azalea will garner a happy response of "Who dat? Who dat? I-G-G-Y." With one booming synth line, a Clueless-inspired video, and a bratty Charli XCX chorus in tow, Iggy Azalea went from "no money, no family, sixteen in the middle of Miami" to one "Fancy" megastar. We all spent the summer memorizing all of Azalea's verses, and we'll remember them for a lifetime with glistening memories of the summer of 2014.


4. "Problem" - Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea

Not only has it been the year of Iggy Azalea and the gluteus maximus, but also the breakthrough year for Ariana Grande. After making an average hit on pop culture with her debut album last year, she came back with a heavy-hitting pop spin. For her initial invasion of the Billboard Hot 100, she packed a punch with "Problem," a track that allows her to showcase her upper register over a heavy bass and horn track. To make things even better, Grande brought Iggy-Iggy-too-biggie in for a killer rap verse to further prove how much she doesn't need that ex-boyfriend. 


5. "Shake It Off" - Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has turned a new page in her discography textbook as she turns her aim from country to the core of the pop music jugular. Max Martin helped propel her into her newfound battle ground as if she was a longtime staple of the genre with "Shake it Off," an ode that kindly tells her haters to seethe as she takes over the music industry once again. After some spiraling choruses, "'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play / And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate / Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake / Shake it off, shake it off," we also get a "Hollaback Girl"-esque breakdown! To put the icing on the cake, the music video for the song is undeniably fun, as Swift tries (and fails) to master twerking, ballet, ribbon-dancing, cheer-leading, and more.


6. "West Coast" - Lana Del Rey

After her tour of Europe in support of Born To Die and Paradise, and dropped her miniature movie, Tropico, Lana Del Rey went mysteriously mute. She suddenly peaked her head back up in April to drop "West Coast," the lead single to this year's Ultraviolence. The song marks a departure from the lush, pop landscapes of her debut album to a rough-edged alternative rock vibe inspired heavily by her time with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who produced most of Ultraviolence. The song doesn't follow a normal pattern, as it shifts down in tempo during its chorus as Del Rey's multiple noticeable vocal lines sing, "I can see my baby swingin' / His Parliament's on fire and his hands are up / On the balcony and I'm singing / Ooh, baby, ooh, baby, I'm in love."


7. "Heavy Metal & Reflective" - Azealia Banks

2014 is the year that Azealia Banks should have been having in 2013, on a bigger scale. However, she managed to wiggle out of a death-grip contract with Universal Music Group and triumph, starting with "Heavy Metal & Reflective." What's not to love about it? We get Banks rapping in full force over heavy, glitched synths, a beat that could bring back the dead, and a music video filled with big dogs and loud motorcycles. She emphasizes her seriousness by spitting out her verses in a purposely low-pitched and intimidating accent, setting it apart from many of the other tracks on her Broke With Expensive Taste album. 


8. "Habits (Stay High)" - Tove Lo

Between a extended play, debut album, and her feature on Alesso's "Heroes (we could be)," Swedish artist Tove Lo has had quite a good year. Her breakthrough track, "Habits (Stay High)," has skyrocketed her to new heights as she sings about living her life in a drug-induced haze after a break-up. While not ideal, the message this song spreads is devastating, but that melody line really makes the listener forget about any lyrical meaning. Lo's voice is quality and her songwriting skills are definitely not sub-par; she knows how to make a worthwhile pop song, which could easily make her a worthwhile pop star.


9. "Ghost" - Ella Henderson

While she has already been a huge success in the United Kingdom, the United States was only introduced to Ella Henderson as 2014 was coming to a close. "Ghost," her Ryan Tedder-assisted debut single, proves that Henderson could easy play with the big dogs of the industry. With the vocal warmth and strength of a well-trained reincarnate of Christina Aguilera and the writing credits on-par with many pop artists, I've already fallen in love with Henderson before her debut album has even dropped here (Chapter One will hit American shelves on January 13, 2015). 


10. "Hideaway" - Kiesza

Kiesza has been a leading force this year in the revitalization of '80s and '90s house, and it all started with the release of "Hideaway." With a unique red hairdo, an overemphasized vocal technique, a strong beat, and killer dance moves, Kiesza managed to execute one of the best dance tracks of the year. I think it is also worth mentioning that the music video was shot in just two takes and that Kiesza had a broken rib while doing all of those dance moves; pretty impressive, eh?



11. "Break Free" - Ariana Grande feat. Zedd

After packing a heavy punch on "Problem," Ariana Grande followed-up with another hit in collaboration with electronic dance producer Zedd, titled "Break Free." While some of the lyrics remain ridiculous ("I only wanna die alive, never by the hands of a broken heart," "Like a deadly fever, yeah, babe, on the highway to hell, yeah"), the vocals and production remain the true gleaming stars here. The extended edit of the song in particular concretes Zedd's skills behind the soundboards, while Grande's voice easily fits in the electronic dance genre just as well as other genres she has done previously.


12. "Hunger of the Pine" - alt-J

alt-J's sophomore album, This is All Yours, was surprisingly a downgrade from their exemplary debut, as the band managed to crank out four quality songs form the set and turned to an indie static for the rest. Luckily, their best songs from the album have been released as singles, including the Miley Cyrus-fueled "Hunger of the Pine." The song commences with one single beat pattern and builds Joe Newman's wobbly vocals, horns, drum machines, and Cyrus' echoing "I'm a female rebel" vocal sample on top of it. The band's "Left Hand Free" and "Every Other Freckle" were also strong candidates for this countdown, but "Hunger" was ultimately the strongest song.


13. "Up We Go" - Lights

In the dog days of summer, Lights dropped the song that we all needed: a bubbly, warm synthpop anthem and the announcement of her third studio album. The single, "Up We Go," marks Lights' departure from dark dubstep infusions in favor of light synthpop. The song's uplifting mood effortlessly transfers to the listen as Lights' shouts, "Everyone here is ready to go / It's been a hard year with nothing to show / From down this road, it's only on we go, on we go" over a sparkling synthpop production.


14. "A Sky Full of Stars" - Coldplay

Holy mother of experimentation from the tag team of veteran alt-rock band Coldplay and electronic dance artist Avicii. While 2011's Mylo Xyloto was the furthest Coldplay ever drifted from their home in pop-rock, it was never expected of them to go full-on EDM, but the layers of twinkling synths and driving pace welcome Chris Martin's vocals with open arms. Much like notable dabbles in EDM from Florence Welch, Ariana Grande, and John Newman, Coldplay's quick stunt with dance music was both unexpected and high-quality.


15. "Beggin for Thread" - Banks

Of all of her singles, "Beggin for Thread" is arguably Banks' most radio-friendly track to date with its vulnerable verses and explosive choruses. The song was picked up by SiriusXM's Alt Nation station and it still brings me joy to hear it on the radio. Her lowest croons barrel through the dark production as she threatens, "My words can come out as a pistol and I'm no good at aiming, but I can aim it at you." 


16. "All About That Bass" - Meghan Trainor

Yes, many people find it annoying. Yes, it was overplayed for a few months. Yes, I still love it. "All About That Bass" quickly made Meghan Trainor a household name when it exploded on the charts this summer, introducing us to a new generation of doo-wop and pop. While overly-sensitive Facebook users have gotten into heated discussions over the meaning of the song, most can agree that it is a harmless, fun song promoting a higher self-esteem.



17. "Yellow Flicker Beat" - Lorde

Lorde and producer Joel Little deliver her most explosive chorus yet on this track. While many of her choruses on Pure Heroine are subtle, yet effective, blooms in sound, "Yellow Flicker Beat" explodes with emotion with each chorus with a forest of synths, beats, and vocal harmonies. Her position as the sole curator of the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One allowed Lorde to spill her influence all over the set, and "Yellow Flicker Beat" is the pièce de résistance.



18. "Happy Little Pill" - Troye Sivan

The YouTube community has had its fair share of musical stardom. This year, Troye Sivan jumped from his spot as a YouTube personality to add a music career to his resume. The product? "Happy Little Pill" and the TRXYE extended play. Sivan perfectly encompassing the struggles of today's youth and the fascination with drugs and alcohol as he floats through the song with his smooth tenor range. This is a different side to Troye Sivan that we don't normally see in his YouTube vlogs and videos, but it's definitely a likable façade.


19. "Girls Chase Boys" - Ingrid Michaelson

She may be on her sixth album cycle, but Ingrid Michaelson is now getting more recognition than she ever has before. "Girls Chase Boys" has been a bug in the ear of contemporary pop all year, with its universal message of love for all genders and sexual orientations causing its viral outbreak. A cool melody line and "oh, oh, oh" flutters in its chorus make "Girls Chase Boys" one of the cutest pop songs of the year.



20. "Outside" - Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding

After the success of "I Need Your Love," the dream team of Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding has reunited for this year's "Outside," another successful outing for the duo. This new track opens with a sound that is quite similar to the Harris' handiwork on ex-girlfriend Rita Ora's "I Will Never Let You Down," but later expands to a booming electronic-dance track that screams influences from earlier tracks such as "Sweet Nothing." Meanwhile, Goulding delivers a great product as she spits out, "There’s a power in what you do / Now, every other day I’ll be watching you / Show you what it feels like, now I’m on the outside / We did everything right, now I’m on the outside."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top 10 Albums of 2014


BANKS // GODDESS

Jillian Banks was simmering last year with her breakthrough track "Waiting Game" and subsequent London EP, and her pan finally boiled over this year with the release of the massive debut album, Goddess. Her voice transforms as she tackles each track, from a low, smokey croon to a lightly-treading songbird. A melting pot of influences ooze over her vocal delivery and musical style, from the late Aaliyah to Lana Del Rey with a dark electronic twist. It's hard to even choose a highlighted handful of tracks because the album is consistently loaded with exemplary pieces. As Banks insinuates in the title track of this album, this Goddess is a force to be reckoned with.


FKA TWIGS // LP1

Pure seduction meets hazy R&B under the control of former music video dancer FKA twigs. She dropped two extended plays prior to this full debut album, but twigs pulls out all of the stops for LP1. Her fragile vocals soar over some strange beats, deep synths, and echoing ad-libs as she sings of sex, love, and corruption. In some tracks, we find twigs heartbroken and stabbed in the back by an ex-lover, while in others, she lusts after her next desire and at one point pleads, "I'll do everything to make it better, babe / I'll do anything." With an album as strong as LP1, it'll be quite a surprise what happens on (presumably) LP2.


LANA DEL REY // ULTRAVIOLENCE

Tragic songwriting and lush landscapes are Lana Del Rey's forte, and she only changed a few variables in that equation for Ultraviolence, her follow-up to her major-label debut album, Born to Die. However, this time around, she paired up with The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach to add a grittier edge to her subtle cinematic boom. She's not as timid this time around to utilize her upper-register as a stunning force ("Shades of Cool," "Money Power Glory"), rather than the cutesy squeals she used strategically on Born to Die tracks like "Off to the Races." Del Rey doesn't forget the low, smokey notes and heartbreaking lyrical handiwork that made her famous either; one listen to the title track proves this standing alone.


AZEALIA BANKS // BROKE WITH EXPENSIVE TASTE

Who knew the next person to utilize a Beyoncé-style release would be Harlem-native Azealia Banks with her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste? The album may have sat on record executives' desks for over two years before she broke free as an independent artist, but its utilization of timeless influences renders it a gleaming set, even by this year's standards. Using house music as her sturdy base, Banks splashes salsa, electronic dance, and pop effects in all of the right places and orchestrates a luxurious landscape to rap and sing over. She warps her voice constantly on the album, from a quality club singer on "Chasing Time" to no-nonsense rapper on "Heavy Metal & Reflective," but still conveys talent with each and every shift.


LIGHTS // LITTLE MACHINES

Many people say that parenthood brings forth a newfound happiness in first-time mothers. Need proof? Look at Lights and her bubbling synthpop luminosity on her third studio album, Little Machines. The album came to us after the birth of Lights' first child with husband Beau Bokan and, judging by the cuts off of this set, she couldn't be happier. While Lights experimented with heavy, chunky dubstep sounds on Siberia, her musical direction has resolved into a lighter, warmer note on Little Machines. Her voice still broke through the dark sea of synths on her last album, but her instrumental tastes on this new suite of tracks complement her voice in a new way. 


TAYLOR SWIFT // 1989

Who knew that Taylor Swift would make a better pop artist than a country artist? 1989 blasted Taylor Swift directly to the forefront of pop culture and she was more than prepared for chart domination by stuffing her musical arsenal with collaborations from Max Martin, Jack Antonoff, Ryan Tedder, and Imogen Heap. Lyrically, she has transformed before our eyes from an obsessive, heartbroken teenager to a romantic storyteller than only hints at past relationships to complete the story she is trying to tell. The album is the most commercially-successful set to be released this year after selling over one million copies in its first week, allowing Swift to surpass her closest competitors to the top spot with ease, and it has the quality to justify that success.


KIMBRA // THE GOLDEN ECHO

For her sophomore album, The Golden Echo, Grammy Award-winning artist Kimbra acknowledges her secluded recording sessions and experimentation behind the soundboards. Luckily, she knew exactly what she was doing. The Golden Echo resonates from beginning to end with combinations of strange sounds that fall perfectly into place as Kimbra radiates her vocal power over her chaotic orchestra. While her debut effort, Vows, wavered between synthpop and a fusion of pop and R&B, The Golden Echo consistently remains genre-less in a summery haze of funky beats, organic instrumental usage, and well-executed climaxes. 


SIA // 1000 FORMS OF FEAR

Her face might not have been present in this album's packaging and promotional meetings, but her voice is definitely recognizable. With one creepy music video starring a child dancer in a blonde bob, unprecedented powerhouse vocals, and lyrics dripping with emotion, Sia has ironically gotten more attention than ever before while begging not to be noticed at all. Even when it is layered over with the average pop production tactics on 1000 Forms of Fear, Sia's voice alone can convey more than enough emotion to force a listener to give her their complete and undivided attention. From beginning to end, 1000 Forms of Fear displays both the dynamic vocal power and unrivaled songwriting skills of Sia.


LA ROUX // TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Years after their debut album dropped, La Roux finally made a reappearance this summer with the 1980s-tinged Trouble in Paradise. The duo dissolved to a solo effort by Elly Jackson, and she managed to steer her sound in a new direction. While La Roux's self-titled debut was filled with darker synths and haunting melody lines, Trouble in Paradise throws listeners back to the 1980s; imagine Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" blended with synthpop and a quality vocalist on the lead. While the album ends on a massive misstep of a track titled "The Feeling," the other eight tracks that made the cut are sultry synthpop jams. For all of the Trouble in Paradise weighing Elly Jackson down, she sure did come back with a kick.


ARIANA GRANDE // MY EVERYTHING

Originally earning a three-star review, Ariana Grande's My Everything seemed like an average pop album upon an initial listen. However, four months after its release, Grande's sophomore album has been able to withstand multiple replays and retain its fresh, fun qualities. This album's longevity was able to push it into the top ten of this year's best albums, just as other albums' lack of longevity pushed them out of the top ten line-up. My Everything is four singles strong now and Grande shows no signs of stopping as she rolls into the new year with her first arena tour in support of the album. If she keeps up this breakneck improvement pace and maintains her voice without driving it to prematurely age and crack (see: Mariah Carey), she could easily be in the business for a very long time.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Pinkprint | Nicki Minaj


★★★☆☆

This summer was definitely an Iggy season, but female rap veteran Nicki Minaj has tried to regain control over the fall and spring of this year. After throwing on countless bizarre wigs and quickly pulling a stunt as a RedOne-fueled pop act ("Starships," "Pound The Alarm"), Minaj decided to regroup and restart at square one: the core rap and R&B. She debuted an au naturel appearance earlier this year with "Pills n Potions," the lead cut from The Pinkprint that fell flat of commercial expectations. Even after huge hits with pop vocal sirens Jessie J and Ariana Grande on "Bang Bang" and the outrageous, Sir Mix-a-Lot-sampling "Anaconda," she still managed to upkeep the natural hairdo and only put on a few faux Lady Gaga outfits.

Her image reinvention may have seemed solely external, but she sure did prove us all wrong there. Minaj greets listeners on the album's opener at her most intimate and genuine yet: "All Things Go" delivers a heavy R&B beat with a sprawling rap about the death of her cousin and her strained family ties after her success as a recording artist. It also reveals that Minaj lost a child (it is not specified whether it was via miscarriage or abortion) sixteen years ago. Other tracks, such as the Mike WiLL Made-It track "I Lied" and the aforementioned "Pills n Potions," just find Minaj in a clearly vulnerable state. R&B isn't just used to convey a string of sob stories, though. While "Anaconda" oozes the crazy '90s hip-hop sounds of the song it samples, it remains an outlier against modern, yet stale, productions tactics on tracks like "Trini Dem Girls" and "Four Door Aventador."

Despite the R&B tracks holding this album up and the multiple hints that she was done toying with pop anthem production, she invited alleged rapist Dr. Luke back in on multiple production credits and handed vocal credits to new friends Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, and Skylar Grey. Queen Bey's presence is quite minimal on "Feeling Myself" compared to Grande's appearance on the Katy Perry-penned "Get on Your Knees" and Grey's understated chorus in "Bed of Lies," but just having Beyoncé's name appear in the credits is quite an accomplishment. Minaj also embraces the pop ballad format in the album's finale, "Grand Piano," and a rough synthpop feel on "The Night is Young" (a lot of Dr. Luke's influence can be heard on the latter track specifically).

Nicki Minaj does a sufficient job at finding her own path in this forest of 16 tracks. Her nearest competitors each went their own ways. With Azealia Banks leaning towards heavy house and Iggy Azalea catering to a combination of pop and trap audiences, Minaj slid right back to home plate sonically as a rap artist. She may veer a little off-course in terms of cohesion (still looking at you, Sir Mix-a-Lot booty-bouncing re-work), but she has a consistent vision for the album overall. Sadly, while she may have left her personal fingerprint smudges all over these tracks, the album eventually become one big smudge of R&B beats and Minaj's signature rap accent; nothing really separates some of these songs from one another. Yet, for leaving the genre that gave her the most success and going back to her roots, I give Nicki Minaj some credit.

The Pinkprint is out now under Cash Money Records. An exclusive version can be found at Target department stores.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sucker | Charli XCX


★★★☆☆

Those who asked why English singer-songwriter Charli XCX was not already a mainstream megastar in 2013 must be very happy with her career path this year. After repeatedly discrediting her attachment to last year's "I Love It," the party anthem she penned and gave away to Swedish duo Icona Pop, Charli XCX embraced her hit collaboration with Iggy Azalea on "Fancy" and her own cutesy "Boom Clap" from the soundtrack of The Fault in Our Stars. The singles peaked at numbers one and eight, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 over the summer. Her surge in popularity came at exactly the right time, as she spent the past months gearing up for the release of the sophomore major-label album, Sucker.

On her last album, True Romance, Charli tied the melodrama of high school heartbreak and electrifying synthpop with promising, but not outstanding, results. Her newfound taste of true mainstream success has added an edge to her personality as she transitions to a bratty wannabe-delinquent, which in turn creates a sonic direction that encases rock undertones and heavy guitars in her established gritty synthpop sound. From shouts of "Fuck you, sucker!" in the title track to the proclamation of "I don't want to go to school, I just want to break the rules" in the album's second single, Charli aims to become the creator of the next immature teen anthem à la Alice Cooper's "School's Out." Elsewhere, she still sounds like a typical moody tyke as she thinks that she could die happily after "going hard with all of my friends" in "Die Tonight" and brings proud smirks of "I hate your friends and your family, too, so breaking up was easy to do" in "Breaking Up."

She may have potentially reversed her musical age in some ways, but influences of her first tastes of fame are even apparent from new song titles: "Famous" and "London Queen" automatically come to mind. For "Famous," Charli paired up with mega-producer Greg Kurstin (see: Lily Allen's Sheezus and Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear) to craft a killer pop-rock hybrid about crashing parties and (already fulfilled) dreams of being a superstar, while the latter is a '80s rock dream come true for XCX as she shouts "I never thought I'd be living in the USA / Doing things the American way / Oi, oi, oi." Unsurprisingly, Charli's hit love-gushing pop track "Boom Clap" is an awkward outlier on the rough-edged Sucker, but the light-sounding "Caught in the Middle" sits at second place in the race for the most unfitting song award. The latter track hugs the sound of True Romance and could easily be tailored to radio airplay needs.

Fortunately for Charli, her nearest young contemporaries have left ample room for her to experiment with her sound without stepping on any toes. In comparison to the works of others in her age demographic, this album is filled to the brim with grimy, rough, guitar-filled tracks that will make Sky Ferreira green with envy, but utilizes bratty lyrical handiwork that will make Lorde cringe. It's a niche that suits her well now, but the immature antics and teenage state of mind aren't likely to hold her over forever; so far, keeping that formula has only worked for Avril Lavigne. From last year to this year, Charli XCX has gone from a melodramatic poet to a young punk-rock rebel, which seems a bit extreme. We already knew that the album would be punk-inspired, but we had no idea that the attitude of her new rocker role models would impact her personality, and her sound, so heavily.

Sucker will be released on December 15, 2014 under Asylum Records and Atlantic Records. The album can be streamed in full on iTunes Radio First Play now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III) | Bastille


★★★★☆

The past few years have been exciting for the members of English alternative rock band Bastille. After releasing their debut album and a subsequent release, the band gained popularity both in the United States and the United Kingdom with popular cuts like "Pompeii" and "Of The Night." Bastille went on to nab the BRIT Award for Best Breakthrough Act this year, as well as nominations for Best New Artist at the 2014 American Music Awards and 2015 Grammy Awards. While Bad Blood and All This Bad Blood are the band's only formal studio releases, most Bastille fans know that the quartet have a running series of mixtapes, tagged Other People's Heartache. (Some tracks from these mixtapes were slid into the extra disc of All This Bad Blood.) After releasing the first two mixtapes for free digitally, Bastille has decided to take a new approach by releasing the third installment of the mixtape series digitally and physically at a small price. VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III) is a set of nine tracks, all made in collaboration with other artists, that still screams of the band's originality.

After a fragile, string-heavy introduction track featuring The Gemma Sharples Quartet, we are thrown into Bastille's experimental playground. While the band's debut album and subsequent re-release are filled with their signature sonic niche in alternative rock, their mixtapes have traditionally been places for the band to toy around with a wide array of sounds. This time around, we get a mixture of a few reworks of tracks that have already been formally released and some new material. "bad_news," which premiered as a B-side from the Oblivion EP earlier this year, receives new duet vocals from recording artist and producer MNEK, and elements of All That Bad Blood's "Skulls" have been pushed into a trio acoustic rendition titled "Remains." The stripped-back feeling of "Remains" suits the lyrical content before the track expands with strings and featured vocals from British band Skunk Anansie. 

Fans will get a few completely new tracks in the mix, as well. The band keeps the sound close to their alternative rock home on "The Driver," which is led by a lonely guitar in its verses until Smith screams out, "Big boys don't cry, they don't ask why," and the track spirals into a climax. However, the true beauty of VS. appears in Bastille's highly-experimental handicrafts. From the heavy beats and subtle synth lines integrated into "Bite Down" to the aggressive grinding bass line of "Weapon," the band shows a liking to effective electronic influences. Perhaps the farthest Bastille gets from home base sonically is with Tyde and Rationale on "Axe to Grind," which thrives on its layers of synth and fitful beats, or on the club-ready "Torn Apart." These two light club tracks in particular concrete the need for a Bastille and Disclosure collaboration in the near future.

Bastille has consistently produced quality tunes since their conception a few years ago in forms of both studio albums and mixtapes, and the third piece of the Other People's Heartache puzzle is no exception. While it is clear that this set is meant to be a mixtape rather than a solid full-length follow-up to Bad Blood, Bastille still brings quality to the forefront. The band has hinted at electronic and R&B influences being present on their next studio album and if this mixtape is any clue to how that album will sound, the band's sophomore full-length could have a lot of potential. While most casual listeners have not heard of most of the acts featured on VS., they all blend well with the band without overpowering them. To be short, this heartache may belong to others, but Bastille sure takes it on as their own.

VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III) will be released December 9, 2014 under Virgin Records.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Playlist: December 2014


"Do They Know It's Christmas?" (2014)
Band Aid 30

In honor of the Christmas holiday, the thirtieth anniversary of the original Band Aid group, and to help fund the efforts in the fight against this year's Ebola outbreak, some of the United Kingdom's biggest vocalists banded together to record a new rendition of "Do They Know It's Christmas." The group ranges from industry veterans like Sinéad O'Connor, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Bono, and Seal to biggest rising stars of this decade such as Rita Ora, Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Bastille, and One Direction. While this new version of the song has been slammed for changed lyrics to reference the Ebola panic, I happen to think it's a touching song for younger generations to connect with thanks to the young, fresh faces in the recording studio. It'll definitely be on my Christmas playlist this year, as well as many years to come.



"Santa Tell Me"
Ariana Grande

Another Christmas song! Ariana Grande has had a massive year with hits like "Problem," "Break Free," and "Love Me Harder" from her sophomore album My Everything, and now she has decided to try and win over the Christmas holiday as well. She released the low-key Christmas Kisses EP last year with little attention, but now with a bit more love from Top 40 radio and music lovers everywhere, Grande dropped "Santa Tell Me" last month. While most people prematurely judged that the track would be Grande's way to live-up to the "next Mariah Carey" title, I knew that she would deliver with a fresh track. Going back to the R&B ways of Yours Truly, "Santa Tell Me" steers away from Grande's recent pop streak and ties in sleigh bells with a modern beat. It's a novelty song that will gladly be added to my personal holiday line-up.


"Sledgehammer"
Fifth Harmony

Fresh girl-group Fifth Harmony is finally back with another single from their anticipated debut album, Reflection (due out January 27). The group unleashed "BO$$" this summer to counteract their established "young and innocent" image, a sassy R&B track that is half-rapped and half-sang. Their newest track, "Sledgehammer," dropped last month and carries an irresistible pop sound. While many criticized "BO$$" for being too simplistic and overly-arrogant, "Sledgehammer" is an undeniable earworm begging for impromptu dance sessions. The track was penned by Meghan Trainor, who has seen her own career take off with "All About That Bass" and "Lips are Movin'," but the ladies of Fifth Harmony take on the song with originality and sass. Fifth Harmony is now new and improved, and the wait for their album is slowly killing me.



"The Heart Wants What It Wants"
Selena Gomez

I have already taken on a review of Selena Gomez's greatest hits package For You, but never highlighted last month's release of "The Heart Wants What It Wants." Gomez dropped the song by surprise with even more surprising lyrical content: her heartbreak over her infamous relationship with Justin Bieber stains this track with tears as she sings, "There's a million reasons why I should give you up / But the heart wants what it wants." The track introduces Gomez to a light R&B sound that mixes well to her already-established pop vibes. If her heartbreak wasn't transmitted well enough through her lyrics, the video amps up the emotion as Gomez sobs through a monologue about the Biebs.



"Bite Down"
Bastille vs. Haim


Earlier in the playlist, we found Coldplay and Bastille in the same recording for "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in Band Aid 30. Now, another dream team collaboration has been worked out: Bastille and alt-rock sisters of Haim. The two bands united for Bastille's upcoming mixtape, VS. (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III), which is due out December 9. "Bite Down" is definitely a departure from the groups' respective sounds, but it is far from a disastrous affair. Bastille's Dan Smith is at the forefront of this track vocally, but the Haim trio pipes in behind his lead vocals with great results. The talents of both groups have blended perfectly to please the ears of all music fans.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

For You | Selena Gomez


★★★☆☆

At only twenty-two years old and only one solo album under her name, Selena Gomez seems a tad too young to already be producing a greatest hits compilation, but that is exactly what the "Come & Get It" singer has done. Containing songs from both her fresh solo career and material made in collaboration with Selena Gomez & The Scene, For You is a fifteen-track set that marks the end of the road for Gomez's contract with Hollywood Records. It is rumored that this album was purposely rushed for release in order for a new contract to be penned between Gomez and Universal Music Group's Interscope Records. If true, this was a very wise choice for the behind-the-scenes workings of Gomez's musical career while remaining a seemingly foolish situation to general listeners.

The news of the album's release came out of left field, paired with the release of the single "The Heart Wants What It Wants." The single, which targets Gomez's rocky relationship with Canadian artist Justin Bieber, debuted early this month alongside an emotional video that is still no competition to the misty-eyed Gomez performing the song in an intimate setting at this year's American Music Awards. Besides "Heart Wants," listeners get a few other tracks that are new to the album, which is otherwise filled with hits like "Who Says" and "Love You Like a Love Song." Included on For You is a remastered edit of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez's tropical "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" with newly-recorded duet vocals from Selena Gomez, who was named after the late Latin singer. The track was previously recorded for inclusion on Quintanilla-Pérez's posthumous album, Enamorada de Ti. Also on lighthearted notes, "Do It" channels Fifth Harmony and Cher Lloyd with a heavy pop instrumental and bratty, auto-tuned vocals and "My Dilemma 2.0" is a small re-work of the track of the same name from When the Sun Goes Down

The new tracks on this album are sufficient and "The Heart Wants What It Wants" is arguably one of the most heartfelt and impressive tracks from Gomez to date. Elsewhere, the 'greatest hits' line-up is on-par with what should be on the album, from the mega-hit "Come & Get It" from Gomez's solo debut to songs like "Naturally" and "Round & Round" that helped her build a career with the Scene. While it still seems too early for a compilation package from Selena Gomez, the reasoning behind the release is undeniably wise. To place importance on this album's timing and meaning, a quote from writer T.S. Eliot has been printed in the album's acknowledgements: "For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a new beginning. What we call the beginning is often the end." Could she be referring to a new voice next year or will this new beginning actually be the end of her musical career for now? We'll soon see.

For You is out now under Hollywood Records.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Listen | David Guetta


★★★☆☆

November has been a great month for fans of the ever-changing genre of electronic dance music, as the beginning of the month welcomed Calvin Harris' Motion and the end of the month has brought us a new studio album from French DJ David Guetta. Aptly titled Listen, the new album brings listeners fourteen new tracks, while the deluxe cut offers four extra tracks, including two with singer-songwriter Skylar Grey. With names like Nicki Minaj and Ryan Tedder as listed collaborators, this album should seem like a good purchase even without listening to any samples, but one Listen to the set may say otherwise. Guetta has been in the industry for over a decade and is now on his sixth album cycle, but it looks as if the forty-seven year old Guetta just can't keep up with the new kids on the block.

With Listen, Guetta has the thrown listeners multiple curveballs, starting with the release of a hazy, western-fused electronic rework of Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" with vocalist Skylar Grey. While the United States was gypped out of "Shot Me Down," the Wild West still slides into the lead single from Listen, "Lovers on the Sun." Guetta took a risk by placing unknown vocalist Sam Martin on both "Lovers on the Sun" and his second single, "Dangerous," and it seems to have backfired on him in the United States. While both singles have done very well elsewhere, Guetta is driving himself back into the ground in the States. Sadly, "Dangerous" is also lacking any sonic signature of David Guetta's electronic roots. When thinking of electronic dance musicians, many listeners nod back to well-crafted electronic synths and booming bass; this isn't the case for "Dangerous," with its piano-based introduction, alternating synth patterns, and natural string outro. As the track blossoms with sexy '80s influences, it becomes more infectious, but there isn't a true climax to look forward to as the track plays.

As a DJ who has aimed for widespread popularity and notoriety, especially with Nothing But the Beat, David Guetta requested vocal assistance from a few notable names of the year for Listen. He managed to reel in the handiwork of the multi-faceted Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic), one-hit wonder outfits Magic! and Nico & Vinz, and industry-heavyweight John Legend, but also looked towards currently-underground artists like Bebe Rexha and Elliphant. American listeners may remember names like Emeli Sandé and The Script, who each experienced a small boost of popularity stateside due to "Next to Me" and "Breakeven," respectively. Sandé landed a spot on Listen's next single, "What I Did for Love," a track that expands by surprise from a pop ballad to a electropop hit. On the contrary, "Goodbye Friend" with The Script holds true to the traditional electronic dance formula as it erupts into a glittery ecstasy of peppy synths similar to that of Coldplay and Avicii's "Sky Full of Stars." 

Nicki Minaj, who has had her fair share of success this year and previously worked with Guetta on "Turn Me On" and "Where Them Girls At," slides in for vocal credits on "Hey Mama," a carefree, sex-oriented track filled with blaring electronic horns and synths. One other returning collaborator that we can also be glad to see on this track list? Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler. While "Titanium" is able to hold its place as the pinnacle of David Guetta and Sia's work together, both "Bang My Head" and "The Whisperer" from Listen are far from subpar. Listen's equivalent to "Titanium" comes in the form of "Bang My Head," a radio hit waiting to happen featuring an explosive breakdown and a new set of inspiration lyrics from Sia: "You'll find what you're searching for / And you might feel light-headed / You think you're going to hit the floor / Instead you rise above it all / Bang your head against the wall." Meanwhile, thanks to its piano-heavy ballad style, the only indication of Guetta's presence on "The Whisperer" is the vocal production given to Sia's pipes. It would have made more sense for the track to be placed on Sia's own 1000 Forms of Fear with the tag "Sia feat. David Guetta," but that doesn't make it a bad track. In fact, it's still one of the most stand-out tracks on the album thanks to its moving melody line and chorus.

Strangely, Listen is more of a production portfolio for Guetta and less about the electronic dance music that should be his main focus. Will this mark Guetta's transition to a song producer à la Max Martin or will.i.am? There could be a good chance, as one of his feet is now planted in pop production and the other still in electronic dance. His nearest contemporary, Calvin Harris, recently entered the realm of electropop songwriter and producer under his ex-girlfriend Rita Ora but still aimed the focus of his most recent full-length album at the electronic dance jugular. Guetta, on the other hand, has simply gathered a large amount of vocalists to practice production styles under; there are plenty of songs for him to toy with electronic roots, but the album lacks full instrumental tracks to strut electronic handiwork. This is David Guetta's album, but it's a shame we can't hear more of David Guetta on it.

Listen is out now under Atlantic Recordings and Parlophone Records.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reclassified | Iggy Azalea


★★★★☆

Album repacks are nothing new in today's industry, and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea wasted no time to make one final release to affirm her stance as one of the biggest stars of 2014. As she quickly went from rags to riches this year with three massive radio hits under her belt thus far, Azalea clearly began to prepare methods to repeal the "No money, no family, sixteen in the middle of Miami" stance of her debut album. Her solution takes physical form in Reclassified, a twelve track release containing seven of her best cuts from her debut album, The New Classic, as well as five new tracks from a reinvigorated Azalea and her new collaborators.

While The New Classic allowed I-G-G-Y to contrast her success and her roots, the five new tracks included on Reclassified tout Iggy Azalea for all that she is worth. In the opening track of the album, "We in This Bitch," Azalea proclaims, "Now let's reflect where we left on New Classic / I overstepped what was expected, blew past it" to switch viewpoints from one set to the other. A promo single for the repack, "IGGY SZN," concretes Azalea's new lyrical aim: she is the ruling female presence of mainstream rap and wants to keep it that way. With her closest contemporaries releasing albums late in the year (Azealia Banks' Broke with Expensive Taste and Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint), Azalea was left to take control of the female rap game recently: "Everywhere I go they say it’s Iggy season / 'Til I get what I want, baby I ain’t leaving."

Azalea's biggest hits to date, "Fancy" and "Black Widow," are both included on this set, but the winning formulas of both are united for "Beg for It." The track, which combines a similar beat from "Widow" and a bratty Charli XCX-penned hook à la "Fancy," features Danish singer-songwriter MØ, who infamously crashed Azalea's Saturday Night Live performance with faulty lip-syncing. British songbird Ellie Goulding is called in for assistance on "Heavy Crown," in which the two divas claim, "This heavy crown, it comes and goes around / And when it's time, I'll pass it proud / But bitch I got it now." Instrumentally, we see small nods to M.I.A.'s chaotic production meeting trap synths, with Goulding's choruses acting as a slowdown from the robust verses. In a Radio.com interview, Azalea rightfully described the collaboration as a newfound "aggressive" side of Goulding while offering a change of pace for both artists. A new sonic direction is also taken on "Trouble," Azalea's second collaboration with Jennifer Hudson. The duo bows away from trap and electronic influences to pull Azalea into J. Hud's comfortable soul territory.

In all, Reclassified only offers five new tracks, which seems a bit too small by comparison to other repacks. While a small amount of new material would normally deem a repack unjustifiable, the format used for this release is ingenious. By only including select highlights from the original album and then blending some new cuts into the mix, Iggy Azalea and her team may have just Reclassified what an album repack should entail. For those who never purchased the entirety of The New Classic should highly consider checking out its condensed essentials-only companion; anything that lugged the original album down to a three-out-of-five star set has been removed and replaced with tracks that are more worthwhile. Good thing we already put her name in bold, because she's going to be around for longer than just a season.

Reclassified will be released on November 24, 2014 under Virgin EMI Records.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mockingjay - Part One: Official Motion Picture Soundtrack | Various Artists


★★★★☆

Not many people would think that handing a curator position to a teenage girl would be a wise decision, but then again, Lorde (born Ella Yelich-O'Connor) isn't your typical teenager. At only sixteen years old, Lorde had the world in the palm of her hand with her debut single, "Royals," and subsequent release, "Team." After turning seventeen, Lorde was volunteered as tribute to stand as the executive producer and sole curator of the soundtrack to upcoming motion picture, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One. Earlier this month, she turned eighteen and who knows what this next year will bring for our young musical (pure) heroine. Lorde performing in space with Lady Gaga? Lorde as a presidential candidate with running mate Hillary Clinton? Lorde winning the Nobel Peace Prize? The possibilities are endless, but perhaps she will be able sit back and bask in the success of this endeavor instead of illegally running for president or somehow winning a prize that she probably isn't eligible for.

After her haunting rendition of "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" for the movie series' previous soundtrack, it is clear why Lorde was hand-picked to curate this new project. Besides being the leading director of this soundtrack, Lorde contributed "Yellow Flicker Beat" and a cover of Bright Eyes' "Ladder Song" to this album. The former song was released as the lead single to the soundtrack and features elements of Joel Little's traditional drum-heavy production with a surprisingly expansive chorus, while the ladder latter allows Lorde to switch into a light-voiced persona over a minimal instrumental background. The album's opener, "Meltdown," is labeled with a slew of features, including a significant portion from Lorde. This song marks the first that we've heard Lorde over a production that isn't from her faithful sidekick, the aforementioned Joel Little, but it turns out well. Her signature sound already stemmed from hip-hop beats, but adding chunky synths and rapped verses only complement her further.

Some of this year's biggest names were welcomed into the recording of this soundtrack: Charli XCX, Tove Lo, Tinashe, and Ariana Grande, to name the most notable. Charli XCX, who has already received massive attention this year for her feature on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and her own hit, "Boom Clap," is rendered nearly unrecognizable on her contribution to the soundtrack, titled "Kingdom." She replaces the bratty vocal tone with a high-pitched, cutesy approach and implements a piano-led production that eventually flows into her native synthpop territory. Both Tove Lo and Tinashe don't venture far from their own respective genres, either. In her driving track, "Scream My Name," Lo asks, "When I'm dead and gone, will they sing my name? Dead and gone, will they scream my name?" and manages to reference her own radio breakthrough, "Habits (Stay High)," with final murmurs of "oh, oh." Meanwhile, on "The Leap," Tinashe warbles over the seductive R&B beats that filled her debut album, Aquarius. Finally, Ariana Grande, in collaboration with Major Lazer (a.k.a. producer Diplo under an alias), brings "All My Love" to the table, a radio-friendly and club-ready banger with bouncy synths and airy vocals. "All My Love" and Grande and Zedd's "Break Free" go hand-in-hand to solidify the versatility in Grande's voice from genre to genre.

Lorde also made sure to pick out some acts that may seem a bit more obscure to many music fans that listen solely to Top 40 radio. Most notably, three-piece synthpop band, Chvrches, brought their sparkly, bouncy craft to the table with "Dead Air." Just like many cuts from 2013's The Bones of What You Believe, the band manages to contrast deep, dark undertones with glimmering synths and front-woman Lauren Mayberry's light vocals. In the same loosely-categorized echelon as Chvrches, Bat for Lashes (born Natasha Khan) graces the track-list of this soundtrack with a cover of Son Lux's "Plan the Escape." Khan easily flows through the song and echoes in the background with high-pitched wails as the instrumental continually blooms with enchanting combinations of automated drums and synth patterns. The truly-independent artist XOV offers his self-described "dark pop" sound in "Animal," complete with somber synths and electronically-enhanced vocals. Oppositely, the long-standing, Grammy-winning duo, The Chemical Brothers, produced a glitchy anthem featuring hard-hitting instrumental stems and vocals from singer-songwriter Miguel.

The balance between the familiar and the unknown is nearly optimal on this album. While some curators beg to be seen as ultra-indie and others are in the deal to make the franchise a profit, Lorde picked up the best of both worlds. If this soundtrack doesn't convince you that Lorde has a wise ear for musical talent, nothing will; seeing her name on another soundtrack wouldn't be surprising. (Perhaps she will be allowed to create the musical companion to the second half of film adaptation of Mockingjay?) Most importantly for a compilation album, this set is sonically cohesive, for the most part (the Ariana Grande piece almost doesn't fit, but it is such a highlight that I would hate to have seen it axed). While Mockingjay: Part One isn't out just yet, as Lorde sings in "Yellow Flicker Beat," the film marks the "start of how it all ends." At least we know that musically, the franchise is going out with a bang.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One: Official Motion Picture Soundtrack is out now under Republic Records.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Four | One Direction


★★★☆☆

In the late 1990s, boy bands could be found for a dime a dozen. Prominently, the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, and 98° skyrocketed up the charts and left giant footprints in pop culture. Following a boy band drought during the majority of the 2000s, the demand for the teen-heartthrobs was resurrected by five-piece pop-rock group One Direction in 2011. In traditional boy band fashion, the members of One Direction and their record label leaders have been in a race against time to churn out as many albums as possible while the boys are still young, compatible, and most importantly, profitable. Four marks their fourth studio album in four years, but the content on this set allows the group to stray the farthest they've ever been from the definition of a boy band sonically.

This album's era opened with the release of a buzz track, "Fireproof," and the lead single, "Steal My Girl." Both tracks introduce listeners to the band's new exploration into an indie-rock sound that is sent into a tailspin by subtle influences of both '80s and modern pop. The former track is led by a guitar line and carries a pleasant blend of light rock and folk that would make John Mayer proud, while the latter turns the band towards the aforementioned '80s influences with highlighted piano and guitar stems. "Steal My Girl" is perhaps the strongest track on the album, with a unique sound, killer melody line, and the charming lyrical spark that is normally associated with the band. Sultry '80s influences also shine through on "Stockholm Syndrome" as the boys sing, "Baby, look what you've done to me / Baby, you got me tied down / Baby, I'll never leave if you keep holding me this way."

The folk John Mayer-esque sound doesn't go away, either: most of the cuts on Four are led by acoustic guitar stems. However, the expansion on those basic guitars isn't as extreme as I had hoped. Two tracks that definitely could have packed a stronger punch are "Night Changes," a steady track headed for adult contemporary success, and "Fool's Gold," a track that could easily be masked as a ballad from The Script. "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and "No Control" aim for a harder-hitting sound, but sonically come off as re-works of "What Makes You Beautiful" with the boys' shouted choruses layered over a pop-rock spin. The combination of old and new sounds are well-balanced on "Ready To Run," but it gives a very strong nod towards the band's own "Story of My Life." Another happy medium between 'too bland' and 'too boy band' is found on "Spaces." The song carries a subdued instrumental track and allows the vocals of each member to shine.  

The band openly collaborated with multiple notable acts for the material on Four and it is clear that the boys are easily swayed by their influences. English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has collaborated with the band before, but once again was called upon to pen "18." The song's lyrics glimmer of the melodramatic handiwork of Sheeran while the boys succeed in emulating Sheeran's vocal style. (Sheeran has retained his native accent in his professional recordings, while the guys of One Direction normally drop their own, spare the vocals on "18.") A horde of other collaborators were rumored to be working with the band on this album, including indie-rock group The 1975 and rock band Good Charlotte. Both groups clearly helped the effort to nudge One Direction into the world of pop-rock, but with their voices fitting so well in the genre, perhaps this was the type of group One Direction was meant to be all along.

While many bands strategically feature one lead vocalist that could effectively jump to solo stardom if needed, there has never been a clear highlighted member of One Direction. This fact holds true for the material on Four. An equal blend of voices is a good sign for the quintet as a whole, but not as promising for the members individually if the group were ever to disband and solo careers ensued. Four years ago, I would have never guessed that the five singing little tykes that visually seemed to be fresh out of middle school would grow into young men that allowed their music to mature with them. With their influences in tow, the band is slowly yet effectively developing from a traditional boy band into a pop-rock group that fits somewhere on the spectrum between Maroon 5 and The 1975, while also continuing to stay true to the appeal that first skyrocketed them into stardom. 

Four will be released on November 17, 2014 under Columbia Records.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Broke With Expensive Taste | Azealia Banks


★★★★★

September 2012, March 2013, September 2013, March 2014, possibly never: these were all possible release dates associated with the release of Azealia Banks' debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste. Finally, and quite surprisingly, the time has come for the album to grace the presence of Banks' fans. While Banks blacked out her social media websites and has given fans a few subliminal messages via Instagram in the past few days, nobody knew that the album would drop today as a surprise via iTunes until Banks simply tweeted the link to buy the album with the message, "Voila!!!! Here it is... "Broke With Expensive Taste!" Enjoy!" In other words, Azealia Banks was the first artist to pull a Beyoncé-style release since the Queen B herself.

Broke With Expensive Taste has been infamously delayed numerous times after the release of Banks' 1991 extended play and Fantasea mixtape. Banks signed with Universal Music Group's Interscope Records and Polydor Records a few years back, but the labels pushed dates back each and every time the album was near release. After slipping out of her contract and retaining the control over her own material, Banks dropped both "Heavy Metal & Reflective" and "Chasing Time" with no release date in place for her debut album. Now completely liberated from record executives, Banks is back in full force and has released this album independently in cooperation with Prospect Park. However, now that the album is out, was our two year wait just a waste of time? Absolutely not.

Longtime fans and supporters of AB will recognize a handful of the songs featured the album. Among the familiar tunes are Banks' breakthrough, cunnilingus-referencing banger "212," the fan-favorite "BBD," and the original lead single that was dropped by Interscope and Polydor, "Yung Rapunxel." (Luckily, Also in the mix are the aforementioned "Heavy Metal & Reflective," a heavy-hitting glitchy track featuring a deep-voiced rap, and "Chasing Time," an '90s-inspired house track in which Banks sings, "Am I chasing time? / 'Cause I wasted all mine on you / Check my watch, I had the future in my pocket / But I lost it when I gave it to you." Could this be a diss at her previous labels, sent out behind the façade of a tattered relationship? You be the judge.

Like "Chasing Time," many tracks on Broke With Expensive Taste allow Banks to display talents in singing and rapping. While she can still carry a great flow (see: "Heavy Metal & Reflective," "Wallace," "Desperado"), her singing voice was a resource that was left untapped for the majority of her 1991 extended play (spare the chorus of "Liquorice" and small portions in "1991" and "Van Vogue"). In fact, this album opens with the primarily-sang "Idle Delilah," a track full of funky, tropical beats and ad-libs. The tropical vibe flourishes and conquers on the album's pleasant outlier, "Nude Beach a Go-Go," which completely abandons rap and house in order to act as a 2014 re-vamp of the sound that made the Beach Boys profitable in the 1960s.

In other areas, Broke With Expensive Taste is swayed by a mixed bag of inspirations without running too far from home base. The worlds of hip-hop and big-band soul collide on "Gimme a Chance," which toys with blaring horns and record scratches while Banks raps through the latter half in Spanish. The track following it, "Desperado," opens with a some piano chords, a horn, a fast-paced beat, and a fake radio introduction that alludes to the album's delay ("I've been waiting for Azealia Banks") before Banks rips into her verse over a beat that could have been lifted from the musical backdrop of The Jetsons. (Between old boy bands and animated children's shows, Banks channeled the 1960s just as much as she did 1990s house.) Let's also not discount the vocal ad-libs that sound eerily similar to something from a Super Mario Bros. game in "Soda," a track that Banks said is about self-medicating.

If you were a fan of the down-right dirty ways of Azealia Banks, have no fear: the explicit lyric handiwork is back. All sixteen tracks on Broke with Expensive Taste carry explicit content labels on iTunes, and for good reason. In "BBD," we get everything from derogatory slang to lesbian sex references ("Tits out with your wife, n***** / I'm bringing out the dyke in her / XOXO, fine, scissor sister, sixty-nine, whip that"), while in "Wallace," she reminds us that, "The black cherry on her tickle when the breasts undo / You lick the left one, you gotta lick the right one too." When she's not being explicit erotic, Banks is still radiating the confidence we were introduced to on "212." In "Heavy Metal and Reflective," she proclaims, "I'm in every city, they say hello to the head bitch," and in "Ice Princess," she boasts her newfound financial status despite her album's moniker as she raps, "Grown money, ever since a youngin' made my own money / You broke, honey, and they call me Banks 'cause I can loan money." I would hate to hear what the edited cut of this album sounds like, because I'm assuming there are a lot of blank spots for people to fill in on their own.

From the opening beats of "Idle Delilah" to the closing companions of "Miss Amor" and "Miss Camaraderie," Azealia Banks consistently delivers polished products. With over two years of improvements and tweaks, it is only reasonable that Broke With Expensive Taste should be shining with only minimal imperfections. Tropical undertones, heavy house beats, and fresh, natural flows blend together under Banks' direction to create an arsenal of solid bangers. While female rap competitors Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj both have releases scheduled within the next month and have catered to radio-friendly audiences, Azealia Banks has successfully followed the footsteps of M.I.A. down the road less traveled by aiming for club success over radio airplay. To deny this album a perfect rating would just be a brash insult towards Ms. Banks.

Broke With Expensive Taste is out now under a partnership between Azealia Banks and Prospect Park.