Saturday, February 28, 2015

Singles Summary: February 2015


Florence + The Machine // "What Kind of Man"
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Island
★★★★☆

The wait is finally over for new Florence + The Machine material. After teasing their upcoming album (How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, out June 2, 2015) with a brass-filled snippet and cinematic video, Zane Lowe premiered "What Kind of Man" on BBC Radio 1. After a minute-long vocoder-assisted introduction, the song kicks into anthemic, alt-rock overdrive; it adds a grittier edge to the winning format that allowed the songs of Ceremonials to shine.



Ty Dolla $ign feat. Charli XCX and Tinashe // "Drop That Kitty"
TBA, Atlantic
★★★☆☆

The pairing of Charli XCX and Tinashe is strange, but the fact that the two sound great together is even more strange. XCX, whose vocals are usually shouted over a pop track, joins Tinashe, who is right at home on "Drop That Kitty," in this song headlined by rapper Ty Dolla $ign. The true sonic magic happens when the two songstresses join forces: "I know you want it all, I'm giving you a show / You like what I'm doin'? Drop that kitty down low." In terms of production and lyrical content, the song is completely in left field for Charli, but she makes it work. As for Tinashe, "That Kitty" would have fit snug in the track listing of Aquarius.


Zedd feat. Selena Gomez // "I Want You To Know"
TBA, Interscope
★★★★☆

Selena Gomez's heart has finally found what it wants: a record deal with Interscope Record and a club banger with EDM producer Zedd. "I Want You To Know" is Gomez's first track to be released since leaving Hollywood Records, and she comes back with power. While her vocals are drenched in reverb, the song keeps her in an attainable vocal range to give her optimal strength and support. Zedd's sea of electrifying synths wash around her as she proudly declares love (to Zedd, perhaps?): "I want you to know that it’s our time / You and me bleed the same light / I want you to know that I’m all yours / You and me run the same course." 



Kelly Clarkson // "Invincible"
Piece by Piece, RCA
★★★★☆

Kelly Clarkson may be coming up on her own Britney Jean-esque era. "Heartbeat Song," the lead single to her upcoming Piece to Piece album, failed to build steam and sizzled under public radar a month after release, but Clarkson has played a wise card to strike back with: a Sia Furler-penned power ballad. The unstoppable Sia can be heard singing back-up vocals behind Clarkson's melody line. The lyrics are not as profound as those in Sia's personal cuts, but the track still sweeps listeners as Clarkson sings, "Now I am invincible / No, I ain't a scared little girl no more / Yeah, I am invincible / What was I running for?"

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Another Eternity | Purity Ring


★★★★☆

Just under two and a half years ago, the world was introduced to Purity Ring through their debut album, Shrines, which landed on many online year-end lists as one of 2012's best albums. The Canadian electronic project, composed of vocalist Megan James and producer Corin Roddick, recorded and produced all of that debut album from separate locations and were still able to make a quality album; impressive, eh?  The sessions for this new album, Another Eternity, were the first times that the duo were able to meet together in a studio, and the output meets an even higher standard.

As showcased on lead single "Push Pull," the duo has traded out intricate electronic landscapes for an equally-impressive atmospheric style. On Shrines, James's voice was embedded in a pile of well-executed synth runs and samples, but this time around, her vocals ring over the minimalistic, yet captivating, backdrops orchestrated by Roddick. From the percussion-heavy "Heartsigh" to the brooding "Dust Hymn," each track in the set exudes the duo's refined skills proudly with streamlined instrumentation and stronger emphasis on vocal work. Even "Repetition," a track that immerses listeners in a sea of sweeping synthesizers and echoing ad-libs, allows James to come out on top. 

The significance behind many of the duo's lyrics are still indecipherable at first listen, but there are bound to be some extravagant meanings behind the well-versed pieces; it just takes time to crack the metaphoric code. (There are probably a few superficial songs in the blend. Shrines included a song about two siblings killing their sexually-abusive parent and a few love songs, among others, so anything is possible.) If you can't manage to crack the codes, you can at least start learning how to sing the songs backwards (both the melody and the lyrics) like James did for a music video.

Another Eternity peels back some of the murky layers of Purity Ring's product; while Shrines-era Purity Ring most closely resembled the musical styling of their labelmate Grimes, the group is now conveyed as a darker reincarnate of fellow Canadian synthpop artist Lights. Shrines may have given them a cult following via indie blog seals of approval, but the new approach on Another Eternity could blast them to new heights. The album carries a palatable pop formulation, but James and Roddick still emphasize quality; each detail is fine-tuned to emphasize every climax and emotion. The two have not created radio-friendly synthpop by any means, though. Instead, they have mastered quality synthpop production, and lyrically, they have retained their enigmatic tendencies.

Another Eternity will be released on March 3, 2015 through 4AD. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Smoke + Mirrors | Imagine Dragons


★★☆☆☆

After taking the world by storm with a double-platinum debut album, Night Visions, and rapid-fire singles such as "Radioactive," "It's Time," and "Demons," Imagine Dragons has a lot to live up to with their sophomore attempt, Smoke + Mirrors. Despite widespread success, Night Visions was met with mediocre critical reception; the majority of that debut album was composed of songs from past extended plays. This time around, Imagine Dragons offers up thirteen brand new tracks on a standard pressing. With their sophomore attempt, is there finally something to be found beyond the Smoke + Mirrors of Imagine Dragons' alluring rock glaze?

Spoiler alert: Ultimately, the answer to that question is no. 

Imagine Dragons has bundled every possible facet of modern rock music into one compressed package. Without much thought of sonic whiplash, the band freely frolics from genre to genre, including folk, trip-hop, electronic, grungy industrial, and just mainstream rock. At their grittiest, Imagine Dragons finally piques listeners' interest. "Gold" blends rock with some chaotic drum and vocal samples that M.I.A. would normally spit raps over. while "Friction" hits hard with a rough-edged industrial sound. Tracks without heavy electronic tendencies, like "Summer" and "Hopeless Opus," find Imagine Dragons begging to an indie rock band, despite their clear attempts at a second radio takeover. They falter in quality when they fall back on those old radio-ready habits ("I Bet My Life," "Shots").

This set falls victim to the monotony of the group's formulaic compositions, and every tactic was pulled from the production arsenal to camouflage that fact. The dull foundation of Imagine Dragons' music has been painted over by an overzealous hand with a multitude of influences, but like recoloring a wall without primer, it does more harm than good. Wrap Coldplay, OneRepublic, Mumford & Sons, and Of Monsters and Men in a box, sprinkle a little influence from Alex da Kid on top, stick a bow on it, and call it Imagine Dragons. Smoke + Mirrors was Imagine Dragons' chance to prove their potential longevity in the industry, but sadly, the quartet blows more smoke than anything else here. 

Smoke + Mirrors is out now under Interscope Records and KIDinaKORNER Records. An exclusive deluxe edition can be found at Target department stores.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Froot | Marina and the Diamonds


★★★☆☆

"I found what I’d been looking for in myself / Found a life worth living for someone else / Never thought that I could be happy," sings Marina Diamandis in the opening number of her upcoming studio album, Froot. After spending the two years prior disguising herself as blonde American archetype named Electra, she ultimately killed off the character last year. With Froot, Diamandis takes true form once again. While she has traditionally played the role of an internally-conflicted young woman, she proclaims that she is now "Happy," proving her point with multi-colored album packaging and a new obsession with fruit emojis.

The album's title track, which was released as a buzz single before the album's announcement, leads listeners to expect a set of spacey synthpop tunes. In the song, Diamandis shifts her vocal delivery, from a childish, high-pitch tone to a matured, deep belt, over disco-style synth blips. However, "Froot" deceived us; the remainder of the album is encased in a warm pop-rock coating, supported by percussion kits and hazy guitars. Spare "Froot" and a select few other tracks, the synthesizers that so heavily impacted Electra Heart are absent from this album. Expecting another "Primadonna" or "Radioactive" club banger? Look elsewhere. Dr. Luke and Greg Kurstin have been kicked the curb in favor of pop-rock gems like "I'm a Ruin" and "Savages."

Lyrically, Diamadis hasn't lost the charm that listeners fell in love with on The Family Jewels, and she still gleams today. The opening verse of "Blue" could be mistaken for a playful Carly Rae Jepsen song, and lyrically, she retains her cheerful disposition with a bouncy delivery: "Gimme love, gimme dreams / Gimme a good self esteem / Gimme good and pure, what you waiting for? / Gimme everything, all your heart can bring." Of course, this happiness could be a direct result of exhaling any negativity through song; in a track aptly titled "Forget," Diamandis tells listeners, "'Cause I have lived my life in debt / I’ve spent my days in deep regret / Yeah, I’ve been living in the red / But I want to forgive and forget." She also blasts another woman (rumored to be ex-friend Ellie Goulding) in a breezy pop-rock piece titled "Better Than That." Despite the upbeat disguise, she takes aim and fires: "And she’ll network ’til her dreams come true / Even if it means getting into bed with you / Everybody’s friend, does it ring a bell? / I know a little too much but I’ll never tell."

Like Taylor Swift did with her third studio album, Speak Now, Diamandis took it upon herself to write the entirety of Froot solo, rather than run back to her stock of previous big-name co-writers and producers. Furthermore, she co-produced this album with one other producer, David Kosten. Although she utilized a satirical, disingenuous façade on her previous album, she sadly fared far better on Electra Heart than she does on Froot. She can clearly create quality lyrics single-handedly, but bland melodies, faltered vocal delivery, and lackluster climaxes plague many tracks that should have gleamed with perfection. The album is an fair attempt for the circumstances of its production and composition, but this piece of Froot could have been much sweeter.

Froot will be released on March 16, 2015 through Atlantic Records and Neon Gold.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rebel Heart | Madonna


★★★☆☆

Madonna has been in the music industry since the early 1980s, but she's definitely not above the digital problems of the twenty-first century. Portions of her thirteenth album, Rebel Heart, were prompted for digital release late last year after a full album's worth of demos were leaked online. After she claimed to be a victim of "artistic rape," (That's right, kids: A leaked album is almost the same thing as being raped.) she released six of the album's fourteen standard tracks for immediate download on iTunes. She started a total #RebelHeart takeover on Instagram and soon caused controversy by superimposing black wire into photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela to promote her album. Filling the album with track titles like "Illuminati," "Devil Pray," and "Unapologetic Bitch" certainly didn't hurt the gossip mill, either. While Madonna sure knows how to stir the pot of gossip, is there still any substance behind this Rebel Heart?

Madonna is a chameleon in pop music; each album shifts her in a new direction, but she retains a certain level of her own personality with each new turn. One of her most beloved albums, 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor, was drenched in '80s-inspired pop. Her eleventh studio album, Hard Candy, was released in 2008 and was almost entirely produced by R&B production giants Timbaland and The Neptunes (a duo composed of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo). Finally, by the time MDNA dropped in 2012, Madonna kicked other influences to the curb in favor of rehashed synthpop. 

Fast forward to 2015, we now get Madonna featuring Diplo and Avicii as she transitions to clean-cut electronic dance. To much surprise, Madonna doesn't just offer cut-and-dried dance music this time around, either. She and her producers pack the hardest EMD punches on "Iconic," featuring Chance the Rapper and awkward spoken snippets from professional boxer Mike Tyson, and "Bitch I'm Madonna," an ode to herself in which she is ironically out-performed vocally by previous collaborator Nicki Minaj. On "Living for Love," we get gospel-inspired chants and vocal soars over Diplo's production, and elements of "Devil Pray" seem to be lifted straight from a western movie score before sliding into an impressive bass drop. Although it is without a proper bass drop, "Holy Water" also exudes great production handiwork and samples Madonna's own "Vogue."

While Madonna's production choices shine on Rebel Heart, she has regressed lyrically. She has not lost her try-hard attitude that really shined through on MDNA; if anything, her desire to achieve an untouchable, bad-ass status has intensified. After all, Madonna is now accepting of her role as an "Unapologetic Bitch" and isn't afraid to tell everyone how it is. "Holy Water" includes the demand of "Bitch, get off my pole" and blurred (and slightly alarming) exclamations of "Jesus loves my pussy best," while in "Devil Pray," she mindlessly rambles off a bunch of edgy activities: "And we can do drugs / And we can smoke weed / And we can drink whiskey / Yeah we can get high / And we can get stoned / And we can sniff glue / And we can do E / And we can drop acid." In other words, 56-year-old Madonna is not like a regular mom. She's a cool mom.

While Her Madgesty brings some spunky tracks to the table, the whole album doesn't dazzle with excellence. Perhaps instead of churning out ten extra tracks for deluxe and super deluxe pressings of Rebel Heart, Madonna should have weeded out the bland filler tracks on the standard edition like "Body Shop" and "HeartBreakCity." Moreover, she is not bringing anything extraordinarily new to the table; "Hold Tight," for example, is the stepsister to Gwen Stefani's "Baby Don't Lie." Inevitably, previous pieces of Madonna gold cannot be overshadowed by anything post-Confessions, but she's doing her best to extend her shelf-life. Let's all just be ecstatic that there is noticeable improvement from MDNA and enjoy Rebel Heart for what it is: a respectable stab at EDM and grittier synthpop.

Rebel Heart will be released on March 10, 2015 through Interscope Records, Boy Toy, and Live Nation Worldwide. Standard, deluxe, and super deluxe pressings will be available.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack | Various Artists


★★★★☆

Erotic novels are nothing new; soccer moms and bored retirees commonly buy the cheap paperbacks at dollar stores nationwide. However, never has the genre been as popular as it is right now with society's grip on Fifty Shades of Grey. The smutty novel, which dabbles in explicit sadist and masochist themes, was released in 2011 after stemming from fan-fiction stories based on the popular Twilight series. After a growth in popularity, a film and accompanying soundtrack have been promptly prepared for release. The good news? The creators make their money, the hormonal fans get their movie, and we music lovers get a whole set of alluring songs from a variety of artists. Among the featured vocalists are the late Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Sia, Ellie Goulding, the Weeknd, and Beyoncé.

Not only did Beyoncé contribute a remix of "Haunted" from her Grammy-nominated eponymous album, but she also re-recorded 2003's "Crazy in Love." The song takes an unbelievable new form, complete with sultry, vulnerable vocals and an orchestrated overhaul; the elongated "uh, oh, uh, oh, uh, oh, oh no, no" runs and down-tempo take renders the song nearly unrecognizable. The Weeknd, the smooth-voiced R&B songster who recently gained mainstream success with his collaboration with Ariana Grande, is best known for his explicit, hyper-sexual cuts; it's no surprise that he contributed two songs to the soundtrack, too. His first contribution, "Earned It," retains his seductive sound, although it takes his lyrical handiwork down to a romantic hum: "I'm so used to being used / So I love when you call unexpected / 'Cause I hate when the moment's expected / So I'mma care for you, you, you." However, his second track, "Where You Belong," holds true to the downright-dirty standards of both his previous music and the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise: "I'm in control when you give me your body, yeah / I feel our souls burnin' up when I'm inside of you, and I / I'mma leave a mark just to remind you where you belong, baby / Give me your all, scream as loud as you want."

Popular songbirds Ellie Goulding and Sia are no strangers to soundtrack work, and it's nice to see them both here, as well. Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do" was penned by Tove Lo and Max Martin; it was produced by the latter. It melts romantic, passionate, and seductive feelings all into one powerful pop delicacy as Goulding proclaims, "You're the light, you're the night / You're the color of my blood / You're the cure, you're the pain / You're the only thing I want to touch." Meanwhile, Sia, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the soundtrack of last year's Annie reboot, croons over a lush, hopeful ballad titled "Salted Wound." Her hushed voice treads lightly through the song, unlike many of her songs that rely on heavy belts; it's a surprising tactic that is equally as powerful as Sia's other selections. The Eminem-approved vocalist Skylar Grey also bleeds with emotion with her own ballad, "I Know You." Her airy voice floats through the song as she sings, "The shadows of your heart are hanging in the sweet, sweet air / I know you baby / The secrets that you hide control us and it's not fair / I know you baby."

While many younger stars take center stage here, including newcomers Jessie Ware and Laura Welsh, some longtime residents in music industry are featured, too. Annie Lennox, the winner of multiple Brit and Grammy awards in a career spanning over twenty years, opens the set with her own rendition of "I Put A Spell On You." The song sizzles with a sexy R&B tone and Lennox nails it vocally; she may have even outperformed the late Nina Simone. "Beast of Burden" from the Rolling Stones, which was first released in 1978, and Frank Sinatra's 1957 song "Witchcraft" are both thrown onto the soundtrack without much purpose. In terms of cohesion for this booming, sultry soundtrack, neither song fits the bill. They may serve a purpose in a specific movie scene, but they have no business being on this raunchy, synth-filled album.

When stacking this X-rated soundtrack next to some of the audio companions to some of last year's biggest blockbuster movies, it is right on par. The massive artists (Beyoncé, Annie Lennox, Ellie Goulding, The Weeknd, Sia) do not disappoint; they outshine any of the downfalls that the soundtrack does have (see: the awkward Stones and Sinatra inclusions and the random two pieces from the movie's score pinned on the end of the track listing). Some of these tracks are clearly geared towards the film's promised twenty minutes of sex, but there are plenty of heartfelt cuts perfect for the refractory periods. Regardless of being a fan of the movie or novel, most of this soundtrack is fifty shades of greatness.

The Fifty Shades of Grey: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack will be released February 10, 2015 under Republic Records. A deluxe edition will be available exclusively at Target department stores.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

2015 Grammy Awards Predictions (Pop Categories)


Selections that are boldfaced are the ones that will win based on past Grammy snubs and wins, but selections that are underlined are the ones that should win based on quality and commercial performance.

RECORD OF THE YEAR

"Fancy" by Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX (Def Jam)
"Chandelier" by Sia (RCA)
"Stay With Me (Darkchild Version)" by Sam Smith (Capitol)
"Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift (Big Machine)
"All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor (Epic)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Morning Phase by Beck (Capitol)
Beyoncé by Beyoncé (Columbia)
X by Ed Sheeran (Atlantic)
In The Lonely Hour by Sam Smith (Capitol)
Girl by Pharrell Williams (Columbia)

SONG OF THE YEAR

"All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor (Epic)
"Chandelier" by Sia (RCA/Monkey Puzzle)
"Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift (Big Machine)
"Stay With Me (Darkchild Version)" by Sam Smith (Capitol)
"Take Me To Church" by Hozier (Columbia)

BEST NEW ARTIST

Iggy Azalea (Def Jam)
Bastille (Virgin)
Brandy Clark (Slate Creek)
Haim (Columbia)
Sam Smith (Capitol)

BEST POP SOLO PERFORMANCE

"All Of Me (Live)" by John Legend (Columbia)
"Chandelier" by Sia (RCA/Monkey Puzzle)
"Stay With Me (Darkchild Version)" by Sam Smith (Capitol)
"Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift (Big Machine)
"Happy (Live)" by Pharrell Williams (Columbia)

BEST POP DUO/GROUP PERFORMANCE

"Fancy" by Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX (Def Jam)
"A Sky Full Of Stars" by Coldplay (Atlantic/Parlophone)
"Say Something" by A Great Big World featuring Christina Aguilera (Epic)
"Bang Bang" by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj (Republic)
"Dark Horse" by Katy Perry featuring Juicy J (Capitol)

BEST TRADITION POP VOCAL ALBUM

Cheek to Cheek by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga (Columbia/Interscope/Streamline/RPM)
Nostalgia by Annie Lennox (Blue Note)
Night Songs by Barry Manilow (Stiletto)
Sending You A Little Christmas by Johnny Mathis (Columbia)
Partners by Barbra Streisand (with various artists) (Columbia)

BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM

Ghost Stories by Coldplay (Atlantic/Parlophone)
Bangerz by Miley Cyrus (RCA)
My Everything by Ariana Grande (Republic)
Prism by Katy Perry (Capitol)
X by Ed Sheeran (Atlantic)
In The Lonely Hour by Sam Smith (Capitol)

Watch the 57th Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday, February 8, 2015. The awards will be televised live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles starting at 8 p.m. EST. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

No Romeo | Indiana


★★★★☆

One of the United Kingdom's newest artists is 27-year-old artist Lauren Henson, most commonly known under her stage name, Indiana. She joins a growing population of female singers that glaze a pop base with layers of other genres. Lykke Li took the pop formula and drove into an indie pop-rock haze; Sky Ferreira added some grit and grunge; and Lorde pursued a minimalist approach with simple synthesizers and drum machine hits. With her debut album No Romeo, Indiana masks pop with a somber synthesizers and influences from indie pop and alternative rock.

Indiana's formula includes haunting vocals, synthesizers, menacing songwriting, and a faint glimmer of the 1980s. She hopscotches between a one-woman play on the indie rock band Haim and a fragile-voiced reincarnate of Jillian Banks, spare Banks' thick, gloomy synthesizer forests and heavier electronic tendencies. The opening number of this set, "Never Born," commences with murky piles of vocal ad-libs before expanding into an ode to Americana rock à la alt-J's "Left Hand Free." In it, our fiery songstress threatens, "A plague on your existence / Despair with every breath / My fury knows no bounds / My wrath will never rest." The album's final track, titled "Mess Around," is filled with moodier synths and Indiana spends the album's final moments chanting, "Choke on the ashes of my fire." Sandwiched between these two are eleven more tracks, showcasing ranges of genre-bending productions and cultivated songwriting.

Light dance-pop is put into play with "No Romeo," "Heart on Fire," and Indiana's most popular release to date, "Solo Dancing." All three tracks nod to disco and beg to be thrown on the indie-infused soundtrack to a popular summertime teen flick (along the lines of the soundtrack to The Fault in Our Stars, which featured fringe musicians that would be deemed obscure by radio-listening teens). Her mid-tempo ballads also borrow disco-style synths and utilize them to spark a modern indie-pop sound. "Calibrated Love" utilizes electronically-edited vocal techniques to spice things up, while in "Shadow Flash," Indiana's airy vocals pout over an instrumental that would make Joel Little (the go-to producer for acts like Lorde and Broods) proud. "Only The Lonely," however, most closely resembles a mainstream pop ballad, with a blossoming production and light, smooth vocals as Indiana sings, "We are lost like a legion of souls / Only the lonely know / In the shadows the fallen will roam / Only the lonely go."

In everyday life, Indiana is a doe-eyed young mother of two. As a vocalist, her light voice floats through these songs with grace. However, through her lyrics, she poses the wrath of an apocalyptic storm. If her goal was to counteract wrongdoings with verbal revenge, she should consider her mission accomplished. In the process, she also simultaneously created a cohesive and quality product. It's a shame that Indiana has not made larger waves on either side of the pond; she has powerful indie-pop potential.

No Romeo is out now in the United Kingdom under Epic Records and in other European countries under Sony Music Entertainment.