With the knives out and our full panel together for the first time since summer, it's a hell of a fun read for you this month, and we hope you enjoy and encourage you to add your thoughts in the comments, where we will continue the arguments as needed. Oh, as you'll see, several panelists had trouble shutting up about one selection in particular, so forgive the passionate lengthiness where it occurs. As always, there's a good crop of new stuff here you may or may not have heard, so we hope you'll check out anything here you think might interest you. For an extra bit of fun, each panelist has selected one of this month's selections as his or her "Top Pick." What's yours? Enjoy, share and please send your thoughts, whether you think we're right on or full of shit. We're very likely both.
* * * * The Popologist Panel * * * *
- The Pop Messiah - Dean Boudreau is our lone Canadian panelist, which means he's pretty much like us but can't get Spotify and you can't send him iTunes gifts. That doesn't stop him, and his witty but wise blog, from getting it right when it comes to pop music (if not Ke$ha, who is in fact the pop Messiah). (@thepopmessiah)
- Taking Over the Universe - Gaosalad's fabulously enjoyable young blog is another interesting mixture of two interests pop music and drag queendom.(@gaosalad)
- Popledge - Sarah runs one of the hardest-working respectable pop music news blogs around; follow her on Twitter and you can get top-notch critical thought in betwixt posts like "One Direction – full webcam video from their Hasbro chat, plus Niall Horan eats head!" (v.g.) (@popledge)
- Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer noticed that there were almost no pop songs on Pitchfork's Best of the 2000s list, nor most other outlets either; it now exists to question, decipher, explicate and dispense the critical and artistic elements of mainstream pop, down to the nitty gritty details. (@vertigo_shtick)
- SmartPopScott- Our newest panelist Scott Interrante is a music student who grew so tired of the blogging world that he decided to join it. Wanting to counter the satanically emblemed music site's preference for fashion and scene over musical content, he focuses his writing on the music and theory of Pop. His writing can be found at Dear Song In My Head, (@SmartPopScott)
- Techno School - You may know Techno School from contributions on Vertigo Shtick as dance/electronica correspondent. Based in Detroit, Techno School's blog is an interesting look at life in a new city woven into insights on today's EDM and the state of techno. (@itstechnoschool)
- Unapologetically POP! - Minna sends her first panel report from Israel, where missiles have begun flying in recent days, so we hope you join us in hope and prayers for peace and for her safety in particular! Nevertheless, her no-nonsense pop standards and unerring sense of positivity - plus a little booze as necessary - make a welcome return this month. (@unapologeticpop)
NOTE: All the music discussed in this article can be heard by clicking on the album artwork provided; most of the selections are available on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the post or by clicking here. Of course, we also encourage you to patronize those you enjoy by buying their material. (I did). Dates and label info are for US releases.
* * * * Albums of the Month * * * *
Taking Over the Universe: I have never really listened to Brandy before. I know, I know, but being so young and beautiful, I wasn't big into 90s music because, well, I was a kid. The entire album has a slow R&B vibe gets you rocking whether it's your kind of music or not (and it's not exactly mine). The only artist I have to compare this to specifically is Utada's first album, Exodus, which is pretty obscure to anyone that doesn't play a lot of video games. Upon my first listen, none of the songs really stand out to me. They are all enjoyable, but the problem is that they all sound very similar. There isn't a lot of distinction between the tracks. The same electronic drum kit beat on every song coupled with her same soulful extended note-slides make for a lot of "samey" as I call it. The album's strongest point is actually one of it's downfalls as well. The album sounds incredibly dated. It really sounds like radio play in the 90s. This will be considered a nice break from acts like Nicki Minaj for some, while feeling like a step in the wrong direction for others. I guess that's for the listener to decide.
The Pop Messiah: Formerly one of R&B’s most promising young ingénues, Brandy has been tragically underappreciated from a mainstream perspective for some time. One of the most distinct female voices in music today, she has continued to release solid, contemporary urban-pop albums, each carrying their own moments of genius for the last decade. (Both Human and Full Moon are among my favourite albums of all time.) In Two Eleven Brandy pulls away from the more pop sound of her last album and revisits her R&B roots. While she’s often kept her group of collaborators for each project small, she worked with more songwriters and producers on this effort. The result is dynamic yet cohesive and brings both classic and all- new Brandy together in her most mature and sexy album to date. Current singles “Wildest Dreams” and “Put It Down” (featuring music’s favorite douchebag: Chris Brown,) are actually really great single choices. The likelihood of either earning Brandy a pop-crossover hit are slim but it seems like she and the rest of those behind Two Eleven might not have been so concerned with that. As is usually the case, my favourite moments are among the down-tempos; the longing of “Hardly Breathing,” the insecurity in Frank Ocean penned “Scared of Beautiful” and pure seduction in “Paint This House.” Another solid album! *TOP PICK*
Techno School: I'm just gonna say it now: any artist who chooses at this point to collaborate with Chris Brown--Rihanna being exempt for obvious reasons--has lost my respect before I even hear her music. Point blank. Make the right stand, Brandy. You need to show Brown that his actions are 110% inappropriate by refusing to support his music career. Collaborating on a song with him to get more attention for your album: Not Cool.
Okay, now y'all know kinda how I felt when I started listening to Two Eleven. The most ironic thing about this album was that, in almost every song, Brandy comes off as weak, vulnerable, and hopeless. When does she sound her strongest? Her duet with Brown, "Put It Down". Sigh. Not many tracks caught my attention, likely because most of them sounded like the R&B we heard back in Brandy's heyday. Nothing wrong with that, it just doesn't appeal to me personally. "Let Me Go" was a standout with its faintly vintage beat and layers of sound that dropped to silence at strategic moments. The vocals were rounder, bigger than in other songs. "Let Me Go" is the kind of track I'd expect on a Beyoncé album, and I wonder for whom that song was originally written. "Slower" has a strange but delightful beat to it that reminds me of Solange's "Losing You", which is also reviewed this month. Another standout, "Scared of Beautiful", keeps me interested, but at the end of the day I'd rather buy my favorite couple singles on Two Eleven than purchase the entire album. Kudos to Brandy, though, for including an "Intro" AND an "Outro". Looks like that's caught on since we first heard the Intro and Outro on Luke Christopher's EP. I dig it.
Vertigo Shtick: It's hard not to root for Brandy with this album, for me at least, and because this is pop music (on the whole) I argue external factors involving Brandy the public figure can be critically valid as well as the discrete contents of an artistic work, which exists as a product of time and circumstance as much as artistry. 2012 has been as unkind to veteran female performers as it has been champion brown-noser to white men, black men, Canadians, and Rihanna, and frankly it's been upsetting to watch it cock-block once mighty pop superstars from Monica to Alanis Morissette to Gwen Stefani to Mariah Carey to her Madgesty Herself while Clear Channel gleefully puts Chris Brown and Flo Rida on super-double-deca-duper repeat. Granted, some of those legends brought about their own downfall with sub-par releases, which I'm pleased to say Two Eleven is not. It's not going to change the world, but Brandy made a shrewd decision when she opted to bet on traditional yet updated R&B styling rather than trying to assimilate into the dance/electronic-infused sound Usher and Brown have adopted at the expense of individuality, a short-term strategy to be sure. The strategy works to the point that the weakest tracks on the album are those helmed by the usually white-hot Bangladesh, whose characteristically rebellious hip-hop beats are simply a poor fit for Brandy's project. Much more successful are the collaborations with Sean Garrett and Rico Love, who have a better feel for Brandy's particular vocal style and timbre: a deep, husky alto with a sandpaper finish and surprising range when necessary. Second single “Wildest Dreams” best captures the artistic concept of this cannily traditional contemporary R&B album, though the album's highlight (and personal favorite) is the expert, hypnotic “Slower,” the sole track produced by Switch, the non-Diplo half of fiercely progressive electronic duo Major Lazer. It's been a long, hard-fought battle to get this album made, and Brandy and company can be proud of what is both a professional and artistic achievement.
SmartPopScott: 2012 has been a very big year for RnB. Albums from the genre have dominated critical praise (Channel Orange and Kaleidoscope Dream) and huge names in the genre are (possibly) releasing new music (we’re looking at you, D’Angelo. Hurry up). But in finding a resurgence of interest in the genre has left it in an interesting place. It seems to have split three ways. Moving towards Pop, like Usher, Chris Brown, and Justin Bieber, in one stream, towards indie, like Ocean and Miguel, in another, and then a third which remains more traditional, like the comeback release by Monica and R. Kelly’s latest (and sorely underrated) effort.
Brandy’s comeback album follows suit with this third stream. Like her former duet partner, Monica, Brandy feels content leaving RnB where it has always been. Two Eleven is heavy on the ballads, thick chords, and show-off vocals. Which is certainly not something to be dismissed. I’m a huge RnB fan, and, like I was discussing with Dean earlier this week, CrazySexyCool is one of my all time favorite albums. But here on Two Eleven, something just feels flat. Brandy’s voice sounds great and every song is very well crafted and catchy. But in the end, none of it stands out to me, and I think that her work ends up sounding more contrived than it deserves to be. Also, if your album only has one guest, that guest should never be Chris Brown. In fact, even if every track on your album has a guest, Chris Brown doesn’t need to be there. (I’m very much looking forward to his presence on the new Rihanna album. Can we write about that, David? Please??)
Mika - The Origin of Love (Casablanca, October 16)
Popledge: I am hoping Mika has produced something more up my street; I really enjoyed his debut album, songs ‘Relax (Take It Easy)’, ‘Lollipop’ and ‘Big Girls’ still enjoy a high rotation on my iPod. Can we just talk the album cover for a moment, I know he has now ‘come out’ but why have two men come all over the top of his head? Surely just telling people was enough!
First track ‘Origin of Love’ divides me right down the middle, the vocal effects I am not a fan of, his voice doesn’t need those distortion effects placed on it. On the other hand it has epic moments which sound love thousands of monks chanting the song out – two production ‘moments’ but only one of them works for me. I am hoping it sets out the theme of the album though which is ‘love is great.’! Lola is a lovely little track, very quaint, it has a ‘bobbing along’ beat to it complete with hand-clapping moments, simple yet effective pop music. ‘Stardust’ picks up the pace a little, the Benny Benassi track shows off the highest of high notes Mika can hit, it’s a mid-tempo dance affair, I can imagine it being played at Ibiza parties. Not the strongest track on the album though, I don’t think I relate it to Mika as much as the other tracks, it needs a few little tweaks to be better.
I dare anyone to listen to ‘Underwater’ and not think of Adele’s ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ – surely she could sue the composer of Mika’s song! It’s a rip off of the same piano riff and chords! After the first 1.25 of Adele homage the track then moves into ‘Hurts’ territory – it’s an odd track, I wouldn’t say there is anything to not like about it but it just doesn’t ‘click’ with me, again that sprinkling of gold is missing. I would love to know who or what ‘Overrated’ is aimed towards, I can think of a few things and people that are overrated! Namely anyone involved with reality TV or who is ‘famous’ for doing sod all. The track features some club/dance moments and also shows us how low Mika’s voice can go – this man really has such as range. I really liked the production on this track, it built into a nice sounding layered effect of Mika’s voice – I hope he got out his frustrations by singing this one!
‘Kids’ I also really liked, it was a totally change of pace, we’ve gone from ‘happy love’ to Mika facing a situation with a lover who shouts things at him that ‘only kids would say.’ This track really got to me on a emotional level, his vocals just sound so sad and the end of a relationship is always so gut-wrenching, you really get a sense of that feeling through the track…it’s a little reminder that people can be really mean to each other. Boom! We have now done a 180 into ‘Love You When I’m Drunk’ – to me this is the most similar track to his debut album back in 2006, lots of kooky lyrics and almost child-like bears, basically the title tells the story of the tune, every time he sobers up Mika falls out of love with this guy. It’s a humorous moment in the album, and again something most people can relate too – the beer goggle effect!!
This album keeps getting better! Why isn’t ‘Step With Me’ a single already? Such a cute love song – it deserves to be in a Disney movie! It sums up the feelings I want/hope for in love – just so cute – a video with little chirpy birds flying around Mika’s head is in order…oh gosh it’s just so cute…like bathing in warm chocolate with your lover!! Who is the lady singing though it doesn’t say on the album listing! ‘Popular Song’ also features a lovely lady rapper and vocalist, it’s in a similar vein to ‘Step With Me’ – we have really strayed into pop territory now and I love it! I know some people will really dislike this section of Mika’s album but I love it! As I’m listening through this album I understand that Mika has tried to move his music forward with the first half of the LP, this second half is much more ‘old school’ Mika, next track ‘Emily’ is also very poppy and totally reminds me of ‘Big Girl’ from the beats in the track. Yep the second half of this LP is going straight on my iPod!‘Heroes’ is a lovely track which I’m guessing is Mika’s take on young people going off to war? It’s actually a really sad song about blood and the devils in your head. It’s refreshing to hear a modern take on our forces though. Oh yuck ‘Celebrate’ finishes the album? Upon hearing this single I really liked it, then after three listens it bored me…filler pop with no depth..it seems like the sort of song a record company would ‘force’ you to include to plug the album…skip. An album of two halves…both good but the later half is right up my street!! *TOP PICK*
Taking Over the Universe: I. Love. Mika. I also love this album. It is exactly what I was hoping and praying for from him, and he has delivered once again. The thing about Mika the listener understands is this guy is a creative genius, and he rarely takes things too seriously. That's why many of the tracks on the album are lighthearted and fun. Even when he has bad news to tell, he's just so damn cheerful and upbeat when he does it that it rarely affects the mood of the song. This guy could tell you a story about a puppy that died of cancer and you'd still have a smile on your face. He's that good. The standout track of the whole bunch is "Underwater", with "Love You When I'm Drunk" coming in at a close second with it's amazing relatability. I mean everyone has made that beer-goggles mistake before, right? How dare you say I'm an alcoholic.
The Pop Messiah: This will be the first time I have ever listened to a Mika album all the way through. I’ve been hearing great things about “The Origin of Love” but if I’m being honest I was a little bit disappointed that the title track was NOT a glorious cover of the best track from musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Luckily, Mika redeems himself by sampling “Popular” from Broadway’s Wicked on a track by the same name. Overall, this album falls somewhere near (but not quite on) Scissor Sisters territory in the pop spectrum. Mika vocals often sound derivative of harmonic 1970’s acts like The Bee Gees and this brand of soft vocal styling floats nicely between flamboyant dance pop and sweet mid-tempo balladry. Standouts for me are the jovial “Stardust,” previously mentioned “Popular” and “Underwater,” which is this albums “Set Fire to the Rain” (as in an emotionally rich and gorgeous masterpiece.) Overall, “The Origin of Love” is a very nice surprise!
Unapologetically POP!: I was unable to listen to The Origin of Love from start to finish, therefore, my review will be somewhat incomplete. However, what I have heard of the album is polarizing- songs like "Make You Happy" are profoundly irritating, while "Celebrate," "Lola," & "Overrated" are positively phenomenal POP songs. I'm happy to say that Mika is enjoying a good amount of airplay here in Israel, especially "Celebrate," which I hear at many trendy coffee shops. Mika really needs to reconsider which tracks he releases as singles; "Make You Happy" & "The Origin of Love" are as nagging as "Overrated" is light & dancey (if released as a single & properly promoted, "Overrated" would surely sore in hipster neighborhoods like mine). Nevertheless, I have never enjoyed a collection of Mika songs so much, and it is so damn good to hear Klas Ahlund again. The Origin of Love is hit or miss, but it is definitely my favorite Mika album thus far.
Techno School: I didn't know what to expect out of The Origin of Love, and I was delightfully surprised. Granted, MIKA caters to my personal tastes more than some other artists, which helps. The title song, which opens the album, brings it with a bouncy piano introduction, constant references to smoking (the good kind and the better kind), and a full chorus of vocals worthy of an adaptation on Glee. From then on the album was hit or miss, with mostly hits. "Stardust" felt like a last-ditch effort to make an electro-driven pop song, with its echoey vocals, grandiose lyrical theme, and sparkly .....And it seems especially misplaced on an album that has a fantastic techno song on it: "Overrated". I really cannot get over that song. Each chorus is filled with Calvin Harris-esque chimes that are followed by poignant synth melodies. MIKA's exasperated but slow delivery of the vocals over this beat just ties everything together and makes "Overrated" my favorite track of the lot. "Make You Happy", with its distorted autotune and plentiful warm chime tones, makes it another great techno track. There are also tracks to please my folksy side, like the lighthearted "Kids" and the Jason Mraz-y "Step With Me", but they honestly belong on their own album. Oh and can I just mention that the pseudo-cover-with-some-alternate-lyrics thing is IN? Both MIKA (here with "Popular Song") and Labrinth (with "Express Yourself") pulled the same move this month! *TOP PICK*
Vertigo Shtick: If this album had ended halfway through, I probably would have a more positive judgment to share here, and I imagine if I had I would have been in plenty of company from my fellow panelists and critics at large. The music here is fine, often well above average, and occasionally scraping greatness. The electronic production is so dense and lush and immediately satisfying I wish I could relax immersed in it for a half hour or so like a sonic hot tub. Unfortunately it proved a considerable challenge balancing the good of the music with a performer/character who increasingly got under my skin. At the outset I took on a bemused but tolerant stance toward a vocalist who to me was laying it on a little thick, but then maybe it's a European thing. I'd say I'm quite a bit more than three steps from loving Mika, but then the last guy I fell in love with was a bust, so what do I know? Despite all my efforts to overcome this personal distaste, Mika lost me when he and some Eurocamp not-Nicki-Minaj gal started singing Wicked. I mean, this is the guy who wrote “Gang Bang” for Madonna. Eleventh hour track “Emily” is a perfect example of my overall response to The Origin of Love: it sounds great, until I start paying attention to what's going on (personally, I fully support the yelling at him in French strategy). In fact, I probably would have loved this album if it were sung entirely in French (luckily "Emily" exists in its original French as "Elle Me Dit"). By the time the perfectly enjoyable single “Celebrate” rolled around to close things out I fear it was too little, too late for me. But hey, I bought the album at Amazon's Black Friday discount price, and I intend to give it a few more shots at my heart.
SmartPopScott: I was a little bit late to the MIKA party. Back in 2007/8 when "Grace Kelly" and "Love Today" were blowing up here, I was completely uninterested in anything so saccharine. But when I had my pop awakening a few years later, Life in Cartoon Motion was one of the albums that blew me away. Because I wasn’t into him when he was popular, I tend to forget that he was ever a household name. I tend to associate him with other Power-Pop acts like Jellyfish, Drake Bell, or Paul Steel. So when his name was included on this month’s panel, I was pleasantly surprised. The four against three rhythmic displacement of "Make You Happy" is not really something I anticipate encountering on albums on this panel, but it’s certainly welcome!
Not abandoning his sweetness and camp entirely, MIKA does sound more serious on this album, and with that comes an even closer attention to craft and melody. The songs are beautifully arranged and musically interesting while playing even more towards a mainstream dance-pop sound. I was especially keen on his interpolation of Steven Schwartz’s Popular, though I’m skeptical about if this is the right time in his career to have a “you made fun of me in high school but now I’m popular!” song. And "Emily," which was adapted into English from his French song "Elle Me Dit" is very great. I love his choice to translate based on the sound, rather than the meaning. ("Elle Me Dit" means “She Tells Me”, but instead, he makes it “Emily” which retains a similar syllable and sound structure). When "Celebrate" was initially released as a single, I was a little bit underwhelmed. I’m a huge Pharrell fan and was hoping the song had the potential to be a huge hit. It doesn’t, but placed as the last track of the album, it feels perfect. Every time I get to it, I get an overwhelming sense of completion and satisfaction. It sums up the album perfectly.
* * * * EPs * * * *
Icona Pop - Iconic (Record Company TEN, October 16)
Popledge: Sadly only one track on this EP is available in my territory of the UK via Spotify : ( sad faces all around. What can I say, generally if you tell me a pop star or duo are from Sweden then I’m a happy little bunny. This track ‘Manners’ seems to concur with my general theory – great modern sounding pop song, catchy shouty chorus and a funky little electronic beat to boot.
Taking Over the Universe: Holy God where has this been all my life? The opening song is the best thing I've heard ever. Apparently I am the only person on the planet to not have heard "I Love It" until now, but the notion of angry girls doing angry things is such a pleasure to my ears. The entire EP is a full energy movement, that kept me dancing from start to finish. The back tracks of each of the songs sound much truer to what one would call "techno" than what we've been hearing lately which beckons on a earlier time in pop music, where such a thing actually existed. This group may be the newest "artist to watch" for me, as they have made an incredibly catchy EP with "Iconic", but only time will tell if they can keep up the hits.
The Pop Messiah: While I’m not convinced that this EP entirely lives up to its name (nor that it was contextually intended to,) “Iconic” is full of defiant, youthful energy that takes cues from the worlds of electronic, pop and even punk music. Keeping this body of work EP-length allows for the near-absence of filler tracks, save for “Good for You,” which doesn’t suck, it’s just underwhelming-ly ordinary among the others. The album opener: “I Love It” features Charli XCX (featured on last month’s panel) and in combination with “Ready for the Weekend” and closer “Sun Goes Down” are the EP’s strongest tracks. This one will definitely get some repeat spins from me! Good stuff.
Unapologetically POP!: Icona Pop is an act worth the hype, but Iconic is really quite a dizzying trip. I have never really liked "I Love It," and parts of "Ready for the Weekend" sound essentially like Example meets Passion Pit on crack-- frenetic & far-reaching with minimum effect. The beef of the EP lies in its core: "Good For You," "Top Rated," & the truly unbeatable "Manners." The closing track is a bit of a snore (throwing in St. Lucia & The Knocks to titillate the Neon Gold bandwagon) but none of the songs really miss the mark. Icona Pop have a ton of potential to be a massive girl power POP success-- perhaps even more than Charli XCX-- but the pair could benefit from practicing a little self-restraint. Iconic is an above-average EP by a promising POP duo, but they still haven't topped their best release: "Manners."
Vertigo Shtick: I liked this EP, though it didn't especially stir up passionate responses either way from me beyond enjoying the sound in my ears in the moment. This is my first exposure to this buzzed-about duo, and it looks like they're sort of from the dense sound field, melodramatic-leaning, post-Goldfrapp female electronica acts for a Skrillex world like Charli XCX (who guest stars on the first and best track of the set, “I Love It”) and Katy B., and while the style isn't entirely my cup of tea, it's not offensive to my taste at all and which I tend to quite enjoy at its best. “Manners” and “Top Rated” I liked more than the rest; the ladies are but the latest to fall victim to the “weekend song” curse I'm convinced Kid Sister cast when Ke$ha beat her to the white girl rap spotlight, to at least ensure that “Look Out Weekend” would always be the fairest in the land. I went off topic, didn't I?
SmartPopScott: Swedish synthpop girl duo Icona Pop are perhaps best known as featured artists on a Chiddy Bang song. But this new EP, and the single ‘I Love It’, featuring Charli XCX, prove that they’re very deserving of being taken seriously. That is, for having fun, of course. The songs are pure pop. They’re loud and obnoxious and completely infectious. But this is not the kind of Pop that gets too popular here in America. Barring Ke$ha, we tend to stay away from this kind of unadulterated fun, which puts Icona Pop more in the indie scene like Charlie XCX or Marina and the Diamonds, and they’re probably better for it. "Ready For The Weekend," not unlike The Harold Song" or "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," beautifully shows the dark side of partying too much. After the intro, the song slowly unravels itself, beginning with intense, intricate production, and falling apart into a heavily manipulated vocal, stretching out “Weekend” and shifting its pitch down and around. This is another group I can’t wait to hear a full length from!
* * * * Music Videos * * * *
Meg Myers - "Curbstomp" ([GOOD]CROOK, October 9)
Popledge: Warning! If you still sleep with your childhood cuddly toy then don’t watch this video! The basic storyline of the video is Meg having a lovely tea party with an assortment of cuddly toys before they turn evil, beat her up and eventually ‘drown’ her in a sea of cotton! I liked the concept of the video – perhaps meant to illustrate the loss of innocence but I did grow a little bored of it towards the end. With a bigger budget it could have been improved. Meg is definitely one to watch though and an artist that we support on popledge regularly.
Taking Over the Universe: Let me start by saying anyone who gives their music away for free is a saint. Anyway, being my first introduction to Meg, I had no idea what to expect, but her light and airy Kerli-like vocals drew me instantly. Actually, the entire video is like a lighter version of something Kerli would do -- like her with more white. Instead of it raining men it's raining teddy bea-- wait one of them just smacked her in the head? What is going on here? This video went from being creative to fucking insane. I can't help but imagine the production crew had the most amazing time filming this video, tossing all sorts of stuffed objects at her face. By the breakdown, she's all bloodied up by being pelted by all these fuzzy things (full of bricks, by the looks of it) and lets loose completely vocally, making the song even more intense. I am quite aware that the video has to do with loss of innocence, but you can't deny how incredibly hilarious it is.
The Pop Messiah: When I initially pressed play on “CURBSTOMP,” and saw a grown-ass woman chilling at the all-white tea party I immediately thought I wasn’t going to love it but found myself enjoying its universal concepts about growing up and the loss of innocence. The viewer can choose to view it as either humorous or dramatic; given the conflicting imagery contained within one may be hard pressed not to see both. At some point in all of our lives, we finally open our eyes and see that the world (like Myers tea party) is more than black and white. Once we start to explore the colors, we face many trials and tribulations and life can leave your bruised and bloody, but despite the pain you have to wonder if life would be as fulfilling without all those beautiful colors. While “CURBSTOMP” explores a simple and relatable theme it’s clever in the way it does so, using a common source of comfort and symbol of the innocence it chooses to destroy/explore in a myriad of fuzzy (and apparently deadly) stuffed toys. Interesting video and a great song! I may have to check out more of Meg Myers!
Techno School: This is very, very Pleasantville, isn't it? Like, all is fine and dandy until colors start to appear, and all Hell breaks loose. There's definitely some strong conceptual work at play here. Meg Myers doesn't realize that she is a sinner/liar/addicted to the fire until she is staring into the eyes of her first colorful stuffed animal (The teddy bear was blue. Real blue!). And then it becomes clear that this is a video about addiction. Addiction to drugs or addiction to abusive relationships? I can't tell. Regardless, the happy woman meets a colorful character--new man, new drug, same thing--and then finds herself so wrapped up in this, er, thing, that she can't tear herself away from it, and its influence builds on her and destroys her and eventually envelops her in a flood of plush toys! Wait, I think I lost track of my thought there...oh, right, violence and drugs. The brief foray into serious imagery, with Myers' face barraged and in front of a simple black background, her eyes swinging around madly, her cried of "No more!" is one of the more meaningful scenes to me. It feels like the only explicit reference to the meaning of the song. Myers' menacing stare at the end of the video speaks volumes. A bit art-school-fabulous, but I'll still give this one a nod. Check it out.
Vertigo Shtick: If Hitchcock taught us anything, it's that small cute harmless things can be fucking scary en masse and pissed (why do you think a group of crows is called a “murder?”*). I like the symbolism in this video, because it makes a clear, easily understood point, yet it's broad enough that the point I clearly understood from watching it might be different from the point someone else understands; and because the video relates in a general thematic sense but not an exclusive, specific one to the song (the opener to Myers' accomplished debut EP Daughter in the Choir, released last January), there's really no wrong way to interpret the plush blitzkrieg the very Mila Kunis-y Myers suffers at her ill-fated tea party. A lesser artist would have made some big melodramatic “We Found Love” thing that would have bored me off my “but I like happy music” derriere before it was halfway over. The screamy eye-rolling exorcist segment makes more of an impact interspersed with homicidal teddy bears (plus a shot involving a stuffed banana that would make Freud proud), and really pushes the uncertainty about whether “Curbstomp” is intentionally humorous to the hilt. If you find yourself chuckling even while absorbing the seriousness of the message and the song, as I did, perhaps that's part of the point: how often do we find ourselves laughing throughout tragedy?
* No-longer-pointless trivia factoid courtesy of The Simpsons
SmartPopScott: Is it weird to say that this video kinda turns me on? Probably. So I guess I’ll just move on.
Great song, by the way.
Lana Del Rey - "Ride" (Polydor, October 12)
Popledge: I actually find this video a bit creepy, the way I interpret the song and video is a young girl with severe ‘daddy’ issues, Lana is seen with various older men throughout the video and also on the back of motorbikes riding through the America mountains. The scene with the older biker brushing her hair is the one that really creeps me out – that is such a nurturing thing to do – I can remember my dad brushing my hair when I was little, but the thought of looking for that in a lover is just well yucky. Visually though, as per all of her videos it is gorgeous as is she, the part I most enjoyed about the video was actually the spoken monologue at the beginning and in close second the ‘Indian headdress’ scene – the video really is a piece of art and I’m so glad to have Lana on the pop scene.
Taking Over the Universe: I really don't like Lana Del Rey. The end.
The Pop Messiah: When Lana Del Rey launched on to the scene last year, I was a skeptic. It was partially from experiencing the awkwardness of her extremely wooden performance on Saturday Night Live and mostly the fact that every other music blogger was calling her the second coming. I suppose I felt a little resentful that she was being crammed down my pop-loving throat. I have to admit however, that as a lover of film I appreciate the cinematic qualities of both her music and some of her higher-budget music videos. Perhaps her most epic music video to date, “Ride” packs a whole lot of biker chick Americana into its ten minutes, which feels a lot more like a short film than a music video. Beautifully shot and seemingly a perfect visual fit for this slow burner of a track, I’m starting to think I might have been a bit hasty in banishing “Lana Del Ney” to Pop Limbo. After all, my sixteen year old sister is pretty awesome and she’s a big fan. Perhaps I’ll grant Del Rey a second chance…. perhaps.
Unapologetically POP!: It took two generous glasses of Riesling to get me through this clip. I'm going to throw myself off a cliff here & say things exactly how I see them: Lana Del Rey is extremely disappointing. I fought for her vigorously at the upstart of her controversial career, oftentimes against some of my own best friends. All this aside, "Ride" is an excellent song. Rick Rubin's production is lush & masterful, while Lana's trademark crooning sounds actually quite soulful. But I was asked to review the music video & not the song, so here goes: the music video for "Ride" is an over-ambitious short film about Lana's dependence on guns, whiskey, & the domination of white men. Wow! Thrilling. Progressive. American. So on that note, great job RihLanna Del Rey. You're a real artist. I'm choking on my own expectations for Elizabeth Grant's career.
Techno School: This whole video just reeks of privilege and disconnect. I had to watch it twice (anybody else?), because the first time around I got the impression that Lana Del Rey was acting out the story of a wannabe star who lost her way and ended up turning tricks on the street with biker gang pimps. Well, the viewer discovers about five minutes later that this IS a story about a wannabe star...one who befriends a gang of middle-aged bikers, rides around the desert on motorcycles, and smokes cigarettes in the most awkward pouty-lipped fashion I've ever seen. I don't believe for a second that a female in her twenties feels free by hooking up with a gaggle of old greaseballs, but maybe that's just me. Was Del Rey trying to mislead us? Make us believe that her character is a prostitute--a very scary reality for many women not as lucky as she--for shock value? Or did she really think the audience would relate to this video? Either way: ugh. And don't get me started with the misappropriation of the Native American headdress in the bonfire scene. It's not original, and it's not appropriate, and it doesn't add to the story. The idea of an extended video with a narrative is cool, but all the problematic themes in this none make it fall flat on its face. I didn't like "Video Games", and even though I like "Ride", the video pisses me off. That's two strikes, Lana.
Vertigo Shtick: I have no hat in the ring where Lana Del Rey is concerned. I get the concept she's going for and acknowledge that it's an interesting one: smoky, maudlin, old Hollywood Nancy Sinatra noir spiced with elements of contemporary hip-hop. Okay, now that I've gotten out a full, reasoned sentence, WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER FACE?!?! I know there's been talk about work done on the lips (which reminds me of the days we used to bicker about Britney's rumored pre-red leather boob job), but this is more than a little collagen on display here. It would appear Del Rey has had some more severe work done since Born to Die (does it matter? I'll get to that), but given the nature of Elizabeth Grant's all-in piece of performance art as Lana Del Rey, I wouldn't be terribly shocked to discover that she's been made up to look that way for the video, as it does keep with the character. That would be considerably more impressive, although I'm content not to know since revealing such artistic trickery would defeat the purpose, so I'll just assume one way or the other depending on how I feel about her at any given time. Even considering its generic and thematic purpose, “Ride” was a bit of a chore to sit through all the way; the most shocking part was when she went into the convenience store and didn't rob it at gunpoint. (Okay, seriously, what is wrong with her face?) Tellingly, there's a shot in which the singer exhales cigarette smoke in a gas station (which had me thinking of Zoolander) with obvious deliberate effort, just as her disembodied voice sings “I try hard....” That's not what she means, but that doesn't make it inaccurate.
SmartPopScott: It seems like ages ago that the only thing any blogger could talk about was whether or not we should hate Lana Del Rey. Simpler times back then, weren’t they! Well now we all seem to more or less agree, at least I think, and she seems to be here to stay. Her upcoming Paradise Edition of her debut album, which actually adds 8 new songs on a second disc (essentially a Fame Monster kind of thing), seems to be moving her in the right direction. The songs that we have seen from this extra disk, Ride included, move further away from her obnoxious pseudo-rapping, and embrace her more fragile character and big arrangements. It’s that character that drew me to her initially, and I’m happy to see it explored further on these tracks. The video for "Ride" is fine. It certainly doesn’t need the long intro and outro, but the style serves the song well and it’s good to see her do a video without the instagram filters. The biggest question I have, though, is: what’s holding up that tire swing? Where is that tied to?
* * * * Singles * * * *
Blu Cantrell - "Get the Fuck Out" (October 11)
Popledge: This song was just FUN with all caps on! Nothing too complicated, no drama just a fun doo woop swing beat with Blu and the male vocalist singing to each other. The male really sounds like Bruno Mars and indeed this song would fit on any of his albums. Great free download for her fans and keeps us bloggers interested in her upcoming album.
Taking Over the Universe: What a vulgar title! I have never been known to say a single fucking damn curse word. I mean fucking Jesus Christ. This song sounds like it was recorded like Lily Allen, with a quirky sense of humor added in to the almost circus-sounding music. The track actually samples the 1940s track "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby", but with some very distinct vocal changes. Most notably so adding in some words that would have caused Louis Jordan to be burned at the stake for saying on a record back in the day. This one is a pretty funny gag track, but nothing to really bomp to in your car, if you get what I'm saying.
The Pop Messiah: I would be lying if I didn’t say that I often wonder why Blu Cantrell didn’t really catch on commercially after the massive “Hit Em Up Style (Oops)” had its jazzy way with the charts back in 2001. This track is pure sass, with a side order of scat-singing that is as infectious as it is skilfully executed. It has a similar vibe to her biggest hit in its’ blend of funky, classic jazz samples with modern urban elements. It took me about three listens before I decided that I love it. While she sounds a little bit like Faith Evans when she sings straight-up R&B, Cantrell’s biggest asset is that there isn’t another popular singer who comes to mind that has jazz vocals comparably similar to hers. It’s a shame she didn’t remain an R&B staple, but it’s refreshing to know she’s still making cool music.
Unapologetically POP!: This song is an absolute pleasure from start to finish. I would liken it to Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" with a dash of doowops from the olden days. I wish I still heard stuff like this on the radio. Yay Blu!
Techno School: Anybody else have trouble understanding the chorus, sung by that Bruno Mars sound-a-like? It really did bug me that the only words in the chorus I could catch were "Get the f*** out right now" (I'd never use asterisks, but the f-bomb was already censored by the artists--I'm only following suit). Anyway, this song feels a lot like The Edison. Allow me to explain. For those non-Angelenos out there: The Edison is an electrical-foundry-turned-lounge on the edge of Little Tokyo, Downtown LA. The idea of the place is to bring patrons back to the roaring '20s with fancy-named $15 cocktails, period music, and elaborate vintage-y decor. Despite all the efforts of the club's owners, The Edison has a decidedly contemporary feel. Well, the antique beat in "Get the F*** Out" recalls more swingin' times and provides a surprising backdrop to a song about going out in the 21st century and letting loose, else getting out of my way, for f***ing serious. I love that Blue Cantrell follows in the footsteps of Cee Lo Green and pairs a nostalgic tune with a heap of curse words. I really think, were the chorus a bit easier to understand, this would be a killer song. The lyrics are hit or miss, swinging from mediocre rap song (a doo-wop-y You can come on down like the Price is Right) to hilariously amazing (melodramatic delivery of the words: And if you're not [my baby]/then don't let the door hit you/Don't let it hit your ass on the way out). Between this and the uncanny resemblance to Mars' voice, I don't see "Get the F*** Out" reigning in significant commercial success, but I'd definitely play this track as background music at my next wine and cheese party.
Vertigo Shtick: I like this 90s female R&B revival we've got going on this year (much obliged, Adele!), not least because of the nice - and, I fear, rather needed - reminder that chicks can do R&B music too. Really really well, actually - certainly on or above the level of Chris Brown and sleepwalking Usher and stealth misogynist extraordinaire Ne-Yo, who today monopolize the R&B charts thanks to pop crossover appeal the ladies of the genre typically lack, usually by nature rather than underachievement (blame the pop penis vacuum). Blu Cantrell is easily my favorite one hit wonder from my pop musical lifetime to date; I remember listening gleefully to "Hit Em Up Style (Oops)" on KIIS-FM on my big old black 90s boombox; a wistful holdover from the jazzy style En Vogue won me over with in the early 90s. I admit I was a little worried going in... "Get the Fuck Out" could easily have been a tragic mess by a clueless has-been, amiright? Fortunately as it turns out, this is a fun, solid buzz track that, like Esthero's "Never Gonna Let You Go," fits snugly beside "Oops" stylistically while distinguishing Cantrell's style from the specifics of her well-known single, and still sounding present instead of dated (perhaps it helps that it's already a throwback in the first place?)... The Price is Right reference notwithstanding. Really enjoyable tune, and if this is what she's tossing out as casual sampler, who knows what could show up on an actual album! *TOP PICK*
SmartPopScott: Long before there was "Gangnam Style," there was "Hit Em Up Style (Oops)." And if you don’t have "Hit Em Up Style (Oops)" on at least 4 mix CDs, you can follow Blu’s instructions on her new song and “Get The Fuck Out Right Now!” After releasing two albums in the early 2000’s, Blu Cantrell quietly disappeared and hasn’t released anything since 2003. So when Dave sent out the picks for this month and a Blu Cantrell song was included, I was totally shocked. I wasn’t shocked, however, by how great the song is. Her voice is powerful, unique, and versatile, and the song, which has an electro-jazz flavor, is fun, catchy, and has an awesome bridge. She is allegedly releasing a new album next year. Here’s hoping someone other than me cares!
Brandon Hilton - "Dance Til I Die" (Brandon Hilton, October 9)
Popledge: For one awful moment I thought it was Paris Hilton’s brother – after a quick google search it turns out he’s an internet ‘celebrity’ – well he might as well be Paris’ brother – this track is naff, it just sounds cheap, in fact I’d rather sit through the whole Paris album than listen to this again. Awful. His voice just sounds slurred and weak and the production…I am cringing for him.
Taking Over the Universe: Brandon has been a good friend of mine for nearly a year now, and I have supported him every step of the way. He was a Myspace star once upon a time, but since the invention of Facebook, he's had to resort to the dismal life of being a pop star. Tragic, no? The song is very fast paced, with lyrics that smash themselves together to express a thought, getting the idea of the energy behind the idea across. The song may not be deep, but it is incredibly catchy. The message is that life is too long to worry about the small stuff and we should just party and enjoy life while we can. Brandon has come an incredibly long way both production wise, as well as vocally. This song is his best yet and my personal favorite. I may be biased, but I can honestly say that had I not known him before hearing the track, I would still enjoy it the same.
The Pop Messiah: Um, am I crazy or do the verses to this snoozefest almost exactly follow the melody of Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)?” Hilton’s voice is mediocre at best, even sounding terrible in parts despite the excessive auto-tune that is detectable even on the mid-range notes that shouldn’t need it. His performance lacks any passion to connect to the listener in a song which explores such groundbreaking topics as begging the DJ to turn up the bass, the thrill of new love, living for the music and apparently the desire to go back and make right the wrongs of your past. To its credit, it is remarkable how it manages to touch on so many topics, yet says absolutely nothing we haven’t heard before in a thousand other superior pop songs. I know I’m being a bit of an asshole but I’m sorry, for me personally, music fails when it has no feeling behind it and this song is dead inside. On that note, I guess it’s already time to stop dancing!
Techno School: The first time I played "Dance Til I Die," I automatically assumed Brandon Hilton was some unknown other sibling of Paris and Nicky. Apparently, he is not a third heir to the hotel chain fortune, but a self-made Internet sensation. What can I say? The Heard it Before techno beat--see any promotional video for any techno festival ever and you'll know what I mean--combined with fairly generic lyrics and mediocre vocals fooled me. It just screamed nepotism. Or sheltered-ness. A-la Rebecca Black and "Friday". From the articles I'm reading about him now, Hilton really does seem well-meaning. His lyrics seem honest. He definitely needs to take vocal lessons, though, and spend more time defining a unique sound, if he ever hopes to gain attention beyond his cult YouTube following. Pass.
SmartPopScott: I’ve never heard of this guy before, and I think I was happier that way. From what I gather, he was big on Myspace. Anyway, the song, I think, is complete trash. The production sounds very cheap, the vocals are poorly recorded and lazily performed, and the songwriting is obvious and forgettable. I think this, along with tons of other young artists trying to write and produce their own pop hits and releasing them on YouTube, show just how difficult writing and producing Pop is. There’s a reason Dr. Luke gets paid $100,000 upfront to write a song with you, and it’s because this stuff is not easy!
Solange - "Losing You" (Terrible Records, October 9)
Popledge: I always hang my head in shame when Solange is mentioned, I feel like I should know more about this ladies music when in reality I only know her as ‘Beyoncé’s sister’ – sorry Solange because it must be so hard for her to get past that comparison in her career. Solange’s music is less commercial but more classic RnB sounding. I would not have picked this as a single choice though…there is no WHAM BAM WOW moment on the track…it’s good but should be Track 7 on an album..
Taking Over the Universe: Solange still exists? Leave it to David to bring up someone who I haven't heard form since their debut. Forever cursed to be Beyoncé's less talented singer, she apparently is once again trying to come out of her big sister's shadow. The song is a bit less impressive than SoL-Angel, but it still proves one thing -- that the Knowleses have got talent for days. Much like with her other songs, the problem I have is that it's all about her voice, with the rest of the song having next to no substance. Sang by anybody else, it would just be a generic break up song.
The Pop Messiah: What I’ve always appreciated about Solange being “the other Knowles” is that she has never released anything that would give the public any real reason to compare her to her sister Beyoncé. Her vocals are considerably more down to earth and her overall sound more organic. Such generalizations would certainly apply to her latest offering as well. An 80’s affair through and through, “Losing You” reminds me a bit of Cyndi Lauper (Just try and imagine her singing it; I know it sounds crazy.) My first impression, despite knowing this is in fact the lead single from her upcoming third album, is that it doesn’t seem like single material at all. While it floats along dreamily over a slightly experimental backing track and grows on me with each new listen, it doesn’t sound like it would fit into the scope of today’s mainstream radio sound and likely wouldn’t get the support to be a runaway hit, but I’m sure Solange is more than happy with the continued critical acclaim!
Techno School: There will only ever be room in my heart for one Knowles sister, and her name starts with Bey, but I'll give this sister's new track "Losing You" a good hard listen because everyone and their mother on the Internet is on the edge of his or her respective seat waiting, just waiting, for the release of Solange's upcoming studio album. My verdict? It's a good song. Very relaxed. Excellent use of...is that a squack? Overlayed with a pseudo-Caribbean drum beat? Interesting. At least at first. But by the third, fourth listen, I found myself waiting for that point after 2 1/2 minutes where the back beat faded out and made way for Solange's voice. Something about the music was just too Indie for me. Too experimental and not at all aesthetically pleasing. It did not compliment the lyrics; it distracted me from them. Like Blu Cantrell's "Get the F*** Out", I could see this playing at my wine party, but it wouldn't land on my morning commute playlist.
Vertigo Shtick: I like Solange. She interests me. Her new single carries extra significance as the largely unexpected pilot offering from the indie-R&B/soul singer's follow-up to her well-received 2009 debut Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, and it doesn't disappoint, at the least. “Losing You” premiered in conjunction with its Pitchfork-friendly, hangin' with my buddies in South Africa music video (which is essentially Nicki Minaj's “Pound the Alarm” without the tits and ass and fireworks and political subtext), and I found it likable, if not lovable, and my stance remains thus to the present. The production is far more interesting than the song or Solange's laid-back vocal. The fun Panel tie-in here is that the co-writer and producer of “Losing You,” Dev Hynes, produces under the name Blood Orange; you may remember last month we discussed Charli XCX's EP You're the One, which includes a Blood Orange remix; Hynes also co-wrote and produced “Everything is Embarrassing,” which appears on Sky Ferreira's recent EP, Ghost. I enjoy revisiting this every so often and getting lost in the intricate production, pretending I'm playing a water level of Donkey Kong Country.
SmartPopScott: I’m a younger brother. I’m a little overweight, he’s very good looking. I’m not at all athletic, he was a fantastic soccer player. I’m smart, but not as witty as he is. It’s tough being the younger sibling of someone everyone likes so much. And for good reason, too! Beyoncé is untouchable in the world of Pop. She has consistently moved the genre forward with amazing and daring recordings and passionate, exciting, and memorable performances and videos. And for Solange, the younger sister, it’s tough to find a place to shine. Her music career has been defined by trying to define herself apart from her sister. After trying a big major label release as an RnB pop start, she downsized to a smaller major label release of retro-soul/Motown songs, and now has gone completely to an indie label to try her hand at this game. It’s a smart move, not only because it completely distances herself from her sister’s territory, but because it genuinely seems like what she’s wanted to do the whole time. In fact, if you know any of Solange’s songs before this one, it’s probably her cover of Dirty Projector’s "Stillness Is The Move." On her upcoming EP, True, Solange has decided to collaborate with ‘it’-boy Dev Hynes. Hynes is becoming a largely sought after voice in the indie pop world this year by releasing consistently great tracks with Sky Ferreira and Florence Welch as well as high profile remixes for Charli XCX and his work Blood Orange. He has a distinct style, though, and "Losing You" certainly fits that. It has big 80’s drums, and the song seems to never go anywhere (and I mean that in a good way). Solange does, however, bring her own voice to the track, with more of a Motown harmony style. Her vocals are also more direct and charismatic than Sky’s, which makes this track less sad and nostalgic and more playful and assured. In that sense, she doesn’t seem very phased by the prospect of losing the lover she’s singing to. Even though she sings “Can’t lose you from my life”, she has already come to terms with the facts and almost seems ready to move on. This video, which shows Solange dancing around in a small village, seems to support this theory.
Madeon - "The City" (popcultr, October 5)
Popledge: People like this madden me! So much talent and this guy is only 18 still! No seriously, I am rooting for this guy, the work he has done on other peoples track is just amazing, he obviously has a talent for and loves music. If you haven’t checked out his ‘Pop Culture’ video on YouTube then please do – it is seamless. As for this track, it really reminded me of Daft Punk’s sound which I am a huge fan of, would I listen to this over and over again? Perhaps not…but if there is an album out then I am there…for now I’ll keep watching his work via YouTube.
The Pop Messiah: Where Brandon Hilton’s single takes several common themes of dance-pop and regurgitates them without passion or energy, Madeon’s “The City” takes the old “grass is greener” adage and expresses it with lyrical simplicity and a considerable spring in its step! The vocals and the euphoric production are energetic and joyous and immediately make me want to dance, and love, and dance, again. There is something about the overall vibe of the song that reads as classic for me, hearkening back to the feel good days of Daft Punk’s “One More Time.” I like it, but if I’m being honest I probably won’t ever listen to it again. Take that for what you will.
Unapologetically POP!: Oh Madeon! I've had my eye on this kid for a while now, along with other prodigal newcomers like Zedd & Porter Robinson (emphasis on Porter). This kid (he's 18 for Christ'sake) has the potential to pack crowds. Not bad. Not bad, but not phenomenal either. Still, because of kids like Madeon boys will be dropping out of high school to become the next Daft Punk. Which says something, doesn't it? Passing grade for "The City."
Techno School: It is no secret that I already have an enormous crush on Madeon, so I'm probably the least biased person ever and should definitely not be reviewing this song as, like, an objective, trusted expert. But I am going to, anyway. So, yeah. I think this song is amazing (bet you didn't see that coming). I've already played it plenty on repeat whilst I brave the increasingly cold Michigan outdoors to walk to my local grocery store or coffee shop. After an unnecessary but welcome introductory sound of you-or-whoever making a mad dash to the train station in some unnamed dance party haven, Madeon utilizes the robotic , overlapping sort of beat that Daft Punk fans might be familiar with. It gives way during the choruses to something much more rock-n-roll, choppy, and reminiscent of Justice's + (Cross) album. The lyrics, suggesting that this otherworldly home to a dance floor on which your troubles disappear is a very typical theme in all techno genres, but Zak Waters' and Cass Lowe's vocal performances really match the character of the words and bring "The City" to a relatable, commercial level that so many other songs miss. My only critique, a result of this being a commercial song, might be that it is a bit shorter than I'd like. This and all of Madeon's other tracks leave me wanting more, wishing the songs went on for just a few more seconds. Then again, I don't think any amount of Madeon could ever be enough for me.
Vertigo Shtick: I'm fascinated by Madeon, though perhaps more from reading his techno wonk-porn interview with Popjustice than this first introduction to his actual music, much as I enjoyed it. His genre is already slightly outside my central critical realm, but on top of that “The City” smacks so much of sheer expertise I admit to feeling a bit like I'm in over my head in terms of intelligent musical criticism. Therefore, allow me to gush for a second about how intricate and precise “The City” sounds, which is partly because of how detail-oriented Madeon seems to work and partly a result of the interesting effect he creates wherein it almost sounds like the track is made up of tiny snippets of sound jumbled together at a fast enough pace that it plays like a perforated melody. “The City” is like Madeon's answer to Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, where tiny points of light/sound ultimately create a shimmering, otherworldly whole. Sorry, could you hand me my jaw? Yes, right there, on the floor.
SmartPopScott: I really like this track. It’s catchy and very well produced. The lyrics may be a little stock, but that’s just what a good dance track like this needs. I’m glad to hear that this artist is starting to get bigger work, writing and producing a song on Ellie Goulding’s latest album and working with Lady Gaga on her upcoming ARTPOP. Hopefully we’ll keep seeing more of him and less of Guetta.
Labrinth - "Express Yourself" (Simco, October 17)
Popledge: This tune was released back in May 2012 in the UK – I am guessing they are using this to break him into the American market? It’s corny as hell and also appears in a number of adverts over here. It may surprise you to learn he is a SyCo signing…I think initially he was hired as a producer. He has had tremendous success in the UK, he was number one just a month ago here with Emeli Sande providing additional vocals. I’m not a huge fan of his, in fact this song is probably my least favourite single he’s ever released. Instead of this seek out ‘Let the Sun Shine’ or ‘Earthquake’ – this is just a bit of cheese.
Taking Over the Universe: So Simon Cowell decides to make his first non-reality TV talent in literally half a decade sing a cover. Oh but it's different because he put his own generic lyrics for the chorus. And what are they about? Reality TV. Namely shows Simon is on. Boring. Over it.
The Pop Messiah: “Express Yourself” sounds a bit like a full-length version of a 70’s TV theme song before the hard beats kick in around the 1:00 mark. This may seem like a criticism but I assure you it’s not; I do LOVE a great TV show theme! They tend to be very positive and uplifting and sentimental. (“Growing Pains” anyone? “As long as we’ve got each other…. We’ve got the world spinnin’ right in our hands!”) On this track, Labrinth blends funk, motown & hip-hop, sampling a song by the same name from American funk band Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. It’s just a really feel good track and it makes me want to shed the baggage of my not-so sordid past, smile big, tap my toes and bop around in the sunshine without a care! A great song to spin any day that you feel like the odds are against you.
Unapologetically POP!: Thumbs up for this one. "Express Yourself" reminds me a lot of Mark Ronson's earlier stuff. Though not necessarily a commanding number, Labrinth's latest proves his versatility- a necessary trait for staying in the POP game. Although nowhere near the brilliance of Dizzee Rascal, I'd like Labrinth to stick around a while, thankyouverymuch.
Techno School: I love love love this song. And more than the song itself, I love the prospect that a generation of kids could grow up thinking that this is the original "Express Yourself"! Labrinth's sampling of the classic by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (what a mouthful), as well as his delightful twist of the original lyrics with his own, make this a winner. It's self-aware, but it's lighthearted. For instance, with the line: Ain't Got the X-Factor/I'm not what they expect/But it won't be long before my turn is next, Labrinth casually hints at his own fame as the first person in six years to sign to mega-producer Simon Cowell's record label without first participating in one of the man's hundred televised talent shows. And the music! It flows through like smooth, warm caramel, just delicious. Especially that break around the one minute mark where the beat drops to half time and just dares you not to lean your shoulder into it. I can't wait for the inevitable sampling and remixing of this already delightful track to hit the wide world of electronica.
Vertigo Shtick: I reserve unreserved, mouth-agape professional awe for a minuscule number of living artists, and Labrinth is probably the youngest of that select lot aside from Azealia Banks. Ever since the 23 year old British producer... no, performer... wait, songwriter... fuck it, “pop auteur” first crossed my path with Yasmin's spectacular 2011 single “Finish Line,”which he produced, I have marveled at how someone so young and so new could be so confidently creative and reliably good even as he rolls out new music infinitely different from the last. Though clearly there must be some border around his artistic genius as there is for us all, Labrinth remains in that exhilarating formative period where he appears theoretically capable of anything, and maybe he learned from Jessie J the important lesson about patience and not to rush into a Dr. Luke-aided US debut LP where you have songs like “Price Tag” and stale reboots of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and soon everyone on Twitter is wishing you would just shut the fuck up at the VMAs/Olympics. Or something. Instead, Labrinth is bringing out music that's both enormously creative and a lot of fun too; all I'm sayin' is if Dr. Luke could do what Labrinth can in front of the microphone as well as at the board, we probably wouldn't keep hearing that same guitar lick over and over in every song on the fucking radio. Did I go off topic again?
SmartPopScott: I’d say now’s as good a time as any to have another song that samples "Express Yourself." Labrinth’s take on the classic soul record is certainly more optimistic than NWA’s, and it makes for a great modern pop track. His version fits very nicely into the “it gets better/love yourself” rhetoric of so many pop hits these days, and his vocals are charming and easy, making it feel less pedantic than some others ("Born This Way," I’m looking at you).
Taylor Swift - "I Knew You Were Trouble" (Big Machine, October 22)
Popledge: Taylor Swift is popular in the UK but no-way as big as she is in the US where I imagine her whole life is scrutinized. Subsequently I always listen to her songs without knowing what drama in her personal life inspired the song…plus I can’t keep up with her love life. I have not listened to ‘RED’ yet and ‘WANEGBT’ didn’t really do it for me. This is to me an album track, it’s about love (surprise surprise) – there were quite a few nice production moments in it, the almost dup-step drops and the drum beats I liked but overall it’s just alright…I am yet to find my Taylor song still.
Taking Over the Universe: I have a love hate relationship with Taylor. I love her voice and how catchy her music is, but I hate what she sings about. Her songs are almost always about her being better than someone else. Her ego is bigger than mine, and that's saying something. This time around she's blaming some guy for messing up her life, despite her knowing FROM THE START that he was bad news. Oh and she went dubstep this time. It looks like even the crossover country to pop queen has succumbed to the biggest plague on the planet currently -- the random dubstep breakdown in pop music. It was cute when Britney invented it, but now almost two years later this fad is getting tired. I have to say that all sarcastic and passive aggressive comments aside, I really do like this track, and the new era of Swift as well. She's headed in a much better direction than when she first started.
The Pop Messiah: As far as I’m concerned, with “I Knew You Were Trouble” Taylor Swift has pulled off one the most inventive uses of dub step influence to come from the current pop music trend. Rather than trying to infuse an entire track with whirrs and blips, Swift instead gives us a song that still manages to feel like her brand of Country-Pop on the verses but builds and explodes in a delightfully unexpected post-chorus that challenges not only the conventions of her genre but potentially a good portion of her fan base in a slightly more aggressive way than the other two Max Martin collaborations on her new album Red. I’d personally say it would have been a stronger (and more reasonably titled) lead single than “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” but even as a non-single it managed to debut at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over 416K downloads in its first week of release. As one of the few artists out there who still manage to sell records like the industry decline of last decade never really happened, it’s inevitable that there are going to be lots of naysayers drinking the haterade on the other side of the coin. Something tells me that Taylor’s millions will help to keep her from crying herself to sleep at night about it, or at least help her reserve those tears for her next song-inspiring break-up.
Unapologetically POP!: Trouble, trouble, trouble! I adore this song in spite of myself. As insufferable as The Cult of The Virgin Taylor is, girlfriend can write a song, and damn, Max Martin still has it. "I Knew You Were Trouble"'s brilliance lies in its subtle tight-rope-walking act, teetering ever-so delicately between an all-out dubstep wobblefest & a classic country chorus. A job very well done. I hope this song does even better then "We Are Never Ever..."
Techno School: This is one of those songs that reminds me that superstar Taylor Swift was probably too busy building her supercareer to really date anyone long enough to be vulnerable with someone the way she--y'know, just probably--was with John Mayer. It seems every song on her new album Red, at least every song I've heard so far, is an expression of Swift's angsty recovery from this particular failed relationship. Godspeed, girl. We've all been there. And, probably because I've been there before, I'm going to play this song over and over, bobbing my head to every angsty lyric. Pretty soon, I'll be belting out "Now I'm lying on the cold hard ground!/Oh! Oh! Trouble, trouble, trouble!" as I drive into work. What caught me off guard about "I Knew You Were Trouble" was the surprisingly hard beat that infiltrated what originally sounded like a country track. The first chorus sweeps in like BAM and then I'm like "What is that? Rock 'n roll? Techno? But I thought it was country? Is Swift attempting to genre-bend?!?! AH!" I can't quit you, Taylor Swift, I just can't quit you.
Vertigo Shtick: A lot of noise surrounded this track - figuratively speaking, that is, because in literal terms all that tempestuous sound and fury signified nothing worth much ado. First off, except for a couple marginally clever lyrics, the songwriting is pretty messy: the thrice repeated ending to each phrase seems like filler, and the downward five-note scale is difficult to sing crisply once, let alone three times; a skillful songwriter like Swift ought to know that. The hook is moderately catchy but it also careens from note to note like a pinball, and the wailing and the roughly looped and messily processed "trouble" is like an unpaved desert road in the middle of the freeway. Also, you're going to not only use dubstep but make a big deal out of using dubstep almost two years after "Hold It Against Me," you really need to bring some hardcore dubstep worth the fourth quarter hullabaloo. Taylor doesn't. I had to check and make sure my speakers were working properly after the big Taylor Swift dubstep coup didn't kick in any bass to speak of. It's as if Ms. Swift, having insisted on this dubstep thing everyone's talking about, also demanded there be no messy bass on her country pop album, unaware that this defeats the entire purpose of exploiting dubstep. Perhaps on the chorus she's just pushing the sound upward - "treble, treble, treble." This might still have passed for pop crossover single gold for Swifty if it didn't share disk space with "We Are Never Ever...," which is twice the hit single this tries to be without trying nearly as hard.
SmartPopScott: I want to thank Dave for including this track. I knew his hatred of T-swizzle [EDITOR'S NOTE: "hatred" is Scott's word, not mine] wouldn’t allow him to let us review the whole album, but his inclusion of this (fantastic) track makes me very very happy. I think Taylor Swift is a brilliant artist. From her first album to her most recent, I think she’s struck gold every time. Her craft is impeccable and only getting better. I first want to give her major props to reaching out to new producers and co-writers on this album. On her third album, Speak Now, (which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded) she wrote every song by herself and used the same producer, Nathan Chapman, for the whole album. (Chapman also produced almost every song on her first two albums). With an album that was such a success both critically and commercially, it would make sense for her to stick to her guns and keep writing alone and working with Chapman. But she was smarter than that, and felt she needed to experiment and learn more as an artist. Red is a collection of those experiments. They don’t always work, but they’re always interesting. And her work with new writers, specifically Max Martin and Shellback, as we see on "I Knew You Were Trouble," has paid off immensely. Even on the songs with other producers, Swift has a clearer and more consistent melodic structure than ever before, a clear sign of Martin’s influence. She also more eloquently deals with mature issues of sexuality, heartbreak, and new love. These topics, setting aside sexuality, are nothing new for Swift, but her perspective is. She has found more poetry in her lyrics than ever before, and has learned how to better balance the personal and the universal.
"I Knew You Were Trouble," the third song released before the official release of Red, is like an explosion of musical energy. Some people seem put off by the ‘dubstep’ of the chorus, but to ignore the melodic craft here to discuss the trivialities of style would be absurd. That being said, though, we should not ignore Martin and Shellback’s production. They are the masters for a reason, and every choice they make here is the right one. The subtle choices of when to double vocals, when to bring in bass, when to use reversed guitars, how to distort the vocals, it’s all amazing. You might not like Taylor Swift, but she’s not going anywhere, and there’s nothing she’s not going to touch. I think that whatever she does, she perfects. I think we all need to get used to that.
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