Musgraves, Morris realize country’s potential

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Up-and-coming country artists are often overlooked because of the stark divide between fans of country and fans of, well, every other genre of music. 

Two country artists, Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, exemplify the arguably necessary shift in country music toward pop, while also underscoring its potential for crossover appeal.  

I am no expert on country music and am only familiar with certain artists within its reaches, but its commercial iteration is easy to spot.  

Commercial country’s lyrical tropes, predictable soundscape, and the cultural situations it is frequently concerned with are hard to relate to, as a general fan of pop music. 

This is not to say there aren’t lovable artists; Miranda Lambert, commercial country’s unexpected secret weapon, makes a case against those who flippantly say they hate country music, along with Musgraves and Morris.   

Commercial country is different from so-called classic country and folk music, in that it creates an ever-shifting template for popularity just as commercial pop does.  

Musgraves and Morris seem to acknowledge that commercial country’s backbone is in pop song structures, as they redefine and rejuvenate its stale constructions.  

Kacey Musgraves 

Musgraves was said to represent a shift in country music by hopeful critics looking for change in the industry when she released her first album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” in 2013.  

Her socially-conscious lyrics signaled a new kind of voice in country, one that didn’t shy away from cultural critique in its most basic elements: tradition is questioned intentionally, and playfully.  

Musgraves took intense care rendering her southern community through both personal narrative and wider social commentary on “Merry Go Round.”  

Her open support of gay relationships on “Follow Your Arrow” caused some conversation, underscoring Musgraves’ relatively progressive sensibilities as they stood out against country’s pretty conservative backdrop.  

On her second album, “Pageant Material” (2015), Musgraves continued to tackle social issues while still writing a solid pack of love songs.  

She confronted issues of femininity through a narrower personal lens, including beauty standards (“Pageant Material”) and the “good old boys club” (on the song of the same name), with a healthy dose of the snarky, smart songwriting that is characteristic of Musgraves (an exceptionally well-written song in the pop vein is “Die Fun”).  

Musgraves’ instrumental constructions have always been inoffensive but never exceedingly boring or dull – there hasn’t been much risk-taking on behalf of her sound besides the lyrics. That was until she released the singles for her album “The Golden Hour,” out this week.  

After proving herself as a songwriter who could puncture polarizing topics with wit on her previous work, she is now exploring a softer side with just as much lyrical punch.  

Single “Space Cowboy” is a gorgeous addition to her catalogue, depicting a relationship with familiar clichés that are turned on their head. Soaked in reverb, the song’s sound appropriately matches the open space Musgraves sings about in the lyrics.  

But the real surprise of the batch is “High Horse,” a disco-tinged, poppy song with the kind of assertive bass that accompanies dance tracks.  

Maren Morris 

I know a good song when I hear one, and “Once” is in that category. From Morris’ debut album “Hero” (2017), “Once” and other standout tracks really hemmed in my distaste for commercial country. 

Morris, like Musgraves, is not so much a good country artist but a good songwriter, and that label transcends genre.  

As Musgraves goes pop, Morris blurs the lines between country and pop with songs like “I Could Use a Love Song” and “80s Mercedes.” Those tracks prioritize strong melodic and lyrical elements over surface-level signifiers of country.  

This blurring she partakes in was furthered when she collaborated with EDM artists Zedd and Grey for the EDM single “The Middle,” in which no traces of country influence are found.  

She also collaborated with former One Direction member Niall Horan for a soft rock duet (“Seeing Blind”), showing that she can lend herself to pop seamlessly.  

Whereas other country artists who “crossover” to pop keep in some of the country influence, like Florida Georgia Line, or crossover to top 40 radio without having to alter their style, like Sam Hunt’s hit “Body Like a Back Road,” Morris seems less interested in these routes. 

These women are just two examples of the exciting genre-bending that is happening in country, but they might be the worthiest of your attention.  

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 1.48.44 PM

Car Seat Headrest revisits old songs on ‘Twin Fantasy’

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Will Toledo, the front man of the rising rock band Car Seat Headrest, was one of 2017’s “indie darlings.” Really, the indie music community goes wild for any literate rocker who has their thumb in grandiose song constructions, and Toledo fit the bill. It’s hard to buy the hype when they pick a new darling rather often, but Car Seat Headrest is worth the hype.  

Toledo is infamous for his Bandcamp albums, another lo-fi artist like Soccer Mommy who posted to their account as if it was an auditory journal in their late teens.  

One of his greatest successes on Bandcamp was an album named “Twin Fantasy” (2011); technically it was rock, but its low-quality recording value flattened the guitars to undistinguished noise.  

This year, the 26-year-old Toledo re-released “Twin Fantasy” in February after recording it professionally in a studio, and it is even better this time around.  

For some more background, Toledo started Car Seat Headrest as a personal project when he began recording songs in the backseat of his car, penning “Twin Fantasy” in college. This “Twin Fantasy” re-release is his 15th album.  

“Twin Fantasy” follows a romantic relationship from its beginning to its eventual demise. Toledo’s preceding albums, the double-feature of “Teens of Style” (2015) and “Teens of Denial” (2016), were wrapped up in recalling the heady memories of youth while coming into adulthood and its perils.  

“Twin Fantasy” is not wrapped up in recollection so much as direct lived experience, given that the album was written amidst heartbreak.  

The muscularity of “Twin Fantasy”’s rock, a genre often considered in a tradition of masculine norms, is tempered by its subject matter: a queer relationship.  

The opener “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)” is a bookend that mirrors the closer “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys),” in the spirit of a barbershop quartet; Toledo doesn’t hide his inspirations, with the Beach Boys undoubtedly staking a claim in his work.  

After that, trying to determine inspirations is a silly game, because “Beach Life-In Death” blows any expectations out of the water. Toledo has come to be known for his prolific lyricism and long-windedness, and “Beach Life-In Death” is a marathon sprint. 

At 13 minutes long, the track is a testament to the deeply involved and endlessly interpretable nature of Toledo’s lyrics, which have energized much fan discussion.  

What is so interesting about “Beach Life-In-Death” is not its heavy guitars that rev and collapse, but its self-examination by way of intertextuality. Life-In-Death is the name of a character from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and its connections to Toledo’s song have been parsed out many times before.  

He captures the excitement of potential romance, and then brings it crashing down in a tidal wave of self-doubting solipsism, from coaxing himself through his daily routine to worrying about the state of his mental health.  

The intertextual references don’t stop once the song is over, as Toledo strings together elaborate connections between the songs themselves. This is notable in the somewhat parallel titles of “Sober to Death,” and “High to Death,” two songs that act as the warm and cool sides of a pillow.  

Where “Sober to Death” is deceptively upbeat, portraying humans as ghostly shells reaching for meaning, “High to Death” embraces the feeling of meaninglessness that permeates a relationship’s denouement.  

Off-kilter introspection is married to the external process of being with another person, of wanting to be with them but not knowing how exactly to go about it.  

This is especially complicated by Toledo’s own initial discomfort with his sexuality and even his confrontation with that whole human experience of inhabiting a body (exemplified in the booming surround sound drums of “Bodys”), excruciatingly amplified and made awkward by youth.  

And this awkwardness that is concerned with being around the person of your affection (“Nervous Young Inhumans”) is never quite remedied, and not faced with rose-colored glasses – “Twin Fantasy” is predominantly mournful save for one track, “Cute Thing,” with blaring guitars and an anthemic chorus.  

The second to last track, “Famous Prophets (Stars),” clocks in at 16 minutes, and is yet another maze of lyrics and shifting pieces. 

Toledo has a lot to say, cramming diaristic writing and diatribes into song after song; this makes any attempt at a review seem particularly futile, because there is much to discuss. Luckily, there is already a wealth of discussion about it online.  

Perhaps this feeling of wanting more but not knowing how to get it, of searching for something in someone else, encapsulates “Twin Fantasy.”  

Toledo yearns for his eponymous “twin,” desiring someone for their resemblance to him (this takes on another layer of meaning when the implications of his same-gender relationship are considered). He thinks he registers an inherent lack in their absence, but he ultimately denotes it as “fantasy.”  

Though “Twin Fantasy” might be thought of as sad, it takes a healthy spin on narratives about love seen over and over again. Looking for someone to “complete” you (to be your “twin” in life) is an exercise in fantasy, he claims. 

To try and find someone to fill your own emptiness is to commit a glaring misstep, if we listen carefully to Toledo.   

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.33.53 PM

Soccer Mommy grows up on new album “Clean”

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Soccer Mommy, whose Bandcamp account I first stumbled upon deep in the depths of another artist’s Twitter, is now being covered in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times with the release of her debut studio album, “Clean.” 

This trajectory strikes me out of the blue – one week I’m listening to her pronouncedly lo-fi compositions in the most arcane way, pressing play on an embedded file in an almost hidden webpage, and next I’m seeing her pop up in the daily news.  

This wouldn’t always surprise me, except I never considered Sophie Allison’s music the kind that would yield such public praise. Her songs, meek in their patient guitar-based pop, are the last subjects I’d expect to be the focus of a New York Times article boldly titled “Hear What Music Will Sound Like in 2018.”  

That is not to say they aren’t worthy subjects; on Allison’s past releases, she managed to distill entire decades of indie rock and lo-fi pop down into sweet, short 30-minute affairs.  

Her last album, “Collection” (2017), repackaged incipient Soccer Mommy classics like “Inside Out” and “3 AM at a Party” in a glossier case alongside newer standouts such as “Allison” and “Out Worn.”  

Like any good pop artist, Allison writes catchy melodies but channels something sadder, a little more bittersweet.  

The instrumental palette of her earlier albums reflected their creative conditions, as lo-fi often does when it’s not phonily orchestrated; the tape hiss or the fuzz was indicative of Allison’s technological means, still recording in her bedroom, and then later, her dorm room.  

Still, the inconsequential realities of teen angst were magnified in her lyrics, with the songs reliant on two nearly opposing sides: peppy twee excursions with knotty guitar leads in tandem with quiet, stretched-out ruminations. 

She’s only one year older, but “Collection” and “Clean” exhibit a songwriter coming into her own with new recording techniques at her disposal since signing to Fat Possum Records.  

On “Clean,” Allison leans into the ruminative side, with brief echoes of electronic production slipping in to the mix that mimic the tape or the fuzz.  

She holds on to the backbone of her music – the guitar – but the production value is higher this time. It is clear she is intent on letting the guitar tones shine, which she does with enthusiasm on the opener “Still Clean.”  

In “Still Clean,” her lover is likened to an animal, and in “Your Dog,” the role is reversed to illuminate the degrading constraints of an abusive relationship. Her potent use of metaphor is a sign of her matured songwriting, with “Your Dog” being the most overtly spiky song Soccer Mommy has ever written.   

The best tracks on “Clean” exist in the space between the two previously opposing sides of her music, ones that build to an explosion rather than sticking to one mode. The pep of “Last Girl” and “Cool” are nice, but downtempo slow-burners like “Flaw” and “Wildflowers” showcase just how far Allison’s songwriting has progressed.  

Her pop inclinations are most interesting on “Skin,” a track that perfectly balances her two sides. She is more assured, not as fixated on the throes of angst but on the feelings one gets when they look back on them.  

This is particularly effective in the minimal “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” which buries a floating keyboard line in its background. Even if it seems minimal, the production sneakily includes flourishes that reward the listener after several listens.  

Allison has surprisingly come a long way from her bedroom to a more public audience in just two years or so. This is a promising start for someone still dealing with adolescent angst, even as she moves past its drama and nervous outlook. I look forward to seeing more of her in my daily news.  

 

Soccer Mommy, whose Bandcamp account I first stumbled upon deep in the depths of another artist’s Twitter, is now being covered in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times with the release of her debut studio album, “Clean.” This trajectory strikes me out of the blue – one week I’m listening to her pronouncedly lo-fi compositions in the most arcane way, pressing play on an embedded file in almost hidden webpage, and next I’m seeing them pop up in the daily news.  

 

This wouldn’t always surprise me, except I never considered Sophie Allison’s music the kind that would yield such public praise. Her songs, meek in their patient guitar-based pop, are the last subjects I’d expect to be the focus of a New York Times article boldly titled “Hear What Music Will Sound Like in 2018.”  

 

That is not to say they aren’t worthy subjects; on Allison’s past releases, she managed to distill entire decades of indie rock and lo-fi pop down into sweet, short 30-minute affairs. Her last album, “Collection” (2017), repackaged incipient Soccer Mommy classics like “Inside Out” and “3 AM at a Party” in a glossier case alongside newer standouts such as “Allison” and “Out Worn.”  

 

Like any good pop artist, Allison writes catchy melodies but channels something sadder, a little more bittersweet. The instrumental palette of her earlier albums reflected their creative conditions, as lo-fi often does when it’s not phonily orchestrated; the tape hiss or the fuzz was indicative of Allison’s technological means, still recording in her bedroom, and then later, her dorm room.  

 

Still, the inconsequential realities of teen angst were magnified in her lyrics, with the songs reliant on two nearly opposing sides: peppy twee excursions with knotty guitar leads in tandem with quiet, stretched-out ruminations. She’s only one year older, but “Collection” and “Clean” exhibit a songwriter coming into her own with new recording techniques at her disposal since signing to Fat Possum Records.  

 

On “Clean,” Allison leans into the ruminative side, with brief echoes of electronic production slipping in to the mix that mimic the tape or the fuzz. She holds on to the backbone of her music – the guitar – but the production value is higher this time. It is clear she is intent on letting the guitar tones shine, which she does with enthusiasm on the opener “Still Clean.”  

 

In “Still Clean,” her lover is likened to an animal, and in “Your Dog,” the role is reversed to illuminate the degrading constraints of an abusive relationship. Her potent use of metaphor is a sign of her matured songwriting, with “Your Dog” being the most overtly spiky song Soccer Mommy has ever written.   

 

The best tracks on “Clean” exist in the space between the two previously opposing sides of her music, ones that build to an explosion rather than sticking to one mode. Peppy excursions “Last Girl” and “Cool” are nice, but downtempo slow-burners, like “Flaw” and “Wildflowers” showcase just how far Allison’s songwriting has progressed.  

 

Her pop inclinations are most interesting on “Skin,” a track that perfectly balances her two sides. She is more assured, not as fixated on the throes of angst but on the feelings one gets when they look back on them. This is particularly effective in the minimal “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” which hides a floating keyboard line in its background. Even if it seems minimal, the production sneakily includes flourishes that reward the listener after several listens.  

 

Allison has surprisingly come a long way from her bedroom to a more public audience in just two years or so. This is a promising start for someone still dealing with adolescent angst, even as she moves past its drama and nervous outlook. I look forward to seeing more of her in my daily news.  

 

 Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 2.25.43 PM

Morris avoids traps of pop, does it right

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 1.40.39 PM

Rae Morris is new to the pop that her second album, “Someone Out There,” is steeped in – but she is familiar with good songwriting. When those two elements come together, Morris obliterates the sophomore slump into mere myth.  

I had not become acquainted with Morris until she started promoting “Someone Out There” with its second single, “Do It.” For such an outright pop song, Morris seems unconcerned with the regular trappings of a pop career – no flashy music videos replete with synchronized choreography or outlandish scenarios, no attempts to hurriedly solidify an “image” that is somewhat forcibly induced, unintentionally drawing themselves into an aesthetic or sonic box.  

Pop musicians are rightly concerned with the extras (or, alternately, the expectations) that come along with the job, especially when it comes to the American market. 

It’s just refreshing to see Morris confidently tread the path without the extras. Where some may have to rely on those extras to bolster or supplement the music they are putting out, Morris’ music is strong enough without them.  

Her first album was cluttered with one too many ballads, in the vein of the singer-songwriter genre that saturates the waters across the pond. Morris herself is British, but she wrote and recorded much of “Someone Out There” in Los Angeles, California.  

She breaks away from the balladry to offer more variety on this album, and finds herself tipping into keyboard synths instead of the strings and piano of her previous work.  

There is a wide-eyed buoyancy to “Someone Out There,” a quality Morris shares with many other pop artists singing about the foibles of being young and looking (or not looking) for love. Morris is not solely servicing that genre expectation, though. There is a maturity and a sincerity embedded in Morris’ pop that is, to evoke the cliché, a breath of fresh air.  

“Push Me to My Limit” is a glacial opener that serves the same auditory purpose as an orchestra tuning up. It is a brief preface to one of the centerpieces of the album, the marching “Reborn,” which has its production values focused on a hypnotically repetitive pattern that recalls the electronic experimentation and grandeur of Björk.  

The fizzy “Atletico (The Only One)” finds her trading out the driving vocal plateaus required by “Reborn” for a nimble vocal delivery that hops up and down the scale, making it not only a talented feat on Morris’ part but the most sheer fun of the whole tracklist.  

The middle section of the album slips appropriately into mid-tempo contemplation; “Wait for the Rain” is enveloped in the best kind of pop catharsis: an extended water metaphor that ends in Morris’ steely tones reaching skyward.  

“Lower the Tone” is a touchingly vulnerable slow burn, vocoder lending the song a hushed timbre that further diversifies the album. “Physical Form” and “Someone Out There” are perfectly okay ballads, but they end up falling short of the great left-field pop songs “Dip My Toe” and “Rose Garden.”  

Where “Dip My Toe” has a persistent beat, “Rose Garden” exemplifies an effective and surprising tonal shift between the verse and the chorus, and it supplies the most experimental song structure Morris plays with. If the production on “Rose Garden” wasn’t striking enough, the empathic subject matter gives it a discernible heartbeat.  

None of the tracks are filler; Morris means what she says and her earnest vocals back her up on that. The lyrics can be ham-fisted at times, but that is easy to forgive upon arriving at the closing track, “Dancing With Character,” the inspiration for which she culled from her best friend’s grandparents. 

What works for her on every song is the healthy balance of innovative pop and sincere emotion. When every song is doing something unique, that is hard to pull off – but she does it.  

Grammy Awards receive backlash over snubs

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

In case you don’t exist somewhere on the internet where people talk about music, collective heads rolled in outrage after the 60th annual Grammy Awards were held on Jan. 28. Usually I concede and watch the ceremony despite its continuously disappointing three hours of television. This year, however, I abstained from watching it at all.   

I could not have known that this would end up being more an act of rebellion than the act of laze that it was initially. It is hard to care about the Grammys when its praise has been misplaced time and time again. Even Adele acknowledged how out-of-touch the awards had become when she won the Grammy for Album of the Year last year, expressing a sentiment shared by many: that Beyoncé should have won the very Grammy Adele was holding.   

Then again, perhaps it is silly to put faith in a ceremony that gives its biggest awards to the most financially successful mainstream pop music. It has always been an issue that the ceremony just takes itself too seriously – why pretend that the interests of the Grammys lie outside of chart popularity when most of their logic around naming nominees and giving awards is based on that system?    

There is a certain attitude amongst particular groups of music listeners and critics that the Grammys are rigged, but nonetheless they still view and participate in discussion about them in the hopes that maybe, things will be different next time. The backlash against the Grammys this year, however, was tinged with the politics of an issue currently garnering attention.   

In light of the recent #MeToo movement attempting to confront the widespread issue of sexual assault in various industries, artists at the Grammys wore white roses to signal their alignment with the cause. This proved to bleed through to what viewers had expected of the awards ceremony; there were a wealth of women nominees – but only three women ended up going home with an award from the main award categories presented on the televised show.   

Watching the backlash unfold on Twitter was basically like viewing the show itself with an endless commentary loop, and people vocalized their discontent about the Grammys snubbing almost all of the women who had been nominated in their respective categories.  

There was an expectation amongst the audience pooled on my own social media that this year had to be different – that the considerations of gender and diversity as of late would have to have some bearing on the outcome of the awards ceremony.   

Tweets about these snubs and the outrage that followed racked up hundreds of thousands of engagements in the form of likes and shares.  

How could Kesha, a woman who had just recently confronted her abuse by pop producer Dr. Luke both in court and in song form (which was Grammy-nominated), lose to Ed Sheeran, an artist that admitted his winning song was created specifically for the charts?  

How could only three women (Alessia Cara and the country group Little Big Town) win Grammys when many women had been nominated in all of the categories? These types of questions were asked at length by the audience I witnessed online.   

It was in the shadow of these considerations that my choice to not invest time or energy in either watching the Grammys or caring about them took on a pallor of protestation. One question from the audience I follow was louder than the rest: Do the Grammys have a gender problem?   

It seems odd to ask for an award show to dole out justice in the form of shiny gold trophies. Should we expect these institutions in media to reflect perfectly the concerns of the time?  

Don’t get me wrong – of course, women should be nominated for and win awards. But should hopes for gender parity be rested on or expected from an institution like the Grammys, one that has been losing its cultural credibility slowly for a while now?   

I don’t think there is an easy answer. There is a counterargument, too: the Grammys are supposed to award the “best” music in each category. Are the Grammys truly “snubbing” women artists if they awarded the “best?”  

Is it possible that none of the women nominated had music worth awarding? A rebuttal to this would take some time to flesh out the dynamics of the issues women have faced in the music industry, and we would be here for far longer than the space allotted. It would also have to be a given that the Grammys’ criterion for what is worthy of an award are completely sound and fair (which I am sure can be contested).   

The outrage had something to do with the taste of the audience I saw responding; they clearly skew toward women artists in general, but that doesn’t discount the fact that there were viral tweets about the problem perceived. This suggests a wider audience online than reflected in my relatively small sample size.   

This response showcased the Grammys’ audience – but what about the people running the Grammys? What did they have to say to that audience? Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy in charge of the Grammys, definitely had something interesting (or rather, ridiculous) to say.  

His response to questions of why so few of the nominated women were awarded goes like this: “It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level,” he said. “[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.”  

This quote exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding of the very industry Portnow has a prominent position in.  

Do we want to get into how women have been explicitly discouraged from becoming music producers? Do we want to get into the testimonies from countless women that upon expressing the desire to start their music careers, they were told by their label that they must change their image or appearance? And that is just the tip of the iceberg.  

It is not a question of wanting or not wanting on women’s behalf, and to pinpoint that as the issue is profusely ignorant.   

Following his statement, 20 women from the music industry penned a letter calling for Portnow’s resignation from his position. Before their letter, though, the outcry from others had caused Portnow to issue an apology for his statement.   

Their letter was released around the same time that Portnow announced a new initiative at the Recording Academy – a task force for the advancement of women in the music community.  

Hopefully this is not just lip service, but I don’t think anyone should hold their breath. In the meantime, I will continue to care less about the Grammys.   

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 11.54.40 PM

Charli XCX propels PC music forward with ‘Pop 2″

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Charli XCX isn’t afraid to express big emotions in a deceptively simple pop song – she’s been doing it since 2013 when she released her debut album, “True Romance.”  

That album was comparatively “experimental” (what some were calling it) to the pop others were doing, and it earned her a devoted following. Her second album, “Sucker” (2015) was a paltry attempt at recapturing her former glory, and that wasn’t good enough for her fans.  

I was in that camp, too, as it turns out. Convinced of her greatness but hesitantly supporting the work she submitted on “Sucker,” I nearly gave up altogether when I realized the album just didn’t live up to the hype. Shortly thereafter when she announced her shift toward “PC music,” I was ready to rescind my skepticism and love her music again.  

Allow me to turn the clocks back to March 2016, when I wrote about PC music and Charli XCX for our beloved newspaper.  

I credited PC music to London-based producer A.G. Cook, the owner of a record label dedicated to conceiving PC music as a network of pop artists designing their output in its mold. Cook could be seen as the forefather of the genre, and it was by his hand that it ended up a genre in the first place.  

I will paraphrase my definition of PC music from that article: literally defined as “personal computer” music, PC music is heavily computerized electronic pop music, made to sound hyper-real, hyper-digitalized, and even hyper-artificial.  

Imagine the noises a PC from 2008 made when sputtering into its dial-up connection, and you come close to understanding the basic conceit of PC music.  

As I credited A.G. Cook with PC music’s inception, I credited Charli XCX with the task of bringing PC music to the wider audience it desired. Her 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom” was just that – the introduction of PC music to her fanbase.  

She had made a grand gesture to initiate herself into its ranks, stating that she was to have her own PC music label. This was what her music sounded like now, she seemed to assert, so get used to it.  

Funnily enough, I felt the way about “Vroom Vroom” the way I did about “Sucker,” and I panned it in my aforementioned March 2016 review. The problem, I recognize now, was that “Vroom Vroom” seemed mostly like her stylistic meet-cute with the sounds that populated PC music’s vocabulary. 

It lacked the big emotions that made “True Romance” so timeless. Without that focused center, its lyrics were often shallow in their send-ups of sports cars and trophies, and the music suffered.  

It’s impossible to subsist on a diet of air – which is what some PC music ends up sounding like without the dramatic and vulnerable emotions to back it up.  

My recognition of the necessity of emotion to PC music stems, ironically, from XCX’s 2017 mixtape “Number 1 Angel.” XCX succeeded in matching those big emotions to the sonic anomaly of PC music. Incredibly, she continues this on her second mixtape “Pop 2,” released just last December. 

It clearly took a little bit of historical reframing to get to the actual review within this article, just like it took XCX a little bit of time to situate herself comfortably within the genre of PC music. I can’t fault her for needing time to practice her skills; of course, hindsight is 20/20, and I wouldn’t have panned her EP if I had known what was to come. 

On “Pop 2” (produced by A.G. Cook), style does not overtake substance like it did on “Vroom Vroom”; instead, XCX seems to acknowledge that style is the carrier pigeon to her strongly-worded letter.  

Where “Number One Angel” balanced the silly with the serious, “Pop 2” finds XCX more intent on advancing PC music into its next incarnation. 

And this incarnation is perhaps more nuanced than before: opener “Backseat” (feat. Carly Rae Jepsen) softens its pulse for the verses so that the chorus can explode, and “Out of My Head” (feat. Tove Lo and Alma) employs a minimal instrumental, relying on the voices to orchestrate the bulk of the track.  

“Backseat,” “Delicious” (feat. Tommy Cash) and standout track “Tears” (feat. Caroline Polachek) present a more anguished XCX, importantly drawing from the reservoir of those big emotions.  

For all the hot air PC music is apt to push around, she’ll pop the balloon and leave its pretty tatters on the ground. “Tears” is particularly gorgeous, Polachek’s slow-motion horror movie scream lending the background an electric charge while cascading keys arpeggiate atop it.  

Unlike “Number One Angel,” XCX lets the tracks wander more, content to devolve into repetition and spiraling beats (which are a highlight throughout the whole mixtape). Notable tracks “I Got It” (feat. Brooke Candy, CupcakKe and Pabllo Vittar) and “Unlock It” (feat. Kim Petras and Jay Park) are the most fun you could have listening to songs that rest their entire weight on three syllables.  

The number of featured artists manages not to swallow her up, and that is more a testament to the precision of her vision – PC music is a constant collaboration, and she holds that dear to the project.  

“Femmebot” (feat. Dorian Electra and Mykki Blanco) deals in the high-fructose corn syrup synths familiar to the genre, but it is the only one of its kind on this mixtape.  

That’s probably for the best, because it makes room for XCX to include what are ultimately two of the best tracks (and interestingly, the two that do not feature another artist). “Lucky” has an intro that sounds like the Kanye West song “Wolves,” and honestly that’s a compliment. But what matters more is the type of balladry that XCX puts forth: its slow burn is only improved by the auto tune, which fits her voice like a glove.  

If anything, “Lucky” serenades from some futuristic place, one we don’t have access to yet. It’s during these moments that XCX reaches past stylistic flourish and purely becomes the style.  

With the closing track, fittingly titled “Track 10,” this point is taken further. People called PC music a fad, something that would fade out as quickly as it arrived. “Track 10” is trancelike, and the mechanics of the style fall away when the parts come together this well. In the sublimation XCX achieves, I can see a brighter future for PC music if it continues to advance with her at the helm.  Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 1.25.01 PM

A look at 2018’s top pop releases

By Paige Daniel

Thoughts Editor

Pop music is at a bit of a crossroads right now – it seems like anything has the potential to be a hit, while the pre-eminent pop stars of our youth crash and burn (sorry, Katy Perry).  

The charts are unpredictable as well, with hits coming out of left-field like Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and the ex-Fifth Harmony underdog Camila Cabello somehow managing to snag a number one spot with “Havana,” despite how overwhelmingly the charts have been dominated by men (looking at you, Ed Sheeran).  

People even surmised that women in pop were facing a period of stagnation, as a slew of new singles by women failed to crack the top 10. The pop charts are hugely rap and R&B focused these days, with pure pop being pushed out in favor of hybrid styles that mesh trap, rock, R&B and rap.  

It’s not always the best to pledge allegiance to the charts as someone who is interested in the history and trajectory of pop music. I nailed down a few artists who are expected to release new music this year, but you may notice that few of them are “chart-toppers”; in the economy of pop, as some call it, there is a new precedent wherein fringe artists are still able to achieve a level of success. Even if you haven’t heard of them, they are making waves in their respective internet pools. 

 

Kimbra 

Kimbra is a pop artist who hails from New Zealand, though you might remember her from Gotye’s hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.”  

That song sorely underutilized her abilities and is kind of disappointing when you compare it to everything Kimbra has done on her own. Her vocal flair is hard to describe without falling back on tired clichés – it’s that good.  

Her debut album “Vows” found her with one foot heavily in a traditional pop sound and the other aiming for the funk stratosphere, and then her second album, “The Golden Echo,” made it clear that she had decided to experiment even more.  

The three songs released so far from her new album, “Primal Heart,” are very high quality; “Everybody Knows” is a driving damnation of a characteristically bad person, while “Top of the World” has an unusual tribal beat and a surprising bass passage that will singe your eyebrows off. She just released a third song, “Human,” which continues to foretell the greatness of “Primal Heart.”  

 

Tinashe 

No other current R&B artist has been wronged more by their record label than Tinashe. Originally introduced as Beyoncé’s eventual successor (which is just unfair), Tinashe only has one amazing debut album to her name, 2014’s “Aquarius.”  

She was put in production limbo by her label, and her attempt at a second album release ultimately sputtered and failed thanks to their halting efforts.  

Then she released a mixtape, “Nightride” (2016). “Nightride” allowed her to explore her taste for dark, nocturnal R&B while her label consistently screwed her out of major success.  

Poor label decision after poor label decision piled up; without giving her a choice in the matter, they paired her up with noted abuser Chris Brown for her song “Player” in the hopes of it charting (hint: it failed).  

She seems to be officially trying her hand at a second album release this year with the single “No Drama.” Maybe this is the year she breaks into a wider audience, but if she doesn’t, I’ll just keep her talent to myself and that’s fine too.  

 

Troye Sivan 

Troye Sivan is a pretty big deal for the online LGBTQ+ community, as his 2015 album “Blue Neighbourhood” found him dealing with explicitly queer themes in front of a bigger audience than is usually afforded for most LGBTQ+ artists. “Blue Neighbourhood” was just a glimpse of what he has to offer, so his yet-unreleased album looks promising.  

He made a slick entry in the worthy Jeopardy category of “music videos in empty warehouses” for his new song “My My My!” and also released “The Good Side” shortly before his performance on Saturday Night Live last weekend.  

 

Carly Rae Jepsen 

Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “Emotion” is a sleeper hit, lauded by critics and fans yet finding no major chart success. The lack of chart success doesn’t really matter when there is an online community so devoted to singing the album’s praises that they’ve been making memes about it since its release.  

Jepsen reportedly has a new album in the process of being completed; where “Emotion” played with a retro 80s sound, she claims this next album will be focused on disco.  

Her revivalist tendencies are never pastiche or hollow, and fans are already revving up the hype machine for her fourth release that is unnamed.  

 

Ariana Grande 

Ariana Grande by now is a superstar, and she has been teasing a new album in the works for a few weeks. “Dangerous Woman” (2016) is seriously one of the best pop albums in years (zero hyperbole there), which could partially be chalked up to its intense Max Martin contributions.  

This time around, she is working with legendary pop producer Pharrell Williams for her fourth album; this follows the tragic terrorist attack at one of her concerts that had people questioning when, or even if, she would return to the pop scene.  

 

Grimes 

Grimes barely hinted at a possible 2018 release in a reply to a fan on Twitter and I kind of freaked out, because my love for Grimes knows no bounds. The album is just an idea in my head and is probably stewing somewhere on Grimes’ laptop, but whatever, I’m definitely on this hype train. 

Grimes produces all her music herself (this is sort of a big deal, especially with there being a glaring absence of women producers in the music industry), and is unapologetically experimenting with each new release.  

 

Charlie Puth 

Okay. Let me explain this one. When I learned that Charlie Puth’s whole bland enterprise was initially put-on for the sake of drawing a wide audience, I couldn’t help but be simultaneously peeved and relieved. 

He claimed in an interview that his debut album, “Nine Track Mind,” was purposefully saccharine and lukewarm so as to appeal to the lowest common denominator and chart. Of course, he also said that attaining his level of success now allows him to do what he actually wants to with his music.  

He was one of the newer pop stars I abhorred the most, and it’s safe to say the tide has turned on that one given the quality of his recent singles, “Attention” and “How Long.” His expected release, “Voicenotes,” has been delayed after advertised to be out in the first months of the year.  

He is another producer like Grimes who insists on producing all of their music themselves, which again, is no small feat. And Puth is talented, as he is formally trained in music composition (he would know how to write a catchy pop song). I thought it would be a cold day in hell until I admitted I was looking forward to a new release from him, but he proved me wrong.  

 

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 4.27.22 PM

Daniel’s, Cahill’s top 25 albums of 2017

By Paige Daniel and Zac Cahill

Thoughts Editor and Copy Editor

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 3.11.29 PM

Zac and I joined forces for a special installment in the opinion section to share each of our top 25 albums of 2017. I know I said I hate lists, but this seemed like a necessary evil — there were too many great albums in 2017 to not compile a list!

Zac ranked his top 25 albums, though you should note that I am still raging against the list by not ranking mine with numbers. I guess that is some kind of protest. I hope our blurbs will compel you to check out an artist or band you haven’t listened to yet.

Now that 2017 is a wrap, it’s time to look back on some of the strongest releases of the year.

  1. Big K.R.I.T. – “4eva is a Mighty Long Time”

Bursting at the seams with nearly equal parts Southern-rap bangers and Gospel tracks, this is K.R.I.T.s largest, most ambitious and most exciting album yet.

Favorite song: “Subenstein (My Sub IV)”

  1. Phoebe Bridgers – “Stranger in the Alps”

Meditative and searching, Phoebe Bridgers’ debut is a unique and personal look at the highs and lows of relationships and their subsequent fallouts, whether positive or negative.

Favorite song: “Scott Street”

  1. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

Coming after his groundbreaking record “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick’s latest is a victory lap without any of the complacence as he strives, once again, to prove his place as one of hip-hop’s greats – DAMN. doesn’t quite rise to its predecessor, but it finds Kendrick still at the same technical/songwriting peak.

Favorite song: “DNA”

  1. Julie Byrne – “Not Even Happiness”

Quiet and understated, Julie Byrne’s latest is a beautiful collection of acoustic folk tunes that vary from the blissfully serene to the utterly heartbreaking.

Favorite song: “Natural Blue”

  1. Björk – “Utopia”

One of the great musicians of our era, Björk’s new album finds her in the throes of love, and with much-appreciated production from Arca added to the mix, “Utopia” is a dense yet glistening art-pop album and a welcome addition to her catalogue.

Favorite song: “Losss”

  1. Thundercat – “Drunk”

A jazzy and invigorating hip-hop album, “Drunk” is playful yet profound, balancing the mundane of day-to-day actions with the complex emotions which arise as a result of these things; as affecting for its performance and composition as for its content.

Favorite song: “The Turn Down”

  1. Bleachers – “Gone Now”

A fun, emotional (Jack Antonoff could write a hit ballad with both arms tied behind his back) pop-rock record – a masterclass in the redemptive power of chorus vocals and larger than life pianos and simply one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

Favorite song:  “Everybody Lost Somebody”

  1. Iglooghost – “Neō Wax Bloom”

None of the instrumentals on Iglooghost’s latest are looped or sampled. Colorful and schizophrenic; jazzy and electronic; free-forming and expansive, “Neō Wax Bloom” is a mind-altering journey into itself and the best instrumental album I’ve heard in ages.

Favorite song: “Bug Thief”

  1. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Polygondwanaland

Impeccably performed and written, with their usual trademark prog-rock jams and end-of-the-world prophesying, “Polygondwanaland” is King Gizzard at their best (at least of 2017, in which they released a total of five albums) and most interesting.

Favorite song: “Crumbling Castle”

  1. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked at Me”

The most heartbreaking album of 2017. Phil Elverum’s descent into the raw emotions that consumed him following his wife’s death, “A Crow Looked at Me” is a real, palpable meditation on death and its effect on the living.

Favorite song: “Soria Moria”

  1. Paramore – “After Laughter”

Paramore’s best album to date, an out-of-left-field pop-rock album loaded with one good tune after another – not the technical peak of 2017’s music, but certainly a high point purely from a songwriting standpoint.

Favorite song: “Hard Times”

  1. Lorde – “Melodrama”

More bold, mature and artistic than we’ve previously seen her, Lorde’s “Melodrama” shifts her from young popstar to a more immediately affecting songwriter with an excellent ear for production and a lyrical attention to detail that is most praiseworthy.

Favorite song: “The Louvre”

  1. Vince Staples – “Big Fish Theory”

Vince Staples’ latest record is a brash, smart hip-hop album with some of the best production of the year. From its more EDM-inspired tracks to its slow-burners, “Big Fish Theory” is nothing if not a showcase of the sheer scope of Vince’s personality and technical skill.

Favorite song: “745”

  1. Fleet Foxes – “Crack-Up”

Their most sonically dense album to date, “Crack-Up” finds Robin Pecknold and company more introspective, musing about inner thoughts amongst perpetually swelling and receding instrumentation; Fleet Foxes’ best record to date.

Favorite song: “I Should See Memphis”

  1. HAIM – “Something to Tell You”

Some of the sweetest, catchiest soft rock of 2017; HAIM’s distinct personality and skilled performances make for one of the most simply fun albums of the year.

Favorite song: “Right Now”

  1. Charli XCX – “Pop 2”

A late-year release that helped solidify Charli’s position as one of the most exciting new voices in pop, “Pop 2” is an expansive, brilliant pop record, chock-full of self-confidence and relationship woes and drug use against some of PC Music’s most forward thinking, sweetly seductive production yet.

Favorite song: “I Got It”

  1. Alvvays – “Antisocialites

Shimmering and sweet as candy, featuring Alvvays’ signature jangly, dreamy guitars and keyboards, “Antisocialites” feels so sincerely wide-eyed in its indie-pop sentiments it’s impossible not to instantly fall in love.

Favorite song: “Plimsoll Punks”

  1. The National – “Sleep Well Beast”

The National’s best album since 2007’s “Boxer,” “Sleep Well Beast” finds Matt Berninger’s whiskey-soaked baritone crooning opposite some of the best-composed songs the band has ever compiled – the result is an album with such a deeply felt sense of mood and presence it’s difficult to shake off even after multiple listens.

Favorite song: “Nobody Else Will Be There”

  1. Brockhampton – “Saturation II”

One of the greatest breakout successes of 2017, “Saturation II” is one of three albums released by hip-hop boyband Brockhampton, and in my opinion the best. Stellar, energetic and full to the brim with the group’s infectious vibe; impossible to listen to without dancing.

Favorite song: “JUNKY”

  1. Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy”

Josh Tillman’s most bare-bones album to date, and certainly his most dense in both lyrical subject and diction, “Pure Comedy” is ultimately immensely rewarding – Tillman’s witty ruminations on modern entertainment and capitalism are varied and chock full of timely lyrics alongside its lowkey yet gorgeous instruementals.

Favorite song: “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”

  1. Tyler, the Creator – “Flower Boy”

The hip-hop album of the year. A bright, creative new direction for the young rapper, one which ultimately proves itself to pay off in spades. “Flower Boy” improves on every aspect of Tyler’s repertoire – his flows and delivery are near-perfect and his production has never felt so in sync with his songs and which his self.

Favorite song: “Glitter”

  1. Feist – “Pleasure”

The most lo-fi yet best written of Feist’s albums, “Pleasure” is a collection of brilliant songs brilliantly performed; a catalogue of emotional meditation and an expert example of pure song-crafting.

Favorite song: “Any Party”

  1. Perfume Genius – “No Shape”

Ranging from musically stark to sweetly shimmering, “No Shape” is an intensely metaphysical record, an odyssey of sorts into the varied and complex elements of Mike Hadreas’ psyche. An album which feels simultaneously rooted in tradition and leagues ahead of its time.

Favorite song: “Valley”

  1. LCD Soundsystem – “American Dream”

An album about the death of our ideals, of our idols, of our own notions of self-fulfillment; a wise and necessary album of exciting sonic ideas and throwbacks as well as some of LCD Soundsystem’s best songwriting to date.

Favorite song: “how do you sleep?”

  1. St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

The glam-rock of the future. This latest bold statement of one of the most exciting artists of the 21st Century, St. Vincent’s latest album (and incarnation as an artist) is her boldest and most interesting work yet. It is an album which is bolstered simply by its across-the-board amazing songs and tangible aesthetic. The best collection of tracks released in 2017, period.

Favorite song: “Young Lover”

 

Fleet Foxes – “Crack-Up”

Robin Pecknold and co. pull no punches when it comes to the multi-layered instrumentals and dense lyrics on their most challenging album to date. Timely, complicated, and beautiful, “Crack-Up” is a necessary piece of art in uncertain times.

Best Track: “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”

Marika Hackman – “I’m Not Your Man”

Hackman deftly tackles romance, illness, dependence and youth on her second album that  nds her testing new sonic territory. Her way with words is enough to propel the heavier topics into a mangled gorgeousness that is worthy of great drama.

Best Track: “Gina’s World”

Japanese Breakfast – “Soft Sounds From Another

Planet”

Michelle Zauner brings ethereality down to earth with her unflinching attention to memory, trauma and loss. Outer space has a new soundtrack.

Best Track: “Till Death”

SZA – “CTRL”

On an endlessly re-playable and relatable release by one of R&B’s best new talents, SZA hits the sweet spot of emotional depth and catchy songcraft with “CTRL.” This album is like hanging out with your friends.

Best Track: “Drew Barrymore”

Kelela – “Take Me Apart”

Kelela definitely isn’t a mere mortal like the rest of us. There are far too many great moments on this risk-taking and intense album. Kelela makes statements, not songs.

Best Track: “Enough”

St. Vincent –

“MASSEDUCTION”

St. Vincent is a bona  de star and mixes sharp pop with her trademark oddball rock. Clever, touching and intelligent. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Best Track: “Slow Disco” Lorde – “Melodrama

Lorde is a pop prodigy with magical powers. “Melodrama” is about a party and its aftermath, its glitter and trash and popped balloons. She captures joy, euphoria and heartbreak in a matter of 40 compact minutes, but you’ll wish it never ended.

Best Track: “Perfect Places” Phoebe Bridgers

“Stranger in the Alps”

You’ll probably need some tissues for this one. Should come with a warning label.

Best Track: “Motion Sickness”

Hippo Campus “Landmark”

Sun-dappled and full of youthful vigor. There are a lot of fun guitar sounds on this album that make it perfect for a sunny day in May, but it holds up even after it gets dark out thanks to the depth of feeling and intent this young band provides.

Best Track: “Epitaph”

 Paramore – “After Laughter”

Hayley Williams graduated from a young emo to an adult emo who likes new wave now and she’s not afraid to cry in front of you. “After Laughter” is a happy album about being sad and you can dance to it, too.

Best Track: “Fake Happy”

Jay Som – “Everybody

Works”

If you feel lost in your twenties, Melina Duterte can relate. Fuzzy bedroom pop for when you call in sick and stay inside.

Best Track: “The Bus Song”

Declan McKenna – “What Do You Think About the

Car?”

A 19-year-old wrote a rock album about… everything? Politics, religion, drugs, interpersonal relationships, generational anxiety, LGBTQ+ issues, suicide, poverty, corruption in the international sports community… it’s all there and handled with care by McKenna who is nothing short of a huge talent.

Best Track: “Brazil”

Laura Marling – “Semper

Femina

Friendships between women are the best. Laura Marling agrees with me and wrote some poetry about it.

Best Track: “Always This Way”

Demi Lovato – “Tell Me You Love Me”

Lovato ditched the vestiges of her Disney stardom for good this time and delivered a mature, cohesive collection of songs that successfully showcase the nuances of her powerhouse vocals.

Best Track: “Tell Me You Love Me”

Sampha – “Process”

Sampha takes alternative R&B to another level with his intricate compositions that are nearly futuristic in their grace and have a whole lot of heart.

Best Track: “Reverse Faults” Syd – “Fin”

Deliriously good pop R&B from a woman who knows exactly what she wants.

Best Track: “Know”

Perfume Genius – “No

Shape”

A glorious, delightfully wonky and o -kilter exploration of where exactly love begins and ends.

Best Track: “Wreath”

Land of Talk – “Life After

Youth”

Elizabeth Powell’s underrated band made a comeback that is as meditative as it is impulsive.

Best Track: “This Time” Grizzly Bear – “Painted

Ruins”

Ominously dark stuff  from a band that is constantly growing older and wiser.

Best Track: “Three Rings” Charli XCX – “No. 1 Angel”

Is this an album? Is this a mixtape? It doesn’t matter. Charli XCX is pushing the boundaries of pop and giving it her all. “No. 1 Angel” is a seriously wild and playful release that gets better the more you listen.

 Best Track: “ILY2”

Muna – “About U”

Muna is an all-girl synth pop band with an overwhelming amount of love to give. “About U” is less about others and more about the relationship we have with ourselves.

Best Track: “Everything”

 Remo Drive – “Greatest

Hits”

This whole album is so recklessly fun you’ll forget where you are for its duration. Pop punk for when you  nd yourself thinking about home too much.

Best Track: “Art School”

Allie X – “CollXtion II”

Allie X plays into pop clichés and turns it into an art form – her smart and meticulous electropop is not to be tampered with.

Best Track: “Casanova” Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

Lamar has been the one to beat for the past few years and this album proves he is not going anywhere soon. “DAMN.” seems like his response to the (racist) backlash against his second album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He will not let them have the last word in his story, and he lets the  ames fan his exit.

Best Track: “DNA.”

Tei Shi – “Crawl Space”

On her  first album, Tei Shi makes a mysterious contribution to the gallery of sleek pop that is in abundance these days.

Best Track: “Keep Running”

WordPress.com.

Up ↑