Monday, December 18th, 2017

Lolita Zero – Get Frighten

Lithuania might not have wanted this for Eurovision, but what do we think?


[Video]
[6.30]

Will Adams: What the hell kind of person would come up with this fanfic of a song that’s The Saturdays’ cover of “Just Can’t Get Enough” but gaudier, sung by someone with the emotional heft of Jamala and then presented as a Lip Sync For Your Life? Me, probably.
[6]

Ian Mathers: Maybe this works especially well for me because yes, I do agree that “ain’t nothing’s obvious” is sufficient cause to get frightened. But pick a couple of likely-sounding lines and cycle them this forcefully over a post-New Order set of arpeggios and you’ve probably got me anyway.
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: Be it revelation or illusion, anything can become profound if repeated often enough. “Nothing’s obvious” — and what better proof could you need than this song and its performance? “Nothing’s obvious” — and so why search for reason? “Nothing’s obvious” — and so maybe the reason is in letting it go and letting go. “Get Frighten” kind of appears to be a joke, but it’s hard to really tell. Its arcane mantra and dizzied synths are only the beginning of its beguiling surreality, but what it offers on a simpler level is encouragement borne of a sense of release. “Get frighten” is the more invigorating “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Little in 2017 could have transmitted such shareable power as Lolita Zero in a giant cape and pyrotechnic horns, destroying watermelons with a fist.
[9]

Alfred Soto: It didn’t frighten me, but it did get me moving. Imagine Fever Ray freaking out over a rattling sequencer.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: *opens up Gmail, types in a frenzy* PITCH: The Enduring Influence of Al Walser
[3]

Brad Shoup: I just went to take the garbage and compost cans to the curb so I wouldn’t start crying on our couch. I mean, imagine almost all of 2017 passing, and you didn’t know that someone trapped La Roux’s “Fascination” vocal in a basement disco. I really thought my single of the year was going to be “TBT,” but the winner takes it all. You know?
[10]

Katie Gill: Who’s ready for questions about authenticity politics for DAYS? Does it really count as a singer performing something if the majority of the song is sung by a back-up singer and the performer lip-synced the majority of the song in the live performance? Does the fact that it’s a drag performer mean we should overlook the lip sync, as lip syncing’s become a well-known part of drag culture? Or is all of this overthinking and putting way too much emphasis on a song that sounds like a basic club hit from the 1990s that somehow got resurrected in 2017 with having absolutely nothing change from the 1990s? I’m going for the last option. There’s not much to this song in the first place, so why overthink it?
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Long, droning strings lead into clattering synths with Lolita drifting through the middle, hopping from flat drum to flat drum with chord drops feeling tacked on in the far reaches of the mix while the bass needles underneath.
[5]

Julian de Valliere: I think fear’s a more useful motivator than people want to give it credit for. It’s such a threatening emotion that we never like having it around, so we lock it in a cage, throw a blanket over it, and do our utmost to forget it exists. But what Lolita tries to hammer in is that fear can only truly hurt you when it’s able to debilitate you — and that its greatest strength is the element of surprise. So while “Get Frighten” relentlessly rips into your sense of security and seemingly aims to throw your entire world into chaos, Lolita positions her actions as a precautionary measure, or a gesture of tough love — like a mama bird pushing you out of the nest, so you don’t end up as cat food when the real danger comes around.
[7]

Iain Mew: Like being carried on a fast-moving conveyer belt through walls of marshmallow. Give me another five listens and I might even be able to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing. 
[5]

Friday, December 15th, 2017

AsSun – Sendei

Today in “songs from countries most Westerners don’t think about from a musical perspective…”


[Video][Website]
[7.33]

Jessica Doyle: One of the unforeseen consequences of living standards rising globally is the end of the Anglo-American dominance of pop music, so taken for granted that Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! has one chapter on music outside either of those two countries (it’s about Jamaica) and the argument for Johnny Hallyday in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame goes ignored. You won’t know it from myopic American criticism–go ahead and count how many non-English songs show up on end-of-year lists–but all sorts of national, ethnic, and linguistic groups are now able to reach and learn from global audiences, and 2017’s best proof is Kazakh-language pop beginning to come into its own. There’s a long historical context, which I wrote about earlier this year, about why Kazakh-language pop has a limited audience even within Kazakhstan, and yes, the scene there has been to some degree financially backed by an authoritarian government. And yet: this year has seen the K-pop-inspired and gritty, the K-pop-inspired and gleefully goth, the glam and throaty, the laid-back earworm, the 100% certified bop, and that’s not even counting Ninety One throwing caution to the wind (and then again!) or “Sendei,” which is not indicative of a larger trend–no, Bayterek Tower does not contain a secret cauldron from which bubbles up mixes of ABC and The 1975 on a regular basis, more’s the pity–but is nonetheless magical, for AsSun’s delivery being simultaneously warm and restrained, and for the production trick of having him back up his own falsetto without the whole thing sounding like an awkwardly executed novelty. We are well past the point where English speakers can complacently assume “pop from a former Soviet country mocked in that one movie that’s aged very, very poorly” must automatically equal “awkwardly executed novelty.” Aren’t you glad? I sure am.
[9]

Tim de Reuse: The most charming thing about this is the plasticky instrumental; each element is punchy and crisp and candy-sweet, and the heavy saturation on the drums makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Outside of the sound design minutiae, well, it’s weaponizably catchy in its own right.
[8]

Iain Mew: The vocals and backing track each follow their own path of foggy gloom, each in a way that’s intricate and sort of interesting but doesn’t quite fit together with the other. The house finale is better meshed together but loses a little of that individuality with it.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Scattered, haphazard drums get plastic wrapped by slight synth bass and even thinner synths as AsSun coos, whines and hums along, which all tighten and squeeze out a slick, synth swashed house track.
[6]

Juana Giaimo: “Sendei” has a great beat strategy: it gradually mutates from a simple synthpop beat to the rapid and subtle house beat. And with that change, the voices also get more complex playing with octaves and quiet backing vocals. The glossy production is never lost and, as a result, “Sendei” gets more gratifying with each second that passes.
[8]

Brad Shoup: For the last three months, I’ve been assembling massive single-year playlists while my kid’s sleeping or whatever. I finished a 1982 playlist on my birthday; I have 3700 songs from the ’60s so far, and because I needed a break from bad mambo and rancid psych, I’m working on 1989 now. It’s been revelatory: freed from trying to assemble only bops, I’m instead trying to piece together what a year actually felt like. What would I pick up if I circled the planet with a radio 30 years ago? What were people actually listening to? What experiments did only a select few hear? (And, most crucially for a laregly streaming project: what’s been deemed worthy of remembrance?) The costs of these playlists are greater than I want to admit, but they’ve helped me to listen better: to use narrative as an inroad but not an excuse, to look for connection rather than transcendence, to find what I can think about, rather than talk about. So I’m super glad that Jessica has given us this icy-cool Kazakh club-pop track, with its sturdy bassline and heartburn synths. It’s neat to think about what this song means to people I’ll never meet.
[8]

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Frank Ocean – Chanel

An ocean of Chanel would probably be a bit much.


[Video][Website]
[7.64]

Joshua Copperman: I tried editing “Chanel” upon its initial release, in order to play it on my college radio show. When the edit was done, slurs reversed and faded out, it was essentially a shadow of its true self. I quickly realized I had done a disservice to a song about letting all parts of oneself co-exist. For Ocean, it’s his sexuality, his presentation, his blackness all tumbling out of him at once. Despite a minor-key piano loop anchoring the song, it’s not as brooding as it could be. Instead, he sounds as unpretentious and chilled as he ever has, especially when he delivers the opening lines, and especially when he follows the “i/ɐ/ɛl” rhyme scheme for twelve lines in the second verse. One difficulty I’ve sometimes had with the song is the content of that part, particularly “I need that bitch to grind on my belt.” Intellectually and conceptually, it makes sense; but emotionally it doesn’t register as well as those first lines. Yet this is the song that references Gaspar Noé, Dennis Rodman, and 21 Savage within the first minute – of course not everything would hit. It’s not just the contrast of the titular line and “that bitch” that make this song work either; it’s the fussy beat and ad-libs backing Ocean’s weeded-out delivery that makes “Chanel” as good as it is. No radio edit necessary.
[9]

Eleanor Graham: I stuck Frank Ocean’s little black square coming out note from the sleeve of Channel Orange on my wall when I was thirteen and it’s still there. It’s weird and amazing to compare the anguish in that note and “Bad Religion” to the ease with which Frank tosses out “got one straight-acting” in his first single of 2017. It’s a sign of the times: these days thirteen-year-olds have Kevin Abstract yelling “I love my mom! I hate my boyfriend!” and tweeting about Ezra Miller. And adults who like to drink wine have “Chanel”. As Frank’s police encounter becomes a Gaspar Noé-referencing sexual fantasy before unfurling into love song, it becomes clear that the hushed piano is the only thing here that moves at the pace of a normal human brain. Chanel Instagramming “we see on both sides like Frank” comes off suitably coattail-ish. No one plays out duality so coldly and steamily, so unthinkingly with such conceptual rigour. It’s his world.
[8]

Jibril Yassin: Every single Frank Ocean released this year does a lot in a short period of time. With three minutes, you’ve got verses crammed with lines — economical ones that reveal plenty — that all seem to spill into the other with reckless abandon before quickly moving on. Yet each switch-up feels natural, each new hook lodged in your head like you’ve heard them for years. It makes for a melancholy yet wholly stated feeling that feels more ‘of now’ than anything Frank’s done at this point. 
[9]

Nortey Dowuona: The glittering piano and small waves of bass and brief drips of synths are led on a merry dash by Frank’s voice, broken and shattered and rushing back together in a smooth hum, a soft sigh, a panicked shriek, a painful murmur, a sorrowful coo.
[10]

Brad Shoup: Frank shuffles vocal takes over sniffling drums. Similarly, he pushes the two themes (his guy and his double-take opulence) into each other. The bridge (“it’s really you on my mind”) would appear to be the emotional peak, but you should hear the way he sings about his engine. The outro is a pretty funny survey of his jeans, studded with shouts to his baby. His piano veers between Hathaway wistfulness and suspension — the effect is like a private improvisation (though the writing’s too good for that), wherein Ocean’s trying to show his partner that he knows how much he’s got.
[8]

Ryo Miyauchi: The slight grogginess of Frank’s sleepy try at rap in “Chanel” only informs what sounds like a diary entry from his transcontinental escapades. And it’s a task to pin down exactly where he’s at: he mentions Shibuya, though his mind, occupied by hip-hop, remains in America. He hides emotionally, too, burrowing deep in references and name brands. People pick at his play on the double Cs, but his overly proud boast of destroyed VISA, AmEx and Mastercards worry me. You’re not running away from something ordinary if you disavow credit and withdraw that much cash.
[7]

Alfred Soto: No bitch will kill his vibe, and he insists on a woozy one. Sharp lyrics as usual, on paper more sympathetic than the okay voice singing them. He will never not come off as the most suspicious of cornballs.
[5]

Maxwell Cavaseno: A series of fake deep paens from the kind of lad who thinks Rupert Murdoch’s role in Vice being regarded as The Real News is nothing important and whom happily collects millions as Apple brings in a new regime of oligarchy over music that if left on its own, will bring us back to a realm where the best art is only beheld by Corporations functioning like Medici-esque oppression. Frank Ocean is an amoral brat who hates his fans and having to work at singing live. “Chanel” is the sound of forty dozen punch ins, badly pitch-tuning his nasal tone (which gets worse with each record) as he whines and blubbers nonsense about Japanese shopping districts and pretty boys via a series of amateurish Migos impressions. For all his so-called brilliance, the kid writes songs the way A$AP Rocky writes raps the way your friends casually spam your tumblr feed: without a second or even a first thought, just reflexive regurgitation. Frank Ocean is a Neoliberal Representationalist Wet-Dream where you pretend he’s got so much more going on for him content wise than people who make nasty actual R&B that has the nerve to sound as baseless and amorphous as the preferred non-genre millennial drivel we’ve been told is the Future of Music. Just as long as you recognize you deserve so much more than to work for better art.
[0]

Claire Biddles: Romanticism and bisexuality are so rarely allowed to co-exist in pop culture, perhaps because they’re largely not perceived as compatible in real life: we’re promiscuous, we’re undecided, we’re unwilling or unable to commit because of the breadth of our (always hypersexual) desires. I cling to pop culture that allows us to be tender or take pride in our love for our partners: I can’t count the times I’ve watched and rewatched the moment when Norwegian teen show Skam‘s bi protagonist Even introduces his boyfriend to a stranger with the exclamation, “isn’t this man beautiful?!”, almost in disbelief, beaming with love. I thought of this brief moment listening to Frank Ocean’s “Chanel”, with its similarly romantic but also deftly complex opening couplet “My guy pretty like a girl/And he got fight stories to tell” — so beautiful and tall and gleaming, with an unseen tension between the borrowed brags of another sexuality and the determination of our own, all dressed up in imagery unmistakably ridden of the societal restraints of gender presentation. The song that follows is so rich — it swirls and caresses its way through a string of hyperactive ideas tempered by gentle heatwave-warmed beats and piano — but it’s the returning tenderness (“It’s really you on my mind” punctuating the lyrical flexes) framed by overt queerness that sticks. We all want to see ourselves reflected in pop culture, but it’s rare and special to hear it done so effortlessly.
[10]

Stephen Eisermann: Frank Ocean’s biggest strength has always been his style of singing and what he says in his songs. The beats are always unique and often ethereal, but it’s the way that his voice dominates his songs that is most impressive. On “”Chanel,”” Frank let’s his bi-flag fly high, but rather than make the statement center on his pride, he lets his experiences speak for themselves. Frank briefly discusses his “guy” and the description is real and affecting; sometimes the most beautiful moments in music are the most honest, and everything about this song feels authentic.
[9]

Anthony Easton: The background to this voice, is celestial. The voice itself hints at a falsetto. Mutually, they work towards a gorgeous argument against the failure of material capital, while the desire towards the same is overwhelming. That it just kind of floats, unresolved, plays with pleasure, but seems disembodied, it’s a clever but deeply felt ennui. 
[9]

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Pale Waves – There’s a Honey

It comes in a little plastic bear.


[Video][Website]
[7.36]

Claire Biddles: Sometimes songs align with our steps through life so perfectly that they feel made for us; articulating a particular heartbreak, ripping an unvoiced feeling from our chest, almost by chance soundtracking a moment to be remembered forever. They stay with us and weave themselves into our lives, to be replayed again and again and again, part of our archives of experience. It sounds like an obvious position to state, but all of my favourite songs are songs like this: I tend not to go all-in for a song that doesn’t go all-in for me. The blurb of every song I’ve ever given a [10] on here has likely been edited down from 6,000 self-indulgent words about a specific tragic romantic encounter with identifying details removed. I write fanfic about my own life. I struggle with objectivity. I’m a terrible critic. My enthusiasm for “There’s a Honey” is strange, then: I’ve played it on infinite repeat all year, but it doesn’t align to anything in particular, it just kind of crept in to my heart and buried itself there. The lyrics are cute — a laconic tease of a sort-of lover, glistening with irony within its sunny surroundings — but I’m not itching to shout any of them from the rooftops or get any of them tattooed on my arms or nodding earnestly thinking “yes, that’s it, that’s me”. The song doesn’t soundtrack a specific memory that I replay in my head for its duration, it just soundtracks whatever I’m doing while I’m listening to it — which again sounds unremarkable, but those who live in a perpetual state of emotional nostalgia will know what I mean. Maybe my deep, unconditional love for “There’s a Honey” is, then, an opportunity to be present — an encouraging sign that I can just like a song because it’s beautiful and effortless and sunny and meticulously crafted. But maybe really I’m just waiting for something to happen at the end of this flat, lifeless year — wondering if this time I’ll turn my head as the guitars drop before the middle eight and I’ll see someone across the street and they’ll look at me too and that will be the start of it, and I’ll remember this moment and this song’s part in it forever.
[10]

Joshua Copperman: I remember exactly when I started to love this song – it was 0:59, when the drums drop out and Heather Baron-Gracie sings the line “I will give you my body/but am I sure that you want me?” over a low, rumbling bass, before the same line repeats over that bombastic but spacious drum beat. It’s a very specific kind of feeling and phrasing to “give someone your body” and even more specific for “but am I sure that you want me?” After spending a semester in a Gender and Language class where the professor often insinuated that the language of [heterosexual, romantic] romance was inherently ‘male-coded’, I’ve come back to the song hearing it as an internal monologue from the other side’s point of view. There’s also the anxiety behind wanting a relationship to blossom; that would explain the double meaning behind “somebody I know I’m bad for,” a case where even if she did get into a relationship, she feels like she would fuck it up anyway. While the follow-up single “Television Romance” treads nearly the exact same melodic territory, the sensitive lyrics and polished arrangement are ultimately what keep me coming back to this one.
[9]

Maxwell Cavaseno: It’d be dishonest to not point to the traces of the Curse/Furs-esque shimmer glossing all over the record, or deny a certain similarity in songwriting between Heather Baron-Gracie and her labelmate Matty Healy. Except of course, whereas the latter’s heart on sleeve sloppiness seems so tragically heroic to the point of parody at times, “There’s a Honey” is a record that feels like two layers of terror and glory that ring next to each other in harmony in spite of failing the math. You can’t tell if the self-awareness and quips are at the expense or the sale of someone, and for the relative under-developments in the song, you get the feeling of a band who have the potential to really push past their influences and get to the heart of the matter.
[6]

Ryo Miyauchi: It’s too cosmically perfect for one half of 1975 to be involved with a new wave pop that divides the body from the mind. The music rightfully leans a lot more physical to go with what’s at exchange, but the moments where the body takes a backseat to give voice to the subconscious give “There’s a Honey” life.
[7]

Brad Shoup: If the Matty Healy connection hadn’t been disclosed, I still might’ve guessed this: this is music for anyone who thinks of their body as a jacket to be unzipped, hung up, and studied. They lean on their chorus — full of skip-jumps and bashed eighths, a sort of Carly Rae homage — heavily; for the bridge, Heather Baron-Gracie just floats to the ceiling and waits.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Trusting their guitars over their honeyed words, Pale Waves excel at that Cocteau Twins-indebted shimmer. And if Heather Baron-Gracie didn’t hurt so well it wouldn’t matter.
[7]

Rebecca A. Gowns: This song is like honey, immediately sweet with dreamy vocals and syrupy guitars. Yet it crystalizes all too easily: what sounds so wonderful and easy on the first listen feels increasingly stilted on each re-listen.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Thick, rigid plodding drums undermine the sleek, glittery guitar, the smooth, bunched bass and the airy, gossamer vocals. Tastes like Haribo cherries.
[7]

Iain Mew: It clicked for me once I realised that the nagging familiarity of the bubbly guitar riff was because it reminded me of the chorus melody from “Dancing On My Own.” Pale Waves stage a crisis of the uncertain future rather than the certain present, but they do it in a similar way, alone but trying to direct it all outwards, feeling constantly and intently enough to not have to really stop and think at once. 
[7]

Will Adams: Pale Waves are riding the same Lite Brite-rock wave that The 1975 and MUNA and The Aces and plenty others are on, but given how they’ve gothed up their surfboard, there’s certainly room for them too.
[7]

Eleanor Graham: An exact midpoint between the sticky-floor black of The 1975’s first album and the flamingo pink of their second. The lyrics lack Healy’s specificity, but that feels a conscious choice and a blessing. It’s classic pop songwriting, pretty and expansive and blank for your own meaning. And Heather Baron-Gracie’s plasticky faintly Mancunian dead-eyed fembot voice is an instrument in a way that Healy’s isn’t. The teenage insularity is written not so much into the words as into her cadence – if you don’t get “it’s not eas-ay/I wanna fee-el/something different for once” then you just don’t. But if you do, maybe you understand the degree to which it is about being alone and about being at a club in your hometown and about all the faces that mean nothing and the few that make your heart go oh, right, but you don’t care! You really don’t! That’s what this insistent, moody, shoulder-hunched jangle sounds like: the sugar-lightness of throwing away all the Caring, and the gratification of pulling it inside again a second later. Nursing your private, complex darkness like a drink in the eye of the storm, and dancing at the same time. The Pale Waves singles are wonderfully cohesive, three glittering Instagram-goth beacons in the depths of December, but this one feels like the fullest execution of their vision.
[8]

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Trippie Redd – Love Scars

I’ve got love stretch marks myself…


[Video][Website]
[6.88]

Maxwell Cavaseno: This year, arguably one of the top five music books that served as hilarious talking points was Meet Me In The Bathroom, an oral history of the ‘indie’ boom of the dawn of the 21st century by many of the characters, carnies and cartoons who made up “the movement who saved rock’n’roll.” It felt like a joke that in the same year when many mutuals invoked “Mr. Brightside” to canonical classic standard, a trio of rap records (Luv is Rage 2, Miami Garden Club and 17) impressed upon me that while it was this field our peers have deemed fit to memorialize it was the kids who grew up on ‘screamo’ Soulja Boy covers who were defining the present. Trippie Redd, a friend to xxx and proposed “rival” to Uzi, at his finest might remind friends of The Weeknd but instead I get more a bizarre swill of Swae Lee with Geoff Rickley of Thursday (especially on that dramatic gasp on “thinking that you had a past”). That is, until he swan dives his voice into phlegmy rattles that scrape along the sides of your ears like the car-crash melodrama he’s so captivated with projecting on “Love Scars,” with its glitchy 808 explosions and the crumbling Metroid sample mining that feeling of failure paired against adolescent understandings. How strange it seems that our so-called ideals are unable to be valuable in our present, but our shameful stumbled of underdeveloped and shameful experience? Those seem more viable than ever.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Bulky drums crowd out the screen synths and Trippie’s nasal, whiny voice scatters and falls apart upon the beat.
[5]

Alfred Soto: The lust-fueled agony in Trippie’s timbre does suggest he’s carrying scars of some kind, and it’s scarier than the competition. Just the right length too. 
[6]

Ryo Miyauchi: The knee-jerk reaction to “Love Scars” is to cover my eyes with both of my hands from the sight of the awfully raw wound of Trippie Redd. His ear for melody is such a sinister, deceivingly sweet vehicle for an emotion very vile, so I also can’t help but to peek through the cracks of my fingers. While he styles his lyrics to resemble the modern rapper, he shows his true self when he painfully stretches his end rhymes to the brink. He can’t sing in the technical sense, but he squeezes out noise from his body like it’s the only way he knows how to break free.
[8]

Brad Shoup: That chorus has the dramatic fatalism of a great pop-punk song; the rest comes off like pop-punkers writing a protest song. Lil 14 absolutely knows how to write and deliver a hit; he works himself into a froth and lets the lather curdle. I’d rather have some full-length fatalism.
[6]

Stephen Eisermann: I’m not sure if Drake is still seen as the “emo” rapper, but, honestly, Trippie just did it better. The echoes on his voice make the all up in my feelings mindset audible, and Trippie’s off the cuff delivery feels like the perfect accompaniment to a long, nighttime drive. 
[7]

Josh Langhoff: Flirting with tedium and foregoing a chorus, this weird-ass love serenade is a duet for giant Marshmallow Man-sized bass bwonggggs and Trippie Redd’s obnoxious, retching, free-associative singsong rap. Beats Schumann.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Trippie Redd’s at his best here, navigating his heartbreak through a series of embittered wails. As he stays in this headspace, periodic bursts of anger and despair manifest violently. But as unhinged as they may seem, their calculated placements prove useful in keeping the song afloat, both in their pacing and as a tool to help him amusingly rhyme “lemonade” with “Hennessy”. He’s upset, and he’s going to make sure that he uses every opportunity to draw attention to it by blaming someone else, be it through caustic attacks (“Your bitch pussy nasty as fuck, she got a little bit of yeast”) or self-important pleas for pity (“You used to say you in love, you got me so fucked up”).
[8]

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Pinkshinyultrablast – In the Hanging Gardens

Shoegaze is alive and well.. in Russia! We investigate.


[Video][Website]
[5.88]

Iain Mew: It feels so apt that the cover art for this single sees Pinkshinyultrablast’s visual aesthetic converge with that of mobile game Monument Valley. There has been something of the same feeling of intricate, perfectly formed wonder in their music all along — shoegaze monuments, mystery and splendour all maintained, but with  all the details rendered in fascinating miniature. And “In the Hanging Gardens” with its shimmering synths and sighing chorus and melodic flurries is their most delightfully realised version yet: a sonic cathedral in a snowglobe.
[9]

Nortey Dowuona: Low, droning bass, scattered synth chords and distant, drifting drums as Lyubov Soloveva drifts like a ghost amongst the wreckage.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: A modern take on shoegaze/dreampop continuum, and pretty, but texture-wise this feels like cellophane. I feel like a band exactly midway between this and The Japanese House might score a never-ending run of 10s from me but it’s not quite there.
[5]

Alex Clifton: Fizzy synths and a dreamy soundscape, dwelling more in the abstract for the first minute and a half before landing on solid ground for a lush chorus. It’s so rich, especially with how the synthesizer piles upon itself. I don’t even mind that the vocals get a bit drowned: the overall effect is like a watercolour, with all the shades bleeding into one another, so the fact that it’s difficult to tell where one aspect ends and another begins is phenomenal. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a song so ornately constructed, and the overall effect is stunning.
[8]

Alfred Soto: A Russian act whose song title nods to The Cure’s 1989 rumbling classic but with loud synths replacing the tumbling drums. It’s pretty but rather too diaphanous for my taste.
[6]

Brad Shoup: They programmed their double drumstrikes to sound like a dropped stick. The suspense kept me riveted until the chorus, wherein the synths melt with the guitars, and the portion where the bass gets lost in a thicket of trebly trees.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: A poorly arranged tsubo-niwa. It’s meant to envelop and transport, but Lyubov’s vocals are too much of a focal point for “In The Hanging Gardens” to do just that. The synths are consequently too low in the mix, unable to register as anything more than hollow window dressing. The issue here is one that’s familiar to countless shoegaze and dream pop bands: the masking of poor songwriting with generous reverb and “evocative” atmospherics. This wasn’t a noticeable issue with the group’s debut LP, but they’ve been straying further into Pop Song territory ever since and the results have been lackluster.
[3]

Claire Biddles: Recreating shoegaze’s towering wall of glitter with electronics instead of guitars seems like such an neat trick that I’m surprised this is the first time I’ve heard it played. With its driving synths and drums, “In the Hanging Garden” is evocative of cold morning walks, or train journeys through unfolding icy fields, but lacks the hook to align it with a specific event. Band name of the year, though.
[6]

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Monsta X – Beautiful

Well, somewhere between Monsta VI and Monsta VII anyway.


[Video][Website]
[6.40]

Madeleine Lee: The template for a rap-focused K-pop boy band single has been around since at least Big Bang — rapped verses, sung choruses and middle eight — but Monsta X’s singles have usually tried to resist that route by giving  equal weight to their vocalists and their rappers. Instead of becoming their standout quality, this just made their songs feel excessively long and disjointed (like “Rush,” which has two prechoruses for no good reason), and the relative talent gap between the rappers and the singers didn’t help. “Beautiful” sticks to the script: rapped verses, sung choruses and middle eight, angsty lyrics and thunderous electronic beats. The result is just average, but average is a success compared to noticeably bad.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: The gleeful Auto-Tuned harmonizations glide over the 2012/2014 drums, razor thin synths and soft, pulsing bass and raspy and smooth vocals of Monsta X. Figures — vroom.
[8]

Alfred Soto: I’m not sure the rap and sung verses interact meaningfully even after several plays, not when I’d rather listen to the hook. Some will prefer Jooheon. 
[6]

Jessica Doyle: Monsta X is a good example of K-pop’s shiny tendencies to work against itself: so far, for me, the group has checked off all the boxes — attractive guys, competent performances — without displaying enough personality to break through the barrier between mild interest and embarrassing shouting. (To give you personal examples of barrier-breaking media: Infinite laughing over each other’s clothes and BTS’s very intelligent mess of a dance practice.) At present all I know about Monsta X is that they did a good cover of “Mirotic”  and that Wonho has a pout and ain’t afraid to use it. Now, I said personal: just because I haven’t discovered Monsta X’s collective personality doesn’t mean the group is personality-free. It takes a certain amount of effort on a potential fan’s part to seek out material that would break the barrier, and the more intriguing the music the greater the incentive. So lately I’ve been less interested in following, say, Victon, none of whose three 2017 releases were as glossy-charming as “I’m Fine,” and more in Monsta X after “Beautiful,” which does a remarkable job of moving from the speedy raps to the smoother vocals without either making the other seem out of place. So what else is this group capable of? Feel free to shower me with examples, Monbebes.
[6]

Ryo Miyauchi: Monsta X call upon an army of brass horns to express a blooming feeling bigger than they can physically contain, like they’re harnessing the power of TNGHT for a love song. Powerful as it blurts, it also blasts away some of the nuanced details. The more liquid movements of the beat suggest a tenderness underneath this tough front, though it unfortunately gets quickly decimated by the sheer loudness.
[6]

Anjy Ou: Imagine you’re the hero of a story. You’ve fought your way through monsters to get to your final foe, only to find they’re lovely and dangerous, and you’d rather turn your sword against their enemies than make them one of yours. Your instinct fights against it, but you’re already lost. I love a k-pop song with a good story, and “Beautiful”‘s lyrical narrative is reflected in its stellar production — heavy basslines, varied synths, and mid-verse drops propel you headfirst into a gorgeous chorus with layered vocals and crisp percussion. Monsta X executes this song flawlessly, and show us why they deserve to be in the spotlight. Best boyband song of the year.
[9]

Brad Shoup: The strangled synthworms of the intro came on so hard, it took me a couple spins to realize there was a similarly styled drop halfway through. Against those, the chorus gains a dramatic edge. Apart, it’s still lovely — still a wonderstruck gaze — but now it’s wrapped in plastic. Drop the overheating hi-hat and there’s probably a weightless ballad to be found.
[7]

Alex Clifton: Songs that have the word “beautiful” in the title usually tend to be acoustic, slower, or more chilled out. We get none of that in the first minute of Monsta X’s “Beautiful,” which is cluttered and borderline abrasive, only to get a chorus that could do with a bit more oomph. The melody of the chorus is quite lovely, but doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the song. I wish Monsta X had gone bigger, especially as there’s nothing subtle about “Hero,” their best song, but it’s still catchy as it stands.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Starts off like a sledgehammer to the head, which is great! The only issue is that I’m left dazed in the aftermath, unable to appreciate the beauty of the chorus until it’s recontextualized after the bridge. I wouldn’t call “Beautiful” haphazardly assembled, but its parts don’t come together to form a greater whole. Each section pairs well enough with its lyrics, yes, but the producers could have further capitalized on that with a slightly different arrangement or structuring of dynamics.
[6]

Julian de Valliere: Maybe it’s the combination of the group’s name, that two-years-too-late production, and that jarring use of “errday,” but “Beautiful” sounds like it’d be better suited as an energy drink jingle over an actual single.
[4]

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Sigrid – Strangers

And finally, via William John, someone that yes, we could’ve covered a while back, or next month…


[Video][Website]
[7.43]

William John: It’s been fashionable this year to exalt melodrama; arpeggiated synthesizer basically never goes out of style; and Scandinavian songs with protagonists positioned at the lonely end of the dancefloor will fill my mausoleum. At the centre of the Venn diagram of these three variables sits Sigrid’s “Strangers,” a barnstorming, enormous pop song unafraid to express a terrible notion generally reserved for inner monologues: that in spite of appearances and personal desires, sometimes a craved romance will always be mere fantasy. Usually, arriving at this realization is the kind of devastating blow that will lead you to sequestration from all elements of society aside from Netflix and Julien Baker. Sigrid instead adopts an uncompromising approach. Her bellowed chorus is defiant; her breathless middle eight reads on the page like dour pragmatism but is delivered with such charisma as to sound ascendant. When they interlock at the song’s conclusion, the effect is exhilarating. Exhilaration is not what we’re supposed to feel when the redemptive third act of our personal rom-coms fails to arrive; we’re supposed to wallow forever in the disconnect of Act Two’s sad, uncertain purgatory. “Strangers” demonstrates that when faced with the unpalatable, lucidity can beget strength, and that though searching for solace in others may prove unfruitful, heartache can always be mollified by a hammering synth.
[10]

Will Adams: Somewhere between “Into You” and “Scared to Be Lonely” lies an anxious battleground that carries the heated, bristling synthbass of the former and the yearning resignation of the latter, and that is “Strangers.” Sigrid is caught in the middle but still confident, knowing full well what lies in the night ahead and charging headfirst into it.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Thumping bass hurdles a spread-out, flat drum pattern and thin, cascading synths pushing and enriching Sigrid’s soft, light vocals.
[7]

Alfred Soto: The thumping efficiency of this rather bloodless Norwegian pop is its own reward.
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: It’s hard to connect the promotional dots: is this The Big Single to coincide with Sound Of success, or will a re-push of “Don’t Kill My Vibe” fill that role? If Sigrid wants to exceed the inauspicious “Popjustice favourite” feel this has, perhaps it should. What lets “Strangers” down is its melodic limitations — or maybe more so Sigrid’s vocal limitations. Its stated ambitions feel half-met, but a lingering leadenness makes it harder to get excited by than its vibrant forebear.
[6]

Crystal Leww: “Don’t Kill My Vibe” was annoying and made me believe that Sigrid is a problematic white, but I gotta cop to “Strangers” being a bop!
[7]

Katie Gill: Man, this is a fun song. It’s bright, it’s amazingly danceable, and it’s so perfectly tailored to her voice and skills. Sigrid makes singing it sound downright effortless, despite the points where you know she’s making her runs and punctuation as precise as possible.
[8]

Josh Langhoff: Having spent the last 20 minutes trying to predict the breaks in that “duggaduggaduggaduggA” synth-bass rhythm line, and having failed, I can testify that sometimes songs become more fun when they outsmart you. The tremulous edge of Sigrid’s voice excels at both soaring melody and syncopated dance commanding, adding a whole other layer of rhythmic jolts. Like a 10-year-old car buried in the snow, “Strangers” takes a while to get going; but once the chimey atmospherics turn over into chugalug synthpop, the song sounds like it could run for days.
[8]

Brad Shoup: It gets better as it goes along: stuttering bass-synth and Sigrid going double-time would be exhausting in full. Better to unfurl them in sequence. Still, I’m not sure why she added fake-concert claps, like this is Scooter or something.
[6]

Ian Mathers: Once what I like to think of as the real synths kick in, their dark burble along with Sigrid’s powerfully clear voice and a certain cleareyed bluntness in the lyrics make this feel more than a little like a less goth (or at least less phantasmagorical) Susanne Sundfør.
[7]

Alex Clifton: I hear shades of early Ellie Goulding, but with more of a groove; Lights-era Goulding was never this upbeat. Sigrid cited “Dancing on My Own” in an interview for this song, which also shows: it’s got such an undercurrent of buoyancy, even as she sings “it could never be us.”
[9]

Ryo Miyauchi: I can see where Sigrid’s going a little too well. The lines fit too clean, and she sets the build-up to that distorted beat too perfect for her take on “Dancing on My Own” to really hit home.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: It’s a good song and all. It’s just the exact same good song Tove Lo and Halsey released this year.
[7]

Julian de Valliere: Listening to “Strangers” for the first time is sort of like witnessing an old friend step into a new circle. The gravelliness of Sigrid’s voice has been played down for something a little less distinct, and the track’s lyrics and production sound like they’ve received a similar treatment. But when she bursts into that massive, roaring, undeniably Sigrid chorus — and that rapid-fire delivery just before the middle eight — her personality beams through, and everything becomes familiar again. It’s a bittersweet moment of missing all that’s changed, but being grateful that everything you loved most about her is still as true and present as ever.
[8]

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Josh Pan ft. Abra – Give It to Ya

Will Rivitz reveals us all as The Brostep Jukebox…


[Video][Website]
[7.50]

Will Rivitz: This is what dubstep should sound like in 2017. The previously-reigning shades of bro-ey maximalism have died out of the public consciousness, but their tendrils still remain, and josh pan reshapes and reforms a few of them into this positively writhing masterclass in dancefloor manipulation. Abra, who has killed every single one of her features this year (go listen to “Drugs” if you haven’t yet), doesn’t disappoint here, chunky slabs of 808 undergirding her slinkily misanthropic verses while the amorphous conglomerate of producers behind her toss all kinds of wails and bellows into the melting pot behind her. “give it to ya” is a nightmarish beast, the kind of tune that only really comes out to skulk after midnight — I can almost hear it melting into a puddle of pure malice as Abra’s hypnotic “yeahs” in the chorus ensconce themselves in higher and higher registers. It’s gorgeous and horrifying, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
[9]

Will Adams: How to make dubstep sound fresh in 2017: emulate, even the slightest bit, the cadence and off-the-wall sonics of “Independent Women, Pt. II.”
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: Pumping drums, glitching, brassy bass, slick synth stabs and heavy yet nimble crooning from Abra.
[7]

Brad Shoup: Abra has the nimbleness of Aaliyah, but with a desperate freestyle edge. Josh Pan’s production encircles her with fire: drops and beds that crackle, hits that pop off like magnesium flashes. It’s the latter that’s the emotional high point; she rides its aftermath like it’s a Timbaland outro.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Like an attempt to totally flunk one of those calls for pop songs that end up as background interstitial music. Maybe a little like this: “Production should be tasteful, with absolutely no brostep, airhorns, and any connections to Skrillex bumped at least to page two of the resume. Vocals should be restrained, polished, generally on key. Spoken word is a hard sell. Don’t, like, compare yourself to a lamp.” We’ve all presumably heard the Most Wanted vs. Unwanted Songs; we know how this turns out.
[8]

Ian Mathers: If you had just told me one of the possibilities for whatever we’re calling “dubstep” (I mean, at least “emo” seems to have settled on a set of signifiers at some point) was a more BPM-aggressive version of mid-to-late period Massive Attack I would have already been on board.
[8]

Ryo Miyauchi: It’s a questionable choice to bring in someone like Abra, who fills her own place in a vacant room rather than let the moving parts of Josh Pan’s busy, sentient kitchen-sink dubstep guide her. What saves it is the slithering production that provides the base.
[6]

Iain Mew: The brostep Katy B track I didn’t realise I wanted. 
[8]

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Meljoann – Personal Assistant

Via Katherine, an Irish artist…


[Video][Website]
[6.56]

Katherine St Asaph: Irish artist Meljoann’s 2010 album Squick is an underrated gem: think PC Music before PC Music’s time and without PC Music’s smarm, and absolutely the kind of thing that’d go over great in 2017. “Personal Assistant” takes that album and adds a lot of polish, a lot of Janet Jackson vocals and a lot of (implied) Alexa: careening fast and ever-so-slightly wonky like a self-driving car. Headphones required.
[9]

Alfred Soto: The permafrost layer of synths and Meljoann’s high end create unceasing tension, and not once does the veneer crack. 
[7]

Ian Mathers: The sound, like Janet Jackson struggling to fight her way out of a Leverage Models production, is fantastic. There just doesn’t seem to be that much of an actual song to go along with it.
[6]

Tim de Reuse: There is a functional groove here, buried under clouds of overlapping, hissing voices, a sea of arrythmic cluster chords, and a structure that includes a tonally adventurous, discombobulating interlude for a second verse. None of these things are deal-breakers in their own right, but all at once they’re an unresolvable mess; there is so much tense, unforgiving detail that it tangles up attention into knots.
[4]

Nortey Dowuona: Stop-and-start bass and trembling synths that tumble and split underneath Melijoan’s searing melisma draw a line through the spikes of crackling, jutting drums.
[7]

William John: A quasi-Simlish take on Janet Jackson’s aesthetic from twenty or so years ago is an intriguing enough premise, though I can’t imagine many people gathering under a disco ball to dance to this, aside perhaps from the cast of Jenny Slate’s Catherine.
[5]

Claire Biddles: “Personal Assistant” miraculously manages to retain a consistent groove and sexiness while also being unpredictable and oblique enough to reward repeat listens. Even better if each listen is framed with the hints of submission and transgression suggested by the song title. 
[8]

Iain Mew: It feels exactly like the uncomfortable twitchy loop brought on by having too many things to do at once while sat at a machine that should help me to do all of them but instead using it to flick between inboxes. A light “email that dream” poking through the clutter is so perfect it seems wrong it doesn’t end there.
[6]

Brad Shoup: For a few months about a decade ago, I was a personal assistant at a small healthcare company. There were about 10 employees, so it wasn’t too bad: schedule calls, purchase flights. Still, I thought there was something else for me, and I bailed, only to spend years working at factories and banks. (There were a few fumbles toward grad school in there.) Meljoann wrote this while working at a call center, the type of place at which I couldn’t seem to get an interview. Her styling for the song and video match: arch takes on a 30-year-old aesthetic. Her cadences are brittle and stacked neatly, the kind of efficiency you’d expect from the job in question. There’s playfulness, but alongside the relentless hi-hat it comes across as emotional labor: the smile you display when a last-minute request drops by your cubicle. And the synth squiggles are as fleeting as daydreams, maybe the promise of a weekend free from demands. After I got hired by my current employer, I used to go into work on Saturdays all the time to chip away at my queue of trouble tickets. Sometimes I’d see an exec, but never an assistant.
[7]