Thursday, December 15th, 2022

Amnesty 2022, Part Two

A mother, father and their young son admire their favourite Christmas present: a record player. Several wrapped and photoshopped presents rest beside them
 

Today on the Jukebox’s year-end tidy-up: some UK bass, prog-gone-pop, and an international chart-topper with Albanian heritage. But which one? You’ll have to read beyond even more of our picks to find out.


Two Shell – home


[Video]
[8.12]
Oliver Maier: I’ve done my best to avoid the nascent discourse surrounding Two Shell, whose only crime as far as I can surmise is being a bit gimmicky and annoying, apparently something no electronic music duo has ever done. Their sense of humour seeps through their frothy takes on UK bass, and while it is sometimes grating, on “home” they perfect the formula. It makes me feel a little childish giddiness, the choppy samples and smooth globs of percussion reacting with each other and overflowing like a baking soda volcano. It’s sloppy and cobbled-together in a way that feels considered. It makes me want to buy a bubble machine and dance forever.
[10]

Michael Hong: The words confess a tender feeling to you before dissolving out of your fingers. The drums and synths skitter away like a gelatinous blob, unable to be properly held. “home” is always out of reach, its bubbly fluorescence to be seen but never touched even as you both demand it. Two Shell leave you chasing after that feeling, a high-spirited memory you’ll never get back but always view in fondness.
[9]

Ian Mathers: I’ve never actually played The Sims; is this Simlish? If so, those little virtual people go pretty hard when they’re not trapped in small, windowless rooms. The way it starts picking up steam right at the end makes me wish for a part two, though.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The drums chatter excitedly on the right and left sides of the mix while Theodore sings in the middle, his paws on the levers as he gradually adds more of his multitracked vocals, then a bubbling synth progression done by Jeanette. Then he pulls up the synths done by Simon, then a new drum program run for a few bars. He drops his original mix back in, then solders them together, slowly adding compression. He eases off, adding more modulation to his voice, raising the height of Jeanette’s synth, then dropping it low and adding back Simon’s own synths. He loops the programmed synth one last time and lets it ebb, the drum programming loosening. He raises the reverb, then stops the playback.
[10]

Julian Axelrod: The line between headache and galaxy brain has never been thinner.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: Headphones are absolutely mandatory, if only to confirm that yes, the beginning is supposed to sound like that, and that no, there’s even more dynamic, whirring, bubblicious fun in the mix than you thought.
[7]

Frank Kogan: One of the best songs here, and all I’ve got is that I can’t tell if the picture in the vid is a skull or a puppy. Soothing and not soothing. And soothing.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Spent an entire year with this song and my main takeaway is that I’m really impressed by how the bubbly sounds have the exact timbre needed to sell the impish and sincere sentiment. I love the way the beat moves between left and right channels. I love how the sampled vox increase in volume ever so slightly at certain points. I love all these little changes because it sounds like Two Shell are tinkering and then inviting you to delight in the results. As with all good dance music, the glee is shared, which means it’s palpable.
[6]


The Killers – boy


[Video][Website]
[7.00]
Ian Mathers: “Don’t overthink it, boy”? C’mon, The Killers, overthinking it is surely how you got here in the first place. And thank goodness.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: Give a little respect/to me, Brandon.
[7]

Claire Biddles: My boys have made this song a hundred times now, but I love the way the outright rips from synthpop classics vary every time. Here, the “A Little Respect” synth stabs that come in at 1:30ish are sent from heaven. I think after twenty years, if this mode of The Killers still makes you want to fall down to your knees and beat the ground while weeping, it always will. This is our classic rock, baby!
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Pastiche that’s aged well with time, patiently packaged with care. What kind of crazy nostalgic world do we get to live in where Brandon Flowers can unironically sing “white arrows will break the black night” in 2022 and it can sound good?
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Sometimes you lose it all it once, and sometimes it goes in pieces. Brandon Flowers here falls into the latter category — he hits the anthemic chorus notes that he’s always been able to capture, but everything else feels false, the ambient menace and tension he was able to get at in verses past replaced with empty signifying.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: The Killers’ version of Rina Sawayama’s “Phantom,” in subject matter and size. The band has made so many of these huge power-pop synth anthems that by now they could probably record one while unconscious. This one, though, sounds a little strained.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Brandon Flowers’ vocoded vocal is so hoarse and cloistered that when the razor-sharp drums, spiky bass and jittery guitars explode out over the synthesizers, it almost seems as if it will puncture and float to the top of the mix. But it’s so locked inside that it can’t find a way to crack open, the guitar solo drowns it out, and a synth solo fills the space fully, so the whole song has to break apart into clustering fragments for the voice to reappear. But it doesn’t.
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: When some bands get to the point of leaning or even morphing into such a parodic form of themselves, the jig is up. But there’s something about Brandon Flowers’ commitment to the bombast that makes it clear that The Killers never will. This man and his friends will be yearning with the outermost sincerity until they are the dust from which they know they came, ever reaching for the great beyond in some incomprehensible way or another. Nothing is bigger than entirety, so what is there to lose in always grasping at it?
[7]

Kayla Beardslee: OK, Brandon Flowers: this song is grandiose enough that I will temporarily ignore the fundamental diminutive comedy of the word “boy.”
[8]


IShowSpeed – F.U.C.


[Video]
[7.33]
Joshua Minsoo Kim: This is the first time in my life that I’ve understood how the qualities that make someone a popular Gen Z YouTuber/streamer in 2022 — exaggerated reactions, being playfully obnoxious, a willingness to debase oneself to remain likable/interesting — can play out in a song. Here, IShowSpeed (affiliated with the now defunct TwerkNation28) lifts an old beat from producer syzy (without initially asking, btw), and screams atop its manic Jersey club kicks. It’s dumb (his streams are dumber) and ephemeral (like streaming in general), so it’s perfect; it’s no surprise this feels less related to the year’s rise in club rap than just streamer culture in general. “F.U.C.” also kept me thinking about all the students I’ve had who tell me about their favorite streamers (both popular and incredibly niche) who are, in some sense, their favorite artists. What this means is that there are teenagers listening to Jersey club made by another teenager, and in an avenue removed from music discovery’s guiding light. This is why getting older rules: you see culture evolve in ways you never expect.
[10]

Claire Biddles: I laughed out loud with DELIGHT at that “Show Me Love” sample! What an absolute thrill ride.
[8]

Frank Kogan: Honestly, I can’t place this socially at all except I’m guessing it counts as trap of some sort, even with jungle beats and cartoon voices. High-pitched cuteness is all over Amnesty Week and indeed on playlists and TikTok dance challenges worldwide, from guncocks in the favelas to laptops in Dar es Salaam, chipmunk voices to video game hooks, often with the cuteness reclaimed and repurposed as all sorts of different and antithetical things, as dreaminess, as goofiness, as aggression, as dance radicalism, as noise, as Woody Woodpecker in your face. So, is “F.U.C.” aggression recast as cuteness? Grating hooks recast as fun?
[8]

Michael Hong: There’s this part near the beginning that’s actually quite pretty, between where the blaring has ended and IShowSpeed just acts as the DJ calling over its sample of “Promises.” “F.U.C.” gets heavy with overlapping club beats and unsightly vulgarity but never hot. It’s horny but sexless and with its beat constantly on the edge of a climax, it forms an ugly exercise in aural edging, a depraved teenager preventing you from the satisfaction of its chaotic Jersey club.
[4]

Ian Mathers: The production and energy here is really good. It’s just if the lyrics are going to be this lazy it’d be nice if they weren’t also the kind of stuff reactionary dipshits like to contrast with their favourite Beatles song or whatever to prove that “music sucks these days.” They’re wrong, but the weird combo of sexual and demanding here makes me sigh deeply.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: bullshit.  sampling will never die.
[9]


Fujii Kaze – Matsuri


[Video][Website]
[8.00]
Jessica Doyle: With the English subtitles on it almost gets too playful — “I don’t give a flying flamingo,” really? — but that’s a small complaint on a genuinely groovy and inventive song that tricked my husband into teasing me for listening to G-funk. This is never so enamored with itself that it gets boring, emotional but not at all melodramatic, relaxed but not irresponsible.
[8]

Michael Hong: There’s a brief little freakout on the second verse before Fujii Kaze calms himself, and then “Matsuri” returns to a collage of lightness: a piano line that really just lilts, a whistling melody that’s easily breezy, and playful drums. Kaze resigns on top with lyrical shrugs and lazily strung vocals, yet “Matsuri” buoys into something effortlessly celebratory.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The way the pianos hurl down upon the heavy 808 kicks and cardboard snares feels akin to being swept along the aisles at a filled Target, trying to ignore the pounding of your heart. The prechorus is so lush and sweet that it might’ve gotten this the [8] alone. The chorus itself is so good it bumped it to:
[10]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: From a lot of lead performers this would be a bit fussy — those pianos and woodwinds especially — but Fujii Kaze carries this with a refreshingly louche attitude, tamping down on the theater-kid earnestness that this production seems to be screaming for. Instead, he’s playful without ever being hammy or obvious, turning “Matsuri” into a deeply pleasant pop confection.
[7]

Ian Mathers: It’s amazing how load-bearing that (traditional?) flute is in making parts of this sound a bit like G-funk. Especially considering the rest of the backing is a lot rockier than that might lead you to expect, and that’s before that crunchy solo. Not sure whether this is a better example of genre outsiders fearlessly combining things that don’t seem like they’d work and finding out that they do, or of genre outsiders finding unintuitive ways to channel the spirit of it, but what a pleasant surprise either way.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: These days a lot of what I listen to can be micro-taxonomized — tis the season, after all — as languid, exquisite grooves. This is an exquisite groove.
[8]


Ava Max – Maybe You’re The Problem


[Video][Website]
[5.33]
Joshua Lu: I’ve been sitting here for far too long trying to justify my love for this song — writing and rewriting many pontifications on her cobbled-together music, her floundering career, and how her understanding of what makes a great pop song endures in spite of everything else about her. I’ve tried breaking down how every component comes together flawlessly, from the way it glides into that relentless chorus, to that random acoustic section after the bridge, to those bursts of vocalizations over that final disco-tinged breakdown. I’ve agonized over arguments about how it’s a rare song that feels like it’s both bursting at the seams and expertly contained, where every listen is like tumbling down a kaleidoscope for three minutes. I’ve deleted all of that, because ultimately I love this song for a simple reason: I listen to bops. I rarely listen to songs that do not bop. And “Maybe You’re The Problem” by Ava Max bops so hard it has surmounted stiff competition from all kinds of music to become my most played song of the year. No further justification needed.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: NTA
[7]

Claire Biddles: I respect when almost-popstars let their desperation show, but this is exhausting.
[3]

Kayla Beardslee: It’s an average Ava Max single.
[5]

Harlan Talib Ockey: The chorus is absolutely carrying “Maybe You’re The Problem”. Apart from being genuinely funny and cathartic, it’s just catchy, competent ’80s schlock. Everything else feels disposable; the first verse rhymes “you” with “you” more times than you can imagine, but it took me several listens to even notice.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: For five seconds I thought this was “As It Was.” I guess this is the response record — Harry Styles better watch his back. A-ha must be so rich from “Take On Me” they’re not even trying to sue anyone anymore. Good for them, cuz “Maybe You’re The Problem” is so damn good.
[6]

Will Adams: And I said oooooh, she’s blinded by the lights. And I can’t care, no, I can’t care at all.
[4]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I have to hand it to Ava Max: she is constantly yelling at me to feel how high-energy this song is, and I can’t help but tune her out.
[2]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: IfonlyeveryMaxinistatrackwasasfunasAva’scadencefor, “Youshouldtakeyourlittlefingerandjustpointitinthemirrorbabymaybeyou’retheproblem.” Definitelythemostfunpopmouthfulsince “Justbecauseitsoverdoesn’tmeanitsreallyoverandifIthinkitovermaybeyou’llbecomingoveragain.”
[7]


Polyphia ft. Sophia Black – ABC


[Video][Website]
[8.00]
Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: A song so confident in its dumb ideas that it wraps back around to genius. Ever since I encountered this in the depths of my YouTube recommendations (too many Clone Hero videos) I’ve frankly been obsessed in ways that I usually avoid. This one is unavoidable, though: the purest pinnacle of power pop, taking the most cruelly effective innovations of prog rock, djent, EDM trap, and bubblegum and fusing them into something that has enveloped me with no sign of rescue.
[10]

Claire Biddles: I am a sucker for prog structures and forms applied to music that isn’t prog, but I don’t think I’ve heard a prog-bubblegum meld as batshit fun as “ABC” since Girls Aloud. It works so well with sass swapped for cutesy 2022 aesthetics too, and that “phonetic/paramedic” rhyme is just sublime.
[8]

Ian Mathers: The combo of a straightforward pop melody/vocal performance with a band giving the kind of instrumental performances that seem to always get called either “technical” or “tasteful” is certainly a new one for me. I think this is the level you’ve got to take it to for me to finally enjoy a song that does the whole instrument-plays-along-with-the-voice thing, which normally bugs me. I think I could listen to a whole album of this, as long as they promise not to go overboard with the solos.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: NAMM-style guitar riffage, which means the instrumentation is removed from the piss-take math rock bands of yore and leans closer to Malmsteen gloss. The trick with this sort of music is that you have to make it sound like you’re having FUN and that the music doesn’t end at the chintzy guitar tones and technical prowess. That’s usually impossible for Polyphia (a band beloved by so many people, none of whom are “respectable” music critics), but Sophia Black’s bilingual singing and tongue-twisting alphabet chorus shifts this to the playfulness of Japanese math rock. Her cutesy chanting seals that impression. I’ve always believed that the voice is the most important instrument, that it can change the entire landscape of a song, that it can fill an otherwise drab work with personality, that it is the sole reason I will ever listen to most songs. Case in point: “ABC,” my favorite song this year from an artist I otherwise despise.
[10]

Nortey Dowuona: Sophia’s bright soprano slaloms over the spelled-out chorus so easily that it makes you wonder how this even came to be. The swampy, lush pre-chorus swoops down, the guitar and bass linking, until the bass lets loose Sophia and the guitar to scream, the whole song slowly crushing in on itself. Sophia chants and opens the mix one last time — before it suddenly stops?
[7]

Frank Kogan: Bass player aching to play math rock; singer endeavoring to be dreamy and frenetic at once.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Who among us has not had a crush so total it fucks up our facts and renders us silly with alphabetic ahegao? Thankfully, it’s a temporary condition. Facts can be delightful, and “ABC” has so many delightful ones: the fact that half this band looks exactly like Max Martin; the fact that this band, I’m told, makes crustier stuff that doesn’t sound like this (also like Max Martin, once); the fact that this sounds like a wackier “Come On Over (All I Want Is You)“; the guitar solo-cheerleader-vox-combo, which twelve (TWELVE!!!!) years past Treats still has life; the fact that, yes, this is the same Sophia Black whom we covered via “Kissing” in 2015, when she was signed by he-who-shall-not-be-named (no, this is not me canceling anything), that that song still holds up, and its Mariah-via-Ariana runs have come with her to 2022; the fact that this effectively cancels out that other terrible ABC song with one that’s actually fun.
[8]


Romy & Fred again.. – Strong


[Video]
[7.12]
Will Adams: The early ’00s revival would not be complete without the return of trance, so thank God for artists like Romy, Rina and, yes, Grimes, for leading the charge. “Strong,” unlike “Holy” and “Player,” takes the uplifting tack, resulting in a comforting embrace of a song wrapped in organza. It’s lyrically slight, but that’s the point; the repetition of the central line is all that’s needed. The strobing synths and driving tempo do the rest, so when the track plunges into a minor key and resurfaces with that line, it coalesces into a mantra. As the door of another year marked by pain, by uncertainty, by fear, by sickness closes, “Strong” offers a calming, if brief, refuge.
[9]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Cynicism-proof — I wanted to get my various digs in against Fred Again’s fradulence, his coasting on overhyped Boiler Room sets and Brian Eno co-signs, but the more I listened to “Strong” the less I had to say. It’s perfectly frictionless, unselfish dance music, Romy’s beautifully struck hook never overwhelmed by the various flourishes Fred adds. It’s not quite what I want from a dance track (a little more ego! a touch of tension! please!) but I can’t help but admire it for what it is.
[8]

Kayla Beardslee: Before I start, let’s pretend that this blurb is written from the perspective of someone who is actually knowledgeable about dance music and whose opinions therefore hold some kind of critical weight. Okay, go: haha this is good!
[8]

Ian Mathers: Boshing With Tears in My Eyes b/w the rave remix of Björk’s “It’s Not Up to You” that I never knew I needed. [nb. if this already exists please let me know in the comments]
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: On paper, this should be exactly the thing to make my Sarah McLachlan dance remix-loving heart swoon. And I do like a “Don’t Give Up” video homage. But while Romy’s voice was perfect for the xx, and seems like it could hold its own among the hundreds of ethereal celestial vox lifers in the trance genre, her vocal on “Strong” is a little weak for the task. The whole song kinda seems like something I’d queue up on radio night then become self-conscious one minute in because all it’s done is semantic-satiate “you don’t have to be so strong” over an unbuilding track, and there are still three minutes left. (There is a build; it happens too late and is too short.)
[6]

Julian Axelrod: I find the members of the xx more interesting solo than as a trio, when they feel free to explore a lighter and looser sound than the dark, insular duets of their main gig. (Same goes for Big Thief, but that’s another blurb.) Romy’s “Lifetime” was a revelation, with her intimate murmurs and Jamie’s clipped repetition grounding Fred again..’s Moby-esque big room impulses. “Strong” tips the scales in Fred’s direction, and Romy’s plaintive pleas get lost in the onslaught of sparkler-ready drops. At her best, Romy sounds like she’s whispering in your ear on the dance floor; this feels like trying to find your friend in a crowded club.
[6]

Dorian Sinclair: There’s a meticulousness to “Strong”; you can feel the care taken in how the various layers are constructed, the decisions on when different instruments enter or depart the mix. For all the production complexity, though, the most affecting moment is primarily vocal — Romy’s brief call-and-response with herself just after the 2:30 mark is gorgeous, and it feels like after that the song ends up spinning its wheels a bit, unsure the best way of following that up.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: The synths are so soft they feel as if they’re breaths Romy takes as she sings the opening verse. There’s so much space that it feels even more pulsing and heavy, as if each hit of the kick is knocking the wind out of you as the snare rolls drop back out, allowing you to catch your breath and ease back down, then brace yourself. But instead the percussion eases, hitting with light, firm touches. The snare roll hits again and the punches fly, but you don’t struggle to breathe. You breathe with Romy, and each hit hurts a hell of a lot less until it finally stops.
[7]


Eliza and the Delusionals – Give You Everything


[Video][Website]
[7.20]
William John: On “Give You Everything”, Eliza and the Delusionals play the most mischievous of tricks, making a song about romantic frustration sound like the sort of thing you’d listen to while holding hands with someone and leaning into a kiss, as fireworks begin exploding in the background. Sixpence None the Richer-core was certainly in vogue in 2022, and this was one of its prettiest exponents: with a soaring chorus and the melodrama piled sky-high, it ought to have had TV teen drama music supervisors running rather than walking in this Australian band’s direction.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: Would “Give You Everything” be a second- or third-string pop-rock single had it come out in the Dawson’s Creek era? Probably. Would I still have cherished excavating it off the midseason soundtrack years later? Definitely. The way the chorus bursts free from the verse ringing is near-perfect — the song really should sustain that ringing throughout the whole chorus, but it does ring.
[7]

Kayla Beardslee: I don’t think music that sounds this sun-soaked and self-satisfied (even if the lyrics aren’t quite as optimistic) has any place in the 2020s.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The drums are the root of the lilting synths and slight, wispy guitars, but as Eliza sings, her airy alto lights up the song until it stops short, then steadies and keeps walking, right through the chipper pre-chorus into the crowded chorus. A flattened guitar solo below that slips away once the chorus crowds out the mix, the bass simply following the drums, waiting until they stop to fly away.
[6]

Ian Mathers: It wouldn’t be a roundup of songs on the Jukebox without at least one song making me irrationally believe it’s going to be a cover. So not only do I get to enjoy this song, which reminds me a bit of that Babygirl song I loved on here but brighter and more hopeful, but I went and listened to Canadian greats Skydiggers’ “I Will Give You Everything” like three times in a row too.
[7]


Ravyn Lenae – Light Me Up


[Video][Website]
[8.12]
Julian Axelrod: In an age where constant output is the norm and a three-year gap between albums is considered a hiatus, Raven Lenae has always taken her sweet time. She broke out as a Chicago prodigy way back in 2016 and spent the ensuing years finding her voice in real time. HYPNOS is billed as her official debut, but it sounds light years beyond her initial output. “Light Me Up” is the end result and embodiment of that focus and patience, deliberately spooling out molten guitar and spiraling synth over a careful crawl. And above it all is Lenae’s unreal falsetto, an always impressive instrument that’s only grown more powerful. Her sound is elegant like her predecessors and versatile like her peers, but her voice is timeless in a way that defies written description. If this is how far she’s come in five years, there’s no telling where she’ll be in 2032.
[9]

William John: Ravyn Lenae’s HYPNOS was admitted to the museum of excellent albums to listen to in the gloaming while lying in a hammock mere moments after it was released. While its most thrilling track is probably “Xtasy,” which sounds like a lost Damita Jo offcut, the humid, sensuous “Light Me Up” offers more familiar pleasures for Lenae’s fans to luxuriate in: a languid pace, Steve Lacy’s now idiosyncratic guitar, and her sublime head voice.
[8]

Kayla Beardslee: Exquisite, hypnotic single from one of the year’s best R&B projects! I wish I could make my brain sound like this when I’m trying to fall asleep. (Instead of, like, Charli XCX on evil mode mashed up with the most depressing Taylor Swift songs possible.)
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Lit as in bathed in fluorescent light, and light as in feathery and effortless: Ravyn Lenae’s voice weaves a gossamer of come-ons and come-downs that hypnotizes the mind and stirs the soul. Intimacy, meet your maker.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: Sex at its pillowiest, its most soft-focus, its most Come to My Garden.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: I can’t tell which of the hits before the first silky curtain of guitar is the kick. There’s still such a solid, firm bed below that the entire curtains of guitar and Ravyn’s lilting soprano can flutter and flicker, threatening to burn but slowly lowering just as the chorus stops. Ravyn feels so low in her range that when she slips out into its own outer ranges, not feeling like a whisper feels like a loud, firm word. But finally her voice ebbs, the kicks evaporating beneath her.
[8]

Ian Mathers: Can you light anything up underwater? Because that’s where this submerged guitar backing and the floating vocals are putting me. Somehow delicate and heady at the same time, and beautifully sung.
[8]

Michael Hong: Impossible how effortless Ravyn Lenae makes it sound.
[8]

Reader average: [9] (2 votes)

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2 Responses to “Amnesty 2022, Part Two”

  1. Julian coming in to disrupt one of our final chances to get a song with all the same score!!!

  2. TSJ says Speed > most Avicii tracks!

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