Wednesday, March 04, 2015
This week's Short List.

Monday, March 02, 2015
Baltimore rapper and blogger Speed On The Beat recently invited me to take part in an e-mail Q&A for a 'roundtable' with a few other music writers and bloggers. In the last few days, Part One and Part Two were published, and I think it came out pretty interestingly, I tried to be honest and maybe a little revealing about my process, and it was cool to see how the other respondents answered the same questions.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 34: Kelly Clarkson

Saturday, February 28, 2015

As the first winner of "American Idol," Kelly Clarkson is, for better or worse, an argument in favor of the idea that you can crowdsource a pop star. Not just that, but that you can give a record deal to the winner of a karaoke game show, and she can become one of the biggest and most respected pop singers of her generation, and make a song as critically celebrated as "Since U Been Gone," and a solid 'greatest hits' collection worth of other singles. And although "Idol" has spun off a handful of other decent careers, and Carrie Underwood eventually sold more albums, Clarkson's career now seems kind of a singular fluke, one time that they really picked someone great and they managed to grow artistically after getting into the spotlight.

Of course, Kelly Clarkson's career also could function as an argument against the system that made her a star. After the Idol machine groomed her in a Carey/Aguilera mold for her debut album, Thankful, she had to fight tooth and nail to make more rock-leaning music like "Since U Been Gone" on her second album, Breakaway. And even after finding enormous success with that record, she wound up in an ugly feud with music industry heavyweight Clive Davis, which helped doomed the follow-up My December before it was even released. Her career recovered slightly with the next two albums, but it seemed a little like the industry battles had broken her spirit -- after refusing to record songs previously recorded by Lindsay Lohan and other artists on My December, she was recording Katy Perry outtakes on her next album All I Ever Wanted, and you can't help but notice the irony of that title. To be fair, though, castoffs from other artists served Clarkson well earlier in her career -- she should be glad, and probably is, that Pink didn't want "Since U Been Gone," that Avril didn't use "Breakaway," that Xtina decided against "Miss Independent."

Kelly Clarkson is about to release her 7th studio album (6th non-Christmas album, but I tend to count the Christmas album in her discography, which I'll get into). But looking back on her albums, and the narrative of her career that I just outlined, I'm actually struck by how much of a piece her catalog is. I cherry-picked songs from Thankful that resembled the direction she took after that, but for the most part there's really not a huge difference in what most of the songs the blockbuster Breakaway and the 'dark' career downturn My December and the 'more accessible' All I Ever Wanted and Stronger sound like, in terms of production and songwriting. And that makes all the crazy industry conflicts just seem even sillier.

Kelly Clarkson Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Can I Have A Kiss
2. Gone
3. Ready
4. Addicted
5. Honestly
6. Judas
7. Whyyawannabringmedown
8. You Can't Win
9. Beautiful Disaster
10. Where Is Your Heart
11. You Love Me
12. Be Still
13. Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)
14. 4 Carats
15. Hole
16. How I Feel
17. Don't Be A Girl About It
18. Just Missed The Train
19. Hear Me
20. Just For Now
21. Thankful
22. You Found Me

Tracks 9, 18 and 21 from Thankful (2003)
Tracks 2, 4, 10, 19 and 22 from Breakaway (2004)
Tracks 1, 6, 12, 15 and 16 from My December (2007)
Tracks 3 and 7 from All I Ever Wanted (2009)
Tracks 5, 8, 11 and 17 from Stronger (2011)
Tracks 13, 14 and 20 from Wrapped In Red (2013)

I've always thought Breakaway's status as far and away Clarkson's biggest album was well deserved. But when an album has 5 great hit singles, you're definitely going to lose something when you strip it down to the deep cuts, and I'm hard pressed to say any of the tracks here, good as they are, should've been released as singles instead of what was released. And My December, which I had mixed feelings about at the time but has aged pretty well, has some of her stronger deep cuts partly by virtue of it barely having any hits.

One of the odd little surprises when My December was released was that Mike Watt played bass on 3 songs. That seemed to be a product of one of Clarkson's guys happening to know him and hiring him for a session, and not Clarkson being a Minutemen fan or deliberately trying to increase her indie cred. But still, it was an interesting little footnote in both of their careers, and strangely appropriate given Watt's longtime love of Madonna that he was finally part of a big pop diva's album. Those three songs ("Can I Have A Kiss," "Hole," and "How I Feel") are all standouts on the album, although you can only really pick up on Watt's bass sound if you know it's there and are listening for it.

In general, Clarkson's albums do tend to be kind of sharply divided by the singles and the other tracks, and there are occasionally some pretty lousy ones (Stronger's "Einstein" features the refrain "dumb plus dumb equals you"). For the most part, though, she's been remarkably consistent. Even the originals on her Christmas album, Wrapped In Red, really stand up with some of her best work and didn't feel too difficult to mix in with other songs here.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige
Vol. 30: The Black Crowes
Vol. 31: Ne-Yo
Vol. 32: Blink-182
Vol. 33: One Direction

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Today is Erykah Badu's birthday, and I wrote lots of words about her 20 best songs for Complex Magazine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015
This week's Short List.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

I did a little piece for Complex ranking all the songs called "Monster" (or "The Monster") that have come out in the last few years.

Monthly Report: February 2015 Singles

Friday, February 20, 2015

1. Taylor Swift - "Style"
I feel like this so clearly the great and likely most enduring song of 1989, and maybe of Taylor Swift's career, that someday it will seem kind of weird that it was the third single, released after it had already moved most of its units. Just an amazing record, great groove, and unlike a lot of her better songs, she doesn't fuck it up with a subpar bridge but actually delivers one that elevates the rest of the song. Obviously this song isn't on my Spotify playlist of favorite 2015 singles, but the other songs here are.

2. D'Angelo and the Vanguard - "Really Love"
One of the most interesting aspects of "surprise album release" era to me is how it's allowing established artists to release a record to their existing fanbase without the pressure of having to release a giant hit single first to prime the public. And I've been watching and observing whether these albums end up having any kind of shelf life on radio without advance singles -- unsurprisingly, Magna Carta Holy Grail and Beyonce ended up with lots of radio hits, but Yeezus had none at all. Currently, the single from the J. Cole surprise album is doing much better than the one from the D'Angelo album that also dropped from the sky in December. But really, even Voodoo was far enough removed from 2000 R&B radio that he was lucky "Untitled" did as well as it did. And when you factor in the passage of 15 years, no video, and a lovely but less immediate ballad that features a string intro and lots of Spanish guitar, it's pretty miraculous and refreshing to hear "Really Love" on the radio at all. I still wish I heard it more, though (it topped out at #28 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart).

3. Thomas Rhett - "Make Me Wanna"
"Make Me Wanna" is the 5th single from Thomas Rhett's debut album released back in 2013, and the first 4 gave me no reason to take any interest in the guy. But sometimes those long singles campaigns give you a little surprise at the end, and "Make Me Wanna" is a great one. In the context of mainstream country lyrics, this is really just more songs about making out in truck cabs. But musically, it's really a breath of fresh air, this lilting soulful little thing that Rhett himself called "kind of like if the Bee Gees were to put out a single today." He doesn't sing in a falsetto or anything, but the groove is perfect.

4. Ella Henderson - "Ghost"
Ryan Tedder, a Top 40 hack among hacks, made an embarrassing number of singles I enjoyed last year. And one of them that kinda flew under the radar was Colbie Caillat's "Hold On," which now feels like a dry run for "Ghost." Ella Henderson won "The X-Factor" in the UK and this song already hit #1 over there last year, but it's just starting to pick up steam here. Tedder also did Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love," so clearly the "X-Factor" people were shrewd to get him involved in Henderson's project, and the results are nearly as good. I am pretty annoyed by the dance beat remix that my local pop station has been playing of this, though -- it's already an uptempo record, isn't not like "All Of Me" or "Take Me To Church" where the dance remixes are used to cram slow songs into a format that rarely accepts slow songs.

5. Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
I like this song, it's really catchy. But I think I'm also equally entertained by the guy in the video who's doing his best offbrand DJ Khaled mogul shit talking for 30 whole seconds at the end of the video, and the guy next to him in the car emphatically pointing at him the whole time. Also, my realization that Chris Parnell basically wrote "Trap Queen" with the hook of the song from this old SNL sketch has ensured I'll never heard it the same way again.

6. Royal Blood - "Figure It Out"
Initially I didn't like this nearly as much as Royal Blood's first single, "Out of the Black," but this one's pretty catchy too. They pack a nice neo-Zep wallop for two guys on bass and drums, overdubs or not, this song even has a "Heartbreaker" knockoff riff at the end of the chorus.

7. Charli XCX f/ Rita Ora - "Doing It (Remix)"
It's a shame that Sucker has had such a mishandled album campaign -- they could've released it back when "Boom Clap" was a big hit, but instead let a follow-up with zero radio potential, "Break The Rules," drain the project's momentum before the LP dropped. And now one of the album's best songs, an awesome '80s Madonna-style jam, is a single, but they had to go and make it an unnecessary remix with Rita Ora, who's barely a bigger draw than Charli's ever been, or maybe was a couple years ago. She doesn't detract from the song at all, but she doesn't really add anything to justify her presence. They've already replaced the solo version with the remix on the album on Spotify and everything. I was really impressed that Ariel Rechtshaid produced this, I thought a lot of the stuff he did previously for Haim or Sky Ferreira was kind of timid scarequotes "pop," but this song just bangs.

8. AWOLNATION - "Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)"
"Sail" is one of my favorite singles of the decade, and I felt pretty vindicated when it became this multi-platinum sleeper hit that kept popping up on the Hot 100 on and off over the course of 3 years. But the song and AWOLNATION's first album are 4 years old now, and I was wondering when they'd ever come back with something new. In that context, "Hollow Moon" felt initially anticlimactic, but it also feels like a very strange and appropriate song for the band to return with, particularly with lyrics like "Motherfucker I'll be back from the dead soon" and "I run away for a couple years just to prove I've never been free." The album they're releasing next month, Run, is very good, and has more accessible songs, but I admire this choice for a lead single.

9. Catfish And The Bottlemen - "Kathleen"
Mainstream alt rock band names really have become terrible across the board, haven't they AWOLNATION is a pretty bad name, but Catfish And The Bottlemen, shit, that's practically Hootie And The Blowfish. This song has a pretty great chorus, though.

10. Nicki Minaj f/ Beyonce - "Feeling Myself"
After The Pinkprint's horror show trio of advance singles, it's nice to now be able to turn on the radio and hear actual good songs from the album like "Truffle Butter" and this. This song only exists as part of the bargain to get Nicki on the "Flawless" remix, but I think it's so much better than that was. I loved that even Just Blaze bowed down to how good the production is on this.

Worst Single of the Month: Ed Sheeran - "Thinking Out Loud"
It's weird to think that the worst single from x isn't one of the songs where he raps, but this song has really grown from benignly lame to actively awful as it's become inescapable. He always seems to make awkward anatomical references when he's talking about kissing or whatever, but this song tips all the way into a weird body horror vibe with lines like "Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love/ Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?" It's especially lame because the album's opening track, "One," is a pretty lovely acoustic track.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In this week's City Paper, I wrote The Short List and a feature on DRGN King, a Philadelphia-based band who paid tribute to their Baltimore roots on their latest album, Baltimore Crush, and are in town this Friday playing a show at The Crown.

TV Diary

Monday, February 16, 2015

a) "The Slap"
This is one of those shows where you can kind of see why the source material might've been compelling and why some big name actors were attracted to the project, but by the time the whole thing makes its way on the air, the title and the ad campaign just make it look like the silliest, most unappealing thing in the world. I'm kinda just watching it in horror, laughing at the "Homeland"-esque fixation on the main character's love of jazz and the whole weird tone of the drama, even if it's closer to well made than a total campy failure.

b) "Better Call Saul"
Vince Gilligan was behind the "X-Files" spinoff "The Lone Gunmen," so I'm not surprised he thought this was a good idea. But that he and AMC have put so much effort and confidence in this show, picking it up for a second season before the pilot even aired, smells of desperation, like Gilligan's just gonna ride out this one successful thing he created George Lucas-style in favor of trying to create anything else. The first episode was nice, maybe this could be a quality show, it's just weird to watch prestige cable drama gunning hard to milk a franchise. I was always kind of indifferent to Odenkirk's Lionel Hutz schtick on "Breaking Bad," but Jonathan Banks was one of my favorite discoveries of the show so it might be worth watching just for him.

c) "12 Monkeys"
I've never really cared much either way about the movie, but this seems like a decent basis for a SyFy series. I haven't watched it since the pilot, though, Zeljko Ivanek was my favorite thing about it, but he gets killed off at the end of the episode, and I really wish he was a cast member on this instead of "Madam Secretary."

d) "Backstrom"
I always had a borderline irrational dislike of Rainn Wilson and in particular his performance on "The Office" (what was lost in the translation from Gareth to Dwight always felt emblematic of what I disliked of the U.S. version of the show). But maybe I don't mind him in general that much because this show seems like a pretty decent vehicle for what he's good at. That doesn't mean it's actually a good show, though, and it kinda feels like there's a strong cast being wasted here for yet another "misanthropic genius works his genius while everyone looks on in disbelief" procedural.

e) "Broad City"
This show was so good and so refreshing in its first season (my #1 of 2014) that I feel like people are already scrutinizing it for signs of a sophomore slump or reasons it wasn't all that to begin with. And so far I haven't heard any complaints worth agreeing with, show is still on fire. I especially loved Susie Essman as Ilana's mom.

f) "The Mindy Project" 
I was really loving how Adam Pally had fallen into the cast of this show, after "Happy Endings" got sadly canceled and "Mindy" struggled through a revolving door of underused supporting players in its first couple seasons. But Pally's contract just ran out and instead of renewing it, they just wrote him off the show, which is a shame. Still a good show, but I hope whatever Pally does next is worth it. Damon Wayans, Jr. leaving "New Girl" is even more distressing, I need all the "Happy Endings" alumni to keep being funny on TV, together or apart.

g) "Black Mirror"
I'd heard so many fiercely divided reactions to this show that I put on the first episode really just trying to figure out which end of the spectrum I fell on. And I'm leaning on the negative side, although given the format of the show I should probably see more than one episode before passing judgment. Which other ones should I check out?

h) "Shameless"
My attention really wandered early in the last season of "Shameless," and I never caught up on it. But when it started back up this year, I decided to just watch the recap at the beginning of the season, and didn't feel like I missed anything I need to go back to, and have been happy just watching the new episodes. The show has really been suffering from diminishing returns since the first couple seasons, though, I might give it up again.

i) "The Late Late Show"
After Craig Kilborn left "The Late Late Show," CBS had a whole series of guest hosts informally auditioning for the job with Craig Ferguson eventually getting it. But James Corden already had the gig locked down by the time Ferguson's run ended, so for a couple months in between they just have a bunch of different people keeping the seat warm for a few nights at a time, and it's been fun to watch. Drew Carey was competent but nothing special, while Judd Apatow and John Mayer were entertainingly mediocre just because you know you won't see them do anything like that again.

j) "Saturday Night Live"
The big 40th anniversary special last night was predictably anticlimactic but still fun in a nostalgic way -- the biggest surprise was not just that Eddie Murphy didn't do much or even try to be funny but just how much his innate charisma has disappeared. What I enjoyed more was the VH1 classic 'rewind' marathon over the last couple weeks, which included rare reruns of the dreaded '85-'86 season (which is probably a little better than its reputation but would almost have to be), and full 90-minute runs of '70s episodes that I've usually only seen in best-of edits.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 33: One Direction

Friday, February 13, 2015

Usually I make these playlists for acts that have been around a while and have built up a good-sized catalog. But I wanted to take a look at One Direction, whose debut album was released only 39 months ago, because in that short time they've released four albums, each one better than the last. I liked "What Makes You Beautiful" as a big goofy pop anthem, and generally rooted for One Direction in the nu-boy band rivalry with The Wanted that by now seems hilariously one-sided. But with their third album, Midnight Memories, and especially last year's Four, I've started to notice how frighteningly consistent they've been.

Obviously, One Direction were assembled on a reality show, and exist largely as a giant commercial entity and a canvas upon some of the weirdest fan fiction in pop history is being painted. But that doesn't mean they can't have good songs. And while their albums have largely been assembled out of the U.K. song factory with occasional names familiar to the American charts (Dr. Luke, Shellback), two members of One Direction, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, have played an increasingly large part in the songwriting as their records have gotten better -- they co-wrote over half of the songs on this playlist.

One Direction Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. Little Black Dress
2. Little White Lies
3. Clouds
4. Tell Me A Lie
5. Loved You First
6. Stockholm Syndrome
7. Diana
8. Change Your Ticket
9. Up All Night
10. They Don't Know About Us
11. Ready To Run
12. Stand Up
13. Alive
14. Where Do Broken Hearts Go
15. I Want
16. I Wish
17. I Would
18. No Control
19. Fireproof
20. Does He Know?
21. Spaces
22. Girl Almighty
23. Last First Kiss

Tracks 4, 9, 15 and 16 from Up All Night (2011)
Track 12 from Up All Night (Yearbook Edition) (2011)
Tracks 10, 17 and 23 from Take Me Home (2012)
Track 5 from Take Me Home (Yearbook Edition) (2012)
Tracks 1, 2 and 7 from Midnight Memories (2013)
Tracks 13 and 20 from Midnight Memories (Deluxe Edition) (2013)
Track 3, 6, 11, 14, 18, 19, 21, and 22 from Four (2014)
Track 8 from Four (Yearbook Edition) (2014)

Obviously, One Direction have just four albums, and I'm not trying to make it look like they have eight or anything. But I wanted to distinguish the bonus cuts from the main albums since everything they've released so far has had a deluxe edition with multiple tracks that are just as good as anything on the main album. And of course, the emphasis is on Four, an amazing album which I included 9 tracks from -- and I've never had more than 7 tracks from one album on one of these playlists, although the fact that they only have four records is also a factor. "Clouds" has been the standout of Four that's really made me stand up and notice how good the whole album is. It's the opening song on their current tour's setlist, and supposedly may be their next single, but for now it's a deep cut so I'm keeping it in there.

One of the things that interests me about One Direction is that they've got the least R&B or dance pop in their sound of any big boy band of the last 25 years. There's maybe a track here or there with a dubstep break but that's about it, everything else is drawing from rock and synth pop and folk. Which might sound boring, but in an era of Ed Sheeran rapping and Nick Jonas doing an R&B reboot, it's kid of refreshing. There's a lot of stuff they draw from that you're otherwise not hearing on big pop records in the 2010s. Over the last couple years, 1D's singles have regularly ignited minor media furors for being obvious pastiches of pop/rock hits of yesteryear -- "Best Song Ever" sounded like "Baba O'Riley" by The Who, "Midnight Memories" sounded like "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by Def Leppard, and "Steal My Girl" sounded like "Faithfully" by Journey. There's not as much of that in the deep cuts, but "Does He Know?" is a nice little rewrite of "Jessie's Girl," and "Stockholm Syndrome" builds beautifully on "Everybody Wants To Rule The World."

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige
Vol. 30: The Black Crowes
Vol. 31: Ne-Yo
Vol. 32: Blink-182

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In the Baltimore City Paper, I reviewed the new Sisqo album Last Dragon that's out this week, and also wrote The Short List.

Movie Diary

Monday, February 09, 2015

a) The Interview
After all the hoopla, which mostly turned me off of wanting to see a movie that seemed kinda sketchy to begin with, they put it up on Netflix for free and I was like fuck it, I'll watch it. And maybe I had just set my expectations so low they had to be surpassed, but I actually enjoyed it. Mostly what I liked was that Franco's character was a pretty unique comic creation, really one of his first impressive performances after a few years of being just insufferable. Like the other Rogen/Goldberg action comedies, it's overlong and gets bogged down in the 'action' component in the second half, but it's at least better than This Is The End.

b) Obvious Child
The club of SNL women that Lorne Michaels didn't like too much or know what to do with is an interesting one with some big names (Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman) and some pretty good recent entrants (Casey Wilson, Michaela Watkins). One of the many ladies Lorne didn't like as much as Kristen Wiig, Jenny Slate, kind of had a big acclaimed breakout performance in this. And it really is something, just because she has to embody the script's delicate balance between really loose, filthy comedy and some pretty raw emotions. The whole thing dances on that weird line and then sticks the landing, I kinda loved it. Hoping Gillian Robespierre gets to direct some more flicks or get a TV show or something.

c) God's Pocket
One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final films, and I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. Strange story. It was adapted from a novel, written by a newspaper writer who was beaten up by an angry mob over a column he wrote. In God's Pocket, Richard Jenkins plays a newspaper writer who (spoiler alert) gets beaten up by an angry mob over a column he wrote, and he's also a creep who takes advantage of a woman who asked him to write about her recently dead son. Oh, and the son is one of the most viscerally unlikable characters I've seen in a movie in a long time, and he dies offscreen, and I still have no idea how the movie wanted me to feel. The whole thing left an odd aftertaste.

d) Bears
I love this movie so goddamn much. John C. Reilly narrating the whimsical (and sometimes scary!) adventures of a mama bear and her two cubs. His fucking voice, man, he was really born to narrate adorable nature documentaries. I want like 10 more of these. About pandas, lions, whatever, go for it. Take my money, Disney.

e) My Summer of Love
I adore Emily Blunt and have generally thought that she's picked almost nothing but good movies and never been less than exemplary in them. So it was high time I watched one of the first British movies that really kickstarted her career. It's one of those movies where two girls fall in love and then one of them is really intense about it and one of them isn't so much and is maybe just dabbling in bisexuality and thinks the other one is kind of crazy...I guess I'm mainly thinking of Lost And Delirious and a subplot in Election, but I dunno it seems like a weird motif that has popped up in fiction more than just there and plays into some kind of negative stereotype. This one was at least pretty well done, though, thought the acting and the plotting of it all was pretty smartly done.

f) Graffiti Bridge
I have listened to the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack a fair amount and it's kinda one of my favorite lesser Prince albums, lot of fun songs on it. The movie is definitely a different story, though, watching a Purple Rain sequel with early '90s bearded Prince and all his New Power Generation backup dancers and shit is just surreal and hilarious and the performances almost make me like the songs less. I mean, Purple Rain easily could've been a disaster but by some wonderful twist of fate became iconic and perfect in its own way, but you can't just make lightening strike twice like that. Funny to finally see that Tevin Campbell video that used to be on MTV back in the day in the context of the movie. There's one funny scene where Morris and Jerome face off while "Dueling Banjos" plays in the background, I didn't expect that.

Monthly Report: January 2015 Albums

Friday, February 06, 2015

1. Dawn Richard - Blackheart
She's already one of my favorite artists of the last 5 years just off of the strength of Diddy-Dirty Money and her early solo projects, but I have to admit, I was starting to lose some interest in Dawn Richard. Goldenheart was good but felt a bit like a holding pattern after Armor On. Then came her split with the producer of those projects, Druski, and then the doomed Danity Kane reunion, and the plastic surgery that made her face unrecognizable, and I didn't really know what to expect anymore. But man, this album is a motherfucker. Totally turns her sound inside out and takes her established vocal sound and melodic style and puts it in a bold new context. Parts of the album work better than others, and it's pretty long, but the section with "Billie Jean" and "Adderall / Sold (Outerlude)" alone makes it one of the more exciting albums I've heard lately. Here's my running Spotify playlist of 2015 albums I've been listening to that has most of these in it.

2. Rae Sremmurd - Sremmlife
It's so rare these days that you get a major label debut rap album before you've had a chance to already go through several waves of interest and disinterest -- barring a Mike WiLL Made It compilation appearance here and there, nobody heard of Rae Sremmurd 8 months ago, and now here they are with two great Top 40 hits and no mixtape to unflatteringly compare the album to. In a way I'm less impressed with what they do on the album than what they don't get wrong -- I like "No Flex Zone" and "No Type," so here they are with 9 other songs that are enjoyable in the same way. There are some surprises, though -- "This Could Be Us" and "Come Get Her" are melodic tracks without R&B singer assistance that end up being some of the best tracks, and that almost never happens. And even when big stars show up, they're rappers with weird high-pitched voices who make sense in Rae Sremmurd's orbit (Big Sean, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj).

3. Fall Out Boy - American Beauty/American Psycho
With "Centuries" becoming the band's first top ten hit in 8 years, it really feels like Fall Out Boy are enjoying this major second wind that mainstream rock bands rarely get. And usually that era doesn't end up being nearly as good as the early days or missing something important about their musical identity (thinking of, like, post-rehab Aerosmith here). And while this stuff is definitely different from the From The Cork Tree era (and I remain a huge fan of the band's commercial nadir, Folie a Deux), I really dig this stuff for what it is. In some ways they're a stranger and more unique band now for the way they've managed to survive in the pop world, guyliner poster boys doing jock jams for sportscasts. And this album has a lot of beautiful midtempo stuff after the initial blast of anthems is over. It really alarmed me to learn that the American Beauty half of the album title is a tip of the hat to the Grateful Dead and not the Kevin Spacey movie, though.

4. Jazmine Sullivan - Reality Show
Back in 2010, Jazmine Sullivan released Love Me Back, an amazing album that I thought capitalized on all the promise of her debut while dropping its shortcomings. A few weeks later, she announced that she was "taking a break from music," which was really heartbreaking. I'm glad she finally came back around, even if it took this long, and the industry is showing her even less love than it did back then. In a way it brings back a lot of the eccentricities and conceptual ambitions of her debut and pulls them off with more aplomb, it's not all straight faced first person autobiographical stuff like you often get in R&B. At first I thought Reality Show was kind of a bland unimaginative title, but it made more sense when I read that she got inspired for the album while watching reality shows. It kinda makes this album like a flipside to the also great new K. Michelle album, an introspective record from an actual reality show star vs. Jazmine Sullivan giving her own reflection on that world through the eyes of a viewer.

5. DJ Chris J - Club Going Up Volume #1
The first new mix in a while from one of Baltimore club's most underrated mixtape DJs, I mentioned it in my last BPM column, but I didn't get to work in a link to the mix itself, which is here. It's 90 minutes long and almost a little overwhelming, but has a ton of great tracks, some of which I hadn't heard before and some that have been floating around for a minute. DJ AngelBaby also had a good new mix out in January.

6. The Honest Mistakes - Get It Right
The Honest Mistakes are a long-running Baltimore indie rock band that I've seen live once or twice and am in kinda the same social circle with, put out a great-sounding new album recorded at Magpie Cage. I haven't listened to it enough to form too much of an opinion yet but "It's Hard" is definitely the standout track for me.

7. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love
I've never totally appreciated Sleater-Kinney the way a lot of people do. The Hot Rock is my favorite album by them, which is not really a consensus choice, and while I love Janet Weiss's drumming and Corin Tucker's wail, I don't tend to spend a lot of time with their catalog and wasn't holding my breath for them to come back. But I am happy to see them come back and pretty much nail it, sounding more comfortable with their sound than they did when they left off with The Woods. "A New Wave" is probably my favorite on this one.

8. Ne-Yo - Non-Fiction
In my recent post about Ne-Yo deep cuts, I made the argument that his albums have different strengths and weaknesses but are all roughly equally good. And I think this album bears that out, because the songs are all pretty uniformly good, the album is just let down by poor sequencing and an abundance of momentum-stalling spoken interludes. Back when Ne-Yo had the whole goofy comic book concept for Libra Scale, I thought that album would be undone by its narrative concept, but instead it ended up being a pretty tight, consistent album, while this album has all the skits that Ne-Yo sounded like he had fun making but don't really add anything to the experience. Of course, I'm listening to the 21-track deluxe edition, the 14-track standard edition doesn't seem to have a lot of that stuff, but it's also missing some good songs. I especially like the dancey run from "Time Of Our Lives" to "Who's Taking You Home" and "Coming With You," I still think Ne-Yo's stuff in that vein is underrated. It's weird that they used a different mix of "Money Can't Buy" on the album from the single released last year, the drums are audibly different.

9. Lil Wayne - Sorry 4 The Wait 2
In the long two and a half year gap between Carter II and Carter III, Lil Wayne became a superstar and revolutionized the way rap stars make mixtapes and use them as an outlet between major label releases. And back then, when Wayne seemed to be just enjoying being the best rapper alive and didn't care that much when his album dropped or what was on it, it was unthinkable to imagine that he'd someday become just another rapper whose label kept his album on the shelf against his will until he started making angry diss songs and filing lawsuits. So this whole Carter V ordeal has been strange to watch unfold, and I have no idea where it's going. But in the meantime, he's been rapping better lately than he had for a while, and I'm actually interested in hearing a new album from him. Not that this is Dedication 2 level or anything, but as far as the freestyle tapes though, I'd say this is as good as overrated-ass No Ceilings, the versions of "Sh!t" and "Dreams And Nightmares" are dope. That "Used To" shit is everything I hated about the Drake collab early singles for Carter V, though, less of that, please.

10. Lupe Fiasco - Tetsuo & Youth
Over a year ago, when Lupe Fiasco announced this album's title and started releasing singles and playing shows to promote it, I wrote a concert listing for his show in Baltimore that said "Lupe Fiasco dodges tomatoes and previews his next sure-to-be-depressing album, Tetsuo And Youth, at Rams Head Live." This was, obviously, shortly after he ended a concert early because an audience member threw a tomato at him, and admittedly kind of a cheap shot, so maybe Lupe was justified in his tweet about me that week. But his output since his first album had really just been a long line of disappointments up to that point, and it wasn't until the single "Next To It" a few months after all that that I started to think that maybe this album could be good. And it really is, even if "Next To It" isn't on it after all. It's really indulgent and overlong, and I've never been as in love with Lupe's wordplay and internal rhyme schemes as he clearly is, but there's still some pretty impressive moments here and the production is a big step up from a lot of the weak beats that dragged down some of his earlier records.

Worst Album of the Month: Mikky Ekko - Time
I was a pretty big fan of Rihanna's "Stay," even if it was pretty strange that they had this unknown American guy with a fake British accent and a goofy name singing on half of a single by one of the world's biggest pop stars. So I checked out this album optimistic that it might be good, although the fact that they're releasing it a full 2 years after "Stay" instead of capitalizing on it back when it was big was probably a sign that the album has been troubled. And it's really just pretty annoying, not sure what it wants to be, and his voice gets old fast. And the pretentious vocal effects on "Pressure Pills" are even worse.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015
This week's Short List.