Sunday, November 30, 2014

I wrote about 10 careers that wouldn't be possible without Pharrell for Complex.

The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I started doing these sets of 5 genre-specific year-end singles lists (R&B, rap, rock, pop and country) in 2012 and 2013. And I usually kick it off with R&B, because these days it's the genre where I most easily have found hits that I love, songs that I look forward to hearing on the radio every day. This year my enthusiasm was maybe a little lower than other years, but it was still a pretty good one, with a lot of different sounds getting room to thrive in the margins while one particular sound ruled heavy rotation. And as always, I wanted to point out what was (or wasn't) getting played on the radio, because I still listen to the radio every day and feel like it represents the zeitgeist of popular genres of music in a way that increasingly gets lost as Billboard makes sales and streaming a bigger piece of what determines their charts (which is why I like to use figures from airplay-only charts in these lists). Here's a Spotify playlist of all 20 songs.

1. Tinashe f/ ScHoolboy Q - "2 On"
#5 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #24 Hot 100
In the DJ Mustard/Lil Jon parallel narrative that Mustard openly encourages, 2014 was his 2004, the moment when his years of climbing up the ranks of rap producers culminated in his sound spilling over into R&B (i.e. the era of "Yeah!" and "Goodies"). I have mixed feelings about Mustard R&B just as I did with crunk R&B -- those crisp drums and razor sharp synths were built for rappers and they really need the right singer, the right melody, the right beat for it to work. But this year, "2 On" was the song that lined all those factors up perfectly, probably due in no small part to Mustard's co-producers, Redwine and DJ Marley Waters. "2 On" has a killer bassline, music box synth twinkles and dramatic strings that are notably missing from everything else Mustard has done on his own, and all those details really made it stand out in a year when Mustard's radio takeover threatened to blur into a big indistinct wall of similar tracks. ScHoolboy's verse is kind of incidental to the song's success, but I think it's still really well executed (and infinitely preferable to the Drake/OB O'Brien version that helped give it a chart boost).

2. Usher - "Good Kisser"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #65 Hot 100
The production duo Pop & Oak has been responsible for some of my favorite R&B tracks of the past few years (by Elle Varner, Miguel, K. Michelle, and others), so it really felt like a big, deserved win for them to work on Usher's lead single. And after some of the drab tunes of the married Usher era and the somewhat misguided genre hopping of the Looking 4 Myself era, it was fun to hear him break out the falsetto and salacious lyrics over those funky drums for something that was a little retro but not so much that it felt like the whole point of the track.

3. Beyonce - "Partition"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #23 Hot 100
"Partition" was one of the few R&B hits not produced by DJ Mustard that fit well into that trend of danceable, Bay Area-leaning beats (as Beyonce says in the making-of video about the song, "it reminds me of Too $hort or E-40") while having its own distinct and kind of uniquely dark sound. That might've contributed to "Partition" being the first democratically elected album track from Beyonce to become a single due to popular demand, but the song also got a lot of buzz for just being the most blue and bawdy thing B had ever recorded. But even while she was in the back of a car getting her dress stained, the album's subtext about the sex and feminism was ever present, here in the form of one of Beyonce's backup dancers doing a spoken interlude in French that's basically a loose paraphrase of Julianne Moore's speech in The Big Lebowski. I especially liked when stations that were playing the song before it was released as a single played the whole album track with the 2 minutes of "Yonce" at the beginning.

4. DJ Khaled f/ Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future and Jeremih - "Hold You Down"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #39 Hot 100
This would've been a strong single with any of the above being the main vocalist. But the way everyone's voice is woven together is just sublime, really sounds like it took so much more compositional effort and mixing desk magic than the usual rap-oriented DJ Khaled hits where everyone tosses in their 8 or 16 bars between hooks. And even Khaled himself is an unusually valuable presence here, I just love singing along with the tender melodies and then screaming "DJ KHALED!" or "ANOTHER ONE!" in between lines.

5. Jeremih f/ YG - "Don't Tell 'Em"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #6 Hot 100
Jeremih helped write Kid Ink's catchy but ultimately inane hit "Show Me" and, according to Jeremih interview lore, decided to write "Don't Tell 'Em" the day that "Show Me" went to #1 on the R&B charts. However calculated his motives were, "Don't Tell 'Em" is a rare instance of a deliberate copy of a hit record totally surpasses it, both commercially and musically. Just everything about the song is a step up from "Show Me": the beat, the singing, the rapping, even the '90s hit it interpolates. Jeremih is so much more than a mouthpiece for yet another Mustard hit, but unfortunately the album this song was supposed to set up still hasn't gotten a release date.

6. Michael Jackson f/ Justin Timberlake - "Love Never Felt So Good"
#12 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #9 Hot 100
The last couple decades of Michael Jackson's recording career were frequently overshadowed by the sadness and strangeness of the last couple decades of Michael Jackson's life, and didn't leave a lot of hope that posthumous releases would be anything but lucrative vault-cleaning. But a Thriller-era piano-and-vocals demo of a lovely Paul Anka composition was a truly inspiring glimpse at one of the many roads not taken in his career, and the mercenary Timbaland remix released as a single worked far better than it had a right to. It jumped into the pop charts in the initial splash of publicity, but for the rest of the year remained a welcome recurrent on grown folks R&B stations.

7. Rico Love - "They Don't Know"
#7 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #60 Hot 100
Rico Love, one of the many Sean Garretts and Ester Deans who've been trying to Ne-Yo that elusive crossover from songwriter/producer to solo star for ages, quietly released an EP in the summer of 2013 that ended up yielding one of the great sleeper hits of early 2014. A better scumbag soul anthem than anything Ty Dolla $ign's ever written, "They Don't Know" has a sublime quiet storm groove and an impeccable Ma$e impression from Rico on the song's rapped third verse.

8. Babyface and Toni Braxton - "Hurt You"
#16 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
One of the great underrated R&B albums of 2014 was Love, Marriage & Divorce, a wizened middle-aged look at heartbreak from two artists who sold millions singing sad songs in the '90s. It's a shame it never got much traction beyond the modest success of the great lead single, but these days Toni's less talented sister Tamar gets most of the airplay.

9. Mila J - "Smoke, Drink, Break-Up"
#33 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Speaking of sisters, when one of the year's big breakout stars is all over the radio and suddenly one of their siblings comes out of the woodwork like "hey, I sing too," usually you get the sense that they're just riding coattails. But Mila J's first hit, and the rest of the EP she released this year, are so much better than anything her little sis Jhene Aiko has done that I'm happy that she's getting shine too.

10. K. Michelle - "Can't Raise A Man"
#13 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #94 Hot 100
K. Michelle had a big year in 2013 with the release of Rebellious Soul, and in 2014 she seemed determined to keep her spot with VH1 'musical' of the album, a great mixtape, another reality show, and a follow-up album due out in December. But mostly I'm glad she kept pushing that first album with a great choice for the 2nd single, one of the smarter commentaries on the opposite sex on R&B radio in a year dominated by dudes singing garbage like "Loyal" (which K. Michelle also responded to directly with her own remix).

11. T-Pain f/ B.o.B - "Up Down (Do This All Day)"
#11 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #62 Hot 100
In the last couple months, T-Pain's career and reputation have started to undergo what I would like to think will wind up being a pretty major re-evaluation by the public, kicked off by his great Tiny Desk Concert and the release of the 6-minute rap track "Stoicville." But one of the small victories of that NPR performance was that it reaffirmed that his clubby recent singles, "Up Down" and "Drankin' Patna," are pretty strong when stripped down to just words and melodies, with or without trendy DJ Mustard production.

12. August Alsina f/ Young Jeezy - "Make It Home"
#42 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
August Alsina seemed poised to be a major star this year with his album doing respectable numbers and him getting an opening slot on the Usher tour and a supporting role on the DJ Khaled hit mentioned earlier. But his label has been insistently flinging out 5 singles over the past year and change, and all of them have stalled out in the lower reaches of the charts without getting anywhere near the success of "I Luv It." This one in particular, however, became a real sleeper hit on the Baltimore and D.C. stations I listen to, and gave me a whole new appreciation for the kid.

13. Bando Jonez - "Sex You"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Polow Da Don is a few years removed from his hitmaking peak, but poked his head back in the game a little in 2014 with (ugh) "Anaconda" and this goofy little tune that makes "Birthday Sex" seem mature and seductive by comparison. Gotta love the little bass note droplets that stutter out under the lyrics about raindrops.

14. Janelle Monae f/ Miguel - "Primetime"
#22 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
After being a constant presence on R&B radio in 2011, 2012, and 2013, Miguel kind of took the year off. But he did use some of his juice to help another pompadour-wearing critical darling get her first real radio hit ever.

15. Sevyn Streeter - "nEXt"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
In the hyper cautious major label climate, perhaps nobody is having a harder time than new R&B singers. Most of them have only been able to squeak out EPs even when they had sizable radio hits, and there's nobody I would've rather had a full album from in 2014 than Sevyn Streeter based on the strength of the EP she released in 2013. Unfortunately, the EP's sublime second single didn't get too high on the charts (even with unnecessary remixes featuring Kid Ink and YG), and I'm losing hope that we'll hear much more from her anytime soon.

16. Adrian Marcel f/ Sage The Gemini - "2AM"
#38 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Oakland native Raphael Saadiq seems pretty far removed from the hometown sound the Bay Area is known for today. But this year he signed a young Oakland singer whose debut hit impressively blended Saadiq smoothness with post-hyphy sonics and a guest verse from one of the Bay's rising rap stars.

17. Algebra Blessett - "Nobody But You"
#42 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Backup singer to the stars Algebra Blessett's second independent album Recovery was one of the great unheralded highlights of the "adult R&B" world this year. And its lead single was the delightful, hooky confection that hooked me enough in its few radio spins to make me take notice.

18. Pharrell - "Happy"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
R&B sung by actual African Americans has been more scarce on the upper reaches of the Hot 100 in the last few years than it'd been in decades. And in 2014, three blockbuster songs helped buck that trend, at least briefly, and I wish I liked them enough to put them higher than the last three spots on this list, but they're still at least worthy of inclusion. As part of the generation that grew up on Pharrell's club bangers, there's something eerily appropriate about now watching my 5-year-old son sing along to what is esssentially "If You're Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands (Neptunes Remix)."

19. Beyonce - "Drunk In Love"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #2 Hot 100
It's only maybe the 10th-best song on the album, which usually doesn't mean it's the big crossover hit. But it's an amazing album, so that means it's still pretty good.

20. John Legend - "All Of Me"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
After Adele and Bruno Mars and Rihanna brought spare piano-and-vocals ballads back to the pop charts in the last few years, it's appropriate that John Legend got to cash in big on the trend, considering that he was out there making "Ordinary People" a hit back when nothing else sounded like that on the radio. I do wish this song was even half as good as "Ordinary People," but Love In The Future was a dope album and I'm glad it got a hit.

The 10 Worst R&B Radio Hits of 2014:
1. Jhene Aiko - "The Worst"
2. Chris Brown - "Loyal"
3. Ty Dolla $ign f/ B.o.B - "Paranoid"
4. TeeFLii f/ 2 Chainz - "24 Hours"
5. Teyana Taylor f/ Yo Gotti and Pusha T - "Maybe"
6. Chris Brown f/ Usher and Rick Ross - "New Flame"
7. Robin Thicke - "Get Her Back"
8. PartyNextDoor f/ Drake - "Recognize"
9. Trey Songz - "Smartphones"
10. Trey Songz - "Na Na"

Monthly Report: November 2014 Albums

Friday, November 28, 2014

1. One Direction - Four
I feel like One Direction are kind of whistling past the graveyard by using the title of their 4th album to point out that it is, in fact, their fourth album. I say that because pretty much no modern boy band from NKOTB forward has ever managed more than three albums as a big popular youth phenomenon before breaking up or going on extended hiatus or simply falling off the charts. But who knows, maybe they'll beat the odds and stay this huge for a 5th album. Their music is actually getting better, which is pretty impressive -- I loved "What Makes You Beautiful" but it didn't seem like there was a lot of room for growth in that excitable puppy dog pop/rock vein they're doing. But Midnight Memories was really strong and I think I like this one even more. The album-ending run of "Spaces" and "Stockholm Syndrome" and "Clouds" is just killer. I put (most of) these albums on my rolling Spotify playlist of 2014 albums I've been listening to.

2. Nick Jonas - Nick Jonas
The Jonas Brothers already cycled through their 3 successful albums, which means it's all or nothing with the solo records, and this one is taking off pretty well. I have mixed feelings about white teen pop stars using R&B as a vehicle for their "mature" career reboot, because it's become such a post-Timberlake cliche. But Nick Jonas has always been a talented, underrated songwriter with a soul influence, and his voice hasn't quite grown into something soulful, but it works. "Jealous" is an accurate representation of the rest of the album. No other song has quite as strong a hook, but no song has lyrics quite as awkward and unfortunate, either. Whole thing holds together well, though, and I really like the Demi Lovato duet "Avalanche."

3. Chumped - Teenage Retirement
I hadn't heard of this band at all until a couple weeks ago when my dude Tom Breihan gave it a rave and I decided to check it out. Just a nice tight 34-minute punk album with trebly nervous lead guitar lines and some great singing and goofy song titles like "Hot 97 Summer Jam" and "Novella Ella Ella Eh." Kinda reminds me of that dog.

4. Al Great and Street Scott - Great Scott
These are two guys I've known and followed in the Baltimore rap scene for years and years, Street Scott produced one of Al Great's best previous songs, "Summer Nights," and it was cool to hear them link up for a full-length project. Street Scott is just an amazingly versatile and resourceful producer who's worked with a ton of different kinds of rappers, and it's cool to hear him throw a whole bunch of different sounds against someone kinda plainspoken and lyrical like Al Great. Check it out on Soundcloud.

5. Bond St. District - Everybody's So Sleepy EP
Another cool Baltimore rapper/producer duo project that hit Soundcloud recently. I've known DDm for ages and interviewed him earlier this year about his next solo project and somehow the subject of this other project with producer Paul Hutson never came up in conversation, so I was surprised when it came out before the solo record. It's really good, though, very detailed and playful production style that leaves a lot of room for DDm's big personality and hilarious punchlines. The single and closing track "Matinee" really stands head and shoulders above the other tracks, but the whole thing is pretty solid.

6. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
I've long been a Foo Fighters apologist, for the hits as well as the deep cuts, and Wasting Light bucked the diminishing returns trend of their later albums. But the flipside of the "Sonic Highways" HBO series being this big ambitious 8-hour documentary about American music is that it's ultimately centered around a lesser album by a good-not-great band. It's hard to even divorce the songs from that context too much, since Dave Grohl used interviews from the show as the ingredients for the usual meaningfully meaningless Foo Fighters word salad. And yet I still jam this album and find it pretty enjoyable, especially "Congregation."

7. Nels Cline & Julian Lage - Room
Relatively little of Nels Cline's enormous discography is just guitar with no other instrumentation, although his 2009 solo album Coward and his duo records with Thurston Moore are some of his very best work. Room is pretty different than either of those, though -- true to its title it's just two jazz guitarists sitting in a room, tangling their ideas together, with very little in the way of effects or distortion. There's a lot of busy, squirrelly sounds happening at low volumes, it's not exactly relaxing pastoral music, but it's very calming and beautiful, have enjoyed listening to it in the morning while hanging out in Alabama for Thanksgiving. There's a version of the Nels Cline Singers tune "Blues, Too" on here and it's always fun to hear him try out certain compositions in totally different environments.

8. various artists - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
"Royals" and Pure Heroine in general were pretty frustrating for me, because Lorde has a lot of potential but I feel like she hit a commercial/critical homerun for some really questionable lyrics and bland trendy aesthetic choices. But her overseeing the soundtrack for a big blockbuster movie is an interesting way for her to try some new things before the proper follow-up album. And "Yellow Flicker Beat" is probably my favorite thing she's done to date, and this is full of interesting combinations of artists, like Miguel and the Chemical Brothers or Charli XCX and Simon Le Bon. I dig the Tinashe and Grace Jones songs a lot, too. The way the album stars with Pusha T saying "Lord" (or "Lorde," I guess?) is pretty funny, though.

9. Maddie & Tae - Maddie & Tae EP
"Girl In A Country Song" is one of the best country singles of the year precisely because it so perfectly satirizes a lot of the worst trends in the genre at the moment. But you can't pull off a song like that more than once, and it's a shame that the single ended up being attached to a 4-song EP that only gives Maddie & Tae 3 more chances to show what else they have to offer. It's pretty solid, though, and raises my hopes for a full-length album. "Sierra" is one of cute little songs that keeps working its way towards a swear word and then swerving at the last minute (is there a name for those?), "Fly" is a pretty banjo-heavy ballad, and "Your Side Of Town" ladles on the southern girl sass over handclaps and banjos. Nothing really momentous but I'm rooting for them to have more success.

10. Bobby Shmurda - Shmurda She Wrote EP
This is another EP that I wish was an album, just because "Hot N***a" was the biggest look Shmurda was ever going to get and it seems like they might as well go big or go home. Instead, you get this little 15-minute joint, which at least takes advantage of how brevity suits him. "Wipe The Case Away" is the standout of the new songs but Rowdy Rebel steals the spotlight from Bobby on "Living Life" and makes me think he might have more potential in the long run.

Worst Album of the Month: Rick Ross - Hood Billionaire
In March, Rick Ross released Mastermind, which was his most unsuccessful album to date both in terms of sales and radio hits. But since album sales are in the toilet, especially for hip hop, and few big names have released anything this year, he managed to outsell every other 2014 rap album so far besides Iggy Azalea. So I guess he felt confident about tossing out another album less than 9 months later, which will most likely go down as being even less successful than Mastermind while still maintaining his A-list status in a dying industry. But good lord, this is just garbage even by the modest standards by which people bend over backwards to act impressed by Rick Ross albums. "Nickel Rock" was the most annoying song I'd ever heard by him, until "Burn" followed it with a hook even more irritating. The song with K. Michelle sounds like a possible hit but that's the only song on here I'd ever hope to hear again. Just release the Meek album already, you boring old bastard.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014
My Short List for the City Paper has lots of Baltimore concert options for the week of Thanksgiving.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 28: Usher

Sunday, November 23, 2014

As he tours around the country and releases single after single, Usher's 8th studio album UR remains missing in action with no release date in sight. But I've actually enjoyed a good amount of that recent music (well, except for "She Wants To Give It To You") and think this could be a really good record. The only thing really pulling him down, or keeping that album off the shelves, is the fact that he set an incredibly high standard for success earlier in his career. And he hasn't found a way to defy the declining commercial profile of R&B or rally fans and critics around his new music as well as one of his few true peers, Beyonce. And I'm glad to at least see him still at it and trying, not yet ready to just hand it all off to Chris Brown or Trey Songz.

Usher just generally occupies an odd cultural space these days. The world lost its mind to "Yeah!" and "Climax" earned him some new respect from some corners. But he's kind of caught between the Michael Jackson era of superstardom and a younger generation, and there's obviously gonna be some awkward transition periods. But the guy has hits for days, and I think his biggest albums hold up pretty damn well. He's not a self-sufficient auteur, but he has a great sense of his voice and a strong rapport with some great producers and songwriters.

Usher Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. Seduction
2. Show Me
3. I Don't Know f/ P. Diddy
4. That's What It's Made For
5. Slow Jam f/ Monica
6. Bad Girl
7. Twork It Out
8. Lingerie
9. Simple Things
10. Bedtime
11. U R The One
12. Throwback (Remix) f/ Jadakiss
13. You Took My Heart
14. Mars. vs. Venus
15. Hottest Thing
16. Red Light
17. One Day You'll Be Mine
18. Something Special

Track 13 from Usher (1994)
Tracks 5, 10 and 17 from My Way (1997)
Tracks 3, 7, 11 and 15 from 8701 (2001)
Tracks 4, 6, and 9 from Confessions (2004)
Tracks 1, 12 and 16 from Confessions (Special Edition) (2004)
Track 18 from Here I Stand (2008)
Track 14 from Raymond v. Raymond (2010)
Track 8 from Versus EP (2010)
Track 2 from Looking 4 Myself (2012)

I've long championed 8701 (the only one of his albums on my top 100 of 2000-2009 list) as my favorite Usher album, and "U Don't Have To Call" and "U Got It Bad" being my favorite Usher singles was certainly no small part of that. But when you strip away the singles, I start to learn towards Confessions. Even though it ran the charts for a straight year with 5 singles, the album is so jam-packed with great songs, many of which got airplay even without a single release (I still hear "Seduction" on the radio now and again, "That's What It's Made For" charted at the time, and "Throwback" and "Bad Girl" are pretty huge for being technically deep cuts). And "Simple Things" is a deep deep cut that is, to me, maybe the best thing he ever did.

The fun thing about a mix like this is hearing what songs just kind of happened on the way to huge chart-topping hits. "I Don't Know" is a dope Neptunes collaboration from the same sessions that yielded "U Don't Have To Call." "Red Light" is an interesting low key Lil Jon flipside to "Yeah!" and Usher has a whole bunch of great Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis collaborations that never blew up like "U Remind Me." Somehow Usher and Babyface made several dope songs together without any of them ever being a hit.

The albums since Confessions have been pretty spotty, and Here I Stand remains one of the biggest fall-offs in pop history (I was actually maybe too kind to it in my review at the time). But they all have their share of dope songs -- as frustrating as most of Looking 4 Myself was, "Show Me" is one of my all-time favorite songs of his. Even the EP of Raymond v. Raymond outtakes had some jams.

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

TV Diary

Saturday, November 22, 2014

a) "The Affair"
I wasn't in a rush to check out this show initially, because I get a little weary of every other show on TV being about infidelity and broken marriages, and given the title I figured this was just gonna serve up a double helping of that and nothing else. But I'm glad I started watching it -- the whole format of the show, with the first half of each episode from his perspective, and the second half from her perspective, is pretty brilliant, mostly because it's so understated, with no big 'gotcha!' moments. And there's some kind of murder mystery brewing to drive things forward, which makes me wonder how this is gonna continue into a second season (it's already been renewed).

b) "State Of Affairs"
I am kind of fascinated by Katherine Heigl, how bad her reputation is and how she ascended up out of "Grey's Anatomy" to do movies and then made mostly flops after Knocked Up and is now back to TV. I like her and root for her, though, maybe just to be contrary but I do think she has some genuine talent and screen presence beyond just being photogenic. Any way her new show has a semi-interesting premise but I'm a little weary of network shows about the White House and government intrigue, they all seem pretty inherently frothy and ridiculous.

c) "Gracepoint"
With 8 episodes down and only 2 to go, I'm kinda getting bittersweet about this show only being a one-off miniseries, it's really good. The number of creepy people in this small town leading the detectives down red herring paths is almost kind of ridiculous, but they've still plotted it all out pretty well and connected the dots believably enough, I'm curious to see how it all ends.

d) "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
This was a pleasant surprise last year and it's remained really consistent lately. The strength of the ensemble and how they bounce off of each other almost reminding me more of "Newsradio" or even "Taxi" than the show's "Parks & Recreation"/"The Office" pedigree.

e) "The Newsroom"
By the end of the second season I was actually beginning to warm up to "The Newsroom" and see more of what Aaron Sorkin's actually good at in it than the shortcomings his later output in general. Still, them doing a short final season is not really a disappointment to me, I feel like the guy is better off focusing on movies now, that's where all his best work has been since "The West Wing." The first episode of the season was all the things I hated about it, but the second season was really good, and introduced new characters played by Jimmi Simpson and Kat Dennings that almost make me wish the show had more than 6 episodes this season. I also like that they're giving more to Chris Messina to do, even though it's a little weird since it's hard to look at him without thinking of his "The Mindy Project" character now.

f) "New Girl"
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see a new opening credits sequence with both Damon Wayans, Jr. and Hannah Simone in it. It's been really consistent, too, although it's become one of those weirdly divisive shows where people have these really strong opinions about it suddenly becoming irreversibly bad at some point. Like, I had no problem with the Jess/Nick coupling or how they've handled the breakup, the show never became a soap opera.

g) "Sons Of Anarchy"
This week's episode was by far the best of the season so far, which has unfortunately had a lot of stalling and getting ducks in a row so that they could save the big inevitable Jax/Gemma confrontation for the final episodes. Jimmy Smits being the one to really break down and weep was a good choice, he's really an amazing expressive actor and you really feel for him getting mixed up with this insane group.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In this week's Baltimore City Paper, I wrote The Short List and a Rap Sheet column with news about new releases by Al Great and Street Scott, DDm, Black Zheep DZ and more.

Monthly Report: November 2014 Singles

Sunday, November 16, 2014

1. Ariana Grande f/ The Weeknd - "Love Me Harder"
Despite all her '90s samples and Mariah influences, I think one of the strengths of Ariana Grande's career has been that she has the taste of someone her age and has gotten a chance to curate her collaborations to suit those tastes. Most major label pop starlets would just get handed collaborations with, like, Pitbull or Jason DeRulo or whoever, but instead she's doing songs with people like Mac Miller and Childish Gambino and The Weeknd and bringing them into the pop realm. I don't really like any of those artists, maybe because I'm not 21, but I respect what she's doing. And this song is really just kind of fantastic, makes great use of The Weeknd's voice without him saying any of the creepy stuff he usually says. And I'm glad that Ariana's fourth top 10 song of the year is finally one that I like. Most of these songs are in my Spotify playlist of favorite 2014 singles.

2. alt-J - "Left Hand Free"
alt-J are one of those U.K. bands that's big at home and has a lower profile in America, but they never had even the "OK, maybe we should take them seriously?" critical cachet of, say, Arctic Monkeys. But they just scored their biggest American rock radio hit to date, and I kinda love it, mostly because I have no idea what to make of these guys. I never expected a British band to remind me of Southern Culture On The Skids.

3. Migos - "Handsome And Wealthy"
The whole thing with Migos these days, with people doing smirky hyperbole about how they're "better than the Beatles" and "no really they can actually rap" is basically the worst thing about discussing or writing about southern rap lately. But whatever, they have some fun singles, and this is the one that really just cracked me up so much the first time I heard it. I'm glad that it finally got some chart action after "Fight Night" ended up stealing its thunder a few months ago.

4. Usher f/ Juicy J - "I Don't Mind"
Other than that lame Pharrell attempt at a new "Blurred Lines," Usher's new songs have been really good. Even the song that was released via Honey Nut Cheerios the other day was really good. "I Don't Mind" is just now slowly starting to get some legs on the radio and I hope it takes off. It seems like everyone's got a stripper song out these days, most of them featuring Juicy J (Ne-Yo's is also good), but this one is interesting for basically being about non-judgmental about someone who does sex work and being in a relationship with them, pretty progressive stuff really. The guys from Rock City/Planet VI doing fake Migos ad libs on the verses is kind of annoying but unobtrusive. I also like how the beat is clubby but strangely restrained, there's no kick drum for like more than half the song.

5. Bleachers - "Rollercoaster"
"I Wanna Get Better" is still one of my favorite things to happen on alt-rock radio this year, and I'm pleased with the choice of follow-up single. "Rollercoaster" is one of the album's more on-the-nose '80s homages, in the vein of the stuff Jack Antonoff worked on for the Taylor Swift album,. but if you're gonna do '80s pop, you might as well evoke something as great as "Melt With You."

6. T-Pain - "Drankin' Patna"
For years I've thought that T-Pain's fall from pop prominence was kind of a shame and that he deserved a chance at a resurgence, whether that meant get a second wind as a hitmaker like Pharrell has, or just getting treated with more critical respect. And it felt like the latter started to happen recently with his Tiny Desk Concert, where a lot of people heard him sing without AutoTune for the first time and really enjoyed it.  What I really liked about it was that he did one old hit everybody knows but also did his two underrated recent singles. "Drankin' Patna" has been out for a minute and hasn't made a lot of noise but that performance had be going back to it, kinda fits in the lineage of T-Pain songs that conflate romance with drinking/clubbing in a way that makes the guy seem like he has a really unhealthy lifestyle but also makes for great songs.

7. DJ Drama f/ Jeezy, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan - "Right Back"
Obviously there's a ton of great Young Thug songs out there right now, more that deserve to be hits than there will be. I really like this one, kind of a different beat to get him on. Drama is always refreshing the stable of artists that appear on his records, while Khaled just puts the same guys in the mix for years and years.

8. Fat Joe f/ Jennifer Lopez - "Stressin'"
Joey and Jen are both pretty far from their commercial high points. But the album J.Lo dropped earlier this year was surprisingly solid, and this song bangs too.

9. Colbie Caillat - "Try"
The last time I grudgingly repped for a B.o.B single was also the last time I grudgingly repped for a Colbie Caillat single, and here we are again. But weirdly I didn't even hear this song until the recent viral video of Erykah Badu singing it with her daughters, which was a really poignant way to hear the song's lyric. The original is good, too, though, produced by Babyface in that pop/rock crossover mode that he's really good and underrated at.

10. Bear Hands - "Agora"
These guys have a pretty generic '90s post-punk sound but I've really enjoyed both of the singles they've gotten on the radio, hoping this one gets as big as "Giants" did earlier this year.

Worst Single of the Month: Nicki Minaj f/ Chris Brown, Drake and Lil Wayne - "Only"
"Pills N Potions" was banal in the same fashion as the first couple Pink Friday singles, and "Anaconda" was such an aggressively awkward song that even the huge amount of attention around the video could never get it to fly on pop radio or rap radio. But "Only" really takes the cake as the most monumentally bad song in The Pink Print's whole troubled campaign. The theme of it in general is pretty weird, and Drake in particular takes it to a really creepy and unpleasant place, but Nicki's punchlines are just scraping the barrel now, the "duct tape" thing and the "cutlet" line are just bad rap lyric hall of fame material. Maybe the worst rap single with the most starpower since "Swagga Like Us."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In this week's Baltimore City Paper, I wrote The Short List and a review of Lor Scoota's new mixtape Still N The Trenches 2.5.

Movie Diary

Monday, November 10, 2014

a) In A World...
Lake Bell has acted in some funny things like "Childrens Hospital," but I really had no idea her debut film as a writer/director could be this good, I just adored this movie. Took a good premise based in real life, about the movie trailer voiceover world, and mixed in some comic exaggeration and built a good story around it. And even though the cast was just all these comedy people she'd worked with before, they all committed to the story and gave it some gravity, Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins in particular got a really emotional subplot that gave them some room to really act.

b) The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
As an actor, Ben Stiller picks projects of wildly varying quality, but I consider myself a fan of what he does as a director; Zoolander, Tropic Thunder and "The Ben Stiller Show" are all classic to me, The Cable Guy has its moments. But with this he really snapped back to something almost as lame as Reality Bites. It's kind of the opposite of how In A World... made the most of a cast full of comedians, in this Stiller and especially Kristen Wiig are just kind of wasted as these earnest leads. I remember reading the James Thurber story in school and I don't have any special reverence for it but it just seems so stupid and pointless to take the title and barest elements of the story and stuff this stupid treacly movie into it.

c) World War Z
I didn't go into this movie looking for signs of all the behind-the-scenes struggles with the screenplay and the third act, but it's really undeniable even if you don't know the backstory. It's just a very big, expensive movie that clearly hasn't been finished on some fundamental level. Of course, with a zombie movie that doesn't matter too much, and I liked what they did with the really zombies being infected within seconds and moving quickly, gave it a completely different pace than you usually get. And the way the first ten minutes unfolded was pretty great, it just got pretty tedious after that.

d) Paranormal Activity 3
I liked both of the first two Paranormal Activity movies probably more than they deserved. And even this one, it's clearly straining against the limits of the premise and retconning a new backstory, but I was still on the edge of my seat getting creeped out and waiting to see what happened next. Should I bother with the 4th one? I kinda want to.

e) Dance Flick
I ignored this at the time as yet another Wayans genre parody, but caught it on TV and realized it was an early showcase for Damon Wayans, Jr. before he established himself as being hilarious on "Happy Endings" and "New Girl." This is just a great showcase for his style of physical comedy, and I have seen enough of the Step Up movies to appreciate a lot of the direct parodies.

f) The Savages
After Philip Seymour Hoffman died, this was a movie that came up a bit in discussions of his best roles, which surprised me because I'd never even heard of it -- I can't remember it even coming out, although it may have just blended into the long line of limited release dramedies starring Hoffman and/or Laura Linney. It's pretty good, though. Very small in scope but in a good way that allows for actors like them to do a lot of subtle stuff and very occasional some big stuff.

g) She Hate Me
One thing that amuses me about Spike Lee is it always seems like there's an element of horny dude wish fulfillment in most of his movies, to as great an extant as you can say for Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen or other guys who usually get called out for that -- it doesn't really diminish him as a filmmaker, it's just part of who he is. This is probably the most horny dude wish fulfillment movie of all time, though, just a really ludicrous sexual fantasy situation dressed up as a weird social satire. It's pretty good, though, at least until the stupid mafia plot takes over.

Monthly Report: October 2014 Albums

Friday, November 07, 2014

1. Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait EP
I wasn't really checking for Vince Staples before since he was running with a bunch of artists I don't listen to like Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. But the buzz around this record was pretty huge and I'm glad I checked it out, dude is really talented. In some ways his voice and his storytelling are closer to a classic west coast rap sensibility than a lot of the other guys coming out of L.A. these days, but No I.D. and the rest of the production team on here do a great job of placing him in a really modern context. Major labels trying to ease in new artists with EPs always seem to be timid and half-assed, and I don't even know what Def Jam's commercial expectations are for this kid to begin with, but against the odds they ended up with a really tight 23-minute record that feels as cohesive and complete as any album. Even the R&Bish cut, "Limos," totally fits the aesthetic of the rest of the EP. Most of these releases are on my running Spotify playlist of 2014 albums I've been listening to.

2. Tinashe - Aquarius
As great as "2 On" was, I kept hearing that her mixtapes were on a completely different tip and didn't really know what to expect from the album. But I'm really impressed by this, it really blurs the line between clubby mainstream stuff and artsy 'alt R&B' in a way that works better than if it strongly favored one end or the other of the spectrum. And she just has a great voice that cuts through the tracks in a way that makes for a nice contrast from if, say, Jhene Aiko was singing on these beats.

3. Boosie Bad Azz - Life After Deathrow
Back when Lil Boosie got out of jail (and before he 'officially' changed the name he's releasing music under), a little over 6 months ago, it was hard to really know how much differently his music or his career would be after 5 years away, and in a way that seemed to just not matter compared to the reality of him being a free man after it looked like he'd spend his life in prison. And then he spent the last few months doing live shows and dropping verses on remixes to mediocre radio songs, and it kinda felt like he was just getting his money up but not getting any close to releasing a mixtape or album. And then, this thing dropped out of the sky and it's really everything I hoped he was still capable of, the storytelling and emotional intensity and odd details, all in that one-of-a-kind voice. In fact the production is stronger than on most of his earlier stuff, and in some ways this succeeds where his many good-but-not-great mixtapes failed. Makes up for the disappointment of that new Remy Ma tape.

4. DJ Quik - The Midnight Life
Quik remaining this consistent, as both a rapper and a producer, after two decades is really inspiring. I don't know if I like this one as much as Blackout or The Book Of David, but it builds on the vibe of those albums really well, his sound getting more omnivorous and left field while his verses get more happily defiant about his place in the world and his survival against the odds.

5. Ex Hex - Rips
It's always good to hear something new from Mary Timony and this band is my favorite thing she's done in a while (a few years ago I caught a gig from her short-lived band Soft Power and this is much stronger than that). It's a really zippy little rock record, it's over in 35 minutes, but I think the second half is better than the first, "War Paint" is great. I also like how the last track is called "Outro" but it's a full-on song and a really solid closer.

6. DRGN King - Baltimore Crush
In the course of my work for the Mobtown Studios site, I wrote an article for their The BSide Sessions series about this Philly band DRGN King a few months ago. And I really dug both the songs they did for the session, which were as-yet-unreleased songs about the frontman' s experiences growing up in Baltimore, especially "Don't Trust The Sad Boys." So I was really excited for the album with the songs on it to come out, and even moreso when they nodded to Baltimore with the title.

7. DeJ Loaf - Sell Sole
"Try Me" took a while to grow on me, but it finally did around the time DeJ Loaf dropped this mixtape. Most of her music is not on that tough talk tip, which really helps in the sense that it fleshes her out into an interesting character and not just a street rap curio. The more polished stuff gives me some hope that she's got more hits in her.

8. Betty Who - Take Me When You Go
I liked her single "Somebody Loves You" a lot when I first heard it a year ago, but it lost its luster for me really quickly. And the EP she released earlier this year made me wonder if Betty Who was just another one of those pop singers who doesn't really have much of a star quality or hitmaking instinct but gets tons of critical love for evoking an idealized synth pop past via early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. This album is good, though, there's a warmth and charm in her voice that I hear the more that I listen, and the opener "Just Like Me" kills me.

9. Jackson Browne - Standing In The Breach
In the last few months I've been listening to a ton of Jackson Browne, both because I saw him live and was putting together a deep album cuts playlist. I heard some of the songs from the new album for the first time at the concert, and they sound great here, glad he returned to spare tasteful production after some of the ill-fitting production choices he made in the '80s and '90s. There are weird semi-sequels to "Take It Easy" and "These Days" on Standing In The Breach that don't feel too much like desperate grabs at nostalgia but aren't really very good either. Aside from that, though, it's pretty solid.

10. T.I. - Paperwork
Another artist who I recently did a deep album cuts playlist for, and that exercise mostly reminded me of how great T.I. has used to be and rarely is anymore. Obviously "About The Money" is great and there are a few other tracks on that level, mostly I think this album has gotten a worse rep than it deserves. But the handful of really strained crossover tracks certainly detract from the whole.

Worst Album of the Month: Chief Keef - Back From The Dead 2
Chief Keef was a divisive figure from the jump, and in the two years since Finally Rich, I feel like people have further settled into these diametrically opposed attitudes about the guy. Some people see him as the talentless kid who just got dropped from Interscope because he hasn't had a song on the radio since the first one, and some people see him as this important figure in Chicago and in street rap in general that has continued to turn out quality work. I don't know, I've always just thought there were a hundred guys doing this kind of thing better to begin with, and he gets older and puts in more time in the game he seems to just get lazier and worse at everything. He started producing recently, and does 16 of the 20 tracks on this tape, but he can't rap on beat even when it's his beat, and they're all just drab lifeless versions of what other producers had been doing for him in the past. "Moral" is weird and counterintuitive enough to at least be interesting but the other 15 are just garbage. On "Cops" he sounds like he's trying to stretch his voice into some new shapes, but for the most part he's still rapping in that goofy vampire voice and I'm not sure why anyone gives a damn anymore. There's one Gucci Mane feature on here and even a subpar Gucci verse sounds godlike next to Keef.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

My latest BPM dance music column in this week's City Paper covers lots of Baltimore club news and new music.

Also wrote The Short List as usual.

TV Diary

Sunday, November 02, 2014

a) "Gracepoint"
I never saw the British series this was based on, "Broadchurch," but I like that FOX decided to adapt it into a 10-episode miniseries so that they're not instantly trying to stretch it out into a longer run (which seems to be how "The Killing" got into that whole season 1 finale fiasco). That said, "Broadchurch" is shooting a second season now, and I wouldn't be surprised if FOX tried to bring this back if it's successful enough. And I probably wouldn't mind, the first 5 episodes have been really good -- this kind of crime drama feels so familiar at this point, but the cast is good enough to fill out the characters beyond archetypes and make you care what happened to this kid. And they've been throwing so many red herrings around that I really have no idea how it's all going to shake out.

b) "Scorpion"
This CBS show about a team of geniuses helping out the government with high tech problems was probably always going to be silly and unrealistic. But the fact that the main character is named after and loosely based on a real guy and that the character talks about being a genius and what it's like to be a genius just makes it kind of hilarious and corny. I'm happy they're still putting Katharine McPhee on TV, but I probably won't be able to keep watching this show even for her.

c) "Constantine"
The first screen adaptation of Constantine, the Keanu Reeves movie, was widely criticized for not being faithful to the comics, but since I never read those I was free to just enjoy it as a movie, and it was actually pretty good, great visual effects. The TV show seems to be working harder at being faithful to the comics, depicting Constantine as blond and British, but again I don't really know or care how well that's working out. The pilot was solid and the visual effects were great by TV standards, but I'm not hooked yet.

d) "Gotham"
I don't think I care enough about the DC universe to watch this show. Might as well watch "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" for all I care. I thought maybe with Donal Logue in the cast there might be some degree of fun, but the guy from "The OC" is a super boring lead and it just seems like they're laying on the FORESHADOWING of Gotham's future way too thick.

e) "Madam Secretary"
I feel like I should love to watch a political drama about just Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek, but the premise of this one is just too premise-y. And the second episode is called "Another Benghazi," so I don't think I'll even keep watching past the pilot.

f) "Sonic Highways"
I actually like the Foo Fighters a fair amount and don't mind that this big ambitious trip through American music history is being done mostly through the scope of a bunch of Dave Grohl songs. The first three episodes were a lot of fun, although it's hard to imagine any of the future episodes being more compelling than the D.C. one, just because of Grohl's personal history and because of my personal interest in and experiences with D.C. But the song they did in Nashville is the best one I've heard from the record so far.

g) "Friend Of The People"
TruTV is going through one of those cable network identity crisis phases where they're trying to reinvent themselves and put on different kinds of shows. So now the channel formerly known as Court TV has a sketch comedy show. It's not bad, good cast of up-and-coming comedy types, Jermaine Fowler seems like the standout in the cast. Not all of the sketches are good, but they're pretty short, so they keep things moving and it doesn't get boring.

h) "Manhattan Love Story"
This has already earned the distinction of being the first canceled show of the fall season, but I didn't think it was bad -- certainly had more promise than the other shows that have since been canceled, "A To Z" and "Bad Judge." The whole voiceover conceit yielded more laughs than I thought it would, and it didn't lean too hard on hoary 'men think like this, women think like this' stuff after the first few minutes. Analeigh Tipton is charming, hopefully she gets another series soon.

i) "Selfie"
I feared the worst that this show was gonna be just a bunch of tired Twitter/Instagram jokes run through a regrettable My Fair Lady premise. But I didn't realize at first that it was created by the same person as "Suburgatory," which I figured out around the third episode, which was absolutely hysterical ("Of course they have a prenup, there's a BILLION DOLLARS on the elevator"). The premise is still a little icky, but  it could work if they keep up the satirical edge of it all, and Karen Gillan, who even found a way to be funny in a horror movie in Oculus, is just killing it.

j) "Marry Me"
Just as I'm glad the creator of "Suburgatory" has a new show to take its place after its cancellation, I'm very happy that the cast of "Happy Endings" has spread out to "The Mindy Project" and "New Girl" and a couple of new shows, including this one, which is by the creator of "Happy Endings" in addition to having Casey Wilson in it. I'm not totally sold on the show, the cast doesn't seem to really gel beyond Wilson and Ken Marino, but they're both good enough for me to keep watching.

k) "Benched"
Another "Happy Endings" alumnus, Eliza Coupe, wound up with a new show, and I'm kinda mad that it's over on USA where nobody will see it, since it's better than almost every new network sitcom. The first scene of the pilot alone was crazy, but the whole thing has a lot of potential.

l) "The McCarthys"
I feel like there's a seed of a funny show here, but it's buried inside a bunch of cliches about a gay guy whose family is a bunch of sports-loving jocks. I may watch it just for Kelen Coleman, though, who I have a lot of residual affection for since she played the only sympathetic character on "The Newsroom." 

m) "Newsreaders"
I feel like Mather Zickel is a really slept on comedic actor out of all the people he works with, and was happy that he finally got a proper vehicle when "Childrens Hospital" spun off "Newsreaders" into its own show. So it's a little annoying to me that they replaced him with Alan Tudyk for the second season of the show, although Tudyk is also really funny and kind of underrated in his own way, so I'm good.

n) "American Horror Story: Freak Show"
Other than "Coven," which I got a few episodes into, I've only watched the first episode of each season of "American Horror Story," and I don't know if I'll get any further with this one, either. The clown is cool, the special effects on the conjoined twins are impressive, but I just kinda don't care. These shows are never scary, or even really suspenseful, just creepy, which for me isn't really passing muster as horror.

o) "Parenthood"
I'm kinda glad they're doing a 'farewell season' and wrapping this up, although the show is such a rambling sentimental yarn that I don't know how they can ever wrap things up. For every episode that actually hits me on some emotional level or really makes me laugh hard, there's an episode or two that's full of tedious plotlines about the studio or the school.

p) "Sons Of Anarchy"
I'd been anticipating the final season of "Sons Of Anarchy" big time considering that the previous season ended with one of the most shocking and gut-wrenching finales I've ever seen on TV. And I'm still on the edge of my seat to see how it all ends. But aside from the odd little moments foreshadowing that Gemma is losing it, it's mostly been a lot of flailing around with gang rivalry plots that constantly result in gigantic shootouts where an implausible number of people get shot, like literally in every single episode lately.

q) "Saturday Night Live"
"SNL" has actually been pretty funny so far this year, although as ever, the internal politics of "SNL" are as interesting as the comedy itself. I liked Cecily Strong on Weekend Update, but I'm cool with her going back to focusing on sketches and Michael Che seems like a better foil for Colin Jost, who has actually had his moments lately after starting rough last season. Meanwhile Leslie Jones has jumped from writer to cast member kinda quickly and unexpectedly while the other black woman added to the cast after Lorne Michaels caught hell for not hiring one for decades, Sasheer Zamata, has been fading into the background. And Vanessa Bayer, now in her 5th season, is suddenly starting to feel like a really solid part of the cast, while Kate McKinnon isn't getting as much screentime as I'd like. But yeah, it's been funny. Especially the fake commercials. The Jim Carrey episode really impressed me, some of the funniest stuff he's done in a long time.